Contemporary Orgone (Reichian) Therapy: A Relational and Emotionally Focused Character Based Somatic Psychotherapy
Contemporary Orgone (Reichian) Therapy is a relational and emotionally focused, character based somatic (mind-body) psychotherapy that addresses both the psychological and the physiological underpinnings of emotional distress. It is based on the integration of Wilhelm Reich's character, somatic, bioenergetic approach with that of Gestalt Therapy and current theories on human development, attachment and emotional functioning.
a) We are born into this world as relatively immature beings who require positive and contactful interactions with significant others to aid in our development from infancy to adulthood. If in our young lives our interactions with these significant others, our parents, caretakers, and teachers, are in line with our individual emotional needs then we are able to grow into adults who have the capacity to feel pleasure in life, can form healthy and intimate relationships with others, find work that is productive and meaningful, and have a full and satisfying sexual life. If, on the other hand, these interactions are fraught with tension, anxiety, emotional pain, or are nonexistent, then our ability to develop a satisfying life in one or more of the areas listed above is inhibited, and we are unable to fully actualize ourselves. We become trapped in patterns of living that are not fulfilling, and either feel or exhibit many symptoms of emotional distress. These symptoms include:
a. Chronic feelings of anxiety and/or depression.
b. Psychosomatic distress in the form of chronic headaches, digestive problems, muscular pains and tensions, breathing difficulties - symptoms which are often referred to as resulting from 'stress'.
c. Repeatedly engaging in patterns of behavior that do not meet our needs, even when we know better.
d. An ongoing pattern of failed relationships, at home and/or at work.
e. Problems in establishing emotional and/or sexual intimacy.
f. Difficulties in speaking about and identifying emotions (alexithymia)
g. Difficulties in mobilizing the healthy assertion necessary to achieve one's goals in life.
h. Problems with addictions - chemical, behavioral or sexual.
b) Becoming trapped in patterns of living that are not fulfilling occurs when our organism becomes locked in what should be temporary patterns of reacting to emotionally distressing events; a process that Reich termed 'armoring'. Naturally we react to emotional distress through inhibiting our breathing, tensing our musculature, and engaging in thoughts and behaviors designed to minimize emotional or physical pain and keep us safe. These reactions should be short lived in nature - deal with the threat and bring ourselves to safety. However, if these reactions have to continue for an extended period of time, they become chronic in nature. This is armoring - chronic patterns of inhibited breathing, muscular tensions, and fixed patterns of thinking and behaving that were designed to keep us safe, but over time limit our capacity to engage in the flexibility of emotions and behaviors that are needed to develop a full and satisfying life. Our life energy (which Reich termed orgone energy) gets stuck in our organism, and as a result we feel stuck.
c) Saying that our life energy gets stuck in our organism is more then just a metaphor. Throughout his career Reich worked to demonstrate the existence of a life energetic force (orgone energy, bioenergy), and show how the inhibition of the movement and pulsation of life energy within our bodies gives rise to many somatic and psychological problems - a conceptualization somewhat similar (but not identical) to that which is the basis of many forms of nonwestern medicine, and consistent with the approaches of bioenergetics and bioenergetic analysis - both outgrowths of Reichian therapy. In order to literally get our 'life' back, we have to undo blockages to the flow of energy, blockages that occur when we have not been able to develop the capacity to fully feel, express, and modulate our emotions. For, according to Reich, emotions emerge from energetic movement. When energy is blocked, so are emotions. And when emotions are blocked, so is energy.
d) Contemporary Reichian Therapy therefore is literally a process of emotional reeducation. It is a process by which we begin to first see, then recognize, then feel how we contain and inhibit the experience and expression of our life energy. A process by which we begin to first see, then recognize, then feel how - in our bodies, our thoughts, and our behavior - we trap ourselves in antiquated ways of keeping ourselves safe and secure, and as a result suffer from the symptoms of emotional distress. A process in which we then, in the safety of the collaborative relationship between therapist and client, begin to open ourselves up to new ways of breathing, moving, thinking, and behaving, replacing the safety and security of the past with a safety and security grounded in a present day ability to feel, express and act from our emotional - life energetic core. It is a lively therapy designed to restore and enhance life.
What occurs during therapy?
As indicated above, the goal of Contemporary Reichian Body-Mind Therapy is to undo emotional distress via systematically helping an individual to first recognize and then lessen chronic patterns of armoring. As armor can manifest itself in all aspects of one's life: style of thinking, beliefs and attitudes, interpersonal behavior (that which Reich termed 'character armor'); and in posture, breathing style, and pattern of muscular and visceral tensions (that which Reich termed 'muscular armor'), it makes sense that therapy must address all of these aspects of living in the world. Using Reich's terminology, therapy consists of the gradual elimination or softening of character and muscular armoring.
The gradual elimination of character armor is accomplished through discussions between therapist and client concerning the client's current and early life situations, and discussions regarding feelings that emerge in the interaction with the therapist. Aided by the use of imagery and role-playing, specific events in one's life are discussed in detail, so that the often subtle and not conscious interplay between thoughts, beliefs, behavior and emotions can be uncovered and explored. Through such exploration rigid and automatic patterns of thinking and behaving become revealed, as well as their historical roots and the means by which they function to minimize emotional or physical pain and keep us safe. Bringing these patterns to light allows for old beliefs to be reevaluated in the present and for experimenting with new ways of thinking and behaving.
The gradual softening of muscular armor is accomplished through physical interventions that promote increased contact with feelings and emotions and reduce muscular tensions. These interventions include:
a) Helping the client breathe deeply and undo restrictions to full breathing. Anxiety and emotional holding always have at their base a restriction in breathing.
b) Helping the client to become aware of his or her muscular tensions and their relationship to blocked feelings and emotions. As a result of armoring we loose our ability to feel the connection between muscular holding patterns and underlying blocked emotions and feelings.
c) Suggesting various physical movements that increase awareness of emotions and/or aid in emotional expression. When we inhibit our movement we inhibit our capacity to feel and express our emotions.
d) Using physical touch to put pressure upon tight musculature in order to help release bound energy and emotions, and to promote energetic flow and relaxation.
Physical interventions, as those listed above, are primarily used while the client is laying down on a mattress, and often result in the evocation of very strong emotions and sensations, the experience of which is crucial to the process of change. In order to develop the capacity to fully feel, express, and modulate our emotions, buried feelings of pain, fear, anger, shame, grief, and longing must all come to the surface, be processed and integrated. Very often it is these repressed painful emotions that lead to chronic somatic conditions that don't seem to entirely respond to conventional treatments. Locked on the other side of these painful emotions sit the emotions of deep pleasure, excitement, curiosity, and joy - emotions that become felt and accessible once again as the energy that is bound in keeping painful emotions at bay gets released and can freely flow.
When one begins therapy the first few sessions typically focus on making a provisional assessment of the nature of one's character and muscular armoring. This is done through discussions aimed at getting an overall history of the course of one's life and the present and past emotional difficulties that brings the client to therapy, and through assessing the nature of one's breathing and capacity for emotional feeling, expression and modulation. This is a collaborative process, where therapist and client discuss openly what has been discovered and form an initial plan for therapy. And, as the success of therapy often rides on the strength of the therapeutic relationship, the capacity for continued open collaboration between therapist and client remains a vital component of therapy from its inception to ending.
Over the course of therapy, depending on what is determined concerning the nature of one's particular problems and armoring patterns, the amount of time spent in the therapy session focusing on either the character or the muscular armoring will vary. At times sessions will primarily focus on looking at one's patterns of thinking and behavior as described above, with little direct work on one's muscular armoring; while at other times much of therapy will be focused upon having the individual breathe and concentrate upon the sensations and emotions which arise as a result. In general therapeutic work with both the character and muscular armoring go hand in hand as they are both based on the flow and pulsation of life (orgone) energy.
What are the results of therapy?
As therapy progresses and the rigidity of one's armoring diminishes in a gradual and orderly process, long standing emotional pain is replaced by the experience of pleasure, energetic flowing, and emotional aliveness. This becomes especially evident in one's breathing, which in the course of therapy becomes increasingly deeper, spontaneous and free, and a source of pleasure and security. Concurrently patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving previously characterized by rigidity become more flexible and appropriate to one's current situation, and chronic stress based physical symptoms loose their incapacitating grip. Over time one can expect to experience better contact with one's feelings, develop an increased capacity for sexual excitation and satisfaction, experience a greater self -awareness and self-esteem, and have more access toward healthy aggression. In general, the symptoms that brought one to therapy will diminish and one's overall functioning in the world will be enhanced, and life will be restored.
As a way of learning more about what Contemporary Orgone (Reichian) Therapy you may view a series of lectures I have given over the past years on the practice of Reichian therapy by following the link to "Videos: Past Conferences and Presentations" on the menu to the left.
Daniel Schiff PH.D.
Phone: 503 290-4655