by Rob Foxcroft
written November 5, 2002
A group of Focusers met recently for a week on the lovely Scottish isle of Cumbrae, to explore Gene Gendlin’s book Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (1962), as part of the ongoing project, Focusing and the Power of Philosophy. Many people have asked for a simple account of our findings, so here, with some trepidation, I shall try to say just a few words in my own way without falling headlong into caricature. The book itself is hard to understand. I won’t risk claiming that this is what it says. Only that this is some of what I found there.
1. Two Aspects
Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning has two aspects: a philosophical aspect and a psychological aspect. The two are kept carefully separate. But they feed each other. The philosophical questions the psychological, continuously undercutting its habits and assumptions. The psychological applies the philosophical, taking it out into the world to see what difference it makes.
Looking at the relation between our experiencing and our symbols psychologically, Gene Gendlin opens up a new range of methods for inner process, many of which were later integrated into Focusing and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. These methods have to do with being aware of process. More precisely, they are concerned with being aware of experiencing, of felt meaning: the “associated parallel side” which invariably accompanies cognition. And these methods make use of the many different ways (not just one), in which felt meaning comes into relationship with cognition.
In Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Gene Gendlin is also looking at the same relation (between felt meaning and cognition) philosophically. In doing this, he opens up a radical vision of what it means to be a human being in the world. To take just one example: this philosophy tends to further undermine the old but still prevalent idea that a person comes into the world as an empty slate, on which the culture must write — that a person is (in any primary sense) the product of social conditioning. It substitutes for this passive machine-like being an active living person, a living body, who from the first and always is vigorously entering into situations and shaping them creatively and uniquely.
Gene Gendlin is of course not the only one to abandon the “empty slate” theory. No present-day Darwinian (and no psychologist) believes it at all. The exact degree of interplay is very difficult to establish — and perhaps is not quite knowable.
2. The role of felt meaning
It all starts with a question: “How does felt meaning function in cognition?” And a statement: “Meaning is experienced” (p44).
The question already implies two relationships:
(1) between what-is-felt and what-it-is-about; and
(2) between what-is-felt and words-actions-images.
Let’s call what-is-felt “this”; what-it-is about “of”; and words- actions-images “such”. Now we can make a simple diagram:
Diagram 1: NB I plan to paste in the diagram!
One of Gene Gendlin’s main conclusions reads like this (p221):
“From this study it follows
(a) that intellect is not in direct contact with perception or reality, however defined;
(b) that intellect always depends upon the functions of felt meaning.”
Using our diagram, we would say it this way: you can only get from of to such in either direction via this.
• Every perception or sense-impression (“of”) involves felt meaning (“this”).
• Every thought or image or cognition (“such”) involves felt meaning (“this”).
• There is no escape from felt meaning (“this”).
• There is no “path” from sense-impressions (“of”) to thoughts (“such”: i e words-and-images) that does not “pass through” or “travel via” felt meaning (“this”) (see Diagram 2).
Felt meaning is always present, however tenuously. It may be very tenuous indeed. But you can never totally bypass it. We tend, however, to skip from “of” to “such”.
We tend to pass over felt meaning (the “this”, the body-sense, the experiencing….) without noticing or taking account of it.
Yet we cannot express fully or freshly or creatively what any situation is about, without being present to the felt sense (to the thread of experiencing, to what is felt, to our bodily being-in-the- world…).
We cannot really live here (in the “of”), unless in forming words-and- images (the “such”) we are attentive to felt meaning (the “this”). Instead, as we skip lightly and mechanically from “of” to “such”, we miss out the actual living! – since by virtue of skipping we are left merely bringing with us stale concepts, stale ways of being in the world. We are relating to now as if it is merely a repetition of then, and so our relating is necessarily thin, uncreative, and less than fully human.
When we try to eliminate the felt dimension, we quickly find ourselves in a famine of meaning. Life becomes a jigsaw puzzle; or like making moves in somebody else’s game. Living is reduced to a game of chess.
In one sense, what is called “felt meaning” need not be in the body as such, since people paralysed from the neck down can still perceive, relate to the world, create, and sense inwardly. Even when the “usual” body is paralysed, a person can still sense the body from inside (“body” in the special sense in which the word is used here).
3. Experiencing is ubiquitous
I’m going to risk saying that it is impossible to experience life without felt meaning. Felt meaning is always with us, however tenuously.
At the Science Centre in Glasgow there is a device which lifts a rubber arm like a windscreen wiper out of a trough full of soap, so that it draws up a vast flat soap bubble like an incredibly thin curtain. We often speak of the felt sense as if it is either there or not there. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning is saying something a little different, however: wherever there is meaning, there are:
(1) context (“of”),
(2) symbols (“such”), and
(3) felt meaning (“this”).
“Felt” meaning is ubiquitous, even when it is as thin as the soap bubble curtain.
Diagram 2 (Diagram 1 expanded): NB I plan to paste in the diagram!
Diagram 2 NB I plan to paste in the diagram!
A note about the word “felt”:
Notice that very often when Gene Gendlin (and this article) uses the word “felt” it doesn’t mean that you can always feel the “felt” as distinct bodily sensation. I’m sorry about this, but it doesn’t! It means that there is always “the having of a meaning”. You may or may not in practice be able to get a distinct bodily felt sense. Many meanings, says my friend Carol, are not so much “felt” as “under-felt” (like a carpet has an underfelt!). A person is not a computer. A computer does not “have” meanings, since there is no person there to have them. So another way to say this is: there is always a person there, who “has” the meaning (felt or under-felt).
But still there always is that having-of-a-meaning.
Question: Why is this important?
Answer: Because it means that a kind of sub- or proto-Focusing is absolutely ubiquitous in our lives. It wipes out any possibility of treating Focusing as
(a) just another tool or technique, useful sometimes, like other tools; or as
(b) an empirically observed intermittent behaviour pattern (“stopping and sensing”), such that later studies might cast doubt on earlier observations or their significance.
Gene Gendlin shows that our being-in-the-world centrally and crucially is felt meaning. Focusing, as a social form, simply enables us to enter in far more deeply to our inevitable existential situation.
The fundamental axiom: “Meaning is experienced,” is to be taken in the strongest possible sense.