Gendlin develops Merleau-Ponty's ideas to show how interaction is more fundamental than perception: Our perceptions function as part of our interaction with the world and so become part of how we behave in any given situation. The "body senses the whole situation, and it urges, it implicitly shapes our next action. It senses itself living-in its whole context - the situation" (Gendlin, 1992: 345). This bodily interaction opens us to a sense of the world beyond what we conventionally call perception.
Gendlin explains this by inviting us to consider an imaginary scenario. Imagine you're alone walking along an unknown street late one night and you become aware of a group following you. Your "body-sense" of the situation is much more that your perceiving them behind you; it includes "your hope that perhaps they aren't following you, also your alarm, and many past experiences - too many to separate out, and surely also the need to do something - walk faster, change your course, escape into a house, get ready to fight, run, shout . . . . ." (Gendlin, 1992: 346). The ". . . . ." can encompass "more than we can list" including perceptions and emotions, but also memories of past situations and options of what to do next. There is nothing mysterious about this intricate "body-sense", and in fact it grounds our conscious awareness. In everyday language we lack a language to name it, but in the therapeutic practice of Focusing it is called the 'felt sense' where it describes an embodied tacit knowing that Gendlin describes as "a special kind of internal bodily awareness … a body-sense of meaning" (Gendlin, 1981: 10).
The 'knowing' of the felt sense may not be immediately apparent, and may in some way contradict our more 'rational' understanding of a situation. Continuing to explore the scenario outlined above, Gendlin invites us to imagine we are with a friend who has a lot of experience of the district, and who thinks you should turn the next corner and enter the nearest house, but at the same time confides that "the idea makes her body feel intensely uneasy" though she can't think why (Gendlin, 1992: 348). Gendlin suggest that you would be unlikely to ignore your friend's feeling, which is a felt-sense. It is immediately clear from such experiences that "body and cognition are not just split apart" (Gendlin, 1997: 181), and Gendlin echoes Polanyi’s famous comment when he writes that “your body knows much that you don’t know” (Gendlin, 1981: 39). The conscious mind doesn't usually articulate a felt sense immediately, and indeed, may never do so. How easily people access the felt sense varies considerably, as shown by the Experiencing Scale (Gendlin, 1961: 243) developed by Gendlin and colleagues, but anyone can learn to access and verbalise the embodied knowing of the felt sense using the Focusing technique (Gendlin, 1981).
Although Gendlin describes the felt sense as a "bodily sensed knowledge" (Gendlin, 1981: 25), we need to be clear that his approach requires "a new conception of the living body" as a process by which "the body means or implies" (Gendlin 1997: 19) and - in common with other thinkers discussed here - the Gendlian 'body' extends beyond the skin. For Gendlin 'the body' "is a vastly larger system" (Gendlin, 1997: 26) such that the felt sense is the entire situation (Gendlin, 1992). Yet the felt sense is "a physical sense of meaning" (Gendlin, 1981: 69) with "a BODILY quality, like heavy, sticky, jumpy, fluttery, tight" (Gendlin, 1986: 53; author's emphasis). Obviously there are bodily sensations that are not meaningful (Gendlin, 1981: 69), but in practice it becomes quite clear what Gendlin is referring to.