History: somatic oriented therapies and Eugene Gendlin – by Will Hall

Eugene Gendlin was a student of Carl Rogers and probably the single most important influence in the development of what we now call “somatic” or body-oriented therapies (Reich of course as well as others but I’m talking about the contemporary form body oriented therapies take). As the trauma discussion gets more and more medical and biologically reductionist, we would do well to rediscover Gendlin and the roots in his focusing technique, which is based in the state of consciousness where a dialogue with the “felt sense” is possible. Gendlin was also a compelling postmodern philosopher with, again, huge but usually unrecognized influence.

One could argue that Gendlin’s understanding isn’t trauma informed because he doesn’t explicitly conceptualize trauma. But in fact this is implicitly trauma healing work of the deepest kind, because of 1. the corrective experience of client centered relational therapy with people betrayed in attempts to trust, combined with 2. gentle client directed attention to verbalization of felt sense experiences into a dialogue with otherwise pre-verbal experiences, parts which are dissociated and are likely deeply intertwined with trauma, neglect, and shocking adversity. The emphasis is not on story only in the most narrow view of the specific focusing technique; client centered therapy, in which this is embedded, would welcome both story and revision of story as part of a larger process: though not addressed directly by the focusing technique, we can still of course imagine it taking place in the context of a larger therapeutic dialogue.

I first discovered focusing with an absolutely terrible therapist when I was 19; she was all technique and had no ability to actually relationally connect with me. I dismissed what she did as “doing hypnosis on me” and recoiled, which you could attribute to my “defenses” but which is actually more wise and accurate than I, or she, realized at the time – my father studied hypnosis and sadly used that learning in his dominance moves in our family, so my refusal of this inept therapist was a healthy response and probably protected me from more mayhem to come if I hadn’t gotten out of there.

Then later as I started meditating and dancing and reading Jung I re-discovered the focusing technique (in the context of studying authentic movement), which has been a background to virtually everything I do both for myself and my community, and people I work with formally as a therapist.

“Noticing the body” is a rich invitation that focusing helps us grasp more fully. I hope you all find this as interesting as I do. I recommend Gendlin’s book Focusing as well as Ann Cornell’s book The Power of Focusing, which is probably even better.

Cornell also wrote another book which has got to be a contender for the best book title ever award, it’s called “The Radical Acceptance of Everything.

Also note how this is dialogue work – we create interactions between voices or parts or figures or sensations and then trust the interaction will generate something new and beneficial – this was Jung’s crucial contribution, and we continue to see the power of framing things as dialogue in the excitement Open Dialogue these days

Gendlin’s seminal research, for people who don’t know, divided therapy into ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ groups based on outcome. Then a team of grad students analyzed the tapes to find what was the common thread in the successful treatments: it wasn’t any quality in the therapist, but the client’s capacity at moments to suspend language while grappling with felt body sense experience and finding words for it. Gendlin later theorized that healing is a spontaneous capacity in all humans that some were exhibiting in these sessions – allow your body to speak as you wait for the right words for the felt sense sensations of the body’s implicit language to engage with you. Then he went on to teach how to support and elicit this capacity in clients as the focusing technique, and today we have the widely held “talk therapy goes so much deeper if you contact the body” understanding.

A weakness in Gendlin’s initial research is that he couldn’t map what it was in the therapist that created the space for some clients to be able to experience the felt sense in sessions and not others – yes clients did it spontaneously, but my understanding is that some qualities or approaches by therapists can support and affirm its emergence, or not. But the emphasis on the spontaneous felt sense experience of the client is a crucial antidote to the idea of “treatment” itself, an antidote that we have in the idea of “holding space” where the job of the therapist – or peer or friend or community member – is just to /allow/ a healing process to take place, not to “do” it to someone. This is not a “fixing” therapy this is a “being with” therapy, to use language familiar today.

Most of what I do with people I work with is to carefully allow different voices or points of view of aspects of experience to emerge and interact, not knowing where it will go but trusting it has a directionality. This is Jung’s “transcendent function” and the “magic” of Open Dialogue with its injunction to just create dialogue with as many voices as you can and then something new will happen. Of course the spontaneity of the felt sense is at times thwarted, for many reasons, and so a focusing-only toolkit would be limited in my view, for example for people in altered and remote states, situations of violence, situations where the healing professional is a threat to the client bc of force and diagnosis, complex family dynamics etc. But even here the felt sense remains crucial, and client centered psychotherapy still has a lot to offer – Rogers worked with many clients diagnosed psychotic, and Jung and many others who reject the biomedical reductionist model emphasize, which I agree with, that so called psychotic states are just extremes on a continuum of very familiar and basic human needs that are unmet: being listened to, having a calm presence of the other, finding a way to be heard, having autonomy, experiencing love, struggling with loneliness and banishment, etc.

Rogers and Gendlin also both did ‘therapeutic’ moves that were not formulated politically but have huge political implications – the autonomy and self direction, and the expansive inclusion of the body’s own expression and voice – are direct challenges to regimes of power and domination that rely on silencing. Also important is the way that the felt sense itself is ontologically sufficient – no theory of mind is needed to engage with the language of the body, only the felt sense itself. This means the nature of the sense can be intergenerational, ancestral, even non-local and mediumistic. You have within the felt sense the seeds of a complete upheaval of capitalist positivism individualist psychology and an opening to something much more human, and true.


More posts that mention Gendlin’s work on this site

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