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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind 

Reichian Energetics: Theory and Practice

by John Lawson 2015

        Our method is not a principle based on fixed procedures: it is a method based on certain theoretical principles but really determined by the individual case and the individual situation.

        Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis                            

    In any serious approach to promoting personal growth and improved functioning, there are basically two factors that must be considered: one is theory, and the other is practice.  Clearly, the two are related.  The more sharply defined one's theory of human nature is, the firmer and more satisfactory will be the basis for developing procedures to assist in addressing problems that are rooted in the disturbed personal history of the individual.  On the other hand, the successes or failures of particular attempts to bring about constructive change and enhanced functioning necessarily refer one back to the basic theory of human growth and development.  Thus, theory gives rise to practice, and experience gained from practice leads to modifications and, hopefully, improvements in theory.  The process is a dialectical one. 

    Theoretically, Reichian Energetics is rooted in the perspective elaborated by Wilhelm Reich.  There are certain basic principles which Reich established concerning what constitutes healthy human functioning.  For example, Reich discovered that the respiratory process is much more than just an exchange of gases between the organism and the environment.  Really deep and satisfactory breathing is an expression of basic biological pulsation, and it is related to the emotional vitality and the sensory integration of the person.  An individual whose breathing is depressed, for example, will feel depressed, just as a person who breathes deeply will feel vigorously alive.  Likewise, an individual who does not allow the natural respiratory waves to engage the pelvis will necessarily experience a deadening of sexual awareness.  Indeed, a person who maintains any segment of the body in a chronically fixed position will not have available the full range of his or her potential for expression.  An example of such a rigidly fixed position is found in the Dick Tracy comic strip character, whose jaw is habitually held in the forward position.  Such a position can be described superficially as a sign of determination, but clearly no one whose jaw is locked in such a vice-like grip can let go and breathe and feel deeply.  Such rigidity in the oral segment serves as a protection against the spontaneous expression of crying.  The rigidly held, tight jaw may be idealized as an expression of strength.  This idealization, however, can be seen as a compensation for an inner experience of weakness and vulnerability.  All of us have something to cry about at times.  The chronically tight jaw thus acts as a defense.  In Reich's apt terminology, it serves as a form of characterological armoring. 

    The understanding of character structure is another basic theoretical foundation of Reichian Energetics.  We can define character structure in many different ways.  Behaviorally, it is a pattern of habitual responses to situations in life.  We tend to say of a particular person, for example, "that's just the way he is" or "she always acts that way."  On a feeling level, we may recognize that we tend to repeat the same experiences over and over.  Some people, for instance, can truthfully say, "I always end up feeling hurt in a relationship."  Functionally, character structure is related to energy.  How much energy we have, how the energy flows in our body (whether it is relatively free or relatively restricted); how we experience our energetic motility; how much energetic tension we are able to build, tolerate, and discharge in our lives; how deep an awareness of our vital needs, such as hunger (requiring the taking in of energy) and sex (requiring the discharge of energy), we permit ourselves; whether our energy is grounded or scattered - all of these are issues related to character.  If we have armored ourselves during the early stages of our growth, due to insults and injuries emanating from a lack of environmental support, nurturance, guidance, and acceptance, the results of such armoring will be manifested in our character structure; and that character structure will be evident in our physical shape, form, and movement as well as in our psychological outlook.  There is thus a relationship between energy and character.

    It is clear that the subject of human character structure and the disturbances related to the armoring of the human organism is broad in scope and basic in nature.  Such questions cut across the usual boundaries that separate the various areas of human inquiry.  They also raise concrete issues of how to modify destructive culturally and socially rooted practices so that healthier functioning can be promoted.  This is especially true with regard to the adequate rearing of children.  If we understand the basic needs of the human infant and child, and if we comprehend the manner in which the thwarting of the satisfaction of these needs leads to functional problems, we must ask what methods can be employed to bring about positive changes.  How can armoring be prevented or minimized?  What methods can be employed to that end?  Similarly, are there issues of social organization that can be constructively addressed based on a functional understanding of the human condition?  What is the sociology of healthy character development, and how can social relations be improved so that such development is furthered?   There are many such questions and considerations, and obviously no simple answers are available.  The seriousness and importance of the questions, however, demand that they be discussed.

    With respect to the practice of personal growth work in Reichian Energetics, the question of method concerns the most effective means of
assisting individuals experiencing difficulties of a functional nature.  Since there is a relationship between character structure and energetic functioning, and since breathing and armoring are key factors in that relationship, it is natural to organize the approach to improved functioning around the task of freeing the breathing process, reducing the armoring, increasing the energy level, and altering the character structure of the individual.  Indeed, this is the approach that is taken.  To that end, the client is encouraged to breathe deeply, and restrictions in the respiratory process are pointed out.  Holding patterns are identified, and movements that counteract the restrictions are suggested.  The experience of the person is questioned, verbal communication is elicited, and the degree of self-understanding in relation to the blocking of motility and awareness is explored and clarified.  All of this is done in such a manner as to proceed from more superficial levels of experience to deeper levels of contact and awareness.  At each significant step along the way, increased potential and enhanced functioning must be integrated.  This means that an individual must gain confidence in acting, thinking, and feeling in a more dynamic and grounded way.  In essence, old and outmoded patterns of responses must be recognized, and new, more appropriate, and more gratifying directions for living must be found.

    The technical considerations and the procedures employed in advancing personal growth in the context of
Reichian Energetics are complex and require both accumulated knowledge and spontaneous insight on the part of the instructor.  When successfully implemented, practical innovations based on concrete considerations of method lead to improved individual functioning, and this is the goal of the work.  When success is only partial or is not forthcoming, careful consideration of the difficulties involved can lead to expanded knowledge and a refinement of technique.  While there are many technical issues of importance that warrant discussion, I believe there is a basic issue that underlies all other questions of method.  This is the problem of characterological resistance to constructive personal growth and change. 

    In a sense, all questions of method involve the challenge of ingrained resistances which individuals present when faced with making significant alterations in personal functioning.  The reason that individuals typically resist genuine functional transformation is that such change - occurring at a deep organismic level - entails an alteration in character structure.  Under adverse circumstances, character structure evolves as a defense; hence any dissolution of muscular armoring and any increase in motility are experienced as a threat.  It is all very well to say that allowing oneself to breathe fully enhances feeling and increases energy and thus deepens and vitalizes the experience of life.  At an organismic level, however, most people have learned that to breathe, feel, and live deeply is dangerous.  It is precisely this generalized fear of change, manifested in various characteristic ways, that presents the major obstacle to personal growth.  Real change means facing one's fears.  This is especially challenging if one denies the very existence of such fears; yet such denial is common. 

    How then does one face the issue of one's fear, and how can one be assisted in doing so?  There is, I believe, no simple answer to these questions.  All significant technical innovations and all improvements in theoretical orientation, however, result from grappling with the phenomenon of resistance.  In some instances, resistance may be so great that it is prudent to modify one's objectives and accept that deeper change will not be forthcoming.  It is often necessary, when progress has been made, to step back and re-examine issues or problems that have been previously resolved.  This can foster increased stability, which then allows for further improvement.  In any case, we can be sure that - in the context being discussed - resistance to growth will occur.  All practical experience supports such a conclusion.  In spite of the presence of resistance, however, significant growth and development are possible for many individuals.  If the hopes and dreams of easy growth and quick change must ultimately be recognized as illusions, the realistic enterprise of functional maturation can be appreciated all the more.  Recognizing, confronting, and working through one's resistances are key factors in this process.

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