Christopher Alexander and Gendlin’s Focusing
Eugene Gendlin is known in this community for the practice of 📙 Focusing, a therapeutic technique for learning to attend to the psychological depths of unresolved tensions that show up in the body. The broader philosophical undercurrent in his work has perhaps been less thoroughly explored on this forum.
Christopher Alexander is an architect who views modern building practices and theories as disastrously disconnected from life and feeling. His contrarian approach, I think, is intimately related to what Gendlin is talking about, both in specific methodological ways and in a deeper underlying philosophical direction.
Alexander works with buildings. Gendlin works with people. They’re both somewhat marginal figures. They both have “cult followings” and seem to have the capacity to inspire people in ways that touch their lives and souls beyond any specific projects of building or introspecting.
They both appear to have rediscovered some innate ability to perceive phenomena that are hard to see clearly because they don’t have names and because they’re concealed by habitual language and socially acquired opinions.
It seems to me that they would enjoy each other’s company. They both have a warmness, but combined with a kind of grandfatherly severity, a seriousness of purpose. They see a world that’s torn apart and made ugly by humanity’s ruptured attunement, modernity’s reductive analysis, the imposition of patterns that fail to cohere and heal.
And they have both spent decades developing practices that seem to border on the mystical, outside of mainstream practice, compelled to admit that they have discovered something vital, wholesome, and forgotten.
I tend to appreciate this kind of guy, maybe because I also want to be a wise old wizard with deep sagacious skills of attunement. It’s some kind of gnostic urge to drink from the well of truth and begin to set the fallen world straight.
Every craft and vocation, I suppose, aims for some kind of goodness. Therapy has a vision of a happy life, personal flourishing. The kind of architecture that Alexander proposes is like a therapy of the built environment, ultimately also oriented around a vision of happiness, comfort, and flourishing.
So we can think of Gendlin and Alexander as healers. The healing processes they describe have a quality of immanence, emergence, or self-directedness. The core practice involves listening more carefully to signals and voices that are already present in one’s own experience: felt senses and the body’s inherent intentionality.
The body knows what its own right state feels like and is constantly checking and adjusting its processes to stay as close to that state as possible [...] Your body knows the direction of healing and life.
The body has intentions and Desires. In a broad and general sense, it wants to go somewhere. It wants to set things straight. It has a directionality, some rudimentary telos, an urge to cohere, persist, and flourish. Therapy ought to assist this innate yearning rather than impose some external schema. We need to learn to listen to our own perceptions.
I think part of the reason why Gendlin’s formulation of focusing seems to have such a deep appeal, beyond the pragmatic possibility of resolving some psychosomatic tensions, is that it illuminates the richness of experience and encourages us to take our own experience more seriously, treating it as a source of depth and wisdom that we habitually ignore.
This is something that therapists try to do with clients—encouraging them to trust their own emotions, formulate their own real desires, stop covering their own experience of life with shame and guilt. Gendlin’s formulation of focusing offers an immediately useful way to start doing that. It encourages you to treat dimly perceived felt senses as interesting, valuable, and deep, rather than as disturbing confusing annoyances.
Alexander’s work is suffused with this, too. He’s not proposing an “architectural theory” on the object level, prescribing certain correct ratios or something. Instead he describes a practice of tuning into feeling and maintaining contact with it as you work, to make use of the body’s innate but concealed understanding of “the direction of healing and life.”
In The Process of Creating Life, the second book of Alexander’s four-book series 📙 The Nature of Order, he writes that the importance of the methods he describes is “their capacity to create a living world which is rooted in human feeling, because that will create a world in touch with us, with our true nature, with our humanity.”