In 1971, after Harvard and the Peace Corps, David Rome discovered Buddhism at a retreat at Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre in Scotland, a center cofounded by the singular Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Shortly thereafter, he served for nine years as Trungpa’s private secretary. After practicing Buddhist meditation for 26 years, Rome discovered psychologist Eugene Gendlin’s book Focusing at a used bookstore in Vermont. Ever since, Rome has been engaged in combining Gendlin’s work on the “felt sense” and his self-actualization technique called “Focusing,” together with the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.
Rome’s first book, Your Body Knows the Answer: Using Your Felt Sense to Solve Problems, Effect Change, and Liberate Creativity, was recently published.
What is the felt sense?
It’s a particular kind of inner, bodily felt experience that mostly goes on below the radar of our normal consciousness. But it is extremely important because it is really the way that the body is holding our lives, holding the situations of our lives. It’s the body’s knowledge, the body’s wisdom, about our situation.
Although the body is nonconceptual, it actually knows a great deal more than our conceptual minds do. The felt sense tends to start out vague, unclear, or kind of transient. But if we can bring a gentle, friendly, inquisitive attention to it, then it can become clearer or come into focus, which is why the practice is called Focusing. Once the felt sense is clearly present, we can really get insight, fresh information, and fresh energy from it that we can’t get from just thinking about things.
Is the felt sense the same thing as a “gut feeling”?
It is, and it isn’t. In a way it is, but “gut feeling” is a less precise term. That’s part of the difficulty in describing it.
You’ve described it as a broken heart, butterflies, a chill going up your spine. These are sort of the more common expressions of the felt sense. Is that right?
Well, those are examples of when it really breaks through, when you can’t help but be aware of it. You’re about to go in and talk to 200 people, and you feel these butterflies in your stomach. So in that case, you do have access to it. The important point there is that it’s something that has a physical kind of feeling to it. It’s not as physical as if somebody poured hot coffee on you, or if you have a pulled muscle, yet it’s bodily. You feel it. You sense it.
It is about the situation that you’re in. You don’t just randomly get butterflies in your stomach. That is about the fact that you’re about to go on stage and address 200 people, or whatever it is. And it’s not something that you have much choice about. You would prefer not to have the butterflies, but it’s happening at a bodily level and deeper than what you can choose to do consciously—or turn on or turn off consciously. But the one thing that you can do, and this is what Focusing is all about, is to actually welcome and be with that sensation, even if it’s unpleasant or anxiety-making.
I gave those examples because they are familiar situations for most people. But when we’re working with felt sense, it’s mostly at a more subtle level, where it doesn’t on its own break through into everyday consciousness.
It can be located anywhere in the body?
Yes, but it’s generally in the torso region. That’s where we look for it, not in the head and not in the limbs. The torso is the part of our body where most of our feelings come from, where feelings are felt—the heart, the breathing, digestion. The felt sense is not literally those processes, but that whole part of the body; that inner space of the torso, the trunk, is a very sensitive space that responds to whatever is happening in our lives, whether we are noticing it or not.
Since it is bodily, does exercise or healthy eating have an effect on how it expresses itself?
Well, they might change what felt sense you experience, but the felt sense is always there. Often when you encounter a felt sense, it gives you information about what is not so healthy or what is not working so well in your life. That makes it a very valuable way to work with habitual patterns or stuck places or fears or relationship issues, and so forth. On the more positive side, it can also be the source of tremendous creativity.
Can you give me a specific example of how the felt sense might help you solve a problem? I wonder what that process looks like. Say you’re arguing with your partner a lot in a relationship, how might you use the felt sense for figuring out the best course of action?
That’s a good question. In the heat of the moment, or the arousal of the moment, you may not be able to do very much except to notice what the inner feel is. That gives you some space or some choice about it, instead of just being triggered and getting angrier or more sarcastic, or whatever it might be. You get some space there.
And then once you’re on your own, when you can take more time and go deeper, you could ask inside yourself, “Well, what was that really about? What was getting to me so much about that situation?” It’s not what your partner is doing to you, but it’s asking: “How does it feel to me? And why is that? What’s behind that? Does that connect with other aspects of my life or my childhood?” So you’re putting it in a much larger context. And that’s the nature of the body. It is holding your whole life, all of your experience. And it’s holding it in a holistic way. Usually we think we’re just operating in specific situations, but that’s rarely true. We bring our whole life experience to whatever the situation is.
If I were to get good at accessing the felt sense, what’s the next step?
Once the felt sense is really present and stable, it kind of has its own personality. At this point, you can enter into a dialogue with it that I call “empathic inquiry,” and actually pose questions. You can ask, “So what in my life brings this kind of feeling?” And the important thing is that you’re not answering from your head, but you’re just waiting; you’re kind of letting the question hang out there to see if something comes in a more intuitive way from the felt sense itself.
Or this question: “What is this place needing? What is it wanting?” And you pause. You just wait. Or, “What is it fearing? What is it afraid of?”
I think I have somewhat of a better sense of the felt sense than when we started this conversation. And now I’m not really sure I see it as bodily. I mean, it’s in the body, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with, say, how much you’re practicing yoga, necessarily.
That’s right. It’s an aspect of feeling. That’s why it’s called felt sense. For some people, it’s more literally physical, and for others less so. But you find it in the body. You have to bring awareness to your nonconceptual, inner-felt experience.
So it’s not necessarily something that you are strengthening. You can strengthen your ability to access it, but it’s not necessarily going to get less uncomfortable the more you practice. You’re not necessarily going to make your felt senses more pleasant.
No. You want to let it be there however it is, pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, and often, because we are working with challenges or problems or emotions in our lives, the felt sense will have an uncomfortable feel to it. Sometimes there can be very powerful, deep feelings of sadness or shame or guilt, and the way those emotions actually feel in the body. One of the things you learn in Focusing is how to find the right distance from your own inner experience. If you’re too distant from it, then you kind of bring it closer; but if you’re the kind of person who gets flooded with emotion or overwhelmed or kind of collapses into the feeling, then you learn to step back a bit and have a little more objectivity toward it. There’s me over here, and there’s that feeling over there, but I’m not identified with it.
We live in a left-brain-obsessed culture—language and rationality. What do we lose when we aren’t cultivating the emotional, intuitive aspect of ourselves?
We lose contact with who we really are. We lose contact with what is really going on in our lives. As long as we’re in language or thinking—which is very powerful, but it’s symbolic—it’s never the experience itself. It’s only a description of the experience. In felt sensing or Focusing, we’re trying to get back to the original experience.
Would we be better off as a species with better body consciousness?
Yes, the body doesn’t lie, whereas the conceptual mind often departs from reality.
I can imagine a situation in which I’m very in tune with myself, my intuition. And I might even trust that. But we live in a wider world that’s going to respond to us in certain ways. And maybe even if we feel like we should do a certain thing, we might also think that we can’t trust the wider context in which we find ourselves. That’s why we don’t follow our intuition.
True, but that sense of mistrust will already be included in the felt sense. The felt sense is a holistic understanding of all aspects of the situation. That is the point. You are working with all sides of the issue. You can recognize and acknowledge the part of you that says, “Okay, so if I go off and do this thing, my God, I’m going to lose my job. People are going to think I’m crazy. I won’t have a livelihood.” Then you spend some time with those fears.
One of the questions often asked is, “What’s the worst part of this whole thing?” Then you can ask, “Where are those fears coming from? What are they based in?” Because those are the kinds of thoughts and feelings that really limit our freedom of motion, the open dimension of what our life could be, or how we could grow and develop. There are lots of those kinds of fears or obstacles, and we do have to pay attention to them. But many of them are kind of out of date. They’re our patterns from childhood, and when we really spend time with them, we discover that maybe it’s not as scary as it seems—or maybe there’s another way of looking at this situation so that it does become workable.
Are you suggesting that rational thinking should not play a primary role in my decision-making process? Or that rational thinking and bodily knowing should work hand in hand?
The latter, but in order to get the right balance, we need to bring body-knowing to the fore.
It seems to me that Focusing is a very difficult practice compared with other contemplative methods. I got a sense of it while you were walking me through it, but I feel like I just touched the tip of the iceberg. If someone teaches you basic mindfulness techniques, for example, you sort of get it immediately. It seems like Focusing would take some work.
I think that’s right. Rather than difficult, I would say that it’s subtle and kind of unexpected. In mindfulness, you have a very simple, clear instruction to begin with, and you just follow that instruction. It can also bring you to unexpected places, but the technique is very simple. Focusing is something that isn’t really in our common vocabulary or in our skill set, it’s something different that we’re trying to learn. This is why Focusing, although many people around the world make a regular practice of it and find it very powerful, is not nearly as broadly known as it could be and as it really should be. It is because it’s not so easy to get. Some people get it quickly; for others, it can take a long time.
It seems that if it’s something that’s in the body, and it’s something we all have, it would be something that other traditions talk about. Are they, perhaps, using different words?
Yes, I think so, at least to some extent. I studied with Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and he had a concept that he called “first thought.” It actually became the title to one of his poetry books, First Thought Best Thought. But he didn’t mean just the first thing that pops into your mind, which is how it’s often understood. I think that first thought is more like the nonconceptual felt source. It was in the context of creativity, of creating art, that Trungpa was talking about first thought. It is the deeper place from which creative expression and novelty arise. So that’s a different kind of language for felt sense.
It can show up in many different ways. On the one hand, it’s a universal human capacity, and children have it very naturally. But on the other hand, because of the way our culture operates, you also have to cultivate it in a deliberate way, just like mindfulness. Then you grow your ability to access the felt sense, and you learn to trust it more.
"GAP" for the Felt Sense
Simple Steps to Grounded Aware Presence
We begin to explore the felt sense by creating a gap in our habitual patterns of physical, psychological, and mental activity. This gap is empty of specific content, yet not empty of awareness. It is simply awareness itself—open and receptive, conscious without needing any object to be conscious of. It is a state of Grounded Aware Presence (GAP).
In addition to being the preparatory step in finding the felt sense, GAP is a place we can always return to in ourselves. Think of it as a trustworthy, neutral home base you can come back to anytime you feel out of balance, pre-occupied, or confused.
Start by stretching your limbs, wiggling your toes, even loosening up your whole body with a refreshing shake-out. Then, find a comfortable seated position and simply become aware of your body. Sense its position, weight, and inner space.
When you feel ready, center your attention at your base, your seat, where your body is supported by whatever you are sitting on. Feel the weight of your whole body and how it is planted on the earth. Trusting yourself to the earth’s solidity, let your body really settle and be at ease. Appreciate the simplicity of being bodily present, here and now. Say the word “Grounded” softly to yourself.
Next, bring your attention to the head region. Close your eyes, or lower your gaze. Concentrate your awareness on your sense of hearing. Be open and sensitive to any sound from the environment, especially the kinds of background noise that we usually don’t notice at all. You can note sounds with a simple mental label—“bird singing,” “traffic noise,” “refrigerator hum,” but try not to enter into a discursive thought process. At the same, try to notice the larger quality of silence that surrounds whatever you hear from moment to moment. Sense the whole space around you, extending even beyond the walls and what you can see from where you sit. Experience the vast, panoramic quality of awareness. Say to yourself softly, “Aware.”
Now move your attention into the center of your chest, place your hand over your heart, and experience the quality of Presence. You are simply here, alive, breathing, feeling, experiencing your basic existence. It is happening right now, at this very moment. Softly repeat the word “Present.”
Finally, let your attention encompass your whole body and repeat to yourself: “Grounded Aware Presence.” Rest there for a few seconds. Then, gently open your eyes, raise your gaze, and extend your Grounded Aware Presence to include the environment around you.
Sam Mowe is a Zen practitioner, former editor of Tricycle, and frequent contributor to S&H.