Using ‘felt experience’ in coaching by embodying Chinese thinking by Simon Darnton
The more I coach, the more I am aware of how I rely on both mine and my clients’ felt experience as primary guides in the coaching space.
Through this, clients also report that they become more aware of, and connected with, their felt experience. But more importantly they're able to use it practically, to be more capable and, in organisational contexts, to change how they manage and lead their organisations.
I don’t think I’m alone in this and I think that most, if not all, coaches use ‘themselves as tools’ in the coaching space. Which coach doesn’t intuit things that drive questions and dialogue?
My schooling in coaching has primarily come from the domain of psychology, coaching psychology in particular, so my perspective is naturally coloured by this influence. What has always struck me as curious is that this domain deals pretty poorly with the totality of human experience (if at all in some instances), and more specifically, felt experience. I have therefore always found myself frustrated and wanting from this domain, even from those parts of it which are better developed in this dimension like Phenomenology. But I’ve found myself on a lonely path exploring this critical aspect of human relations; I’ve felt that almost all avenues I’ve pursued have been insufficient, leaving me with a deep sense that something is missing.
In exploring these various avenues, I have become particularly drawn to traditional Chinese 'thinking' because it encompasses every level of human experience, inclusively, coherently, as well as pragmatically. And more wonderfully it inherently embraces incoherence and paradox without skipping a beat… For example, according to Zhu Bing & Wang Hongcai interpretation of Yin/Yang theory “only when Yin and Yang are not only in opposition, but also in unity, can a relative balance be maintained to ensure change and development in nature.” (p 21).
I started exploring the nature of Chinese 'thinking' when I started learning Tai Chi and received acupuncture treatment, but I began to formally study it and how it might inform coaching during my MA in Psychological Coaching research project. It's been under my skin ever since and I can’t help but keep on digging away at it.
Another reason it has grown on me is because of my journey of learning Tai Chi, which I now teach, so I am experiencing Chinese 'thinking' every day in an alternative though aligned context.
Why I like the Chinese 'thinking' so much
In coaching I find that Chinese 'thinking' provides a useful 'receptacle' where all dimensions of a person's experience are equally valid and available for use. For example, as I wrote in my previous piece [on systematic correspondence], I like the way thoughts can be considered feelings as much as feelings being thoughts (or more importantly that there is no difference!). More relevant to this piece is that it handles the subtleties of felt experience which tell us about our world, helping us to relate to it and to act effectively. It also provides me with useful ways in which to organise my thinking, my experience, my actions as a coach and to use this in co-creating the coaching environment with my clients.
Co-creation is an integral facet of Chinese ‘thinking’ and so it helps me to keep on this line. Or perhaps I should say that it has become an integral facet of me as I no longer experience my ‘feelings’ as just mine when in relation to another person.
Because of its inherent pragmatic nature, Chinese 'thinking' also provides integral ways of developing the self-awareness and knowledge to use felt experience to greater effect.
In this piece, I'm going to develop on my previous writing here on the good coach by outlining Chinese 'thinking' in relation to a person, and then explore how it can be embodied to inform not only the coaching process but my own development as person and coach.
The ‘felt experience’
Unfortunately, in many contexts felt experience can be like opening up a whole can of worms, particularly in terms of what it actually means. I want to avoid the reductionist associations to terms such as embodiment, introspection, or the unhelpful cocktail of affect, feelings and emotions from psychology, for example, because I feel that in order to grasp this properly we actually need to step into an alternative paradigm, which is where I’m going with this.
I’ll begin by describing my felt experience during two different coaching situations:
...as I'm sitting there listening to a business founder talk about two recent related experiences, I'm aware that as she describes the first one there is a hardness about her. I find her way of narrating the event to be strong, powerful, abrasive and penetrative. I feel struck, or maybe pounded by her words. (It’s a bit like that feeling of a deep base sound hitting the chest during a live concert or rave.) Her mannerism feels square and rigid, inorganic, constructed. I harden up and feel forced upon, like I'm being caged in. As she describes the second experience, I'm aware of a sudden wave of softening that washes over me. I'm feeling freer and easier, together with a sense of being held supportively, gently, yet firmly. I feel this on my skin, in my muscles, as well as my bones.
This is an entirely visceral experience where I'm also struck by how both my vision of her and her demeanour changed in that moment. 'This is important' the feeling tells me. It also tells me to hold back for a moment, take a deep breath and let her continue...Moments later she leans forwards, straightening herself up into an upright though relaxed posture while becoming silent, eyes defocusing slightly. Off into the distance she seems to go. There's a pleasant look about her face - not a smile, but at the same time a smile. Peaceful. At ease with herself.
I see her breathing is freer and so is mine. I'm able to take large draws of air deep down into my lungs. Had I been holding my breath or did I just relax a whole lot more?
Then she comes back to the room... to continue her explanation of what was going on. Her demeanour reverts to something more mechanical as it clunks a little within me.
This is somehow jarring for me so I feel compelled to interject.
I ask if I may stop her for a moment. She replies, 'yes,' so I ask if she noticed what just happened there. Initially she says she didn't. I sit in silence waiting for what is to unfold. She thinks about it for a while and then says to me: 'I softened.'
'I was more aware of the space. What each person needed in the room, so I could hold it in the appropriate way for them...didn't need to do anything. That's really different,' she continues, 'I'd like to explore this more.' She notices and remarks that she's aware this is a 'better' place for her in these situations.
I'm listening to a world-class athlete as he gives me a rundown of what is going on for him and how he doesn't know what to do.
I notice a feeling of fragmentation turn up in my body. My head starts whirring, spinning and bouncing around. I feel quite lost and unsure of myself. It seems a bit random. As a result I'm directionless. Disorientated. And I find a word emerges from my mouth: 'structure.' He says, 'What?' And I explain that the feeling I'm getting feels like structure so it's suggesting to me he might benefit by finding some structure to guide him.
He suddenly brightens up. He takes a sharp breath: 'Yeah, that's exactly what I need! Now that you mention it, it's like I don't really know where I am, a bit like I'm flitting around.'
'But I don't want too much of that,' he says with a touch of fear in his voice. 'I still need to have fun and be able to muck about with my mates.'
We spent three months working together to create this for him. Implementing this new structure while still having the freedom to have fun, he gets a run of the best results he's ever achieved, including an overall championship podium position. It's still fun, if not more so, with mucking about included!
My felt experience here can be separate into two aspects.
The first is how certain qualities of feelings underpin my decisions and actions.
The second seems to be a way in which the first is derived from a broader felt experience that shows me, in many kinds of ways, the broader patterns of the situation. Importantly this broader pattern shows me the mixing of mine and my client’s worlds as we’re meeting in the coaching space rather than showing me the client’s situation. This has become more important to me as it functions as a guide to creating the appropriate space.
In many ways, this experience has always been with me. I’ve always had an acute sense of situations and dynamics in a room and when I was employed by big corporates it gave me a useful helping hand in navigating both politics and the organisational dynamics. However, the more I searched for people who shared this experience, understood it - and in many cases even acknowledged it - the more I found emptiness. I found myself straddling schools of psychology and schools of spirituality without satisfaction. For example, my grandmother was involved with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India, which is the home of a world-renowned integral Yoga and leading centre for the study of consciousness. So I’ve been fed and influenced by this since I was a child. Yet, my own felt sense of this Yoga is that it lacks a grounding somehow, despite how amazing the journey can be into various stages of consciousness development. I also saw how my grandmother deteriorated physically despite retaining the sharpest of minds. This didn’t seem right to me and my sense of the ashram in contemporary times when I last visited my grandmother there was that it was somehow disconnected from the community, and perhaps its wider context.
These are some of the reasons why, through Tai Chi practise, I have become rather enthralled by its foundational Chinese thinking.
Chinese 'thinking' isn't really about 'thinking'
I've previously put this interest of mine under ‘the paradigm of systematic correspondence,’ which may or may not be the best, or most meaningful term - perhaps you can forgive me that it was a catchy term that worked well for my MA Psychological Coaching research project! What I have found with this term is that it too easily invites an analytical approach within me to find coherent correspondences, whereas in practise it works by getting a sense of, and feeling for, the patterns of correspondences that appear in the unfolding moment.
Chinese 'thinking' views the world through relationships and interconnectedness between all phenomena and some Western experts have taken to using the term 'correlative thinking.'
However, to refer to it as ‘thinking’ is a bit misleading and misses the point. From the Chinese perspective, philosophy is a living philosophy. Chinese 'thinking,' is about active, reciprocal relations with the world: being and acting.
Now, I hate to use a broad brush to tarnish the entirety of 'Western' approaches here. Things are changing, but in my mind we need to do some significant work in creating an inclusive and nuanced view of the totality of the person in relation to their lived experience. For me there seems to be a rather crude differentiation between, for example, cognitive processes, or emotional ones, below which there lives a world of sensory experience, none of which, in isolation or in unity, really grasp experience. Then there’s that frightful label: intuition. Intuition ain't just some cognitive system, nor is it just an emotional one!
For this reason, I’m going to provide a brief outline of a person viewed from this more inclusive and permissive place of Chinese ‘thinking.’
A person from a Chinese perspective: Shenti
Shenti is made up of two Chinese characters, ‘Shen’ and ‘Ti’, which roughly means body-person. Both Shen and Ti have many possible meanings, some of which overlap.
Shen means body, but also the spiritual, psychological, physical, social and environmental aspects of the self.
Ti is also body but it also refers to embodied knowing and acting. Ti is the body as we experience it.
In this sense, knowing, acting and the nature of self is inextricably linked to the body as well as to the mind.
Shenti is the embodied person in an active and experienced sense.
As Shenti emerges through action and experience how does as person’s Shenti come about and what is it that fuels this functional, embodied, person?
Qi, Jing, Shen
Shen can be translated as ‘spirit’ but it represents the vitality of the person as a whole. Someone who has good Shen has a clear and sharp mental function, bright eyes. There is a good spirit or energy about them. A person’s Shen only comes about through the worldly activity of the whole person.
Shen remains as one of the most important factors in the diagnosis and treatment of patients in contemporary Zhongyi medicine (medicine for treating emotions) in China [1, 2]
You may have come across the term Qi which is commonly translated as ‘energy’ or ‘breath.' But you may not have crossed paths with Jing. In a way, they're two sides to the same coin, as Yanhua Zhang  explains:
"Chinese medical theories view Jing and Qi...as the same life-giving energy."
Jing is the essence of vitality yet "existence can only be known and felt through its functions and effect," Zhang says. (I would venture further to suggest that this extends to Qi too.)
Jing is actually used in common Chinese language as a description of vitality and other qualities relating to good energy, health, even mental focus and concentration. But they encompass how the person is experienced (themselves and by others). 
Qi is often referred to as meaning 'energy' or 'breath' which is constantly in flux. However, the translation to energy can be misleading and this definition has been questioned as not having historical support.
Instead Qi has been defined as:
a) 'smallest matter influence' ;
b) 'stuff that makes things happen' .
In Zhongyi medicine the present day definition for Qi is 'the material basis of life.' . In Traditional Chinese Medicine Qi is fundamental to maintaining the vital activities of the human body. It is considered a ‘material substance.’ 
In Tai Chi Chuan, for example, we practise to develop our awareness, experience, and control of Qi, which means that Qi is material and tangible, but it can only be known through experience.
Our function, health, illness, wellbeing, are influenced by the flow of Qi. It needs to flow and disturbances in this flow lead to illness. Qi is in constant motion and transformation.
Jing and Qi manifest in the person's spirit, Shen [1,5].
Why does this all matter in my coaching?
In a narrow sense, coaching can be considered to be about working with the person of the coachee. In a slightly broader sense, it can be considered to be working with the person of the coachee plus me as coach. And in an even broader sense, it’s working with both of us, our contexts, as well a the context we co-create.
How do I actually work with this? I have to be open to and engage with all the multiple dimensions of the persons in that space, not just how and what they think, but how they experience themselves in their environment, including that of the coaching space. So for me it is the way in which Chinese philosophy views the person.
It is not like within many Western models (and some Eastern for that matter too) where the person has a superior mind, with an inferior body meat beneath it that merely gives rise to sensory input.; and where there is a context that can be removed, ignored, overcome and revised by the whim of the mind alone.
To the contrary, the Chinese view of the person is as a whole person at every level of existence, including their spirituality, in active connection with the environment. And even more importantly, inherent within it is also the space between people, people and their context. All phenomena.
In short, it represents a different way of being which I find helps me to feel my way...and whether I truly need it or not, it permits and legitimizes me to do so.
‘Felt experience’ goes beyond emotions
In the Chinese view there are just seven emotions [1, 2, 5, 6]. These are:
Felt experience goes beyond these to include the personal experience of the movements of Qi. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in areas such as psychology and coaching (and others), to deal with felt experience as only emotions.
Zhang states, “the essence of Zhongyi medicine treatment is about ‘adjusting multiple dimensions of the patient’s experience...(2007, p137)”. For example, the 4th emotion: Thinking/pensiveness relates to the organs of the Stomach and Spleen (Earth). Too much thinking can negatively impact the function of these organs whilst dysfunction in the organs will impact thinking. Difficulty in thinking clearly or having a muzzy head and/or clouded mind, are symptomatic of Stomach/Spleen dysfunction. But also, the function of the mind correlates to the function of the organ, so as the Stomach and Spleen are responsible for the intake and digestion of food and water in order to generate Qi to feed the body; thinking is also a natural process of feeding the person.
At more subtle levels, Qi feed into daily experiences. For example, if you're becoming frustrated about something, you might feel a rising sensation into your chest and a tension in the chest area. If you're thinking too much, you might experience a heavy/dull sensation in or about your head, probably towards the front.
‘Felt experience’ is not just mine alone
It is very easy, and tempting I might add, to take my experience onboard as just mine. But what I find helpful about the Chinese ‘thinking’ is the constant reminder that I am only experiencing what I’m experiencing in relation to a wider context. I am only me due to a constant and mutual exchange with my environment. And this applies to every level of my experience, from the smallest twitch to the biggest realisation.
My experience tells me things about the wider context.
For example, I'm listening to a client talk about a difficult challenge at work and he's perfectly calm and relaxed about the situation. So much so, he's happy to be open and honest with everyone around him about the reality of this. However, he is aware of feeling a little unsettled by how he has been received in this situation by others in the company. As we’re talking I notice a fluttering in my stomach, it gets fizzy, and then I recognise the sensation as a kind of distant anxiousness. This is a feeling of knowing there’s anxiety floating around in this context somewhere, so I’m inclined to ask him whether he's aware of any anxiety. He says not from him, but after considering the situation, he has a realisation that there may be a lot of it around him in the company that he's not been aware of. Time to go and check it out in the group.
This nature of felt experience takes me into even more subtle domains, but nonetheless important in assessing how I'm to act and proceed, whilst simultaneously bringing the felt experience of my client to the fore for them.
Where does this ‘felt experience’ take me in coaching?
The very nature of the Chinese philosophies underpinning human being and knowing, is that they are active and contextual. In practice this means that we derive meaning, learning, knowledge and wisdom from the digestion of experience as opposed to the assumed rational processes underpinning by far the majority of contemporary ‘Western’ approaches.
This means a couple of things to me in coaching which were not entirely intuitive and which have been highlighted to me through my experience coaching learners of Tai Chi, especially beginners:
We tend to think and talk too much and through this attach ourselves too much to what we think is the meaning of the experience;
Through this process we have a tendency to overcomplicate things;
We strive to then organise our thinking and complication through lots of models and frameworks which are by definition limited and ultimately often become hindrances (in part because we tend to think and talk too much about them). (In writing this I recall with a smile a conversation I had with my Tai Chi teacher after he had read my Master’s dissertation. He explained that he liked how I’d used Five-phase theory to organise my thinking and it had been useful for me. Then he continued to say that I shouldn’t worry too much about it as soon I’d be able to drop the framework and simply live with my intuition.)
I am currently finding myself intrigued by a few things in relation to my learning journey:
The first is that I feel like I’m moving through the world of coaching to somewhere else. A somewhere else that one can nevertheless call coaching but doesn’t, in my view, conform to coaching in the narrow sense that I think it is popularly taught in contemporary training and educational programmes.
The second is space. It’s something I think we actually know very little about, especially when it comes to learning, knowledge and our active selves. In my observations, both of myself in my development and of others, we seem to have a pathological tendency to fill space up. When I speak of ‘creating space’ with clients in coaching, many of them dismiss it as something impractical, unreal or plain crazy….’but I have a company to run, I simply don’t have that time.’ And even when we’re in the coaching space, it is often referred to as a ‘thinking space;’ which by definition is an already full space that’s unfortunately been reduced and defined by process. How are we then supposed to notice what is important to notice, especially regarding our experience, in such a constricted space?
In Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan space at one level is approached with a real yet functional paradox: half the mind concentrates, the other half is empty, clear and open.
One simple approach I use to begin engendering this in coaching is to gently, but continuously, bring clients back to their current experience.
Why might this be important? To use a specific example from coaching in Tai Chi, my students often remark on their regular realisations about how, if they let their body do its thing, the natural movements of Tai Chi seem to just emerge and they use far less effort than they thought necessary. The key here is in providing space to allow this to emerge, which is curiously achieved neither through talking or doing.
The third area of intrigue for me is far more mundane and more about the practicalities of maintaining (as well as growing) a viable practice. The Yin/Yang of my coaching practice; finding both opposition and unity between how I bring myself to coaching and at the same time navigating the demands of the current marketplace, serving it in a way that nourishes us both. How do I explain an emergent experience which cannot be explained – I’m frankly not sure how to do this right now but as with Tai Chi, it’s turning out to be and endless fascinating journey!
To connect with Simon Darnton
1. Zhang, Y. (2007). Transforming Emotions with Chinese Medicine. Albany: State University of New York.
2. Zhu Bing & Wang Hongcai (Eds.) (2010). Diagnostics of Traditional Chinese Medicine. London: Singing Dragon Press.
3. Unschuld, P. U. (1985). Medicine in China: A History of Ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
4. Sivin, N (1987). Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China. University of Michigan Press.
5. Zhu Bing & Wang Hongcai (Eds.) (2010). Basic Theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine. London: Singing Dragon Press.
6. Larre, C., & Rochat de la Vallee, E. (1996). The Seven Emotions: Psychology and Health in Ancient China. King's Lynn: Monkey Press.