Wilhelm Reich – talk at Treadwells Books, 1/9/05

The following talk was given Treadwells Bookshop on 1st September, 2005. I’m reposting it here as it’s not a bad intro to Reich and his work. Also, it gives me the chance to finally correct all the bloody typos that have bugged me for the last 8 years! I actually have some proper, much deeper experience of Reichian (orgone) therapy now, so I’m going to alter and correct in light of this experience in footnotes.

Love, work and knowledge are the wellsprings of our life. They should also govern it.
Wilhelm Reich, as the epigraph to all his books.

All systems which liberate rather than delude lead back to the body

Wilhelm Reich is the kind of person whose name a lot of people know, while knowing very little about him. Some might be aware of his crazy reputation as the “sex box” guy, who built a strange devices to give people better orgasms (immortalised in the Hawkwind song Orgone Accumulator)1 . Those of you who know a little more may be aware that he was a radical psychotherapist who was imprisoned in the US in the 1950s, died in prison and had his books burnt by the US govt. There was a resurgence of interest in his work in the sixties and seventies, but he pretty much seems to have disappeared off the cultural map in the UK. This talk will attempt to re-present some of his ideas and explain my interest.

I’m going to talk firstly about his life history and how his psychotherapeutic approach evolved and what it entails, as the potential for working on oneself is what interests most people when they first approach his work (including myself). I’m going to break the theoretical side into “chunks” as I find it easier to handle this way, as well as offering some examples from my own experience to clarify. As I’m speaking in an occult bookstore, I’m then going to offer up some of Reich’s comments and thoughts on mysticism, as he had some very interesting (though critical) things to say. I intend to close with a consideration of the breadth of his work and it’s unity – which I hope will inspire a few people to do some research and reading of their own.

Beginnings—Psychoanalysis & Therapy

Wilhelm Reich was born on March 24 1897 in Dobrzanic, and grew up in Jujuinetz, both of which were then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and are now the Ukraine. He grew up on a small farm. By all accounts his father, Leon was very bullish, dominating man. A key event in his early life occurred when he was 12 when he discovered his mother was having an affair with a family tutor. Reich told his father about this, and the resulting family arguments led to his mother’s suicide from drinking household cleaner. His father later died not long after of pneumonia contracted while fishing for long hours on a cold lake. Reich felt that his father deliberately exposed himself as a response to the family tragedy. With a double familial suicide in his background, we can perhaps see here the root of his drive, as well as his passionate interest in sexual and emotional life. He had to leave his family farm shortly after his father’s death, when the Russians invaded, and as he wrote in his book The Passion of Youth “I never saw my homeland or possessions again”.

He joined the Austrian Army and fought in the war until it ended in 1918, when he moved to in Vienna and enrolled at the university there as a medical student. He was more orientated towards psychoanalysis than any other area, organising a seminar in sexology as an undergraduate in 1919 which brought him to the attention of Sigmund Freud. He was accepted as a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society in 1920 and completed his studies in 1922. Psychoanalysis at the time was gaining wider acceptance in society, but therapists still felt very “at sea” in terms of what to do with patients in a practical sense. As an emerging discipline it didn’t have an established methodology. Reich states that he was told to “just keep on analysing” despite sitting with a patient in silence for hours at a time. In addition, the average time for treatments was getting longer and longer, growing from an optimistic six months when Reich began his studies to one or two years or more by the early 1920s. I think we can see this as almost a collective state of “beginners mind” — in that the early insights of psychoanalysis were so radical that people didn’t know how to defend themselves against them. Reich reports that as knowledge of psychoanalytical concepts became widespread, some patients would produce dreams and associations almost on demand, but without the breakthrough of strong emotion. In psychoanalytical jargon, this is known as an “effect block”. Reich was particularly interested in the way that the patients offered this, and other attitudes and strategies, as resistances to the process of therapy.

Character Analysis

In response to their practical problems, a group of young psychoanalysts set up a technical seminar, working on technique rather than the underlying theory. This group was chaired by Reich who was gaining continual clinical practice from his job. He was in his mid twenties here, and I think it was this continual exposure to clinical practice from such an early age that gained him his insights. In the technical seminar, Reich, began to explore the notion that a person’s actual character and habitual attitudes could be seen as resistances, both to therapy and to threatening situations in wider life. Reich refers to the stoicism of a waiter who he had analysed for three years for impotence without success. He realised later that “it was precisely this emotional tranquillity, this unshakeable equanimity which formed the pathological basis on which the erective impotence could be maintained”. Basically put, he saw a relation between this man’s character and his impotence. From here, Reich began to look at his patients’ manner in therapy: were they haughty, rigidly polite, evasive? In Reich’s view, these attitudes had arisen in childhood as a way of protecting oneself against strong emotional stimulation, and they carried out the same function in analysis. A later analyst, Nick Totnes, has called the habitual character “the spastic I” – habits and attitudes which block free expression of emotion and feeling. Reich called this process of addressing character character analysis which became the title of one of his first books.

Character analysis worked by drawing attention to these mannerisms or traits consistently, in such a way that the patient would began to question them themselves, and perhaps experience them as “symptoms” rather than identifying with them. Reich would repeatedly point out, say, the forced politeness of a character and try and penetrate it’s meaning. In turn he would see what emerged from behind this trait, and work on the deconstruction of these layered defences, piece by piece, working with a few traits or patterns at a time, consistently. He would not move onto analysing deeper conflicts or unconscious material until he judged the patient was ready to “feel” these and thoroughly understand them.

Case presentations at the seminar were one of the first instances where Reich noted how overlooked non-verbal expressions were in the analytical process. Dress, tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, bodily attitude — all played a role in the process of resistance. What someone said was perhaps not as important as they way they said it. From the mid 1920s onwards, Reich became increasingly interested in this area. He took this method of analysis beyond the seminar (and indeed, beyond psycho-analysis), and it became one of the keynotes of his therapeutic approach.

We can see here Reich moving away from the verbal and intellectual orientation of psychoanalysis to working directly with the body Although Reich stated that he was never opposed to good analysis, he increasingly moved away from solely verbal techniques. By his time in Norway (1934 – 1939) he was beginning to work directly on the body, breaking psychoanalytical protocol by touching patients and seeing them in the nude or semi-nude. He became particularly interested in respiration as this seemed to be key to the emotional states of his patients.


His work with the body became systemised in his early years in America. In his analytic work, he’d talked about character functioning as an armour. He took this metaphor quite literally now as referring to the patterns of tensions in our bodies which grow up to protect us but can limit our movements. He talked of the muscular armour as consisting of seven overlapping segments, at right angles to the spine. By this time he was beginning to use an energetic paradigm and saw the segments as blocking the free movement of energy up and down the body. The segments in turn were ocular, oral, neck, chest, diaphragm, abdomen and pelvis. This shouldn’t be taken as too literal a map but simply a way of approaching the body. Reich would work from the eyes (ocular segment) down, using the logic that deeper conflicts were likely to be “buried” in the genital region and were less likely to be resolved until the rest of the armouring was free. In this he followed the method of character analysis – working with what was nearest to the “surface” i.e. the patients consciousness.

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to reflect on your own emotions and their relationship to different areas of the body, perhaps to contemplate the way your breath changes in relation to states of arousal, fear or release. Our habitual reliance on our intellects and lack of bodily awareness can detach us from our emotions, and conceal or distance us from them, but every one has a somatic side and understanding this gives us a key to working with them. Reich would commonly work by encouraging the patient to breath deeper which, depending on the explanation you prefer, either raises the energy level or excites the metabolism. He would notice any tics, changes of expression, breathing, movements on the couch – anything by which the patient might block any feelings that the excitations are provoking. Simultaneously, he would work with any verbal defences or changes in attitude the patient might throw up. He would use all of these as a road to take him deeper into the analysis, uncovering layers of character defences. Where was he hoping to get to – well, his model of health was called orgiastic potency which I’ll cover in a second.
Reich's armour segments
The evolution of Reich’s therapeutic technique (& personal experience)

I think it’s perhaps best to flesh out these ideas by giving some examples of my own practice, I’ve been working for several years with these ideas, starting with some exercises giving in Dr. Christopher Hyatt’s book Undoing yourself with Energised Meditation, and adapting other procedures for various therapeutic case histories. I’d stress that in no way do I consider this equivalent to full blown Reichian analysis, but it’s useful to get to know your body and gain a sense of where you might be armoured, and shows the power of this type of therapy in a way that reading doesn’t. It’s a process I’ve found invaluable, but I certainly don’t think I’ve removed my own armouring – if anything, I’ve only scraped the surface if anything.

To begin with I worked with my breath. Reichian work differs from pranayama in that in doesn’t try and impose a rhythm on the breath — instead; it just tries to loosen it, to allow its natural functioning and depth to return. This can be really powerful — the first time I tried it, I couldn’t conclude the session, I found myself overwhelmed by the intensity of feeling. With breathwork, moods can shift rapidly and I’ve frequently found myself completely exhilarated, laughing ecstatically or on the brink of tears. I began working with the ocular segment by allowing myself to notice my peripheral and the area to the sides of my eyes. I think this is worthwhile as it’s an area of the body we don’t normally notice. I noticed that allowing this alongside becoming conscious of my peripheral vision brings up some odd indefinable sensations — hard to describe, a “deepening of feeling” is the best I can come up with. You start to see the connection here between the emotional tone of our gaze, perhaps we have habitual patterns of staring, or a gaze which flicks rapidly from thing to another. You begin to notice other qualities in the act of seeing. I’ve followed this with another Reichian therapeutic procedure which is, after some work with the breath, to have someone manipulate an object (such as a fingertip, a pencil or penlight) near the eyes in irregular patterns, while you try and track it with your eye — the random movement is supposed to loosen the armouring, the muscular stiffness around the eyes. I’ve found this to have very powerful effects. When this has really hit home something “clicks” between you and what you’re looking at, and all of a sudden, you’re flooded with emotion and bodily sensations, breathing deepens rapidly, and sobbing reaches right down into the chest.

Some other techniques of mobilising armouring in the segment would be to have a patient roll their eyes, and raise their brows, or make suspicious or angry or needful expressions, expressing as much as they can through the eyes. I’ve found it a useful meditation to study people’s gaze as I go about my day to day business and see if the quality of there eyes tells me anything about their character.

Similar techniques are carried out along the length of the body. Working with the oral segment might take place by encouraging the patient to thrust out their jaw or bite. The suppressed desires to suckle might arise. Working with the chest might bring up feelings of rage, deep affection or longing which might be mobilised by massage or using the arms to hit, or reach out, while one might work with the legs of feet to kick to express aggression.

Character armour then, in Reich’s terms, is the sum total of our defences against external threats and internal excitation or distress. It stays with us in later life, and limits our freedom of expression, the depth of our emotional responses and our feelings of aliveness. Reich would say it arises as a response to fear and threatening situations, as well as from frustration of our primary needs – the latter being for healthy, warm physical and emotional contact. It is both psychic and somatic. He said “functional identity means nothing more than muscular attitudes and character attitudes have the same function in the psychic mechanism: they replace one another and can be influenced by one another. Basically they cannot be separated … tensions are not the “results”, “causes”, “accompanying manifestations” of “psychic processes”; they are simply these phenomena themselves in the somatic realm”. The unity of psyche and soma is expressed in the diagram on the cover of all his books — two arrows curling in to meet each other, both expressions of an underlying energetic process.

Orgiastic potency

One key element of Reich’s model of health is his orgasm formula, and what he called orgiastic potency. These ideas evolved alongside the concepts of character armour and they are fundamentally interlinked. From early on in his career, Reich felt there was some connection between the sexual function of his patients and their mental health. Basically put, the patients who got well and stayed well would be the ones who were able to establish a satisfying love life. It was his insistence on the connection between sexual and mental health that first brought Reich into conflict with the psychoanalytic establishment — in critiques of his early papers, some analysts insisted that they knew any number of patients who were neurotic yet maintained health love lives. He was also criticised for not defining what he meant by healthy gentility. In response, Reich began to qualify the sex lives of his patients, studying sexual response and masturbation fantasies in detail. He was impressed with the range and depth of the disturbances he found. Some of the symptoms he uncovered were, for instance, the wish to murder the partner, following the sex act, alongside feelings of depression or self-hatred, the penis conceived of as a weapon with which to pierce or hurt the partner, or a desire to prove potency, by performing many times, regardless of the pleasure in the experience.

Here Reich was one of the first to qualify the sex act, and look at subjective experience rather than accepting an unexamined “normality”. Talking about healthy sexuality, he was nothing if not concrete here, giving as the centrepiece of his book The Function of the Orgasm a detailed description of this the orgasm itself, a description which combines subjective experience with biological function. Of particular interest here are his emphasis on the melding of tender and sensuous strivings towards the partner (the unity of sex and love) and involuntary movements. It is precisely this kind of emotional expression and free, natural movement which is inhibited by armouring. He defined orgiastic potency as “the capacity to surrender to the flow of biological energy… free of any inhibition, the capacity to discharge completely the dammed-up sexual excitation through involuntary pleasurable convulsions of the body.” That was his definition of health.

Reading Reich, one can read orgiastic potency as simply an overpowering, jaw-dropping orgasm. I think what’s more important is the emphasis on the capacity to yield, to give in and surrender to the body. If one thinks about character armour as rigidity, then orgiastic potency is the ability to give into your own body’s spontaneous movement. I feel that the ability to give in physically, is related to the ability to give in, to surrender, psychically. This simple idea of movement, pulsation in an organism is fundamental to an understanding of his later work.

Reich held that the goal of his therapeutic process, through the removal of armouring, was the establishment of orgiastic potency. Sharaf has stated that he felt Reich had a tendency to over-estimate the possibility of people establishing orgiastic potency through therapy. The complexities of real life and the human character mean that any therapy can fail to reach its stated goals — Reich himself said that “once a tree has grown twisted, you cannot fix it”. Sharaf also states that he felt Reich ignored the possibilities inherent in sexuality that felt short of this – it’s certainly possible to be open and loving without being fully “potent” in the Reichian sense. It seems to me to be a therapeutic ideal, like the resolution of the Oedipus complex in psychoanalysis or Jungian individuation. Perhaps the purpose is not to reach to goal, but to go on the journey. Having said that, to judge from the case studies of Reich and the many analysts that followed him, therapy can have a powerful effect on ones’ sexual life.

I can testify to this from my own experience. When I began to explore armouring in the genital segment for myself, I was surprised to find the emotion of fear anchored in my hips. It’s a strange sensation when you find conflicts and issues you have actually expressed in your body, lurking there beneath the range of consciousness all the time. This further confirms the Reichian model’s therapeutic validity for me.

So, what have been the effects on me, working in this way? Well, with the caveat that my work is still very much in progress, I’d say I feel much more in touch with my body, I feel it IS me in quite a profound way. I’m more aware of the defensive patterns I slip into to, and how these are related to my bodily attitude. Emotionally I’d say I’m aware of the somatic root of all of my feelings and they don’t feel like strange unwelcome visitors anymore. I feel a lot more open and in touch with the gentler side of my emotions than I did previously. Of course, it’s possibly I’ve just made this happen as I’m aware it’s an attitude I aspire towards, rather than just a knock on effect of the physical work — either way, it’s a positive thing. As for my orgiastic potency, my ability to surrender to bodily convulsions in the sexual act — well, perhaps I’d better draw a veil over that.

Orgone energy

An orgone acculmulator, Reich's device for gathering orgone energy
I’d now like to begin exploring the part of Reich’s work I personally still have difficulty with — the discovery of what he called orgone energy, and the strands of his work that built upon this. I can only skip through it quickly in this talk, but you this quick summary shouldn’t make you think from it’s not as well researched and documented as any part of his work. On often hears that Reich went crazy at a certain point — this point is usually judged to be when the accuser starts to disagree with him. However, Reich’s work on orgone fits with the unfolding logic of the rest of his work and is as rigorously documented as his earlier psychotherapeutic work. To the orthodox scientific world, he’s a total lunatic, but I found his work rich enough and pregnant with possibilities that I’m happy to pursue the “crazy” strands. If he is right, he’s discovered something incredibly important.

This work touches on not just one, but two, scientific heresies — vitalism and spontaneous generation. Vitalism is the belief in a life energy, an energy that inhabits the organism — the presence of which separates the living from the dead. We might draw parallels with chi or prana. Both of these are linked to breath, and we’ve already seen the importance of respiration in Reich’s therapy. Spontaneous generation is the belief that “life arises from life” — the idea that — not just in terms of reproduction but rather that the breakdown of living organisms can give birth to new life.

As we have seen by the time Reich arrived in Oslo he was beginning to simplify his therapeutic technique. He was looking at it in terms of the free movement of energy rather than complex psychoanalytical schemas. He also — perhaps unwisely — moved into a completely new area of study for him, that of microscopy, and began to examine amoeba. Why? Why on earth was he doing investigating this field, one in which he had no training and little experience. Well, either as his detractors had it, he was a megalomaniac lunatic who knew no shame or sanity – or, as he and his defenders would put it, he felt he was on the brink of discovering something fundamental about life and living processes, and he felt compelled to do this by looking at life in its most simple forms to see if his ideas still held. Throughout his work he’d been trying to look for a real and physical basis for Freud’s “libido” — he’d began to study biology with the aim of understanding of how energy moved in organisms and individuals cells. We can see his microscopy work as following this, looking at fundamentals, asking — “what is life”? To quote Sharaf again, he was trying to “to drive life into a corner, to reduce it to its lowest terms”.

Early on in this work, he asked a laboratory assistant where amoebas came from. The assistant told him, with a startled look, “from the air, of course”. This is the common explanation for the birth of amoeba — they are carried in the air to the bodies of water were they grow. Reich began some experiments in biogenesis, submitting disintegrating plant material to continuous observation. At the edges of the material, he observed that the cells gradually disintegrated into small shapes which floated off into the surrounding fluid. Often these shapes which would grow into amoebae.

Reich called the structures Bions — transitional forms between the living and the non-living. He carried out a number of safeguards to make sure that what he saw wasn’t the result of contamination – such as heating to incandescence which is supposed to destroy all bacteria and creating hermetical sealed systems but he still found these motile forms creating coming into creation. He tested other substances such as foodstuffs, soil and coal and found similar forms arising. It’s hard to convey what a real heresy this is — it challenges fundamental ideas about the origin of life, which is said to have occurred once and once alone in the primordial soup in aeons past. Reich’s work implies that this might not be the case. Unsurprisingly, this work unleashed an incredible storm of controversy in the Norwegian press, which alongside Nazi aggression contributed to Reich’s decision to leave Norway in 1939.

As he carried out these experiments Reich began to notice radiation phenomena coming from particular preparations. An assistant had mistakenly placed some ocean sand in the steriliser. Some bions appeared which had a strong effect on bacteria and refracted light powerfully and when studied through the microscope gave Reich slight conjunctivitis. He isolated them metal box in a darkened room to try and contain the radiation phenomena, where he noted some peculiar visual effects.

His description reads:
The observations in the dark were somehow weird. After the eyes adapted to the darkness, the room did not appear black but grey blue. There were fog like formations and bluish dots and lines of light, violet light phenomena seemed to emanate from the walls as well as from the various objects in the room.

He attempted to build an apparatus to contain this radiation with metal inner walls to reflect the energy back in and organic outer ones to reduce the outward deflection. He was somewhat surprised to find that he found the same light phenomena though not as strong within the metal box after he’d removed the bion preparation, though not as strong. Over the course of several days, he tried everything, taking apart the box and cleansing and airing the plates. He built another box and kept this in rooms separate from the bion preparations but still the phenomena persisted. He continued this work after his relocation to America, and at a vacation in Oregon in 1940 he felt he’d finally solved the mystery. While out at night, observing the stars, he saw similar phenomena as he had seen in the box. Therefore he concluded the atmosphere contained an unknown energy.

Now, I’ve gone over this incredibly briefly as I wanted to fit it all in tonight, but those are the bare facts. I’m conscious of the fact it might sound like a schizophrenic fantasy, but when one reads Reich’s words for oneself, one notes the tentativeness, the uncertainty as well as a great facility for observation and logical argument. He doesn’t read like a madman or a fantasist, but rather a cautious but courageous researcher, the logic of his work compelling him to posit a whole new paradigm.

Also, there is lengthy investigative and experimental justification for it every step of the way. His work has been replicated by independent workers following him but unfortunately, from the point of view of orthodox science, they exist in that weird Catch 22 zone where if you do report positive results from his work, you become a “Reichian” and therefore inherently untrustworthy. And of course, no one on the “right” side of the fence ever bothers to replicate the experiments. In Reich’s worldview, “energy” isn’t something mystical or hallucinogenic, it’s a scientific fact and he formulated a view of the human character and life process which rests on this. The box went on to become his orgone accumulator and orgone becomes a “red thread” linking us to our environments, and tying together all of his work.

I feel the fully matured Reichan view of character, activity and energy is best expressed in a quote:

… we are biological energy systems, absorbing and producing energy from the environment in the form of air and food. This energy is fuels our life process and its movement and expression is experienced as sensation – love, anger, desire fear, longing. Surplus energy is discharged in work, play, thought and particularly sexually. If there are no permanent blocks to discharge we remain healthy, our vital life functions maintain themselves without disturbance. If our primary needs as children have not satisfied, we form armouring to cut off the awareness of the pain and distress caused by this frustration.

Energy, then, is something that underlies all of the life processes and links them all together.

It was Reich’s insistence on the reality of this energy that brought him into conflict with the authorities, and there was a sustained campaign against him in the American media from the early 1950s. An FDA injunction was passed against him in 1954, preventing him transporting his books and experimental devices across state lines. Many of his books were burnt. He was found to be in contempt of this injunction in 1956 and sentenced to two years in prison. He died in prison in 1957.

Reich’s work and spirituality
I’d like now to talk about a few conclusions from Reich’s work that reflect on “the occult”. I’ve been interested in the occult for over a decade now, and have tried quite a few practices over the years. I’ve come to the conclusion that many of them may be useful, and give rewarding insights, but also that the occult can be a minefield of self-delusion, and healthy scepticism and rigorous critical thinking is a must. The occult literally means “hidden” and a definition of occultism I like is that “the investigation of that which is hidden” – in ourselves, and in our relations to others and the world. Armouring and our attitudes towards our own energy in motion are then both “occult”, from this point of view. Reich has a particularly unique set of insights to apply here – though I should add he’d in no way consider any of his ideas “occult”, being thoroughly committed to scientific methodology. Indeed, he would probably be saddened to find his work associated with such a disreputable and eccentric “fringe” subculture.

Firstly, I’d like to look at a model of Reich’s which I find has much explanatory power. He broke out character down into three “layers”. The first of these is a “social” layer, a veneer of good behaviour and politeness with which we interact in the social world. If we see this layer as partially a product of armouring and learnt restraint, we can see that underneath it might lie a second layer — of frustration, anti-social impulses, rage and so on. Where Reich really showed his insight was that he posited another layer beneath this, a part of us which is open, loving and vulnerable. Reich argued that this “core” is naturally decent and moral. It is the suppression and suffocation of this layer, through the events of our birth and childhood that produces armouring. I only have to think about which emotions I have easiest “access” to, to see the validity of these ideas ÿ real openness and tenderness seem much more affecting and come from a much more guarded place.

Often one finds expression of the second layer touted as somehow iconoclastic. Anything one has been told not to do — be it violence, promiscuity, substance abuse or shitting on someone’s doorstep — any acts which break the social veneer prove how “liberated” or “crazy” one is one. Sometimes these impulses are presented as our “true” inner self, which everyone would act out if only they weren’t so repressed. From a Reichian perspective, a lot of these acts, rather than being “liberated” are simply one more layer of our defences, a way of warding off deep feeling. I’m much more interested in the first layer — that point of surrender, openness and vulnerability. A lot of occult practises – and the “outsider stance” one often encounters in occultists — seems to me to be a shield from this openness and simply another way of armouring.

Secondly, Reich’s has very interesting things to say about the way we occutlise experience, and use these experiences to stay out of contact with our bodies. Feeling one’s own energy in movement inside one can be a frightening process, as it can activate our sexual anxieties and childhood conflicts. Reich often wrote about the orgasm anxiety his patients would experience in the course of therapy — the terror that surrounds our deepest pleasurable feelings, fear of letting go, of giving in to the spontaneous movements of the organism. He felt that the hatred his work often encountered was due to its ability to provoke these conflicts in people.

One expression of this anxiety and hatred is to completely deny the existence of any life-force or energy — mechanism, in Reich’s parlance. Another response is to mystify the sensations – that is, to project them outside oneself, and project agency onto them.

To quote: “Mysticism [in Reich’s sense].. is a distorted experience of one’s own body energy in motion projected outward either onto imaginary figures or abstractions such as “the devil”, “god” or “the Jew” or “Asiatic races” or “the angels” or “the age of Aquarius” or some idealised hero or leader. Mysticism is also accompanied by a sense of helplessness in the face of social problems , the abdication of responsibility for solutions and the fantasy that some force, god or leader is going to solve these problems without the individual having to do anything for him or herself to deal with them. The obverse of this stage is that cause of all problems are projected outside oneself as others or external abstractions”.

In his book Character Analysis Reich presents a case study of a young woman with schizophrenia. She was plagued by “forces” which menaced her from the walls of her room. In the course of therapy, Reich realised that these forces where distorted perceptions of her own bodily energy. To accept them as her own produced too much anxiety (centred around sex and childhood conflicts), so she had to externalise them. The work with these “forces” — and her struggle to accept them as her own bodily sensations — ran throughout her therapy.

I am not saying that these concepts underlie all “occult” experience but I have often seen attitudes which remind me of Reich’s ideas. A very real urge for aliveness, or frustration with armouring can “flip” into an uncritical acceptance of every kind of cosmic idea, an inflated sense of self-importance because of occult forces (“gods” or “angels”) interfering with one’s life, an over-reliance on the astral plane, and a contempt for this life and the body. In general, I feel occultists should worry less about Universe B, “alien forces” and New Aeons and get back to our bodies.

Reich shouldn’t be thought of as being totally hostile towards all religious feeling though — later in life, he began to see the openness which unarmouredness brings as perhaps having parallels with the best impulses in religious feeling. Fundamental openness to the body, emotion and nature can produce feelings which the religious would define as contact with the divine. His book The Murder of Christ is a very moving allegory of how we “murder” Christ with each new generation. “Christ” can be seen as the alive and spontaneous life in every child which is “crucified” and turned into armouring through contact with our own rigidity.

In my own experience, I’ve found all of the practices which have been most significant to me have led back to the body. One of the first practices I tried was something called the “lesser energy orbit” derived from the works of Mantak Chia. It involved the circulation of “energy” in a circle throughout the body. I stopped the practice when I began to have alarming sensations of burning in the front of my throat (there were no instructions on how to deal with that in the book!). Later, when practising the exploration of the elemental tattavs, I triggered a series of dreams which involved my committing homicide through strangulation. I feel both of these experiences were related to the muscular tensions held in my throat — which held in check sensations of anger which I’ve begun to explore with Reichian work. The expressions of I wonder how many other “occult” phenomena are simply people coming into contact with their bodies, albeit in distorted ways?

To close, I’d like to look at the epigraph quoted above: Love work knowledge are the wellsprings of our life, they should also govern it. It helps to understand this, as with all Reich’s work, if we view it from the perspective of the living organism. Love, as we have seen for Reich, involves the genital act with full emotion and involvement. Work, in this sense, means the activity of the organism, as it’s natural for us to act, to move, play with and interact with the world. Work, not as wage-slavery, as activity produced by being alive, is natural. Knowledge, I think of as the curiosity of the young child, crawling around, picking up things, a curiosity arising from openness. In Reich’s own life, this curiosity led him into biology, physics, meteorology and beyond.

I’d like to close with some words from Reich himself, from the end of his great book The Function of the Orgasm, which to me sum him up – speaking of his work he said “It has its core in the enigma of love, to which we owe our being”.


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