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13th Oct 2023

Saying ‘no’ in presence: Setting limits through body sense. In Kypriotakis, N. and Moore J. (Eds), Senses of Focusing. Volume II. Athens: Eurasia Publications, pp.469-483.

Bodywork Decisions Philosophy Therapy Trauma

Any ‘no’ of a client can express a primary organismic No that has an implicit life enhancing target. The client tries to communicate that he or she is missing something that allows his or her body to make it’s living along with others. Expressing ‘no’ can create irritation, confusion or anger in everyday life and in a clinical setting. It may feel necessary to try and overcome a ‘no’. The chapter shows that two phases of ‘clearing a space’ allow the life yearning power of a ‘no’ to come into effect: The phase of ‘taking up space’ as a woman or a man in a very concrete and embodied way, and the phase of creating space usually known as ‘clearing a space’. Both phases enable the client to own his or her self-in-presence aligned to personal boundaries and to meet his or her self-esteem fully. A Focucing exercise on how to introduce the first phase in counselling and psychotherapy is presented.

Key words: primal No, organismic self-protecting shelter, stoppage, interactive responsiveness, dimensions of therapeutic presence, two-step process of coming into self-in-presence, aligning to one’s space and demarcation, existential self-expression, intermodal Focusing with the arts

The ìllustration (Owning one’s Front Garden © focuszart) shows internalised demarcation consciousness

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24th May 2020

Remembering Gene Gendlin

Introductory Philosophy

Remembering Gene Gendlin 

Greg Madison


I cannot imagine coming up with an obituary or a memorial for Eugene Gendlin that he could stand to read. He would make a joke of any attempt to aggrandise his accomplishments and would often point out his own foibles and failings. He asked his son Gerry to remind people at his funeral that he was divorced and a smoker, to counter any attempts to beautify his memory.


Similarly, I know it would be impossible to offer an explanation of Gendlin’s philosophy that he could accept. He was rarely satisfied with any explication of his philosophy, including his own. I remember the strain of co-writing a chapter with ‘Gene’ for a book on Existential Therapy (Madison & Gendlin, 2011), based on an interview with him at his home in Stony Brook, New York. I wanted us both to be happy with the chapter, and engaged in endless frustrating email correspondence to no avail. In the end, I salvaged most of the dialogue and put in a disclaimer at the beginning of the chapter so Gene didn’t feel he had to stand behind what I wrote; it freed us up to not have to agree with each other.


One of Gendlin’s main concerns was that his philosophy and Focusing, the practice that derives from it, would end up described in old terms and thereby lose its fresh significance. Every word needed to be redefined in order to capture the level of ‘implicit experiencing’ that Gendlin was retrieving. He wanted each concept to be philosophically, in fact empirically, derived, not just given and believed. Every word had a fresh meaning in the ongoing dialogue, “and what do you want that word to mean?” was a constant refrain.


Gendlin lived his philosophy. Conversing with him was a profound experience. He spoke with everyone as an equal, never resorting to any kind of authority he might claim as a renowned philosopher and respected psychologist. I experienced Gene as open, generous, and deeply democratic in his approach. Philosophy and psychology and psychotherapy should be in everyday language as much as possible, accessible to everyone, not just academics or those who could afford a specialised education.


I learned Focusing in 1981 during my undergraduate psychology degree in Canada. I used Focusing in the methodology of my honours thesis research, an attempt to invite a deeper than usual ‘reflection on personal mortality’. For me Focusing was always tied to Existentialism and to attempts at an ‘everyday phenomenology’ that would add some richness to living and deeper awareness of the context of human existence.


Why did Focusing appeal to me? Focusing, and a person like Gene Gendlin, was what I had been looking for my whole life. Since childhood, and without much encouragement, I had held onto my felt sensing ability. I had this inner space where the world could not crowd in and change what I felt, but that was not the same as believing that what I felt really counted. No matter what behaviours, appearance, achievement, beliefs, the world around me insisted I adopt, there was a little space of freedom inside of my stomach and chest where I could have my own private feeling of being alive.


So what did Gendlin and Focusing add? Gendlin was the first person to describe this inner felt sensing, and how to attend to it, but most importantly, Gendlin said that this bodily sense was more valuable than just following external authorities, concepts or doctrines. Gendlin, a famous professor, gave me permission to live from this bodily feeling of rightness inside. This was radical. It undid the oppression of external authority. It allowed me to think for myself, without apology. I could just say “hmmm that doesn’t quite feel right for me somehow”, I didn’t even need to know why! Of course, I could be compelled to obey the powers that be, but I could still have a developed and sophisticated sense of why they are wrong and what would be a better direction, for me.


Focusing has an element of anarchism, as distinct from chaos. As a movement, it grew out of the turbulent 60s when American university campuses were erupting in protest and revolt. Gendlin knew that telling people what to think, or just offering new concepts, resulted in little change. People had to have the means to delve in and discover for themselves what they were, who they were, and what action they could take to improve the world. Gendlin thought he could teach people Focusing and Listening and thereby give away the essentials of therapeutic change and a method for humanising political change – those were radical agendas, which he never abandoned.


Gendlin, unlike most, had no interest in convincing others to agree with his thinking. That would have been a failure – what he wanted was that everyone could discover the bodily basis of thinking inside themselves and could then come up with their own thoughts. Hearing from others was always more exciting to him than hearing his own ideas parroted back to him. He could be scathing about academia and therapy trainings where students and trainees were taught to indoctrinate themselves with the ideas of ‘great thinkers’, and were actively discouraged from adding anything more than a meagre morsel of their own ingenuity. Gendlin would say that if those dead white men could think, so can you. We don’t need students to just rearrange what’s already in the library, we need them to think freshly for themselves.


Focusing, as described by Gendlin, is a gentle yet powerful way to pay attention to the unfolding experiential process that is felt in the body. Through this attention, it becomes clear that the human being is “unfinished living” constantly moving into new experiencing in interaction with the whole world around us. Focusing can be a meditative process for personal growth, a deep therapeutic change process, a form of embodied thinking, a bio-spiritual process, a way of accessing creativity, etc. To learn about Focusing it’s good to start with Gendlin’s original book, Focusing (1981).


Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit offers a radical re-thinking of the psychological-subjective, and a re-conception of the world from the viewpoint of process (rather than set units). To get started with Gendlin’s philosophy, see either his main work, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning or perhaps Language Beyond Postmodernism, a series of philosophical essays on Gendlin’s philosophy with Gene replying to each philosopher.


The best way to begin, of course, is with your own experience. You cannot understand Gendlin’s thinking unless you learn the process of Focusing for yourself. Focusing can be learned from various teachers and therapists around the world in workshop settings or online, most would make sure that finances do not preclude you from attending. Some resources are below.


The best tribute to the life and work of Eugene Gendlin would be if someone were to learn Focusing or something like it (he was never pushing Focusing as the only way) and from their own experiential understanding, write why Gendlin was wrong about everything. I could imagine Gene laughing and enjoying that very much.


Eugene Gendlin died May 1st 2017 in his home in Stony Brook, age 90. He was born in Vienna and fled with his family as a young boy to America ahead of the Nazi occupation. He spent most of his academic life at the University of Chicago.



Gendlin, E.T. (1981). Focusing (second edition. New revised instructions). New York: Bantam Books.

Madison, G & Gendlin, ET. (2011) ‘Palpable Existentialism: An Interview with Eugene Gendlin.’ In Existential Therapy. Barnett & Madison (Eds.)



For a more traditional account of the life and work of Eugene Gendlin, see:

Gendlin, E.T. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning. A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. New York: Free Press of Glencoe. Reprinted by Macmillan, 1970.

Gendlin, E.T. (1996). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. A manual of the experiential method. New York: Guilford.

D.M. Levin (Ed.), Language beyond postmodernism: Saying and thinking in Gendlin’s philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Gendlin Online Library, free access to articles:


Learn Focusing:




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24th May 2020

FOT and the Greasy Beast

Philosophy Spirituality Therapy

FOT and the Greasy Beast:

Welcoming the undomesticated nature of living process

Greg Madison


All forms of Focusing offer deep transformational experiences.  So much so that I sometimes wonder if, as therapists, we add much extra value in FOT sessions. What can therapy, especially Focusing Oriented Therapy, offer that enhances the potential of an already powerful Focusing process? How can therapy, a modern western culture invention that emphasizes the individual, be appropriate for other cultures?


I think there is a role for FOT that could be deeply valuable in the world. In therapy we add in the therapist as a person for the client to meet. The therapist, like the Focusing Guide, sits in the chair as another person before s/he offers any knowledge, insight, technique or method, theory, assumptions, or interventions. In contrast to most Focusing sessions, in FOT there are two people sitting with their eyes open looking at each other expectantly. This is a culture.  The expectation of interaction is different from a guided Focusing session. It is more like the difficult everyday world where we have problems with other people. The likelihood is that between therapist and client there are some shared values and beliefs and also some diversity. In FOT the interpersonal dynamic of this new ‘culture’ is explicitly attended to. Usually in Focusing sessions the quality of the being-together is fundamentally important but not explicitly talked about. Usually the Focuser is paying attention to the process that we call ‘inner’, already diving into the uniqueness that exceeds the culture of meeting.


FOT offers the unusual experience of attempting to remain connected with the ‘inner’ while simultaneously attending to the world of others, or the ‘interaction’ or ‘the meeting’. Even experienced Focusers can find it difficult to remain connected to themselves when in relationship with other people. Culture so easily takes over and replaces that connection. FOT works in this territory where we try to acknowledge all that comes in-between people as well as ‘the between’ itself.  It works cross-culturally by connecting to what is more than culture.


When two people sit across from each other we are already in cultural assumptions. Why sitting across, why two individuals? Why not the whole village? Why not sleeping side-by-side and dreaming together? Why speaking? Cultures give us set principles and expectations for carrying on a daily life, for how to look at things and how to feel about what happens around us. The cultural influences in a FOT session include the therapeutic orientation of the therapist, as well as each person’s specific national, ethnic and socio-economic assumptions, religious traditions, philosophical beliefs, personal history and implicit values. FOT is always a cross-cultural experience, but in a unique way.  Therapists seldom look closely at how they already impose a culture. We often don’t even realize our implicit assumptions let alone examine them closely. Focusing therapists also need to explore their assumptions – the context of therapy and the society within which it is practiced can be objects of inquiry in our felt sensing.


Focusing gives us an alleyway through the ready-made concepts, to a deeper level where we have a larger sense of living, beyond what society has fenced off as its perimeter. Focusing therapy invites another person close while we sense deeper. That person gets into our sensing so that they become the ‘toward’ that our senses can relate to. They witness, receive, and most importantly they give us a response towards which we can sense more. Between two in therapy, living can be released from received meanings, the exiled greasy beast of our animal nature can be welcomed back into its birthright. As children our wildness is constantly pressed into the uniform of our culture, how we should look, act, think… Each culture creates exiled greasy beasts. By working with, through, and beyond culture, FOT is culturally sensitive while subverting culture. Our cultures are manifest in the session, but as therapists we want to feel through the culture to the fundamental humanity in our client in order to reveal to them how their humanity affects us.


In FOT clients learn to bring their awareness to what didn’t fit the culture, what couldn’t be constrained by convention so it was labelled as too wild, uncivilised, ‘not-me’, and driven out into oblivion. It is deeply healing when another person celebrates the return of what culture said could only be repugnant to others. The focusing therapist, regardless of culture, offers the interaction where the person comes home to himself or herself. The culture can’t do that. Culture does many valuable things but it does not know how to encourage me to recognise that the home I carry with me will open its doors and windows, throw down its walls, when it meets the depth of another.


If therapy works, the client becomes more marginal to their culture, not more ‘adaptive’ in some simple form-fitting way. In FOT we make efforts to set aside what is ‘in-between’ in order to attend directly to ‘the between’, where relational felt sensing gives us a ‘home’ that is fluid and palpable but not fixed. New and precise meanings and insights arise, which do not exist in explicit culture. The client returns to their daily world where as mother or father they work tirelessly to fulfil what they know is expected of them. But the client has opened up to more than the cultural expectations and has a desire to take steps towards a deeper rightness than culture alone provides. The client becomes an agent of culture change.


Our common humanity is palpable. It is not based upon shared knowledge or collected information. Our commonality is the living process. We understand each other because we are the same sort of process. The unique differentiations and diverse cultures do not have to be a barrier if we are willing to relate from that formless commonality. Focusing and FOT have spread around the world into diverse cultures because these practices offer a way to connect to the eyes of the beast hiding behind the various veneers of culture.

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24th May 2020

Embodied Democracy. A Conference Presentation

Decisions Introductory Philosophy

Embodied Democracy:

SEA Conference Presentation

2015, London 

Greg Madison



This report evolved from contributions to the 2015 Society of Existential Analysis conference in London. I briefly describe opening the conference with a guided Focusing session since this practice is fundamental to my report on the other contribution, a Panel Discussion entitled “Being at the Heart of Activism”. What follows is an account of my own interests in this area as an existential psychologist and Focusing therapist. I present Focusing as a source of democratic process that forms an experiential continuity from ‘within’ each person ‘outwards’ to interpersonal and community situations. For this publication I have incorporated some references to Eugene Gendlin’s (1987) A philosophical critique of the concept of narcissism. Keeping with the ethos of the approach described below, this report is presented in first-person language to make it as direct and accessible as possible. 


Focusing, Gendlin, Experiential-Existential Therapy, Embodied Democracy, Implicit Experience, Focusing-oriented Therapy, Activism  




To open the conference I was invited to offer a brief 10-minute Focusing (Gendlin, 1981) session. Focusing is a phenomenological practice of embodied self-awareness whereby a person can access and follow the unfolding of feelings that step-by-step help to clarify our experience of anything we are living through. At professional conferences we typically interact only from the eye-brain-thinking level of human experience. So I wanted to offer a different starting point, an intention to include all the implicit responses that are simultaneously happening at the body level but that we typically don’t “drop down inside” and attend to. At that level we can sense more than is easily said and more than is usually included in thoughtful dialogues between colleagues. This is an excerpt from the last minute of the Focusing experience:


So as we begin our day together, just know that this whole responsive world is down there, available to you. Your body will generate all sorts of responses as you listen to people during the day, pause and notice the feelings that come in here – even the subtle feelings – there is creative thinking in the body. If an idea is making you feel a bit constricted inside, or a presentation brings an expansive feeling in your body, consider dropping down again and checking “what is it about this idea or presentation that makes me feel just like this?” Let the answer come from your body. If you can understand something from the feeling, you will usually feel a bit of release inside. Then consider sharing what came to you at some point during the conference, it might also resonate for others. If you speak, you might let words come from the body as you continue to attend to the feeling, sensing with each word “am I saying this right”? And correcting yourself as you speak, so that what you say resonates bodily. This may be one way of inviting unformed and implicit being into our doing here today. And welcoming all the voices present, not just those that are easily expressed or those that have an explicit platform”.


Workshop Panel


Alison Playford (Occupy, Disabled People Against Cuts), Mark Weaver (Occupy), Luke Flegg (Change the Future), Greg Madison (London Focusing Institute)


Later in the day we offered a panel discussion entitled ‘Being at the Heart of Activism’. Ali, Mark, and Luke introduced themselves sequentially, showing how our interests overlap and suggesting that increased personal awareness is important in their activities and how existential therapists might be able to follow their individual passions and get involved in areas of social change and activism. The workshop was followed by an Open Space Session, in the hopes that any discussion provoked by our panel and questions from those attending, could continue in more detail in the open space, where anyone’s voice might be heard and all are welcome to contribute as equals. This openness to all voices continues the value of inclusivity inherent in the initial Focusing session at the start of the day.


Focusing as practice of ‘Embodied Democracy’


This is an account of my own emerging experiments in ‘experiential democracy’ or ’slow democracy’ or ‘embodied democracy’ or ’social Focusing’ or ‘inner activism’; many descriptive terms will do and having many prevents getting stuck at the conceptual level. Each term points at the same implicit experiencing level but by having such different terms, it should be clear that the actual terms themselves are not to be obsessed over and analysed. For this paper I am using ‘embodied democracy’ as a term to point to the concrete practice I am describing. It refers to how the body ‘makes’ and ‘carries forward’ its own sense of a situation, whether personal, communal or more widely political (Gendlin, 1997; Madison & Gendlin, 2011).


I have been involved in existentialism and socialism since the beginning of my university years, when students were still political and university was about education, not just a training for the competitive job market. But the socialist/communist groups with whom I associated were as evangelical as any religious movement, replacing ‘the second coming’ with the ‘ inevitable workers’ revolution’. The dogma and strategising of these leftwing groups left no place for doubts or dissent, deep questioning, the individual perspective, choice, meaning or mortality, concerns about the structure of human life itself. Social change inspired me but the means of change left me disillusioned.


On the other side, in the academic philosophy world there was a kind of inactive quietude that obscured an underlying superiority or even cynicism towards those who wanted to actively change the world. Meanwhile, psychology was colonised by either soulless behaviourism or the emerging human computer analogies from  “cognitive psychology,” both of which shared an arrogant assumption that psychology was somehow above political and social influence and could study society without already being totally immersed within it.


I spent years unable to convert to the world of activism, while in a parallel life I remained frustrated at the ivory tower attitude of philosophy and psychology. There seemed no way to bring them together. Focusing, as a personal practice (Gendlin, 1981), was the only ‘bridge’ I had between the academic tower of ideas and the everyday hive of living.The practice of Focusing and the existential process philosophy of Eugene Gendlin(1997), not only came out of psychotherapy research but it also formed during the turbulent 1960s, especially the anti-war protests across American campuses.


Focusing pays attention to the body’s ability to form a holistic ‘felt sense’ of our life situations (Gendlin, 1979). “Felt sensing” offered me a touchstone from which I could challenge the dogma and doctrine of both activism and academia. Focusing practice exemplifies particular values in the study of human psychology and in political action. For me it is a stance that avoids both the isolation of the individual and the claustrophobia of the collective. It prioritises palpable implicit experience over explicit conceptual doctrines or external authority and offers a kind of ‘decentralised anarchy’ that, because of the inherent order of the experiential grounding, avoids chaos and despotism. But everything around us calls us not to pay attention to our own sense of existence in this way. It is a struggle. More than just a personal struggle, it is a political struggle. The order of bodily experience offers a source of meaning that deconstructs conventional understandings. It has the potential to be subversive.


Recently I have stepped back into the world of social activism and political change movements. The Internet and social media is fundamentally changing our ability to communicate and organise “grass-roots”. The world seems to have woken up its new possibilities. The economic crash in 2008 and the increasing inequality it has created has become too obviousordinary people are looking for ways to respond and to innovate for themselves new forms of living that address the challenges of daily life. It seems that more of the general population is starting to call for a system change, a chance to influence things, a return to more ‘participatory democracy’.


Some recent developments in participatory democracy include: a people’s convention to crowd-source a constitution for the UK, new voting apps that make it possible for politicians to canvas feedback from their electorate on any issue, the development of free universities offering secondary education to those whose circumstances prohibit high-fee education, open space conferences where everyone has an equal say and the themes of the conference develop organically, groups of professional therapists (Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Psychologists Against Austerity, Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, Psychotherapists and Counsellors Union) who are actively engaging in political struggles – particularly those that protect the ethics of the psy-professions, the Open Dialogue and Soteria programmes offer a relational-existential alternative to service-centred and medical-model NHS psychiatry, Teal organisations that are modelling non-hierarchical democratic structures for businesses…. This time the social engagement is more often ‘movement’ and ‘issues’ driven rather than encapsulated by rigid and totalising political ideology.


For me there is another significant difference between the activism of now and my earlier experiences. Ordinary people have changed significantly since the ‘60s. We have become more intricate as the culture takes up therapeutic ideas and self-awareness practices. In Gendin’s words,


Today we must let intricacy guide us, rather than the old clear roles and norms. These old forms still exist, but often as official demands, ideal models that we rarely fulfill. As expectations they are just one “social reality.” But body-life is no longer carried forward by them. Our more complex and partly undefined situations are another “social reality.” (1987: 265).


Social activists now seem aware of the necessity of taking into account the sphere of personal psychology and interpersonal dynamics. Within the groups I have met with, there is interest in incorporating listening skills into decision-making, finding action that is congruent with feeling, and sensitive facilitation of community engagement and conflict. They are open to forms of embodiment that open a space between the binaries of imposed rigid structure and structureless tyranny.


Focusing is a useful phenomenological practice for contemporary activists because the ‘individual’ body-sense has a continuity that reaches out to a deep consensual community with other people. Focusing brings democracy to each individual body and each body into the workings of democracy. Focusing-style democracy slows down decision-making so that the whole being of each person has the potential to be involved in the process. Yet I am not convinced that the ‘slow democracy’ I am describing is actually slower in achieving change than any other democratic process. Decisions are arrived at with a feeling of rightness; action can have a felt continuity with the group as a whole, making the action grounded in experience, with a sense of “I can stand behind this”, so the agreed action is actually carried out and does not have to be constantly revisited or half-resisted.


For me it has always been crucial that the process of change remains consistent with the ethical principles that motivate the change. Too often the method and the intention are inconsistent. Focusing helps with this. The gentle respect and primacy of a deep listening process makes Focusing compatible with efforts to humanise society because as a practice, Focusing already is that care for humanity.


What is ‘Embodied Democracy’, or whatever you want to call it?


‘… a genuinely political self-experience is possible. It is not only a question of jobs and money; our deepest self-responding also has political dimensions. There is a way to move from the “merely inner” psychology of self to a self-understanding within the larger system. We can learn from how the Women’s Movement moved from what seemed to be only psychological issues to politically understood issues….The “inner” is never just inner. When you consider it “inner,” you keep the tension within yourself and cut experience off from the social change it implies’ (Gendlin, 1987: 291-97).


Embodied democracy feels like a continuity – a continuous expanding with no pre-set border or boundary: It does not artificially end at the edge of my body, or at the bottom of my road, or at the local community level or once we have voted on a decision. There is no level of organisation where we default to a dictatorship of the majority or accept that some expert’s voice carries more weight or should be louder than the less-informed multitude. It is a living democracy that never stops re-opening concepts and roles and structures that become subtly rigid and thus enslave the very life they were created to serve.


This continuous democracy always comes from the “individual” (where ‘individual’ is re-thought as body-world interaction) concrete feeling of being bodily alive, trusting that experience as a creative source more important than just cultural tradition and convention alone. This kind of democracy goes all the way down to the present experience of being a person, all the way ‘inside’, and then it carries itself all the way up and all the way out to be expressed in our way of gathering together.


‘Anything human is both social and individual; it is ordered in many systematic ways (not just by two large systems: individual and social.) …The systems meet each other, not as separated entities, but as they are implicit in each event. A change in one system will change that event, and, as the event affects other events, the change may have an effect on the other systems’ (Gendlin, 1987: 285).


The Person is already their own democratic community


I would describe an individual person as a ‘generative community’, not a ‘unified oneness’. At any time we all have various ‘parts’ of ourselves, for example, processes of vulnerability, courage, resistance, and insecurity, aspects that we are ashamed of or have cast into exile, manipulative or critical defensive parts… Each ‘part’ (temporarily generated by our living in situations) is welcomed back with equality. A person is a democracy when she/he can openly listen to (not necessarily agree with or automatically act upon) all parts of her/himself with equality and compassion. Can’t this attitude in the inner world roll out in a continuous expansion to the largest human gatherings? Embodied democracy values the process of listening to oneself and to each other in a way that feelings and opinions begin to naturally loosen and shift. It is the opposite of attempts to achieve agreement through the pressure to conform, subtle group oppression or rejection, attempts to compel, convince, control or cajole rather than listen carefully for the wisdom contained within each person in the group and within each part of each person.


To reduce a person to only their rational capability or their logical thinking is to silence and oppress the essence of the creative human spirit. In every decision, opinion and thought, there is feeling. Even if the rational decision is ‘correct’, feelings need to be listened to or the decision will be half-hearted, will leave some people behind, or never be carried out. Our feelings are informed by our unique experiences of life – they are deeply personal yet also contain wisdom about the whole current situation. A good decision includes each person’s unique sense of the question at hand. Thinking, feeling, and action, are not three separate spheres; they occur as one before we arbitrarily split them up.


A feature of this democracy is that it asks us to be open with one another, not to put our presumptions, our technology, the ‘project’ or ‘organisation’, or some mission, in-between self and other so that we cannot directly contact another person. Can we put the personal contact first? I want to make sure I can feel connected to the living person looking back, that we are connected as two (or more) people, then let an idea or a project be discussed. But don’t let the project or task cloud the connection. Don’t mediate the connection through an abstraction, have a clear connection first and try to keep it clear… If our connection as humans does not matter, then nothing else matters anyway…


What matters is to be a human being with another human being, to recognize the other person as another being in there. … I am just here, with my eyes, and there is this other being. If they happen to look into my eyes, they will see that I am just a shaky being. I have to tolerate that. They may not look. But if they do, they will see that. They will see the slightly shy, slightly withdrawing, insecure existence that I am, I have learnt that that is O.K. I do not need to be emotionally secure and firmly present. I just need to be present. There are no qualifications for the kind of person I must be. … The minute something goes wrong I go right back to trying to sense this person; to what is happening. Because this is another being, a different being(Eugene Gendlin,1990: 205).

Questions for audience reflection 

            1.         Having listened to our various discussions, what really calls to you most, what do you feel most excited or alive about in this general area?

            2.         ’If you could bring what you understand from therapy into the wider world outside your consulting room, what would you bring and what difference would that make?’

            3.         ’How would you really like the world to be?’ ‘What would be a way forward in that direction, something you might actually want to do?’ Talk to people about it? Write about it? Make some space to flesh it out for yourself? Find some allies who you could work on this issue with?


These are very preliminary thoughts, being tested out with social activist groups that are interested in learning Focusing. Everything is being refined and re-thought in response to how groups feed back their experience of learning to sense through their bodies and learning to listen deeply to each other’s experience. What works, how is it useful, what is not appropriate, what is useless or confusing …?


I have very briefly suggested that Focusing practice can offer the world of social change and activism a form of collaboration that consistently values care and inclusivity from the personal to the community. I have not pointed out that the Focusing world likewise needs the attitude of activism. Focusing groups can still prioritise the individual or prioritise teaching Focusing over Focusing as a vehicle for change. We need to broaden the reductionistic idea that Focusing is just an individual process, useful in therapy. That model is well developed even if it still isn’t well acknowledged. A ‘social’ form of Focusing makes explicit how individual bodies can carry forward the group into new fresh edges of understanding and action. This is an experiment that attempts to address real life, real people, in the midst of everyday living and our need for grounded social change.


Greg Madison, PhD, is an existential psychologist and Focusing-oriented psychotherapist contributing to various activist, academic, and professional communities across Europe and North America. For some years Greg has avoided exclusive affiliation with any institution and instead enjoys creative collaborations as an independent practitioner. He has written and co-edited books and articles on Existential Migration, Focusing-oriented therapy, existential therapy, and contemporary topics related to psychology and society. He is a Certifying Coordinator for the Focusing Institute, founder of  The London Focusing Institute (a team of teachers working according to democratic and transparent principles) and co-editor of Existential Analysis. Greg lives in Brighton and southern Spain. Contact Greg at



E. T. Gendlin (1981) Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.

Gendlin, E.T. (1987). A philosophical critique of the concept of narcissism: the significance of the awareness movement. In D.M. Levin (Ed.), Pathologies of the modern self. Postmodern studies on narcissism, schizophrenia, and depression, pp. 251-304. New York: New York University Press. retrieved from (May 10, 2016)

Gendlin, E.T. (1990). The small steps of the therapy process: How they come and how to help them come. In G. Lietaer, J. Rombauts & R. Van Balen (Eds.), Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy in the nineties, pp. 205-224. Leuven: Leuven University Press. From, G & Gendlin, ET Gendlin, E.T. (1997) A Process Model (New York: The Focusing Institute). A corrected version (2001) is available

Madison, Greg and Gendlin, Eugene (2011). ‘Palpable Existentialism: An Interview with Eugene Gendlin.’ In Existential Therapy. Barnett & Madison (Eds.)


Further resources

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24th May 2020

Palpable Existentialism. A Focusing-oriented Therapy

Philosophy Therapy

Palpable Existentialism: A Focusing-oriented therapy


Greg Madison PhD


In a recent edition of this magazine (Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 19, No. 4, August 2013, p.72-80) an extract was published from Ann Weiser Cornell’s Focusing in Clinical Practice (Cornell, 2013). I want to carry on from that article and assume enough familiarity with Focusing (Gendlin 2003) in order to take the next step into ‘Focusing-oriented therapy’.


Cornell’s book offers a comprehensive introduction to Focusing for the clinician, offering examples of how Focusing as a method might be incorporated into sessions. Mostly this describes Focusing as a kind of stand-alone import. This illustrates the fact that there is still little written about how Focusing actually integrates with an existing orientation to psychotherapy and how that integration changes both how Focusing is practiced and how therapy is understood. In some sense this integration is more sophisticated but also more primary than Focusing itself.


What does Focusing-oriented mean?


Focusing is not a therapy. It can be described variously as a personal growth method or a spiritual practice, a philosophical or creative practice, a form of generative thinking or even a ‘way of being’. A Focusing-oriented therapy is usually not just guiding clients through a Focusing experience at some point during the therapy hour. That would be ‘the use of Focusing in therapy’, which Cornell’s text describes very clearly, or a guided Focusing session, which she has also described well (Cornell, 1996). A Focusing-oriented therapy is another step and involves therapeutic application of the wider experiential philosophy from which Focusing itself emerges. In this sense ‘Focusing-oriented’ is somewhat of a misnomer.


Exposure to the philosophy underlying Focusing can challenge how we understand living (Gendlin 1997a,b).  If these new understandings are embodied through the therapist’s regular Focusing practice, they will influence how we understand living process and therefore how we work therapeutically. Two upcoming texts will, for the first time, illustrate a diverse range of international therapies that have developed as ‘Focusing-oriented’ (Theory and Practice of Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy and Emerging Practice in Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy. Greg Madison (Ed.),Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014).


‘Focusing-oriented’ therefore signifies the thorough integration of an experiential sensitivity and its accompanying philosophy with any ongoing therapeutic orientation. What is described below is based upon an integration of Eugene Gendlin’s work (Gendlin 1997a,b; Levin 1997) and existential psychotherapy. Hopefully it shows how the experiential emphasis of Focusing enhances existentialism and how the deconstructive and phenomenological spirit of existentialism transforms the potential of Focusing. Combining these orientations makes the practice different from what one finds in either orientation alone.


The experiential-existential level is primary


‘Palpable existentialism’ (Madison & Gendlin 2011; Madison 2010) is the practice of crossing Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Philosophy of the Implicit’, including Focusing practice, with the basic tenants of the British School of Existential-phenomenological psychotherapy (van Deurzen & Arnold-Baker 2005; Spinelli 2007) . A hallmark of this integration is its intention to work from what is revealed in the real relationship between therapist and client, as heralded by existential therapists (Spinelli 2007) and made palpable by some Focusing-oriented therapists (Madison 2010, 2014a; Preston, 2014).


The body is the doorway to the palpable ‘self’ underneath concepts and the opening onto its continuity with the vastness beyond (Gendlin 1964). From this view each individual (therapist as well as client) is an opening, not only onto himself or herself, but also onto the unfinished process of existence. In therapy we often try to understand what appears in that opening; usually only the self that appears, not the vastness.


Both existential and experiential approaches encourage us to pause our usual living so that the weight of cultural and conceptual assumptions do not smother the novelty that might emerge from paying attention to the moment-by-moment idiosyncrasy of any individual’s experiencing. In order to understand ‘the person inside’ we must get beyond the camouflage of belief and assumptions. But can we form a therapy from a basic openness like that?


Every year we add a handful of new acronyms to the plethora of theories and techniques swaddling contemporary psychotherapy. Whilst not wishing to undermine what each new approach highlights, I am concerned that what I say below could in fact be concretised into just another approach with a catchy abbreviation. My intention is to be guided by what is intuitively familiar to many experienced practitioners: the implicit process underneath the various approaches emerging today.


It sounds arrogant to say that the mode of therapy I am presenting is ‘underneath’. Like I am claiming it’s more profound. Let me be clear – the experiencing level I describe is ‘less than’ a therapeutic skill; it is the fundamental experiencing that makes us human. According to Gendlin’s philosophy, bodily experiencing makes it possible for us to function, walk across a room, hold a conversation, think, imagine, create, and it is what makes human change possible (Gendlin 1997a,b). It is a meta-level, primary. Other approaches assume it and build on it in many useful ways.


However, an experiential-existential integration maintains its continuity with the experiential ground that gives rise to any model (including its own). It welcomes the vast expanse of human existence that eludes knowledge and explanation. This orientation is probably very unfashionable, so I will have to advocate for it. Compared to other practices it holds in abeyance, rather than adds to, theoretical predictions or ‘knowledge’. I will have to appeal to what you directly know from your own felt experience of sitting many hours with clients in order to convince you that insubstantial is vital – vital but perhaps not always sufficient.


An insubstantial model


In order to be ‘evidence-based’, therapies must now be uniform enough to be ‘administered consistently’, ‘manualised’; therapy is treated as a prescription, a standard dose for any patient. The therapy room has become another medical intervention. These approaches have a comforting robustness. Useful manuals have arisen for how to respond to each pattern of client behaviour. But no client is just a pattern and no therapist is consistent even with him or herself, let alone with any specific ‘treatment’, school of thought, or any manual of how session number five should proceed.


Intuitively we know that every therapist is his or her own ‘integration’. Our whole living process, much more than we could ever say about life, is the foundation out of which we understand people and practice therapy. In this sense there is no such thing as a ‘focusing’ therapist, an ‘existential’ therapist, a ‘person-centred’ or ‘psychoanalytic’ therapist, as if knowledge of a particular theory could wipe out our living experience and become a new foundation for being. Every moment shapes us by evoking a response; the world rouses and elaborates us, affecting how we live in the next instant and how we respond to the world as it further affects us.

(‘Exhilarating Pessimism’, Madison, 2014a, pp.145-164)


Contemporary psychotherapies that are endorsed as ‘valid’ might obscure how much we don’t know, how flimsy and exposed we become without these claims to knowledge, especially when face to face with the unique dilemmas of a specific person. Often we keep our insecurities and foibles hidden behind our backs during sessions, giving the illusion that we know more about life than we possibly could.


We forget that like our clients we are also in the midst of living. There are times it would be convenient to conceal that we are all learning on the job. As a therapist I am motivated to appear ‘wise’, ‘sorted out’ and ‘living well’. Unfortunately, therapy treatments, techniques, credentials and degrees do not make me an expert on how to live. The client and I sit together, connected through our human vulnerability yet I am encouraged to make even this relating into a technique. We bolster our own security if we can construct theoretical explanations for the unpredictable vicissitudes of human interaction. But we know they are constructions. Theories and techniques land like a woodpile between the client and myself; something solid to hide our deepest insecurities from one another.


For over twenty-five years I have supervised and lectured in various cultures as a psychologist and psychotherapist, yet I must confess that rather than ‘knowledge’ about psychotherapy or the ‘wisdom’ of experience, I often still practice from not-knowing. I do not dispute the important place of experience and education, but I also see how often our textbook ideas fail; interpretation, reframing, mindfulness, existential challenge, Focusing, Socratic dialogue, and other techniques fail to help. I know how often I fail.


The universe vastly exceeds our maps of it. Humans are always more complicated than any scheme we bring to them. So it is not surprising that as therapists we have each had moments when our educated attempts to help have fallen flat, our reaching out has not touched the other. Our training, our techniques and scripts, have not done their job and we are left holding an empty bag looking blankly at our client who looks blankly back. When we feel we have nothing else to offer, out of desperation there is an opening to what was always there. It is basic, primary, and without stable form.


Palpable existentialism adds experience to existential therapy, and existence to the practice of focusing therapists. It imbues my living with the potential of experiential process and the pessimism of an existence where sometimes there is no way forward. Below I outline some of the ways in which each orientation transforms by crossing with the other.


The homelessness of process


Gendlin’s philosophy is a reminder that body is process (Gendlin 1997). When we come ‘home to the body’, as some people say, we do not find a home of substance. The body is not like a house. If home is security and stability then through the body we discover that at bottom we are homeless. As I have suggested elsewhere (Madison 2009) we become homeless not because we have been exiled from home, but rather because we have been exiled by home from the flow of the self. The coziness of the tranquillized ‘substantial’ distances us from the self that calls to be known as the elusive and ungraspable. Why do we build a home on top of the open underneath?


According to the existentialists, in the expanse we feel a deep sense of unease that has metaphysical origins and which experientially is a doorway to unfolding insight, ‘… we, human creatures, perceive dimly in the experience of the uncanny, that the world rests on nothing. It has no basis or ground’ (Gray 1951, p.116). Or as the philosopher Karl Jaspers says it, ‘The bottomless character of the world must become revealed to us, if we are to win through to the truth of the world’ (Jaspers 1932, Philosophie, p.469, c.f. Gray 1951, p.117).


The existentialist thinks it is therapeutic to perceive the reality of human existence without the spin of what we would like it to be. This intention corrects a subtle assumption in Focusing and Gendlin’s philosophy to see the body as carrying us ‘forward’ towards forever better possibilities.


Challenging optimism


‘Carrying forward’ is Gendlin’s term for the bodily process that occurs when what the body implies should happen actually does happen (see Gendlin 1997). When the experiential implying actually occurs, there is a bodily shift that is referred to as ‘positive’ and ‘life affirming’ (for example, Gendlin 1984). But this optimistic description does not take into account that the body propels itself towards what? Expanding openness, yes, but also its own aging, increasing fragility, and final demise.


Human being is a carrying forward to death, a ‘being-unto-death’ as Heidegger (1964) proclaimed. Carrying-forward has a feeling of ‘rightness’ due to a release of bodily tension, but it is no yellow brick road. On this topic Gendlin can be read as an optimist rather than as an existential philosopher.  This would put him at odds with the British School’s balance between human givens, facticity, tragedy, and human potential (Spinelli 2007). Gendlin anticipates the criticism and says his view is not ‘sloppy optimism’.  ‘With so much suffering and destructiveness all around us, optimism is an insult to those who suffer’ (Gendlin 1996, p.23).


Gendlin and his colleagues clarify that the energy of the forward movement ‘is not optimism or preference for the positive’ (Gendlin 1984, p.272). The life energy that is released from ‘being-with’ any experience is what is valued, not some preference for ‘positive’ and ‘optimism’. But why then are these values associated with the bodily shift and so prevalent in the Focusing world? A description that sounds pessimistic is no less valid if it resonates with life experiencing. Resonating, that flow of energy, is the key. The positive bias obscures the existential context.


Existential-phenomenological therapy values the intention to confront existence as clearly as we can, given our capabilities at any given time. It is an attempt to value what is ‘true’ over what is ‘life affirming’ in conventional terms of happy, adjusted, and comfortable. We are taught that our goals are achievable but not to question what the purpose of achieving them would be, given the whole context of a human life.


The existential does not override the experiential; they go back and forth between grounding and symbolizing, informing and refining each other. In experiential-existential therapy the point is that the therapist must be willing to enter the unknowing flow of experiencing and acknowledge the realities it momentarily reveals. If we converge the experiential and existential we can create a practice within which existence and experience can be taken as one. Moments of existential insight are simultaneously valid for both client and therapist.


Challenging the conceptual in existential therapy


Anything existential that is not experientially given remains theoretical conjecture (including what I’ve said here), no different from any other dogma or therapeutic creed.


It is ironic that philosophies about embodiment can engage our intellect only. Since the 1950s, Gendlin’s writings have run parallel to the existential-phenomenological tradition, having much in common with Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Existential therapists read these pivotal philosophers’ ideas about the body but without a practice that points back to the body these insights remain conceptual. We have body philosophies but how do we actually dwell with our bodily being? Where do these philosophies come from if not from the body, yet we rarely go back to this implicit source itself.


According to Gendlin (1966) experience is not definable by concepts, rather, concepts get their definitions from bodily steps of experiencing. If we use theory (or concepts or philosophy) experientially, concepts become ‘the ‘epiphenomena’, pointers whose sole meaning consists of the experiential texture at which they point’ (p.207).


Palpable existentialism relies upon our own experience, as it is concretely felt in our bodies. It does not rely upon you first understanding Sartre, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and then applying these philosophies to your life and your work with clients.  It relies upon the primacy of connecting with your own experiencing process. Then you can read those authors and others, with explicit attention to your body, constantly asking yourself – does this ring true for me? If we try to live within existential philosophy we remain students of the ‘existential tradition’ but not existentialists. To be an existential psychotherapist means, from this view, to be experiential. Existentialism is palpable.


Focusing is phenomenology


Gendlin is careful not to set himself up as another expert; he wants his philosophy to point us back to ourselves. His message is empirical and not another doctrine. The intention is to help break the hegemony of received meanings so that the source of thinking can be found. The experiential process follows the basics of phenomenology as it is applied to psychotherapy (see Spinelli 2007). The process is descriptive rather than interpretive, it brackets preconceptions and it treats all aspects of the phenomenon equally, i.e. there is no such thing as resistance.


In this way Gendlin is doing a kind of phenomenology that keeps returning back to experience after it formulates something from experience. He was discovering that there is a kind of unformulated experience that can be pointed to – an experience that is not itself just another formulation but implicitly includes everything that we have previously formulated and lived. There is something coming freshly that is more than fixed content and symbols (something that is not itself a ‘thing’, see Madison & Gendlin 2011).


From this view, existence is equated with experiencing. It is not a set thing, not a snapshot that could ever be described. It is a movie, but a movie that responds and changes in the very viewing of it.


Feeling the experiential-existential relationship


In therapy we add the therapist as a person for the client to meet. The situation is already more like the difficult everyday world where we have problems interacting with other people. The likelihood is that between therapist and client we will experience some of the trouble we both usually have in the rest of our lives.


When I sit with my client, I am a new manifestation because I am here with this person. A therapist who tries to adhere too much to a method deprives their clients of being accessible, leaving gaps where another real person should be. We need to be self-aware, not neutral. An ‘absent’ person has less to offer therapeutically. Professional knowledge and skill is first embodied within the person of the therapist and arises directly from that person when the interaction calls it forth, not when a treatment agenda prescribes it. This is an attempt to practice without letting ‘knowing’ get in the way of ‘meeting’.


The therapist’s feeling response to the client must be genuinely available in order for the client to respond further. How it is available or disclosed is an important question but it should not be artificially kept away from the client at the moment when the client needs a responsive environment in order to reconstitute his own life processing.

According to Gendlin,

We know best with children that this is a personality development process. … such a relationship requires that the therapist’s feelings be expressed as clearly his own, and the child’s as clearly the child’s own. To protect another’s freedom we do not need to paralyze ourselves. That would give him only a useless emptiness instead of a full relationship in which he is free. We need to express our feeling reactions and then still let him be free—by virtue of the fact that these reactions are our own. They don’t preempt his. We point again and again at his, ask about them, make room for them, refer to them—even at a time when, perhaps, he remains totally silent and neither expresses anything of his own feeling life, nor has it at all clearly (1966, p.242).


The therapeutic relationship is of two real humans living in close proximity. We look at each other (or not). We see our look taken in and reflected back. The room resonates with meaning before a word is spoken, even before ‘the look’. The look already arose from the interactive process that makes us who we become when we are together. Such ‘existential communication’ remains a crucial influence on what happens next, it is the medium of the session.


Some Focusing-oriented therapists, influenced by the respectful non-directive intention of person-centred trainings, are not inclined to emphasise the relationship with explicit interventions. The existential Focusing-oriented therapist is more likely to verbalise some of the process of relating, to make it a part of the content of sessions so it is lived symbolically as well as experientially. Although this is an instance of the back and forth from experience to words that Gendlin highlights in his philosophy and in the Focusing method, it is uniquely existential to invite dialogue about the moment-by-moment felt relating as it happens in sessions.


Experiential-existential therapy invites another person close while we sense deeper. That person gets into our sensing so that they become the ‘toward’ that our living can relate to. They witness, receive, and most importantly they give us a response towards which we can sense and respond more. As therapists we want to feel through the assumptions, beliefs, conventions, to the fundamental humanity in our client in order to reveal to them how their humanity affects us.


The experiential-existential therapist senses for the kind of interaction that encourages the client to begin to live from the unknown within. Culture does many valuable things but it does not operate in the sphere of the unique human process. If therapy works, the client becomes more marginal to their culture, not more ‘adaptive’ in some simple form-fitting way. The client returns to their daily world where they try to fulfill what is expected of them. But the client has now opened up to more than the cultural expectations and has a desire to take steps towards a deeper rightness than culture alone provides.


Inch-by-Inch people free themselves a little from responding automatically from the implicit messages they learned from their cultures. The therapist offers him or herself as the receptive environment within which the client learns to live forward, in new ways.


If we are experientially present, clients learn to bring their awareness to what was labeled ‘not-me’, or driven into oblivion because it was ‘negative’ or ‘pessimistic’ and made others feel uncomfortable. It is deeply healing when the therapist celebrates the return of what culture said could only be repugnant to others. It is even more healing when the therapist says ‘me too’ implicitly, ‘through this we belong with each other’.


Manualised therapies help clients to behave appropriately in the office and to pay their bills, but how sad to think our job is only to revitalise that robot of the conventional in the consulting room. Can we risk a subversive psychotherapy that is grounded through intricate experience itself? Our common humanity is palpable. It is not based upon shared knowledge or imposed routines. Our commonality is the living process ‘between’. We understand each other because we are the same process ‘source’.


A brief clinical example


Some years ago I developed a psychotherapy department in a large inner city hospital. Our practice was consistent with the experiential-existential approach described above. One Friday afternoon I received a referral from the neuroscience nurses to meet Mr. Young, a middle-aged patient who was creating a disturbance on the ward. When I arrived at the nurse’s desk the ward sister warned me that Mr. Young had been difficult and demanding since his admittance a week before. Today he had become even more agitated while waiting for transport back to his local hospital where he would soon be discharged home. To die.


I could see a large man standing halfway down the corridor, watching me with suspicion. I approached him, introduced myself, and asked if he would like to step into the day room where we could have some privacy. Before I had even sat down Mr. Young began to describe his experience at the hospital, being ignored by nursing staff, and worse, the disrespectful treatment by the consultants, … ‘If I had met any of those men a week ago, in my club or in my office, they would have treated me with respect, as an equal. Here, because I’m wearing one of these (he picks at his hospital gown) I’m nobody. You would not believe how they told me about my scan results!’


Mr. Young was visibly shaking as he spoke. His face was contorted and red with rage. I was sitting back in my chair, constantly grounding myself, feeling my body, but unfortunately not knowing what to say. All I could manage was, ‘You have had an awful experience here and it’s clear you are very angry about it’.


I seem to have added to Mr. Young’s rage. He ignored my comment and looked hard at me, ‘A week ago I was having breakfast with my wife. The last thing I remember was seeing the paramedics walk past my dining room window. Then I woke up two days later in this place. Now they tell me, like they are talking to a dog, that I have an inoperable brain tumor and at most I have three months to live. How would you feel? HOW WOULD YOU FEEL?’


He dragged me out into reality; far beyond any professional response. I could have acknowledged his rage, or said ‘no one can know what it is like for you’. I could have patronized him with messages like ‘how difficult’ etc etc. But this man was desperate to be met as a real person and I could not hide from his claim on me in that moment. We stared at each other while I paused to take his question seriously. Suddenly I could feel the panic and hopelessness inside of me as I imagined being in this man’s situation. I answered evenly, ‘I would be devastated.’ Immediately there were tears in his eyes and then in my eyes. This intimidating millionaire and I had met.


We stayed there on the edge of emotional collapse; our bodies inclined forward, eyes fixed on each other. He described how a month before he had bought his own private airplane to celebrate the beginning of his retirement. He and his wife had planned a year of travel. Then, entirely out of the blue, he had collapsed and now he was here, about to return home with a death sentence. I listened with my body, taking it all in experientially, as much as I could, shaking my head. ‘It is so hard to take this in’ ‘I feel sick’ ‘How can this be true?’ Who said what?


I felt no urge to contradict the bleak outlook with something positive. What happened to Mr. Young could happen to me – this is the human shock we hide from. In order for him to recover from his shock I had to feel mine. I had to have it as real as possible. We spoke frankly. My job, if I had one, was to step back into my open body every time I tried to find an angle, an agenda, a closing-down, a side-road or a theoretical red herring. I felt responsible to stand up to existence by not putting anything in the way. But could I stand it?


After forty minutes the transport team knocked at the door to take Mr. Young away. We stood at the door, faced each other and shook hands firmly. ‘Thank you’ is all he said but I felt his appreciation resonate deeply. I left our meeting feeling vulnerable and weak. We never met again but I still remember Mr. Young. He must have died over ten years ago, yet I feel haunted by what I had to confront in myself so that he could regain his humanity. There was no ‘forward direction’ but there was a meeting and an expanding, briefly. I had allowed myself to be affected because he had demanded it. If we had more time, many other things might have happened. Other skills might have come into play, but only insofar as they resonated with Mr. Young, and not to obscure the abyss underneath.


Summary points


  1. Therapist interventions arise from the therapist’s ‘internal’ felt sense of what is alive experientially in the moment, not from theoretical postulates of what is important or even explicit indications from the client. Such an intervention can make explicit something that was, until then, inchoate ‘in the flow’; we speak in a way that expands the whole feeling of the session.
  2. But it is not exactly the feeling that we pay attention to, but the ‘knowing’ that is implied within the feeling. So, a ‘negative’ feeling can feel good when it is acknowledged not because we are affirming the ‘negative’ but because we are acknowledging the deeper ‘truth’ implied in the feeling.
  3. Our common humanity is palpable. It is not based upon shared knowledge or collected information. Our commonality is the living process ‘between’. We understand each other because we are the same process ‘source’.
  4. A philosophy of implicit experiencing gives us the concept of the ‘lived body’ as ongoing unfinished process, an insubstantial flow that can ground whatever we offer as therapists.



Cornell, Ann Weiser (1996) The power of focusing. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Press.

Cornell, Ann Weiser (2013) Focusing in clinical practice. The essence of change. New York: WW Norton and Co.

Gendlin, E.T. (1964). A theory of personality change. In P. Worchel & D. Byrne (eds.) Personality change. pp. 100-148. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Gendlin, E.T. (1966). Existentialism and experiential psychotherapy. In C. Moustakas (Ed.), Existential child therapy, pp. 206-246. New York: Basic Books.

Gendlin, E.T. (1984). The obedience pattern. Studies in formative spirituality, 5(2), 189-202.

Gendlin, E.T., Grindler, D. & McGuire, M. (1984). Imagery, body, and space in focusing. In A.A. Sheikh (Ed.), Imagination and healing. pp. 259-286. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood

Gendlin, E.T. (1996). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: A manual of the experiential method. New York: Guilford.

Gendlin, E.T. (1997a) A process model. New York: The Focusing Institute. Corrected version (2001) is available

Gendlin, ET (1997b) Experiencing and the creation of meaning. A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Evanston Ill: Northw. U. Press.

Gendlin, E.T. (2003) Focusing. How to gain direct access to your body’s knowledge. London: Rider

Gray, Glen J (1951) The idea of death in existentialism. Journal of philosophy, 48 (5): 113-27

Heidegger, Martin (1964) Being and time. (Trans. J Stambaugh, 1996) New York: SUNY Press

Levin, David Michael (1997) Language beyond postmodernism. Saying and thinking in Gendlin’s philosophy.Evanston Ill: Northwestern U. Press.

Madison, Greg (2009) The end of belonging: Untold stories of leaving home and the psychology of globalization. Charleston SC: Createspace Publ.

Madison, Greg (2010) Focusing on existence: Five facets of an experiential-existential model. Person-Centred and experiential psychotherapies
Vol 9 (3): 189-204.

Madison, G & Gendlin, ET (2011). ‘Palpable Existentialism: An Interview with Eugene Gendlin.’ In Existential therapy. Legacy, vibrancy and dialogue. Barnett & Madison (Eds.)

Madison, Greg (Ed.) (2014a) Theory and practice of Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. Beyond the talking cure. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Madison, Greg (Ed.) (2014b) Emerging practice in Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. Innovative theory and applications. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Preston, Lynn (2104) The relational heart of Focusing oriented psychotherapy. Pp.127-144. In Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. Beyond the talking cure. Madison (Ed.) London: Jessica Kingsley Publications.

Spinelli, Ernesto. (2007). Practising existential psychotherapy: The relational world. London: Sage Publications.

van Deurzen, Emmy & Arnold-Baker, Claire. (2005). Existential Perspectives on Human Issues: A Handbook for Therapeutic Practice. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.


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8th Feb 2016

Touching the Source

Introductory Philosophy

Around any symbol or emotion, you can feel a kind of resonance, an aura. This subtle aura is not merely associated feeling, but is itself the meaning of the symbol.

Here is another image. A symbol is a mere surface. For example, an
emotion – a feeling in the ordinary sense. It simply isn’t enough, when
we know only the thin surface, the symbol itself. We need to dip our
hands down into a thickness beneath, into hidden and uncertain

Or again. It is as if we are letting a vessel down into a cool, deep well.
Drawing up good water. Here, at this spring, dreams, images and
music find their interpretation, and ideas their origin. Here the spirit of
healing dwells.

Every word or image or feeling is pregnant – full of possibility. We may
sit with a symbol, gently touching or tapping it, sensing around, behind
and beneath.

What is this like? Perhaps like being in an ancient wood of oak, pine or
cryptomeria, with grey and mossy rocks, at a water’s edge – I may feel
wretched, but the source is constant. I have only to stay here at the
edge – only to be present. The source is like some place of rebirth. It
seems to be inexhaustible.

Listening to ourselves with compassion


Deciding – We make the turn to the source when the forward
movement is blocked. Something in your life is stuck, troubled, haunted or
puzzling. Or perhaps it is joyful, playful, longing or fertile. It may even be
hurtling forward or frenzied. Go slowly! You are deciding where to begin.

ResonatingWhat is this “something” about?
This blocked or uncertain place has a unique overall quality, mood or tone.
It has a story to tell, since it is connected to your life. Typically, the feel
of it is both subtle and distinct.

The feel is physical. It is a sense of meaning. A sense of aboutness. It
is the feeling of all-of-this. You can refer to it now, directly. It may come
right here in the middle of your body. Or sometimes the feeling is barely there
– a vagueness, a nothingness, an absence. There may be a two-way conflict, in
which both sides must be heard. Or perhaps there are several strands. Often
there is a feeling about the feeling.

Now you are looking for “handle”. This is a word or a phrase – or perhaps
an image, sound or gesture. It describes the quality of the feeling. It needs to
feel just right – so when you lose the feeling, the handle will bring it back.

Sensing-and-WelcomingWaiting for the gift of the felt
Infinitely patient, intent and still, you are a poet and an artist. You place
your attention delicately and precisely, returning to the feeling over and over.
You are sensing for the crux of the issue. Little by little, tentatively,
words or images, sounds or gestures form.

When something comes which resonates, you will feel a distinct moment of
movement, a moment when it appears that change actually occurs. You
welcome this small felt opening or easing with thankfulness, taking time to
savour it. Afterwards, you ask: is there more?


Befriending – You are not the feeling – you yourself are not any
You sit down quietly next to the feeling. You become profoundly feeling-
centred. You are here to listen with interest and great kindness to an
emerging story – here to be fearless and sincere with yourself, about how
things are going (or not going) in your life right now. You are preparing a
friendly welcome, since the feeling may be about to open.

Or maybe not. Sometimes it seems as if nothing will ever change. Still, you
can be with the way it is. We can be gentle, accepting, patient and enduring.
Nothing has to happen. We can always be kind.

Actively un-knowing – We can�t know what may come. We may be
far beyond our limitations. Something shadowy and unformed is beginning
to stir in the silence of the heart. You are dwelling here for a little while –
waiting, asking and holding. It is essential to be uncertain – open, curious,
unintrusive, and deeply receptive.

Listening to one another with compassion

Contact – Contact is the key to any friendship. Until we are in
contact, the good which may happen is severely limited, and the evil

When there is a real sense of meeting or encounter, an awareness of a
living contact actively sustained moment after moment after moment,
a profound mutual sense of accepting and being accepted by one
another may creep up on us. A quality of trust and safety flowers, and
a sense of rapport or mutual resonance may grow naturally.

Being in contact is a miracle, both in itself, and in its creative and
healing power.

Humanity – Everything we have learned or can imagine is with us.
Our feelings, memories, dreams and reflections inform our meeting,
and yet nothing must come between us, nor disturb what is unfolding.
Our sensitivity to the human condition is a vast and subtle
background, which profoundly illuminates what is happening here.

Humanity is imagination, out of which empathy is possible.

There is a clear duty to be vividly alive – to be in the body – to bring to
our listening our whole experience of ourselves, of persons, and of the
world – in so far as we can.

The person we are listening to has a right to expect that, because
otherwise what we are offering is inescapably – in the present moment
– an experience of conditionality, isolation, ambiguity, abandonment
and betrayal.

Humanity is about standing in the open – about having the courage to
be defenceless – about fully engaging with one another with the whole
of our being.

Humanity is about being aware of our own feelings.

Reflecting-and-Refusing – As the person says each little piece,
you say back the whole felt essence of it.

The person tends to pause, asking : is that right? – Listening is easy,
when the person refuses to be misunderstood!

Both people are taking great care that what is being said is heard in
just the way that it is meant, that nothing gets twisted or heard in a
merely conventional sense. In this way we know that what is meant is
what is heard, and so you and your companion stay close together.

Even so, some of what comes may be private, just for the person.

A listener is not a guide. Your work as a listener is to enter the other
person’s world, as if it is your own, but always without losing the as-if.

Always following – never losing sight of the person, the one who is
carrying this weight of experiencing, living it, going through both the
pain and the joy of it.

Our being together is gentle, vivid, friendly, supple, easy and
respectful. There is a natural sway here, to-and-fro, flowing forward.
Sensing-and-saying may tend to slow down, gradually becoming clear,
deep, wide, and strongly forward-moving.

Listening is very peaceful.

Listening is easy. You can do it.

From ancient times, listening – to ourselves and to others – has brought
gifts of imagination, vision, blessing and healing.

What happens may be surprising.

What comes may be fresh and new – forceful and active – or tender and

Touching the Source – Brief Version

Listening to ourselves with compassion


We make the turn to the source
when the forward movement is blocked.

This blocked or uncertain place has
a unique feel, quality, mood or tone.

We return to the body over and over,
as words or images, sounds or gestures form.


We sit down quietly next to the feeling.
Nothing has to happen.

Actively un-knowing
We can’t know what may come.
We may be carried far beyond our limitations.

Listening to one another with compassion

An awareness of a living contact, actively sustained
moment after moment after moment.

Humanity is imagination, out of which empathy is possible.
Humanity is about being aware of our own feelings.

As the person says each little piece,
you say back the whole felt essence of it.

The person tends to pause, asking, �Is that right?”
Listening is easy, when the person refuses to be misunderstood.

Listening is contact, borne on the wings of empathy.
Listening is easy. You can do it.

10th June 2005

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