Training Regime Day 12: Focusing

by Mark Xu3 min read26th Feb 20201 comment



Note: Focusing for skeptics is a far better description than I could give. I will attempt my own description anyway, for triangulation reasons.

2nd note: this technique was invented by Eugene Gendlin. The book Focusing goes into more detail, although I'm told the audiobook is better.


We can (fake) categorize all knowledge you have into two types: tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Roughly speaking, explicit knowledge is knowledge where you know why you know it: math, typing, writing, reading, skateboarding, etc. Tacit knowledge is knowledge where you are less sure of why you know it: intuition, vague emotional stuff, inner sim predictions, etc.

One extremely rough way to put it is that explicit knowledge is in the mind and tacit knowledge is in the body. This is false, but the useful sort of false. It's not like tacit knowledge isn't in your brain, but how tacit knowledge usually manifests itself is through sensations instead of thinking (think confusion, surprise, fear, excitement, etc.) To me, this makes it seem more like tacit knowledge is my body telling me things and explicit knowledge is my brain telling me things.

Focusing is a technique designed to allow tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge to interface. The goal of focusing is to turn vague bodily sensations into pieces of information that you can actually think about. I find this technique extremely hard to do, but extremely valuable if done correctly.


Serious thinking usually begins by clearing the mind. Focusing begins by clearing the body. When focusing, there should be no physical sensations to distract/intrude upon the feelings generated by tacit knowledge. In practice, this probably involves finding a comfortable seat or lying down.

The first step in focusing is to locate the tacit-knowledge-feeling, also called a felt sense. This kind of feels like knowing you forgot something and trying to remember what it was. It also feels similar to looking for something without knowing what you're looking for, only that you'll recognize it when you find it. The felt sense usually begins extremely vague and blob-like. Almost always, felt sense are negative in some sense, i.e. your body is telling you that something is wrong.

The second step is to figure out what exactly the felt sense feels like. The process that this is most similar to is wanting to describe something and trying to find the right word to do so. For instance, if I'm trying to describe the feeling of joy upon having done a task well, I might start saying "happy" or "joyous" before settling on the word "satisfied". Think of focusing as an extension of this process: you have a feeling that you want to express in words so you try different handles until one of them fits/resonates/captures/describes. Often times, there will be multiple handles that all fit-but-don't-quite-fit that will come together to form a complete picture.

Handles don't really have to make sense to other people, they just have to fit (which implies that they make sense to you on some level). Often times, you will struggle to capture a felt sense with anything but a metaphor. Sometimes that metaphor will be something like "compressed screaming". If it resonates with your felt sense, then it's a good handle.

If you find a handle that resonates strongly with the felt sense, you will experience a felt shift. This generally varies from person to person and felt sense to felt sense, but can be modeled as the felt sense feeling relieved that you understand what it's trying to say. Generally, it will be accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction/rightness.

Sometimes, successful focusing gives you concrete information to act in such a way to alleviate your felt sense. However, focusing can be successful even if such a feeling isn't found. The benefit of focusing can be thought of as the reduction of the meta-ignorance-pain that accompanies a felt sense when you're not quite sure what the felt-sense is or why you're feeling it.


  1. Clear the body
  2. Find a felt sense
  3. Iterate handles until "fit"
  4. Experience felt shift


Be patient. A common failure mode is to be like "it's time to do focusing let's check for felt senses I can't feel anything I guess I don't need to do focusing" without really taking the time to actually check for a felt sense. Gendlin recommends that you sit for at least 30 seconds. 30 seconds by the clock is probably much longer than you think it is. I think that if you actually think you have no felt senses, you should set a five minute timer and check for five minutes.

Don't stick your face in the soup. When you're doing focusing, you need to be able to check the fit between various handles and the felt sense. This implies that you need to be outside the felt sense. Sometimes, with powerful felt senses, you'll get sucked into the feeling and your face will be in the soup, which prevents you from drinking the soup. In these cases, it is advisable to mentally step back from the felt sense. If you're unable to do this mentally, physically grounding yourself by opening your eyes, concentrating on the sensations in your legs, etc. can be helpful.

Ask questions to your felt sense. The process of searching for handles can be enhanced by modeling your felt sense as an unmet need of some sort. I find it helpful to ask questions to my felt senses. Examples of questions are "do you want me to do X?" or "would you prefer it if Y?". Sometimes it can be helpful to try to find out what your felt sense wants instead of trying to figure out what it is.

If you can't find any felt sense, try saying the phrase "everything in my life is fine" outloud. Often times, there will be a part of you that goes something like "um no?". That's where you should look for a felt sense.

If you are struggling to find a handle, talking out loud during the process can help.


The obvious exercise is obvious. Set aside 15 minutes, find a comfortable position, and try to do focusing. It might not be successful at first; I certainly wasn't. However, I recommend continuing to try at a regular frequency until you have "succeeded" at least once, then you can better decide whether this is something that has value for you.

Lastly, sometimes a felt sense is not a felt sense; sometimes some part of your body isn't working right and you should see a doctor.

As the haiku goes:

I find pain in my belly.

I resonate 7 handles.

It was just hunger.