by Bruce Wilson
The main purpose of this blog is to discuss the science of primal therapy, but I want to address a question that goes beyond science: is primal therapy compatible with spirituality and is spiritual practice compatible with primal?
First, let’s define those amorphous terms, “spiritual” and “spirituality.” To scientific skeptics, they often elicit a gag reflex. At worst, spirituality is condemned as “woo,” at best, it’s put in scare quotes, held it at a distance like some stinking, dead animal with comments like, “just what the hell is ‘spirituality’?” Check out the many blogs and websites devoted to skepticism and you’ll see that spirituality is usually equated with religion, God (or Satan), magic, the occult, mysticism, new age, ghosts, souls, spirits, fairies, angels, or a number of other supernatural concepts, and often scorned as “woo,” “spooky stuff” or worse. In my former life as a hard scientific skeptic, I had this same response, and I admit, I still have a visceral revulsion to the words, “religion” and “religious.”
Today, I often use the word, spirituality, but not in the supernatural context. In fact, I think the word needs to be updated to fit the scientific worldview. I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way—Tom Clark, Ursula Goodenough, Stuart Kauffman, Mark Vernon, and other scientists and scholars are developing their own version of naturalistic spirituality that has nothing to do with spooks, deities, ghosts, spirits, or the supernatural. In fact, Kauffman’s recent book is called, Reinventing the Sacred. (Sorry about that gag reflex, skeptics.) Another great book in this vein is The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, by French philosopher, André Compte-Sponville.
Arthur Janov regards all religion and spiritual seeking as neurotic. He believes, as John Lennon did, that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Anything associated with religion, spirituality, meditation, or other spiritual practices is “booga-booga,” nothing more than a defense against primal pain. But in Why you Get Sick, How You Get Well” (1996), Janov gets closer to what I think is a reasonable definition of spirituality. He writes:
I am often asked whether primal therapy is spiritual. I never know what the question really means…. If spiritual means having decency, kindness, and generosity and being loving and caring, then to be spiritual is to be fully human, which means fully feeling. The more feeling the patients become, the more human they will act. (p. 248)
Here I believe Janov is close to the mark, but he doesn’t go far enough. Indeed, first and foremost, spirituality is a state of deep feeling. But I would take it beyond simple feelings of decency, kindness, generosity and caring to others and extend it to a longing to connect with others, nature, and the universe at large. Taken to the extreme, it can manifest as a mystical experience where the sense of self drops away and one feels united with what’s “out there.” The self-other duality vanishes and one becomes “One” with the universe. In their book, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, neuroscientists Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg refer to this state as “Absolute Unitary Being” and speculate about the brain changes that occur during such states.
“Whoa! What’s this?” the primal sceptic may ask. “Mystical experience? One with the universe? That sure sounds like booga-booga to me!” To this I say – not necessarily.
Rather than viewing all spirituality as a defense against primal pain, which I think is a very diminished view, let’s consider that spirituality may actually be a normal, healthy part of human nature, something that evolved in our psyche during our long prehistory. In his book, Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World, biologist Charles Fisher writes that our preverbal, hominid ancestors experienced life in “animal harmony with nature,” largely free of the cognitive noise we humans experience because of our self-centered, conceptual, thought-obsessed, dualistic minds. In Fisher’s view, “it is this duality of our evolution that sets us apart from other species and inspires our most profound intellectual and spiritual yearning.” In my view, that spiritual yearning is an attempt to reconnect with our prehistoric nature and know the world in a non-rational, intuitive, feeling way. In other words, it’s as natural as breathing, eating, and sex. I call it primal spirituality.
Primal spirituality is rooted deep within our emotional brain centers and by far predates our cognitive notions of spirituality, religion, etc. Affective neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has said that spirituality is likely an expression of our biological drive to be socially connected with other humans. In a Philoctetes Center roundtable entitled, “Mind, Brain, and Spirituality: Toward a Biology of the Soul,” Panksepp defined spirituality as “being in the world as your self and completely as your self and not someone else. As soon as you’ve achieved that, you’ve achieved a deep spirituality.” How primal.
We all have different predilections for spiritual feeling and it’s not surprising that those who have less of it might view it as delusional or childish. But even Daniel Dennett, one of the most outspoken atheists of our time, has admitted to a fondness for hymns, ceremony and ritual. He says they evoke a religious feeling that he defines as natural, as long as it doesn’t involve the supernatural. In this sense, spiritual feelings and spiritual beliefs are worlds apart and I believe (but can’t prove) that strong spiritual beliefs are a sign that our natural tendency toward spiritual feeling has been hijacked to serve as a defense against primal pain. Primal pain distorts spiritual feeling rather than evoking it, and it usually takes the form of supernatural beliefs. As long as we can believe that God or Jesus or Mohammed or whatever deity du jour is living “up there” in heaven or some other supernatural realm watching down on us, we can feel secure that we are safe and death loses its sting. Belief tries to make the unknowable into the known.
Religious zealotry, fundamentalism, and extremism are examples of spirituality gone very wrong. The more intense the primal pain, the more intense is the need to believe and to enforce those beliefs on everyone around you. In these cases, God really has become a concept by which we measure our pain.
However, I would also include radical scientific skepticism in this category. Rationalism as the sole arbiter of reality can itself become a belief system, and in its most refined state it is expressed as scientism – the belief that science and reason can and will eventually answer all questions about life, the universe and everything. Rationalists are intolerant of uncertainty and demand evidence for everything, but as the Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith wrote, “what a dusty answer gets the soul when hot for certainties in this our life!”
Both forms of extremism — religious or scientistic — often diminish with primal therapy. As one opens to one’s deepest feelings, strong ideologies and beliefs lose their importance and one becomes more tolerant to the unknown and the unknowable. The wisdom that lies deep within us is liberated and we can once again be guided by our instincts in harmony with reason. One does not take precedence over the other. Science becomes a tool, not an ideology. And rather than being antithetical to primal feeling, some spiritual practices are not only compatible with it, but are enhanced by it, and vice versa. On his website, Primal Zen, Sam Turton has a wonderful essay on how Zen medition and primal can work together to improve well-being. Ironically, the end states of primal therapy and Zen practice are remarkably similar – one becomes who one is, here and now. In the last words of a dying Zen master, “there’s just this and nothing more!”
And here again I come back to primal spirituality, which more than anything is characterized by doubt and wonder. When I look out at the old growth maple forest outside my window and watch two hawks weaving and dodging through the trees in search of prey, I can only marvel at their beauty and ask, “What is this? How did this beauty and complexity come to be? What caused it?” And answering those questions is…silence. No words, no thoughts, just silence. Silence is not a feeling, but primal feeling can allow access to that silence, just as can meditation. And from the silence comes creativity, which I believe to be a fundamental property of nature. (For more on this, I recommend Kauffman’s book noted above, and Albert Low’s, The Origin of Human Nature.)
The Primal Therapy and Spirituality by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.