JUNE 12-15, 1998 with Eugene Gendlin

Summary written by Kye Nelson.

What is Thinking At the Edge?

Sometimes, when one has gained a breadth or depth of experience in an area of endeavor, one begins to feel an unclear sense of something that one knows. This knowing of something is not public knowledge (not published or otherwise established knowledge in one's area) but arises through an intuitive understanding of the area that can only come with experience. A sense of urgency or opportunity, or requests for this information, or some other sense of necessity has brought a pressure or drive to articulate and communicate this understanding. But what it is exactly that is known may still be inchoate Ė fertile with possibility but still unformed and unclear. A formal system for thinking can help here if it can provide tools to articulate and further develop this thing that one knows so that it can be clearly communicated to other people.

Our culture primarily uses two thinking systems: The first is the Cartesian system, which has given rise to science and, through science, to most of the details of life as lived in the Western world at this point in history. The second is a more intuitive, holistic system which has in some respects always existed, but which is being used more heavily in response to problems stemming from the Cartesian system. However, what is perhaps needed most in this historical moment is the capacity to join the precision of logic which comes from the use of the intellect with the groundedness-in-experience contributed by our intuitive, experiential side: in short, a system of thought that can help mediate between the felt sense of what one knows, and the public language in which one must communicate. Up to now, Western culture has not had such a tool. However, Eugene Gendlin has been laboring for many years to develop exactly this sort of system for building theory, and he shared this work, Thinking At the Edge (TAE), with the Focusing community at a workshop in June.

For years Focusing has been taught using steps or building blocks. Gendlin has established a similar series of steps for theory-building. These nine steps are simply a means to an end, and just as with Focusing, steps can be dropped any time they start getting in the way. They are still evolving. As with Focusing, the stepsí purpose is to help establish familiarity with a process and to provide leverage in that process. With them one is able to move from a deep but inarticulate knowing to universally applicable theories having the precision needed to say exactly what one means to others. The same methodology can also be used to develop or extend already existing theories.

In the course of this workshop Gendlin told us that we human beings can consider ourselves to be the ultimate laboratory for learning about the human experience., Following these steps put our consciousness to work in this laboratory. As we worked here we began to notice that what started out looking like small, insignificant or totally subjective insights almost always had the power to develop into statements that had broad application as well as poetic profundity. However, TAE itself has broad application Ė it is a powerful tool for grounding any kind of formal thought in experiential language. For instance, one subgroup that formed at the end of the workshop is exploring the possibility of teaching theory-building to people in global industry so that they are able to quickly and creatively respond to environmental issues.

In this summary the nine steps are laid out and one extended session in which Gendlin guided a workshop participant through the steps is offered as an example of theory-building. Just as with Focusing, it is possible to miss some finer details, or to miss the boat entirely, if one relies on written material to learn these steps. However, written material has communicated a basic and useable understanding of Focusing. If you feel drawn to use what is written here you should be able to begin to apply TAE to your own thinking problems with a success analogous to what you would be likely to experience if you were learning Focusing with a summarized version of Gendlinís book Focusing. In other words, you will probably be able to get started, but you would want to learn more about the process face to face as well.


The Nine Steps

Step 1

Get a felt sense.

In an area where you have a depth of knowledge and experience, take a minute to touch that specific, wordless, place-that-you-live-but-you-canít-talk-about-it that knows something. Here is where you will find a fresh edge that canít yet be articulated or even contained in thoughts or words. As you sit with this wordless place, notice something poking at you a bit, wanting to be investigated. There is, perhaps, a feeling of excitement just here. Because this is an area you know intimately, you can explore this exciting, unclear, perhaps uncomfortable place the same way you would any other felt sense. When you go in there, go into the specific felt sense of this. If you want to work with something that youíve already formulated, go back into the excitement from which it originally arose, and sense what is there, right now, that is fresh.


Step 2

Notice how this thing is in some way not logical.

Usually when you are articulating something that is new, there is a way that it doesnít fit with what is already out there. Often itís clearly illogical, sometimes itís just different. Sometimes it is paradoxical because the felt sense says both _____ and _____. Sense for where in this thing that you want to articulate there is something that doesnít make sense right away, and make a paradoxical sentence that describes that.

A paradoxical sentence can take the basic form: ĎIt is and is not ...í


Step 3

Notice that no words fit.

Explore or savor your sentence for a little while, noticing where it feels most alive to the felt sense as you do so. Notice which words are essential to the expression of your felt sense. Now pull out these key words from your sentence and pay attention to the assumptions that ride along with them as they are publicly used. Keep a strong, protected place for your thing as you do this. Notice that there is no way that the words as used publicly (i.e., the dictionary usage, or what is meant in common parlance when these words are used) can mean what you mean.

The words are already taken. Try another word (write down the sentence that you get when you say what you mean with this word) and try substituting yet another word, until you have at least 3 sentences. Each is trying to say what you mean, and each means something else again. When you use any word for your thing you will find that it already means something else.

Step 4

Make the words mean what you want them to mean.

You didn't mean all those assumptions that came with the public meaning of your words. What did you mean? Mediate between the words as already given, and your life experience, edge, or felt sense. Your original words can work if you insist that they mean only what you want them to mean, and force or allow them to change. You can also take out your words and substitute many other words in the same position that can say what you mean as well. If you allow language to be alive, rather than fixed, words in ordinary use can actually come to mean something new every time you use them.

Write a sentence that captures the crux of what you mean, using a string of words that now all mean what you want them to mean, and end the string of words with ... [dot, dot, dot], (which holds the place for the more-than-these-words-can-say part of your thing).

Step 5

Notice that each time you use a different word to mean what you mean you

pull out something different from the felt sense.

Each of the three sentences in the previous step pulls out a different and distinct strand or aspect of what you are meaning. Each one articulates some of the details of your theory, and each is capable of carrying it forward in a different way. Each contributes a different structure. Write these details into your emerging theory. At this point, what started out unique is beginning to be able to say something universal.

Step 6

Collect facets.

Include examples, moments when you saw this thing go by, any time that it actually happened or couldn't happen, even things you feel are definitely not it - anything that resonates with the felt sense of it, anything that carries it forward, even if it seems odd or you wouldn't want to share it with anyone else. This process of collection can go on for weeks, and you could collect from 3 to 50 or more facets; however, you need at least 3 or 4 facets. Write them down.

Step 7

Write a sentence for each facet that makes no sense at all unless it is

understood the way you mean it.

Write an odd sentence, a sentence that is structured so that someone seeing it for the first time would see right away 'something's being said here which I don't know yet.' Use your key words, and build the sentence in such a way that it's clearly not understandable except your way. Sometimes the poetic or metaphorical use of key words or phrases will do this, as will setting two elements alongside each other that would not normally appear together. This sentence should indicate to someone who has not been involved in this process of articulation that something new is being said here.

Step 8

Cross the structure of two facets.

Ask yourself how each facet is like the other. Look at each through the eyes of the other. Make each of them become part of the other, implicit in the other. So if one facet was 'it's something right and human for me to want someone to relate to me,' and another facet was 'I want to be understood exactly', then, if you put each one of these into the other, then you get 'to want to relate to me is to want to understand me exactly', and 'understanding me exactly is also to relate to me'. You sometimes have to play with the sentences a little bit so that they will do that.

Step 9

Write some real sentences about your thing.

These sentences can really say what you want them to say. You can generalize from your theory; you can apply it to many human concerns, such as language, or economics, or art. Often the sentence could take the form "Human nature is such that _____" So, write a sentence or two just for yourself, and then you can decide after a minute if you want to say it to anyone else. Say something that's true and right that you can say now, that you couldn't before. You don't have to show it to anyone else. If it needs protecting, do that. If you do decide to make it public, you can write it on a separate piece of paper and frame it for that person or audience with whom you intend to share it.


Gene guides Anne

A few notes, first: In this session Gene reflected what Anne said whenever she was speaking from the felt sense, just as if she had been Focusing. Anne also affirmed that what Gene suggested felt right when he was helping her apply the steps to her work. These exchanges have been omitted for the sake of brevity, but should be remembered as an essential part of the process, just as listening and reflecting is in Focusing.

As the session unfolds it doesn't follow the steps exactly. For instance, at times Anne jumps ahead to a later step while still technically in the middle of an earlier step. Gene follows the process when this happens, not the steps.

Finally, this session was done without interruption, but under time constraints. This means that it unfolds clearly, but that the last steps were not developed fully.

Step 1

Anne: Well, it's about using Focusing in a school was a way of knowing that came...It's connected with knowing now as a a rose...but it came as a complete knowing inside...all the intricacies and colors...textures, raindrops and, it was a living experience, sort of, of knowing that from inside...I wouldn't want to lose that.

Gene: So the first thing here is to protect your felt sense, it's what makes me smile so happily when she says 'I don't want to lose this'. The minute you lose it you have to drop everything else and come right back.

Step 2

Anne: sentence seemed to have something of [this kind of knowing] in sentence was, if I can demonstrate that change happens, there is hope for the future.

Gene: Now it sounds like you know that change happens, but you don't know if you can demonstrate it? is that it?... So 'hope for the future' says that there is a lot out there that would make no hope, but if you can demonstrate that change happens, then there is hope. So now let us

look at what is not logical here. To write a paradoxical sentence you first have to get a sense for where is there something.

Anne: What seems to be holding me back is this reins place that says, 'You can't demonstrate change happens.'...It's the opposite.

Gene: So we have the rose and 'if I can demonstrate, there is hope,' and we also have the reins that say 'No, demonstrating is not possible.'...Is it demonstrating that's not possible?

Anne: Demonstrating is a collective of sharing, teaching, showing.

Gene: And it could be called demonstrating, it could be called showing, it could be called teaching, it could be called sharing, it could be ..... . And then I get a smile, you see; the ..... in the chain frees it. It doesn't have to be one of those. And this doesn't seem possible, according to the reins part of the felt sense. And yet, of course, it's just what would give hope. So here already is where the paradoxical part of the sentence will come. In your body sense there is both an 'ah'

opening with the rose, called hope, and there is also a reins back, 'uh' , not possible.

Anne: And that's what you call paradox...

Gene: Well, if we can get a sentence that does both of those things: Demonstrating gives hope, and is impossible....Write it as you have it.

Anne: Demonstrating something can, and can not, give hope.

Gene: Okay, now let's look at that sentence. Do we mean that sometimes if we could demonstrate it, it would still not give hope?

Anne: I don't think so...I think if I could demonstrate it, then it would give hope.

Gene: So our sentence is not quite accurate. Let's play with it.

Anne: That's right, it's the if...The paradox may be...that I can demonstrate something that would give hope, and that I cannot.

Gene: 'I can and cannot demonstrate it'. Yes. Now we've got it.

Steps 3, 5, and 6 (interwoven)

Gene: Okay, now where is the spot? it's in the "can" and "cannot", right? So what would you say about "can"...what does "can" mean? I can...and cannot...

Anne: [pause]...well I would have a sense of personal, private ways in which I have changed ...and there are also personal relationships in which no change is possible...

Gene: So the "can" lives in the personal, private, 'I know I have changed', and the "cannot" lives in the relationships that cannot change.

Anne: And for some reason I want to call them the reality.

Gene: The relational "cannot" is the reality, and the personal, private 'have already changed' is in some way not the reality.

Anne: It feels real inside me, but it's not easy to find a way to demonstrate that, that is's like...the plant would be visible's already there.

Gene: It's becoming clear that it's around what "demonstrate" means that we can go in...where the life is, here, somehow. The plant would be visible...Okay, now, hold your felt sense, right? I'm going to take off 'The plant would be visible' as just words. Now if you say that to anybody, surely they're not going to know what that means. 'The plant' is not something that is going to express this rose, this inner rose, and then it's inner, so it wouldn't be visible anyhow...and 'they' are going to say 'Oh, I know what you mean, you mean it's all biological.'

Anne: Something else came there ...The plant is really, and oh, it sounds like, and truth, and goodness...they're overused...

Gene: You're distinguishing between beauty, truth, and goodness as a way of carrying forward and saying your spot there...and you're feeling already what I'm having to do...take these words off and look at them as just words, and you say oh, yeah, that's that old's overused... We have four words out there: we have the-visible-plant, and we have beauty, goodness, and truth. Now, can we agree that they don't fit? Privately they do fine, but if we're going to write something for the public we aren't going to want to say visible plant...unless they're willing to do a lot of work with us.

Anne: This is new wine, here at the edge.

Gene: New wine, and you cannot put it in old bottles, and these words here are old bottles.

Anne: They are, yeah, so everything gets feels impossible.

Gene: Oh, this is even speaking for the impossible...oh, wow, okay so here is what's happening which is not in the nine steps. And what is beautiful and surprising is that the way they don't fit, which is true for all of us, has a special meaning for you because it seems to speak for that part of your felt sense which says 'It's impossible'.

Anne: That feels like a very stuck place, then, for me.

Gene: You're expressing the felt sense of how it feels to be at such a step...and some of us have spent years at such a step. 'There is no way to say this.' 'None of the words work.' 'I'm stuck'.

Steps 4 and 5 (interwoven)

Gene: It's possible to restore the word, so that it means what you want it to say, so it's a new bottle. Usually people have the most trouble with this step, but for us it's going to be easy: it's just going back to the moment when you said "visible plant", where those words meant what you wanted them to mean, right?

Anne: And now I know another bit, which is that the knowing about truth and beauty is what's important...can that be demonstrated, that knowing of them.

Gene: So here a step has happened. And it's just like Focusing, what we're looking for is a step, right, and if it happens to come at step 4, that's fine... And is it the knowing you want to demonstrate?

Anne: I think so.

Gene: You're saying when they work for you as words, not the public words, but the way you want them to work, then it's not them in themselves, it's the knowing.

Anne: Yeah, the connection.

Gene: The connection to them... oh, the connection from the knowing. Now this is a perfect example of how powerful concepts, words, and abstractions are when we can use them in-relation-to a felt sense of something wanting to be said ... if we hadn't had 'beauty, goodness and truth' this step of 'oh, it's the knowing, and not them,' wouldn't have come. And now a second step came from them... it's the connection between the knowing, and truth, beauty, and goodness. 'What wants to be demonstrated' is developing here right under your fingers.

Anne: And everybody wants then it's more possible to get in there, in spite of the meanings.

Gene: I'd like you to write down these little steps, in any way you want, because they are really precious. A few minutes later they're gone, and one just remembers one had them... So, 'everybody wants this' brought some kind of opening to the place that says 'no, this is just private, and I can't ever get it out to the world.'

Anne: Yes, it's a sense of freedom, and of 'who doesn't want this?'

Gene: And then you would be writing down 'a sense of freedom' because it's still another one. These steps produce certain sentences, but there are other ones that come right along. Any sentence that carries this forward, save it. We have shown that if you let words relate to, but not cramp, your felt sense, they are all capable of being used. So you would say here that it's knowing connection to truth, beauty, and goodness. And the visible plant is this inward connection made visible.

Steps 5 and 8 (interwoven)

Gene: So now we've already done step 5, but officially, as a step, notice that the two ways of saying this - 'the visible plant' as a phrase, and 'truth, beauty, and goodness', now more completely as 'knowing connection' - pull out something different. 'The visible plant' does something, maybe you could say what, sort of a little bit more.

Anne: So in reality, if the plant could be visible, then the relationship that would exist between me and the knowing and the connection to all these good things, that would be visible already.

Gene: So it's a little more structure here than we had before. 'Visible plant' means 'my connection to all these good things would be visible.' Write that down. And then the other one, which said 'the knowing of goodness, truth, and beauty', and not just the knowing, but the connection...

Anne: Well, the way of this knowing...

Gene: So in this sentence we have a knowing that has a way. And what I'm now explaining is there is a structure here, a pattern. a relationship of detail to each other. There is a knowing, and a having a way. And it's the way of knowing that you're interested in for that sentence.

Structure is any kind of patterning, details are not just separate, like marbles in a bag, they have this certain relationship, so when you say 'knowing', 'ways', I've got the 'knowing' here, and I've got 'ways' there, so I've got a here, a there, and a relationship.

Anne: It's that that would be visible.

Gene: We'll skip step 6 [and 7 was skipped as well] because of time. We don't have to do it, because we already have the structure of the knowing those three good things, and we have the structure of the visible plant.

Step 8

Gene: Now, the part that's so hard to explain she's already done, intuitively: To get a logically consistent, logically powerful theory, one has to build each facet into the other, and that's possible because they've all come from the same source anyhow, so they will allow this, but one has to somehow change the sentences to make them work, and that's hard to explain, but you just went and did it real fast. What happens in the knowing of those three things, which then has the extra wrinkle of 'oh, it's the relationship to them, of that knowing place'... that intricate thing, of the knowing with the place behind it with the relationship... then she said, 'And that's what would become visible.' So thereby, you took that structure from the second facet, and you built it right into the first one.

Anne: In which it already was.

Gene: So the fact that they all come from the same felt sense, but they carry forward different structures, then allows you to build the structure of the one so it's implicit in the other. So now what visible means is not just what it meant before, it also means this relationship, right? So now we take beauty, goodness, and truth, and we say they mean, at least in this theory, how they are related to that which relates to them. I'm trying to build into the terms, the other terms. Beauty, goodness, and truth need to have built into them this whole theory that we have, so that they don't mean what they used to any more. Here they mean something that can relate to a person the way this knowing relates to them. Beauty, goodness, and truth now mean something that becomes visible, or the relationship to it becomes visible...something that shows the visible plant.

[For step 9 she wrote a sentence, but did not make it public. Gene affirmed that it was important for her to protect it and not say it publicly unless she felt comfortable doing so.]

Kye Nelson is a collaborative consultant and process facilitator for working, learning, and thinking.
Contact her at 210/413-4339,, or find out more at

This material © 1999, by Kye Nelson. All rights reserved.