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Body and Mind

The Living Body

by John Lawson 2007

    Is it possible to view the human body without considering it to be either a machine or a holy temple?  I suggest that the answer to that question is "yes."  Such an affirmation of the living body entails a functional perspective that focuses on the unity of the body as both the expression of individual experience and the concrete basis of personal behavior.  A corpse can be analyzed chemically and otherwise, and the spirit may be apprehended by means of mystical intuition; but the body must be lived in order for the integrity of mind and body to "make sense."  The level of integration at which mind and body are perceived as complementary terms in a functional unity is rooted in sensation.  If sensation is to be anchored in the deep, free-flowing experience of the body, then the restrictions to natural motility in the organism must be dissolved.  Based on the work of Wilhelm Reich and others, it is possible to identify with considerable exactitude the localization of blocks to movement within the person.  In practice, there are many reasons why it is no simple matter to eliminate these blocks completely in the course of advancing personal growth and improved functioning. 

    The contemporary world is the product of a long period of evolution, and there are various levels of challenge that present themselves to the individual who sincerely wishes to confront and work through restrictions that limit his or her experience of life.  On a strictly functional level, most individuals have encountered significant difficulties during the formative period of growth.  At another level, the social context of the modern world creates, in many instances, formidable obstacles to healthy living.  This is easy to comprehend if one considers the inordinate degree of stress associated with life in contemporary civilization.  In some situations, there can be no hope of escaping the deleterious effects of disturbing circumstances.  We must do everything possible to remove ourselves from such situations.  Sometimes it is feasible to confront and overcome difficult conditions and to bring about constructive change.  Making an effort to do so is then reasonable.  In any event, life often demands courage and a serious attitude in the face of adversity, and risks must be taken at times by every person, both in the interest of survival and for the purpose of fostering a more meaningful existence. 

    Apart from individual problems and generalized social and cultural distress, it is also true that human beings stand in an uneasy biological relation to the rest of nature.  The development of the human nervous system, for example, has made possible a great complexity of responses to adversity, and this very complexity, connected with the capacity for foresight, has been associated with a tendency toward paralysis of action as well as the development of an overemphasis on logical, cognitive processes.  The reaction to this overemphasis, at times, results in a compensatory reliance on intuition which then goes beyond the scope of what is sensible. 

    Aside from the individual, social, and biological stresses characteristic of the modern world, one might also identify a certain form of alienation that is religious in nature.  The word "religion" (religare: to tie, to fasten), in the strict sense, means simply to feel oneself bound up with the cosmos, to be a part of the greater universe.  The role of religion has been challenged by science and, ironically, science has taken the place of religion for many people.  But the true basis of the religious sense is a deep feeling of contact with nature and with life, and neither organized systems of dogma nor scientific beliefs can substitute for a natural sense of contact.  Such contact must be rooted in the body.

    There is a strong argument that can be made that restrictions and disturbances in bio-energetic contact with oneself and the world are the common functioning principle underlying many of the difficulties which human beings face.  No matter how acute the human intellect, thinking takes place in an experiential vacuum if the life of the senses is withdrawn from awareness.  Such deadening and distorting of sensory appreciation are a form of learned behavior.  The level at which such learning of the misuse of oneself takes place is to be found in the deep, organic processes of the body.  If this were not the case, personal reeducation would not be such a challenging proposition.  What is at issue is a visceral self-awareness that gives one the experience of being connected to life.  The means of suppressing such visceral, living contact is acquired in the form of habitual restrictions in the range of movement, feeling, thinking, and sensation within the person.  A principal mechanism for such restrictions is a contraction of the striated muscles of the body and a spontaneous interference with the vegetative functions mediated by the autonomic and central nervous systems.  To reestablish vegetative contact based on more nearly optimal motility requires changes in basic patterns of response at the sensory and motor levels, as well as changes in self-perception.  To make such changes, one must be prepared to reorient oneself in the world. 

    One of the problems facing anyone seriously concerned with changing his or her perspective concerning the place of human beings in the world is that such a venture calls into question the character of our personal experience and challenges the well-established habits of our thinking.  Certainly it is possible to achieve superficial change without disturbing our sense of reality.  By definition, however, such change cannot be radical in the etymological sense of "going to the root" of the matter.  If we wish to promote truly radical change for ourselves, we must be prepared to confront some disorientation in our personal sense of identity as we change perspectives.  The fostering of change in a positive direction requires that we discover our roots.  From a functional, organic vantage point, such roots are to be found in bodily experience. 

    It is easy enough to assume that in the contemporary world the life of the body has been granted a central place in the awareness of individuals.  To make this assumption, however, is to confuse a sophisticated preoccupation with the image of the body with the deep, underlying experiences of bodily processes that are the genuine source of meaningful contact with the world.   An image, by definition, is a copy or a likeness, and the self-image of an individual is a reflection of an underlying sensory experience.  This is not to say that the world of images is without value.  It is clear, however, that images dissociated from the reality of bodily experience may become a nightmare.  This is the world of the sorcerer's apprentice; one unleashes a power by which one comes to be dominated.  As Alexander Lowen has observed, the modern world is bewitched by images. [1]  This does not mean that images are to be shunned, but when images become divorced from the life of the body they become unreal.  One then becomes a slave to the mental life.  Certainly, in the contemporary world the life of the body has been subordinated to the life of the mind.  It must be noted that such a subordination is not a casual affair, but represents an actual suppression of bodily experience. 

    Considering the pressures of modern living, it is natural to wonder what a positive alternative to the current order of society and culture might be.  The answer is that what human beings need in order to realize their inborn potential for creative living is to be part of a genuine community.  On the one hand, culture serves as a boundary between humankind and the rest of nature, and in this sense it functions as a protective device.  On the other hand, culture draws people together in a positive association for the sake of pleasure, self-expression, and personal fulfillment.  At the basis of culture is the social nature of human beings.  Stated simply, human beings need one another.  The issue of human beings living in a community reaches deeper than the utility which such an arrangement provides in the face of adversity in nature.  Each person desires warmth and contact with other people.  This is what allows for personal fulfillment based on the experience of pleasure.  There is a positive quality to life when authentic contact with other people is the normal mode of existence.  Such a quality is lacking in most situations in the world today, and the result is tragic. In a mass society with a mass culture there is an anonymous quality to existence.  Such a situation breeds violence and anti-social behavior. [2]  In this context, many individuals seek to alleviate their anxiety and to shore up a diminished sense of self by establishing pseudo-relationships in which genuine commitment, involvement, and reciprocity are lacking.  In this kind of situation, cooperation may be idealized, yet at bottom each individual strives only for his or her own personal gain.  This is in contrast to the situation that characterizes a genuine community, in which freedom and responsibility are joined.

    Based on the bio-energetic principles introduced by Wilhelm Reich and the structural-energetic perspective developed by other investigators, a view of the body which draws together the mental and physical aspects of experience and behavior can be outlined.  On the experiential side, such a view involves the sensation and awareness of more integrated functioning.  The body is experienced as a whole, such that needs, drives, feelings, thoughts, and movements of the person are unified in a coordinated manner.  One has good contact with oneself and the world.  On an objectively discernible level, such experience is correlated with a balanced posture, graceful movements, and a lively expressiveness. [3]  Behavior and experience are complementary.  To move in the direction of such integrated functioning entails a challenge, and one of the necessary responses to such a challenge is the evolution of a personal philosophy on the part of the individual.  Since no two individuals inhabit the same position in the world, it is not to be expected that any two individuals will share exactly the same philosophy.  On the other hand, a shared experience of what it means to be alive in the world provides a basis for fundamental agreement on the essential values of life. 

    The human condition, for better or worse, is to be alive and to be conscious of life.  This is a formidable fate.  To live out one's fate is made even more difficult, however, by the existence of disturbances in personal functioning.  Such disturbances are operative in the realms of both experience and behavior and are embodied and reflected in diminished respiration, reduced energy, and increased tension and stress.  Since we are not free to choose our family of birth or the social and cultural circumstances into which we are born, there is no point in blaming ourselves for the disturbances in our functioning that are the result of our developmental history.  As adults, however, our task is to confront and work through the problems in functioning that have fallen to our lot.  In this venture, it is necessary to assume responsibility for the struggle to grow and to learn.  It is only by acknowledging our situation and struggling to find constructive solutions to fundamental problems that we can hope to change the direction of our lives.  If we are determined in this endeavor - and if we are able to discover a constructive context in which to gain increased insight, to learn, and to grow - the experience of life can be deepened and the meaning of life can be enriched.  Far from being a prescription for attaining paradise, such a task involves getting our feet on the ground in a realistic way.  Human beings are, so to speak, children of the earth.  In an age of space and "virtual reality," the tendency is to become "spaced out" and "unreal."  We can only contemplate the heavens in a human way, however, if we have a firm foundation on which to stand; and "virtual" reality can never be more than a pale substitute for lived experience.

    From the vantage point of a functional energetic perspective, the fundamental basis of personal experience is the phenomenon of biological pulsation.  This phenomenon is manifested in human beings as well as in the rest of the living world.  The process of alternating expansion and contraction is common to the functioning of the organs of the body and of the individual cells as well.  Respiration is itself a pulsatory process, as is the sexual orgasm.  Relative lack of disturbance in the process of biological pulsation is a necessary aspect of satisfying personal functioning.  For reasons already indicated, moving in a direction of more satisfying functioning presents a challenge. [4]  The task of evolving a personal philosophy may seem, on one level, to be part of the necessary response to that challenge.  Such a response, if it is to be viable on a functional level, must be based on a clear understanding of the pulsatory quality of life. 

    In the work of Wilhelm Reich, the phenomenon of biological pulsation has been advanced as the cornerstone of a deepened understanding of living functioning.  Reich elaborates in considerable detail the manner in which pulsation exists as a common functioning principle in living nature, and he elucidates the dynamics of pulsation in terms of a four-beat formula in which organismic tension leads to a bioenergetic charge followed by a bioenergetic discharge that culminates in relaxation.  The basis of pulsatory functioning is alternating expansion and contraction.  On a functional level, this means that expansion and contraction are antithetical terms of an underlying unity.  The expansive phase of the underlying unity represents what Reich calls movement "toward the world," while the contractive phase constitutes movement "away from the world."  This antithetical relationship between expansion and contraction can be seen at the cellular level.  In his book The Life and Death of Cells, Joseph Hoffman describes cells in a culture medium stretched out on the glass surface of a bottle.  He writes: "The stretched-out appearance is typical of contented, growing cells.  If normal growth is hindered the cell becomes spherical: it is 'balled-up'...  A very sick cell may be balled-up, shrunken, and filled with granules.  This is sometimes designated as pycnosis." [5]  Hoffman makes it clear that a state of chronic contraction is indicative of a defensive response of the cell: "The first reaction to strychnine is for the cell to pull itself into a round ball..." [6]  On the other hand, expansion is seen as a pleasure-oriented response: "After the drug has been removed... the cell relaxes again and stretches out until its outer periphery is crenate and its cytoplasm is again stretched out." [7]  The living cell, in Hoffman's words, contains an "elemental power."  He observes: "There is literally a simmering and throbbing of the protoplasm.  It appears to be a boiling vortex of matter..." [8]  Hoffman aptly summarizes the quality of movement in living cells: "Tissue cells in culture show the following salient details of the living process.  First and foremost, living matter moves itself.  The cytoplasm moves in an incessant streaming.  The nucleus within the cytoplasm may rotate.  The cell wall can engulf surrounding nutrient fluid.  Automation is achieved by a mechanical expansion and contraction of cytoplasmic extensions of the cell.  Also, the reduplication of the cell is achieved by movement of its parts relative to one another.  Even when a piece of protoplasm is torn from a cell, the fragment flexes, stretches, and contracts until it turns into an inert blob of gel." [9] 

        Reich has argued that many of the disturbed states to which the human organism is subject can be understood in terms of the overall pulsatory functioning of the living person. [10]  This means that moving the personal growth and development of the individual human being in a positive direction is bound up with the task of establishing the capacity to give in to the natural pulsation that is characteristic of the living condition.  This state of pulsatory expansion and contraction is a common functioning principle in living nature.  What occurs microscopically at the cellular level transpires as well at the level of the organism as a whole.  The life of the human being and the life of the trillions of cells that make up the human being are functionally identical, in spite of the differentiation of tissues and the complexity of the organism as a whole.   Without some awareness and understanding of the function of biological pulsation, it is difficult to know what is natural and what is unnatural in human functioning; and without the experience of pulsation at the core of one's functioning, it is difficult to have a deep sense of satisfaction in life. [11]  On the basis of such knowledge and experience, however, it is possible to come more firmly to grips with the challenges confronting human beings in the world.

    In his notebooks, written near the end of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche recorded an observation in the form of a question: "Nihilism stands at the door: whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?" [12]  The word "nihilism" (L. nihil: nothing) refers to a philosophy, attitude, or perspective which rejects the value of life.  The dictionary defines nihilism as a " and absolute destructiveness toward the world at large and oneself." [13]  Perhaps the most starkly articulated expression of nihilism was voiced by a military officer in Granada in the days of the Spanish Civil War.  "Viva la muerte!" proclaimed the general.  "Long live death!"  At the root of nihilism and its many manifestations in the contemporary world is a deep dissatisfaction with life.  Yet life is a force that surges expressively in the multifaceted forms of the living beings that occupy the earth, and even nihilism must be understood not as the triumph of death but as the twisted and distorted relentlessness of living impulses seeking an outlet in the face of suppression and denial.  Again, in the words of Nietzsche: "Man would rather will nothing than not will." [14]  The tragedy of nihilism is not only the senseless destruction and the meaningless misery that it fosters, but the fact that in nihilism life has turned against itself. 

    At the core of a functional perspective rooted in life is the conviction that life is a potent, palpable, and substantial force and not merely a concept or an idea.  Such a conviction is based on feeling, and it cannot, therefore, be proved logically.  As Alyosha tells Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, "You must love life more than the meaning of it."  But if one is cut off from the experience of life, then all that remains is the image of an absence, even if that image is filled with fantasies and illusions meant to substitute for the missing actuality of deeply lived experience.  Virtual reality is no replacement for reality, and like a Magritte painting, the scene on the canvas is only the image of an image.  At bottom, a simple affirmation of life does not require flags, fireworks, or drumbeats.  We need to breathe deeply and freely, to stand comfortably and to move with some degree of grace.  We need to feel ourselves embodied and to identify with our sexuality.  We need to understand the limits of our cultural context so that we can pursue more successfully genuine growth and development.  We need to have available our natural energy for life, and we need to develop a personal understanding that conforms to our natural functional requirements and not a distorted caricature of those requirements.  Meeting these needs is a challenge, and in the course of orienting ourselves with respect to this challenge, we must develop a perspective on life that is grounded in life itself and which expresses the values of life that lead to satisfaction and fulfillment.  Love, work, knowledge, creativity, and personal integrity are such values.  If they are to be more than empty words, they must be rooted in the living body.

[1] Lowen, A. Narcissism: Denial of the True Self (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983), Ch. 2.

[2] J. Reid Meloy has suggested that the contemporary direction of social development is psychopathic.  He writes that "...children reared in a predominantly image-based, non-linear, multi-media, briefly attentive society may not develop the deeper, unconscious levels of identity and meaning and therefore [may] manifest a low level of empathy and a higher level of generalized anxiety."  He adds: "Perhaps the analytic focus on narcissistic psychopathology during the past two decades will need to shift to understanding the varieties of psychopathic disturbance as we approach a new century." The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1988), p. 7.  I believe that Meloy's concerns have been borne out in the two decades since he published his warning.

[3] See Reich, W. The Cancer Biopathy, trans. T. Wolfe (New York: Orgone Institute Press, Inc., 1948), Ch. VII. 

[4] See Lawson, J. The Affirmation of Life: A Reichian Energetic Perspective (Portland, Oregon: Ardengrove Press, 1991).  The chapter "Confronting Resistances" is available at the "Publications" page of this website (

[5] Hoffman, J. The Life and Death of Cells (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1957), pp. 44-45.

[6] Hoffman, p. 47.

[7] Hoffman, pp. 47-48.

[8] Hoffman, p. 45.

[9] Hoffman, p. 65.
[10] Reich, The Cancer Biopathy, Chs. V and VI.

[11] This is especially true with regard to sexual functioning.  See the discussion in Love and Sexuality in Human Functioning, available at the "Publications" page of this website (

[12] Nietzsche, F. The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 7. 

The Random House College Dictionary (New York: Random House Inc., 1975).

[14] Nietzsche, F. On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 97.

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