The Physiology of Freedom

According to Wilhelm Reich, there is a basic contradiction between human longing for freedom and our biophysical incapacity to accept it.[1] In other words, our ability to be entirely self-regulating individuals – – invulnerable to false authority – – is a function of our physiology. Reich observed that our character structure, which determines our capacity for resonant relationships, fulfilling work, and inspiring studies, is rooted in our (oftentimes chronically rigid) musculature.

This clinical insight informed his advice to psychotherapists that “in explaining the reasons for the failure of a particular case, the analyst must avoid statements such as that the patient ‘did not want to get well,’ or he or she was not accessible; for this is precisely what we want to know: why didn’t the patient get well, why wasn’t he or she accessible?”[2]

In view of the most challenging cases, Reich would more readily accept the limitations of his therapeutic technique than conclude that the stubborn individual sitting across from him simply did not want to get better. His clinical success with so-called masochistic patients supported his claim that even those who inflicted pain on themselves were motivated by the pursuit of pleasure: their muscular structure simply could not tolerate the expansiveness that pleasure generates. As such, their self-mutilation was actually a source of relief for them: they were too armored to take up the reins of a healthier, happier, life. But they certainly wanted freedom. The question for Reich was: (how) could this freedom be attained?

A testament to its seeming indelibility, Reich recognized that armoring is a function of civilization: its specific purpose is to hold back and assist individuals to conform and thus reduce anxiety. Rather than yell and threaten to kill his father, for example, Reich observed that an enraged child would rather tighten his throat, which, over time, would develop into a stutter.

By Reich’s account, we are a hobbled, diseased, flock of subservient patrons. And, since armored parents raise armored children, armoring is a self-perpetuating pandemic. Seemingly necessary to preserve the status quo, it enables us to conform to societal expectations. But, in order to do so, we often have to deny what we really want. We literally have to tighten our bodies to prevent the energy mounting in our loins from running amok.

So where does that leave those of us who want to emote freely and have the capacity to surrender to life’s many pleasures? Reich identified the futility of any mass overhaul of societal norms and, towards the end of his career, found most hope in prophylaxis by informed child rearing: “We cannot tell our children what kind of world they will or should build. But we can equip them with the kind of character structure and biological vigor which will enable them to make their own decisions, to find their own ways, to build their own future and that of their children, in a rational manner.” [3] But, along the way, he also developed therapeutic techniques to help his patients soften the chronic armoring that had a clamp down on their character structures.

When Reich questioned what produces chronic muscular contraction, his investigation led to the realm of the vegetative nervous system and the basic antithesis of vegetative functioning. He found that excitation of the sympathetic nervous system causes contraction, which is felt as anxiety. Parasympathetic excitation causes expansion, which is felt as pleasure. It is chronic sympatheticatonia, therefore, which causes and maintains the armor, which in turn maintains the neurosis.

This insight prompted Reich to take a hands-on approach in his sessions to work on softening the body. His understanding of the mind-body connection convinced him that it is impossible to gain lasting changes in someone’s character without also addressing the ways in which his or her physiology reinforces it.

Years after Reich’s pioneer days, we have access to many hands-on techniques to gently and effectively soften our chronic musculature. When we engage with these modalities in light of Reich’s observations, we can appreciate how changes in our physiology are functionally identical with changes in our very character.

1. Elsworth Baker, Man in a Trap (Princeton: The American College of Orgonomy Press, 2000), xxvi.

2. Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 9.

3. Wilhelm Reich, Children of the Future, ed. Mary Higgins and Chester Raphael, trans. Derek Jordan et al. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 7.