People don't die of a broken intellect, they die of a broken heart. People don't tell you to get off their thoughts, they tell you to get off their back.

Peggy Martin

"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

Emily Post

Its better to confess ignorance than to provide it.

Homer Hickam


The War Against the Senses

We live in a culture that devalues and distrusts the senses. This leads to an alienation from a large part of natural life. I wish to call this insensitivity, but some clarification is then in order. What the word 'insensitivity' implies these days is a disregard of the right of others to feel good and respected. It is possible, however, to intend very much to protect the good feelings of others, while fighting unconsciously the input of one's own senses. Now while the two meanings of insensitivity can usefully be separated in discussion, in practice they are related. Sensitivity as described above is also erroneously confused with a low thresh-hold to complain or a high emotional dependency. In actuality, high emotional dependency in an adult is a style that often co-exists with insensitivity.

Often in early life, the truth of the senses becomes at odds with the wishes of the parents. Or the senses may detect a problem that a child is not allowed to address or even talk about. This is an unbearable situation, and it is the senses that must be sacrificed, because they are the only thing over which the child has any control. The desensitized state becomes automatic, and structured into the body. There are perhaps two general ways to avoid feeling and sensing:

  1. A deadening in the body leading to an insensitivity to emotional and vegetative phenomena, with an ultimate impoverishment of emotion and vegetative life, creating a loop of insensitivity. Deadening tends to a mechanistic outlook.
  2. A lack of grounding and real contact with physical reality, so that what is sensed stays vague, and also has no real implications for action. In this way, what is sensed has a lesser order of reality, or is distorted into a safe idea. This tends to a mystical outlook.

Sensitivity, on the other hand, is the ability of the senses (including and perhaps especially the kinesthetic) to appreciate (both as in to weigh and as in to know the value) all that is happening with our selves, are bodies and the immediate vicinity. Much of our culture strongly discourages sensitivity because it seems to reduce efficiency and slow down material progress. One might say that the present mainstream culture depends on some insensitivity for its smooth operation. Crowded conditions require the development of some insensitivity.

Perhaps also, sensitivity interferes with the workings of power and control. That is, just as reducing human functioning to a bunch of chemical reactions is a reduction that obviously misses a lot, reducing human relations to a bunch of incentives and coercions is a reduction that obviously misses a lot. Just as manipulating chemistry in a person can control life, manipulating power can control life, but that does not mean that either is the 'best' in life. The current dominance of chemical and power explanations in human affairs belies the growing insensitivity in our culture.

Because sensitivity varies greatly from person to person, the concept suffers greatly from the abuse of charlatans, knowing and unknowing, who claim sensitivity they do not have. To do this they insist the target has an insensitivity but in fact there is these fraudulent instances nothing to sense. This is a problem with all invisible things. For this reason, science and public discourse usually refuses to have anything to do with invisible things. However 'love' is invisible, therefore 'fake-able', and science has nothing to do with it, but most people find it both compelling and 'real'.

Science in fact fails to make a distinction between mysticism and sensitivity, and so science strongly opposes sensitivity. In this, science becomes mechanistic, and therefore can be very comforting to those who had to deaden themselves in order to survive their family upbringing and their cultural upbringing. Science then prides it self on the insensitivity of its scientists but also prides itself on the 'sensitivity' of its instruments. In truth, few instruments that measure things that humans can sense are as sensitive as a human, though instruments are of course more consistent.

A related ideal is common sense. Common sense is not any particular fund of knowledge. Rather it is a state of harmony between the senses, the mind, the physical environment, natural laws, and the human community. With this harmony in place, proceeding realistically in the world is easy.

Thus therapy and growth in the Reich and Lowen tradition has a paradox, or a boot-strapping problem. A goal of the work in this tradition is to increase sensitivity, but clearly sensitivity is required to recognize and fully feel the phenomena that the work seeks to increase. Further, and this is controversial, sensitivity is required for some biological or emotional phenomenon to happen at all. This not merely saying sensitivity is required for recognition of a phenomenon.. It is rather saying in fact that sensitivity is required for the thing that could be sensed to happen at all. For instance, an exchange of eye contact can at times lead to relaxation or positive excitement. But if one is not sensitive, perhaps that will never happen.

Perhaps because of the fact that insensitivity defeats contact, Reich and Lowen as doctors and therapists both came to put clients rather quickly into strong experiences--Reich using hyperventilation and Lowen the 'bow' position. Both are capable of eliciting new phenomena and new feeling from relatively insensitive bodies.

Is the insensitivity written above the same insensitivity that is spoken above in interpersonal relationships? I think that it is. Interpersonal insensitivity comes from a body and sensory insensitivity. This seems to be bourn out by the common observation that 'nice' men and women who endeavor strenuously by will and intellect not to offend or hurt others actually show a great deal of insensitivity.

While insensitivity is encouraged in work life, most people recognize that there is something called sensitivity that is valued by some in personal relationships. This can lead to trying to 'will' sensitivity. However, the will tends to produce neurological and chemical events that decrease actual 'sensed' sensitivity. What the will can produce is vigilance about the interests of others. The problem that arises, is that it is difficult to sense nuance or adjust in a state of vigilance. Vigilance leads to over-doing and 'getting it wrong' quite a bit and so the effort 'to please' is not well-received. Also it is difficult to balance self-interest and the interests of others so that, with vigilance, the wishes of others are sooner or later experienced as coercive and stifling, and resentment results.

In relationships, insensitivity works both ways. When we are insensitive to what hurts or helps us, we will perpetrate those insensitivities on others, despite our best intentions.