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
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
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
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