Felt Sense Notes

I am posting notes here, blog-style, about the felt sense, how felt senses manifest in real life, and how felt sensing can be at the centre of human affairs - including facing the really big things like climate change.

What is a felt sense?
A felt sense is the right hemisphere's 'global' take on the whole of a situation, whereas the left hemisphere focuses attention on one aspect of the situation. What does that mean? you may ask - please read my neuroscience articles and my book for the explanation!

It's impossible to define 'felt sense' in a non-science way, but we can point towards what is meant so you get a sense (a felt sense!) of it. When people say they have 'a sense' or a 'funny feeling' about something, an 'inkling' or an 'intuition' or a 'bit of a hunch', or they say they listened to their body or their 'inner voice' or their conscience, or they have something they want to say but can't find the words to say it, they may be talking about a felt sense - 'may' because people use different words to describe their inner experience, and it's the experience that matters.

A common example of a felt sense is when you have the feeling of something being 'right', or 'not right', but you can't really say why.

Five pointers to the felt sense
The concept of 'felt sense' can't be pinned down in a definition, but here are some pointers that help:

  1. A felt sense feels meaningful - even when we don't know what the meaning is (yet).
  2. A felt sense is about something - our current situation, perhaps, although we may not be sure what the something is (yet).
  3. Felt senses are felt in the background - when we reflect inside, and are neither cut off from our feelings nor highly emotional.
  4. A felt sense is bodily - we need to have our awareness centred in our body, whether or not we notice a physical sensation there.
  5. A felt sense implies there's something more to come - for example, an unfinished sentence... where you have to wait for the words to come that will complete it.

Degrees of depth and of breadth
Felt senses come in different degrees of depth: profoundly deep when we have all the time in the world, as in the practice of Focusing when we may have our eyes closed and more attention inside (or maybe some other reflective practice). Or just under the surface in the midst of everyday life activity when we pause for a moment to listen to our feelings - what we miss in depth may be made up for by their breadth, in the sense of the range of situations and topics we can reflect on, even if only briefly.

Five things about the felt sense
A felt sense is not a thing, it's a process, one we could call 'felt sensing'. But if we stay with the noun, we can say some things about it:

  1. Felt senses are felt in the moment - here and now, and are prone to changing over time.
  2. A felt sense is an inner source of fresh feelings, thoughts, images, imagination - creativity, in a nutshell.
  3. Felt senses are personal - they open a door to the person we really are inside, our felt experience, our vulnerability and fallibility.
  4. A felt sense is spacious - it has room for more thoughts and feelings to come, for taking in what others are saying and what is happening in the world around us.
  5. A felt sense is its own judge - it lets us know when we're on the right track with something, or not (including what I'm writing here).

Felt senses are ethical, intelligent and evolutionary
When I trained in biodynamic therapy in the 1980s, our trainer taught us that 'bioenergy' was ethical, intelligent and evolutionary - as in 'trust your body' and 'your body knows best'. The same is true of felt senses, a similar concept to bioenergy. They are ethical in that they are sensitive to others and to the world around us as well as to ourselves. They are intelligent, that is, an intuitive sort of intelligence that aligns the mind with feeling. And they are evolutionary in the sense that they bring steps for going forward - steps in particular situations and in our lives as a whole.

Five ways to practice felt sensing
Here are some ways you can listen to your felt sense (other than the practice of Focusing):

  1. Feel your feelings: let go to your experience of what you're feeling, rather than try to talk (eat, drink) your way out of feeling them.
  2. When you don't have words to say what you feel you want to say, pause... and wait for some to come.
  3. Listen to others: don't just hear what they say and react immediately, take it in and mull it over a little before responding.
  4. When you're discombobulated by something, notice how you feel in your body.
  5. Take little feelings, that you could easily ignore, seriously: hunches, intuitions, qualms about something, pangs of conscience - those sorts of funny inner somethings.

Also: have a creative activity that engages your imagination.

Listening to ourselves, other people, and the natural world
Listening to our felt sense of something is a personal, inward experience, facilitated by centering our attention in the middle of our body. This leads us into the inner world of our right hemisphere, but this side of the brain is also where we absorb our experience of other people and of the natural world. So 'going inside' can connect us to others and to nature just as much as it can to how we feel about ourselves, and this protects us against disappearing down personal rabbit holes that take us away from the world around us.

Head versus heart: which is the felt sense?
We talk about following our head not our heart or, vice versa, our heart not our head, when deciding on a course of action. If we ‘follow our heart’, does this mean going with our felt sense of 'right'? Not necessarily! We must distinguish our inner processes from the words we use to describe them. Following heart rather than head may mean going with an emotional feeling rather than pausing to have a felt sense of the bigger picture. Conversely, going with head rather than heart may mean not following your felt sense – you may have allowed your logical mind to trample over your intuitive feeling mind. The felt sense is subtler than the obvious categories we talk about - and more interesting.

Don't confuse felt senses with physical sensations
To listen to your felt sense, turn your attention into your body. You may notice a physical sensation, maybe a tightness in your chest or a knottedness in your stomach. But don’t make the easy mistake of thinking the sensation is the felt sense. They are not quite the same thing, though if you stay with a sensation you may, as it were, have a felt sense of it. Some people feel physical sensations more keenly than others. I’m on the low end of this spectrum, but I can tune into my felt sense whenever I choose to. When I do notice a bodily sensation, it makes a good anchor for holding my awareness inside. It may be meaningful: a tightness in my chest may lead to some sadness, for example. Emotion usually comes with a physical sensation, but I can also have a felt sense of something I’m trying to write, for example, without feeling emotional or noticing any particular sensation. If you equate felt sense with physical sensation, you limit yourself. You may chase one sensation after another around your body and not find anything particularly meaningful.

A felt sense is the right brain’s take on the whole thing you are immersed in, whatever it is. The right brain is where the outer world meets the inner world, where feelings and thoughts mix with others’ feelings and thoughts that impact you. It includes your body, your felt experience, physical sensations and much much more.

Intuitions, inspirations, visions, tones and atmospheres
There are many ways to refer to a felt sense without naming it as such. Einstein, for example, said "I believe in intuitions and inspirations... I sometimes feel that I am right, I do not know that I am". That describes the felt sense nicely.

The artist Grayson Perry described his experience of making art from his felt sense in a Guardian interview in November 2021:

My visions are usually a vague, blurry golden mist at the back of my mind, a certain tone or atmosphere that I want to conjure up. During the process of making, that gradually comes into focus, with all of the inevitable disappointment. The creative process is one of controlled disappointment, because the nature of inspiration is that it's vague. I get towards finishing a piece and it's not exactly what I hoped it would be, but it's good.

Feed your felt sense with facts
Whether we know a little or a lot about a subject, we can have a felt sense about it. With personal things in our lives, we are of course the expert. With things about the world such as climate change, we may not be so expert and being well informed means we can have a well informed felt sense about it - 'the whole thing about climate change'. As the American writer Rebecca Solnit says, feed your feelings with facts - and beware emotional reactions to inaccurate analyses of the subject.

"Emotions are not important"
The felt sense is a different sort of feeling from emotion - subtler, more in the background, harder to put into words. A good example of someone following their felt sense rather than their emotion came in an interview with Maria Alyokhina of the Pussy Riot group in the Guardian (11 July 2022). Having left Russia, Maria was critical of the West over the war in Ukraine and had a no-nonsense attitude to indulging one's feelings. When asked about the sadness of being exiled from her country yet feeling its acts so keenly, she replied:

I will not talk about my sadness when, even today, there have been two bomb attacks against Ukraine. Emotions are not important. We should continue, all of us, because it's war.

This sounds like living life on the edge, from the felt sense of the whole situation, and leaving the emotional stuff for later.

Facing our felt sense of the unimaginable
Connecting with a felt sense of something in the world of which we have no previous experience is challenging. After World War Two, a Dutch theologian, Willem Visser 't Hooft, wrote of the Nazi concentration camps that:

People could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror, and... did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it.

Maybe the same thing applies today to climate change. We read about the science, but what is predicted is hard to imagine as being our future reality. We need the courage to use our imagination and allow a felt sense of our predicament to unfold if we are to act sensibly and wisely.

Feeling it's right, or not, in extreme situations
Sometimes we have to listen to our felt sense to make quick decisions in dangerous situations. After French sailor Fabrice Amodeo was rescued from his liferaft by a passing ship when his boat sank in mid-Atlantic during the 2022 Route du Rhum race, he described it thus:

Eventually I retrieve the rope thrown to me near the bow of the ship. There is the thickness of that line between success and failure, survival and drama. The crew pulls me to a gangway that has been dropped. With the waves I sometimes go up to the level of the top of the steps, then go down 5 meters below. This is one last test. If the liferaft goes under the steps it will be pierced and I will be thrown into the water. I approach. A first time: I don't feel it’s right. A second wave, I go up and I jump on the stairs which I reach, then find myself in the arms of a man wearing a helmet. I climb on deck.

This felt sense of right or not right is different from an instant reaction. It needs time - but one second may be enough to use both our frontal lobes, the left for quick thinking without fear, the right for sensing the whole situation that includes our body.

Individuals have felt senses, groups don't
Focusing people sometimes talk about having a ‘group felt sense’ – but there can be no such thing! Felt senses are personal and in the moment, and it’s unlikely that individuals will have the same inner experience in a group at the same time. A ‘group felt sense’ is more likely to be a group feeling, a contagious emotional thing. Also: if someone proclaims that everyone has the same felt sense, who wants to be the odd one out and say “um… this doesn't sit right with me...”? They may find it easier to go along with the dominant view and not rock the boat. Then we're into groupthink.

Move slowly and allow something to unfold
Mark Zuckerberg, Mr Facebook, famously said that his modus operandi is to “move fast and break things”. This is nothing to do with the felt sense! We can move quickly from a felt sense if we have to, but when we slow down we can reflect and correct our mistakes. As for deliberately breaking things... well, perhaps if something is past its sell-by date, but breaking things for the sake of it is just plain destructive, isn't it?

Experiencing self vs. controlling self
Felt senses are the province of the right hemisphere, where we experience the bodily flow of living and of whatever we are immersed in. We could call it the ‘experiencing self’ - as distinct from what we might call the ‘controlling self’ (is this the best word for it?) of the left hemisphere where we tell ourselves what’s going on, rationalise our behaviour, and try to keep everything under control.

Mastering a skill is a process of building a felt sense for it
Adam Gopnik, who writes for the New Yorker, explores in his book ‘The Real Work’ how individuals master a skill. Learning and practice, of course, all feeding into their felt sense for what they do. He describes mastery as the “slow carpentering of fragments into a harmonious whole”, such as the small melodic ideas of a jazz pianist. This is the sort of felt sense that builds over time, incorporating zillions of experiences. And he says that mastery is about humanity, not perfection:

We never really love an artist’s virtuosity, or if we do, it feels empty. We love their … way of entangling their learned virtuosity within their unique vulnerability.

Getting really good at something involves our whole self, including our vulnerability - an inherent aspect of the felt sense.

The Titanic submersible tragedy: not listening to others or to self?
Five people died on a dive to get up close to the Titanic in June 2023, leaving wreckage scattered on the sea bed. Was anyone listening to their felt sense beforehand? Well, who knows - you have to be present to have a sense of whether someone is listening to their felt sense. But there are signs that Stockton Rush, the CEO of Oceangate that built the submersible, may not have been listening to his. According to media reports, he vehemently rejected warnings from people who knew about the engineering and the risks of this sort of vessel, and skipped having it assessed and certified by an outside body. He said such a body would refuse to certify it and thereby hinder “innovation”.

Listening to others, including those you disagree with, is part and parcel of felt sensing in such matters. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean that you reflect on what they say. If you don’t listen to others, especially those who know what they’re talking about, then you may not be listening to yourself (your felt sense). And: 'may not' may mean 'cannot' – because your sympathetic nervous system is too highly aroused (you’re excited), meaning your heart rate is too high for you to be able to listen.

Sometimes the felt sense demands action
“Something wrong was happening, and for the sake of my own conscience I needed to try to stop it.” So says Justin Buxton, a design consultant who lives in Sheffield and who joined the campaign to stop the city’s trees being cut down by contractors employed by the city council in the early 2020s. The council claimed to have a good case for doing this, but local people were horrified to see their street trees being felled. Their consciences, their felt senses of the whole situation, spurred them into action. The council were eventually forced to back down and stop cutting down the trees. A victory for the people! Samira Shackle, theguardian.com October 2023

Felt sense world 1: human rights and self-determination
For individuals, living from the felt sense implies having agency over our lives – choosing what feels right. In geopolitics, agency translates into human rights and democracy, and democracy means self-determination, the right of countries to make their own choices rather than be bullied or coerced by another country. It seems that Henry Kissinger, who died in November 2023, did not believe in self-determination. Instead, he “believed in superpower might makes right – realpolitik”, says Peter Kornbluh, a security analyst in Washington. He applied realpolitik to Chile in particular, playing a big role in the 1973 coup that saw Salvador Allende killed and Pinochet installed as dictator. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people, the issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves”, Kissinger is reported to have said. According to Kornbluh, “he didn’t believe in the sanctity of human rights either, which led him to embrace repressive authoritarian regimes as strategic chess pieces in the global chessboard of the cold war".

Felt sense world 2: power and love
A felt sense world is one where the power of love replaces the love of power - a distinction once made by Ghandi.

"He who has access to the fountain does not go to the water jar"
So said Leonardo da Vinci, according to Walter Isaacson in his biography of the great man. Apparently Leonardo did not have a formal education. Unable to cite ancient wisdom and received scholarship, he relied on, in his own words, “a far more worthy thing – on experience”. So his ‘fountain’ would have been his felt sense, the inner source of fresh ideas and inspiration that arises from our lived experience and our intuition. Leonardo’s words remind me of Gene Gendlin encouraging people, for a while, to leave aside the books in the library full of everything we already know, and instead look within to their felt sense and allow their own original thinking to unfold from there.

Resolving conflict needs a well fleshed out felt sense
The left hemisphere is good for detail, the right - the home of the felt sense - for context. In a conflict situation, we can argue over details forever, but we need context as well in order to have a well fleshed out felt sense. So: the background, the history, and a spread of people’s views of the situation, including ones we haven’t heard before or tend to react against. Then our felt sense stands a chance of getting a reasonable picture of what’s happening. We may not all agree, but the openness to learning more about the context may help us find some common ground that can lead to resolving conflict.

I write this in November 2023 as the Israeli Defence Force and Hamas battle it out in Gaza, and after reading Nesrine Malik in the Guardian (November 6th) who quotes a journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, after he went to the occupied territories and saw in the situation:

... just how uncomplicated it actually is. You don’t need a PhD in Middle Eastern studies to understand the basic morality of holding a people in a situation where they don’t have basic rights.

Trusting your felt sense of direction
A nice account by Ned Vessey of how he moved to Bristol and at first used Google Maps to find his way around (Guardian, December 2023). He avoided getting lost, but he didn’t learn the geography of the city. Worse, “I had a growing sense that I was depriving myself of experience”, missing the places, the people and the little vignettes of life around him. Finally, “there just came a point when I wanted to be rid of the feeling of unease”, so he bought a street map. A mental map of the city then grew in his mind, and he started to notice the street art, the starlings in his local park, and found inspiration for his writing. He still gets lost sometimes, but the satisfaction of finding his way again outweighs the inconvenience. He feels more engaged with his surroundings and his journeys are more enriching experiences.

Personally, I prefer real maps to virtual ones and am happy to trust my sense of direction, to ‘follow my nose’ - a form of felt sensing, as in “this way feels right” and “this path doesn’t feel right”. It’s easier when the sun is out to orient me. I once got totally lost driving in Brazil - the sun was in the ‘wrong’ part of the sky for a northern hemisphere dweller!

The felt sense of doing what you don’t feel like doing
Doing what you feel like doing may sound like following your felt sense. But we need to distinguish a feeling from a felt sense. I may not feel like starting a piece of work I’m resisting doing or phoning someone I need to confront about something, but sometimes I know it would be for the best if I did. Of course, I may just be telling myself what I should do, but there can be more to it than this – I may feel better once I’ve done it, and I might feel grungy if I don’t do it. There’s a felt sense in here, one that enables me to spot the difference between a ‘should’ that I can ignore, and an avoidance of something that might make me feel uncomfortable. Gene Gendlin talked about the difference between comfort and fresh air: fresh air feels better than comfort in the long run. I think this point illustrates the subtlety of the felt sense very well.

Government by WhatsApp is not government by felt sense
A senior UK civil servant who had previously run the GCHQ intelligence service, David Omand, has criticised the way government was conducted in the UK during the Covid pandemic. Pointing out that the complexities and nuances of strategic analyses can’t be conveyed in a WhatsApp exchange, he says “there is little point in devoting effort to identifying strategic opportunities and strategic threats and risks if, when the time for action comes, there is no proper process for weighing decisions against strategic goals and adjusting course accordingly”. Weighing up decisions before making them sounds more likely to lead to politicians listening to their felt sense than messaging by smartphone does. The prime minister at the time was described by his top aide as having careered around on WhatsApp like an out of control shopping trolley in a supermarket aisle, creating chaos and undermining everybody - this too doesn’t sound like an atmosphere that supports individuals’ listening to their felt sense when working in a team. Rowena Mason, theguardian.com December 2023

To despair or not to despair over climate change?
Some people are saying we must not despair as the world heats up and more CO2 is poured into the atmosphere. Instead, they say, we must have hope. I can understand the sentiment, but how you feel is how you feel, and if you feel despairing, you can’t just decide to feel hopeful. Personally, I have sympathy for anyone who feels despairing about climate change. Turning to your felt sense of this whole mega-issue may help, however. The felt sense is a big place inside where our feelings can move, one which can encompass more than one feeling. We may start with one and then notice others as we learn more and listen more, to others and to ourselves. Perhaps then we can experience both despair and hope about the future.

Felt sense in action: the courage of Alexei Navalny
I have no evidence that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died on the 16th February in a Russian prison in the Arctic, was someone who listened to his felt sense, but I think we can assume that he was. To risk your life by staying true to what you believe in, as he did, surely involves following an inner edge of feeling rather than taking the easier, more comfortable, route. As well as his firm political stance against the Russian regime, he was also very creative in his use of media to get his message across to people. If you haven’t watched the film he and his team made of how he confronted the men who poisoned him by putting Novichok in his underwear and then, after recovering in a Berlin hospital, returned to Moscow knowing he would be arrested there, then please watch it! It’s very funny as well as deadly serious. An inspiring man. February 2024

Felt sense in action: it's invisible
It’s easy to spot everyday interactions amongst people where no one seems to be listening to their felt sense. At the same time, there are many situations where people do listen and where groups work together in the felt sense zone. They are the situations that lead to good outcomes, where people co-operate, come up with good and innovative ideas, and generally make the world work. The problem is that the felt sense in these situations is invisible and goes unnoticed, unless you are well versed in noticing it (which means consciously sensing it). Proper listening, respect, a relaxed conversation that allows everyone time to reflect, acceptance of different feelings, a little give and take, people genuinely engaged with each other and with the topic. What’s special about that? Nothing much, but a lot of the time human affairs are not like this - just turn on the TV news! And we all suffer as a result.

The experiencing self, and its felt sense, win in the long run
The experiencing self, rooted in the right hemisphere where the felt sense arises, cannot be coerced into doing what the controlling self wants – not in the long run. The exercise of power in a coercive, aggressive or violent manner, leads to an inevitable backlash. People and countries don’t like to be coerced and, even if they submit in the short term, they will harbour resentment. And there will be consequences. What those consequences will be, when and where they will manifest, is hard to predict, but consequences there surely will be. Individuals live with a felt sense of ‘this is not right’ which gives rise to a flow of feelings that demand action and ideas for carrying it out. Life moves forward whenever and wherever it can. It cannot be controlled by the controlling self, centred in the left hemisphere, that wants to impose itself on others. Perhaps this is why the world is full of stories of good triumphing over evil in the end. Acts of aggression and war are a risky business.

The felt sense needs others as well as oneself
When I have something I want to say, I have a felt sense of the something. Then I say it and see how it goes down with those I say it to. Only then do I have a fully-fledged, really useful, felt sense, of whatever it was I said. The same with writing something: I have a felt sense of what I want to write, I write it, and I have a new felt sense of what I’ve written. But it’s only when someone else has read it, and responded, that I have the fully-fledged, really useful, kind of felt sense about it. My felt sense is not just about me.

I think it was Nietszche who said something to the effect of “everything can be acquired in solitude, except sanity".

A sense of foreboding vs. loyalty to leader and party in politics
It seems that loyalty can be an obstacle for politicians in trusting their felt sense. Perhaps this needn’t surprise us, as politics revolves around political parties. A good example comes from the British Labour MP Jon Cruddas who says the Iraq war had a corrosive effect on Tony Blair’s government in 2003. But he didn’t oppose it when it came to a vote in Parliament:

I had a sense of foreboding, but I had a loyalty to Blair. I had loads of family on all the marches. Every single one of them was against it. And I regret it. It was tragic. It detonated the government; it never recovered. Even though it won in 2005, its ethical quality had gone.

A pity he didn’t trust his sense of foreboding. Maybe other MPs made the same mistake with the Iraq war. The result, as we know, was disastrous. And note the link with ethics in his statement - the felt sense includes ethics. Interview with Zoe Williams, theguardian.com May 2024

The sense by which we take our bearings in the real world
The felt sense is personal and concerns the inner world. At the same time, it’s our sense of the world we inhabit and of our place in it. Reading the American writer Rebecca Solnit on the ‘psychic devastation’ brought on by Trump, Covid, and the climate crisis (theguardian.com June 2024), I’m struck by this paragraph where she quotes the political philosopher Hannah Arendt on this wider felt sense and what happens to it when truth is replaced by lies:

“Authoritarians want control not only over the economy, military, courts and media, but also fact, science, history – over meaning itself. To violate the independence of truth and fact, to insist they are whatever you want them to be, is to enter the realms of meaninglessness. Authoritarianism is nihilism. As Hannah Arendt said, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”

Comments are welcome!