in Energy and Character, Vol. 29, n. 1 Giugno 1998.
Luciano Rispoli, Founder and Chairman of the Italian Society of Functional Body Psychotherapy; member of the Internationai Committee for Body Psychotherapy; Chairman of the Italian National Association for Body Psychotherapy; Chairman of the Italian Society of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, addresses the theme of the validity of Wilhelm Reich’s thinking, deeping the new prospectives and the new potentialities of Functional Thinking.
It was in the dim and distant halcyon days of 1968 that I first became acquainted with the writings of Wilheim Reich; I knew not then the extent to which they were to change my life. I was a young student setting off on a career in engineering and yet I was so dazzled by the world which was uncovering itself before my very eyes that I could not but venture into it and immerse myself, remaining with a fervour that is undiminshed to this very day.
What was it that made me so fond of Reich and his theories? A multiplicity of aspects, – aspects that I still believe are essential to any approach that attempts to get to the heart of the complexity of how human beings function, of their relationships, their social constructs: in other words of the whole multi-facetted nature of life itself.
Its scientific nature
Above all I was struck by the researcher’s scientific rigour; Reich took the trouble to make a step-by-step verification of all his intuitions and discoveries. I could never have supported (and am still unable to do so) those so-called scientists who only utilise their own intuitions and who invariably end up by inventing laws on how life and human beings function, in a completely arbitrary fashion: the presumed perceptual isolation of the new-born baby, primary self destructive impulses, or intelligence seen only as rationality; or then again, the hereditary nature of character, the existence of strength and resilience solely in the back, or location of control being limited to the neck. It is certainly true that Reich’s field of vision ranged widely over many fields of knowledge, hut he always sought out the painstaking route of investigation and verification.
Mind and body
His hypotheses on the importance of the relationship between mind and body were both extremely promising and innovative. A hitherto unexplored territory, with tantalizing frontiers, opened up before me. And, after all these years, I have to say that these perspectives were by no means subservient to reality but rather what we discovered was way beyond our most optimistic expectations.
The concept of functional identity between the mind and the body was extremely productive and is still highly topical today. At the time I was unaware of the potentiality that was hidden therein, and of the how the concept of ‘function” might be developed; but it is just because of the richness of this “nutshell” that I today find I have been able to fully develop the complex workings of a “functional psychology”. And, as we shall see below, functional psychology has been able to examine complex systems in a new way, with 3600 vision, without sacrificing any attention to detail or careful study of specific laws governing function. In other words, those early intuitions have given way to a snowball effect which has revolutionised, and which is continuing to revolutionise, a part of science: we have witnessed the birth of new paradigms concerning the interpretation of complex systems, new methodologies, and a significant contribution to a new epistemology.
The social aspect
The third aspect that definitively caught both my imagination and my heart was that steady continuous link with society. Reich had understood all too clearly the way in which a persons emotional life could have an immediate and profound effect on events in society and its political aspects: he considered the world of the emotions to be one of the crucial forces which drive history. But he went even further: he sought out scientific, rather than pseudo-psychological, explanations of mankind’s social ailments and all that was happening in that tragic period: the foily of nazism and fascism in Europe. ‘The mass psychology of fascism” is still one of the finest hooks I have ever read, and its treatment of the characterial structure of those subjects who make up the masses as being among the social, or “economic”, forces which shape history, remains a virtually unparallelled interpretation of social phenomena right up to this day. The analytical treatment of how the suffering of the masses might constitute the origins of that “delegation of power” to the authorities and of the incapacity to achieve personal happiness is a point well worth bearing in mind when attempting to find a way out of the spiral of violence and degradation which are all too common in the contemporary world.
A society may keep alive conditions of emotional suffering precisely in order to preserve a system of privilege and inequality, preventing citizens from making an effective attempt to win for themselves crucial rights and well-being. The more deep-rooted the suffering, the more there is a paradoxical lack of desire to fight, and to seek the truth; there prevails disillusionment, a feeling of hopelessness and impotence, and an acceptance of truths constructed by others. It also leads to being resigned to shine with reflected light: a winning team, an outrageous TV personality, or one who protests by insulting all and sundry, or a politician who promises the earth; any form of government can be accepted, any strong personality who expects sacrifice in the name of some imaginary interest for the national, professional sector, region, ethnic group, or idea. Or there might be an explosion of covert or overt violence. Violence, Reich reminds us, is not pre-existent as a destructive force in human nature but rather is the product of an alteration of life in childhood, of a lack of respect for that life and the deep-rooted needs that make it up, and of the separation from a healthy emotional nucleus with the consequent distortion of all pre-existing vital elements. It was for this reason that he gave great importance to childhood and the need to carry out wide-scale prevention of all suffering and distortion from which society was then, and still is, prone to suffer.
His functional thought
It was during the 1920s that Reich first proposed hypotheses concerning the profound complexity of interconnections between mind and body, and of the need for psychotherapy to also occupy itself with matters corporeal. Reich was among those who first laid down the basis for a new body-mind theory. His idea of a functional identity between mind and body leads on to the significant discovery that the history and development of all our emotions is written into our body, from the time we are born. From there we can trace the whole development of body psychotherapy, its techniques and methodologies and practices, which are not only psychological-verbal. We have come a long way since then. Within this vast ferment of research and experiment, a new stream has gradually emerged, a new frontier of science constituted by a complex way of interpreting the workings of human beings and their interaction. Functional psychology has developed along these lines by attempting to tackle the paradigm of this complexity and go beyond traditional viewpoints and formulations. The initial hypothesis was, in effect, overall theory of the Self, a first attempt to overcome the limits of a number of clinical approaches; it was to move towards the construction of an integrated and unitary theory (but not simplistic, as far as personality and psychotherapy were concerned.) The first step was to go beyond over-generic and vague concepts, such as those concerning the body and the mind, so as to be able to deal, from within the hypothesised body-mind unitariness, with psycho-bodily processes and thence down in detail to all the functions that make up the Self: from memory to rationality, from symbol to fantasy, from posture to movement, from emotion to the shape of the body, from the neurovegetative system to the senses. Functional psychology believes it important to look at the person in his/her unitariness, and at the same time in his/her complexity, both in the concrete sense and that of the plurality of levels and planes on which to operate. The important thing is to develop an idea of “ho1ism which is both rich and detailed, thereby avoiding vagueness. The Self may be functionally defined as the organisation of all the psycho-bodily planes, as the totality of laws governing interaction between and among all the processes and planes of the organism seen in its entirety and globality. But the functional point of view (which at heart can be linked in some ways to the functionalism of Dewey and James, still both surprisingly relevant), has found its greatest realisation in its successful applicability to all complex and and dynamic groupings which make up social reality: families, groups, teams, systems, and even towns.
The epistemological evolution
During the last century we have witnessed significant transformations within the world of science, ranging from the ways in which problems have been tackled to the methodologies utilised in the study of systems which have become gradually more and more complex. But it is just the concept of holism which is breaking new ground, driven by the need not to neglect the unitariness of the subject, and the need to leave behind the fragmentation and specialisation which invariably ends up ignoring crucial aspects of human existence, of life itself, of health and well-being.
We are well on our way towards a multi-dimensional type of perspective, in which man’s complex make-up and his social interaction is seen in a number of ways. Along the way, which has also witnessed contributions from a number of scholars (such as Merlau-Ponty and Morin), there is the time and space for a moment of reflection on a journey that started some time ago. 100 years have gone by since Reich was born: something significant has sprung from his thought, something which has since developed so far as to have reached the current frontier of functional thought (with his specific contribution on themes regarding unitary complexity), but which will always have its roots in the fecundity of that first thought.
Therapy was the first field of application of a vision which was no longer able to ignore the body and wholeness of an individual, given that we communicate far more with our bodies than with words. Moreover, the body not only communicates with other bodies, but also and above all with itself, sending a constant flow of sensations, for the most part unconscious. This explains the presence of anxiety, anger or melancholy even in the absence of external factors which might justify such negative feelings, or thoughts which might lead to them. In the body, or rather in the various psycho-bodily functions, we can find traces of ancient relational episodes: frustrated desires, blocked impulses, uncontrolled fears and repressed anger. No longer are these things mystery to us. Today we know that there is a peripheral memory recording all these traces in the form of alterations of our psycho-bodily functions, such as basic muscular tone, perceptive threshold levels, routine and habitual movements, and posture. And so we can understand the persistence of old mechanisms throughout the years of development and well into adulthood, the reason why people end up with repetitive behaviour patterns Ill-suited to the outside world, and how old “ghosts” from the past continue to haunt the emotional reality of the present. It is as if a filter has been created, through which people may only perceive reality in a single shade or shape. This filter is just the altered organisation of all the psycho-bodily functions, the shape that they have acquired in the course of time; it’s what we call the Self, the person as a whole rather than just as the conscious and voluntary part. We might, therefore, speak of psycho-bodily functions: posture, movement patterns, and the shape of parts of the body; but also physiological activation, internal control mechanisms (such as temperature regulation, neurovegetation and so on right down to the most profound biological systems at cell level) , perception, and basic muscular tone, not to mention more symbolic planes such as cognition, memory, imagination, sense of purpose, plus the whole range of emotions and feelings – be they expressed, repressed, controlled or exasperated.
All these functions contribute in an equal manner to the organisation of the personality. Their integration, the balanced development of each of them and their full and wide-ranging mobility all form an individual’s health and state of well-being. If they become altered, or undergo partial hypertrophy, or become restricted in their number, or suffer reduction of mobility, or stereotyping, then the Self will undergo a process of overall alteration and pathology, which will lead lo a number of different symptoms and disturbances. And thus the whole organism will become ill . Our knowledge of this can help us to improve treatment and also allows us to make plans which are tailored to the individual so as to choose the most appropriate routes and methods for the re-balancing of the Self and the reconnection of emotions, movements, suitable voice tones and facial expressions, physiological activation and sensations. Over-developed emotions are redimensioned, anxiety fantasies are realigned with the real proportions of the danger, and memories are re-routed onto positive features. The functions become soft and pliable, shifting more easily from anger to tenderness, from suffering to joy, from restlessness to calmness and from concentration to relaxation. we can understand the persistence of old mechanisms throughout the years of development and well into adulthood, the reason why people end up with repetitive behaviour patterns ilI-suited to the outside world, and how old “ghosts” from the past continue to haunt the emotional reality of the present. It is as if a filter has been created, through which people may only perceive reality in a single shade or shape. This filter is just the altered organisation of all the psycho-bodily functions, the shape that they have acquired in the course of time; it’s what we call the Self, the person as a whole rather than just as the conscious and voluntary part.
We might, therefore, speak of psycho-bodily functions: posture, movement patterns, and the shape of parts of the body; but also physiological activation, internal control mechanisms (such as temperature regulation, neurovegetation and so on right down to the most profound biological systems at cell level) , perception, and basic muscular tone, not to mention more symbolic planes such as cognition, memory, imagination, sense of purpose, plus the whole range of emotions and feelings – be they expressed, repressed, controlled or exasperated. All these functions contribute in an equal manner to the organisation of the personality. Their integration, the balanced development of each of them and their full and wide-ranging mobility all form an individual’s health and state of well-being. If they become altered, or undergo partial hypertrophy, or become restricted in their number, or suffer reduction of mobility, or stereotyping, then the Self will undergo a process of overall alteration and pathology, which will lead lo a number of different symptoms and disturbances. And thus the whole organism will become ill. Our knowledge of this can help us to improve treatment and also allows us to make plans which are tailored to the individual so as to choose the most appropriate routes and methods for the re-balancing of the Self and the reconnection of emotions, movements, suitable voice tones and facial expressions, physiological activation and sensations. Over-developed emotions are redimensioned, anxiety fantasies are realigned with the real proportions of the danger, and memories are re-routed onto positive features. The functions become soft and pliable, shifting more easily from anger to tenderness, from suffering to joy, from restlessness to calmness and from concentration to relaxation.
Its social relevance
With these principles in mind, it’s easier to understand the need to look at the whole of society, without, as Reich said, losing sight of people’s inner lives. We cannot uncouple individual well-being from social welfare, and should not believe in the absolute priority of economic reasoning, the (un)employment situation, the ‘Southern” question, or entry into Europe: we also need to consider people’s daily needs, their emotions, their deep-seated desires, need for solidarity, company and contact, and look at people as they really are. Above all, we need to act when the problem first begins to take shape and when personalities Loses their original positive aspects, becoming distorted, no longer aware of their own existence, thereby giving up the struggle for life, solidarity, respect for others, nature and themselves. We should prevent “unhappy” and disillusioned personalities from seeking refuge from anxiety and suffering in drugs (and not only chemical ones). unbridled power. violence, paedophilia, or destructive and self-destructive outbursts. We need to act quickly and radically in order to save our young people, by implementing a preventive programme which, far from being sporadic, will get through to the whole of society and inspire everyone, – parents and specialists alike, from all walks of life, including the institutions, sciences, professions and politics. If we want to put a halt to the dramatic situation in which our young people find themselves, a drama which is shared by society as a whole, we must think quickly and carefully, and that means reihinking the identity-building process of young people, no longer neglecting individual psychocorporeal components or social aspects. In this way, it should be possible to safeguard both the pre-existing qualities that each new generation carries with it, and the specific sensibilities of both males and females before they become impoverished through typecast role modelling. We need to give meaning back to life, and to give a sense of purpose both to the existence of the individual and to society as a whole: a meaning based on respect, contact, love, tenderness, tenderness, – all essential features for the richness of life which is currently being neglected and furthermore devastated by the speed of life, technological progress, and all-powerfull preconstituted models perpetrated by the mass-media. The safeguarding of individual and collective life lies in multi-dimensionality, just as that of biological life lies in biodiversity. We cannot allow ourselves to hand over fundamental parts of human life in exchange for speed, toughness, aggression, indifference, self-centredness and violence. Functional thought, the theory of a unitary complexity, can help us provide substance, shape and a sense of direction to the way we act. If we were to succeed in setting up a project which might give back to childhood and adolescence those features which are now in danger of being lost, we would have taken an important step towards complete humanisation of our society and towards the new millennium.
And, moreover, we would have given the most precious gift possible to Wilhelm Reich and to all those who, like him, and to their cost, have been fighting on be haif of young people, to safeguard their basic needs, and to preserve the basic values of life in a society free of an “emotional plague”.