Some Basic Presumptions
(How the Reich and Lowen Tradition Differs from Other Schools of Change and Psychotherapy)
Attention to the Pleasure Function More than the Reality Function
Most therapy traditions take it for granted that if a person's circumstances and thoughts, are "right," a person will experience pleasure automatically. The emphasis is on repairing the reality function, so that a client may 'bring about" pleasure successfully. True, in 'neurosis' a great deal of unrealistic behavior or unrealistic expectation and thinking may be seen and uncovered. However, Reich and Lowen saw that unrealistic behavior may be absolutely the best attempt to bring pleasure when the pleasure function has been impaired by early experience. They believed, that rather than combat endless variations of indirect behavior by interpretation and analysis, if the facility to experience pleasure, that is the pleasure function, was restored, reality took care of itself nicely. However, if the capacity for pleasure is not restored, maladaptive and ultimately unsatisfying behavior returns, even if the person "knows better." Overwhelmingly, our belief is: "if we make it, we will feel good," but actually the formula is: "if we feel good, we will make it."
Acceptance of Instinctual and Natural Forces, and Emphasis on Self-regulation
Sigmund Freud famously wrote "Where Id is, Ego shall be." This is really an expression of the doctrine of original sin in which it is believed that humans are born bad and have to be 'civilized' or redeemed by outside intervention. To this end psycho-analysis and most of it's descendents have thought of the role of therapy as one of adjusting the person to his circumstance, which in the modern era, for a middle class person, means rarely if ever doing what one really wants to do. Most humanistic therapy is based on the same premise. There is an assumption that while the client may be unfortunately "oversocialized," it is still necessary to be socialized a great deal to be good and happy. At most, it is believed, deliberate social behavior is only to be informed by natural desires leading to an acceptably 'enlightened' form of self-control.
But there is also often an individual, if widespread, reason for this: the fear of loss of control. People often feel that the body and natural forces will betray them. Perhaps this comes from attitudes of parenting--parents who feel they must control the child at all costs are particularly antagonistic to instinctual and natural behavior because they know it follows feeling and life and not the dictates of the parent.
In the Reich and Lowen tradition, on the other hand, leaks of instinctive behavior such as anger or disgust are seen not as symptoms but as signs of life. The work is not to eliminate the anger, but to possess it honestly so it may be expressed in an undistorted and contact-full way. Seen this way, a person can never eliminate the possibility of being surprised by their feelings and desires, but they and others should not be damaged by them. This is the principle of self-regulation. True, even in the Reich and Lowen tradition, examples are easily found of excesses undertaken in the name of liberation, (even from Reich's close entourage), but these are examples of secondary drives. This self-regulation premise is more than a philosophical idea--without some faith in it, full surrender cannot take place.
Goals are Outside Consciousness
Psychodynamic, humanist, cognitive, gestalt, and Buddhist-inspired approaches have one thing in common: The overall approach is to widen awareness (increase consciousness) to include thenceforward all relevant elements of emotional issues so that life can be lived well on a deliberate basis. The Reich and Lowen tradition on the other hand seeks to bring vitality and re-regulation to the life via vibration, breathing, grounding, impulses, emotions, sensation and vegetative states. The goals are outside consciousness. A healthy person should live a good life naturally without deliberation, and this is the state that is hopefully being restored. In therapeutic efforts, it becomes necessary to bring issues into consciousness but this is an artifact of a corrective process. This one area, the Reich and Lowen tradition shares with the traditions inspired by Milton Erickson, but without the mysteriousness. And needless to say, mainstream therapy's goal of 'expanded consciousness' plays very easily into narcissism.
Emphasis on Correction Rather than Exploration
The Reich and Lowen tradition asserts that some ways of being are healthier than others, and that work in this tradition means getting oneself and others to these ways of being. The humanistic tradition (which arose somewhat from a rebellion from the Freudian tradition of correction) by contrast asserts that no one can say what is good for another, and a therapist's role is one of companion, not expert. But Reich and Lowen felt that therapy was often futile just for the reason that a exploratory approach keeps the client always within the orbit of his or her character.
Even humanists, however, accept 'correction' from general medicine physicians. No one seriously asserts that biology varies greatly from one person to another. Reich and Lowen therapy is essentially a biological intervention. That is, if traumatic experience affects biology negatively and thereby affects experience negatively, then therapeutic experience (body work and character analysis) affects biology positively and experience positively.
Emphasis on Re-association:
Whenever we act contrary to our feelings, the ego is dissociating from them, and from our bodies. This is necessary from time to time in modern life, and the ability to do this judiciously is a mark of a healthy ego. However, to make a lifestyle or ego ideal out of this is to produce a more or less permanent state of dissociation. Long standing dissociation leads to deadness. It also produces an inability to mourn losses. However, dissociation avoids some pain in the short-run, and can at times permit enough freedom of action to either permit survival or bring about pleasure elsewhere, which is healing.
More or less all the traditions of therapy arising from the work of Milton Erickson, (family therapy, hypnotic therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, other tricky therapies developed in the 1970's, etc...) are based on dissociation (although hypnotic trance itself may be re-associating with the body). True, many associations that develop traumatically in life are limiting and defeating. It makes sense to want to break bad associations. Dissociation, while it can remove bad feelings, it cannot bring good feelings
Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on dissociating cognitions (the ego) from feelings and the body even more. In the cognitive tradition, thoughts are believed to give rise to feelings just as readily as the other way around. As every therapist and almost all clients know, however, under stress cognitive distortions tend to re-appear with a strong compellingness, even when the holder recognizes very well the illogicality and has memorized the countering thought. How often does someone report they did something, 'even though they "knew" better'? Cognitive distortions are the result of a cerebral cortex that is already largely dissociated from the body and the brainstem, but still facing the 'leak' of powerful feelings. A contracted body can not understand or possess these strong feelings, and cognition is distorted. Cognitive strategies work for a time by producing elation or by detachment, but the modest effect decays over time, and it cannot provide a foundation for serious growth.
Reich and Lowen sought to have clients associate with their bodies, their sexuality, and with the basic processes of life. This alone will allow accumulated bad feelings to be worked through, making room for pleasure. Good feelings bring about balanced thought much more than the other way around. Arthur Janov's Primal Therapy, although not consistent with the Reich and Lowen tradition, is also based strongly around re-association with painful feeling of early origin.
Emphasis on Drive versus Object
In the drive theory, basic human life force or energy is believed to transit from some type of inside or center out toward the world and other people. When the drives are working well, a person can succeed in a social, sexual and work sense. Drives move the person toward objects, which can be people or things. A competing emphasis, called object relations, is that those objects that happen to be people have a role in eliciting and shaping drives in other people, and that the availability of good objects cannot be taken for granted. Object relations emphasizes the appropriateness of the engaging other to help a person heal. It is posited that the original failure of a 'good enough other' was the hampering event in emotional development, and that in psychotherapy with adults, the therapist must be an exquisitely good enough object to allow the real self of the client to be freed.
The drive of course has always been a very common intuitive idea about human functioning. Freud formalized it as an organizing idea for his work, but subsequently mainstream psychoanalysis has de-emphasized it. The Reich and Lowen tradition of therapy has found the drive theory a useful organizing idea, and has retained it. Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen believed it was more important for a therapist to be a coach to get drives going again, than it was for the therapist to be any particular object except warm, honest, and straight-forward. In their work, almost the entire emphasis was on 'repair' of the drive of the individual. It was assumed that when the drive was ready, appropriate others (objects) would appear.
This is a controversy in ideas that is not possible to settle definitely. It seems that perhaps there has always been a movement between the two poles of drive and object. Later followers of Freud (except Wilhelm Reich) tended to reject the drive emphasis in favor object emphasis, and in reaction Alexander Lowen strongly renewed the drive emphasis, while his later followers in bio-energetics tended back toward object emphasis. It is useful to note that 'drive' is more of a biological idea, and that object relations is more of a psychological idea. The Reich and Lowen tradition is more tied to ideas of biology (as was Freud, especially the early Freud) than is modern psychoanalysis. Perhaps the following is a useful synthesis: drive-oriented work is necessary to 'deconstruct' restraints of character, and at that point (a very painful point), relational availability and work is helpful for the 'reconstruction.' Another way to state this: object relations tend to revolve within an orbit prescribed by the basic health of the organism, and working to change object relations without affecting the basic 'energetic' health of the person is slow or futile. Once the basic emotional economy is improved, then of course a developmental process of object relating needs to mature, and perhaps this can be best done in therapy. These two stages, of course, will be mostly overlapping.
Emphasis More on Unstructuring Than Structuring
The Reich and Lowen tradition emphasizes overcoming restrictions and says very little about re-structuring. It as if the belief is that since the job of freeing the self never gets quite finished, most time and effort should be devoted to it. As for integration of healthy developments, it is believed that the interplay of healthy drives and reality in one's life will guide development. Still, this has at times been a concern of onlookers about the Reich and Lowen tradition. Besides the unjustified fear that antisocial behavior will arise (which is covered under secondary drives) there are two main fears: 1) an individual is left in a disorganized state without a 'compass' and remains lost, and 2) without help restructuring, the individual perhaps 'falls back' into old patterns.
Each person must make a life for her- or himself. this really cannot and should not be done under the direction of another. Rather the corrective efforts of this tradition are about regaining the capacity to make a life. This is consistent with the stated aims of all humanistic and psychodynamic traditions. Perhaps the actual fact is however, that most other therapy and healing traditions leave room for the temptation of telling others how to live to creep in. The final products of work in this tradition are physical and emotion states, not behaviors.
'Cracking' character is a monumental task to do if it ever gets done at all. Lowen himself described therapy as a long process in which opening was required many times, but he seems to imply that at a certain threshold, the process becomes self-sustaining. It is true that at times previous 'rules' for living may seem inadequate or wrong but there is nothing yet to replace them. One is more likely to meet existential anxiety. Anxiety can be strong once character defenses are loosened, but anxiety can be made manageable if there is trust and support.
Emphasis on Developing Good Feelings More than Removing Bad Feelings
Reassurance, empathy, sympathy, cognitive reframing, insight, and comforting are all ways of removing bad feelings. They are necessary to some extent in any healing process. Most mainstream therapy concentrates on these methods. But in the absence of good feelings, removing bad feelings leads to little or no feeling which is the malaise of our time. Numbing is part of the original problem not part of the solution. Mainstream therapy has a very difficult time with depression, which is a state of deep suffering and anxiety arising from a lack of feeling. The Reich and Lowen tradition concentrates on developing good feelings, the reliable and sufficient appearance of which both automatically makes bad feelings manageable and treats despair. An implication of this is that anxiety is seen not as a random aberration to be squelched, but a sign of life to be developed into pleasure.
Emphasis on Robust Emotional Interaction
Many traditions (psychoanalytic, cognitive, humanist) strive to ultimately provide peace of mind and security through frictionless deportment in one's relationships. The idea is the client can 'withstand' rougher patches in relationships by drawing on inner resources and 'weathering the storm'. The Reich and Lowen tradition though, sees conflict as a building block of life, not a misstep. Good feelings and security are to be had by fighting in a constructive and self-defining way. It is demonstrated and made explicit to clients that there is nothing wrong with taking a position in a conflict as long as it is pursued non-destructively. As an off-shoot of that, the tradition does not hesitate to point out specific types of interactions that are diminishing. That is, emotional trauma doesn't come out of no where but is generated by some styles of life and prevented (and healed) by other styles of living. Transactional Analysis and Gestalt are in agreement with this point (and also definitely out of fashion at the moment!)
Emphasis on Loving versus Being Lovable:
This is partly related to the emphasis on drive described above. People are rightly concerned with the problem of love. Though it is not easy to define love, one thing seems clear: 'solving' the problem of love is a matter of being loving, not of being lovable.
It must quickly be made clear, that by "loving" is not meant compulsive self-sacrifice, unnatural patience, submission, blind loyalty, etc These will-based, self-negating practices are really attempts at being lovable. They are based on the feeling of scarcity. They derive from an early experience of rejection. If a child feels that they are even potentially a burden to the parent, the natural act of receiving love and feeling it back is interrupted. In it's place arises the need to draw the love of the parent and others by being lovable. The child grows to try to conform to an image. The image is often one provided by the parent but it may be the opposite.
A great deal of achievement in our culture is spurred by the hope to be lovable. Satisfaction is erroneously believed to be the product of achievement, and when achievement does not provide satisfaction, more achievement is sought after. The 'rat race' is the race to be lovable. The hope to become lovable leads to endless types of indirect behavior. Most of the unsatisfying drama in life arises from indirect behavior.
Loving by contrast is a felt thing. It has a biological aspect--people often remark how someone in love looks more alive. Love naturally grows between people who share pleasure together, if the capacity for loving has not been squashed. A person with loving capacity may genuinely love a stranger because of that stranger's humanity. Love cannot be forced by ethical precept, however. It arises involuntarily and effortlessly, if the openness is there.
By contrast, most casual, humanistic psychotherapy is oriented toward three processes 1) re-assuring the client that he or she already is lovable, or 2) coaching some type of behavior that will bring a positive response from others, or 3) helping the client attain his or her life goals. Any of these processes keeps the emphasis on achieving an image, and does not develop feeling or purpose. Therapy and lifestyle practices in the Reich and Lowen tradition are directed at restoring and increasing the capacity for love and the capacity for pleasure (the two of which are closely related).
Emphasis on Social Results and the Body as a Guide
Modern people are led to believe that they are their ideas and ideals, and that the body is an unfortunately necessary conveyance, the condition of which is a random event unrelated to a person's "true self" . The Reich and Lowen tradition stresses, by contrast, that not only does the body reflect the self, it is a large part of the self.
Also many believe (conscious) intentions and ideas are more important than results in the world and in relationships. This is true of the general culture but also the general therapist culture. However, intentions and ideas miss character, miss the unconscious,and miss the 'shadow'. Results, on the other hand, over time include the effects of those parts of a person of which he or she is otherwise unaware. That is not to say that results are always just or fair, often they are not. However, results, and the state of the body, are not an aberration. The Reich and Lowen tradition, in general, strongly affirms folk wisdom, which is a great disappointment to many who feel too sophisticated for that.
Also this guiding reference to matters outside therapy is a strong protection from abuse. There have been in the history of therapy cultish pockets, where embracing a particular ideology or performing a certain way in a therapy session was seen as a criterion of health. However in the tradition of Alexander Lowen, interpretations and explanations should be mappable onto and testable in a person's everyday life. That is, there is an insistence that one does not to take the therapist's word for it, but rather tries it out for oneself.
Focus on the Character Rather than the Symptom or Concern
At the time of seeking change, a person will conceive of some parts of his or her life as a problem, and other parts, even if not presently satisfying, as a success. Both categories contain aspects of character. Most people want to leave alone what seems to be an asset and build on it. What presents as an unwanted symptom may also be seen as a sign of life breaking through a character defense.
Alexander Lowen came to believe that resistance to change ultimately resided not just in the body and not just in the psyche but actually in character itself, intangible as it may be. That is, body work alone, or psychological work alone, or even perhaps both done in parallel, could not really unseat the limiting effects of character. Rather overall global character attitudes had to be confronted. This is called character focus. Lowen, like Reich before him, believed that only by showing the client how his or her resistance fit a constellation of character, could the nucleus of resistance be overcome. An implication of this is that egalitarian and exploratory approaches to therapy and change, even one's including bodywork, if they fail to 'characterize' the problem, tended to only produce modest change in quality of life.
If new 'issues' are taken up as they arise, issues may seem to multiply with no real sense of direction. Dissatisfaction seems to be able to jump from manifestation to manifestation.
There is also a benefit to character focus in the larger context of change. Most goal-directed, self-initiated programs of change ('self-help') have some benefit, but the benefit is limited again by the filter of character. It really can require another person at times, not necessarily a therapist and not necessarily 'character-saavy', but honest, to point out 'blind spots'. A focus on character may call into question an entire lifestyle. It seems, that intangible as it is, character is the ultimate repository of resistance to happiness. Bodywork alone will stall without attention to character, and supportive conversational therapy with neither attention to character nor bodywork will generally really stall.
Emphasis on Good Feeling and Emotional Health Rather than Meaning.
The Reich and Lowen tradition is interested in restoring the capacity for feeling and purpose, not the content of feeling and purpose. The good life perhaps includes more than good feeling, like meaning, spirituality, etc. However, these are best built on top of health and good feeling. Trying to construct meaning, prematurely, out of despair and pleasurelessness, is like a weak consolation prize when one believes betterment is not possible. While past history is worked through, this is done in the service of harmonizing the sense of self with accumulated feelings, not in order to 'solve' a narrative