Saturday, January 19, 2008

Wilhelm Reich and the Psychedelic experience

Wilhelm Reich, German psychiatrist and sexologist, developed a theory of personality that made use of the concept of character armor. The idea was that we start out with a core self but as we move through our developmental stages and into adulthood this core self becomes surrounded by layers and layers of accretions that armor a person and separate that core self from the outside world. This isn't to say that people should aim for an infantile state but rather that once a person is an adult and is fully developed mentally they shouldn't necessarily be limited in expressing their selves by armoring. A really armored person would be a really guarded person, someone whose self is hidden behind layers and layers of obstruction, where the flow from the self to the outside world is impeded. Freud talked about a natural flow of psychic energy starting in the subconscious mind then going through the ego and eventually manifesting in the outside world as will, intentionality, and interaction of self with others. If this flow is impeded or obstructed by some experience bad things start to happen to a person mentally. The point of some of Reich's therapy was to dismantle some of these obstructions, disassemble the character armor that doesn't need to be there, and restore a better rapport between the self and the world. This disconnection of self and other can easily be recognized as alienation, the feeling of being alienated from the world, while the destruction of the character armor cuts through that alienation and restores a better sense of self to the person.

One of the most noted features of the psychedelic experience, something that comes up again and again, is the sense of being returned to a state in consciousness free from the unnecessary baggage of life and truer to the sense of self of a person as he or she actually is. This is what is said to cause people to radically change their life paths after doing psychedelics. It sounds an awful lot like the psychedelic experience can cut through the character armoring and return a person to the experience of their core self, if only temporarily. I say that because the consensus is that the psychological benefits of psychedelics fade after a period of a few weeks, so that people might be more well adjusted afterwards but they're not transported to some permanent state of enlightenment and sartori. In any case it seems that psychedelics tap into the same sort of core reality that Wilhelm Reich was aiming at restoring contact with.

*on edit: character armor is what we put up to prevent people from seeing us as we really are. And why should we be afraid of people seeing us like that? The particular fear that we have of being exposed or confronted with our self points to the sort of problem we have.

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