July 20, 1997
I thought I'd oblige you by giving you some idea of my experience of Primal Therapy. (Editor's Note: Fred M. Farrar is the author of Neurosis and Normality - A Critique of Early Primal Theory)
Let me begin by recounting a dream I used to have as a child. It was a recurring nightmare in fact. I had been having it since as long as I can remember and it more or less stopped when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, although by that time it was very infrequent. I am giving you this background so that you can appreciate the inner authenticity of this dream. It was not a result of suggestion of any kind as it began before I could really talk properly.
The last time I remember having it I had a period of "normal" dreaming which led into the material I had been having all my life. I was in a cave and was walking to the back of it. The cave narrowed as I walked into it so I got down on my hands and knees and began crawling. Soon there wasn't room to crawl so I got down on my belly and began to wriggle forwards. I didn't have any idea or understanding in the dream as to why I kept on going. But I did. At this point my body sensations became very familiar and I knew I had entered into my old dream sequence. I no longer was aware of being in a cave. I was simply experiencing physical sensations. I began to feel rhythmic squeezing of my body which grew more and more intense. My temples felt as though they were trapped in a vise, and in my mind's eye I could see the type of spiralling shapes and flower patterns you see when you press your eyeballs.
The pressure kept building up until I suddenly felt a wave of shock and panic descend upon me. But still the pressure kept building, though now less rhythmically. Eventually I couldn't take it anymore and the dream released me. Whenever I had this dream as a small child I would wake up screaming. But I was never able to explain it to my parents what it was. It was just bad feelings. This "dream", together with an extremely unpleasant LSD experience sealed my future interest in the psyche.
I only took LSD once and will never take it again. My experience was abominable. I became extremely paranoid and overwhelmed, both whilst under its effect, and afterwards. People used to kid themselves that flashbacks were caused by residual chemical traces of the drug left in the brain. I knew this was complete bullshit. Acid had changed my entire perception of the world in a way which was unnatural. And it had changed it permanently. It is true that the hallucinations subsided, but they were always there in my memory from then on, and some things were too close to the bone to dare remember. As a result I found great chunks of my experience pregnant with traumatic associations, and this lasted for months and years, even down to the present. Whereas prior to taking it I was very open, if a little over-sensitive, during the experience and afterwards I became open to the point of feeling revulsion and nausea, a little like when you're coming down with flu, only much much worse. Colours which I had once enjoyed so much were now terribly intense. I became like the central character in Edgar Allen Poe's novel The Fall of the House of Usher, needing to be surrounded by blandness in order to feel comfortable. I felt I had lost my appreciation of everything I loved, especially the beautiful Northumbrian countryside where my family lived. So, from then on I began searching for what I had lost.
I read Buddhist stuff as well as Western psychology, and became extremely interested when I read in Jung's Memories, Dreams, and Reflections that it was possible to suffer birth traumas. This made immediate sense of my old dreams.
I began studying Gestalt psychology and worked a lot on the self-help exercises described by Fritz Perls in his books. These opened me up in a very natural way, which, though hard work and sometimes distressing, felt right, whereas using hallucinogens felt wrong. I still continued to smoke cannabis, it being the choice drug of my social milieu, but it always made me feel tense even though it had a pleasant side. Eventually a combination of things came together. Splitting up with my girlfriend, together with the Gestalt work, were wearing me down in a way I hadn't realised. Then I read Janov's The Primal Scream and with that everything real fell into place while everything unreal fell apart.
It hit me like a bolt out of the blue. On the very day I began reading it I became so excited and exhilarated I could barely contain myself. For months since leaving home I had felt that I was still "behaving myself" and couldn't understand why. Now I knew for certain. All the anger and resistance I had been feeling for months while doing the Gestalt work suddenly made sense. I felt triumphant. "You bastard," I felt, "I'm free." "I am finished with you!." I wasn't. that my anger was new. We'd always been a vociferous family. But the sense of finishing it off once and for all and opening up to a world of new possibilities was incredible. I felt I'd recaptured my universe. My senses felt as if a dense filter had been removed and that I was feeling like a child again. I could smell the flowers out in the garden. I just couldn't believe what was happening to me.
On reflection, this is all very extraordinary because on the face of it this breakthrough in sensitivity and feeling resulted from reading Janov's book rather than from experiencing intense primals. Janov's message seemed to break down my final resistance to feeling, and so I began feeling again. It occurs to me as I write that this supports the idea that the becoming open, the letting go of repression, has to occur prior to experiencing primal pain. Perhaps merely being willing to experience pain is what allows feeling to re-commence, whilst actually feeling pains as they arise are the price one pays for that openness?
Certainly in my case it was the Gestalt work and reading the book which opened me up and encouraged me to drop my defences. In the past I have always bought the argument that dropping the defences and feeling pain were simultaneous events. Now I realise that my own experience contradicts that theory. For me, what came first was not an immediate primal but an intensely meaningful opening up.
After that it was only a matter of time before being in that open state led to primal feelings. At first I was afraid to let them out because didn't have a supportive environment. My friends weren't into any of this stuff. They preferred the beer and the dope. It was a very lonely and frustrating time for me because I felt I'd discovered earthly paradise and no one else knew a thing about it or could even begin to comprehend what I was going through.
My openness intensified to alarming proportions. I felt as though an intense light had been switched on in my head, and was there all the time, even when I was asleep. When I awoke in the mornings after a very brief sleep, I would be immediately wide awake. I was really burning life up. It was an intensity of wakefulness I hadn't experienced since being a small child.
Eventually I found a place to live in the countryside where it was possible to experiment with my feelings. I began tentatively to proceed on my own as I knew I would never be able to afford to go to LA to do therapy with Janov. I took a very cautious approach, only doing what felt truly right. I even avoided calling what I was doing primalling because I didn't want to feel I was faking something out of a book.
My first feelings were angry ones. I had no problem there! I had been angry for years and didn't need to cook anything up to feel that. It's not that I hated my parents. I was just very angry at them. They always saw me through their own working class preconceptions, and as result never really saw or heard the real me. They sort of looked after me but not quite. Good things happened as well as bad things but the main problem was that everything was all over the place.
Responses didn't come at the right time or with appropriate intensity. I never knew whether I was coming or going. They saw a caricature of me and dealt with that rather than listening to the real thing. This built up a great well of frustration and anger which I had had to keep inside because of my father's strictness. This in turn caused me to resent and despise my mother who I felt hid behind my father rather than standing on her own two feet. I despised her because I was unafraid of her and so felt humiliated at having to accede to her wishes out of fear of my father.
All of these feelings began to come out into the open as I systematically worked through it all. My feelings ranged from adolescent anger to that of a small baby. My bellowing would often develop into a baby feeling. One feeling would pave the way for another and gradually recede into the past until I'd be lying amongst my blankets in my parents bedroom where, when I was little, I used to have to sleep. Now I would feel enraged as I protested at being there with no one to play with or talk to me. My Mum had been in the habit of putting me to bed in the afternoons whether I hated it or not. I hated it, but it was the done thing.
Sometimes my anger would turn into fear, fear of my own self and the power it contained. In these feelings I'd gasp and panic and not be able to get them out. It felt like being sick. They demanded so much energy I'd be completely drained afterwards. But I would be feeling. And it felt great to be in the world and feeling. I felt party to an amazing secret that no one really knew except for Janov and his patients.
Then one day, after a year of all this angriness, I remembered a scene when my Dad left me in a cricket pavillion while he went for a drink. He took so long to get back that everyone else had gone home and I was there alone for maybe a half hour or more. He must have forgotten about me for a while. I began playing outside but trod in some dog shit which made my shoe stink. When my Dad got back he was a bit drunk - not very - but a bit. As I remembered this scene now, my heart broke. I cried and cried and cried. I loved my Dad and I still do. I will love him forever.
But I feel like a little puppy - too daft to know any better. It always comes back, happy and wagging its tail, even after its been kicked. I felt that my love had been wasted, thrown away. It was good love - rare and precious - yet he took it for granted. It was nothing special. He was caught up in his hard working class life and was hurting so much himself he didn't have the time or space to allow such a love to flourish. I felt many many feelings of deep sadness after this and have been able to cry very deeply ever since.
In fact, since that time I've more or less integrated feeling primal pain into my everyday life. I don't go looking for it. In my early days with all of this I used to feel I must get into my baby memories. I used to bash away at it quite a lot and often got into a lot of physical frustration, feeling stuck, coughing and spluttering, feeling too tired to go on. A lot of it was just writhing around and feeling whacked out. But to tell the truth, I never really felt deeply drawn into this range of feelings. Maybe I was just too scared to get into it without a therapist. Or maybe it's because of all those "nightmares" I used to have, which I now suspect were spontaneous night-time primals.
Maybe my system worked it out naturally long before anyone even thought of primal therapy. I don't know really, and I don't have any particular axe to grind about it. More to the point, I began to feel I was just going through the motions and the novelty wore off. I ws working too hard at it and when it comes right down to it, just for the sake of it. I felt open enough. Nowadays I couldn't give a shit whether there are first-line feelings down there or none at all. My feelings are here and now, all the time. Most of the time I'm happy with myself. My problems are mostly out in the world and I get into primal pain as little as possible. I used to like the idea that you should treat the Primal Institute like the dentists. You go there to have your painout, but you wouldn't want to live there!
When I was in my late thirties something new appeared. I'd been primalling for years, then I started becoming a real hypochondriac. I began having severe palpitations with extreme racing of the heart. I allowed myself to get into my feelings and kept coming upon helplessness and panic. But overall primalling just seemed to make things worse. My primals left me feeling so vulnerable I became even more stressed on top of the stress I was already feeling running my small gardening business. Primalling was not working. It was all getting too tricky. I felt I had a problem in my adult self now which needed to be dealt with in its own way. The fact is that I had gone past my peak of physical fitness and could no longer do the work I used to. I was in a relationship which was not fulfilling my romantic ideals. I had a young daughter who would need care and commitment for many years to come.
It all added up to something I had not realised would ever be a problem to me. I felt hopeless and terribly depressed. In all the years of primalling I never truly felt hopeless. I always felt that feeling my pain would get me through. Now I knew that nothing was going to get me through. It was the first time in my life I could no longer hope that I would meet someone new who I would "fall in love with" and "live happily ever after." Suddenly, I was in the world where duty and obligation are more important than your own personal happiness. My situation demanded that I sacrifice my own ideal of happiness for other people. I had begun to feel what so many people approaching middle age begin to feel, namely, the hoplessness of one's personal ambitions.
How can one live without hope? After nearly twenty years primal therapy had given me what was rightfully mine - my self, my ego. But my self is no ideal worth living for. It is doomed to a certain death and and years of painful decline before that event. To let go of my ego as its own ideal - how can this be done? Well, above all, by realising that it is necessary. This encounter with hopelessness was for me a new beginning. My very openness to feeling made me feel the hopelessness of self-centredness. And so after years in therapy, I turned to Buddhism once again.
I felt sure that my palpitations stemmed from a deep seated fear of death, and that this had a lot to do with how I really thought about death. All of the hypochondria stemmed from that morbid fear of death. I was not convinced that this fear was a projection of first- or second-line childhood pain. I felt that the chickens had come home to roost. I had put this off for years and now I was having to face it. Could I face it? At that moment my answer was a simple "No." I could not. The very thought of death was frightening me to death, and I knew I was stuck in a double bind.
I realised there must be an intrinsic problem with the "thought" of death. So I began Buddhist training and looked into the nature of thought itself.
Now I think differently about it all. And the difference in thinking makes a difference in feeling. Now I know things I never knew before. I know that the self I always thought I was does not really exist, and never did. It was, and is, a creation of my thoughts and feelings. It was useful and necessary to create such a self, but the real self is the one doing the creating, not the thing created. It's shocking for a primal person to realise that we do "not" feel ourselves. The selves which we feel we are, are products of our feeling, not the selves doing the feeling. And this is always the case no matter how open and healthy our feeling system happens to be. What we feel we are is actually an image of what we really are.
In fact we aren't selves at all. There is just Being. The whole universe seems to be just one unbroken flow in countless patterns of Being, which spontaneously creates self-images. An image is not a living thing. It cannot die. Being, which produces these images, is endless and everywhere. It too cannot die. If we train ourselves to see this, not just intellectually, but deep within our hearts, our thoughts and feelings subtly change and we no longer torment ourselves with groundless fears.
I still feel passionately about primal therapy. It saved my life. But we still have to grow up. And in the end its like a play. We can just enter into it with good humour and a light heart, enjoying it while we can. Life is wonderful, but we belong to it, not it to us.
Fred M. Farrar opened his websitePrimal Psychotheory in August of 1997