In 1964, the military in Brazil carried out a coup d’etat supported by the CIA and local right-wing groups, inaugurating a bloody dictatorship. It was during the dictatorship that a clandestine anarchist activist named Roberto Freire, who also was a psychoanalyst, (anti)psychiatrist and author of books and plays, confirmed the destructive effects of repression on people’s behavior and psychological and mental health. Freire believed that micro-social relationships are the genesis for macro-social authoritarianism and he aimed for understanding the politics of modern society through people’s behavior in their everyday life. He realized that the fact that one believes in a certain ideology and has a libertarian view of the world doesn’t always lead one to have a libertarian behavior in his/her personal relationships with his/her fellows – there is something else, like an unconscious barrier, that determines the attitudes of the individuals towards life and other people. Freire, then, broke with psychoanalysis and over the next decades researched and developed Somatherapy – a therapy form in shape of a pedagogy, or a kind of pedagogy with therapeutic effects. That means that the way of dealing with neurosis is shifted from a medical perspetive to an educational one. The goal is to liberate those who have been subjected to repression (all of us). Somatherapy supports itself in theory and praxis with the social and corporeal psychology of Wilhelm Reich, Antipsychiatry, Gestalt Therapy, Anarchism and with the Afro-Brazilian art form of the people called Capoeira Angola.
The technique that he created consists of assembling a group of people to form a collective with limited duration (about a year and a half) that, through self-managed and non-hierarchical dynamics, will search to explore, understand and develop their capabilities to be creative, self-regulated, to love and to be loved and to be confident in the defense of their own desires and needs towards a society hostile to independent individuals.
All of this happens in a methodology composed of four elements: (1) experience of exercises created by Freire and carried out by the therapist in charge of the group (Freire or a disciple of him); (2) meetings of the group without the presence of the therapist (that guarantees the group’s and each person’s independence and responsibility for the therapeutic process); (3) practice of Capoeira Angola; (4) interaction of the group’s members in various social activities, either for fun or any kind of collective work.
The exercises created by Freire usually are body exercises, following Wilhelm Reich’s realization that neurosis is located not only in one’s mind, but also in his/her body. Reich realized that the authoritarian social structure and its mechanism of repression shape people’s personality, creating a neuromuscular character armor. That means a chronic rigidity in the muscles that obstruct the full circulation of the vital energy. Then it becomes a lifeless body, unable to act spontaneously, to feel pleasure, love or true emotions.
Reich was positive that this illness has social causes, that it is implanted by systematic suppression of instinctual needs of sex, pleasure and love carried out by authoritarian mechanisms that enforce all of us, starting in the first days of life, to adapt ourselves to patterns of social behavior. “The millenary subjugation of impulsive life created the ground for the psychological fear of the masses to the authority and the submission to it, for an incredible humility, on one side, and a
sadistic brutality, on the other side – and that’s why in the last 200 years the capitalist economy of profits could expand and survive” said Reich.
Roberto Freire is a forerunner of Reichian Therapy in Brazil and one of the few people in the world who kept the unity between social-political and psychotherapeutic approaches against neurosis. Opposing ideologies of sacrifice (neurosis), Freire maintains that the healthy human condition dwells in what he called ideology of pleasure. The exercises that he created bring the participants to bodily communicate their barriers and difficulties, at the same time they provide bioenergetic relief, release of creativity and stimulation and
awakening of the senses. They have simultaneous diagnostic and therapeutic effects.
Following the principle of pleasure, Freire refuted the tendency in traditional psychology to relate therapy with discomfort, suffering and formality and strove to create ludic, playfull and pleasant exercises that, based on theatrical techniques, stimulate sociability and new ways of interaction.
After each exercise the participants make use of verbal communication, but in a peculiar way. Sitting in circle, each person reports the sensations that she had, the barriers that she perceived in herself and other people, what kind of pleasure she felt or what kind of fear and difficulty came out. The way to report the experience should follow the theories and methods of Gestalt Therapy, which prioritize an objective and practical approach, trying to acknowledge (how it happened) rather than interpret (why it happened).
Based on studies of human perception, Dr. Frederick Perls, precursor of Gestalt Therapy, sustained the fundamental significance of living perceptually alert to the present moment. Perls believed that the unmediated perception through the senses allows the spontaneous and natural mechanism of self-regulation. Rational abstraction prevents this spontaneity from occurring and creates another mechanism that is alienation and self-censorship through acceptance of external values and judgments (coming from the family, society, etc.), which are settled in the conscious and unconscious.
Gestalt Therapy determines the practical way in which the anarchist therapy of Roberto Freire happens. Somatherapy is neither clinical nor confessional. It does not deal with traumas of the past, but it does deal with
their manifestations in the present, through the situations experienced during the exercises and everyday life. Freire understands that one of the many problems that people have is related to inability to define what they want and like. He believes that spontaneous self-regulation is achieved by the search for pleasure and by the discovery of each person’s own unique originality.
Because neurosis is born in social relationships, group therapy is more efficient because it creates a micro-social lab in which a variety of relationships may happen. In Somatherapy, it’s the self-managed and non-hierarchical dynamics that effectively make the therapy happen, on the personal level (self-
awareness) and on the social level (new strategies for living together), in so far as it establish a state of collaboration, cooperation and complicity between the members of the group.
Also, only in a group is it possible to deal with damaging forms of communications brought to light by Antipsychiatry. Somatherapy doesn’t work with schizophrenics or people in advanced states of emotional unbalance, but it uses those studies of Gregory Bateson, David Cooper and Ronald D. Laing that have prophylactic uses for neurosis.
Antipsychiatry makes use of the studies in pragmatics of human communication, which prove that paradoxical ways of communication in a context of strong emotional and affectional ties can lead to deep psychological disturbances in one’s personality. Somatherapy allows one to realize how his personality is shaped by the paradoxical communications used against him by his family when he was a child, as well as being able to perceive when it happens in the present. It makes possible the creation of strategies to defend oneself against emotional blackmails and teaches the importance of choosing sincere and direct ways to communicate and prove how useful metacommunication is (communication about the situation in which interaction takes place).
One of the last elements that Roberto Freire added to his technique was Capoeira Angola. Unlike other styles of capoeira that spread out all over the world, Capoeira Angola is an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines playing music, dancing and fighting – it’s a theater and a playful game. It has its origin in African tribal rituals and dances. In Brazil, aspects of martial arts were introduced, so that black people could prepare
themselves to fight their oppressors: the slave masters and the Portuguese (and later Brazilian) Empire. Freire found in Capoeira Angola an excellent bioenergetic exercise, that enables body awareness, teaches how to keep all senses alert, and wakes up the ability to confront, which is very necessary in the struggle to defend oneself against repression and to affirm a free personality.
With its anarchist perspective, Somatherapy brings to psychotherapy the concept that neurosis is a deviation in natural and ecological human behavior. Traditional psychology manifests in its praxis the attempt to adapt one to the social rules in
force. Somatherapy helps the individual to recover her capacity to satisfy her needs and desires by defending herself and struggling against a psychotic society that denies her the freedom to exercise her own unique originality.
For Roberto Freire, the human being must be understood in his unicity: the individual is the indivisible and non-hierarchical unity of his body, mind, emotions, memories, expectations, desires, culture, social behaviors and actions that he does at every moment. In western societies, the aspects of life are fragmented. Freire created Somatherapy with the aim to struggle for the totality of being, for the unity that allows the natural principle of spontaneous self-regulation. He conceived his technique for revolutionaries, challengers of the status quo and anyone who feels libertarian, as a tool in the struggle for a life directed by joy, beauty and pleasure.
Acting on the level of subjective ecology, which is understood as living accordingly to biological impulses, Somatherapy shows a different path in the struggle against patriarchy. Helping to liberate an individual from the barriers that prevent him from his own self-determination and freedom is consistent with the idea of not intending to construct a new world, but giving people the opportunity to create this new world by themselves.
Radical changes of behavior that enable the experience of pleasure and love are the reconciliation with our own nature, and that’s a step towards the utopia of a society that is not harmful to individuals or their environment. “Civilized society is at risk of disintegration by the primary hostility of men towards each other,” said Wilhelm Reich. “Only the liberation of the natural capacity for love in human beings can master their sadistic destructiveness.”