Things I learned about Focusing today

One project I’m playing with right now is trying to explore the origins of promising theories and techniques in areas nearby to rationality, and/or “near misses” in those domains. I’m particularly excited to dive into looking more closely at the work of Eugene Gendlin, who developed Focusing. If you’re not yet familiar with Focusing, I highly recommend the 90 minute audiobook, narrated by Gendlin, as an effective & efficient introduction for most people.

Some questions I’m hoping to answer in this inquiry include

  • How solid is the evidentiary backing for Focusing?
  • How was it developed? Where did Gendlin get these ideas from?
  • Is there anything special about Gendlin or his social surround that seem like “risk factors” for good ideas?

Today I did a sort of overview, basically trying to put together a suggested reading list for myself that might be able to answer some of these questions. This involved googling his name, skimming most of the first page of hits, and in particular looking closely at Gendlin’s wikipedia page, the Focusing wikipedia page, and the Intro page to the Gendlin Online Library (hosted by the Focusing Institute). I learned a few things that seem fairly tantalizing and/or promising, as clues, and which I hadn’t learned from the previous reading I’d done on Focusing. Seems like others might find them to, so I’ll try and briefly summarize them here.

Gendlin’s background is originally in philosophy, not psychotherapy, and is

…concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. (Source)

His philosophical work is interested in how concepts are created, changed, and understood, including in the natural sciences (which is promising since another of my potential projects is trying to understand the thought processes of excellent scientists, and how to replicate them)

For example, when a pen falls off a desk, that seems to be proof that gravity exists, because gravity made it fall. But what is “gravity”? In 1500, “gravity” was the pen’s desire to go to the center of the earth; in 1700 “gravity” was a force that acted at a distance according to mathematical laws; in the 1900s “gravity” was an effect of curved space-time; and today physicists theorize that “gravity” may be a force carried by subatomic particles called “gravitons”. Gendlin views “gravity” as a concept and points out that concepts can’t make anything fall. Instead of saying that gravity causes things to fall, it would be more accurate to say that things falling cause [the different concepts of] gravity. Interaction with the world is prior to concepts about the world. (Source)

He seems to be quite directly interested in questions of how people working in analytical/quantitative fields can reason about the subject of their work, and the critical role that non-verbal/intuitive processes play in it:

…and it is possible for Einstein to say that he had a “feel” for his theory years before he could formulate it. (Source)

 (That turned out to be a fairly substantial sub-thread in the curriculum of last year’s MSFP – we talked a lot about how mathemeticians work with complex abstractions, and used Focusing-style processes to try and improve mathematical work)

The concept of a “felt sense” (identifying & working with felt senses is at the core of Focusing) looks like it originated in his philosophical work, & was then later applied to analyzing the efficacy of psychotherapy

Focusing emerged from Gendlin’s collaboration with psychologist Carl Rogers. Gendlin developed a way of measuring the extent to which an individual refers to a felt sense; and he found in a series of studies that therapy clients who have positive outcomes do much more of this. He then developed a way to teach people to refer to their felt sense, so clients could do better in therapy. (Source)


At the University of Chicago, beginning in 1953, Eugene Gendlin did 15 years of research analyzing what made psychotherapy either successful or unsuccessful. (Source)

implies that he may have started work on the applications to psychotherapy quite early (he received his PhD in 1958).

He’s also done work on the question of how to make implicit/non-verbal knowledge into verbal models, which is a) highly relevant to CFAR’s Inner Simulator material, b) something I identified ~8 months ago as one of my most important skill gaps at the last Hamming Workshop, and c) a skill I’ve since gotten several compliments on, which implies I’ve made some progress on creating a methodology for it.

Thinking at the Edge (TAE), a practice initially developed by Mary N. Hendricks on the basis of Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit, is a way of developing one’s implicit knowing into an articulated theory. For example, a professional might have had an inchoate felt sense for a problem for many years. Using TAE, it is possible to develop concepts that explicate the felt sense very precisely so that what was implicit knowledge can generate an explicit theory that can contribute to the field.

I basically hadn’t heard of TAE at all before today, and I’m pretty excited to read about it more. I’ll probably try and write something about what I think the process I’m using now is first, though.


Gendlin stated: “I did not invent Focusing. I simply made some steps which help people to find Focusing.” (Source)

I think I’d seen that quote before today, and it isn’t much evidence of anything necessarily, but I like the mindset that I imagine it implies

Also, for whatever it’s worth, the Wikipedia page on Focusing’s “see also” links are:

  • Emotionally focused therapy
  • Internal Family Systems Model
  • Intuition (mind)
  • Method of Levels
  • Nonviolent Communication

Which I thought was intriguing.

Quick googling of “criticism of Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing” didn’t turn up much that looked interesting; I’m unsure how much to update on there not being a visible, vocal debate about its usefulness/efficacy. My next step on that front is to try and read this page, and/or see how capable I am of determining for myself how good the studies he did are.

In case anyone’s interested, here’s the list of things I’m considering reading for this project, at the moment:

One thought on “Things I learned about Focusing today

  1. This looks really intriguing. Makes me upgrade the centrality of Gendlin to what we’re trying to do. I’m keen to study their TAE but am glad you’re planning to try to articulate your own theory first.

    I enjoyed googling your keywords, also; perceptual control theory (linked to from the method of levels) seems like it might somehow yield

    I don’t yet understand what Gendlin means by “intricacy”. I’ll probably read more about this.

    Blog posts on this model seem likely to be helpful to me, for whatever that’s worth.

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