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Deep Down, Deeper Down

by John Rowan

Abstract: An outline is given of the therapeutic approach labeled as Primal Integration. It is argued that this approach is quite fundamental in the sense of getting down to the roots of personal problems and distress. It is argued that unless this kind of deep work is done, no deep-seated change will take place. In this form of therapy the medical model is rejected in favor of growth rather than cure.

It seems to me that any therapy (as usual, I use the word therapy to include counseling, therapeutic counseling, counseling psychology and psychotherapy) which wants to bring about deep-seated changes has to tackle its problems at the roots.

Primal Integration is an approach, which takes seriously the possibility of dealing with personal problems in a fundamental way by going back to their origins. In this, of course, it is not unique - many different therapies say the same thing, But Primal Integration has an open-ended notion of how far back those origins might be. Some forms of therapy will only consider childhood. Others will also consider infancy. Primal Integration also takes into account the process of birth, and the foetal life, which preceded that.

There is a knowing inside each of us about what we need to do to become more whole and actualize our potential. This knowing is part of the power within us all, the spark of self that we need to acknowledge and nurture. There are various ways of getting in touch with this source of inner strength - some are spontaneous and some are guided. In Primal Integration, we learn to trust the process and eventually to trust our own inner wisdom to guide us on our journey (Blum, 1993). Those of us who have been through this process have very often experienced very special moments of revelation and transformation. This is a form of therapy which is about liberation rather than adjustment to the established norms of society (Rowan, 1988).

Primal lntegration is based on a natural phenomenon that has been recognized and used for a long time. It is a creative letting go of conscious control of the body and emotions which opens up the unconscious to awareness. This allows both insights and healing to emerge. The body wants to heal, to release the tensions and pains it is holding inside. Hence it is a form of therapy, which is particularly good for people who have done some therapy before, and recognize the importance of this process of letting go of control. People who have done no therapy before tend to be too scared of the truth-telling effects of this process. But people who have done some therapy are more likely to recognize the necessity of facing and dealing with the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be.


The theory says that most personal problems which need the attention of a therapist have their origins in early trauma, before the age of five years old, and will not be fundamentally resolved unless and until that origin is reached and dealt with. Some people still do not believe that babies can remember their own birth, but this is because they have not read the research by people like David Chamberlain (1988), a highly respected psychologist who has written very helpfully about these matters.

This is a very well established theory in psychotherapy, and is held by many people other than Primal Integration practitioners. Freud and Jung certainly held it, and so do such varied people as the body therapists and the hypnotherapists.

What tends to happen is that some very early event causes panic. This panic gives rise to a form of defense. This defense works sufficiently well at the time, and the person gets by for the moment. When the next emergency arises, panic is again dealt with by the same defense, which worked before. But this defense then becomes part of the character structure of the person, and they are stuck with it. It gets to be too good. It protects all too effectively, cutting the person off from their real experience.

Because of the emphasis of Primal Integration on early trauma, people sometimes think it is going to put all one's problems down to one trauma, happening just once in one's life. But of course traumas are seldom as dramatic as this. The commonest causes of mental distress are simply the common experiences of childhood - all the ways in which our child needs are unmet or frustrated. This is not necessarily a single trauma, in the sense of a one-off event - that is much too simplistic a view. Rather would we say with Michael Balint (1968) that the trauma may come from a situation of some duration, where the same painful lack of "fit" between needs and supplies is continued.

The goal of Primal Integration is to contact and release the real self. This is the part which was defended, and which therefore is now surrounded by all the defenses, which were erected over the years. But it has remained intact behind all the layers of defense, and can be contacted in therapy, with rich results. It is interesting to see, in book after book and paper after paper, how people do not make deep-seated changes unless they go through some kind of therapeutic work at this level. Historically, this approach is close to early Freud, the early work of Reich (who placed great importance on the body being directly involved in therapy) and Arthur Janov (1983). But all of these adopted a medical model of mental illness, which Primal Integration rejects. As Thomas Szasz (1961) pointed out long ago, neurosis is only a metaphorical sickness, not a disease in the true sense of the word. Rather does Primal Integration stand with those who are less concerned with cure than with growth. As soon as one gets down into the early roots of mental distress, deep and strong feelings come up, because the emotions of early life are less inhibited, less qualified and less differentiated than they later become. In other words, they are cruder and clearer. And so the whole question of the importance of catharsis in psychotherapy arises here. Catharsis means the expression of strong emotions. It was Reich and Perls, not Janov, who discovered the techniques for deep emotional release that are used to produce primals. As many people now know, a primal is a deep emotional experience in which one gets in touch with the pain and terror of one's earliest bad experiences. The Reichian-oriented therapist Charles Kelley (1971) used the term 'an intensive' years before Janov to describe experiences identical to primals.

It makes sense to say that catharsis has two related but separate components: one is cognitive, (the thinking function) and relatively intellectual - the recall of forgotten material, the second is emotional and physical - the discharge of feelings in deep sobbing, strong laughter or angry yelling. But in the kind of work we are interested in here, it seems better to be more specific, and to say that catharsis is the vigorous expression of feelings about experiences which had been previously unavailable to consciousness (Nichols & Zax, 1977). This lays more emphasis upon the necessity for the emergence of unconscious material.

What Swartley, Lake, Grof and others did was to bring together the idea of catharsis and the emphasis on getting down to the origins of disturbance with another very important question - the transpersonal and the whole area of spirituality. This means that Primal Integration can deal with the major part of the whole psychospiritual spectrum mapped out by Ken Wilber (1996). What Wilber is saying is that we are all on a psychospiritual journey, whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not. We are moving from the prepersonal (infancy and childhood) through the personal (adult life, language and logic) towards the transpersonal (which goes beyond conventional thinking and everyday taken for granted beliefs). I have written about this at greater length in my book "The Transpersonal" (Rowan, 1993). I believe Primal Integration is the only therapy which can handle this whole spectrum, except possibly for the holonomic approach described by Grof (1992), which is very close in a number of ways. Much of the thinking behind Object Relations theory in psychoanalysis (Gomez, 1997) is compatible with what we find in Primal Integration. This is because these theoreticians also hold the idea of a real self behind all the defenses.

In my belief, Primal Integration is a very full form of psychotherapy, because it covers all the four functions, which Jung (1891/l921) spoke of. It deals with the sensing function through bodywork and breathing. It approaches the feeling function through emotional contact and release. It handles the thinking function by means of analysis and insight. And it deals with the intuiting function through guided fantasy, artwork, dream work and so forth. In terms of the theory of Ken Wilber, it covers the prepersonal (early experience and child development), the personal (adult life in the here and now) and the transpersonal (spiritual experience and visions of the future). So it runs the whole gamut of human experience.


The practice is based on the theory of Stanislav Grof (1992), which says that our experience is organized into COEX systems. A COEX is a system of condensed experience whereby a certain pattern of physical sensations, emotional feelings, thoughtful ideas and spiritual impressions are held firmly together in the mind. This pattern comes from an experience we have had in the past. This experience, memorable and perhaps traumatic, sticks with us as a whole, not as a series of parts. When we come into a similar situation, it brings back the whole of that feeling in an exaggerated form, turning a whisper into a shout. This means that we are always meeting the same situation with the same reactions, the same defenses.

So in therapy we may start with a recent experience of distress, such as being upset and angry with an authority figure. As the client is encouraged to express feelings of anger, etc., they may find the feelings really taking over. There is usually the sense of giving oneself permission to go with it. During that process, there may be a flash or vision from the past. In this case, it could be a parent figure and perhaps a memory scene. Then, if the client feels safe, he/she may re-experience a traumatic event and release the feelings from the past. A connection is made between that scene and the present. This generally releases the energy of the current situation and the client is able to function better. The more we can release our pent-up emotions, the more we can open to love and our own power within.

Now it is obvious that a procedure like this takes time, and it is really best to go all the way with a particular COEX in one session, rather than trying to take up the tail of one session at the head of the next, which usually doesn't work. This means that the Primal Integration therapist tends to prefer long sessions, which also enable the client to take a break or breather if need be during the session. I personally conduct some one-hour sessions, but I also have some 1 1/2 hour and 2-hour sessions; some people working in this area have used up to 10-hour sessions.

The process is basically self-directed, so that each person will open up and progress at their own pace. This maintains safety and also provides support for those who are not ready or willing to go into the deeper parts of their psyche.

It is important to say, however, that all of this is Primal Integration, not Primal Trauma Integration. It is not the intention to live off traumas (bad and unforgettable experiences), and deal only with those. Whatever we do by way of therapy is part of an attempt to do justice to the whole of life, not just part of it. As Brown and Mowbray (1994) have well said, it is about "continually bringing a deeper way of living into being, and a deeper way of being into living!" (p. 20).

One important piece of research that was done in Primal Integration by Ninoska Marina (1982) found that it was particularly effective in dealing with such problems as relating to people, relating to oneself, having more energy and enjoying sex. The researcher found that people tended to discover "A sense of self different to what it had been in the pre-therapy period.'' This is a deep-seated change, and not everyone is ready for this. So, Primal Integration is a form of depth psychology, and needs to be taken in that light as something to tackle when we feel ready.

In this process, people open themselves up to deeper feelings, and thus become more vulnerable. So a high degree of trust has to be built up between client and therapist. But in reality, trust isn't a feeling, it's a decision. Nobody can ever prove, in any final or decisive way, that they are worthy of this trust, so the client just has to take the decision at some time, and it may as well be sooner as later.

If we believe, as Michael Broder (1976) suggests, that the primal process consists of five phases - Commitment, Abreaction (catharsis), Insight (involving the restructuring of thoughts and feelings), Counteraction (fresh behavior in the world), and Pro-action (making real changes) - then it must be the case that the later phases are just as important as the earlier ones. In other words, working through is just as significant as breaking through. The glamorous part, and the controversial part, of our work is the 'primal,' the cathartic breakthrough; but in reality, the process of integration is necessary and equally exciting in its quieter way. For example, it is a great thing for a man to get to the cathartic point of forgiving his mother; it is another thing for him to start treating women decently in daily life, as a result of this.

One of the things that happens in primal work is that the deeper people go in recession and regression, the more likely they are to have spiritual experiences too. Shirley Ward of the Amethyst Center in Ireland believes this is because the psychic centers open up. In other words, people get in touch with the higher conscious - what Assagioli (1975) called the superconscious. However, in this area there is one very common error we have to guard against. Grof points out that blissful womb states, which primal clients sometimes get into, are very similar to peak experiences and to the cosmic unity which mystics speak of as contact with the Divine. This has led some people - David Wasdell (1981) for example - into saying that all mystical experiences are nothing but reminiscences of the ideal or idealized womb. This is an example of reductionism - that is, of always trying to reduce what is complex to what is simpler. The whole point is that we repress not only dark or painful material in the lower unconscious, but also embarrassingly good material in the higher unconscious. John Firman and Ann Gila (1997) of the psychosynthesis school founded by Assagioli have recently written an important theoretical work on this subject.


The ideal client is someone who has been in other forms of therapy which have introduced them to the basic ideas of working on themselves and exploring things at an unconscious level. But really, Primal Integration is very effective with such basic problems as depression and anxiety. These are the most common presenting issues for therapists of all persuasions today. It is also suitable for more immediate matters such as panic disorders, grief, rage, sexual abuse, rape, incest and the like. It can deal much better than most other approaches with pre-verbal traumas, issues around birth and pre-birth experiences, abandonment, rejection and other problems that are much more serious and troubling. These are some of the hardest issues for clients to work with, express, feel and release.

Because of its concern with the whole person in the social context, it is also able to pay attention to such things as sexism and racism. Sometimes people's problems come from outside, not from inside. Any adequate therapy must be able to handle this fact. We have to be able to listen with the fourth ear of political awareness as well as with the third ear of emotional awareness (Rowan, in press).

In reality, every problem has two components: the one has to do with the real situation as it exists in the everyday world, the consensus reality in which we all live. The other has to do with our own private reactions and responses to the world, which may be based on old tapes from the past, still playing in the present. In therapy we can handle the second of these two, and deal with whatever may be unrealistic or detrimental about that. Then when we have done that, the real situation will still remain, but we shall have greater strength and ability to deal with it in the best way possible, because we shall not be fighting against ourselves.

Editor's note: You may write John Rowan to obtain a reference list at: 70 Kings Head Hill, North Chingford, London E4 7LY U.K. This article appeared in the Spring 2000 IPA Newsletter.

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