The Primal Psychotherapy Page
Paul Vereshack M.D.
I first learned of Dr. Vereshack's book, Help Me, I'm Tired of Feeling Bad, from a reader in Finland who wrote to tell me about an interesting website which featured a book by a Canadian primal therapist.
I immediately downloaded the book and during the next few days read the book a number of times. There were many intriguing parts which hinted that its author might have more to say about a subject, so I telephoned Dr. Vereshack and asked if he would be interested in an interview. He agreed to the interview and this article is the result of a subsequent telephone conversation.
Dr. Vereshack has a solo practice in Toronto, and unlike other primal therapists does not use the three week intensive which many therapists claim is invaluable for lowering patient's defenses. That's a question I should have asked him about, but perhaps there will be a next time. For now, here with the author's responses, are the questions I posed.
- John A. Speyrer, Editor, The Primal Psychotherapy Page
P P P: How does your type of deep feeling therapy differ from the more traditional psychotherapies?
P V: First, staying deeply inside a feeling alters the way the mind retrieves and processes information. It activates deeper experiencing of issues in time, present and past.
Second, every therapist I have met has had some kind of bias. They suffered from too much knowing. I think it is terribly important for therapists "not to know." The ego wants to know as a defense (See Chapter 19, #6B). A very good therapist said to me "It's quite alright for you Paul, to put out a book of your knowledge. But why do the rest of us have to shut up?
The answer to that is that everything I have been doing and writing has really been an instruction on how to open a door. And in that sense, the book, Help Me -- I'm Tired of Feeling Bad, that I've written is not full of knowledge. It's not full of knowledge about how people should behave, what they should do, where they should go, what they should believe in. It's a book that is singularly devoid of knowledge, except how to go deeper and deeper inside ones self. Life prescriptions are limited to precautions, or the last few sentences in Chapter 26.
It is the "knowing" which I find to be so upsetting in the average therapist. The only dependable thing a therapy can do, is to teach someone how to take the next step inward. I can't emphasize enough the Zen quality of this therapy. It is Zen based because it doesn't "know." Zen says "hold no belief." Open yourself to what is. The book is a set of instructions about how to open the doors of the mind. There is a crucial difference between that and the kind of knowledge that most people bring into the practise of psychology. So this is the therapy of ignorance. I don't know who you are. I don't know what you should do. I only know that if you want to know, you can take the following set of steps and your consciousness will increase. So in that sense I excuse myself for being a teacher. You know the old saying, "Those who can, do, those who can't do, teach, and those who can't teach, teach teachers!" I'm not teaching anybody. I want to squeak through this doorway by saying that I'm not teaching anybody anything. I'm only showing people doorways, and how to arrange their opening.
(As an aside, I want to say that I don't like to use the words "primal therapy." I would prefer to say feeling oriented therapy or deep regressive therapy, because I don't want to clash with Arthur Janov in however he defines what is primal. So I restrict my use of the word primal to regressive or feeling oriented therapy.)
P P P: One recurring theme of your book, which I particularly like, is that you mince no words in telling your readers that being your own therapist can be hazardous to your health. You have warned your readers repeatedly about the dangers of self-regression. This is something that other authors have backpedaled on or not mentioned at all.
For example, you write that "there is a real possibility that some people who try to use this book might end up needing the services of a psychiatrist or a local psychiatric institution." You further write that you believe that ". . . the deeper you go, the more necessary it will be for you to have continuous therapy supervision." (Chapter 15)
Two questions: Have you heard stories of ill-fated attempts at self therapy or is your position based on the continuation of self-therapy of some of your former patients who continued on their own?
P V: My answer is no to these two questions. My goal is to bring clients to a point where they can do their own work.
I think my fear around this business of self-therapy dates from the early 1970's when I ran encounter groups for our York University here in Toronto. No matter how carefully in our brochure we suggested that people who were disturbed or upset in some way should not come to these encounter groups which lasted as long as seven days, people would show up who were, I don't like the words, 'psychologically unsophisticated,' but who really did not understand how much pain there was underneath the veneer that they had been wearing all their lives. They would sometimes get into serious upsets with no ongoing integrative method of handling that pain.
So, I became sensitized to people jumping into the deep end. I guess my feeling is that there are a lot of people who don't realize how deep and powerful the mind is, and how thin or how brittle the defensive outer shell might be. It isn't that brittle in everybody, but it is in many people so these cautions that I keep giving in the book, are very necessary.
However, I have a great respect for the fact that there are many people scattered around the world who can't get effective emotional help, who are in a great deal of pain and who have a relatively integrated, relatively strong ego function. For these people to lie down and begin to use the methods in the book, slowly and carefully and gently, rather than be in a life with no answers and no solutions, this may be better than a life of ignorance and pain. Frankly, I would rather see them give it a kind of small go. Maybe working with a local family doctor, maybe working with a local therapist of some skill, two or more people could work through the book together.
Even though you were kind enough to point out in your critique of the book, that I by no means call it a self-help book, the fact is, in my heart, I'd rather see someone try the book -- someone who is far away and beleaguered in spirit, and thousands of miles from help. I'd rather see them have some tool, rather than have no tool at all. So the horrible truth is that there is a very definite self-help quality in this work, when no other option exists!
My own awakening occurred after my training in psychiatry in the early 1970's. I was desperately upset inside myself and looking in every direction for help and I could not find it. I just knew that there was something wrong. I didn't know what it was. It would be years before I discovered the principles of feeling-oriented therapy. And, at that time, I literally stumbled upon a book, called Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, and in that book were twenty-four experiments that were to be done by yourself.
In my desperation I lay down every lunch hour - I had cleared out two hours out of my schedule - lay down on the chesterfield in my office and began to work my way through the exercises. For me that was the beginning of an awakening which would only get completed ten to fifteen years later when I actually went into a classical primal practice, run by a psychiatrist in Toronto who had spent a year with Janov.
So, to tell you the truth, John, I expect this book to be very very significant - I sound a bit meglomanic, trying to offer a way of raising the consciousness of our species over many years, as people begin to use it. I want to see the book out there. I want people to give it a careful try if they have no one to help them. I have very strong feelings about wanting this to be a major turning point for the human race, in that, just as Freud put dreams in our heads a hundred years ago, I think this book can put feeling skills in our heads now, today, and for the next century, Let people try the book, and with professional help if possible.
If they wish to, they can call me. If they really need to, they can fly to Toronto, if they can afford it, and have a training session, and then go home and use what they have learned. There are lots of ways we can do it.
P P P: In Chapter 10 you write that your book "is dedicated to the proposition that non-psychotic distress is caused by childhood pain." Do you believe that the origin of psychosis is not based on early trauma?
P V: You have to remember that I have a degree in medicine itself and went through a general psychiatric training where brain chemistry was considered to be important. I think its absolutely for sure that psychosis has its origins in disordered brain chemistry, probably added to by an upbringing that may have been quite tortured psychologically. But I think that unless you have a disordered chemistry you can be psychologically hurt, but you don't get a psychosis. What you get is a severely depressed or disturbed person, but he doesn't start hearing voices or seeing things.
So for me, psychosis is rooted in genetics and/or a brain chemistry disorder. However, once that disorder has been treated with an anti-psychotic medication, it is still possible to do psychotherapy with many people, who suffer in this kind of way. It is relatively rare that someone with a psychosis has come to me. When that has happened I have found that anti-psychotic medications bring a person to a point where they quite legitimately, as a human being, might wish to study themselves.
P P P: Do you believe that human beings have free will or are we merely automatons being pulled as puppets by the strings of our early pain and perhaps not as responsible for our behavior as the churches and judicial systems would have us believe?
P V: This is a fantastic question, John, and it strikes right to the core of an issue which has preoccupied me greatly in the last year or two. It also relates to the third section of this book which I hope to write over the next few years. It is just such a staggeringly huge question, but I think I can give you a feeling of my beliefs.
I hate to say this because it stirs up tremendous anger in people, but I do not believe in free will. I see the human being as an unfolding flower, only we are unfolding along psychological lines. The central nervous system conducts very rapid brain scans below the level of consciousness. I really feel that the brain scans millions of bytes of information under any given circumstances and comes to a conclusion. There is, I think, a huge psycho-biological trick of nature which gives us the feeling that we are making a choice. In fact, in my opinion, what we are really doing under all circumstances is responding to this rapid scan of our entire memory inventory and our current situation. The brain then gives us a read out which we feel to be a choice, as we put it into action.
We do not feel the very subtle lack of choice here, because in fact, it is not a choice. It is a response to a huge amount of conscious and most probably mostly unconscious information. I like the model of the unfolding mind. The more we work on it, the more we are conscious of the things that have and will go into our so-called choices and the more we enjoy the wonder of a broader and broader view of mental mechanisms than the view we had.
Lack of choice can be proved as follows: If you take any given moment of so-called choice, and go into therapy to examine why you did what you did in that moment, you can spend days, months, years and literally decades unraveling the roots of a single moment of behavior. Now clearly, during that moment of behavior you were not aware of even a small portion of all you might uncover in therapy and yet, moment, by moment we do behave, we do respond. So by definition if we do not know the roots of our response in any given moment, it follows that the brain scans on our behalf and produces its decisions for us, thus we never have conscious choices, we only deal with what is unfolding for us at whatever level of development we have in that moment. And I think we have to get comfortable with the idea of "letting go" around this business of control. Like the Samurai swordsman, who "lets go" and becomes a superb fighter.
Anyone who really perfects any kind of doing or skill, knows that at some point they have to let go, get out of their own way, and enjoy the fact that their mind will function. It will always function for them. And so if I was going to suggest any ultimate directive of development for humankind it would be let go and get out of your own way. Please note: This is not a license for undisciplined behavior.
P P P: When you read in my critique of your book that I had called you "the first poet/philosopher of the primal process," you remarked that my perception of you as a poet was valid since you had written a book of love poems.
P V: Yes, I will eventually have a complete book of love poetry on the same website which contains my book. It is presently being prepared.
This is a very unusual and lovely book of poetry and it is even interestingly interactive. It should be on the net in October or November of this year.
P P P: Approximately what percentage of your patients access birth trauma? Do you have any comments you wish to make about birth material in deep regressive therapy?
P V: I think if you do good solid regressive work, you stand a fairly good chance of bumping into some kind of experience that was shaped by birth. It does not come up very often in my practice. This may be due to a lack of my pushing in that particular direction. It may be because I open doors, but I don't suggest to people what is coming or where they're going or what they're going to experience. or I may not be skillful enough to operate well at that level.
In fact, I did not really believe in birth trauma much until ten or fifteen years ago when I found myself twice going through experiences which I reluctantly had to admit, must have been birth experiences.
But I do have one very strong feeling about this. The notion of going away for a week end and accessing a depth inside of yourself at the level of birth, I find repugnant. I find it flies in the face of my sense of what a long and disciplined journey is required to achieve this depth.
We're talking about the end point of years of hard work here in an integrated deep feeling oriented therapy. I guess I have to tell you that I'm coming on the net as an opponent of instant birth therapy. We usually work week after week, month after month and year after year until finally we begin to get some intimations of that kind of depth. Although, it can come faster. I'm not saying it can't. For me, the idea of taking a group away and arranging this experience in a few hours is completely unacceptable for more reasons than I can go into right now.
However, I will say that I was in a crisis once and needed to go to a friend who was a good therapist and she did a birthy kind of thing with me -- a very unusual thing which shifted my feelings about my own state. She kneeled down above my head (I was on my back), and put her arms bent together and forced the soft part of her forearms slowly down over my head down to my neck.
Feelings and pain that I had had in my face on and off in my life during this period of stress came rushing forward and when she was through they left and never returned! I can only conclude that this had to do with my face being crushed in the birth canal. I had been delivered by Caesarean section after a thirty-six hour labour. But, when I went to this lady, I had already had years and years of regressive therapy. It wasn't like I was brand new to it on a single week-end.
I think that there may be some people with some skills in this area I don't have. But I still feel it should be a part of an ongoing integrative kind of therapy work and not some kind of "rah, rah, rah - I just experienced my birth and now I'm OK," type of thing. I really have a repugnance for that and I do not believe that it is theoretically sound.
P P P: I have been very frustrated at my inability to convince one single family member or friend of the reality and benefits of re-experiencing early traumas. Not one person has entered the therapy as a result of my enthusiasm for the subject! Apart from your practice, have you had better luck than I have had in convincing others of its efficacy?
P V: No, I don't think so. And I think you are putting your finger on another interesting thing. There is a saying that, "Readiness is All." And I have to tell you, the way I look at it is that some people are unfolding into an interest into deeper levels of awareness. Those people who have that particular unfolding going on in their central nervous system begin to hunt, to look and to search and are avid for greater breath and depth in their journey toward greater consciousness. I think it actually may be a genetically guided unfolding, that thing we may call interest in expanding our consciousness.
If you don't have it we can't talk you into it and that may be a very good thing!! The defences of the mind, for the most part, remain firmly closed unless the unconscious gets the message that you have a deep interest.
P P P: In Chapter 8 you write: "The more years in the depths of the mind, the more I realize that things do keep shading off into the unknown into some final place from which all the processes of the universe emerge." Would you elaborate on that intriguing sentence.
P V: This question comes close to what I would call the particular search that I'm involved in within my own spirit at this period in my life, because I am not that interested in primal therapy itself at this time except insofar as it needs to be taught, as a consciousness enhancing device for humanities evolution.
I don't have an understanding of physics. I was never bright enough mathematically to pursue it, but I believe scientists are actually discovering energy and matter interchanging, and the coming into view of new particles, etc. For me, the real area of interest at this time is the fact that we are constantly supported by and emerging from within some kind of ground of the universe that we can call the void. Fritz Perls, a famous psychologist 30 years ago called it the fertile void. I think that we are coming from some groundbed of expansion which is actually connected to the occurrence of the original big bang of the universe. Most know that the universe is exploding outward. I think it is exploding outward not just in terms of the macro cosmic explosion. That explosion is also happening inside of us as our personal unfolding.
I think we are emerging from the void at every moment. I believe that if you fold thought back deeply enough into itself you will encounter chemistry. Thoughts are supported by biochemistry. The brain surgeon, Wilder Penfield, said "no brain, no mind." If you follow thought and feeling deeply enough you come to brain chemistry and if you follow brain chemistry deeply enough you come to subatomic particles and if you follow subatomic particles deeply enough you come closer to the ground of the creative force of the universe.
I think that we are both physically and mentally an upward extension of that galactic birth and I think that in a funny kind of way we are emerging from void all the time so that the way I see it, once we get a grip on the psycho- biological level, and the emotion mechanics of being a human being. The next stop is awe and other levels of meaning.
As I approach my old age (I'm 60 now) I think about those things. I've found that what I am trying to do, as I do my meditative work, is to open myself to this brain nebulous ground of creation with a sense of not knowing what I will encounter or whether I will encounter anything other than the fuzzy barrier in which we live our lives.