by Bruce Wilson
One of my favorite movie scenes occurs in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. On a voyage to rescue hostages, the crew of the starship Enterprise encounters Spock’s half-brother, Sybok, who has the power to heal a person’s innermost pain through telepathy. Embracing emotion rather than logic, Sybok is obsessed with finding God who, he claims, lives in a mythical land called Sha Ra Kee at the center of the galaxy, beyond the Great Barrier. No probe that has gone beyond the barrier has ever returned. In an effort to hijack the Enterprise to carry him to the center of the galaxy, Sybok gains the cooperation of Spock and McCoy by healing their pain—or at least making them believe he had. But Kirk will have nothing to do with it.
To me, Sybok represents every religious guru and huckster who promises relief from suffering for eternal bliss and happiness. It’s the Maharishi, it’s Meher Baba (“don’t worry, be happy”), it’s Osho, the “sex guru” with his 93 Rolls Royces; it’s Jim Jones, it’s Adi Da, who lived on Fiji, surrounded by followers who treated him like a god; it’s a thousand other spiritual leaders who promise nirvana if only…if only… you “give up” your pain and follow them.
And Kirk? He’s the realist who asks, “What does God need with a starship?” He’s the hard-headed skeptic who tells McCoy that “pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand.” He’s the guy grounded in reality who knows that our pain is an essential part of us: “They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves.” He shouts at Sybok, “I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”
I too need my pain, just as I need love, hope and reality. And having the access to feel one’s pain deeply and fully, is what paridoxically opens the door to the latter. No need for cosmic debris. As John Lennon sang in his tenderest song, “love is real, real is love; love is feeling, feeling love.”
If you follow Art Janov’s blog, you may have read his scathing essay on mindfulness therapy. While I agree with his basic argument—that mindfulness therapy is too often a form of mindLESSness therapy—I’d like to provide a broader perspective. In short, mindfulness is not all that bad if you use it to be mindful of feelings, rather than detach from them.
Mindfulness meditation is the current zeitgeist in psychotherapy. Not surprisingly, it fits hand-in-hand with the other dominant therapeutic modality: cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, there is now a hybrid of the two called MBCT – mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Both techniques are based on the same mechanism—detachment from feelings and thoughts. The “how” of mindfulness meditation can be summed up simply: sit still for 30 or 40 minutes, keep your eyes slightly open, follow your breath, and pay attention to whatever is going on in your mind and body but don’t do anything about it. Just sit there. When you catch your thoughts drifting, get back to the breath. There are variations on this theme, such as walking meditation and meditation while doing yoga or manual work. In a word, meditation is about paying attention. Be here now! Nothing more, nothing less.
by Bruce Wilson
I’ve often told Arthur Janov that primal therapy needs good evidence from well-designed outcome studies before the psychological community will accept it as a valid therapy. I tell him this is the only way his colleagues will come to believe that the therapy works. His response is usually something like, “they won’t believe it even if you prove it to them. With scientists, the distance from the left brain to the right cannot be crossed.”
In a way, he’s correct. To those of us who have allowed ourselves to let go and drop deeply into feelings without inhibition or control, the concept of “feeling” takes on a whole new meaning. From that point forward, the common notion of feeling held by most psychologists is revealed as a pale facsimile of the real thing. Rather, it is only the tip of the iceberg, the bare beginning of what’s needed to connect with our deepest selves and reclaim our birthright as fully feeling human beings. And as Janov repeatedly reminds us, this process must be done slowly and carefully, with a constant focus on insight and connection, otherwise we can get easily get lost in empty catharsis with few insights or bizarre ideation. Janov calls this “abreaction.”
To psychologists who haven’t gone deeply into their own feelings, this is terra incognita. Most consider deep feeling as dangerous – something to avoid lest it “retraumatize” the client. Even the most well-meaning of therapists who say their approach is “all about feelings” miss the point. The loss of control needed to descend to the level at which the trauma occurred cannot be avoided. Without it, you remain at a distance, apart from the trauma. You must go into the center of the pain to resolve it, and when done properly, the pain dissolves into feeling and the insights flow. Left brain and right brain connect to create a wholly functional, feeling being.
But in today’s trauma therapy, the client is usually led part-way into the pain whereupon the therapist intervenes with advice on how to “appraise” the feeling. The cognitive brain stays firmly in control while the feeling is observed from afar, as though on a stage. A variation of this is EMDR – eye movement desensitization therapy – where the client witnesses the trauma from afar, as though in hypnosis, and then talks about it. She remains detached from her pain because to go deeper into it risks retraumatization.
And herein lies the difficulty in encouraging the scientific community to consider primal therapy seriously: unless you’ve been there and dropped to that level yourself, the concept of primal feeling is foreign and usually confused with loud screaming, crying, venting, flailing or flopping about, or some other display of extreme emotion, but with no understanding of what is happening on the inside. More often than not, deep feeling is avoided because most if not all psychologists have some degree of past trauma they are defending against. They may have touched on it in talk therapy, cried about it even, but very few have let themselves go to the depths because after all, it is painful, and most talk therapy situations don’t allow full expression of feelings, lest it disturb their professional neighbours. Also, later trauma often connects to earlier trauma underneath, a phenomenon Janov refers to as the chain of pain. There is a general fear of losing control, despite the fact that primal therapy has mapped this territory well over its forty plus years of development.
This is why the science of primal therapy must be done by researchers who have gone through the primal process, preferably all the way through therapist training. Otherwise, there will always be the question, “just what are primal feelings?” And as Louis Armstrong said when someone asked him what jazz was, “if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
by Peter Prontzos
This post contains a portion of the talk that I gave last month at the 16th International Conference of the Association of Psychology and Psychiatry for Adults and Children in Athens. While I began with a short discussion of primal theory, I also wanted to stress how social and economic factors create the basis for much of the pain in our lives.
Research has now clearly established that economic, and social variables – more than individual or family behavior – are the most salient factors overall in determining a child’s well-being.
by Bruce Wilson
The Dalai Lama is often held up as an example of what human beings can be: kind, loving, compassionate, even in the face of adversity. One of the reasons he is so healthy is because he had a loving mother.
by Bruce Wilson
On a previous post, I was asked why I neglect “past lives” in my discussions of primal therapy. The short answer is that I am not convinced that past lives or past life memories are real. If someone were to produce convincing evidence for this, I might change my tune, but the evidence would have to be extremely powerful and incontrovertible.
In scientific terms, the claim for past lives is extraordinary, and as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I’m not saying I am certain that past lives don’t exist, only that the current evidence doesn’t support the idea. In fact, psychiatrists highly dedicated to the scientific method have produced suggestive evidence to support past life phenomena, but its relevance to psychotherapy is questionable. I explain why below. Read the rest of this entry »
by Bruce Wilson
A comment I hear frequently is that primal therapy can never be proven by science. As Phil states in his comment to my last post:
“…the actual practice of primal therapy can never really be scientific, in my opinion. How could it be when it is based on feelings? Adding blood pressure measurements and brain wave readings might help a little, but not much. What is critical is what the therapist says and does, and has the patient say or do. That can’t be scientific, I am afraid. It is based on feelings and intuitions on what will work or not work, based on experience and the degree to which a therapist has done his or her own feeling work.” Read the rest of this entry »
by Bruce Wilson
Today, Peter flies off to Athens, Greece, where on May 18 he will present a talk on primal therapy to an international audience of psychiatrists and psychologists. The title of his talk is:
Primal Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapies, and the Early Life Determinants of Mental Health
The conference is the:
16th International Conference of the Association of Psychology and Psychiatry for Adults and Children
At this point, it’s unclear whether Peter’s presentation will be recorded, but we look forward to hearing all about it on his return.
Good luck, Peter!
by Bruce Wilson
While doing some research on science versus pseudoscience, I ran across this great video: Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine talking about the ideal baloney detection kit – science. Ask yourself as you view this, are these principles being applied to primal therapy?
by Bruce Wilson
This morning, I received a tweet about a new book written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychologist and psychiatrist who studies empathy. His book is Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty.
Baron-Cohen says that our view of cruel people as “evil” is misguided and rooted in obsolete, theological notions of morality. In an interview with the Guardian, he explains that people who are cruel have a low capacity for empathy because of genetic makeup and early childhood experiences. Cruel people tend to have had an insecure attachment in infancy, now recognized as a critical factor in the human development of empathy. Read the rest of this entry »