Table of Contents
Foreword: Felt Sense and the Wrong Word, by Peter Elbow
Introduction: Why This? Why Now?
Part Two: Embodied Knowing
In this chapter, my aim is to use the concept of felt sense to enter the realm of theory. I want to suggest an approach to knowing that explicates how language and human beings develop together, an approach that has far-reaching social, philosophical, and political implications. These ideas are derived from a philosophy of experiencing that has been proposed and articulated by Eugene Gendlin. The notions I present here represent my attempt to honor and extend Gendlin’s work and to make it accessible to writers and teachers of writing.
Felt Sense and the Creation of Meaning
Let’s begin with a symbol that Gendlin uses in his philosophic writing to refer to felt sense. It looks like this: …..
This symbol stands for a space that is open but not blank. It also stands for:
- the place in our bodies where we contact a felt sense
- what happens when we contact a felt sense
- the string of words that might, could, and will ultimately fit or fill in the open space when they do come.
The symbol suggests a space that has within it all that is not yet said—all that awaits implicitly before words come.
This notion—that within a felt sense lies the implicit—is key. It invites an entirely new way of seeing how meaning develops. But to get there, we need to start here: That new ideas, or fresh ways of speaking, thinking, and writing will come to us if we pause and wait patiently . . . if we contact a ….. and allow it to open.
To see this concept in action, Gendlin asks us to imagine a poet in the midst of writing a poem. She has a sense of what is to come …. but the exact phrasing hasn’t come yet. She sits there, rereads, pauses, … she rotates her hand in the air. … And with this gesture, she implies that something will come but hasn’t yet.
Notice that in this example, the blank is not yet filled in. It hangs there—a blank on the page and also this wordless space inside the writer. The poet trusts that the words she wants will come in time. When they do, she will recognize them because they will feel right—an internal click of rightness will occur in her body. If they don’t come, she might choose any old word or a word that is just close enough to keep her going, or she just might wait, preferring to keep the poem unfinished, preferring to trust this pregnant pause.
But whether the poet moves forward or stays put, the point here is to think about what this experience implies about human beings and the creation of meaning. If it is accurate to say that new ideas, or fresh ways of speaking, thinking, and writing will come to us if we pause and wait patiently, if we contact a ….. and allow it to open, it becomes possible to conclude that one crucial and often ignored source of new thinking is at this edge; that insights, creative answers, new steps—in living and thinking—lie implicitly within the …...
Felt Sense and the Body
This process of creating new sense, of saying something fresh from all that came before and from all that lives within us, is a bodily one. In other words, knowing is embodied. But bodies—or human beings—do not exist in isolation. We are enmeshed in situations, and both situations and human beings are shot through with language. It is from within this interconnectedness of bodies, language, and situations that a theory of embodied knowing is derived.
According to Gendlin, we know our situations by living in them. In other words, it is our bodies that inform us of what is going on at any given moment. Gendlin writes, “The body implies and comes up with our words and actions. It knows (senses, feels, is . . . ) the language and the situation. All day long, it is as a body sense that we know what we do and say, what situation we say it in, and how it makes sense” (1991, 104). In other words, it is not just with our minds or our eyes that we perceive phenomena, but with our living, sensate bodies.
For centuries, however, we have been taught to think otherwise. We have been living within and accepting the false separation between body and mind and between thoughts and feelings. Gendlin explains that our erroneous thinking is deeply rooted in our historical past as a result of false binary thinking:
[An] ancient error was to divide between body and feeling, then again between feeling and thinking. Conceptual forms were held to be the forms of reality, while the body ended up at the bottom, as if it were the least human part of us, as if it could be safely given over to the mechanists without our thereby losing feeling and thought. It isn’t so. (1991, 104)
Gendlin argues that our bodies are not merely machines. He wants rather to return the body to its rightful position in the realm of knowing. He wants to show us how the body functions all the time in situations and how it is out of or from our bodily sense of situations that we speak and create. And he wants to argue that it takes all three operating together—body, language, and situation—for human beings to create meaning.
“Body, situation, and language,” he writes, “imply each other, but that means that we cannot do with less than all three. The functions of the human body are not reducible to those of a separated language and a separated situation” (1991, 104).
One way to concretize this idea is to ask how we know what to do in any given situation. Take formal learning in a classroom, for example. Given the complexity of what is happening all the time, how do we know what to say next, what to comment on, what to ignore? If we were asked to explain why we took a particular action, we could very likely provide a reason or two, but it is not likely that we could explain everything. Nonetheless, in living in any situation, we basically know how to proceed, how to make sense, and how to move forward without stopping to think about it.
We know because we have what Gendlin calls “a bodily orienting sense” that “knows” the whole of each situation and, in fact, far more aspects of it than we can ever think or say (2003, vii). It is this bodily orienting sense that we draw on to guide us as we live our lives, usually without realizing it. But once we recognize the way the body functions within situations and with language, we can turn to it often as a source of new knowledge.
Said simply, we are embodied beings; the body is central to knowing and speaking; while our common language creates separations among body, language, and situation, in actuality they function together and always imply next steps, new possibilities in speaking and knowing. In a philosophy of embodied knowing, body, language, and situation are inextricably linked; they are all of a piece. Experientially we only come to know and articulate our understanding of anyone through our being fully in each of them together (Gendlin 1992, 201-3).
What Happens at the Edge? Gendlin’s “Carrying Forward”
When we contact or enter a ….. ,we enter what Gendlin calls “the murky zone.” We often experience being in this zone as uncomfortable. We are in a place of not knowing, a place of confusion or emptiness which can feel overwhelming. At such times, it can seem as if we’ve pushed ourselves to the limit, and, apprehensive or anxious, perplexed or puzzled, we think we have nowhere else to go. We think we’ve already said it all or that we’re only repeating what others have said. We don’t believe there is some fresh new way here.
But wait … there it is…. It’s just there on the edge of what we know … if we pause right there, call up that wordless space, if we stay there and ask, “What’s this?” Or, “What does this want or need?” If we pay attention to the implicit realm … to what is not yet in words … a palpable presence can be felt and from this presence, language, more often than not, will come.
Gendlin calls this process a “carrying forward.” What was at first a blank or a space, a pure ….. , hanging there, akin to the poet’s hand rotating in the air, has now been spoken or written. What was implicit or implied in the ….. has now been articulated. This articulation now becomes a part of the knower. And it allows the knower or speaker or writer to live further into the situation in which he or she is enmeshed, to think further into and with whatever idea has come (1997, 22).
Let’s take learning, again, as an illustration of how carrying forward can happen in action. Let’s assume you are leading a class or a workshop. After a few comments on an issue everyone has been studying, the class falls silent. You aren’t sure why. But something has gone wrong. How do you know this? In part, you see it, but if you look, you may also have a felt sense or a ….. of this situation. In most instances, you might ignore the discomfort and just ask a new question or switch topics or move on to another activity. But once you are aware of bodily knowing as a guide, you can also carry the situation forward in a different and often more productive way. You can let your ….. of the situation inform you by turning toward it. You can pause, wait patiently, let your felt sense deepen and ask yourself, “What is going on here? What needs to be said?” If you do, what comes next will come to you from this wider realm of knowing, knowing that is in your body and informed by the situation you are experiencing; what you next say may very likely speak to the dilemma in a way that moves it along.
At this point, it is useful to notice that what comes to us to speak (as in this hypothetical situation) or what we end up writing after we pause, locate, and listen to a ….. may be a new insight or it may be an ordinary idea, expressed freshly; it may be a simple statement of fact or a strong expression of feeling; or it may express an idea that has been lurking around the edges of our consciousness and has finally come to the fore. But whatever it is, if it comes from a felt sense, it is always precise. It is this specific ….. , not another one. The moment of speaking or writing the ….. is a moment when we are speaking uniquely from within ourselves and as such we often experience this moment as enlivening and exciting.
But we also often discover that however accurate our phrasing at the moment, it does not exhaust what is alive and implicit as we move forward. According to Gendlin, this is so because our bodily sense of each situation opens onto a vast implicit knowledge and no one statement or set of statements will ever exhaust what we know.
Gendlin is talking about the multidimensional, fine-grained complexity of situations—or what he calls the implicit intricacy: the idea that any situation can be carried further, explicated, understood, thought freshly and newly, by speaking it or thinking it from within the body. And while we can always differentiate or lift out aspects of this knowing, we also always know more than we can say at any given moment. This is the inexhaustible richness that comes to us through bodily knowing (Gendlin 1997,21).
Carrying forward, giving voice to what we sense in the ….. , happens because we are human. It is one primary way that our consciousness works, that the creative process unfolds. Gendlin’s focusing questions and my Guidelines for Composing both work because they direct us to this edge where meaning can be made, where ideas unfold naturally, to what is inexhaustibly human in us: our capacity to take whatever is there and to think and develop it further.
Given this understanding, we can now make the following statements:
- We can always think beyond what we currently know by contacting a ….. .
- A ….. opens onto all that is implicit in the situation and in the knower.
- Having contacted a ….. , we need to wait patiently, ask an open question, and notice the palpable presence that begins to make itself felt.
- It is from this place or presence that fresh language will come.
- While a specific ….. can only be articulated in precise terms, there is always more in this realm than we can say.
- We don’t know what comprises this more until we pause, ask, and look again.
- Any idea or ….. can, therefore, be taken, articulated, further.
- In the implicit realm, meaning continually evolves and changes.
- There is, then, never a last word in any conversation or in any situation.
These assertions, experientially verifiable, have profound implications for our understanding of the ways we think, know, and create new thinking.
Beyond the Postmodern Impasse
Postmodern theory foregrounds language, making it the center of everything human. This is an invaluable insight and along with advancing notions of play and humor, postmodern theory offers us rich, new ways of thinking and seeing. But postmodernism has also led to several impasses.
First, if we accept that everything exists within the word, then human beings cannot stand outside of language. Instead, we must regard ourselves as signs in a very complex symbol system. Rather than our speaking language, postmodern theorists tell us that language speaks us, or in other words, that we are constructed by language, history, and culture. Language, in this view, becomes a trap in which we are caught. We are led to conclude that everything has already been said. There is nothing new.
Gendlin’s philosophy of experiencing refutes the view that nothing new ever emerges by showing the connection between language and the body. According to Gendlin, every time we engage a ….. , every time we go to the edge and pause, we are engaging the not yet said. We are, in other words, engaging what surrounds language and ideas but is not yet in words. At this edge, new words, new phrasing, new insignts can and do come. When they do, we come upon newness: what we may have never thought or said or written before in quite this way. Sometimes it is what no one has ever thought, spoken or written before.
This is no small feat. Most of us prefer not to go to this edge; many are not even aware that this edge exists. In fact, most people live, speak, and write within the world of the already said, within the world of stock phrases and common public knowledge. As a result, our everyday experience, from listening to the news to making small talk, confirm that we tend to think in set ways. But once we are taught how to engage a ….. , once we learn how to go to this edge and wait, how to allow words to come from the implicit, we will find freshly emerging possibilities; we will find the newness that postmodern theory denies.
This insight does not deny that human beings are written by culture. It argues that this is not all we are. It argues that we are also creators of culture, The moment of expressing a felt sense from the ….. is an instance of our speaking uniquely from within ourselves, giving voice to what has been inchoate; and it is this capacity to generate something fresh and new that enables us to take creative leaps, to live further and more expressively into our lives.
Second, deconstructionists have shown that any statement can be refuted by another statement, that any claim can be refuted by a counterclaim, that one idea can cancel another. This insight leads to two different impasses: one is relativism, which asserts that if language statements can always be erased by opposite statements, then there is no truth; the other is nihilism, which asserts that since everything is cancelable, nothing ultimately matters.
A theory of embodied knowing speaks back to both of these claims. In our experiencing, in accessing and speaking from a ….. , we recognize a kind of bodily rightness; we know when our words originate from felt sense—and when they don’t. So while there may never be one ultimate truth that all agree on, there is a truth to our experiencing. There is an aptness or a rightness to the language we use to express ourselves. This is, in fact, what genuine expression really means. When we stand in our full experiencing, we know when our formulations carry us forward and when they do not. And far from not mattering, this “getting it said right” matters greatly. It is this saying and carrying forward that allows for new steps; it is this saying and carrying forward that actually builds the world.
Finally, a theory of embodied knowing is also an answer to the fundamentalist view that wants to end the conversation of ideas by claiming irrefutable answers. In a philosophy of experiencing based on felt sense, it becomes clear that any idea can always be taken further; there is never a final answer. If we follow how language operates within us, we discover that any experience can open onto a range of perceptions, ideas, and insights, and that such opening is endless. In other words, language will never exhaust or fully say what it is that is going on. And while this view often leads us to conclude that no one view is ever the full story, it is more accurate to say that the idea of there being a full story—a final telling, a complete version of reality—is itself misguided, even wrong. In a philosophy of embodied knowing, there is no such thing as a full story; instead there is the endless possibility of never-ending stories.
Why Any of This Matters at All
When we start with language, as postmodernists do, we end up in language debates: “There is or there is not only language.” “There is a ground on which to stand or there isn’t.” But in a theory of embodied knowing, we start—and end—with the human being and his or her experience of language and situations.
What is missing, omitted, overlooked, or forgotten in the postmodern position is the human being, the person—the one who knows and creates, the one in whom language resides. What Gendlin’s felt sense offers is an experiential way of understanding and exploring how we, as humans, operate with and in language. It addresses the postmodern dilemma by shifting the relations: In the center is not language alone but the languaging human subject in interaction with others and with culture and history. Central to embodied knowing is the human being who speaks back to and can extend the history and culture in which he or she is embedded, using the given language to make newness.
A theory of embodied knowing claims that to create something new, to say something fresh, to think new thoughts, we cannot overlook the body or pretend it is not there: we have to begin with it. Ultimately, a theory of embodied knowing begins with felt sense and draws from it a theory of experiencing … one that says: All knowing is embodied in persons; no knowing happens outside of that; without the body, we know nothing.
This theory has far-reaching implications. It suggests that creativity is inherently human and is, therefore, a human right. It returns the act of saying something new and fresh to all who speak and think. This is perhaps its most enfranchising element. It empowers individuals to speak from within their own experiencing and grants that such speaking has, at its core, a value and a role in shaping what is to come—both in the speaker’s life and in the culture in which he or she lives. A human attribute, felt sense anchors a theory of embodied knowing in people, assuring that human beings in interaction with everything around them remain at the center of the meaning-making enterprise.
The Guidelines for Composing