Eugene T. Gendlin was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1926. His family fled the Nazi invasion and came to the United States in 1939.
As a college student in the 1950s, Gendlin studied under Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago and influenced Rogers' concept of psychotherapy with his own theory of "experiencing."
Eventually, Gendlin became a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of Chicago.
His research in psychotherapy convinced Carl Rogers that when a person is in touch with, and aware of his experience, he moves in psychologically positive directions. Working with a student of his, Eugene Gendlin, Rogers came to conclude that a person's experience is always changing and never fixed. Hence he preferred to call it experiencing, with the ing emphasizing that experience is always in process.
In 1962, Gendlin advanced this notion with his own book, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. He began his work by proposing that—
...meaning is not only about things and it is not only a certain logical structure, but it also involves felt experiencing. (Gendlin, 1962, p. 1; emphasis in the original)
He was suggesting that we feel our meanings before we intellectually understand them.
We feel our meanings, says Gendlin, in the body, in a bodily felt sense (also called a felt meaning). These felt meanings are with us all our lives, changing moment by moment. We feel in our bodies the meaning of an orange, or a shoe, or a friend, for example, before we think consciously about what they mean.
We experience our felt meanings implicitly, when they are vague and unclear, before we make them explicit by referring to them with words or mental pictures. When we focus on an implicit felt meaning, and symbolize it (by attaching to it words or mental pictures), we use its bodily felt sense as a direct referent and transform it into an explicit felt meaning (compare with the B-cognition of Abraham Maslow and the empathic understanding of Carl Rogers).
In focusing on our felt sense, and symbolizing it, we discover its meaning—
Meaning is formed in the interaction of experiencing and something that functions symbolically. Feeling without symbolization is blind; symbolization without feeling is empty. (Gendlin, 1962, p. 5; emphasis in the original)
In his later terminology, Gendlin concluded that implicitly felt meaning is preconceptual. By focusing our attention on its bodily feel, and finding a handle (a word, phrase, or image) that will resonate with how it feels, we allow our experiencing to be carried forward (Gendlin, 1970b; 1981). Gendlin called this a six-stage process of focusing, or “listening to the still small voice” (Gendlin, 1970a, 1970b). When we focus well, we are at high levels of experiencing.
In applying his theory of experiencing to the therapeutic setting (where he calls psychotherapy experiential therapy), Gendlin suggested that the carrying forward of felt meaning always feels good. It facilitates positive personality change. Yet often we have trouble doing this alone. We confuse ourselves with inner chatter. A helpful therapist, or friend, calms the inner noise by helping us focus on the still, small voice (compare with the Over-Soul of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Self of Carl Jung, the actualizing tendency and organismic valuing process of Carl Rogers, and the self-actualizing tendency of Abraham Maslow). A helpful listener does not interfere with this “self-propelled feeling process" (Gendlin, 1970b, p. 151)—
Personality change is the difference made by your responses in carrying forward my concrete experiencing. To be myself I need your responses, to the extent to which my own responses fail to carry my feelings forward. At first, in these respects, I am “really myself” only when I am with you. (Gendlin, 1970b, p. 161; emphasis in the original)
From Eugene Gendlin I learned to trust the feel of meaning, even before I understand it.
Gendlin, E. T. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning. Toronto, Ontario: The Free Press of Glencoe (Macmillan).
Gendlin, E. T. (1970a). A small, still voice. Psychology Today, June 1970, 4, 57-59.
Gendlin, E. T. (1970b). A theory of personality change. In J. T. Hart & T. M. Tomlinson (Eds.), New directions in client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Gendlin, E. T. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam.