& Pleasure: As Much as You Can Stand
Bret Lyon, PhD
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Common
How much pleasure can your body tolerate? That may seem like a peculiar
question, but most of us aren't used to a great deal of pleasure running
through our bodies. In fact, we've learned to restrict breathing and tighten
muscles so that we don't feel too much of anything, including pleasure.
We are all born with an enormous capacity for pleasure. A healthy baby
can feel pleasure in every part of his or her body. Freud called this
capacity "polyperverse infantile sexuality" and suggested that
we outgrow it, showing clearly his attitude towards pleasure. What if
we don't have to outgrow this immense capacity for pleasure? What if we
can free ourselves to get it back again? And what happens to our sex lives
It all starts with breathing. A baby breathes fully and freely, using
her entire body. As she breathes, energy flows through her, without anything
getting in the way. And wherever the energy flows, she can feel pleasure.
As we get older, however, we learn to tighten our muscles and restrict
our breathing to keep from feeling emotions that are painful. We find
that physical tightening helps us "control ourselves" so that
we don't get into trouble by doing something we shouldn't. Also, many
of us, as children, receive punishment or disapproval for feeing too good.
We're told we're being "too silly," "too wild," even
"too happy." Or we show too much interest in certain parts of
our body or someone else's.
Then, as we grow up, with our bodies tightened, our breathing restricted,
and a lot of learned embarrassment about anything sensual or sexual, our
society expects us to have great sex. The positive side of this mixed
message that sexual pleasure is a positive good to which we are
all entitled owes much to the work of Wilhelm Reich, one of Freud's
most influential disciples who, as we will see, took one of Freud's major
theories more literally than Freud himself.
Freud and Reich as a young man lived in an era in which
sex was considered "dirty" and "animal" (a belief
which still exists today as an undercurrent below our more consciously
held attitude that sex is desirable and positive explaining why
we're so mixed up about sex). So when Reich decided to investigate and
encourage sexual behavior, his actions created a scandal.
Reich had the distinction of being kicked out of both Freud's inner circle
and the Communist Party at the same time for encouraging sexual behavior
and the use of birth control. Though he left Germany in search of a more
sexually permissive society, this goal was somewhat frustrated. He was
forced out of Norway for his plan to open Europe's first sex research
clinic. Like many social and intellectual pioneers, Reich was persecuted
during his lifetime, but ultimately changed our way of thinking. Sex education,
sex therapy and breathwork in the West all owe their existence and influence
largely to this man.
Reich took to heart Freud's early dictim that all neurosis results from
blocked sexual energy. If that's true, Reich said, let's measure sexual
energy, find out where and how it's blocked, and free it. He developed
several methods to trace the flow of energy through the body. These included
measuring galvanic skin response. He found that energy runs vertically
in the body, up the back and down the front discovering independently
what many Eastern disciplines had discovered hundreds of years earlier!
Reich also found that babies and young children have far more energy flowing
through their bodies than adults do. As we get older, we develop blocks
places in the body where tight muscles and restricted breathing
keep energy from moving. Reich called the blocks "armor" and
the process of developing them "armoring." He found that the
armor was in seven horizontal segments, which blocked the vertical flow
of energy. (Interestingly, these seven segments correspond closely with
the seven chakras described in various Eastern traditions).
Reich then began to find ways, through breathwork and touch, to help people
release their body armor and allow the energy to flow freely. He would
always begin by focusing on the higher segments face, throat and
chest. He believed that the pelvis was the energy center of the body and
he didn't want to release that until the rest of the body was loose enough.
In other words, he didn't want a train going 120 miles an hour running
on a track built for 35 mph traffic.
As the armoring is released, more and more energy is freed to flow through
the body. When the pelvis finally lets go, someone experiencing Reichian
work can feel an amazing sense of abundance and pleasure. At last we are
able to be as nature intended us, taking pleasure in every breath. And
the culmination of the experience of pleasure and energy flow is in full-body
Reich placed great emphasis on what he called orgastic potency, which
happens when a person gives up conscious control and surrenders to the
waves of energy flowing within. Americans, he might have said, have plenty
of sex, but most of them don't seem to be able to experience deep sensual
pleasure or embrace the oceanic feelings of orgasm.
Reich believed that you can't be fully sexual unless you can be fully
sensual, deriving pleasure from the sensations in many parts of your body
as you open yourself to full energy flow. When your breath becomes oceanic,
it feels like a wave running through your entire body. And when you allow
your whole body to breathe, you are laying a template for sexual bliss.
You can experience a sense of peace and fulfillment whenever you breathe
fully. And you can feel great sensual pleasure without having to go on
to direct sex play and orgasm. To become fully sexual, you have to be
able to give up control. Your body must be free enough of tension to allow
intense sensations to build and flow freely, and your mind must be willing
to surrender to those sensations.
The physical experience of orgasm is a much intensified version of a full
exhale. Your neck arches, your head goes back, your pelvis tilts backward
so that the small of your back rounds, your legs bend out with knees going
towards either side, and you experience waves of sensation flowing down
your body. There is also a subtle flow going up your spine as the vital
energy (known in Sanskrit as kundalini) is activated from the spine's
The Little Death
Some people have a great deal of energy in their heads, but the energy
becomes blocked at the base of the skull, where the head and neck meet.
This results in a constant loop of energy flowing through the head, disconnected
from the rest of the body. We call this state "being in your head"
In the same way, people can have energy which only circulates in the pelvis
and is blocked from ascending the spine. Sex may be fun for these people,
but they are deprived of a supporting and fulfilling sensuality. There
is little orgasmic flow, and there is difficulty in enjoying sensuality
for its own sake. In order to experience full sexual flow we need to be
able to fully surrender to intense, all-pervasive pleasure. We open ourselves
to what the French call "the Little Death," a term for orgasm.
This takes trust, not only within ourselves, but in the person with whom
we are making love.
Reich believed that full, ecstatic sex could only take place in the context
of a loving, trusting relationship, where each person, in the presence
of the other, could surrender to the oceanic waves running through them.
There needs to be time for the rhythm and build, and safety for the fully
surrendered aftermath. Sex is ultimately about full connection with another
and surrender to that connection.
Reich taught that the violent and destructive impulses which can seem
so much a part of human nature actually stem from the inability to experience
pleasure. We are born loving, he believed, and naturally reach out to
others in a loving way. Sexual connection can be the fullest expression
of that loving and it can reinforce our ability to love.
Many religions teach that celibacy is a precondition for high spiritual
attainment. Sex, they say, brings us too much into the earthly realm
the realm of sin, animal behavior, desire and disappointment. While Reich
considered himself a scientist and avoided spirituality, my own feeling
is that loving sexuality can lead to deep spiritual awareness. Experiencing
such deep pleasure can give us a sense of gratitude and fulfillment. Surrendering
to the oceanic feelings within us can lead to surrendering to the cosmos
to the infinite and uncontrollable. This sense of merging and oneness
can provide an experience of the great Oneness that includes us all.