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Gendlin, E.T. (1980). Imagery is more powerful with focusing: Theory and practice. In J.E. Shorr, G.E. Sobel, P. Robin, J.A. Connella (Eds.), Imagery. Its many dimensions and applications, pp. 65-73. New York/London: Plenum Press. From

Imagery is More Powerful with Focusing: Theory and Practice

Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D.
University of Chicago


Let me begin with an extremely brief and summarized theoretical statement. How might we think about "the unconscious," that rich source of imagery and of course, of other processes? I would like to say simply: the unconscious is the body. Of course, we need to devise entirely new kinds of concepts about the body, for this and many other reasons. The body is no mere physiological machine. The body is inherently interactional. Let me say more clearly what this means:

We guide our behavior most of the time by a bodily sense of each situation. We do not speak to ourselves about each facet of a situation—if we did, we could not handle any situation at all. To do any simple thing, we must "know" what led up to the situation, what we are trying to bring about or avoid, who the people present are, how to walk, sit, speak, and countless other facets. We can think only very few of these explicitly. All the rest are "known" in a rich, holistic feeling of the whole context, which we can have only in a bodily concrete way.

What we mean by "body" must therefore be reformulated. We do not mean only what physiology formulates. The living body is a complex interactional system. We live with our bodies, and we feel in our bodies what goes on around us, as well as what we are about to say and do (Gendlin, 1962).

There is a way of feeling and having this whole complexity. This way is called "focusing," and I will say more about it later.

First, we must rethink our concepts of the body. From the very start it must he interactional——a body-environment unit. I have had to build concepts anew from this beginning (Gendlin, 1979). Every living event is a body-environment unit. "Environment" includes many kinds of objectifications: food and air, other people, symbolic behaviors, imagery.

The body implies, and can produce, whole complex sequences of interaction in situations between people. A single system encompasses body, feeling, situation, and action. What another person does affects our feeling of the total situation. Certain behaviors of our own, or by others, change situations in certain ways, and also engender certain feelings. At the simplest level certain "emotions" arise in us at certain junctures in such situational interaction. The body can produce whole sequences of moves, each move is a body-emotion-situation-action unity. Such sequences, when they aren't actually happening, are called "stories." A story consists of a sequence of interactions between people, each interaction is body, it is also felt, it involves a situation and other people. The body produces many stories of this kind every 24 hours. Every person makes up such stories every night. I am referring to dreams, of course.

Just as we don't want to think of the living body as mere physiological events, so also we don't want to think of images as merely entities, pictures like a painting hanging on a wall. Any event of life includes body and also environment, and a kind of forward-moving action of the living body into some environment. An image can he thought of as a living body's move, a living into a special kind of "environment." The imagery level must be a kind of environment, a kind of objectification. One can live further in feeding or breathing, which are the life of the body spread out into space. One can also live further by acting toward others in a situation—again such action is life spread out. Analogously, one can live forward into an imagery space. Again, an image is spread out, it is a kind of environment, although a symbolic kind.

Although I stated these kinds of environment in the order I did, just now, I do not believe that images are copies of ordinary interaction between people. Just the opposite. It requires symbolic imagery first to form human culture and its interactions between humans. Imagery and culture must have formed together. Human interaction, however actual and concrete, is always symbolic.

From this absurdly rapid summary I wish to take the main conclusions: We can understand that imagery is a special kind of bodily living in an environment with other humans. We can think of the body as inherently an interactional process so that body, emotion, situation, action, and other people are always inherently a single system.

This changes how we think about an image. Instead of asking only about the image itself, what is pictured, what bodily change was involved in the bodily living which made this image? And we can also ask: What further bodily living is now implied, now that the image-event has occurred? It will not be the same as before.

I am altering the basic assumptions: rather than an image being viewed as a representation, I view it as itself living. Rather than statically being what it seems to be, like a picture hanging unchangingly on a wall, I ask both what it stems from, and what change its very formation made.

For example, take food. One can say that hunger represents food, hunger is, of course, about food. But we also know that if the food occurs and is eaten, then the hunger is changed by that very food. I want to think of symbols, and especially images, in this way. A symbol, say an image, is like the act of eating, it stems from the living body's implying of a certain next process. And, if it occurs, it also changes the body so that now it implies something different as its next process.

Therefore, we will consider imagery, now, in relation to the bodily way it forms, and also, we will ask about the changed body as a result of its formation. This leads to a different way of practice with imagery, a constant return to the body between each image and the next.

But the kind of attention which must be paid to the body is rather special, and different from the ways known until now. That brings us to focusing.


In focusing, one attends inwardly to the sense of the body, but quite differently from how that is done, for example, in Gestalt Therapy. One does not simply scan the body, finding tension, say, in the shoulders, or some odd sensation in the chest. We are not now speaking of sensations that seem merely bodily (even though they will turn out to have relations to how one lives or lived). Say you just walked into this room and sat down. Now you can pay attention to your sense of this whole situation. This, too, will be a bodily sensing, but it will not be a scanning of all the parts of your body, rather you will find directly this specific bodily sense—your sense of this situation. It will be somewhere in the middle of your body, the area from your throat to your belly. It will not be a mere body sensation like a too tight belt or indigestion. It might be quite similar to indigestion, but it will be a sensing of meaning, a sense of . . . . At first it won't be clear what it is a sense of, beyond the fact that it is of this situation. As you keep your attention near it, you may find it coming into focus. Suddenly, it is no longer just a diffuse discomfort with the situation (or a diffuse comfort, or however it feels), but something quite specific. "Oh. . . ." you may say, not yet having found words to say it yet. Suddenly you "know"—again in this bodily sensed way of knowing, in which we "know" the thousands of facets of any situation. Quite quickly, usually, you can then think "what it is," and this is usually something focal, important, central, for example: "Oh, that's what worries me. . ." or "Oh, that's what's funny about what's going on. . . ." You can now tell yourself in words what that is, or at least, you can name it briefly. There is a bodily change, which comes along with this coming into focus. There is a release, a relief, a flow of energy that was stuck before.

In a new book called Focusing (Gendlin, 1978), I have presented very specific instructions for how to bring about what I just described too simply. There are quite specific steps, first for enabling this holistic "felt sense" to form (it must form, it isn't just there—and that requires some 30 seconds or a minute of quiet time), and then there are other specific steps for enabling that felt sense to come into focus, to "shift." By "felt shift" we mean this bodily release. Although it feels like merely release, new energy, the body is subsequently found to be very different. The problem may not be solved in one such round of focusing, but what one can now think and do is already very different. The way the whole situation exists in the body is changed.

This focusing process is the essence of psychotherapeutic change—it is a specific series of steps, newly defined, for what happens at those moments when a person actually changes in a concrete way. Unless change occurs unmistakably in the body, it does not, in my opinion, occur at all (Gendlin, 1968). But how can there be change in people anyway? What they deliberately try to do to themselves usually is only another example of their personality, and doesn't change what needs changing. What others tell the person does not usually, through the intellect, make real change. How then is change possible at all? It is only when more is worked with than just the person's conscious ego. But where is this "more," and how does one contact it? The focusing steps are an exact answer to this question.

I might now return for a moment to the difference I explained, between Gestalt and focusing ways of attending to the body. Even if one works with tense shoulders, there is still a need to sense the overall feel of these shoulders—the meaningfulness of the tension. And this meaningfulness is not sensed in the shoulders, but in the center of the body, as in focusing. Gestalt (and every other method I know) is aided by the specificity of focusing. Focusing helps each method to do that, which happens when the method works.

Let me now return to imagery. it happens that, during focusing, one sometimes cannot get words, or even that recognition of, "Oh. . . that's what it is" directly. One can sometimes let an image come from the as yet unopened "felt sense." That, of course, is not just any old image. It is an image living forward from the felt sense of the whole (the whole problem, the whole situation). Such images are powerful.

The first difference in practice, that I propose, is to let a felt sense form first, and then to let an image form from it.

The second difference in practice is what happens just after an image forms in this way. Now one must not let the image flow into another image, and another, and so on, at least one must not continue to do that and nothing else. One major powerful image, probably the first one that came and felt powerful, needs to be held for a little time, and in that time one needs to sense the bodily impact—the felt sense in the body—which this image makes. The occurrence of the image will have made for a new and changed felt sense. This new and changed felt sense must be allowed to form in the body. The question is: What is the holistic bodily feel, which this image gives you?

In my opinion real change in people does not come to any great extent from the mere having of images as such. It comes if one works directly with the bodily change that image-formation makes. If this is ignored, the most important effect of imagery is ignored.

But, someone will ask, didn't you just say that the formation of images is bodily change? How then can there be anything better than a long chain of images; won't that be a long chain of bodily change? Now you have contradicted yourself and told us that a chain of image-image-image (without direct attention to the bodily felt sense) makes little change?

Something like the same problem also exists with thinking, action, and every other kind of symbolic interaction. It can occur so that, at each point, there is a new bodily shift. Or, it can occur as a largely separated sequence of only thinking, or only action, only images. Now, of course, this "only" is really impossible. Even the most abstracted and separated thought is still an event in a living body, and therefore some kind of change. What exactly is the difference?

The difference is this: If one lets a holistic bodily "felt sense" form, that is a holistic process. The whole body's living is involved in forming the whole sense of a problem, or a situation. It is a rearrangement of everything in so far as it is relevant. And the difference I am concerned about is whether we engender such a whole living reorganization every little while, or only once (or not at all).

If one simply has an image from this moment, without first letting a felt sense form, that will not be a powerful change. If one then lets the images play on and on, again it won't be a powerful change. However, if one stops any image and, seeking what its impact is, lets a felt sense form in the body, this will be a powerful change. Also, if one lets the image form from a felt sense, then there is a powerful change first in the formation of that felt sense, and then again in living that felt sense further via the image. The question is whether there is a holistic bodily change at every step, or not.

In this conception of the body there are two basic assumptions: first, that the body lives its whole complexity forward, and always implies a forward movement. If the whole, as it is just now patterned, cannot be lived forward, there is a blockage. The body lives forward as best it can, but not wholly. Our problems are like that, and require a change, or a series of changes, in concrete bodily story—implying (if you like that way of putting it).

Secondly, I assume that there are different kinds of environment in which living forward can happen, and that felt-sense formation is one of them, and imagery another.

I cannot here say much in detail about the new and odd kind of "space"— and the new kind of "environment" involved in the formation of a felt sense in focusing. It is not in the usual image space, nor in the body as usually attended to. There is a new level, a new kind of awareness. One senses a new kind of "it," that felt sense there. Along with sensing such an "it," one also senses in a fresh direct way that "Oh. . .I am not it." There is a discovery that one is none of these contents. But this is no mere disembodied watcher. Rather, a new flow of energy and a new sense of self-in-touch, makes this new self very concrete and alive, no mere observer. And yet one finds this newly formed "felt sense" over here, and oneself over here next to it, with a new kind of space in between.

But, although this new level, this new plane, this new space, is not the space of imagery, nevertheless imagery is very powerful. Once a felt sense of the whole issue has formed, one can live on from it in words, imagery, action, and in other ways. Living on in imagery is one of the most powerful ways. (Living on in creative body movement as in dance may be even more so, and is akin to imagery.) Therefore, it is often best if one first lets an image form from the felt sense, and only then one finds words for what the image's impact is.

Words, in focusing, come of their own accord once there is the "shift," but before that happens one must often try out various words. Most useful at that stage are very descriptive words like "heavy," "tight," "burdened," "queasy," rather than content-words that have to do with the problem. (The latter kind may come, however.) Whatever words one uses, the key is whether they receive a bodily signal, in response to the words. When words come, one must not try to decide if they are right, rather, one needs to check them against the bodily sense, directly—just as if one were asking another person. One repeats the word and asks, "Is that right?" "Does that do anything?" Then one quietly attends, one must first regain the felt sense, else one cannot "ask" it. Only when it is there again can one ask and await a signal, some loosening, some relief, some small or large stirring, which lets one know that the word or words are, indeed, a bit of further living from the felt sense, and not just words.

Something quite similar is done with images that come. One can just ask, "What is the bodily impact of this image" but, then one must, of course, attend directly inwardly to sense it directly. Or, one can once again regain the felt sense of the whole problem ("Is this problem all solved?"—little waiting, trying to say it's solved, "Ah. . . there it is again, that discomfort. . .") When the sense of the whole problem has returned, one can then set the image, as it were, before this sense, asking: "Is this image right for it?" There may now be a distinctly sensed change in the body, a release, a stirring, a moving inside, in response to the image. One can feel oneself changing right there and then, concretely.

The very coming of a felt sense is a holistic body change. Living further from such a felt sense is further change. It isn't possible to say exactly whether the way a word or image fits is again a holistic "shift," or only a small signal, a little bit of such change. What matters is whether or not we work with the bodily formed felt sense of the whole problem or not. If we work with this bodily forming and shifting, it might be to let the image come from it, it might be on the return from an image to then form the whole sense it engenders in the body, or it might be to see if the image makes a further change in the felt sense already formed and regained.

It must also be noted that imagery comes very well and very richly during highly relaxed states, while this is not the case with focusing, the felt sense and its shifts. One cannot focus when one is too relaxed. Focusing is at the entry point to altered states, at the door, so to speak, but not far into relaxation. It is certainly more relaxed than our usual living,, and most people must relax a bit in order to focus. However, as soon as one passes beyond the entry line and becomes very relaxed, focusing becomes impossible. Focusing requires that this "door" to altered states be open, or, I could say, it opens this door. But focusing occurs

in the doorway, so to speak. Focusing requires letting a felt sense form, and this letting needs relaxation. But it also requires a very deliberate attention, a kind of frame—holding over the murky sense of the problem, which cannot be done with very much relaxation. Focusing also requires a distinct questioning, as I said above, an active putting the word before the felt sense, an active being next to it, attending to it, finding it again, and so on. None of this works even in an otherwise rather moderate state of alteration due to relaxation.

In meditation, for example, when something feels off, one needs to come out of meditation and to an ordinary awareness (open one's eyes, wait till the sparkles subside, move one's shoulders a little), then focusing becomes possible. Focusing can let one free the body of the cramp, the stoppage, the physical effects of the problems one carries in the body; then meditation is much easier and better.

Thus, I am far from asserting that focusing is the deepest level, or the only kind of important process, or the only method of working with oneself, or anything like that. It is a very specific process, located at a crucial juncture in relation to altered states, and in relation to personality change. It can powerfully aid other useful methods, and should not be thought of as excluding them. We have been teaching focusing for some years to many different kinds of people and in relation to many topics, spirituality, psychotherapy, stress-reduction, education, creativity, to mention a few. (See Focusing, the references in the back.) Focusing, when there is a "felt shift," has EEC correlates (Don, 1977), and further research especially in conjunction with imagery would be very desirable. A beginning of such research already exists (Olsen, 1975).

In summary, I believe that whatever your way of working with imagery may be, you will find your method enhanced quite powerfully, if you employ focusing. It is quite likely that this kind of holistic formation of a directly felt bodily sense of the whole issue is already what you wish for, in your method, and occasionally get. It is likely, too, that this return from the image, at each point, to a direct sensing and having of its bodily impact, is also something you already want, and occasionally get. If so, focusing is the specific way of teaching and engendering that. Imagery and body-sense are inherently related, but on different planes. It is much more powerful if one not only works with the body and imagery, but devotes specific attention to the formation of the body's holistic sense of the issue. That is the formation of something directly sensed in the body, yet implicitly meaningful. Such a felt sense is not just there, waiting to be noticed. It must first form, and does so in an oddly new space. Its formation is a major change, and enables the further major change of a "felt shift.' When imagery stems from such a felt sense, and when the impact of an image is used to engender a felt shift, that is when working with imagery is most powerful.


Don, N. S. Transformation of conscious experience and its EEC correlates. Journal of Altered States of Consciousness, 1977, 3(2), 147—148.

Gendlin, E. T. Experiencing and the creation of meaning. New York: Free Press, 1962.

Gendlin, E. T. Focusing. New York: Everest House, 1978.

Gendlin, E. T. A process model. Unpublished draft.

Gendlin, E. T., Beebe, J., Cassens, J., Klein, M., and Oberlander,M. Focusing ability in psychotherapy, personality and creativity. Research in Psychotherapy, Vol. 3. Washington: APA, 1968.

Olsen, L. E. The use of visual imagery and experiential focusing in psychotherapy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1975.

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