The Reality Game

(Chapter 6)

by John Rowan

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 to 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 therapy.

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 rungs.

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 Press.
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 Dryden.

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.

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