Trembling Bodies
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Trembling Bodies

The Life of Alexander Lowen
Sylwia Niemczyk
time 16 minutes

One of the most harmful views we have accepted is the belief in the superiority of the mind over the body, the psychotherapist Alexander Lowen claimed. How can there be any superiority if these are two sides of the same coin, equal and inextricably bound together? To cure the psyche, one needs to care for the body, too – and vice versa. This conviction became the foundation of Lowen’s bioenergetic analysis – a therapy method based on movement, touch and the breath.

“You’re not breathing, Lowen!” The half naked man lying on the table tries to comply and breathe in more air. For a while, the silence in the room is only broken by the increasingly loud sounds of inhaling and exhaling. Suddenly the silence is punctured by a piercing yell – so loud that passers-by outside raise their heads to see where it’s coming from. The window is open, it is the summer of 1942, in Europe the Nazis are regaining advantage on the Eastern Front, but here, in New York, the war is hardly present. Dazzled by his emotions, the 32-year-old Alexander Lowen tries to sit up, but the therapist, Wilhelm Reich, asks him to go back to breathing. After a while, however, it is clear that on that day the patient is unable to breathe without yelling; the session is over.

Several decades later, Alexander Lowen, already a renowned psychotherapist, the creator of a pioneering therapy method – bioenergetics – came back to that event in his autobiography Honoring the Body. He recounted how surprised he was by the yell, because he was not afraid of anything during the session. Instead, he remembered feeling the mind was not connected with the body, and the yell was a signal to free his emotions and repressed memories. The session with Reich made Lowen realize that he had to face the unknown aspects of his identity.

In the early 1940s, Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud’s infamous disciple, gave a series of lectures on his new theory, according to which psychological diseases could be cured through working with the body. Alexander Lowen was one of the students closest to him. At the end of the course, Reich invited Lowen to work together conducting psychology experiments. He gave Lowen only one condition: the student had to undergo psychotherapy. Lowen agreed, but reluctantly. His attitude changed after the first session – the one where he emitted the unexpected scream. During the ensuing two-and-a-half years, he met Reich several times a week to do therapy and to yell many times more during their breathing sessions. Even though a few years later they would part ways, Lowen would always stress the importance of Reich’s notion (revolutionary in those days!) of the equality of the mind and body to his work. He would also often say that the two-and-a-half years of therapy was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Once he said that it not only provided him with the foundations for being a good therapist, but also literally saved his life.


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School of unfeeling

Alexander Lowen was born in 1910 in Harlem, to a family of Russian immigrants with Jewish origins. It was never a happy home. Lowen said that ever since he could remember, things between his parents were bad. Violent quarrels interspersed with periods of vicious silence. His first memory was about loneliness: little Al is sitting on the kitchen floor waiting for his mother to finish whatever she’s doing and take care of him. He wrote later that he could not remember his mother ever holding him in her arms or hugging him.

Unhappy in her marriage, lonely in a foreign country, full of unfulfilled ambitions, she could not muster any tenderness towards children. A petite woman who always sat on the very edge of her seat, her back always straight and stiff, tense, ever vigilant and controlling. She never cried or laughed, at least not in her son’s presence. Lowen remembers his mother dressing him when he was three or four. He was fidgeting, perhaps trying to tie the laces in his leather shoes, the kind worn by most children then. Suddenly he felt some heat and pain in his thigh. His mother pinched and twisted his skin. He did not cry, but from then on he knew his mother could be cruel to him. The fact that little Al, in a moment of pain, could refrain from crying must have been the effect of the training he was subjected to from earliest childhood. At the beginning of the 20th century, children, even infants, were not allowed to cry loudly, and when they were unable to hold back the tears, instead of a hug and a swaddle they were usually given an ‘educational’ punishment.

Lowen was not the only child that had to eat, sleep, urinate and defecate at their parents’ command, and who, from his earliest years, had to ignore the emotions and signals coming from his body, such as hunger or satiety. In those days, strict physiology training was the basis of upbringing. No wonder then that later on in his practice, Lowen would encounter a lot of patients who were completely out of touch with their bodies – it is a natural consequence of growing up in such homes. In her own eyes (and surely in the eyes of the majority of the world then), Lowen’s mother was a very good carer. Better even than others, because (as her son admitted) she did not hit her children. Her violent – as we would say today – methods were recognized as motherly care and the then popular upbringing method of ‘keeping children on a short leash’.

Alexander was saved thanks to a vitality and joie de vivre he inherited from his father (Lowen said later that he never again encountered such a mismatched couple). Just like his father, he would flee home whenever he could. Out there in the streets there was always something going on, somebody had a ball, some kids would race each other, everyone was laughing. Joy had no reason, or, to put it another way: its reason was life itself, the miracle that you are able to breathe, jump, keep your body warm in the process. Al felt happy during moments of spontaneous play – he remembered them forever; they were an important inspiration for his very own psychotherapy method.

From his first days at school to the final exams at university, he was a brilliant student (it would be hard not to be with such an ambitious mother!), but he was really in his element when doing sports rather than reading books. He practised handball, swam several kilometres every day, sailed. In the summer he made extra money as an athletics coach at children’s summer camps. He received a BA in mathematics, graduated with distinction from the law department, but even these achievements did not manage to fill the emotional emptiness he felt every day. Like so many before him (see Freud, Jung, Reich), Lowen’s journey as a psychotherapist began with the search for a way to save himself.

The body does not lie

The beginning of the Cold War in the US was also the start of a stir in psychology. Therapists were looking for new directions, they felt fed up with Freudian psychoanalysis. It turned out that sessions on the couch don’t work for everyone; a therapy based exclusively on talking is not always effective. Gestalt therapy was gaining popularity. At the same time, Wilhelm Reich was continuing his most controversial experiments. He kept trying to prove the existence of orgone – an invisible energy providing health and vitality – and built his famous orgone accumulator (a device used to provide patients with vital energy). Lowen, who in 1951 came from Geneva with a medical diploma, chose a different path than his recent master. Even though he would always believe in the validity of Reich’s notion of the unity of the mind and body, he treated it as a basis for a new psychotherapeutic method, entirely his own.

It was based on work not only with the breath, but also with the whole body. Lowen believed that just like a dendrologist can read the whole history of a cut tree from growth rings, an experienced therapist, looking at our feet, the muscles in our arm, back or jaw, can recount our life. The body cannot lie. Everything is written in it – all our hidden emotions, all the traumas we suffered from the day we were born.

One of the first important terms for bioenergetics is ‘body armour’ or ‘character armour’. These are groups of tense muscles that have grown hard with each attempt at suppressing emotions throughout the years. When a child knows they will be punished for crying, they learn to hold back tears. If they feel they cannot allow themselves a fit of anger, they learn to bury it deep inside themselves. Blocking emotions is sometimes an effective strategy: put your emotions aside, go on working, or try to wait out the crisis. Thanks to it, you’ll be able to suffer through a difficult childhood, loneliness, rejection. The problem is that the defence mechanisms we develop as children in order to survive become a burden in our adult life, a harmful habit that we cannot overcome on our own. Moreover, we often do not even realize they exist and govern our life.

Taught not to feel, we are unable to open up even when it could be safe and beneficial for us. “Chronic muscular tensions serve to suppress forbidden and dangerous impulses from consciousness and expression. They are, in effect, locked up so that one need not spend conscious energy guarding against them. It is like imprisoning a dangerous criminal who can be guarded with less energy once he is behind bars. But no prison is fully escape proof. And no superego regardless of how strong can free the person from the possible danger that the suppressed impulse may break out,” Lowen would say in a 1980 lecture “Stress and Illness: A Bioenergetic View” (published in his book The Voice of the Body: The Role of the Body in Psychotherapy).

The creator of bioenergetics combined his experiences from breathing sessions with Reich with what he learned as a young man during his sports training and, later, during his medical studies in Geneva. In his writings, he would sometimes mention the streets of Harlem with the children running with a natural carefreeness and grace (‘grace’ would become yet another keyword for him). He knew that muscles tensed through force of habit would not relax of their own accord, but when subjected to specially-selected exercises and therapeutic massage, the tension would let go, allowing the emotions locked in the body to be released. Finally, the person, until then so unhappy, would be able to take a genuinely deep breath – and live.

Kick, hit, yell

Therapeutic work with the body became a true phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s. For a while, it seemed that it would supersede psychoanalysis: Freud is dead, long live Lowen! He lectured about his theory at the National Institute of Mental Health, among other places. After several years of practice, Lowen received the invitation every psychotherapist dreams about: his own, cyclical workshop in bioenergetics at the famous Esalen. Situated in Northern California’s Big Sur, it is the first and the most important American centre for spiritual growth. It is still called the birthplace of modern American humanistic psychology. Lowen’s sessions were always full. People in sports shorts would attend, looking for psychological relief. Bodies would vibrate, very strong emotions were released, energy. Bioenergetics gave hope to those who were aware of what they were lacking, but unable to cope with it on their own. It is no surprise. An intellectual analysis alone is not enough, as Lowen argued. To ‘feel’ something is more important than to ‘know’ it, and, he insisted, there is no other way to feel than through the body. Bioenergetic exercises served three purposes: enhancing awareness of the body, releasing tension, and expressing suppressed or blocked emotions.

According to Jeff Brown, a famous Canadian psychotherapist, Lowen never underestimated the power of the mind, but he wanted to combine it with the power of the body. He instantly guessed what the patient wanted. In the 1990s, to participate in a bioenergetics session, Brown would take take a 10-hour journey from Toronto to a horse farm in Connecticut, where Alexander Lowen had moved to towards the end of his life. Lowen instantly knew that Brown needed to chat a little bit at the beginning of the session, to engage the mind. Yet throughout the conversation the therapist would watch Brown’s body in order to read the patient’s real life experience. After a while he would ask Brown, “Are you done?” to make sure that Brown stopped hiding in his head and was ready to take off his shoes and start proper therapeutic work.

People say that Lowen is the psychotherapist who put the patient on their feet and got rid of the couch from his office, but the latter is not entirely true. The couch stayed – but not for the patient to lie on and play free association for hours. More often than not, it was used as a punching bag – the therapist encouraged patients to kick or punch it with all their might. He suggested they shout: Out! No! Sounds like a three-year-old’s fit of hysteria? Perhaps, but patients who, up till then, associated psychotherapy with lying and talking about their emotions, testified to the liberating energy released during such violent outbursts. Finally, they could find an outlet, in a safe environment, for emotions that earlier they could not show or even feel. According to Lowen, the most common source of psychological conflict in his patients was not sadness and rejection, but anger resulting from the feeling of having been betrayed. Sessions of shouting and couch kicking helped move exactly those muscles that tensed (and solidified in their tension) when anger was suppressed or driven out of consciousness.

Even though the therapist encouraged his patients to express what they felt, he differentiated between intentional aggression revealed during therapy sessions and uncontrolled outbursts of anger. “Many people suffer from the misconception that hysterical outbursts are valid forms of self-expression. They are, in fact, just the opposite, for they indicate a lack of self-possession and an inability to release feelings except through provocation,” Lowen wrote in his book Depression and the Body. Bioenergetics was quite famous from the start, yet it was only in the 1970s – sometimes called the ‘kick, hit, yell’ era – that it gained genuine, international fame. The psychotherapist’s office was no longer a spiritual temple; it became a ring, a workout room, a place where the patient could not only have a good weep, but also sweat profusely.

Grounded in good health

“One of the reasons Reich and I went our separate ways was that he – literally – gazed at the cosmos, while I preferred to watch my feet,” Lowen said. He would joke that while Nicolas Copernicus is famous for discovering how the universe works, and Albert Einstein’s achievement was the theory of relativity, his only discovery was his own feet.

One of Lowen’s favourite exercises: the patient stands on one foot, the other is stretched back. The patient balances for as long as they can. If they lose balance, they can place their hands on the back of a chair. The therapist makes sure it is done gently; the body weight should rest on the slightly bent leg. After a while the muscles of the tensed calf start trembling, sometimes some pain appears. When the patient cannot hold it anymore, they can slide to their knees and land on the soft blanket in front of them. The exercise is repeated several times, switching legs. It seems really simple – like many bioenergetic exercises, it looks static, ridiculously easy, even boring. Yet after having fallen for the third or fourth time, many patients start crying; some later say that each time they fell onto the blanket, they felt as if they were suffering a defeat. “There is no danger of injury through this exercise, yet most people are afraid to let themselves fall. Why are we so frightened?” Lowen asked. “Our lives do not depend on success, yet we must have gained the impression that they do.” He encouraged patients to practice bioenergetics also outside his office – to try balancing and falling at home and then, to stay on the floor some more time, preferably in the pose of ‘the praying Muslim’: with the forehead on the floor and the pelvis slightly lifted. It meant the surrendering of the ego – we finally stop pretending to be strong and invincible, and let emotions flow freely through our body. “To feel oneself fall and not be hurt seems to relieve some deep anxiety. Having fallen, the patient feels secure in the closeness to the ground. Lying on the ground, one has temporarily abandoned the struggle and the compulsion to do something. But so few people seem capable of letting go in this simple way. They feel they have to be up and doing.”

Seeing how much his patients wanted to avoid falling, Lowen blamed their fear on Western culture, which not only separates the mind from the body, but also teaches us that we need to constantly climb higher and treat every defeat as proof of weakness. According to Lowen, the constant pressure to succeed may be the cause of the depression epidemics – the therapist predicted it more than 50 years ago. And yet falling to your knees during a therapy session makes you realize that even in a moment of weakness, you can find support. The patient learns to feel safe in the moment of crisis; he or she realizes that failure is not the end of the world and that not every fall ends in death.

Despite appearances, the most valuable effect of the exercise was not the overcoming of anxiety. Like in many of Lowen’s exercises, the gist was ‘grounding’. Another basic notion of bioenergetics, grounding is both the metaphorical and the fully-real feeling of being in touch with your own body (‘sensing your guts’), with the ground we stand on, the reality we live in. For Lowen, discovering the feet was a similar revelation as discovering the breath was for Reich. Next to breathing exercises, grounding exercises became the basis of bioenergetics. “The person thus grounded feels he has the solid support of the earth under him and the courage to stand up or move about on it as he wishes,” Lowen wrote in Depression and the Body. “It follows that when an individual is grounded, he no longer operates on the basis of illusions. He doesn’t need them.” Lowen compared grounding the human body to grounding an electric circuit, as in both cases the point is to safely discharge the accumulated energy. During his first meeting with the patient, Lowen visually assessed the patient’s level of grounding: stiff knees, a bent back or flat feet meant a complete lack thereof. In such cases, the therapeutic work started with grounding exercises. Only when we stand softly, with slightly-bent knees, the therapist claimed, can we feel safe, get in touch with the ground and life.

Am I Narcissus?

Even though Lowen could not boast an imposing frame, his steely handshake was legendary – just like his domineering nature. Still, during sessions he could be gentle and warm. He could create an atmosphere of rare intimacy: in his sessions (including group ones) grown-ups sobbed like infants; sometimes they would even call their mother – just like they did when they were one or two.

Throughout his life he treated himself – his body, emotions, mind – like a laboratory that helped him develop his own therapy method. When he decided that his problem was a narcissistic bent of his personality, he delved so deeply into the subject that he ended up writing a book about it. Moreover, as his son Frederick mentions, he traced the most inconspicuous signs of narcissism and tried to overcome them, believing them to be the manifestations of the mind’s domination over the body (he liked to say: the ego’s superiority over the heart).

He regretted that his discipline was not scientifically verifiable in a traditional way; that when working with emotions we cannot fully predict or measure the effects, or formulate general patterns. At the same time, he criticized the approach, popular also among psychologists and psychotherapists, according to which only data that can be measured or counted is relevant. Like Wilhelm Reich before him, he talked about an energy that drives us, if only we can learn to release it. He repeated – this is a statement we will find in each one of his books – that a body without spirituality would be nothing but a machine.

For the rest of his life, he could not work through the relationship with his mother completely. He felt she hurt him deeply, but was also capable of compassion towards her. He saw in himself the same need for control that made such a painful mark on her life. He believed that a psychotherapist helps others because they feel grief that they couldn’t help their parents. The grief must have been enormous, because he continued with his bioenergetics sessions – obviously very exhausting for him, mentally and physically – nearly until the end of his life. He wrote 14 books and spent more than 100,000 hours in his bioenergy clinic (his son counted it after Lowen’s death). He witnessed not only the growing popularity of body-oriented psychotherapy, but also a retreat from this approach after instances of malpractice in therapists’ offices, including sexual abuse, were revealed in the 1990s.

Until the end, Lowen kept clarity of thought, a truly incredible memory, and a sense of humour. In his eighties, he joked in a television interview that after 46 years of studying the body-mind relationship, he was finally beginning to understand something.

At 95 he suffered a heart attack (he predicted it many years before, analysing his body and the ‘armour’ of his character) and only then did he decide to retire from conducting therapy. He died three years later, in 2008, at the beginning of a new wave – still rising today – of popularity in body psychotherapy. Asked shortly before his death about what counts the most in life, he answered straight away: “The joy of the body.”

Also read:

The Wizard from the Land of Psychoanalysis
Source: Jack Manning/The New York Times/Redux/East News
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