Neurosis and Normality: A Critique of Early Primal Theory

by Frederick Michael Farrar

There always was in Primal Therapy what, in retrospect, was a very obvious deficiency: a too simplistic psychology of adult normalcy. Unfortunately this simplicism led many, including myself, to entertain unrealistic expectations of the therapy. The naturalness of primal man was an ideal, thought of as requiring little guidance from others, being intrinsically smart enough to know what his needs were, and creative enough to discover how to fulfil them. It was a magnificent ideal. All that was needed was to empty one's pool of primal pain and out would pour one's pure and natural self . And so it did, to great inspirational effect. Again and again and again.

 On my own part, I intuited this ideal as something so palpable that I would never have admitted then that it was no more than an ideal. Perhaps this is because I was so young when I read The Primal Scream and had the luxury of being able to lead a very "natural" lifestyle. I was twenty and seemingly ripe for therapy. The book bowled me over and dropped me straight into my pain. I have worked with that pain ever since, for over twenty years, and have never ceased to be amazed at the effect which feeling it produces. I haven't a shred of doubt that the therapy does what it originally set out to do, and I owe a deeply felt debt of gratitude to all those people, especially Arthur Janov, who discovered and pioneered the therapy. However, no matter how "natural" I became, my intellect has remained precise and sharp.

Deficiencies in Early Primal Theory

Over the years it seemed to me that various aspects of Primal Theory didn't add up. Too many theoretical notions were seen as facts when really they were no more than notions. Technical terms often came to be used as clichés whose meanings subtly altered as they switched from context to context.

I first began to notice this as I followed Arthur Janov's readings of the scientific literature in search for corroboration of the therapy's findings. The basic theoretical explanation of what was happening in the therapy was that neurotic symptoms were caused by repressed primal pain and that that repression was being lifted when patients allowed themselves to feel their pain. As a result, their symptoms subsided to the extent and depth of their feeling. The memories of the occasions giving rise to primal pain were thought of as a "pool" of unfelt feelings which could be emptied by systematically feeling them. The energy associated with repressed painful feelings remained present as diffuse tension and it was this tension which Janov explained in terms of reverberating circuits of neurological energy.

 The reverberating circuits were explained as a result of neurological blocking of painful stimuli, carried out by a normal process of inhibition which the brain uses to protect both itself and the organism as a whole from over stimulation. This blocking defends the organism against potentially fatal levels of exhaustion which would result from responding to overwhelming stimuli. It cannot however isolate the organism from a stimulus once it has occurred and consequently the energy of the stimulus remains, pressurizing the system in a diffuse way, unable to find a proper outlet for expression. Janov, together with E. Michael Holden, argued in their book Primal Man: The New Consciousness, that the only way the reverberating circuits could be released was by connecting them to the memories of which they were originally a part, and allowing them to be responded to in the supportive environment of primal therapy, the idea being that the therapeutic environment, together with the adult constitution of the patient, could allow her to feel what as a child she was incapable of feeling. These connections would complete the primal circuits and release each particular bundle of neural energy accordingly.

What I found difficult to understand in this explanatory model was the idea that a repressed memory could act as a stimulus capable of generating a more or less constant level of tension, an idea which seems to be implicit in the very concept of repressed pain. Presumably something - pain - is there behind the repressive barriers. I could not understand why, if inhibition is a perfectly normal innocuous function of neurons, then the memory could not be simply neutralised and filed away as a bad job. Why does it retain such disruptive power?

A Different Model - Repression and Needs

It occurred to me that there was a different model which could be applied to explain the facts witnessed in primal therapy. It isn't primal pain which is repressed, it is the capacity to feel specific types of stimulus, together with the memory of the occasions which instigated that repression. This is why people can feel quite deeply in some areas but not at all in others. The problem with repression is that it makes one confused as to the identity of one's present needs and as a consequence they tend to become repressed as well, being fulfilled only coincidentally.

 This repression of current need is the source of the reverberating circuits, not repression of old primal pain. The consequences of adopting the latter explanatory model in preference to the former are of great importance. It means that what we require from therapy is not to empty one's pool of pain, or release one's reverberating circuits, but to become aware of one's present needs.


Not Release Of Pain, But Knowledge of Need

The value of proper connection to the truth is not to permit release of pain but to permit knowledge of need. This difference in thinking leads to a markedly different attitude to therapy. The sole purpose of re-experiencing forgotten memories is to re-awaken feeling of current need. Feeling one's primal pain does not in itself eliminate chronic neurotic tension. Feeling and meeting one's present needs is what achieves that.

 Our painful memories will always be there and the more attention we pay to them the more vivid and affective they will be in our lives. This will never change no matter how many times we re-experience them. We will never empty ourselves of primal pain and it saddens me to think how long some of us have been banging our heads against this brick wall.

 I think of E. Michael Holden who now seems to abide in a state of bewilderment, unable to recognise the difference between private experience and public fact, between neurosis and spiritual immaturity. How much of his predicament has come about because of this early theoretical model which encourages the belief that one can ultimately drain the primal circuits by feeling primal pain? (See E. Michael Holden, M.D. -- Spiritual and Primal Experiences)


Descartes and the New Physics

Much of the problem with the original primal paradigm stems, I suspect, from adherence to a redundant naive objectivism which believes there is a world "out there" which we experience "in here." In the fields of cognitive science and physics this is no longer the predominant view. It stems from Descartes' model of a detached non-interfering observer witnessing an independent objective world in order to arrive at a true understanding of things. The model works up to a point but it collapsed with the advent of relativity theory and quantum mechanics when it became clear that the observer must affect the observed in the act of observing it.

 The process of observation, in other words, involves and thus changes both the observer and the observed which rules out any truly objective knowledge. All of our knowledge belongs to us, not to the object observed. Our perceptual process is self-governing and controls its inputs and outputs. Pain is not externally imposed but is a self-imposed state of responsiveness to a particular range of stimuli. There are no external causes of pain in this sense because pain is a function of our own perceptual system. Stimuli are in themselves neutral.

 This function, being self-governing, always remains within parameters defined by the system. Beyond those parameters there is no pain, only comfort at the lower end of the scale, and damage at the upper end. The area explored by primal therapy is the boundary between feeling and non-feeling at the upper end of the system's parameters. The point I wish to make here is merely that our own organism determines what we may feel and what we may not. We cannot feel the unfeelable.

 When a stimulus affects our system in a way which exceeds our capacity to feel, we simply reach a plateau and stop there. If it goes on to physically damage us, our endorphins cut in and increase the brain's natural inhibitory processes until we are rested enough to continue. In the case of physical damage this process continues rhythmically until our body has either healed or died. The traditional primal contention is that the organism handles emotional pain in much the same way as it handles physical pain, but it adds that the excess of an overwhelming stimulus is stored in the system until it is resolved, or healed. To say this is to go beyond what I have so far described.

Pool of Pain versus Open Wound

The neurological information suggests that excess stimulus is simply not felt. It doesn't enter into the system at all except in the form of damage. The presence of unhealed damage is what sustains the painful healing response, not stored excess stimulus. Another way of looking at this is to say that damage is the form in which excess stimulus is stored. From this point of view we can understand repressed pain as unhealed damage, that is, as damage which we do not allow to heal. As unhealed damage this has yet to become a felt stimulus. It has never entered into the feeling system. Our circumstances have required us to wound ourselves and to keep that wound open. We do not suffer from past primal pain. We suffer from present primal pain caused by a present open wound.

 The system of physical pain inhibition is a completely natural process of self-regulation, evolved over millions of years. Similarly, the inhibition of specific emotions is part of the normal system of emotional self-control found in all social animals including mankind. But the repression of responsiveness to one's own needs found in neurosis is chronic and does not originate in any present external stimulus. It is a self-imposed phenomenon instigated by the neurotic as a result of some event or series of events having taken place within one's own organism-environment relationship. What kind of events might bring about such a radical response?

 The obvious answer is: events which persuade one that feeling and expressing one's needs brings no benefit, only frustration and pain. As a consequence the feeling system itself is felt to be the source of the problem rather than one's needs. I am describing something in words which can be understood by the organism intuitively in an instant. It perceives the direction of events within itself and takes appropriate action instinctively. It utilises all of its powers of self-control to mould itself into what its environment demands in the hope that its environment will, as a result, provide it with what it needs. Such events may impress themselves upon the organism either by way of their intensity or their persistence. But the end result is the same in each case: a stabilization of repressive behaviour.


Neural "Grooving" and Reverberating Circuits

Primal theory states that this stabilization comes about as a result of stored primal pain. But at the same time it introduces the notion of "neural grooving' as part of the explanation of reverberating circuits. This idea is put forward in order to explain the persistence of primal memories and is consistent with current research. However, it seems entirely plausible that stabilization of repressive behaviour through repeated environmental conditioning could equally be explained in terms of neural grooving. Implicit in this proposition is the idea that repression of responsiveness does not result from the presence of a pool of primal pain but from the force of habit.

 It is true that primal pain overwhelms us at various points in our lives so that we can no longer bear to feel it anymore. It is also true that the feeling of pain is something we are trying to avoid when we express our symptoms. But it is also possible that all of this is something we continue to do out of habit. This is what "neural grooving" means. We are apt to do something because we have grown into the habit of doing it. And in the end that's what has to be changed.

 The purpose of therapy is not to empty out our pool of pain, or even to connect one's symptoms to specific painful memories. It is to replace the habit of repressing responsiveness with the habit of being responsive so that growth based on that responsiveness may take place. Seen from this point of view it becomes very clear that effective therapy cannot dwell exclusively on feeling primal memories as this diminishes general responsiveness by focussing on too narrow a range of experience.


Altering Values Closes Open Primal Wounds

Re-establishing ourselves as responsive, feeling people is not a mechanical process which can be achieved by releasing blocked up energies here and there. To think like this is to underestimate the therapeutic process itself. It is the involvement of a person in the expectations and values of the therapeutic community which alters that persons own expectations and values so that she begins to allow herself to feel again and begin to close the open primal wounds.

It's not that traditional primal therapy has not done this. But it hasn't theoretically understood the true significance of the therapeutic process, holding instead to an essentially mechanical explanatory model. This is encapsulated very well in Michael Holden's question, "What if our pains are simply so overwhelming as to be unfeelable?" The point is that whatever is unfeelable is not pain. There is no pain outside one's own system. Pain is a particular and useful state of our own system. The question therefore betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of the organism-environment relationship, and in Holden's case has led to dire consequences.

 Overwhelming pain is, by definition, unfeelable, and always will be. It is not an unfelt intensity of pain which we need to feel in order to get well. It is ourselves, our present needs, our present world. When we re-experience the moments of primal pain, when we first cut ourselves off from feeling, we allow ourselves to feel again. But that has happened not because we have felt the unfeelable. It has happened because we have dared to feel again at the moment of disengagement. We have allowed ourselves to see why we cut ourselves off at that moment, and to see the natural wisdom of that decision.

 We are mortal, limited and frail. We cannot feel the unfeelable, nor should we try. To make the attempt would only bring about more damage. Our problem is to overcome our reluctance to continue feeling. Only we are stopping ourselves from doing that. Our primal pain of thirty or forty years ago persuaded us to stop feeling. We must now persuade ourselves to start again. This is a question of courage and renewed faith in our future lives which we may discover by accepting the values of our therapeutic friends and remembering how we turned our backs on those values when we had no such friends but faced our pain alone.

Recapturing the Experience of the Early Split - Then Letting Go

The final transformation is our acceptance of the openness, clarity and sensitivity of the feeling state, not our tolerance of the intolerable. The reconnection which is necessary is not a mechanical reconnection to an imaginary overwhelming stimulus, but the reconnection of our feeling system here and now. The key is to recapture the experience of the split without imagining one must be able to go beyond the point of splitting. That splitting is the defining moment of one's neurosis, the moment we made the fateful decision. We can reverse the decision when our therapeutic friends convince us not that we become Superprimalman, but that the world no longer requires that we keep the split open. This involves our becoming aware of our own internalised repressive values, which became predominant in the act of splitting, then letting go of them. The letting go of repression is the breakthrough, not the release of pent-up primal pain.

 I now believe that human beings are susceptible to primal pain throughout their lives. I believe that life for human beings is not natural. Quite the opposite: we are extraordinary, unique beings whose characteristic feature is that we predominate as a species by constantly transcending what we have already become. This is the dialectical process which Arthur Janov often refers to. As a consequence of this transcendent, or dialectical nature, every stage of our lives is a potential triumph or catastrophe, with primal pain as an ever-present possibility.

 This is one reason why resonances with past primal pain occur so frequently. It is not always the case that we experience the pain of the past as the present. It is also possible that we experience the pain of the present as the past. Often we cling to past pain because it is the devil that we know rather than the uncertain and unknown future which could genuinely prove to hold fatal possibilities. Indeed, sooner or later, the future most certainly will present us with our own fatality and none of us know how or when. Living with this knowledge is a uniquely human problem, known and understood by every traditional culture on our planet, and yet whose importance is not fully appreciated in Primal Theory.

 A question which troubles me is, if Primal Theory does not acknowledge the intrinsically problematic and frightening nature of human knowledge, does it not isolate primal people from those spiritual forces of humanity which are capable of acknowledging and effectively dealing with it?

Primal Experience Is Real, But Theory Can Lead To Unrealistic Expectations

As a "primal person", what I want to say to the rest of society is, "Look! Stop and listen! This primal experience is real. Repression of primal pain is real, and lifting that repression can lead to a quality of life which is wonderful to behold."

 As an independent member of society what I want to say to the primal community is, "Look! Stop and listen! Primal theory is a force acting upon people, for better or for worse. Primal theory adds something to the experience of primal pain which is not implicit in that pain. This addition of a theoretical expectation conditions the experiences which we have. If we expect release to result from from feeling primal pain then we will act accordingly. We will interpret therapy in terms of our expectation.

 It either liberates us from primal pain and vindicates our faith in the process, or, it doesn't and makes us feel disappointment and despair in the face of apparently intransigent pain. If we are unable to learn from the latter experience we may hunker down for a long war of attrition and dedicate ourselves to overcoming that intransigence. We may then come to overestimate our pain, believing its significance to be of monumental, mythic proportions. And yet the whole of this proliferation of "primal" experience would have been brought about, not by primal pain, but by an inadequate theoretical understanding leading to unrealistic expectations.

Our pain does not reside in a pool of accumulated memories waiting restlessly to be emptied. Rather, it manifests as an open wound waiting to be closed. Demoralisation and fear of feeling are major obstacles to closing that wound, but it is a mistake to imagine that these factors end with childhood. Human life is uniquely problematic and remains so from the day we are born to the day we die.

 Our perception of our world is imaginatively constructed and as a consequence our emotions are responsive to the products of our imagination. Our imaginations fill up the unknown with limitless possibilities, some good, some bad, some terrifying. Being grounded in our ability to feel ourselves in contact with our environment helps allay our fears, but unless we are prepared to embrace dogmatism this does not remove the problem altogether. Each of us has finite knowledge, but the unknown is limitless, waiting to be filled. Allowing ourselves to remain sensitive and responsive to this uncertainty without craving its opposite, is difficult.

 And in this latter endeavour primal people are not alone. Being responsive is hard work and requires courage and commitment. It's much easier to be lazy. But of course we are now entering the mainstream. We are considering the problems of ethical behaviour, of morality, of philosophical understanding, of self-discipline and training. And surely this is precisely what should happen: primal praxis should interlock with mainstream life. It should lead people into the broad spiritual contemplations which have animated responsive people for millennia.

As soon as we allow ourselves to think like this instead of clinging to an exclusive Primal evangelicalism, then the immense richness of human endeavour opens up to us and we realise we are among friends. This helps. It helps a very great deal because it reinforces our decision to feel again and supports the care extended towards us by our primal friends.

 Human being always has been and always will be an unfinished task. Because of this it is good to have wise friends who can help us avoid the pitfalls which others have made. Human being has produced great wisdom but it is down to us to recognise and accept it. The original primal hypothesis tends to close us off to this possibility by making us think that the true fulfilment of our life lies in being able to empty ourselves of our unfelt pains rather than simply to begin feeling again.


Being Human There Is No Magic Fix

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of all for primal people is their discovery of what the Buddha called dukkha - which, roughly speaking, means universal pain, unsatisfactoriness or suffering. You don't have to be a Buddhist to discover this. It is a universal fact. I remember Leslie Pam's account of this discovery in an early Journal of Primal Therapy. He recounted how, despite months and years of therapy he still kept waking up in the mornings not wanting to face life. I think that was when people at the Institute were first starting to realise that your pain is here to stay, and life is going to be hard work.

 There is no magic fix. Arthur Janov once said that life is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be lived. He was wrong. The living experience of human life is a problem! Jim Morrison of the Doors summed it up when he said, "No-one gets out of here alive!" Nothing lasts. Everything we try to achieve falls to pieces before our eyes. Despite our love our loved ones succumb to pain, disease and death. This is dukkha. How do we live in the pristine awareness of all that impermanence and failure and still remain unbowed? That is the problem mankind has faced and consciously grappled with for thousands of years. And every single human being has had to deal with it somehow or other, some by turning towards it, some by turning away. We primal people, in choosing to turn towards it, have made ourselves open to the call of all those before us who have made the same choice. I thank my primal friends for this.

Beyond Neural Anatomy

Just as the conceptual mind is a higher organisation of the emotional mind, and the emotional mind a higher organisation of the instinctual mind, the instinctual a higher organisation of tissues, and tissues of cells, so too are cells higher organisations of molecules, molecules of atoms, atoms of particles, and so on as we penetrate deeper and deeper into the background energies from which we have emerged. These levels of being manifest below the level even of first-line consciousness. They are not human or animal at all.

 I have come to believe that we can and must face the reality of these levels of being which we organise into our own sense of humanness. From time to time we may get a glimpse of these aspects of our existence, and if we do it is helpful to know that they are real, not figments of our imagination. Within our experience of ordinary reality lies the extraordinary sheer fact of experience which we usually do not notice. Even the most mundane experience is super mundane in its simple being there.

On occasion we notice this and when we do our world is completely transformed. Our comfy little hidey holes no longer provide any comfort or hiding. No longer can we find peace in laziness or inertia. We are pervaded by a more than ordinary sense of aliveness. We are pervaded by an aliveness which fills the whole universe. Our own being is no different from the being of everything else.


The Universal Oneness

If we thought we were special we discover we are not. If we felt we had a special form of existence we now discover we do not. We realise we have dissolved into the ground of all existence. We are inseparable from everything which is.

 This is a profound and real experience. It isn't neurotic or psychotic. It isn't a projection of some other meaning, some underlying repression. It is the transcendence of one's own humanness, made possible by our evolutionary nature. We are an organisation of something greater and more extensive than ourselves. Our existence is nothing other than an evolution of that organisation and so fundamentally our being is not a property which we possess. Rather, we are a property possessed by universal being. We are inseparable from it and nothing other than it.

 I suspect Michael Holden discovered this in the throes of primal pain but was not prepared for what he discovered, the result being a compensatory chauvinistic grandiosity in the form of Christian fundamentalism. In fact, the experience does not belong to Christianity alone but is available to us all. It is however a dangerous experience because it cannot be dealt with in any normal egocentric way. Without forewarning we are likely to reject the experience and then discover to our horror that the experience is not rejectable. To reject it would be to reject the very essence of our own being. There would be no difference between the rejector and the rejected.

 And thus as long as we clung to our human naturalness we would be unable to accept this experience. Our only option would then be to repress our sensitivity and responsiveness all over again. This possibility is entirely overlooked in traditional primal theory which conceives of neurosis as a problem of early development but neglects to consider the consequences of disturbances in later development.

 We could learn a great deal from Jungian psychology in this regard. Instead, our denial of even such a possibility is instrumental in ensuring that such transpersonal experience does not arise. However, if such experience is immanent in the human condition, as so many of our species before us have believed, then that denial begins to function as a form of repression which demands to be overcome. In order to achieve this we must go beyond the primal community altogether, for the primal paradigm concerns itself with the natural processes of the human organism, not the transpersonal domains of what is traditionally called the spirit, to which our human minds have access.


Please feel free to respond in writing to:

F. M. Farrar
7 Montacute Rd
London SE6 4XL
United Kingdom

The author's e-mail address is

Fred: I don't agree that you can alleviate the effects of neurosis by becoming aware of your present day needs. I see it strictly as a problem with past repressions. I admit, however, that the past repressions keep us from satisfying present needs.

I agree that habits must be changed and values must be altered, but it is the feeling of the early trauma which "cures." Overwhelming pain is not unfeelable. Sometimes your body protects you by allowing you to feel your pain in little dribbles of it at a time; Sometimes only minutes or seconds at a time. You seem to imply that primal is a form of insight therapy. I do not believe that we repress present time hurts since we are not as vulnerable as infants and young children.

My conclusions are based on my own self-therapy. I more or less am in agreement with the conclusions of Arthur Janov because my pain, origins, and effects tend to agree with the model he has developed. Thanks again for the submission of your two articles. - John - Editor, Primal Psychotherapy Page-

* * *

John, Nice to hear from you. Thank you for the comments. I certainly appreciate your position, particularly as that's exactly how I felt about Janov's view for many years. Also I continue to think it is a very sound workable view. But its in my nature to be exact and my view has changed principally as a result of having to defend Janov's view on many occasions in the company of sceptical friends. I have one friend in particular (my mate Brian) who had a formal psychological training, and it is he who more than any other, insists on meticulous intellectual clarity in such matters. He exposed quite a few loopholes in my early thinking on the matter and forced me to sharpen up.

It's not that the experience of primalling that is being challenged. Rather, it's the sense we make of it. We have to be so careful here as we are affecting other peoples' lives by what we say. I'd like to briefly address your points and hope you won't feel I'm being argumentative. You say initially that one cannot alleviate the effects of neurosis by becoming aware of present day needs. Actually, on this matter my main thrust is to restate the goal of therapy.

My point essentially is that memories are not stored as "reverberating circuits" but as fixed information patterns which amplify current energy. Because those patterns are part of the structure of our bodies they can never be eliminated. They're there for good and will always retain the power to amplify current life energies in ways which hurt. The actual energy which reverberates around our bodies is current energy, the energy of present needs which is being deflected by old memory patterns. I think this is an important point because it gets away from the idea that the energy can be released merely by feeling old memories. It can't, although I absolutely agree with you that feeling those old memories is a necessary part of the process of undoing their harmful effects.

As long as you think that the energy can be released in this way then you are likely to feel that every time the energy builds up you must need to primal. This, of course, is not necessarily so because the energy is actually current energy, not old energy. Ultimately, the only thing which releases such energy is not awareness of current need, but fulfilment of current need.

To put it more simply - being satisfied makes us happy; feeling old pain doesn't in itself satisfy present need - it merely empowers us to satisfy present need. The final liberation from old pain is the creative satisfaction of present need which prevents current energy from being damned up by old memories. I think the differences between what you've said and what I've said are quite subtle but very important. I share with Einar Jensenn and others a concern that the old primal model encourages a mechanistic frame of mind which inadvertently obscures the essentially creative nature of human being. Actually I've just finished writing a new piece elaborating all of this. I'll send it to you when I've typed it up. Best wishes, Fred

Fred M. Farrar opened his website Psychotheory in August of 1997

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