Finding Feeling and Purpose
Questions of human misery and happiness are dealt with in all types of philosophy, psychotherapy, and self-improvement movements, often with brilliance and some accuracy, but rarely with any real change or benefit. Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen broke the change barrier by addressing something obvious that had been overlooked: the visible unhealthy state of the body in which the person and the misery lives. At the same time, they kept a focus on lifestyle limitations imposed or encouraged by the larger society or the family in early life, and then later imposed by the person onto him- or herself. In sum, the limitations in physical capacities and lifestyle limitations reinforce each other, and together lead to a life with diminished total feeling, a strong predominance of bad feelings, diminished energy, and little enjoyment of relationships.
A student of Reich's, Charles Kelley, described the way back from this diminished state as 'education in feeling and purpose.' Feeling is the present non-voluntary state of a person made conscious; purpose is the voluntary and conscious state that is possible to creatively develop from feeling.
To have purpose means living with true conviction and felt principle. In the absence of feeling, an attempt at purpose produces only goals that are both lifeless, and distorted by unconscious unmet needs. Purpose is more than the sum total of feelings, it is true, but no purpose can be formed that works against feeling. Intentional alienation from emotion, while it may seem to offer a greater freedom of action, in the end results in purposelessness and despair.
This website is intended to organize the field of ideas and practices which Reich, Lowen, and others developed to re-introduce the felt and purposeful body into life, and if psychotherapy is used, back into psychotherapy. I call this the Reich and Lowen tradition. It includes both health restoring practices and social critiques.
Every tradition of human growth starts with an innovator but thereafter experiences an inevitable struggle between dogmatism, dilution, distortion, and preservation. When anyone other than the originator propagates the ideas, changes come in, intentionally or otherwise. These can of course be improvements, or useful adaptations to other contexts. But they can also be changes that defeat growth because they arise without understanding the entirety or the essence of the original tradition. Dogmatism assumes most students will not really understand for a long time, and so tries to preserve the original value by forbidding changes. Dogmatism of course eventually leads to distortion because circumstances change just enough to make mechanical application of the original ideas harmful. Popularization on the other hand, accepts the incompleteness of understanding, but denies any risk of dilution or distortion. Neither takes pains to preserve the original rationale, which is necessary for any useful further innovation. Above all, in this site, my aim has been preservation, first and foremost, of rationales, but also, second, actual useful techniques and practices. Whatever robust trial and error investigation went on into finding useful practices during the heyday of the Reich and Lowen tradition, the results seemed to have been committed rather more to the oral than the written record, and are now rapidly being forgotten.
Over time it has become clearer to me that, in developing this website, three different perspectives tend to get mixed. The first is to compare and contrast the Reich and Lowen tradition with the main psychodynamic or Freudian perspective. This is a distinction that Reich and Lowen themselves strongly made in their teaching and writing. The second perspective is to contrast the tradition with humanistic psychology, which has a strong hand in most therapy and self-help movements today. Together these first two perspectives lead to many references to psychotherapy. The third perspective is to compare and contrast the Reich and Lowen tradition with twenty-first century American trends and beliefs about 'the good life'. This of course leads to many references about 'mainstream' social norms. As this is a cumulative work, the three perspectives seem occasionally to get muddled. However, picking one audience over any other does not seem to do justice to the tradition, which is neither just a philosophy of life or just a technique of change, it is both.
The Reich and Lowen tradition of growth is extra-cultural. For instance, it is certainly not consistent with mainstream cultural values like power and material success. However, it is not necessarily counter-cultural, as in depending on the present culture to provide something to rebel against. As Alexander Lowen stated, in the late sixties and early seventies many were drawn to this tradition because they mistook it for an anti-authority program. A decade later most were gone. Someone attempting to increase feeling and purpose according to this tradition is somewhat like Maslow's self actualized person-- able to live in the culture without undue friction, but not looking to the culture for guidance.
As a practicing therapist in the 'teens of the twenty-first century, it has also become clear to me, that, on top of the restrictions of character, as defined by Reich and Lowen, there has arisen a powerful phenomenology and physiology of speed and threat. This is characterized on this site as sympathetic shift and the trauma response. It constitutes a dysregulation of the vegetative systems that Reich and Lowen certainly mentioned but which has become so extensive, widespread, and culturally defended that it must be addressed strongly, almost as a 'pre-therapy,' otherwise traditional vigorous attempts at dissolving character with hard bodywork and character analysis may backfire.
The good news is that the solution for sympathetic shift and trauma response is also in working with the body, perhaps more slowly and less intrusively at first. In fact, there has been, to be sure, a modest resurgence of attention to the body led by workers in therapy for trauma, and the excellent work of Peter Levine, Robert Scaer, and Bessell van der Kolk is certainly compatible with Reich and Lowen. It seems that trauma workers have discovered that 'bottom up' approaches usually contradict the helplessness, rage and collapse of the trauma response much better than cognitive reframes and emotional support because these top-down approaches tend to be captured thematically by the negativity. But while these trauma approaches may see the body as the seat of the problem, they do not see it as the seat of the person.
Moreover, 'trauma' is usually seen as random, divorced from social and family structures. The idea is that if the sufferer can shed the 'one-time,' 'accidental,'trauma response, all will be well. This is made acutely manifest in the American Psychiatric Association's refusal to include childhood mistreatment in their definition of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. But the Reich and Lowen tradition has always taken pains to explain how cultural forces continuously threaten the body through small and/or relational traumas. To be emotionally healthy in a culture that is not completely healthy requires an individual to examine the health of popular values. Wilhelm Reich criticized specific social groups and was ostracized for it. Alexander Lowen criticized not so much groups, but trends and practices, and he fared somewhat better, but was still marginalized. Trauma therapists do describe 'early relational trauma' but it is no wonder that generally they dance around the implications. After all, that is what Freud did!
Further, in the larger body of therapists that incorporate (no pun intended) the concept of the body in their work there is a considerable proportion that approach the body as an antenna only (often the term 'somatic' will be employed). Yes the body can a 'source of information ('wisdom') for the mind, but this is a mind-centric approach still. The Reich and Lowen tradition stands out by insistence that the body is the base and fundament of life
There are some concepts in this tradition, like energy and grounding, that draw skepticism from most of any newly-exposed audience. The tradition may be quickly dismissed as failing the test of logic and critical thinking. However, logic and critical thinking are only tools to get from premises to conclusions. The Reich and Lowen tradition is not about arguing conclusions but broadening experience. New experiences become new premises which are certainly amenable to logic and critical thinking. The spread of this tradition is really by attraction, not promotion. Anyone who see someone with grace, balance, joy, serenity, warmth, purpose, etc, and wants the same, can experiment with the practices and ideas herein and see for themselves what they experience. .
This tradition studies 'persons'. A person is not just an chemistry or physics topic to be studied 'objectively' but also a 'phenomenon' to be studied subjectively. Subjective knowledge is the only way to understand and experience joy, love, creativity and connection. This is true today, was true ten centuries ago, and will be true ten centuries hence. In fact, the subjective point of view is both necessary and superior for studying persons, and studying the pursuit of feeling and purpose. Most scientists, when they leave the office, (where they have likely resolutely resisted the subjective viewpoints of others) and go shopping for groceries, or spend time with friends and families,or vote in elections, take their own subjective view-point both as quite adequate, and as quite accurate for important action. This double standard needs to be confronted!
I make no claim to being scholarly. Rather, I intend this site be, informative, interesting, and above all, useful. Statements are intended to be clear, direct, and at times, provocative. I have resisted, mostly, the temptation to write so carefully that statements are hard to criticize. This website has a 'systematizing' point of view. This stems from my own character, and is not meant to be 'best', 'final', or exhaustive, (that would be madness!) but merely helpful. Also it will be noticed that I have taken the liberty to create names for many constructs myself if I knew of no existing name within the tradition. I have tried to avoid jargonish phrases and rather put a specific meaning on existing English words (which was certainly Alexander Lowen's practice.)
Criticism and comments are welcomed. What is presented is not intended to be dogma, but rather an description of different ideas and practices from a unique tradition of psychotherapy, with an emphasis on how these ideas and practices fit both into a life outside therapy, and into a larger culture outside therapy and outside the individual. It is not an attempt of a grand synthesis but rather a common sense ordering of what otherwise might seem quite uncoordinated. The attempt to capture profound human experiences with mere ideas is always elusive, but hopefully, it is not hopelessly elusive.
In writing this site, I have been worried about sounding old-fashioned, as the writings of Alexander Lowen and Wilhelm Reich may also sound old-fashioned to twenty-first century ears. I have come to realize that that is because 'modern' discussions of human functioning have become chemical- and molecule-centric to the detriment of understanding! A human is not a large collection of molecules but a functional person. Observing persons and families and societies was just as possible in previous decades and centuries as today, and so the less atomized terminology of previous decades is also adequate or perhaps superior for real understanding.
I take responsibility for all statements written here, unless otherwise attributed. I also take responsibility for all my own ideas that I have knowingly or unknowingly mixed with the ideas of others. It is not my intention to borrow credibility from others for my own views, nor to distort or dilute the views of others with my own. Rather my intention has been to make sense by placing many powerful ideas from different sources in a common and commonsense context. This may, I admit, obscure the origin and lineage of many concepts.