NCP Logo

The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971

Reichian and Process Styles of Work

An Article by Nick Totton



There can be a good deal of confusion about what is meant by "Reichian work" and "Process work", and about the relationship between the two. I've heard one trainee therapist refer to all verbal techniques as "Process" and all bodywork techniques as Reichian"; which makes a nice simple line between the two, but one which is unfortunately quite unreal.


This confusion is the natural effect of a melting-pot situation, where a number of influences and approaches are coming together to be combined and synthesised in all sorts of ways - and filtered through the personalities and styles of different therapists and trainers. It would be nice to clarify things; but not by laying down dogmas, or even precise definitions. It's never really been possible to define schools of therapy in a rigorous way, mainly because therapy is so much about real individuals and concrete interactions. Mostly, we can lay out lines of influence, and see how these meet and cross in particular people and groupings.


But some core positions can be described; and some differences perceived. In the case of these two terms, 'Process' and 'Reichian', we are to some extent comparing incompatible sorts of beast. Reichian work has a specific historical relationship to one person, Wilhelm Reich: however much it departs from his ideas, it is still based on them. Process, on the other hand, is a term adopted by; a number of people though (like 'Reichian') not used by all of them in the same way.


This may come as a surprise to some people, who have learnt to identify 'Process' with Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., a style of working developed by Arnold Mindell, described in his books, and promulgated by the International Research Society for Process Oriented Psychology. In fact, several other therapeutic groupings describe themselves as doing Process work. These include Hakomi, founded in the USA around the work of Ron Kurtz; Maura Sills' Core Process training with Karuna, based in Devon; and Selfheal's Embodied-Relational Therapy.


These groups have perhaps about as much in common with each other as an equivalent bunch of 'Reichian/neo-Reichian' groups - say, Energy Stream, Bioenergetics, Radix and Biodynamic Therapy. In other words, there's a recognisable common thread, but also very drastic differences of technique, language, style and atmosphere - as well, of course, as size and influence.


Many of the Process groups and many of the Reichian groups share a tendency - more from sloppiness than from dogma - to refer to their own style of work as, simply 'Process' or 'Reichian' work. And - unfortunately, in my view - Process Oriented Psychology has started officially calling itself Process Work. This is clearly a better name than the old one; but it does constitute an act of unintentional imperialism against all the other forms of 'Process work'. However, the deed is done. In what follows, I will refer to the whole generic grouping as 'Process', so as to distinguish it from Mindell's style.


So what is 'Process'? Basically, process with a small p is a very popular buzzword of the late 80s and 90s, not just in therapy but also in science, philosophy, spirituality, politics...Like most buzzwords, it can mean virtually nothing ('It's all part of the process'); but it can also mean a great deal. It relates to an intellectual movement called Systems Thinking, which may possibly turn out to be one of the great revolutions in human thought, pulling together a lot of key 20th century ideas, but also reconnecting with ancient Taoist, Buddhist and shamanic viewpoints.


Without going into much detail (a good overview of Systems Thinking can be found in Fritjof Capra's 'The Turning Point'), the Process approach is based on the awareness that things happen of their own accord; that every whole is part of a larger whole (and made up of smaller wholes); that every individual is a perspective within a field.


In the context of therapy, this suggests that the therapist's job is to identify what is already happening for the client, and to encourage the client's awareness of this: to go with the flow, rather than confront. struggle, or effort. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.


This obviously becomes more complex in practice (for example. sometimes confrontation and struggle are the process); but it can provide the basis for a very powerful, beautiful and non-abusive therapeutic approach. (Process's sensitivity to abuse is perhaps one of its most valuable and topical features.)


Note that a process perspective doesn't in itself define one's therapeutic arena or tools One can do process work verbally, with bodies, with movement, art, voice, dreams, symptoms, relationships -in fact, individuals in both POP and Hakomi are researching each of these modes and many others. But perhaps the essence of Process is that one aims to follow what is happening through every mode in which it spontaneously seeks expression.


If I consider Reich from a process perspective, then he immediately splits into two polarised figures! Reich-l uses an essentially medical model of curing people, restoring healthy functioning to a sick organism. He confronts his clients, exposes and overpowers their resistance, smashes their armouring. None of this is compatible with a process approach.


But then, nor does it represent how Energy Stream, or most other contemporary Reichians, think or work! We take our inspiration from Reich-2 - the therapist who emphasises spontaneity, pleasure and organismic wisdom, works to encourage streaming and energetic unity with nature, and speaks of trusting resistance as a creative response to oppression. Similarly, Energy' Stream's understanding. of Reichian group work, treating individual material as a function of the group field, is very much a Process style - but developed independently and directly out of the Reichian tradition.


If we interpret Reichian work in Process terms, it appears as a set of powerful techniques for amplifying some particular aspects of process: mainly a) bodily sensations and impulses, and b) experiences and impulses in relationship (i.e. transference and resistance to contact). If I try to translate into specific POP language, Reichian therapy works with kinesthetic, proprioceptive and relationship channels, as means of re-opening long-frozen edges to expression and contact. In Hakomi terms, Reichian work offers techniques for contact, accessing and deepening, and works with its own version of the sensitivity cycle, but does not specifically work with mindfulness or emphasise non-violence.


At the same time, though, we must he aware that Reichian therapy too is not so much a set of techniques as a perspective, a world-view; so that in theory many different therapeutic tools could be used in 'Reichian work' - and in fact we see this happening to some extent in Energy Stream, with individual practitioners developing 'Reichian healing', 'Reichian voicework', 'Reichian art therapy', 'Reichian movement'...


This Reichian worldview has an unmistakeably different flavour from Process work - even though there may well be no actual point of conflict. I want to draw out four areas where I see a significant distinction.


  1. Reichian work uses an energy model, while Process uses an information model. As a crude analogy, we can think of a radio: Reichian work focuses on whether the power supply is connected up and the aerial receiving radio waves; while Process work focuses on what messages the radio waves are carrying. Whether this analogy helps or hinders I'm not sure! But I want to add that the 'information' basis of Process is not as well-worked out as some people seem to think. For example, Hakomi works with character, which I would argue is a fundamentally energetic concept (though Ron Kurtz has tries to re-conceive it in information language. And POP talks a great deal about fields, which are part of an energy model. I'm not sure that ultimately we have to make a choice between the two: perhaps it's more like 'wave' and ;'particle' theories of light - both turn out to be viable and essential.

  2. There is a difference around outcome. However much Reichian work moves away from its initial medical model, it still seems to want to achieve something - to create some change in the client's situation. Process work is much more drawn to seeing the process as its own goal, to focusing on raising awareness and actually shying away from any notion of goals and outcomes, in line with its basic ethic of non-interference and nonviolence. On the other hand, like so much in therapy, this probably has a great deal to do with individual style and predilection: some Process therapists, :certainly seem to be trying to 'do something' and conversely some Reichians are strikingly gentle and noninterventionist.

  3. However 'Process-y' Reich-2 may be, the 'Reichian worldview' is not consciously or explicitly a process one - and suffers greatly from this. (Obviously this is not a criticism of Reich, who was already decades ahead of his time.) It is particularly difficult, it seems to me, for Reichian styles to escape from notions of 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' behaviour, and from a generally remedial and judgemental approach to people. A key area where this applies to the orthodox Reichian schools, of course, is that of sexuality.

  4. Reichian work conceptualises the therapeutic relationship in terms of transference and counter-transference. This means that it assumes the impossibility of an 'ordinary', 'human', 'friendly' relationship between client and therapist - not because such a thing is disapproved of, but because it is incompatible with human reality. However, this is seen not as a problem, but as an opportunity for deep and lifechanging work on the client's fundamental issues. It does mean, though, that Reichian work emphasises the need for firm therapeutic boundaries in a way that is not, so far, characteristic of Process approaches apart from Selfheal. My belief is that this is a major contribution from Reichian work to Process; and Hakomi, certainly, is at the moment trying to incorporate a deeper understanding of transference into its own ways of working.


A great deal more could be said; but it seems best to leave things here, in the hope that it has at least clarified why they are so confusing at the moment! In Selfheal, we seem to experience process and Reichian work as different and complementary fields between which we find our own identity. In fact, we feel about equally influenced: by Reichian work, POP, and Hakomi, if these things can be estimated. What seems particular to Selfheal is our emphasis on incarnation as a governing metaphor, and our conscious goal of integrating all techniques we encounter around incarnation and the four planes of our manifestation (sensation, emotion, thought, and energy).


Certainly, I more and more feel uneasy using a label that identifies me with a particular individual's work; and I find that almost every time I type the word 'Reichian', I 'accidentally' put a small 'r' on it! The fact is, we all have to call ourselves a something-or-other; and most labels are really codes, flags we run up the pole in order to attract those people who will actually be glad to find us. Given a few more years. things are bound to clarify; at the moment, after all, it's all in - er - process!


Copyright © Nick Totton


Nick Totton is a psychotherapist and trainer in private practice in Leeds. Having trained originally in Reichian therapy in the early 1980s, he has broadened his work to include, in particular, psychoanalytic therapy (MA in Psychoanalytic Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University) and Process Oriented Psychology (Arnold Mindell). He currently practices and teaches his own synthesis, Embodied-Relational Therapy. He is the author of Reichian Growth Work (with Em Edmondson, Prism Press), The Water in the Glass: Body and Mind in Psychoanalysis (Rebus Press), Psychotherapy and Politics (Sage) and Character and Personality Types (with MIchael Jacobs, Open University Press).


Web site: The ERTh Page (Embodied-Relational Therapy),



Article Menu - Members Directory - Navigation Page - Home