Contributor: Ellen E. Swanson, MA, RN, BSN, PHN, HNB-BC (Retired)
Recently I had a professional practice story published in the American Holistic Nurses Association journal, “Beginnings”. Several responses to the story motivated me to think about the potential use of professional practice stories in nursing education. I shared with a local nursing professor and the magazine editor the possibility of using professional practice stories to have students identify what nursing theories and ways of knowing they saw in a given story.
This prompted a literature review on the topic of storytelling in nursing. I also recalled that I had a section about storytelling in my graduate position paper of 1998. One of the references for that paper was “To a Dancing God” by Sam Keen (1970; 1990). I reviewed his quote: “A visceral theology majors in the sense of touch rather than the sense of hearing.” (p. 159). I immediately said to myself that if there can be visceral theology, there can be visceral Nursology!
And what would visceral Nursology look like? Definitions of visceral include “proceeding from the instinctive, bodily, or deep abdominal place rather than intellectual motivation.” This brought to mind two concepts: the felt sense and aesthetic knowing.
I first explored the concept of the felt sense in 2007, and continued to read more about it over time. One way I came to understand the felt sense is as an immediate precursor to intuitive insights.
The following statements about ‘felt sense’ are taken from two books which I found quite helpful. The first book is Focusing (1979) by Eugene T. Gendlin. The second book is Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (1997) by Peter A. Levine. A more recent book, Your Body Knows the Answer: Using Your Felt Sense to Solve Problems, Effect Change & Liberate Creativity (2014) by David I. Rome teaches how to access the felt sense.
- The felt sense is a difficult concept to define with words, as language is a linear process and the felt sense is a non-linear experience. Consequently, dimensions of meaning are lost in the attempt to articulate this experience. (Levine p. 67)
- A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time – encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail. (Gendlin p. 32)
- Perhaps the best way to describe the felt sense is to say that it is the experience of being in a living body that understands the nuances of its environment by way of its responses to that environment. (Levine p. 69)
- In many ways, the felt sense is like a stream moving through an ever-changing landscape…..once the setting has been interpreted and defined by the felt sense, we will blend into whatever conditions we find ourselves. This amazing sense encompasses both the content and climate of our internal and external environments. Like the stream, it shapes itself to fit those environments. (Levine p. 69-70)
- The felt sense can be influenced – even changed by our thoughts – yet it’s not a thought, it’s something we feel. (Levine p. 70)
- The felt sense is a medium through which we experience the fullness of sensation and knowledge about ourselves. (Levine p. 8)
- Nowadays the phrase, “trust your gut” is used commonly. The felt sense is the means through which you can learn to hear this instinctual voice. (Levine p. 72)
- The felt sense heightens our enjoyment of sensual experiences and can be a doorway to spiritual states. (Levine p. 72)
- One must go to that place where there are not words but only feeling. At first there may be nothing there until a felt sense forms. Then when it forms, it feels pregnant. The felt sense has in it a meaning you can feel, but usually it is not immediately open. Usually you will have to stay with a felt sense for some seconds until it opens. The forming, and then the opening of a felt sense, usually takes about thirty seconds, and it may take you three or four minutes, counting distractions, to give it the thirty seconds of attention it needs. When you look for a felt sense, you look in the place you know without words, in body-sensing. (Gendlin p. 86)
I was so relieved to see how I had practiced nursing for decades put into words. I couldn’t always explain how I knew the effective interventions that seemed to just ‘happen’. I didn’t feel free to explore this in the non-holistic based career roles the first 30 years of my career. My graduate work in the late 1990’s gave me freedom to explore more holistic ways of thinking and practicing, but still doing it all rather privately. Membership in the Minnesota Holistic Nurses Association also gave me colleagues with whom to share more holistically.
The next movement toward being more open about my practice came when I learned about Modeling and Role Modeling Theory in 2012, two years before my retirement! Perhaps if I had been more open to nursing theories earlier, I wouldn’t have felt like I needed to hide how I practiced all those years. Listening, presence, and putting myself in the shoes of the other were always three of my stronger interventions. To see a theory include this latter one was such a relief. And it was in studying Modeling and Role Modeling that I learned there were a variety of ways of knowing, and aesthetic knowing was one of them.
However, I did not understand aesthetic knowing as fully until the more recent Nursology posts. I experience sheer delight with this learning. I can finally acknowledge my way of practicing to my nursing community. Chinn & Kramer (2018 p. 142) define aesthetic knowing as “An intuitive sense that detects all that is going on and calls forth a response, and you act spontaneously to care for the person or family in the moment.” It involves sensations as opposed to intellectuality. Chinn & Kramer (2018) also say “Aesthetic knowing is what makes possible knowing what to do and how to be in the moment, instantly, without conscious deliberation.” In other words, I have to not only let my head get out of the way, but also not let my head talk me out of aesthetic knowing, in both my professional life and personal life.
And so it is for me, that aesthetic knowing is Visceral Nursology. I now have a theory, an organization, and a way of knowing that supports how I practice.
Chinn, P.L. & Kramer, M.K. (2018). Knowledge Development in Nursing: Theory and Process. (10th Ed.). Elsevier. St. Louis, MO.
Erickson, H.L. (Ed). (2006). Modeling and Role-Modeling: A View from the Client’s World. Unicorns Unlimited. Cedar Park, TX.
Gendlin, E. T. (1979). Focusing. (2nd ed.) Bantam Books. NY.
Keen, S. (1970, 1990). To a Dancing God: Notes of a Spiritual Traveler. Harper Collins. San Francisco.
Levine, P.A. with Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, CA.
Rome, D.I. (2014). Your Body Knows the Answer: Using Your Felt Sense to Solve Problems, Effect Change & Liberate Creativity. Shambhala. Boston & London.
About Ellen Swanson
Ellen E. Swanson is retired from a 46 year nursing career that included ortho-rehab, mental health, OR, care management, consulting, and supervision. She also had a private practice in holistic nursing for 15 years, focusing on health and wellness teaching and counseling. She served on the leadership council for the Minnesota Holistic Nurses Association for ten years.
She enjoys writing that incorporates holistic concepts, whether through storytelling or her booklet about Alzheimer’s or her book about healing the hierarchy.