According to Wilhelm Reich, the human body is an energy system that is made up of segments. Energy pulses through the body and is aided by each of these different segments, or inhibited by them, depending on our conditioning, our upbringing and culture. As the requirements of training and education take hold, the energy system of the child gets restricted in ways that usually last a lifetime. This process seems to be inevitable, due to both the social and developmental requirements of becoming an adult. But there is also a lot of unnecessary damage that takes place in this process.
Reich, a psychiatrist, believed that we are damaged primarily by the repression of energy that seeks expression through sex and feelings. He saw how we cripple our life energy by stuffing down our natural expression of feelings, especially sexual feelings, how we kill our life energy and render ourselves incapable of really enjoying life. Reich went into a long war with Western society because of his advocacy of more sexual freedom in childhood and adolescence. He insisted on the importance of freeing up a wide range of emotional expression through energetic therapy techniques. (1) Reich also pointed out the social costs of sexual and emotional repression, including sexual perversion, domestic violence, pornography, prostitution, rape, depression and other psychological problems. Reich was fiercely opposed by mainstream Western society but his work was so far ahead of its time that we are still trying to catch up with him, still trying to understand the many things he explored and discovered.
The Neo-Reichians took up the call, and many techniques have come out of Reich’s work, including Bioenergetics, Pulsation, Rebirthing, Tantra and many other therapeutic processes based on childhood de-conditioning. This work invariably involves liberating the energy that we have repressed on our journey to adulthood. It involves removing the energy blocks in the human body that results from sexual and emotional repression. The work implies exploration of our shadow self, parts of us we have disowned. Through energetic work, we reawaken our aliveness, restoring our vitality and our “yes” for life. By releasing the energetic blocks in the body, we rediscover our natural love of life, our joy and enthusiasm. It takes courage to work with the dark side of our personality, with our shadow. And it is risky to be fully alive, to feel the full range of our emotions.
Reich saw life energy as a pulsation, an expansion followed by a contraction of energy. He saw it as an outward and an inward movement of energy, as in the breath coming in and going out. The different segments he explored roughly correspond to the seven-chakra system of Patanjali, the chakras representing different energy centers. This flow of energy can also be viewed as movement between the mouth and the lower belly, as if the energy is moving up and down a single hollow tube, although physically this is not really a single tube, but a series of tubes. The first extends from the mouth, down the throat and bronchial tubes to the lungs, the second extending from the mouth to the esophagus, the stomach and the intestines. Energetically we can see this as one energy system that is working together. Various yoga practices regard it as a single energy system, often visualizing it as a hollow tube where energy flows up and down, often with two nadis (smaller companion tubes) winding around the central core, which is usually associated with the spinal column.
The seven segments Reich energetically explored are the ocular segment (eyes), the oral segment (mouth), the cervical segment (throat), the thoracic segment (chest), the diaphram segment (umbrella- shaped muscles under the lungs), the abdominal segment (belly) and the pelvic segment (sex). These seven muscle segments surround the body like rings that contract and expand to conduct energy through the system. In the body of a young child, before habitual defense patterns have formed, there is a unified expression of energy that flows naturally through the system. For example, a strong feeling originates in the belly and is then passed by pulsation through the different muscle segments to the chest and throat, until it finds its expression in the mouth with a cry of rage, a tremendous (belly) laugh or uncontrollable sobbing that involves the whole body. We move effortlessly through that energy, whatever it is. A charge builds up in the system and is released naturally.
As we journey through childhood, we develop habitual holding patterns that limit the energy system of the human body. For example, we control our breath in order not to feel certain emotions. We “swallow” our anger or we hide our tears. We stuff down our real feelings – or we exchange our real feelings for other emotions that are more acceptable to our parents, feeling sad instead of angry, for example. But the energy charge that we hold down does not just disappear, it stays in the muscles themselves, locked in tension. With repetition, this tension hardens and becomes part of our musculature. Reich called this process “armoring.” In this way the seven segments can also work against the natural expression of our energy. Our core energy surges upward and outward, only to meet a wall of tension and resistance. Our psychological defenses become part of our body structure. Reaction formation, for example, a defensive pattern in which we automatically go against our natural impulses, will have a physical manifestation in the segment where that energy is blocked.
Reich gave these holding patterns a name: counter-pulsation. If threatened, a child will stop crying. The muscles of the throat will tense up. The diaphragm will contract, breathing will become very shallow, and the energy of the tears will be stuffed back down the tube into the belly. This counter-pulsation reflects the dilemma of modern man, the human personality that is divided against itself. We have the capacity as human beings to cut off our own life energy, to decide whether it is ok to express our natural energy or not, but this control of our life energy often deadens us and leaves us living on a very thin slice of our total energy. Much of our life energy has gone into these defensive holding patterns, just to “keep it together.” The union of two thin slices is called marriage. And the two slices together do not even make a single person. No wonder there is trouble.
Maintaining our holding patterns takes a tremendous amount of energy. It takes more effort to repress a certain energy than it does to let that energy flow naturally. Using the Feldenkreis model as a metaphor here, it is harder to make isolated movements of the limbs of our body than it is to make that movement with the whole body. If you are in a sitting position and you want to raise your hand, as school children do, that movement can be done with head down and with almost no movement of the rest of the body. But a more natural movement would start with the pelvis and involve the synchronized movement of the chest, shoulder and head in an upward arc, the arm following those movements. By watching a baby move, we can begin to understand how these movements happen naturally.
Charles Kelley, a Neo-Reichian therapist who worked with Reich, developed the idea that our life energy flows between three sets of emotional polarities – fear and trust, pain and pleasure, anger and love. (2) Kelley found that fear is related to the inward movement of energy, from the periphery to the core. Anger is associated with the outward flow of energy, from the core to the periphery. And Pain is related to convulsive energy discharge, the rapid contraction and expansion of muscles that we experience in laughter, sobbing and orgasm.
There are two primary responses to fear – fight or flight. Often we, we can do neither, which gives way to a third response, shock. The system freezes up. Fear generates a desire to get away, to escape from an unsafe environment. It is a shrinking, an energetic retreat from the periphery to the core. Being afraid is an uncomfortable experience and there is usually a corresponding protection against the fear itself. The inward rush of energy that fear creates is met by a kind of frozenness that keeps us from being completely overwhelmed by the fear. This frozenness can be looked on not only as a shock response but also as a protection against the shrinking movement caused by fear. This is a kind of inner armoring against fear.
In terms of the Enneagram, there are three types that are most sensitive to the issues of fear and trust – the Observer, the Skeptic and the Epicure (5,6,7). As children, Observers fear the demands of the family, the Skeptic fears the lack of safety in the family, Epicures fear being limited by the family. All three have difficulty with trust, which is also an energy that moves from the periphery to the core, like fear. For all three types, their protections and defenses around fear inhibit their ability to trust, which is an allowing of energy from the outside to penetrate us on the inside. In the case of the fear types, their inner armoring against fear also prevents them from experiencing trust. Trust means allowing openness, receptivity and vulnerability. For that to happen, a certain amount of relaxation at the core is needed. It is precisely the absence of this relaxation that prevents the fear types from sinking into the core.
According to the Enneagram, personality styles Five, Six and Seven are the mental types, the thinkers. The energy is centered in the head. But that does not mean that all of their holding patterns around fear are in the head. These holding patterns are present throughout the body. Sometimes fear types look thin and fragile, because energy is being held at the core and withheld from the periphery. Arms and legs can look weaker than in other types. But these are only generalized physical characteristics that do not apply to all fear types. We all experience fear and we all have specific holding patterns around fear. For the fear types, however, how they deal with fear is at the core of their personality style. Often this is recognizable in their body type.
Unlike fear, anger moves in the opposite direction, from the core to the periphery. It is usually a strong outward flow of energy, a sudden rush from the core to the periphery. It can often be explosive and aggressive in nature. As civilized (highly conditioned) beings, of course, we are usually trained from childhood not to express anger. Controlling our anger creates tremendous tension in the muscles, especially around the mouth and jaw. The armoring of anger is located in the muscles throughout the body, wherever the anger gets stopped. Anger is a powerful energy that we need in order to set limits and to defend ourselves.
Love, on the other hand, is a soft, empathic, tender energy that moves outward with a caring desire for closeness and sharing. Our holding patterns around anger limit our expressions of love. Love and anger are running on the same energetic pathway – if one is blocked, so will the other tend to be blocked. Our education teaches us to block anger, but the result is that our love also gets blocked. The delicate energy of love will not be able to pass through the hard layers of chronic tension related to blocking anger. Social and religious prohibitions against the expression of anger often have a good intention. In some Tibetan Buddhist traditions, one instant of anger will land you in the hot hells for eons. But energetically it is not possible to suppress anger and be loving and kind at the same time. “Turn the other cheek” and “Love thy neighbor” are worthy slogans, but they represent a complete and total misunderstanding of how we function energetically. We cannot reach out to others with love and compassion if we are sitting on a volcano of repressed anger. Once anger has been properly discharged, there is a much better chance for love to flow.
The Enneagram types that are most preoccupied with anger are the Boss, the Peacemaker and the Perfectionist (8,9,1). These three styles of personality are often referred to as the belly types or the instinctual types. The source of anger is the belly. The Boss usually expresses anger directly, in a confrontational way. The Peacemaker expresses anger in a passive-aggressive way, indirectly. And Perfectionists usually express their anger as resentment or indignation. These types usually have strong hands and arms. Their muscles often appear to be stiff or thick. They are called “thick skinned” because their armoring at the periphery gives them an outwardly robust appearance, and they tend to be less sensitive to physical pain than other personality styles. Sometimes they are people who seem to be on the verge of exploding. Often their outward toughness hides a very loving and caring core.
Whereas the movement of anger and fear have a clear direction, the blocking of pain tends to function in both directions. In order to avoid feeling pain we block both the inward and the outward movement of the energy. The fear types carry a strong charge of energy at the core while the anger types carry a strong charge at the periphery. The pain types, on the other hand, carry a strong charge all through the body, from the core to the periphery. Both the inward and the outward flow of energy are contracted in an effort to feel less. This activity of constricting the flow of energy throughout the system often results in insensitivity and deadness. In terms of the breath, the pain types tend to limit both the in-breath and the out-breath in order not to feel. When a child’s feelings are hurt it will resort to this strategy in order to deaden the pain.
The Enneagram types focused on pleasure and pain are the Giver, the Performer and the Romantic (2,3,4). They are usually referred to as the feeling types. They can be looked on as three ways to deal with feelings of unworthiness. The Giver deals with unworthiness by caring for others and developing a false sense of pride. The Performer deals with feelings of unworthiness by working hard and being successful. And the Romantic deals with feelings of unworthiness by being very authentic and original. There is often a lack of vitality in the pain types, even when they indulge in a lot of activity. They are often overweight, deadening the pain through food and excess weight. This deadening process directly constricts their ability to feel pleasure or experience orgasm. Like the other feeling polarities, pleasure and pain are traveling on the same path. Blocking one polarity, blocks the other.
As we prepare to enter the adult world, we are energetically shut down in many areas of our body, unable to express our emotions naturally, crippled in our capacity to trust, to love and to experience pleasure. And we often find ourselves struggling and rebelling against these limitations, on the inside and the outside. By the time we reach adulthood, we are often disconnected from many dimensions of our Being, many of our resources. Our aliveness is seriously compromised. Our capacity to enjoy life is constricted. We have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, and our movements in life are often jerky and painful. An upbringing loaded with conflicting and contradictory conditioning has left us in a personal mess. We reach adulthood as alternately confused or over-confident, submissive or belligerent, angry or collapsed. We lurch painfully between grandiosity and unworthiness. We often have a tendency to sabotage ourselves in one or more areas of our lives. And we usually experience conflict and frustration in the primary areas of our lives – namely in work and in intimate relating.
Reich gave us many tools to work with our childhood conditioning in an energetic way. Sometimes our early attempts at adulthood may feel like a chaotic concoction of repressed or exaggerated responses. The distortions in our system may leave us feeling maladapted to our life situation, and the belief systems we take on through education, religion and other childhood conditioning only add more confusion. We need to feel the pain and sorrow of those early strivings toward adulthood, as we carom between guilt and aggression, hope and despair, fear and bravado. This is a heartbreaking sense of teenage angst and confusion that may replay itself later in life. We need to have compassion for ourselves in the difficulties we encounter on our life journey and to know they are the raw material of our growth and transformation.
1 – Aneesha Dillon, Tantric Pulsation, Cambridge, Perfect Publishers, 2005 and Alexander Lowen,
Betrayal of the Body, Alchua, FL, Bioenergetics Press 2005
2 – Charles Kelley, Life Force: The Creative Process in Man and in Nature, Bloomington, IN, Trafford
David Hey leads workshops on codependency, meditation, essence and the enneagram. He was the leader of the codependency work at Osho Multiversity as well as being a teacher in the essence work of the Diamond Logos for many years. He’s the author of The 9 Dimensions of the Soul and Travels in Consciousness, which was recently published. The article is an adapted excerpt from the latter. His website is www.speakconsciousness.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.