Lowen, Alexander. Bioenegetics: The Revolutionary Therapy that Uses the Language of the Body to Heal the Problems of the Mind. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.
This book amazed me from beginning to end. There is just so much richness in what Alexander Lowen leaves as a legacy for our continued work in the field of holistic health. Born in 1910, and living a very productive life almost until his death at age 97, Dr. Lowen followed in the footsteps of the famed Wilhelm Reich, who influenced many in his day and whose work continues to represent the foundations of the mind-body connection in the realm of psychology.
I will highlight some of the most compelling parts of Bioenergetics below, and include some quotes to help illustrate the areas of thought that most intrigued me as I prepare to launch my book: Being In My Body: What You Might Not Have Known About Trauma, Dissociation and The Brain. I also include a collection of exercises that employ the body’s involuntary aspect that I adapted from Bioenergetics that you may want to experiment with here: Bioenergetics Exercises
Like Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen saw the first step in any therapeutic procedure as 1) getting the patient to breathe easily and deeply and 2) to mobilize whatever emotional expression was most evident in the patient’s face or manner.
It is intuitively known that the body tells us so much about the person inhabiting it, but the writers who have been able to capture this relationship rarely do so in such a thorough, elegant and informed way.
Freedom is the absence of inner restraint to the flow of feeling, grace is the expression of this flow in movement, while beauty is a manifestation of the inner harmony such a flow engenders. They denote a healthy body and also, therefore, a healthy mind. (pg 44)
Below I include a few more excerpts regarding the ways we communicate with others without even knowing it. I appreciate the wisdom and the knowledge that come from Lowen’s medical background. “Our first impressions of people are body responses which we tend eventually to ignore as we focus on their words and deeds. Words and actions are to a large extent subject to voluntary control,” he says. “They can be used to convey impressions that contradict the expression of the body.” We might get an impression when we first meet someone, for instance, that they are fearful or anxious. Over time, we pay more attention to their words, and don’t pay as much attention to the way their body expresses its story of anxiety and fear.
The other person may not feel afraid despite his expression of fear. If he doesn’t, it means he is out of touch with the expression of his body. That generally happens when an attitude is of long standing and has become structured in the body. Chronic holding or tension patterns lose their effective or energetic charge and are removed from consciousness. They are not perceived or experienced. The body attitude becomes “second nature” to the person, at which point we say that it is part of his character.
Over the lifetime of the individual, the importance of being aware of the body and its wisdom cannot be underestimated, Lowen says. “A person must also keep in touch, and that means a commitment to the life of the body.”
The self cannot be divorced from the body, and self-awareness cannot be separated from body awareness. For me, at least, the way of growth is by being in touch with my body and understanding its language. (pg 117)
Lowen, like Reich, had a lot to say about pleasure, and the importance and impact of pleasure on the human organism. So much negative energy still lurks in our subconscious from our culture’s roots in Calvinism, harking back to messages from our churches about the evils of hedonism so that it is almost taboo to bring it up in scholarly or “respectable” circles. Finding such a comprehensive work like this from back in 1975, an informed person might wonder why the concept of pleasure is not more integrated into our modern healing modalities. I have lots of ideas about this, but that may have to wait for another blog post. In the meantime, we might just say, using Lowen’s words: “People come to therapy with various complaints: depression, anxiety, a feeling of inadequacy, a sense of failure, etc. But behind each complaint is a lack of joy and satisfaction in living.”
Alexander Lowen believed that the restrictions in our bodies keep us from moving the way we were designed to move and that this lack of movement keeps us from experiencing anywhere near the full extent of pleasure that we are capable of experiencing–not in the sense of having ultimate experiences or in owning more symbols of material wealth, but simply in the everyday sensory experience we can potentially have of being alive and interacting with those around us.
I love that Lowen includes self-expression as an important source of satisfaction and pleasure. Maybe that is why the arts have always been so important. But self-expression is so much more than the arts. Lowen says that it is connected to our mental and physical health. “No living organism is a machine,” he says,
Its basic activities are not performed mechanically but are expressions of its being. A person expresses himself in his actions and movements, and when his self-expression is free and appropriate to the reality of the situation, he experiences a sense of satisfaction and pleasure from the discharge of his energy. This pleasure and satisfaction in turn stimulate the organism to increased metabolic activity, which is immediately reflected in deeper and fuller breathing. With pleasure the rhythmic and involuntary activities of life function at an optimal level.
Our experience of pleasure also shapes our interpersonal relationships. “Every muscular tension blocks the individual’s reaching out directly to the world for pleasure,” Lowen says. “Faced with such restrictions, the ego will manipulate the environment in furtherance of the body’s need for contact and pleasure.” (pg 145)
When we are parenting our children, it is important to remember the importance of self-expression. Not that children should be allowed to always have their way, or to be disrespectful, but that they need avenues, permission and often support to help them learn how to express themselves. This has implications in the proper passage through the normal stages of child development. Lowen says, “Pleasure and satisfaction are, as I have said, the immediate experience of self-expressive activities. Limit a person’s right to express himself, and you limit his opportunities for pleasure and creative living.”
Supporting a child in learning to express him or herself also facilitates the development of healthy narcissism, without which the individual can grow up to be very manipulative and indirect about getting his or her needs met. In fact, this lack of support and often a concomitant discouragement of the child’s expression of emotion is an important part of what compels a child to learn to dissociate and disconnect from his or her felt sense. Lowen says, “There is an inadequate sense of self because of a lack of identification with the body. The person doesn’t feel connected or integrated.” (pg 154) Here are some more snippets from Bioenergetics of what Lowen had to say about dissociated feelings from childhood, and coping strategies individuals use when they experience early relational trauma.
Given this history, the child had no choice but to dissociate himself from reality (intense fantasy life) and from his body (abstract intelligence) in order to survive. Since the dominant feelings were terror and murderous fury, the child walled off all feeling in self defense.
…an inner feeling of needing to be held, supported and taken care of.
…these traits are masked by consciously adopted compensatory attitudes.
…an exaggerated independence which, however, fails to hold up under stess.
The denial of feeling is basically a denial of need. The psychopathic maneuver is to make others need him so that he doesn’t have to express his need. Thus he is always one up on the world. (pg 161)
My training in CranioSacral Therapy (CST) first introduced me to the idea of opening up the avenues of expression (in the throat and jaw), which suggests to me that John Upledger, DO was likely influenced by the work of Wilhelm Reich. For those of you trained in or familiar with CST, here is a quote you will likely appreciate: “The avenues of self-expression through movement, the voice and the eyes must be opened up, so a greater energy discharge can occur.” CST is one effective therapy for treating early relational trauma resulting from the denial of self-expression in childhood.
Here is how Alexander Lowen describes successful therapy. Notice the importance he places on connecting present-day experiences with life history, and how he describes the energy effects of successful treatment. With its emphasis on breathing, feeling and movement, it is closely related to today’s idea of mindfulness:
…the emphasis is always on breathing, feeling and movement, coupled with the attempt to relate the present-day energetic functioning of the individual to his life history. This combined approach slowly uncovers the inner forces (conflicts) that prevent a person from functioning at his full energetic potential. Each time one of these inner conflicts is resolved, the person’s energy level increases. This means he takes in more energy and discharges more in creative activities that are pleasurable and satisfying.
In the process of writing Being In My Body, I became much more aware of my infant rage and my 14-year-old rancor and disdain. It’s almost as if the creative process of writing this book gave me a forum in which to voice these feelings, and explore the reasons for them, and the process itself allowed me to bring them to consciousness. As with any creative endeavor, it is an example of self-expression. The process has compelled me to reconnect with my babyhood, and hopefully open myself to the experience of greater and more satisfying interpersonal closeness. Also from this vantage point I am beginning to see the ways I protected myself from such closeness in the past. The message in this passage spoke to me.
The desire for an intimate closeness underlies all feelings of love. The individual who is in touch with the baby he was which is still part of him, knows the feeling of love. He is also in touch with his heart. To the degree that one is cut off from his heart or his babyhood he is blocked from experiencing the fullness of love.
In the following quote, Lowen explains the reasons we must work with the entire person, including the parts that may have become fragmented in response to various early relational traumas. He says that a healthy adult “is a person who is aware of the consequences of his behavior and assumes responsibility for them.” However, he says,
if he loses touch with the feelings of love and closeness he knew as a baby, with the creative imagination of the child, with the playfulness and joy of his boyhood and with the spirit of adventure and sense of romance that marked his youth, he will be a sterile, hidebound and rigid person. A healthy adult is a baby, a child, a boy or girl and a youth. His sense of reality and responsibility includes the need and desire for closeness and love, the ability to be creative, the freedom to be joyful, and the spirit to be adventurous. He is an integrated and fully conscious human being. (pg 60)
I am still very much processing what Lowen has to say about repressed emotions, and the pleasure of connected love.
“Knowledge becomes understanding when it is coupled with feeling.”
If a person is not mindful of his body, it is because he is afraid to perceive or sense his feelings. When feelings have a threatening quality, they are generally suppressed. This is done by developing chronic muscular tensions that do not allow any flow of excitation or spontaneous movement to develop in the relevant areas. People often suppress their fear because it has a paralyzing effect, their rage because it is too dangerous, and their despair because it is too discouraging. They will also suppress their awareness of pain, such as the pain of an unfulfilled longing, because they cannot support that pain. The suppression of feeling diminishes the state of excitation in the body and decreases the ability of the mind to focus. It is the prime cause for the loss of mind power. Mostly our minds are preoccupied with the need to be in control at the expense of being and feeling more alive.
I have defined love as the anticipation of pleasure…Psychologically, it involves a surrender of the ego to the loved object, who becomes more important to the self than the ego. But the surrender of the ego involves a descent of feeling in the body, a downward flow of excitation into the deep abdomen and pelvis. This downward flow produces delicious steaming and melting sensations. One literally melts with love. The same lovely sensations occur when one’s sexual excitement is very strong and not limited to the genital area. They precede every full orgastic release. (pg 223)
The result of successful body-mind therapy leaves a client feeling more integrated. That is, parts that were cut off from one another have reconnected. Obviously, I include EMDR and CranioSacral Therapy among effective body-mind, re-integrating therapies. Here is how Lowen describes such integration.
Releasing [blocks] by using both a physical and a psychological approach makes people begin to feel “connected.” That is their word. Head, heart and genitals, or thinking, feeling and sex are no longer separate parts or separate functions. Sex becomes more and more an expression of love with a correspondingly greater pleasure. (pg 88)
I particularly like what Lowen says about clients and touch. Though he had very strict boundaries about professionalism and sexual relations between therapist and client, he felt that touch was a very important part of therapy. “It is incumbent on a therapist, therefore, to show he is not afraid to touch or be in touch with his patient.”
What Lowen says about our energetic connection with the earth, through our feet, is the same message one gets when studying the Chinese healing arts and martial arts.
…the legs, which are our mobile roots. Just like the roots of a tree, our legs and feet interact energetically with the ground.
…the more a person can feel his contact with the ground, the more he can hold his ground, the more charge he can tolerate and the more feeling he can handle. This makes grounding a prime objective in bioenergetics work. It implies that the major thrust of the work is downward – that is, to get the person into his legs and feet. (pg 196)
Whatever its origin, every holding pattern represents in the present the unconscious use of the will against the natural forces of life. (pg 204)
The remark that “a person has both feet on the ground” can be taken literally only in the sense that there is a feeling contact between the feet and the ground. Such contact occurs when excitation or energy flows into the feet, creating a condition of vibrant tension similar to that described for the hands when one focuses his attention or directs his energy to them. One is, then, aware of the feet and able to balance himself properly on them. (pg 97)
I absolutely loved the following image, as it was one I had come close to on my own. Mine included the human body as a metaphor for the earth, which I logically connected with “mother,” but not with the joy and pleasure that Lowen creates in his imagery in the paragraphs below.
A mother is an infant’s first ground, or to put it differently, an infant is grounded through its mother’s body. Earth and ground are symbolically identified with the mother, who is a representative of ground and home. (pg 97)
My patients failed to develop a sense of being grounded or rooted because of a lack of sufficient pleasurable contact with their mothers’ bodies.
A mother who is herself uprooted cannot provide the sense of security and grounding a baby needs.
Here is what Lowen has to say about empathy. I like that he makes the distinction that one person cannot feel another’s feelings. I happen to believe that we can mirror another person’s unconscious feelings if we, ourselves, are desiring at some level to bring our own unconscious feelings to consciousness.
Sensing another person is an empathic process. Empathy is a function of identification – that is, by identifying with a person’s bodily expression, one can sense its meaning. One can also sense what it feels like to be that other person, though one cannot feel what another feels. Each person’s feelings are private, subjective. He feels what is going on in his body; you feel what is going on in yours. However, since all human bodies are alike in their basic functions, bodies can resonate to each other when they are on the same wavelength. When this happens, the feelings in one body are similar to those in the other. (pg 101)
In this book, Lowen describes various character structures which use words like masochistic, psychotic, and narcissistic. In this context these words are descriptive, not diagnostic, and I found many of the ideas to strike close to home.
There is also a masochistic element in the psychopathic personality, resulting from the submission to the seductive parent. The child could not rebel or walk away from the situation; its only defense was internal. The submission is only on the surface; nevertheless, to the degree that the child submits openly, he gains some measure of closeness with the parent. (pg 162)
..submissive attitude in his outward behavior, he is just the opposite inside. On the deeper emotional level, he has strong feelings of spite, negativity, hostility and superiority….He counters the fear of exploding by a muscular pattern of holding in. Thick, powerful muscles restrain any direct assertion and allow only the whine or complaint to come through. (pg 163)
On a conscious level the masochist is identified with trying to please; on the unconscious level, however, this attitude is denied by spite, negativity and hostility. These suppressed feelings must be released before the masochistic individual can respond freely to life situations. (pg 165)
The psychopathic character had something his parent wanted; otherwise he would not have been an object of seduction and manipulation. As a child he must have been aware of this and got from it his first taste of power. True, he was really helpless, and so his power was only in his mind, but he learned a fact of life he used later: Whenever anybody needs something from you, you have power over them. (pg 182)
Neurotic anxiety stems from an internal conflict between an energetic movement in the body and an unconscious control or block set up to limit or stop that movement. These blocks are the chronic muscular tensions mostly in the striated or voluntary musculature which is normally under ego control. Conscious ego control is lost when the tension in a set of muscles becomes chronic. This does not mean that control is surrendered but that the control itself has become unconscious. (pg 219)
Lowen believed that the life of the body resides in its involuntary aspect. Many of his exercises involved experiencing these involuntary functions of the body. I am including a collection of exercises adapted from Bioenergetics for you to play with here: Bioenergetics Exercises.
For a really nice interview with Alexander Lowen in his later years, you can go here. I encourage you to read this book for yourself if you are a body worker or if you would like more information about Bioenergetics, the body-mind therapy created by Alexander Lowen, MD. Though Dr. Lowen is no longer with us, we can access his works and legacy here.
My book about reintegrating body function after trauma will be coming out this fall. You can check it out here.