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Energy and Personal Growth

by John Lawson © 1987, 2010

Body and Mind

Breathing and Energy

    All of the basic life functions of the individual involve energetic processes.  This must be so, since living organisms are engaged in activity.  In physical terms, this means that living organisms perform work.  The word "energy" is itself derived from the Greek word energein (en, "in"; ergon, "work").  Energy, in this sense, is used as a concept to describe key elements of physical reality and to measure the activity of living organisms.  One can measure, for example, the amount of energy exerted by an individual in a certain task.  In this context, "work" is defined as "the application of a force through a distance."  A thermometer measures the distance a given amount of mercury will travel in an enclosed space under the force of a given amount of heat.  The unit of measurement for calculating the energy required to maintain the basal body temperature is the "nutritional calorie," which is defined as the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water one degree centigrade.  The temperature of the human organism is normally maintained at approximately 98.6° Fahrenheit, irrespective of fluctuations in the surrounding temperature.  Clearly, work is performed to maintain the normal temperature of the human body, and that work takes energy.

    Broadly speaking, all organisms on earth derive their energy from sunlight.  The manner of conversion of solar energy depends on the characteristics of specific organisms.  Plants are capable of synthesizing cellular material by the direct utilization of solar energy.  Human beings, on the other hand, eat plants and animals, incorporating into themselves the stored energy of other living beings.  This energy must be broken down in the process of digestion and converted into a form that can be utilized conveniently.  This is part of the biological activity of metabolism.  The metabolic processes of energy utilization are complex, involving many organs of the human body, with the participation of enzymes and hormones.  Virtually any component in the energy metabolism of the human being may be isolated and studied as a specific factor in metabolic functioning.  From the vantage point of the present discussion, the most significant variable in these processes is the utilization of oxygen as part of the biological combustion that maintains the life of the person.

    The role of oxygen in metabolism is well established.  In the human being, oxygen is taken into the body as part of the process of respiration.  Antoine Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry, declares: "We can state in general that respiration is but a slow combustion of carbon and hydrogen, similar in all points to that taking place in a lamp or a burning candle and that from this point of view animals which breathe are really combustible bodies which burn and are consumed.  In respiration as in combustion it is the atmospheric air which supplies the oxygen..." [1]

    In human beings, the metabolic processes of combustion break down the chemical bonds of ingested and stored substances within the organism and convert the energy of these substances into ATP (adenosinetriphosphate), which can in turn be utilized by the cells of the body as fuel.  Alexander Lowen observes: "The combustion of food is not unlike the combustion that occurs in a wood fire which also requires oxygen to maintain the process." [2]  Indeed, using the analogy of a wood burning stove, we may say that one can have the latest model stove, the finest kindling, and an ample supply of matches at hand.  The fire can be set.  If, however, there is not a proper draught, the fire will not burn as it should.  If the draught is grossly insufficient, the fire will die.  The same is true in the life of the individual.  Human beings are dependent on good respiration to keep the fires of life burning brightly.  Satisfactory respiration is a key factor in the healthy energetic functioning of the individual.

    In each individual, respiration occurs at both the cellular level and at the level of the organism as a whole.  In the terminology suggested by Lavoisier, the act of taking air into the lungs and then exhaling it is called "primary breathing."  The absorption of oxygen by the cells of the body and the discharge of carbon dioxide from the cells into the bloodstream, by means of which it is carried to the lungs to be expelled from the body, is called "secondary breathing."  There is an intimate connection between primary ("external") and secondary ("internal") respiration such that the vital balance of metabolic processes and the energy level of the person are directly affected by the quality of breathing.  While all people are aware that breathing is necessary for life, the relationship between breathing and the energy level of the person is not commonly appreciated.  There is a tendency to believe that in the absence of pronounced respiratory pathology - such as asthma, emphysema, hypoxia, dyspnea, sleep apnea, or other problems - breathing may be considered satisfactory.  While such statistically normal breathing may not necessarily be directly correlated with medically diagnosed disabilities and structural damage to body tissues, there remains the fact that such "average" breathing can be shown to be significantly less than optimal.  Subclinical problems in breathing are an important aspect of diminished personal functioning. [3]

    If respiration is considered on the basis of the involvement of the various groups of muscles that participate in the pattern of alternating inhalation and exhalation, it is apparent that the act of breathing, far from being restricted simply to a limited region of human anatomy, is a global bodily phenomenon.  While it is quite common to find respiratory patterns that are limited largely to the thorax, abdomen, or diaphragm, it is nonetheless true that deep, unrestricted breathing involves the participation of the whole person.  The extent of the muscular involvement in satisfactory breathing has been discussed by Mabel Todd, who notes that quiet breathing activates principally the muscles of the diaphragm and the thorax, along with the extensor muscles of the back.  She goes on to make the following remarks: "As breathing becomes more active, other muscles are engaged, one accessory group following another, beginning with the lower.  The muscles to be added in close succession are the psoas, followed by the transversalis, and the quadratus lumborum, which complete the inner muscle lining of the body wall.  All these muscles are in close association with the [respiratory] diaphragm through fascial structures or with interdigitating fibers.  Accelerated breathing may involve all trunk muscles extending down as far as the levator ani and coccygeus muscles which form the pelvic diaphragm.   It may also involve muscles as far up as those connecting chest and head, such as the sterno-cleido-mastoideus, and in extreme activity, even muscles of the legs, arms, and jaw may be included.  All body muscles assist breathing when the need is great, but in primary patterns of movement upper accessory muscles are the last to be called in." [4] 

    Todd's analysis can be carried further.  It is possible to argue that in relaxed, deep respiration all body muscles are called into play.  Wilhelm Reich, for example, describes a reflexive pattern of respiratory movement, a unitary wave reaching out to the upper and lower ends of the body.  This wave can be observed and experienced when breathing is undisturbed by patterns of chronic muscular tension.  This reflexive movement involves, in one of its aspects, "giving into" the expiratory phase in such a fashion that the cervical and sacral segments of the body collapse slightly toward each other, while the head falls gently back.  When such breathing occurs, one can observe the actual ripple of respiratory waves extending both headward and tailward from the region of the diaphragm.  Subjectively, deep respiration of this type is experienced as pleasurable.  In the face of the prevailing tendency of people to block the experience of plasmatic streaming movements from consciousness by "holding back," Reich emphasizes the importance of establishing the capacity to surrender to the deep expiratory phase of breathing. [5]  In this regard, it is interesting that, as Todd points out, "... in internal respiration oxygen is taken into the cells in the expiratory phase of the breathing rhythms." [6]  It follows that holding in the expiratory phase of primary respiration must be related to insufficient absorption of oxygen during secondary breathing, at the cellular level.

    On a strictly biochemical level, respiration is an integral part of the metabolic processes of the individual.  An excess of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, related to disturbed internal and external respiration, leads to a condition of hyperacidity.  Such a condition, if chronic, is poisonous to the cells.  Conversely, an increase in the oxygen content of the cells due to a tendency toward hyperventilation results in increased alkalinity of the body fluids.  Generally speaking, a trend toward acidosis is associated with depression of the central nervous system, while alkalosis is associated with hyperactivity.  Use of these terms in the present context does not necessarily imply a condition of medically diagnosed pathology; rather it refers to a spectrum of physiological balance and imbalance related to the basic function of respiration.  As one standard textbook of anatomy and physiology points out: "If you consider that breathing rate can be altered up to eight times the normal rate, it should become obvious that alterations in the pH [acid-alkaline balance] of body fluids may be greatly influenced by respiration." [7]  In this regard, it must be noted that a deviation from the optimal breathing rate may exist as a characteristic mode of functioning.  In other words, the person with a breathing problem may be unaware that such a problem is present due to the habitual nature of the difficulty.

    Because of the importance of oxygen in the energy metabolism of the human being, it is not difficult to gain some appreciation of the significance of adequate breathing in overall human functioning.  The level of energy production of the person, however, is only one aspect of an individual's functioning.   For the human being, life and energy are an expressive phenomenon.  It is important to understand that how much energy an individual has available and how an individual uses that energy are inextricably related.  Good breathing is an important element in sustaining proper balance in that relationship.

    The function of breathing reaches deep into the roots of experience, a fact which is reflected in the etymology of the verb "to be."  As Julian Jaynes notes, "... the English forms 'am' and 'is' have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, 'to breathe.'" [8]  It is interesting that the word "animal" and the word "animated" are both derived from the Latin term anima, which literally means "breath."  The life of every human being outside the womb is said to begin with the drawing of the first breath, and the term "expiration" is used to describe both the act of expelling one's breath and the act of dying.  Our life on earth transpires (transpire: "to breathe through") from the instant of our first breath to the moment of our last breath.  To be alive is to breathe.  Breathing is a vital function, and the quality of our life, therefore, is an expression of the quality of our breathing, just as the quality of our breathing expresses the condition of our life.  Awareness of this functional relationship has been noted by many investigators.  Such awareness is based, in part, on the observation that improved breathing contributes to increased biological vigor and an enhanced sense of well-being.  The positive effects of unimpaired breathing are evident in a wide range of personal expressiveness and an increased openness to life. 

    Both functionally and in evolutionary terms, breathing is closely related to locomotion, as Todd points out.  She writes: "The apparatus for locomotion and breathing, which appeared simultaneously in the racial pattern as vertebrates came onto the land, continue to be clearly associated in the growth of individual organisms and their function...  And in man, the particular parts of the skeleton and musculature which operate to maintain the spinal curves and to keep the trunk erect are most closely associated with the bony and muscular parts involved in breathing." [9]  In a similar vein, Ida Rolf comments on specific muscles and groups of muscles related to adequate respiratory patterns.  She remarks: "The psoas plays an important part in general body support...  Its origin is in close proximity to the two tabs of the diaphragm, called the crura; through these neighbors, the psoas can involve the respiratory pattern." [10]  In discussing the muscles of the shoulder girdle, she writes: "... extensive unbalanced girdle movement disturbs the structure of the ribcage.  In turn, associated respiratory and cardiac function suffers." [11]  Consistent with Reich's description of the basic reflexive quality of adequate respiration, Rolf observes: "Contrary to the general idea, normal respiration in a balanced body involves movement not merely in the thorax, but from the sacrum all the way up to the cranium.  In normal inspiration, the spine lengthens from one end to the other; in expiration, it shortens." [12] 

    If one considers the role of respiration in human metabolism, it becomes evident that balanced posture and adequate use of the body in locomotion are significant factors in the conservation of personal energy.  In this sense, the energy level of the person is related to the depth of breathing, which in turn is modified by the degree of deviation from an optimal structural alignment.  The importance of a comfortable erect posture can be understood in basic physical terms, since any deviation from satisfactory vertical alignment in the standing position will require an expenditure of force to counteract the pull of gravity.  The expenditure of such a force involves energy, and if the expenditure is chronic, the amount of free energy available to the organism will be diminished.  Rolf's way of describing this situation is to state: "When human energy field and gravity are at war, needless to say gravity wins every time." [13]

    Not only is breathing related to the energy level of the person by means of association with the metabolic process of oxidation, with locomotion, and with posture; it is also connected with the transmission of nerve impulses and with organ functions.  The heart, for example, rests against the upper surface of the diaphragm.  Todd observes: "The diaphragm is penetrated by a number of structures, including the esophagus, the great aorta, the vena cava, the thoracic ducts and various nerves.  Some of these are so placed that the muscular fibers press upon them during contractions." [14]  The lumbar plexus of the spinal system is embedded in the psoas muscles.  Rolf states: "Distortion of the spinal structure through myofascial incompetence and/or disorganization can transmit structural stress to the plexi and ganglia and interfere with adequate nutrition and, therefore, performance." [15]  That chronic contraction of the skeletal musculature can negatively influence nerve functioning is an accepted principle.  Thus, Tortora and Anagnostakos remark that "Pressure has an effect on impulse transmission and conduction also.  If excessive or prolonged pressure is applied to a nerve, impulse transmission is interrupted and part of the body may 'go to sleep.'" [16]  In the cardiovascular system, the veins and arteries are "in the grip" of muscles.  If portions of the musculature are in a state of chronic contraction, the blood vessels which are surrounded by them are unduly squeezed.  If proper muscular tonus is lost, then the necessary degree of pressure - known as "peripheral resistance" - created by the muscles' grip on the vessels will be absent.  It is clear that the smooth functioning of both the nervous system and the cardiovascular system is related intimately to the quality of breathing, the alignment of posture, the patterns of movement, and the energy level of the person. 

    The effects of disturbed respiration on the functioning of the individual can be understood in terms of the level of stress experienced by the person.  According to Hans Selye's elaboration of the General Adaptation Syndrome, which has become a standard physiological concept, the body responds to an excessive degree of stress by means of an "alarm" reaction that involves activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system
and stimulation of the adrenal medulla.  This stage of the response is indicative of a "fight-or-flight" reaction.  If the level of stress is not reduced in a timely fashion, the body enters a phase of "resistance," during which the physiological system responds over a prolonged period with a heightened state of alert, involving secretions of the anterior pituitary and the adrenal cortex.  If the resistance stage continues without resolution of the stressful condition, there follows a stage of "exhaustion."  This phase of the response results in the fall of blood glucose levels leading to systemic collapse and, ultimately, death due to the depletion of the body's defenses.  If one considers Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome in terms of the basic functioning of the person, it is possible to view chronic restrictions in the respiratory process from two interrelated vantage points.  On the one hand, the restriction in respiration can be seen as an element in the response to a given set of environmentally arising stressors, such as a generalized threat of punishment during childhood.  Such a threatening situation has the effect of provoking a disturbance in breathing, since holding the breath is a means of controlling anxiety by deadening sensation.  On the other hand, the restriction in the respiratory pattern itself acts as a stressor, since a restriction in breathing entails an habitual increase in the amount of work that must be performed by the body to counter the effects of chronic contraction and imbalance in the musculature.  These chronic contractions are the "mechanism" by means of which the breathing is suppressed.  The energy of the body thus becomes depleted by virtue of disturbed respiration, and this energy depletion stimulates, in turn, a debilitating syndrome, or vicious circle, which may result in exhaustion and even death.

    It is important to recognize that the General Adaptation Syndrome described by Selye is a natural response of the organism to a distressing situation.  The considerable extent to which this syndrome appears to be a factor not only in degenerative diseases but in the common, everyday experience of malaise and futility that characterizes so many people can be understood in the context or present-day social and cultural circumstances, which constitute an unrelenting complex of stressors. [17]  This means that relatively open breathing and a naturally high energy level are significant variables in combating the distress of modern living on an individual basis.  It remains the case, however, that the precise nature of the energy involved in the life process is not yet adequately clarified, in spite of our ability to understand the importance of breathing in the metabolic functioning of the person. This need for clarification of the nature of biological energy also applies to our understanding of stress.  Selye comments: "What is adaptation energy?  Here we are touching on what is probably the most fundamental gap in our knowledge about stress.  I say 'fundamental' because adaptability, or if we want to give it the name, 'adaptation energy,' is a basic feature of life itself...  Yet all we really know about this mysterious quantity is that constant exposure to any stressor will use it up...  Just what is lost we do not know, but it could hardly be the caloric energy - which is usually considered to be the fuel of life - because exhaustion occurs even if ample food supplies are available." [18]

    In a discussion of Selye's concept of stress, Lowen remarks that one of the weaknesses of Selye's theory is that it "... fails to appreciate the power of emotional factors in producing distress and disease." [19]  If "adaptation energy" is related to emotional functioning, then our understanding of the nature of biological energy must take into consideration the energy of the emotions.  It is to such a consideration that we now turn. 

The Energy of the Emotions

    One way in which to understand living functioning is in terms of the build-up and discharge of energy.  Ernest Starling writes: "The activity of every living being can be regarded as compounded of two phases, assimilation and dissimilation." [20]  The capacity of living beings to function can be viewed in terms of "excitability."  The phenomenon of homeostasis - made popular by the physiologist Walter Cannon - is related to the self-regulation of living organisms by means of which excitation is accumulated and discharged in such a fashion as to "... tend to preserve the organism intact, to favor its growth, or to prevent its destruction." [21]  In simple terms, we all must take in energy in order to function, and we all expend energy in the act of living. The build-up and discharge of biological energy is central to the ongoing process of life.  A fundamental aspect of this process in human beings involves the expression of emotions.  Emotional self-regulation is part of the basic life process.

    It is not difficult to appreciate that life is a self-regulating, excitatory process, especially if we consider the functioning of a human infant.  Let us take as an example the crying of a hungry baby.  When the baby is picked up by the mother and held close to her breast, the vigorous "latching on" of the infant's mouth to the mother's nipple can be seen.  As Reich indicates, mother and child act as a functionally united energetic system during the act of gratifying breast feeding.  In this contact between mother and baby, the energy needs of the child are met with the flow of nourishing milk and with the warmth of skin contact and the security of the mother's touch and support.  The satisfied baby, after nursing, is in a state of pleasure, and the baby's energy is renewed.  The infant will utilize the new-found energy in movement and growth.  Waste products will be eliminated through urination and defecation, which are part of the overall alimentary process.  The baby, however, is not a machine; and the mere introduction of nutrients into its body does not satisfy its living requirements.  The infant needs loving human contact, and if it does not receive such contact, it will suffer and its functioning will become disturbed.  This is especially evident on an emotional level.

    After the baby has nursed to its satisfaction, it will be ready to expend energy.  The way in which the infant expends energy, however, is important.  The gratified infant will often smile and make pleasant sounds, and he or she will be in a playful mood.  No machine reacts in this way.  This is true because the machine operates while the human infant lives.  A basic feature of the life of the infant is the gratification of its emotional needs, which may be summarized and understood in terms of healthy human contact, of which breast feeding is an example.  A significant disruption in the satisfaction of the baby's emotional needs creates a state of conflict between the infant and external reality, which in human terms is represented essentially by the mother and other primary care givers.  The "biological expectation" of the infant is that its needs will be met.  At a simple level, this involves reaching out to a source of pleasure, such as the mother's breast, the mother's smile, the mother's or the father's voice, the warmth of a touch, the pleasantness of a snuggle, the joy of playful eye contact.  The infant does not have to be taught that such contact is pleasurable.  The baby knows this "instinctively."  In evolutionary terms, it may be said that many millions of years of species development have gone into the process that lets the infant recognize what is naturally pleasurable in life. 

    By the same token, the infant knows what is painful.  The human infant, due to its relative helplessness, is dependent upon a responsive, nurturing environment to a greater extent than is the case with other animals.  The human being reacts with pain to the withdrawal of love, and in the context of this pain there emerges an anxiety response.  Anxiety is a defensive reaction.  The infant withdraws emotionally in an attempt to cope with the absence of pleasurable human contact.  Organismically, the spontaneous flow of movement is blocked and emotional energy becomes dammed up, resulting in a condition of "stasis."

    The fundamental nature of human functioning - oriented as it is toward pleasure and gratification - provides the basis for a clear understanding of the importance of healthy contact between parent and child.  The key ingredients for the child in this relationship are love, respect, and active support.  If the needs of the infant and child are met, the result will be the establishment of a firm basis for healthy growth and development.  If the child's needs are not met, the tendency of the child will be to withdraw in anxiety.  The word "anxiety" (L.  angere; to choke)
literally signifies constriction.  [22]  The child's withdrawal represents a movement "away from the world," while the response of the satisfied person is to open up expressively and move "toward the world." [23]                  

    The bioenergetic basis of such a situation has been elaborated by Wilhelm Reich.  Reich points out that the movements involved in emotional life represent actual expansions and contractions of the organism.  Thus in anxiety, energy is withdrawn from the periphery of the body toward the core.  In contrast, a pleasurable organismic response is manifested in a flowing of energetically charged body fluids from the core to the periphery.  These responses, involving vasoconstriction and dilation, are mediated by the autonomic nervous system.  One of the consequences of this situation is that an anxiety reaction in the human being, once it has been assumed as an habitual attitude, becomes a binding restriction on the free flow of energy and movement of the person.  Energy within the organism becomes locked into maintaining a defensive state associated with patterns of neuromuscular imbalance and a condition of chronic distress.  At the level of the body as a whole, a generalized disturbance in the pulsation of the organism is associated with patterns of diminished contact with the world and with energy depletion.  The most obvious mechanism in such a pattern of disturbance is restricted respiration.  Holding one's breath serves to deaden anxiety, but in the process it also brings about a reduction in the energy level of the person. 

    If the growing child is fortunate enough to have an environment which meets his or her basic biological needs, then the capacity for open, meaningful emotional self-expression will be furthered on the solid foundation of repeated gratification.  Expressing oneself emotionally in genuine human contact satisfies a basic human need.  Expressions of genuine emotion involve the discharge of energy in heightened motility
and movement. 

    If one considers that the basic needs of the human being may be viewed broadly in terms of "assimilation" and "dissimilation," then the phenomenon of hunger belongs in the former category, while the sexual drive falls into the latter.  As is generally recognized, the sexual identity of the child becomes anchored in a preliminary fashion roughly by the age of seven years.  This is also the period of time when the spinal curves become established in more balanced proportion to one another, when coordinated locomotion is more confidently attained, and when the stability of the pelvic structure and lower body is more securely organized with respect to the requirements of upright posture and bipedal carriage.  The body image of the child during this period becomes integrated, and the process of growth, proceeding in a cephalo-caudal ("head-to-tail") direction, brings the motility of the lower body structures into a more balanced focus of awareness.  Interest in sexuality on the part of the child during this time corresponds to an evolving sense of personal identity.  Later, hormonal and other physiological changes that emerge during puberty and become established during adolescence bring with them a natural upsurge of sexual desire which expresses itself in the powerfully felt urge for sexual intercourse.  While there are various theories about the best way of "handling" adolescent sexual urges, the existence of a powerful sexual drive at this developmental stage is incontrovertible.  The recollection of virtually every adult will serve as adequate confirmation of this reality.  What must be emphasized is that there is an energetic component to the sexual drive, and this energetic factor is related to the emotional needs of the individual.  Sexual desire - like anger, joy, sadness, longing, happiness, rage, tenderness, love, hatred, despair, and hope - requires appropriate expression in order for personal well-being to be fostered and maintained.

    It is interesting to reflect on the fact that many individuals consider the emotions to be essentially a mental phenomenon.  Thus, almost anyone will be prepared to admit that getting out of a chair and moving across a room is a physical act; but many of these same individuals will be likely to contend that a feeling of anger is in the mind and not the body.  Such a position, however, is untenable.  Emotions are bodily phenomena, and they literally signify movement of the organism, both in terms of motility of the plasma and with regard to displacement of parts of the anatomy in space.  In anger, the cheeks become flushed and the fists become clenched, the eyes flash, and the heartbeat quickens.  In joy, the facial muscles relax, the skin brightens, respiration deepens, and the heart opens.  One could list in detail the various physiological responses of the organism under varying emotional conditions. [24]  That physiological mechanisms are related to emotional expression does not mean that the emotions can be reduced to a mechanistic interpretation.  Erwin
Schrödinger comments on this fact by observing that the sparkle in a child's eye is not to be explained simply in terms of the wavelengths of light.  In Schrödinger's words, "... recall the bright, joyful eyes with which your child beams upon you when you bring him a new toy, and then let the physicist tell you that in reality nothing emerges from these eyes; in reality their only objectively detectable function is, continually to be hit by and to receive light quanta.  In reality!  Something seems to be missing in it." [25]

    Wilhelm Reich has associated the basic antithesis between pleasure responses and anxiety reactions in the human organism with the antithetical relationship between the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. [26]  At a more fundamental level, however, emotional expression may be seen as a quality of the plasma movement itself.  In this connection, Reich argues that the autonomic nervous system is itself an organization of contractile plasma. [27]  He writes: "The living expresses itself in movements, in 'expressive movements.'  The expressive movement is an inherent characteristic of the protoplasm.  It distinguishes the living specifically from the non-living systems." [28]  The expansion of an amoeba toward a pleasurable stimulus and its shrinking away from a painful one may be seen as an example of expressive movement at a simple level of biological organization.  Reich comments: "The literal meaning of 'emotion' is 'moving out,' which is the same as 'expressive movement.'  The physical process of plasmatic emotion or expressive movement always goes with an immediately understandable meaning which we call the emotional expression." [29]  At the basis of emotional expression, in turn, there is an energetic factor.  It is, therefore, necessary to speak of the energy of the emotions. 

    In human beings, a free-flowing emotional expressiveness is related to the absence of chronic patterns of excessive muscular tension in the body and by the existence of a relatively undisturbed respiratory function.  Such a condition means that oxygen requirements at the cellular level are met and the body is capable of maintaining an efficient metabolism.  The process of assimilation is facilitated, and the process of energy discharge is likewise facilitated, since the movement of the organism is committed in a positive way to the satisfaction of basic needs.  With respect to the satisfaction of the emotional needs of the person, this implies that the various segments of the body are spontaneously responsive to the environment and to other people in a coordinated and meaningful way.  While one may choose to inhibit a spontaneous emotional response under given conditions, such inhibition is a matter of choice, rationally founded, and is capable of reversal.  To express the same idea in different words, we may say that suppression of a given emotional response under certain circumstances may be warranted, but this is different from repression.  It follows that chronic emotional inhibition is related to a decrease in the energy level of the person as well as to a distortion of the expressive movements subjected to inhibition.  Under these circumstances, the sensory awareness of the individual is diminished by a condition of chronic distress in which organismic motility is disrupted.  The movement of body fluids through the various blood and lymphatic vessels as well as the flow of interstitial fluids is necessarily affected.  In such a situation, the capacity for relatively unimpeded perceptual and sensuous contact is diminished. [30]  The need to act and express oneself in order to survive and to gratify one's fundamental needs persists, however.  The result is that the capacity for contact is replaced by an inhibited pattern of self-expression which serves as a form of "substitute" contact based on impaired respiration, energetic stasis, and specific patterns of chronic muscular tension which confine the range of organismic movement within relatively narrow limits. 

    Given the present analysis, it is evident that there is an emotional factor associated with muscular balance, range of movement, sensory awareness, and energy level in the person.  The energetic aspect of this complex of factors is related to the direct role of breathing in the oxidative processes of the body and the universal tendency in humans to inhibit the breathing process in response to chronic conditions of stress and anxiety.  That the formative periods of infancy, childhood, and adolescence are crucial for the organic learning of restricted functioning is understandable, since the options of the young person are much more limited in the face of adversity than are those of the healthy adult.  The child is a dependent being in need of support, respect, and guidance.  A situation which might be intimidating to a healthy adult may be felt to be life-threatening to a child in the absence of protection and understanding.  This is especially true when the threat emanates from a parent upon whose good graces the child depends for survival.  Absence of necessary contact with the mother and the father cannot help but provoke a disturbance in the basic respiratory and energetic functioning of the child.  Since the body structure, experience, and behavior of the child are in the process of formation, the influences of childhood - to a great extent - determine the path of growth that culminates in the structure and function of the adult.  (As Wordsworth writes: "The child is father of the man.")

    While the needs of the child must be met within certain limits in order for functioning to develop naturally, the question arises: what needs in the emotional life of the adult demand satisfaction in order to permit continued personal growth and development and to insure balanced energetic functioning?  Since the adult is a human being no less than the child, the requirement of a basic degree of genuine contact with others will hold true in later as well as in early life.  It is difficult to conceive of such a requirement's being met - in the case of adults - in the absence of a mature love relationship.  Whereas the love in a child's life is primarily expressed in openhearted contact with family members and young friends, the needs of adult love seek fulfillment in the establishment of a gratifying sexual relationship with a mate.  This need for fulfillment is rooted in the mature sexual drive, which is itself an energetic phenomenon.  Whereas the child discharges excess biological energy in the process of physical growth, the sexual orgasm is the means for the discharge of excess tension in the adult.  Such tension results from an actual build-up of energy in the tissues of the body.  One level at which this build-up of sexual tension may be understood is in terms of shifts in the balance of electrolytes and colloid particles in the body fluids.  Such an understanding involves viewing the body as a system of energetically charged fluids in a watery solution.  In the words of Ernest Starling, "... the solution in every case is bound up within the meshes or adsorbed by the surfaces of a heterogeneous mass of colloids." [31]  A colloid is simply a stable solution of particles that do not separate out, at an appreciable rate, from the medium in which they are suspended. [32]  Starling observes that "The material composing living cells is permeated throughout with water containing electrolytes in solution...  It is therefore not surprising that practically every functional change in a tissue has been shown to be associated with the production of differences of electrical potential." [33] 
According to the perspective elaborated by Reich, the dynamics of the sexual drive can best be understood in terms of the function of the orgasm.  In Reich's view, the attraction of the male and female during sexual intercourse involves contact between two organisms (colloidal systems) in a state of highly charged bioelectrical polarization.  In Reich's words: "The male and female circulations and the mutually stimulating plasmatic excitations in the autonomic nervous system represent the inherent sources of electrical charge on the organs of sexual contact.  The equalization of the potential gradient occurs between the two surface potentials: penile epidermis and vaginal mucosa." [34]  Reich's point is that the sexual orgasm in human beings, when unrestricted, entails the discharge of accumulated bio-electrical energy and the reduction of organismic tension. 

    Another way that the self-regulation of the human organism can be understood is in terms of the presence in the body of a specific biological energy functioning according to a pulsatory process of alternating expansion and contraction.  Such a process entails a rhythmic, four-beat progression: organismic tension leads to bioenergetic charge which leads to bioenergetic discharge which leads to organismic relaxation.  Such a formula describes the process of sexual arousal and excitatory build-up culminating in orgastic release.  Reich advances the proposition that at the core of this process is a concrete, life-specific energy.  He introduces the term "orgone energy" (derived from the words "organic" and "orgasm") to designate this phenomenon. [35] Reich's discussion of orgone energy functions touches upon the basic question of the nature of biological energy.   Independent, practical evaluation of Reich's theories concerning the presence of a specific biological energy at the depth of human functioning (and throughout living nature) requires detailed and careful investigation if Reich's assertion that orgone energy is a scientifically demonstrable "fact" is to be confirmed. [36]  The interested reader should refer to Reich's reports of his experimental research and to accounts of his methodology in the relevant literature. [37]

    If we hold in abeyance a judgment concerning the specific nature of the biological energy at work in the sexual functioning of the human being, it is nonetheless evident that the deepened respiration and the build-up of excitation leading to orgasm must be related.  It is also true that the rhythmic pelvic movements and the convulsive waves that pass through the body preceding and during the acme of the sexual act require a high degree of coordinated mobility of the body segments as well as an intensified inner motility.  It is also true that the presence of chronic patterns of muscular tension (armoring) and restricted respiration necessarily interfere with sexual functioning.  On an emotional level, the flow of feeling and excitement is interrupted; the sexual experience is "short-circuited," and the individual becomes "hung up."  In his analysis of the pressures of modern living, Alexander Lowen has emphasized the need to bring the "hung up" individual's awareness "down to earth." [38]  The more secure the ground under one's feet and the more vital one's contact with the earth, the greater will be the build-up of excitement and the more satisfying will be the discharge of biological energy in life and in sexual functioning.  If it is true, as has been said, that "all life is energy," then the challenge of personal growth and improved functioning involves establishing the capacity for a more thoroughgoing, comprehensive, and energetic commitment to life.  [39]   Doing so involves deepening our awareness of ourselves at the level of bioenergetic functioning.

Energy and Awareness *

    If, for a moment, we turn our attention to our subjective awareness, we will become conscious of processes and events within the field of our experience.  These processes and events involve sensation and feeling.  We know through our intimate awareness of ourselves that we are sensing, feeling creatures.  The feelings that make up who we are assert themselves as a tension, as a pressure toward movement.  If we express the particular feeling that we are experiencing, the tension will be discharged.  We know this to be true, because we are familiar with our own experience, with our feelings and sensations.  The feelings of the heart, the rush of excitement in love, the contentedness that accompanies the successful conclusion of a hard day's meaningful work - all of these are sensations experienced at a bodily level.  If one enters deeply into one's bodily sensations, one finds that the body is alive with feeling.  Sexual urges emanate from the area of the diaphragm, the abdomen, and the genitals.  Thoughtfulness is associated with the brain, and one can literally feel one's skull as a "thinking cap" during intense deliberation.  When one feels one's feet on the ground, it is possible to sense the roots of one's security.  Feeling and sensation on a bodily level are a deep field of experience toward which one can focus one's attention.  Such bodily sensations are a part of one's awareness. 

    From the present vantage point, awareness, movement, and biological energy are interrelated.  We might say, following Reich, that awareness, movement, and energy are "functionally identical."  This means that there is a quantitative factor in experience.  One method, therefore, of promoting deeper individual awareness is to increase the energy level of the person.  With regard to character structure, this entails reducing patterns of chronic muscular tension that act as a kind of straightjacket limiting the vitality of the person.  If such a process is to be effective, insight into the meaning of the patterns of restricted functioning must be gained.  A genuine process of learning, involving growth and change, requires that one gain awareness of one's basic manner of functioning so that one can attain a reasonable degree of choice regarding one's behavior.  Expanding and deepening the breathing process has the effect of raising the energy level of the person.  This rise in energy level creates a state of increased biological tension, which results from the pressure of increased vital energy pushing against established, limited patterns of experience and behavior.  Resolving such tension requires insight into the meaning of the pressure that is felt and includes clarifying and working through inner conflicts on an emotional level in order to mobilize the capacity for authentic self-expression.  On a practical level, it becomes necessary to organize one's life in a more meaningful way.  Doing so involves creating conditions that will permit the establishment of a higher level of personal energy on a sustained basis.  Awareness is a key factor in this process. 

    Each expansion in the level of energetic functioning of the person opens the way for a broadening and deepening of awareness.  In this sense, the process of growth and change is dialectical.  The somatic and psychological aspects of growth and change form a basic unity.  The stuff and substance of this unity are identical with the energetic, pulsatory movement of life.
  If the capacity to live has been thwarted, a person may seek mystical answers to life's problems or mechanistic solutions to life's challenges.  From a functional perspective, however, overcoming the difficulties of life requires the deepening of one's vital awareness and the strengthening of one's human potency.  This involves a practical task.  In approaching this task, focusing on bioenergetic factors serves as a basic point of orientation and a concrete foundation for fostering improved individual functioning and genuine personal growth.

Quoted in Miller, J. The Body in Question (New York: Random House, 1978), p. 157.

[2] Lowen, A. Bioenergetics (New York: Penguin Books, 1975), p. 46.

[3] See Lawson, J. "Breathing and Armor" and "The Force of Life."  Both articles are available at

[4] Todd, M. The Thinking Body (Paul B. Hoeber Inc., 1937), unabridged republication by Dance Horizons, New York, p. 233.

[5] See, Reich, W. The Function of the Orgasm, trans. T. Wolfe (New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1948), especially Ch. VIII, "The Orgasm Reflex and the Technique of Character-Analytic Vegetotherapy."

[6] Todd, p. 250.

Tortora, G. and Anagnostakos, N. Principles of Anatomy and Physiology (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p 703.

Jaynes, J. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976), p. 51.

Todd, p. 10.

[10] Rolf, I. Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 110.

[11] Rolf, p. 222.

Rolf, p. 153.

Rolf, p. 30.

[14] Todd, p. 230.

Rolf, p. 198.

Tortora and Anagnostakos, p. 294.

[17] See Lowen, A. Fear of Life
(New York: Collier Books, 1980).

[18] Selye, H. The Stress of Life (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1956), p. 209. (Selye's italics)

[19] Lowen, A. Stress and Illness: A Bioenergetic View (New York: The International Institute for Bioenergetic Analysis, 1980), p. 20.

Starling, E. Principles of Human Physiology, Fifth Edition (Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1930), p. 14.

Starling, P. 15. 

[22] The words "anxiety" (L. angere: "to choke") "anguish" (L. angustia: "tightness")) and "anger" (L. angustus: "narrow") are etymologically related.  This is understandable, since these states are related on an emotional level and are expressed in specific shapes and forms of movement of energy in the body and personality.

[23] See Reich, W.  "The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life functions" in The Impulsive Character and Other Writings, trans. B. Koopman (New York: New American Library, 1974).

[24] See
Reich, W. The Cancer Biopathy, trans. A. White (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973), pp. 290-292.

Schrödinger, E. Mind and Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), p. 45.

[26] Reich, "The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life Functions" in The Impulsive Character and Other Writings

[27] Reich, The Cancer Biopathy, pp. 167-168.

[28] Reich, W. Character Analysis 3rd edition, trans. T. Wolfe (Orgone Institute Press, 1949), p. 360. 
(Reich's italics)

[29] Reich, Character Analysis, p. 360. (Reich's italics)

[30] See Reich, Character Analysis (Chapter XIV: "Psychic Contact and Vegetative Current").

[31] Starling, p. 93.

"Colloids may involve solids, liquids, or gases.  Cigarette smoke is a colloid of solid dispersed in air.  Ordinary milk is a colloid involving a liquid dispersed in another liquid, in this case, fat globules dispersed through an aqueous solution."  Keeton, W. Biological Science (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1972), p. 49.

Starling, p. 113.

Reich, W. "The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge" in The Impulsive Character and Other Writings, p. 134. (Reich's italics)  For further discussion of this subject, see Lawson, J. "Love and Sexuality in Human Functioning," available at

[35] Reich, The Cancer Biopathy, p. 90.

[36] What distinguishes Reich's position concerning the existence of a specific biological energy is not his assertion that such an energy exists, but his insistence that such an energy can be scientifically demonstrated.  In Reich's words, "Orgone is a visible, measurable, and applicable energy of a cosmic nature.  Such concepts as 'id,' 'entelechy,' or 'élan vital,' on the other hand, are only inklings of the existence of such an energy."
Character Analysis, p. 304 n. (Reich's italics)  A discussion of some of Reich's views in this regard can be found in Mann, E. Orgone, Reich & Eros: Wilhelm Reich's Theory of Life Energy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973).

[37] See, especially, Reich, The Cancer Biopathy.

[38] Lowen, Bioenergetics, p. 196.

] For the assertion that "all life is energy," see Energy: The Fuel of Life, compiled by the editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), p. 262.

* For an expanded version of this section, see Lawson, J. "Awareness and Energy," available at the 'Articles' page at

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