By: Maria Beider
Have you ever had a hunch or an intuition about something that you just cannot put into words? I recently had an experience like this. I was going about my day feeling slightly agitated and had butterflies in my stomach. I was feeling increasingly unsettled but I could not put my finger on why exactly. Having read a lot about the felt sense recently, I decided I needed to put it into practice. I sat down, closed my eyes, and started to notice what was going on inside my body, not in my head, but rather beyond thought. I noticed a sensation in the pit of my stomach. My body was not feeling safe or calm. I was yearning for a relaxed feeling of alignment, but it was evading me. What was this about? I thought about the different events going on in my life at present. Family life, work commitments, plans… then it dawned on me. I could not make the upcoming trip to Israel that I had planned for my friend’s simchah. The timing was crazy. I would be flying home the day before Rosh Hashanah and although I had been super organised, the idea of taking two connecting flights was making me nervous. What if I missed one?
Rationally I knew I would probably make it home in time, but I also knew that the anxiety of making sure everything went according to plan would ruin my whole trip and gnaw at my peace of mind. My body was telling me in no uncertain terms that this felt wrong. As soon as I had made the decision to cancel my trip – my good friend was very understanding – I felt anchored in safety once more and my whole nervous system calmed down.
How often are we able to listen to the messages in our body? This was probably a first for me and it was revelatory. But what exactly is this felt sense that I am talking about, I hear you ask? For a start, it exists in the right hemisphere of the brain. It is a non-verbal experience and cannot be expressed in language. One has to go inside oneself, stop talking (which is a left-brain activity) and start slowing down and noticing. When we allow ourselves to listen to our bodies, amazing things start to happen. There are break throughs.
Eugene Gendlin, an American philosopher and psychologist, calls this process focusing ‘in which you make contact with a special kind of internal bodily awareness’. He calls this the felt sense. He explains that it is not an emotion but the body’s sense of a particular problem. It is not just there but rather something that one needs to tune into. At first it may be fuzzy or unclear but with focus it can bring meaning and change. Gendlin claims that ‘when you learn how to focus you will discover that the body… provides its own answers to many of your problems’. This is basically what happened in my story above.
If you are confused, so was I after reading his book. It takes time to understand it. Gendlin offers another metaphor to understanding the felt sense. When a golfer tees off, they have an overall bodily sense of how to swing, aim, and apply a whole set of coordinated movements. The golfer is not thinking about every different muscle group and how they must work together and exert just the right amount of pull, the location he is aiming for, and the surrounding environment, rather the body feels all this as a whole. ‘The golfer cannot describe the feeling of being ready to swing, they just know when it comes…They don’t ask the questions in their head, they feel for the answer in their body.’
Another example (for the non-golfers amongst us) which may be more familiar is as follows. When a person is about to share something and then momentarily loses the idea and forgets what they were going to say, they go fishing inside themself and it is on the tip of their tongue. It does not come in words because it never was a verbalised idea. However, when they sit quietly for a moment it often comes back to them.
Psychologist Peter Levine describes the felt sense as the experience of viewing a beautiful image such as a landscape on the screen of a television. One does not focus on the vast array of digitised dots called pixels, but rather one gets the whole sense of the scene on the screen. Studies have shown that therapies that employ the felt sense are more effective than those that do not. Levine, who pioneered somatic-based interventions for healing trauma, posits that it makes people feel more at home in their bodies, more grounded, more at peace, more connected to themself. It lends an overall sense of wellbeing.
Whilst we often believe our brain is in charge, the way we navigate the world actually stems from our bodies, more precisely from our autonomic nervous system, which is made up of the parasympathetic (the brake) and the sympathetic (the gas). Deb Dana in her book, Anchored, uses the lens of the Autonomic Nervous system to guide us from the unsafe, unanchored place of danger to our way home, using our biology. She describes three different autonomic pathways of the “Vagus nerve” which can help us to understand ourselves better.
The Vagus nerve (from the Latin, wandering) meanders through the body from the base of the skull, down the side of the neck, through the larynx, jaw, all the way through to the diaphragm, lungs, heart, abdomen, and digestive system. Energy flows up and down this pathway with 80% of the information going from the body to the brain and only 20% flowing from the brain to the body! The most advanced and sophisticated pathway is the parasympathetic system which allows us to feel safe and connected whether to a friend, a pet, G-d, or nature. This is known as the ventral vagal branch of the Vagus nerve whose realm exists in the diaphragm upwards. Dana calls it ‘our pathway to home and safety’, in which our heart is regulated and our breathing is full. The sympathetic nervous system, filled with energy, sends us into flight/fight mode ready for action.
The dorsal vagus, which operates below the diaphragm, works to regulate digestion. In survival mode, this branch takes us out of connection, into collapse and immobilisation.
In my therapeutic work, I often ask my client to focus on her body and to notice her bodily sensations as she unpacks her story, as a way of understanding what she is experiencing. Does she feel calm, safe, and anchored in the ventral vagus, or is she being pulled away to a place of fear and anxiety into the sympathetic nervous system? Where does she feel the tension? Is it in her throat, her chest, or her stomach? It is all about listening in.
So how does tuning in to my body help me?
Once we recognise and are familiar with the bodies’ cues for safety or threat, we can pre-empt anxiety before we get swept away into the sympathetic nervous system. Then we can develop a whole repertoire of resources, learning to sooth ourselves and create a felt sense, which feels safe.
One such technique is grounding, literally bringing us back down to earth, calming our nervous system, when we feel overcharged.
Grounding techniques, such as mindfully focusing on the sound of the sea, a dazzling sunset, a hot shower, a cup of tea or the smell of lavender, rely on our five senses in order to bring us back into connection with our body.
Another technique which has proven useful for some of my clients is called ‘anchoring’. This is when we orient ourselves to the room if we are feeling unsafe and find something calming to rest our eyes on, such as a plant or a picture. It becomes an anchor to harness us in our ventral-vagus if we are feeling overwhelmed.
The ability to go inside when we are feeling threatened, using our felt sense, is a skill that needs honing. Once we can tune into our bodies and understand what it needs, we can then put in place useful techniques (such as the ones described above) that help us navigate back to a calm nervous system.
Eckhart Tolle writes, “Have a good look inside yourself…If you get the inside right the outside will fall into place.” So instead of looking to the external world for advice and validation, why not try tapping into the internal wisdom inside? You may be surprised and grateful for the answers your body provides.
- Based on the research of Porges and his Polyvagal theory ↑