Becoming and being a bioenergetic analyst

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1. Becoming and Being a Bioenergetic AnalystAlexander Lowen’s Influence in My LifePhilip M Helfaer, Ph.D.Starting Out and ApprenticeshipI will begin by a small stream,…
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  • 1. Becoming and Being a Bioenergetic AnalystAlexander Lowen’s Influence in My LifePhilip M Helfaer, Ph.D.Starting Out and ApprenticeshipI will begin by a small stream, known as the Eighteen Mile Creek, in western New York State, (nearwhere I was born in 1933), a real place that in later life became symbol and emblem of my life.Here, as a boy and adolescent, I was most comfortable and alive, walking along and through thestream and in the surrounding abundant woods, traversing the same area on skis in the winter. Bythe time I was in college, fate took me to the intellect, the study of philosophy, until thisintellectualized approach to life became unbearable. Hence to clinical psychology, but by nomeans not still in the intellect. Family therapy trainers bumped me out of my analytic orientationand turned me topsy-turvy for a while.I write about what follows, not really for the sake of autobiography, but because I believe thestory tells something about my fields, psychotherapy and bioenergetic analysis, and what it meansto be and become a practitioner in those fields. It also gives some flavor of the kind of influencethat a teacher can have, and for those of us of my age who went into bioenergetics, AlexanderLowen was the teacher, mentor, and the primary trainer.One of the chance encounters in my life (1959) was with Myron Sharaf (Sharaf, 1983). Myron wasthen an instructor in social psychology at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. I remembermaking a joke when he mentioned working with Reich. “Well, do you have an orgone box? Ha haha.” We became and remained fast friends through the decades of the sixties and seventies.Myron arranged a postdoctoral fellowship for me at Boston State Hospital, at that time still a bigpsychiatric hospital for chronic patients. One day he brought in a copy of Character Analysis(Reich,1945) and plopped it on my desk open to Chapter XIV, “The Expressive Language of theLiving.” “Read this and tell me what you think,” he said. I tried to read it and couldn’t make headnor tails out of it.Later – it was the sixties – I took a “vacation” at the Esalen Institute, California. Little did I knowwhat I was getting into. No head-stuff here: Charlotte Selver and sensory awareness, yoga,encounter groups, Gestalt therapy. I receive a massage at the famous baths overlooking thePacific: she is beautiful, we are both naked. I found myself crying deeply, a very uncommon
  • 2. occurrence for me. I “didn’t know how to cry.” My brother had died not too long before. I lapsedinto an altered state with a sense of an energetic buzz around me. I realized she was chanting ‘Om’over me. After I got up, I remained in an altered state. I walked down to the shore. Everythingappeared alive, the ocean, the rocks, the sky. I had never experienced anything like this. All I knewwas that it represented the direction to go in.I went back east, began practicing yoga, and arranged for a three month sabbatical from theBoston State Hospital Adolescent Service where I had taken a part-time job after my fellowshipended. In the three months at Esalen, I got out of my head, grieved the painful loss of a woman,and an obsession around her was cured. Returning to Boston, I continued with yoga and added taichi chuan, and I began to practice a kind of half-baked body-oriented Gestalt therapy. It wasexciting, but I had no idea how to help people get from where they were to anything near what Ihad experienced at Esalen. I realized that, as far as I knew, the only people who knew anythingabout this were the people who had studied and understood Wilhelm Reich. Everything that I sawand experienced at Esalen I felt could be understood in terms or Reich.Myron, Velma (we became a couple later), myself, and several other colleagues formed our ownstudy group, “The Tuesday Group.” We met lunch-time every Tuesday. This was a greatexperience. At the beginning we presented cases. We were trying to learn about character and towork in a more or less Reichian fashion. This group was very lively and productive. We droppedthe case presentations and took turns working with each other. One day, Velma worked with meand helped me to cry again. I worked out a lot of narcissistic craziness in myself in this group thatwent on for several years. To learn more, I began therapy with John Bellis and Terry Santino inConnecticut; they became my first bioenergetic teachers.The Tuesday Group formed ‘COSBET,’ The Center for Orgonomic Studies and BioenergeticTherapy. This was dear to my heart, and I think for all of us. We envisioned a new university ofenergetic and body studies. We established our own training program in the Boston area. Weinvited everyone. Al , John Pierakos, some of the other trainers from New York, John Bellis, TerrySantino, and Stanley Keleman. We ran these workshops for several years under COSBET andcontinued with The Tuesday Group.This is all during the decade of the seventies. Socially and culturally, in many ways, it was a greatperiod of time for me and my friends. The glum, meditating beatniks gave way to the hippies andthen the flower children. Alcohol gave way to marijuana, and then during the late sixties to LSD. Iwas at Harvard when Dick Alpert, later Ram Das, and Tim Leary started their “experiments” withLSD. I stayed away from it. I was well aware of how porous my boundaries were. This period wasalso the hay-day of the Human Potential Movement, about which I had learned from AbrahamMaslow. The upshot of all these cultural bloomings was that our practices flourished, and our“new therapy” was considered the best and most ‘in.’With my then companion, I took a year-long sabbatical and went to California. I had seen twobioenergetic trainers in a workshop who seemed to know what they were doing, Bob Hilton and
  • 3. Renato Monico. I saw Bob for therapy for several months, got a feel for “letting down,” and gotstrong enough to go back east and begin therapy with Al Lowen.Therapy with AlAl had been scary for me. I encountered him in one of our COSBET workshops. He stuck histhumbs inside my jaws, pressing on the masseter muscles. It was incredibly painful and shocking,and I did indeed cry. Then Al instructed Myron to press into my occiput and I cried more while Alproceeded to talk about my character disorders. Fortunately, I didn’t hear this since I was in shock.By the time I went to see him, after my work with John, Terry, and Bob, I wasn’t afraid of himanymore. I met him at his home in New Canaan. “I’m in pretty good shape”, I told him, “I don’thave any big therapy issues, but I’m learning and want to learn more.” This, of course, was sheernonsense. I just had no idea of my traumas and character problems. We talked a bit, and he said,“It’s simple,... it’s simple.” I was a bit surprised by this and not sure that I found it comforting, butdecided to put my trust in Al as the most knowledgeable, most real, and most down to earth ofanyone I had yet met doing this kind of work.When I remarked to him some time later about the effect of my first encounter with him, he said,completely non-defensively, “What did I do to you?” I told him. “In those days,” he said, “I wasalways trying to demonstrate the power of bioenergetics.” By the time I got to him, he had made abig change.By now, I was several years into practicing bioenergetic therapy and several years into my personalwork in individual treatment and in groups, including the Tuesday Group. Also, since the time ofmy first visit to Esalen, I had progressively and consistently added and increased the amount ofphysical and energetic practices in my daily life – yoga, tai chi, then bioenergetics, then running forexercise, and then, later, exercise at the nearest gym several times a week.What had happened to me during this period of time was that my body became stronger, moreflexible, more alive, and containing more energy. At the same time, my inner experience wasturbulent and had perhaps gone from a kind of depressive stasis to turbulence. The turbulencewas fueled, in classical bioenergetic terms, by the breakdown of my muscular armor, increasedenergy flow, and increased capacity for expression and for charge and discharge. More recently,I’ve also come to understand that even ordinary exercise can activate old traumatic reactivity.I still suffered bouts of depression, rage, deep injury and abandonment in my intimaterelationship, and feeling isolated due to shame and humiliation. As my energetic system changed, Ialso had a terrible period of a few years with low back pain and muscle spasms occasionallyintense enough to lay me up for some days at a time. The effects of all the energetic work I wasdoing was to energize my conflicts, activate muscular tensions, and enliven autonomic and limbicreactivity. Coming alive was not a gentle process.
  • 4. Another relationship ended. I hit the darkest days of my life, around forty-six years-old. Essentially,what saved my life at this time – and I do mean that my life needed saving – were four things, withno order of priority: bioenergetic therapy with Al, allowing myself to connect with Velma, my dogBodhatti, and my house in the country.I experienced Al as a healing presence during this period of my life. At times, too, I felt as ifBodhatti were my only true companion in the world. Then, because I was more in tune with mybody and how good I felt when we were together, I was able to be there as Velma and I foundeach other, and we were able to be together.During this period, in a session with Al, I made the unexpected discovery of the experience of self-respect. I no longer remember the context of the session. I remember suddenly becoming quiet,just standing in the room with Al, who was sitting in the chair beside me. Probably I had been onthe stool, maybe crying. I was aware of Al’s supportive and unobtrusive presence. Then I got it. Iwas me, just myself. All the terrible judgments fell away, all the shameful self-attributions fellaway, and for a moment they all disappeared. Here I was, “just” in my body, with all my sorrows,faults, and pain, but I had myself with – and, in my mind, there is only one word for it– self-respect.I was never inclined to use the word “self-esteem,” which has a psychological cast to it, as if Iwere, in my mind, esteeming my-self mentally as another object. What I experienced was asimpler state and a deeper one, a bodily way of being. In that state of being I could tolerate theterrible affects that had assailed me, the shame, the humiliation, and the deep agonies of loss andabandonment. A year or so later (1984), I “found myself” giving a paper on “Sex and Self-Respect”at one of the conferences, and, never suspecting the concept of self-respect would become a life-long companion, published a book some years later using the term in the title (Helfaer, 1998).How was I able to reach this healing experience in my work with Al at this particular moment? Itdid not come from him, of course. I found it in myself, and it emerged from my own work. Ibelieve, however, the experience would not have been possible in Al’s presence if he were notsomehow in a state to enable or be with it; many, maybe most, therapists would have gotten toobusy with me too quickly to allow for the time I needed for this crucial experience. I felt from himan empathy for my suffering, and I felt seen by him. I experienced him as a positive presence, acompanion in my aloneness. However, I believe there was also another more specific element inhis way of being with me which I would identify as a kind of respect for me as a living body. I feelthat this kind of respect and feel for the living body is quite rare. For him, “I am my body,” has areal meaning. That meaning and that respect had registered within me, and at that moment I hadmy own experience of those states of being, and that experience fostered my healing path.My therapy with Al covered a span of nearly ten years. Each session involved a day long trip fromthe Boston area to New Canaan, Connecticut, so I did not go every week. In addition to what I’vementioned so far, I do remember Al’s consistent work with breathing and grounding andoccasionally specific work on other blocks in the occiput, throat, and pelvis. Although Al alwayswrote about character analysis, he did very little of it with me verbally. I would share my griefs and
  • 5. sorrows of the day, and get on the stool. I remember only one session which was occupied entirelywith talking.I remember saying often, “Well, I wouldn’t have gotten to this in an analysis.” I felt the emotionaldepth of what I had been able to touch, and I felt the healing influence of having been able toreach that place. One exercise Al often made use of during those years (the decade of the 80’s)was to have the patient over the stool exhale all his breath using a ‘ha-ha-ha’ sound that pulsatesthe diaphragm and hold that exhalation until the next inhalation bursts through spontaneously.This can be quite frightening, like a visit with death. One day I did this, holding out my breath forwhat I suppose felt like a long time. When my body began to want to breath, my throat closed! Icouldn’t get a breath! My body began to bounce on the stool, and I grasped the chair behind mewith all my might. Suddenly my breath came in and on the exhale I roared with a horrendous roarand kept roaring. My pelvis was bouncing and pulsating and my whole body was transformed withan enormous wave of energy. Al had been able to sit there and hold on until my breath came. Ihadn’t known if I’d live or die.In my work with Al during these years, I felt I had encountered him at the best point so far in hiscareer, and I still feel this. He seemed to feel comfortable with me, and we liked each other. Thiswas the period during and just after he wrote Fear of Life, (Lowen, 1980), his favorite book. A newtheme in this book was the “wisdom of failure”. I think he was in a comfortable position to helpme relinquish the unrealistic ideals which had caused me a lot of suffering. He supported mymasculinity in a realistic, “down” way, and helped me accept my “weaknesses.”On Learning Character AnalysisI learned a lot from Al in these years. His ability to “see” the person, looking at the body as helistened to his or her story, was always impressive and often brilliant. I also was deeply impressedwith the way he held the “truth of the body.” I saw nothing egocentric or narcissistic in this. Herewas a man who believed in what he did and held what he did in a way that was grounded, real,and – so I felt – admirable.I also saw Al struggle with his understanding of therapy over the years I knew him. In hisautobiography (Lowen, 2004, p.142), he mentions coming to the realization that a lot of the workhe was doing in his workshops was “demonstration,” and it didn’t go deep enough. He wentthrough periods of doubt like this. One way he found to work with his struggles around theefficacy of his therapy work was to keep focusing on and developing his understanding ofgrounding, the energetics of grounding, and finding small variations in technique that wouldenhance the practice of grounding. I observed several of these changes in emphasis over theyears, and learned from each one of them. He discovered one of these variations in his later years,after he retired from the institute. He called this variation, “connecting the feet to the earth” (seeLowen, 2004, picture following p. 96).
  • 6. Nevertheless, learning character analysis and becoming a bioenergetic therapist was always ademanding ongoing project that required effort, concentration, focus, the continuous resolutionof inner conflicts, and regular work with my body. From my first encounter with bioenergetics inthe early 70’s until very recently, my professional goal was to develop a practical, functionalunderstanding of character analysis. My impression was that despite the fact that bioenergeticswas supposed to be a character analytic therapy, no one really knew how to do character analysis.It was perfectly clear to me that the character typology that Lowen developed (Lowen, 1958/1971)did not show how to do character analysis. It is a thorough description of the energetics ofcharacter and a handy guide, but more often than not, it proved to be a crutch that impededobservation and learning. Around 1986, Lowen said that he wished he had never written that book(Language of the Body).To me, character analysis meant a seamless therapy grounded in the identity and antithesis ofmind and body and in which the analysis of character attitudes and bodily armor both findfunctional expression in the therapeutic work. Bioenergetics was not to be psychoanalysis withsome “bodywork” thrown in, nor, vice versa, a lot of body-work without the focus ofcharacterological context and meaning, nor again was it an “integration” of “bodywork” and“analysis.” After a number of years, I managed to convince myself that I had pretty well reachedmy ideal, but I didn’t know then what I think I know now.My quest to understand and become competent in character analysis was guided from thebeginning by a very personal sensitivity that I suppose is a deep part of my personality and my wayof being with others. I would describe it as a sensitivity to the quality of contact I’m experiencingwith another person. As a therapist, I developed that sensitivity. Even pre-bioenergetics, after I gotused to working as a therapist, I had a fairly keen feeling of what I felt in the contact. I learned touse that feeling to help me identify what was going on with the other person, whether it was someavoidant or angry defensive position or some deep underlying feeling which the other had not yetput into words. I understood what I was experiencing as a perception having to do with thesurface form and style, that is character, of the overall expression of the other person. I related itto what I had found so meaningful in Reich’s “breakthrough” paper, “Psychic Contact andVegetative Current” (Reich, 1945, Chapter XIII).I believe my sensitivity to this aspect of relational experience has two sources in my development.One is the early loss of contact with my mother. Later, seeking restitution, I developed the practiceof solitary walking in the forests near my home, “communing” with nature, that is enjoying thesubtle sense of the thick stands of trees, bushes, and vegetation, bird song and other sounds, thefeeling of the weather, and the sense of the nearby streams. The quality of this feeling wouldchange from day to day and even sometimes from moment to moment. Occasionally, Iexperienced something vaguely akin to what I felt that day many years later at Esalen, when therocks and ocean became alive.As I indicated, Al did not really do character analysis with me. There was no one as brilliant as Al inreading the body and working with the body energetically, but in an ongoing way, his heart was
  • 7. not in the psychological analysis of his patients. By and large, I felt I was on my own in trying todevelop a bioenergetic character analysis. Although, like others, I modeled my work after Al, I alsosaw I was not Al, and could not work as a therapist as if I were him, nor did I want to. I knew, infact, that I needed to develop my work as a therapist differently from his work first of all to be realand true to who I am. Equally important, I new the work I did must accommodate the necessitiesof the actual, weekly, ongoing therapeutic process of the people I was seeing. For better and forworse, a lot of my learning occurred through my own ongoing working with my own character,either with myself or with Velma or my colleagues. Since I was in no doubt that I needed tocontinue to mature and heal, there wasn’t much choice.The whole effort to understand and develop character analysis became even more important tome when Al urged me to start a bioenergetic training program in Massachusetts. This createdanother big
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