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  • Frederic Lowen

The Meaning of Work: Thriving or Surviving?

Labor Day is the United States September holiday honoring and commemorating workers achievements and contributions. It is comparable to, and derived from the May 1 May Day holiday in many countries. It is a good time to reflect on what we do for work and money, and whether it is for fulfillment or survival. Wilhelm Reich states “Work, love, and knowledge are the wellsprings of our life. They should also govern it.” To me, this implies that one’s work could be as fulfilling as one’s most intimate relationships. Unfortunately, as a clinical psychotherapist I see fulfillment in work, or in love and relationship, is rare indeed for many people. As a Bioenergetics psychotherapist, I see increasingly clearly how fear is the obstacle to fulfillment in work, love, and life.

In last year’s Labor Day essay we explored how government and corporate symbiosis establishes the socio-economic structure we refer to as the ‘status quo.’ Increasingly unsustainable, the status quo is socially engineered by political and government leaders, to enrich and enhance the wealth, influence, and power of their corporate patrons and constituents. While many people accept this condition as fact in the US and across the globe, there is less awareness of the psychological and energetic factors that drive such self-destructive behavior.


Little recognized, least so in science and academic psychology, the Mind-Body Split (MBS) is a widespread condition and affliction which is fundamental to individual and social dysfunction, disorder, and insanity, in my opinion. As detailed last year, the MBS obscures one’s truth from oneself when feeling and thinking are not connected. Feelings do not accurately inform thinking, and thinking does not inform feeling. Clearly, a person’s truth of who they are, the self, is much more reflected by their feelings than the thoughts and ideas they have. When feelings and thinking are disconnected, truth is obscured, uncertainties grow, and fears and insecurities within the unconscious landscape determine behavior and thinking, mostly outside conscious awareness.


Such people are highly susceptible to the kind of manipulative mind-bending deception represented by fake news, ‘dis-information,’ and conspiracy theories contributing to and resulting in mass delusion and self-destructive behavior. The fact that so many people in the US and around the world are afflicted with delusion, confusion, and distrust is evidence of the widespread effects of the MBS.


The leaders’ purpose for creating mass delusion is to get the social masses to engage in behavior that is not in their best interest, and is usually self-harming. In the socioeconomic structure in the USA, it has been to gain acquiescence from the masses, and out-sized support from wealthy donors to enrich themselves through the exploitation of the population and the environment. Convincing voters that they represent a free-market capitalist system based on meritocracy, in reality political leaders preside over a system in which profits are privatized, while costs, risks and expenses are socialized, that is, charged to the taxpayer. Interestingly, they practice a system of socialism they themselves condemn, in which government picks favorite winners with subsidy and favorable regulations, and losers with obstacles to profit. True socialism, contrary to popular conception and dis-information, is a socioeconomic system in which workers share the profits and benefits of production with the providers of capital. It is precisely what capitalists are most afraid of, and thereby most viciously demonize.


It is no coincidence that we in the US, the wealthiest country in history, have the greatest inequity, disproportional opportunity, environmental degradation and health problems, despite the most advanced technological prowess ever. The severity of most social problems such as substance abuse, incarceration, teen pregnancy, obesity, violence, distrust, to name only a few, can be shown to correlate most closely to the degree of inequality. It may also be shown the United States has the greatest inequality of any ‘developed’ country.


These intractable problems of injustice and inequality, environmental destruction, and sustainability cannot be solved technologically, politically, or educationally without addressing the psychological factors. Most fundamentally, the Mind-Body Split.

The Mind-Body Split (MBS) is created by emotional disturbance, most often in childhood, and is perpetuated by the lack of resolution of that disturbance. It is always a product of fear, just as chronic muscular tension is a result of fear. It is handed down from parent to child, generation after generation. Only by gaining intimate familiarization with the fears embedded in childhood history and experience can those fears be mitigated and dissolved. Cognitive understanding coupled with feeling the fears and underlying emotions reduces and heals the disconnect between feelings and thinking, the MBS.


The fears are multi-layered and take many forms. Sometimes, even superficial fears may not emerge into consciousness. Other times, for some people, irrational fears and terror may be the subject of conscious obsession. Always, unconscious components of fears of abandonment, rejection, humiliation, guilt, shame, and myriad others are constantly conditioning and restricting behavior, good feelings, and aliveness. Deeper in the mix are fears of sexuality, death, insanity, and of pleasure. Specifically, the aggressive pursuit of pleasure, and happiness, is in conflict with fear. Life becomes stuck, with desire to move forward, but fear of doing so. It is like trying to drive a car with the brake on. It is paralyzing and confusing for many people.


As a psychotherapist I see much behavior and thinking determined by fear. In effect, we are bullied by our fears, and are often unaware of the fear or its effects. While a person may be quite emotional, angering or crying easily and/or a lot, they are not connected to or aware of the causes or targets their anger or sadness is actually about. They are afraid to face those feelings. It is safer to yell at spouses, children, or the television; and safer to cry at the movies, or for a pet. Such ‘acting-out’ may relieve the energy of anger and sadness, but it does nothing to resolve it, the MBS.


The effect of these unconscious fears include myriad somatic and physiological reactions. Fear is the emotion that produces contraction, psychically and physically. Physically, contraction in the musculature and other structural tissue becomes chronic. Like the fear that caused it, awareness of chronic physical tension is not conscious. Both fear and tension become elements within the landscape of the unconscious. Most notably breathing is constricted. Few people in this culture breathe well, and most are unaware of their breathing. Despite the plethora of better breathing techniques, breathing cannot be autonomically improved until the fears causing reduced breathing are addressed.


Another common somatic effect of unconscious fears is the over-activation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system (SNS), concurrently with the de-activation of the para-sympathetic autonomic nervous system (PNS). ‘Autonomic’ refers to regulation of the physiological functions of the body that are almost completely outside conscious awareness and mindful control, except for breathing which is under autonomic and voluntary control. The SNS is normally activated upon perception of a threat in preparation for energy expenditure in its fight/flight/freeze response. Simultaneously, the PNS, which determines the capacity for relaxation, pleasure, and activities enabling the acquisition of energy, is de-activated. Many people today are stuck in their unconscious fears in which the SNS is activated, and their capacity for pleasure and relaxation is turned off. This results directly in complaints of eating and sleeping dis-orders, high stress and anxiety, sexual and gastro-intestinal dysfunction to name the obvious associated symptoms.


Psychically, fear affects thinking and cognitions. If the fears are unconscious, thinking is affected without one’s awareness. Fear results in the need to control against unpleasant and scary feelings like anger and rage, sadness and despair, and fear itself. Fear of our fears is manifested in denial, rationalization, compulsion, illusion, delusion, etc., resulting in trauma, neurosis, and psychosis. It keeps us in our ‘comfort zone’ at the cost of our aliveness, spontaneity, and openness to life. My father’s book Fear of Life could have been titled Fear of Feelings.


One important characteristic of the Mind-Body Split is the reduced capacity to perceive and/or conceive reality. The fear that prevents access to the deeper true emotional feelings also modifies sensations, sensory inputs, and conception (interpretation) of those sensations. This increases susceptibility to illusions; mistaken perceptions of self, others, and events; and produces inappropriate engagement and response to our social and natural environment.


The degree of fear, which is great in many people, has direct effects on one’s perception of the world at large. Relationships, vocation, stability, safety, security, and opportunity for growth, pleasure, fulfillment, and joy are viewed quite differently, quite negatively, from the perspective of unresolved fears from far away and long ago. It is perhaps the difference between seeing the glass as half full, or half empty. People struggling with terror, compulsion, phobias, depression, etc. often see the glass as completely empty, feeling little or no meaning in life.


They are incapable of seeing the beauty in the world. They cannot see or conceive of opportunities for fulfilling connections in love and friendship, or meaning in life or work. Many cannot access their own pleasure and desire to even know what their pleasure is, let alone to aggressively pursue it without fear. In such condition their work and vocation is performed as a function of survival, a means to earn money without meaning. The possibility of fulfilling vocational work is a dream at best, and is as foreign as life on Mars.


To be sure, our socially engineered structure generally values meaningless work higher than meaningful work. Insurance executives who focus on minimizing claim pay-outs and maximizing profit by cheating their customers are paid vastly greater sums than healthcare workers. Oil and gas engineers and workers are valued and compensated significantly more than teachers and childcare providers. Most observers believe this reality is a result of the motivation of greed and power. Indeed it is, but it is driven, enabled, and perpetuated by the underlying Mind-Body Split. Greed and the need for power is a result of fear, insecurity, and the lack of fulfillment in life.


As discussed in some detail last Labor Day, political and corporate social engineering has hugely stripped vocational work of meaning. The toxic symbiosis between politicians selling political favors, and wealthy corporations requiring special favors for their toxic and destructive operations, has created an unsustainable and destructive social and vocational environment. It values wealth and power to the exclusion of all else, political rhetoric and deception aside. Clearly, vocational work contributing to sustainable, constructive, and better life is more meaningful and rewarding than self-enriching work that damages health and is deceptively promoted. If we wish the former, we need to recognize that we have the latter. We insanely support the greed and power of the few at the cost of health, well-being, and a sustainable future for all.


The Mind-Body Split precludes our ability to see that reality, or to challenge it with our anger and outrage. Fear makes our feelings inaccessible to us. Fear restricts our awareness of our feelings and of the disconnect with our thinking. Self-awareness, self-expression, and self-possession are victims of the MBS.

Afflicted by the Mind-Body Split, the large proportion of the population cannot see nor feel the richness, diversity, beauty and opportunity life offers. The fearful ‘empty glass’ view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair, hopelessness, and self-destruction. The opportunity for change, including a demand for meaning and sustainability in our jobs and work, is there for the taking. However, it requires that we allow our feelings to move us; not to control them out of our fears. Our thoughts and ideas are insufficient, especially so when thinking is un-grounded in reality. Our mind is self-deceptive in protection of our fragile and insecure egos. One cannot be sure if thoughts and ideas are deceptive or true, while the body never lies.

From the Gospel of Thomas:

His disciples said to him, "When is the kingdom going to come?" <Jesus said>, "It is not by being waited for that it is going to come. They are not going to say, 'Here it is' or 'There it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it.”

This reminds me of John Lennon: "There are no problems, only solutions.”

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