Stepping into the Unfoldment of our Being: How Focusing Helps Us Change


I would love to live life like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.
John O’Donohue

Without (or despite) deciding in which direction one wants to change, the body has its own direction of health.
And not only the direction, but very exactly the next step, is prefigured in the bodily concreteness of any trouble.
Eugene Gendlin, PhD

This summer I had the most awe-inspiring backpacking trip in Mt. St Helens.  The only other time I had been there was back in 1983, a few years after it erupted. Visiting 35 years later I was stunned by the beauty, the crater now filled with new lush green vegetation growing tall out of the ashes.  Later, at the visitors center I watched videos of the volcanoes’ eruption showing destruction for miles around.  Seeing a huge chunk of the mountain slide away in the avalanche carrying with it large trees, earth, and wildlife into overflowing rivers was startling. I heard first account tales of people who were there at the time, describing the enormity of what they observed and the travails of what they experienced.

As I hiked through old lava canyons it came to me that the earth was not created at one time long ago, but that it is in a continual and current process of creation.  Melting glaciers, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, erupting volcanoes, the Earth’s seas and landscapes are changing, transforming, shifting as she lives through time.  Likewise, our own earthly bodies are in a continual process of creation.  At times the changes that are inherent in growth can feel like an avalanche when strong emotions move through us; anger, grief, fear.  Other times we can feel them as smaller shifts that occur day by day.

In the world of Focusing we use this term “shift” often to describe the changes that are felt within the inner landscape of the body during a Focusing session- these moments during the process when we are sitting with a problem, a feeling, a thought and we experience change in a bodily felt way.  It may be felt as a relief that comes, more fresh air, more breathing room, the body unwinding.  There may be no words for it at all, but it just feels different inside.  These shifts are the body providing “exactly the next step” for fresh new growth and allowing us, if we are present some of the time, to be like the river, “carried by the surprise of its own unfolding”.

The Body’s Inherent Wisdom

We can know more about how we change by recognizing that the body is one with its environment, it’s a continual interaction occurring.  From when we are in mother’s oceanic womb feeling her warmth and rhythmic heartbeat, as we grow older listening to the sound of our parent’s voices and mimicking their messages, we are in communion with our environment.  When I hear a piece of music the vibration of the sound passes through the skin envelope of my body and touches me deeply, moving me. Nature, people, animals and more are all interacting with me and are more than just objects outside of myself that I am perceiving.  There is a process of interacting and changing.  We are affected by our environment and we in turn affect the environment in which we are embodied.  When this process gets stopped, when we experience a traumatic event or feel hurt, betrayed or shamed for example, and our environment doesn’t provide us what we need to move forward from the experience, the body will continue to create this stopped process in our behaviors, relationships, family, work, etc. until an opening occurs and allows what is blocked to be carried forward.  Focusing provides such an opening.

“Some people think that since they were not loved as children, they cannot love, cannot recognize love, and cannot expect to find it inside themselves. This is not so. Every living creature has the conditions for its living built into it, organically.  Therefore, no unloved child ever fails to wonder why it is not loved (long before it can talk), since its body knows that it should be.” (Gendlin)

The body inherently knows its way forward.  Focusing is a process of bringing our awareness inward and interacting with a felt sense that comes and enables the process to move forward into its next step. The felt sense is not there waiting for us, it forms as we sense into its home, the body space. This all happens freshly in the present, yet also includes the past and the future, has embodied meaning, and is always part of a natural, regenerating, dynamic process.

When we come to an unfamiliar place while Focusing, when we don’t yet have the words to describe what is being felt, when it feels unfamiliar, this is when the process is moving.  If we let the body guide us, the process will continue to live itself forward in our lives.

The Bodily Felt Intricate Web

What is occurring in these steps of the living forward process?  What happens that allows the body to feel different? The problem or situation doesn’t necessarily change (although our perception of the problem might).  What occurred in the past doesn’t change (although how it lives into the present does).  So how is it that we feel changed, lighter, have a different kind of relationship to the situation we started with and likely other situations and behave differently moving forward?

 “The bodily felt complexity moves of its own accord; it makes its own steps, and thereby it changes. These steps of change are not just any change, but exactly the change that the whole organism as an adaptive system needs” (Gendlin).

As I am writing this I am aware of a tension that’s in the background.  It feels new, like it’s not normally part of my experience.  But of course!  I start a new job tomorrow.  That’s what it’s about.  I could say I feel anxious and leave it at that.  It’s not uncommon for someone to feel anxious about starting a new job.  But if I spend time with this feeling, a rich bodily felt intricacy underneath the words exists and is unique to me at this moment in time.

Underneath the “I am anxious.” I sense into what more is there…  It’s a web of interconnecting feelings, thoughts, memories, each thread connecting to another and another, interlacing, overlapping, past and present. Ah, there is a kind of worried…maybe even an afraid feeling…a wanting to do a good job…ahh, there is a wanting to be respected. Inside my chest a dropping, sinking sensation comes. I pause here…a past memory comes of beginning something new and not knowing how to do it.  And what came after… a feeling of not being respected and… yes, there is what came after… a feeling like defeat now comes.  I can feel it in my hunched shoulders as I sit here, my chin drops, a heaviness in my belly sinks me down.  Mmm, this is at the crux of this tension, anxious feeling in my belly-this defeated way this whole thing sits in my body.

Just with this acknowledgement I feel the threads loosen. Yes.  I feel this “yes” as a confirmation from my body letting me know that this is how it is…  And I feel a relief…  It feels good!  Defeated doesn’t necessarily feel good but the “yes” feels good. I feel more spacious, I breath more deeply.  On the outside one might see a relaxation of my face, a change in my posture, I’m breathing differently, color comes to my skin. This is the body making its own step evidenced by the sense of lightness I feel and the spaciousness that has opened inside, a difference from what I was feeling before. I sit with this longer, enjoying what I am feeling, just staying with it.  I could stop here.

“Every bad feeling is potential energy toward a more right way of being if you give it space to move toward its rightness.” (Gendlin)

But something more is coming forward…it’s coming from my belly… I wait…it’s a sense of speed, or, lifting up… momentum. Yes, it’s momentum.  It’s like being on a bike speeding down the lowest point of a steep hill as velocity carries me and the bicycle up the beginning of the next hill.  I feel that inside…those seconds between hills… now my spine is straightening, my shoulders roll back.  I’m being carried upward… no effort on my part, such ease.

I allow this shift to be with me fully, feeling the movement of change, pausing to allow the energy of “momentum” circulate within me.  This is another step carrying me forward.  The bodily way of holding “the defeated feeling” has shifted in a physical way and created an opening for a new step in the unfolding process.  I could spend time with this and see where the sense of “momentum, ease, effortless, being carried” take me.  But it feels right to stop here for now and continue writing.

Carrying Forward

The body is change.  It is a living, breathing, fluid organism that inhales and exhales, gets hungry and eats, feels stiff and stretches, becomes cold and seeks warmth.  It feels the pain of being wounded and is the guide who shepherds us to healing. It is in an ongoing interaction with its environment that includes air and food, people, culture, time, the universe and more.  It contains our life force that is always pushing toward growth.   When what we are experiencing seems bad or difficult, when we feel stuck, we can be sure that within these hardened places is the opening and inherent forward movement that will carry us to what is right and true for the exquisite unfoldment of our inner being.


  1. Gendlin, E.T. (1978). The body’s releasing steps in experiential process. In J.L. Fosshage & P. Olsen (Eds.), Implications for psychotherapy, pp. 323-349. New York: Human Sciences Press.

  1. Gendlin, E.T. (2012). In Z. Radman (Ed.), Knowing without thinking: The theory of the background in philosophy of mind, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2012)

  1. Gendlin, E.T. (2013). Arakawa and Gins: the Organism-Person-Environment Process. In Keane, J. and Glazebrook, T (Eds.) Arakawa and Gins Special Issue of Inflexions Journal, No. 6: 225-236

Category Dawn Flynn, Focusing

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