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2002 Summer Conference:

Reich's Concept of Self-Regulation

"Free, self-regulated behavior fills people with
enthusiasm, but at the same time terrifies them."

Wilhelm Reich, The Function of the Orgasm

The term "self-regulation" is widely used today in many different contexts. An Internet search first brings up scores of references to the current debate on the "self regulation" of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Further exploration reveals that the term is frequently used in business and medicine to denote the "self regulation" of those enterprises as opposed to governmental regulation.

In the field of psychology, the phrase "self regulation" is common, but it has quite different meanings among the various schools. The term is also popular with many complementary health practitioners and those involved in "New Age" activities. However, it is not really clear what people mean by the phrase.

What exactly does the term "self regulation" mean? The American Heritage Dictionary defines "self regulating" as follows:

  1. Regulating one's self or itself
  2. Regulating itself automatically

By using the term to definite itself, the dictionary offers little help. But despite this general lack of clarity about "self-regulation," Wilhelm Reich was specific about his definition of the term. For him, self-regulation is not a philosophical premise, a psychological principle, or an educational theory. It is a biological function. This five day Conference at Orgonon explored the meaning and application of the term as Reich defined it.

Monday – July 15
Self-Regulation – A Biological Function

The program opened with a lecture by James Strick, Ph.D., a science historian and author of the book Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian Debates Over Spontaneous Generation. Dr. Strick defined exactly what Reich meant by self-regulation, namely that it is a natural function of the organism related to genital life. Strick emphasized that Reich's definition of self-regulation was scientific, and not moral or philosophical. He pointed out that in Character Analysis (first published in 1933), Reich reported that patients who were able to move from a neurotic to a genital character structure began to demonstrate self-regulating behavior.

This change was inextricably connected with the re-establishment of the natural function of genitality in these patients, as evidenced by the presence of "orgastic potency" which is the capacity to discharge an amount of energy in orgasm equivalent to that which has built up in the body, i.e., the capacity to maintain a balanced energy economy. Reich found that successful therapy led not only to the disappearance of neurotic symptoms, but to a basic change in a patient's whole being. Reactions to love, work, and social living became fundamentally different.

Reich reported that such patients began to live in a self-regulating manner, creating their own lives. To Reich, pleasure and gratification in sexual life is the foundation of self-regulation. The biological function of self-regulation is rooted in an organism's capacity to experience full orgastic gratification.

Strick also emphasized that Reich saw the prevention of neuroses as the answer to our social problems, not the individual treatment of neurotic illness. Strick noted that to this day we suffer from a vast ignorance about the nature of infants and infancy, about human sexuality in general, and the function of the orgasm in particular.

In his remarks on the Orgonomic Infant Research Center (founded by Reich in 1949), Strick said that Reich recognized that problems of character structure among armored human beings made it extremely difficult even to study the function of self-regulation. Because of the armoring, people shrink from it.

Strick urged that today's adults be modest about what they can accomplish. "We have failed," he said. "A new generation needs to find its own way." Reich's conclusion that armored people's hatred of the living is the biggest obstacle to understanding, working with, and learning about the living. Today, many sincere people want to create a better world, but they are unaware of Reich's crucial discoveries, such as the existence of human armoring. "If we fail to understand that we are armored," Strick observed, "we will not understand what Reich is writing about."

And consequently we will fail in our attempts to change the world for the better.

Monday Evening – July 15
Man's Right to Know

The Museum's new biographical video about Reich had its premiere at a reception in the Orgone Energy Observatory. An overflow crowd jammed into the small screening room to view Man's Right to Know, produced as an introduction to Reich's life and work. Directed by filmmaker Kevin Hinchey and written by Mr. Hinchey and Mary Higgins, this twenty-eight and a half minute video is a compelling portrayal of a profound scientist and a body of work that is both simple and complex.

After the screening, Mr. Hinchey spoke about the making of the video and answered questions from the enthusiastic audience. Mary Higgins and Andy Kahn--the musician who composed and performed the original piano score--also spoke about their participation in this project.

Man's Right to Know is now the introductory exhibit of the visitor tour of the Orgone Energy Observatory, and is for sale online or at the Museum Bookstore.

Tuesday – July 16
Problems in Popularizing Orgonomic Knowledge

Mary Higgins played a powerful and fascinating audiotape of Wilhelm Reich talking with a group of professional men and women who were to be part of the Orgonomic Infant Research Center (OIRC), organized by Reich in 1949 to study the innate functions in newborns and infants and to search for ways to prevent the development of armoring.

Among the topics discussed was the problem of popularizing orgonomic knowledge. Crucial questions arose:

  • How can one make such new knowledge accessible to people without distorting or flattening it out?

  • How can the average, theoretically untrained social worker, physician, or educator learn to use orgonomic knowledge?

Reich believed that an understanding of self-regulation as a scientific term had already been distorted.

To Reich, natural functions are in themselves self-regulatory. Self-regulation is present in every living substance, in every cell, organ, and organism. It is present in atmospheric and cosmic functions as well. However, in the human being of today, self-regulation is absent. The human animal has lost its ability to produce and live out of its own inner nature. Reich told his students that it was imperative that they keep these facts in mind at every step of their work. It would be essential for them to be able to distinguish a self-regulatory function from a function imposed on the organism.

The audiotape played at the Conference has preserved for future generations a profound discussion of vital questions about human social development; the nature of the newborn; the capacity of human beings for self-regulation; the problems faced by unarmored organisms in an armored world; the dilemma of armored organisms attempting to raise unarmored children; and the daunting obstacles that face anyone who attempts to work in this area.

The discussion on the audiotape moved on to a more focused look at the OIRC that was being planned at that time. Reich told his listeners that it was essential to understand both their own base of operation and that from which the public was operating. He urged those at the meeting to go slow, to resist any impulses to "save the world." Reich spoke powerfully about how the armoring results in both a great fear of natural genitality and a great dream of paradise and salvation by a Fuehrer of one kind or another. The expectation of salvation, he said, was ravaging the planet.

Again and again, Reich posed key questions: What is natural? What do we need to do to protect the natural in the child? What impedes the natural in the child? To find answers to these questions, it is necessary to begin with the needs of the child, the needs of the living in the child. Reich stated that he did not want to start a "Save the Babies" movement. In fact, he didn't want to start any kind of political movement. Instead, he wanted to observe children and learn how to keep the living going. He also reminded those at his meeting that he wanted co-workers, not admirers. "If I succeed in fascinating you, you will soon shout ‘Heil Reich.' That is exactly what I don't want. I want to defend the living in the child."

The richness of Reich's thought and the sense of his aliveness as he communicated with his students cannot be captured in this brief review. However, Reich's passion and clarity is captured on this unique audiotape.

Tuesday Evening – July 16
Energy and Music

Musician and jazz pianist Andy Kahn provided an unusual look at a part of Reich's life that has not received much attention: his love of music, and the connection between the compositional structure of music he loved and his scientific work. In preparing his remarks, Mr. Kahn spent time in Reich's study and library, combing through Reich's private record collection.

Mr. Kahn demonstrated musically how the function of "tension and release" in musical composition was related to the function of "tension and charge" in Reich's orgasm formula. Kahn brought his ideas to life by playing passages on the piano and playing pre-recorded music to clarify the musical techniques he was verbally describing.

Mr. Kahn is a charming and engaging speaker. By the end of the evening, everyone had a new appreciation for the relationship between the compositional Tension-Release technique at the heart of the music that gave Reich great pleasure (notably compositions by Beethoven) and the scientific Tension-Charge formula at the heart of the orgasm function and the pleasure function in general.

Wednesday – July 17
Genitality in Children

Mary Higgins read two remarkable papers by participants in the OIRC. The first, written by a mother who was involved in the project, was originally delivered at Orgonon over fifty years ago and described the genital games of children. She and her physician husband wanted to raise their child in a self-regulatory manner, and they understood that genital games are a vital part of childhood.

The mother reported that her four-year old son played genital games freely with his friends, and her home became an unofficial center for the children's games. However, gradually the sex-negative attitudes of the children's parents became evident. The mother described the love that existed between her son and a little girl his age. She noted that the children's genital play regulated itself. The children moved back and forth from sexual games to other games as they desired. They were completely open about their play. Neither manifested the secretive, guilty, worried behavior of armored children who engaged in genital play.

The mother also told about the difficulties her son experienced in his interactions with armored playmates and the problems she and husband--as well as their son--encountered with intolerant adults. There seemed to be a constant sex-negative barrage surrounding and damaging the children. Grandma, aunts and uncles, parents, and even deliverymen were part of this barrage. It became apparent that parents who wish to raise their children in a sex-positive manner have to be as assertive in their positive views of sexuality as the sex-negative world is in expressing its point of view.

The paper by this brave young mother is astounding in its directness and its loving description of the genital games of children. It was a truly eye-opening report, one that probably could not be published anywhere today. The presentation of this paper was followed by a discussion among the Conference attendees.

Then a second audiotape was played of a discussion that took place among those who had been present at the young mother's initial presentation of her paper at Orgonon.

After a break, Ms. Higgins shared another report from the OIRC. Unlike the first paper, this document revealed how wrong things can go when adults to don't understand their own motivations, when they make ideals out of living functions and attempt to impose them on children.

This paper described what happened when two children were brought together for the express purpose of enabling them to experience genital contact and games. The adults who had arranged this meeting had completely misunderstood the natural self-regulation functions of children's genital games and friendships, or the fact that biological functions cannot be forced or arranged artificially.

This report made it painfully clear how dangerous preconceived and distorted notions and ideals about genitality and "healthy children" can be for children.

Wednesday Evening – July 17
A Look Back at the Orgonomic Infant Research Center

This evening was devoted to an audiotape made several years ago by an educator who had been a participant in the OIRC. Recalling this project and the activities associated with it, she spoke movingly of Reich's warmth, responsiveness, and empathy toward those he had chosen to work with him and in whom he saw potential. "He tried to make the best of what was around him," she commented.

But the workers' deficiencies gradually undermined the project. There was a tendency on their part "to use jargon or vague terms while Reich persistently searched for precise descriptions, minus preconceptions, of what was really happening." They were "constantly searching for an ideal--the ideal mother, the ideal healthy behavior, the ideal self-regulating child…Reich constantly warned against those expectations."

And then there was the loneliness of working in the world. The speaker recalled Reich's gentleness and kindness in a conversation in which he encouraged her to "go the lonely way. Accept your loneliness. It's part of your training…It sounds more frightening than it is. It is most interesting. Be glad you are in it." But when she saw him for the last time in the Fall of 1951, Reich shared his growing concern about the project. Shortly thereafter, it was discontinued.

"The OIRC was a formidable, probably impossible undertaking then, as I think it would be now," she said. "I think Reich knew it, but hoped against hope, made the effort, and paid."

With great honesty she admitted that her disappointment at its failure was tempered by a "sense of relief--relief that I would no longer be working with childhood genitality, orgone energy, these frightening manifestations of the Living. References to what Reich called ‘the terror of the living' appear constantly in records of the OIRC, and in the end it was more comfortable to return to the workaday world and live one's life within the safety of its constraints."

Thursday – July 18
Bensalem, the Experimental College:
The Possibilities and Limits of Self-Regulation in an Authoritarian Society

This fascinating look at "self-regulation" in action at an experimental New York City college was given by Michael Mannion, co-founder of The Mindshift Institute and author of numerous books, including Project Mindshift: The Re-Education of the American Public Concerning Extraterrestrial Life.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of great experimentation in education. One attempt at a new form of education was the creation of Bensalem, The Experimental College. It was founded by a classics scholar and a Jesuit priest, and was a full four-year college at conservative Fordham University. Students and faculty had equal votes in deciding such important issues as the governing structure of the school, the faculty to be hired, and the students to be admitted. Bensalem evolved into an institution in which no person had power over any other person. Although the students and faculty were unaware of it, daily life in Bensalem became a living example of what Reich called "self-regulation." This crucial biological function often was evident as much by its absence as by its presence.

Each person in Bensalem had an opportunity to help create the school, actively shape his or her educational experience, and become his or her authentic self. It attracted many people from around the world and inspired great enthusiasm. However, the experimental college was a living example of Reich's observation that "Free, self-regulated behavior fills people with enthusiasm, but at the same time terrifies them."

A large percentage of those who came to Bensalem experienced deep, unexpected anxiety while at the school because they did not have the capacity to function in a self-regulatory manner in an open environment. Many could not admit this to themselves and sought scapegoats whom they could blame for their difficulties. Nearly half of the students left the experiment and returned to traditional schools.

But some young people struggled to change and become their true selves. They learned to function in a non-authoritarian environment and created their own lives based on their needs. Many had sexual lives that differed greatly from monogamous marriage. Adults and children and students lived together in new family structures that were the antithesis of the authoritarian family. Students and teachers, both single and married, formed communes and lived in economic structures that contrasted sharply with our capitalist consumer society.

The Bensalem Experience showed that there is great promise in such radical experiments if those creating them are aware of human armoring and its limiting impact on human beings. It is also vital that all involved have an understanding of the biological function of self-regulation. If such knowledge is absent, certain individuals can still flourish and develop in a non-authoritarian environment like Bensalem. However, others will not benefit and may even be harmed. Without an accurate understanding of self-regulation, institutions like Bensalem will not thrive and will not have a positive effect on the larger society.

Thursday Evening – July 18
Writing a Book on Wilhelm Reich

This evening was devoted to a presentation by Robert S. Corrington, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophical Theology at Drew University in New Jersey. He spoke on his forthcoming book Wilhelm Reich: Psychoanalyst and Radical Naturalist. In his remarks, Dr. Corrington distinguished between the philosophical approach he took as a biographer of Reich, and the historical approach other writers take toward their subjects.

He also discussed the perils of writing psycho-biography; the dreams and nightmares he had while writing his book, in which Reich is very unhappy with the biography; his use of "hermeneutics" (the science and methodology of interpretation of texts, especially Scriptural) in his assessment of Reich's writings; and his attempts to philosophically evaluate Reich's conceptual framework.

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Copyright © 2004- Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust

Contact : 207.864.3443 | wreich@rangeley.org