One of the best and most direct ways of getting back to this point is
through the process of regression. In regression we take the client back
the earlier days of life . The person who has done most to establish the
importance of regression is Arthur Janov, and his book The primal scream
(1973) is one of the most moving documents in the whole literature of
But the best explanation of what regression is all about is to be found in
Stan Grof (1975). He says that you don't just find an emotion hanging
around loose, as it were. It is attached to a situation, and forms a
definite pattern, which he calls a COEX (short for constellation of
condensed experience). Now the important thing about a COEX is that it is
one of a long line, a chain of similar experiences. Events from different
life periods are linked together by the common feeling which runs through
them - an identifiable felt sense. And the links lead back to the oldest
experience, usually traumatic, of the sequence. The oldest event that
forges the prototypical pattern forms the nucleus of the COEX - the core of
the whole neurotic system.
When encouraging a client to regress, it is not necessary to give them LSD,
or to hypnotise them, or to make them breathe in a particular way, or
anything else of that nature. All that is necessary is to give the client
permission to regress as far back as necessary.
For example, a client might talk about a small incident at work, being
criticised by a superior. The feeling associated with this could be
expressed in the w ords - 'It's not fair.' The client is then invited to
get in touch with this feeling. to experience the weight of it, the size
of it, the colour of it, the texture of it, the sound of it, the taste of it.
Then comes the request - 'See if you can allow yourself to go back to
another time when you had that same feeling.' The client might then go back
to a time in adolescence, and be asked to get in touch with the feeling
again, expressing it as appropriate in order to get a better felt sense of
it. Then the suggestion again, to go back further, and so on. In this way
we are, as it were, climbing back down the ladder, using the COEX units as
And we may get back to the primal trauma, with the results that
Janov has so graphically described. In an interesting book relating
psychotherapy to physiology, Janov (1977) distinguishes between third-line
primals (verbally oriented, dating from the period of about four years old
and upwards); second-line primals (largely referring to events taking place
in the preverbal and highly emotional early years before that); and
first-line primals, concerned with physical survival at the earliest times.
This is a very important idea, which ties in with research on the brain
(MacLean1973). It is also important in making it crystal clear that much
of our experience is pre-verbal, and that language is not primary or
fundamental to experience.
We do not always get back to a single 'grand-slam' event, however, and it
would be wrong to expect this, in line with our earlier warnings against
being oriented towards results and success. All we are trying to do is to
encourage the client more and more to open up the inner world. That is
therapeutic in itself, because it enables the client to re-own more and
more of that rich emotional world which had been cut off and denied. Or as
Mahrer (1989) says, to get in touch with his or her deeper potentials.
Grinder and Bandler (1981) have an ingenious trick which can be used with
clients who balk at a particular scene, and will not describe it, because
they know it is going to be too painful. You get them to begin the
experience and then step outside of it so that thev see themselves going
through it. They hear what was going on at the time, but they watch
themselves go through the event as if they were watching a movie. Or you
can even go further: If you want to be really safe, have them watch themselves watching
themselves go through the experience, as if they were in the projection box
at a movie theatre, watching themselves watch the movie. If you have them
go through an event this way, when they remember it later on, they won't
remember the terror.
This is particularly suitable when events like rape or war wounding are
involved, or anv incident which resulted in the client losing
consciousness. You don't want the client to lose consciousness while
regressing, because that interferes both with the therapeutic process and
with the therapist-client relationship. This is why the approach of Grove
& Panzer (1989) already mentioned is so valuable and important.
People in the Gestalt tradition are often very suspicious of the idea of
regression, because they want to pay much more attention to the here and
now. Similarly with people in the existential tradition: although one of
the best discussions of the value of regression is to be found in Laing
(1982, Chapter 12). But all therapists of all persuasions find that their
clients spontaneously regress from time to time, and it is well to know how
to handle regression even if it is not regarded as something to aim at.
The Gestaltist Frank-M Staemmler (1997) has an excellent discussion of this
whole question, making a number of very careful distinctions. Similarly
Petruska Clarkson (1995) has a good account of the relationship which is
set up in the consulting room when the client regresses: she calls this the
reparative or developmentally-needed relationship.
Clarkson, Petruska (1995) The Therapeutic Relationship London: Whurr
Grinder, J. and Bandler, R. (1981) Trance-formations, I\4oab: Real People Press.
Grof, S. (1975) Realms of the human unconscious, New York: The Viking
Grove, David J & Panzer, B I (1989) Resolving traumatic memories: Metaphors
and symbols in psychotherapy New York: Irvington
Janov, A . (1973) The primal scream, London: Abacus .
Janov, A. and Holden, M. (1977) Primal man, London: Abacus
Laing, R D (1982) The voice of experience Harmondsworth: Penguin
MacLean, Paul D (1973) A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behaviour
Toronto: University of Toronto Press
Mahrer, Alvin R (1989) Experiencing Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press
Staemmler, Frank-M (1997) Towards a theory of regressive processes in
gestalt therapy The Gestalt Journal 20/1 49-120
JOHN ROWAN is the author of a number of books, including The
Reality Game: A guide to humanistic counselling and therapy (Routledge
1983, 2nd edition in press), The Horned God: Feminism and men as wounding
and healing (Routledge 1987), Ordinary Ecstasy: Humanistic psychology in
action (2nd edition Routledge 1988), Subpersonalities (Routledge 1990),
Breakthroughs and integration in psychotherapy (Whurr 1992), The
Transpersonal in psychotherapy and counselling (Routledge 1993), Discover
your subpersonalities (Routledge 1993) and Healing the Male Psyche: Therapy
as Initiation (Routledge 1997). He has co-edited Human Inquiry: A
sourcebook of new paradigm research (Wiley 1981) with Peter Reason, and
Innovative Therapy in Britain (Open University Press 1988) with Windy
He practises Primal Integration, which is a
holistic approach to therapy, and teaches, supervises and leads groups at
the Minster Centre. His particular workshop interests are creativity,
body languages (with Sue Mickleburgh), sexuality and sex roles (with Sue
Mickleburgh), subpersonalities and the transpersonal.