A Los Angeles Therapeutic Peer Group:
Guidelines and Reflections

By Bruce Siegel

As a former patient at Arthur Janov's Primal Institute (during the early and mid '70s), I'd like to discuss an experiment, a special kind of support group, that has become an important part of my life. Though the type of group I'm about to describe has proven its value to me over a period of years now, I call it an experiment because, like any great adventure, its shape and purpose continue to evolve.

In part, my motivation is to contact others in the Los Angeles area who might be interested in joining with us as openings in our small group become available. (If interest warrants it, an additional group could be formed.) I also believe that members of the larger primal community may be interested in what I have to say. Perhaps I should mention at the outset that this type of peer group is a lay undertaking. No money passes hands.

The group format we use is based on the work of Paul Ferrini. He calls his model an "affinity group," and has created a set of simple yet powerful guidelines for those who wish to participate in such a group. http://www.paulferrini.com/html/b_-_home.html

In fairness to Mr. Ferrini, I'd like to emphasize that what I'm about to describe is my own vision of affinity groups, not the author's. For a clearer picture of how he himself understands and uses affinity groups, please consult Paul's website and books.

Paul's writings became known to me during the 1990's. In books such as The Silence of the Heart, he accomplishes what I believe to be a vital task. He helps to bridge the psychological and the spiritual.

About a dozen years ago I began to question the atheistic worldview espoused by Dr. Janov, and by the Primal Institute (now run by Janov's former wife, Vivian). For many years, their viewpoint had been precisely what I needed, because it encouraged, and in effect left me little choice but, to delve deeply into my personal history and pain. After nearly twenty years of primal therapy, however, I was more than ready for what I would now describe as a larger perspective.

Ferrini's writings helped to make spirituality credible to me. Unlike many New Age authors who tell us to embrace the light while avoiding or discounting our shadow selves, Paul asks us to stop running from our fear, sadness, and anger. "To begin to feel our pain," he says, "is the first great act of self-liberation."

At times, I think of my weekly group as an emotional gymnasium, a venue in which I can give free play to the complete spectrum of feelings. And I use the word "play" deliberately. For in this safe environment, it's both liberating and exhilarating to freely express whatever comes up in the moment. As one who has often grappled with emotional crises alone, it's especially gratifying to have a weekly opportunity to explore my inner life in the company of others. Self-revelation among a group of like-minded individuals can be a delicious experience! Sometimes agonizing, sometimes pleasurable, always deeply satisfying.

Often, the feelings that need to be dealt with are triggered by what other group members do or say. At moments like this, our understanding and our guidelines are tested. By making "I" rather than "you" statements, we take responsibility for our own feelings without threatening those who have "done us the favor" of exposing the material we need to work on, the feelings we need to feel.

The affinity guidelines have helped me to bring my primal understanding into the realm of real-world relationships. Veteran primallers like myself know that healing is not just about emptying what Dr. Janov has referred to as "the primal pool of pain." It's also about finding ways to live that are less painful. (And more joyful!) The practice I get during groups in relating to others more honestly and responsibly pays off handsomely outside of group as well.

To be frank, in my current affinity group (I've participated in several over the years) tension does sometimes arise between members who have a religious bent, and those who are more psychologically oriented. Because of my primal background, my own effect on the group has been to swing it toward the therapeutic. Others continue to tug in the opposite direction, and this is probably a good thing. Without a variety of viewpoints, and without feelings to be triggered, our meetings might not be as interesting or productive.

In trying to describe this kind of group to readers of The Primal Psychotherapy Page, I'm reminded of Belden Johnson's wonderful article, A Primal Religion (which also describes a feeling-oriented support group, though not an affinity group.) As Belden points out, Janov sees "religion as an illusion for which only neurotics have a need." Yet I sometimes think of my group as a spiritual gathering, and my participation in it as a heartfelt weekly ritual.

Quaker meetings also come to mind with their emphasis on a direct connection to the divine within, their avoidance of doctrine and clergy, their profound respect for silence, and most importantly, the opportunity extended to each and every group member to share deeply from the heart. (Presumably, the word "Quaker" refers to trembling experienced in the process of inner confrontation--a phenomenon we primallers know well.)

You may be wondering: Is the affinity group a place to primal, to give free rein to intense old feelings as they emerge? Maybe. At our meetings I have explored my fear, have sobbed deeply, and I have expressed intense rage. On the other hand, I can often surrender more fully to my feelings when I'm back home in my "primal box" (a small, free-standing, soundproofed enclosure.)

But I see the affinity group as a malleable format, and there's no reason, perhaps, why it couldn't be adapted to support a more complete emotional catharsis. The ends to which the guidelines are put should depend on the needs and proclivities of the individual members.

Facilitation in these groups tends to be light, often virtually non-existent. Its purpose is to enforce the guidelines, and occasionally (in my group, at least) to gently encourage a participant to hang in there with a difficult feeling. The facilitator's role gets passed around from week to week so that no single individual has undue influence over the group dynamic.

I'm not putting forth affinity groups as an improvement upon, or replacement for, primal therapy. When compared to the customary primal arrangement involving patient, therapist, and soundproofed room, affinity groups offer advantages as well as disadvantages. Clearly, it's a question of who you are, and what you need at the moment. At this point in my own development (it's been a long road because of a difficult childhood), it feels great to be less dependent on therapists and therapeutic expertise. (I have no complaint about saving a small fortune, either!) Instead, I'm learning to enjoy the rewards of mutual support and community. I feel grateful to Paul Ferrini and his affinity group concept for helping to make that possible.

Bruce Siegel is a pianist, composer, and teacher. He lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at E-Mail Address. Learn more about Paul Ferrini's work at PaulFerrini.com.

Bruce Siegel's piano interpretations may be listened to at: www.mp3.com/BruceSiegel

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