Four Therapy Experiences during the 1999 International Primal Association Convention
by John A. Speyrer
The day before I left for the 27th annual International Primal Association Convention in New Jersey I was filled with anxiety. I was restless all day, paced endlessly, and felt overloaded as I packed my suitcase. Anticipated travel has always been the perfect metaphor for my birth. I had feared that something would interfere with my trip to New Jersey.
I should have expected the anxiety since I had had a dream two nights previously of driving an automobile which I could not control. I would keep hitting objects in the road. Nothing in the car seemed to work, especially the steering wheel and brakes. It was a dream with which I was familiar and usually portended deep birth primals to which I would soon connect.
I was taking an early flight, so I asked a friend to telephone me the morning of departure to make sure I had awakened in time. And that was just backup assurance since I had set not one but two alarm clocks as additional insurance! I feared that something would happen to interfere with my upcoming journey as something had happened during an earlier, most important journey -- my journey to be born.
"When reliving the first clinical stage of delivery in a fully developed form, the individual faces a situation that can best be described as no exit or hell. He or she feels stuck, encaged and trapped in a claustrophobic nightmarish world, and completely loses connection with linear time.
The situation feels absolutely unbearable, endless and hopeless. It seems, therefore, quite logical that these individuals frequently identify experientially with prisoners in dungeons or concentration camps, victims of the Inquisition, inmates in insane asylums, or with sinners in hell and archetypal figures representing eternal damnation."
--Stanislav Grof, M.D. in Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution
My first workshop experience at the IPA convention was an all-day
holotropic breathwork workshop led by David Pearson and Ted Riskin,
Grof certified HB facilitators who practice in Morristown, NJ, and
New York City. About sixteen attended the workshop which was conducted
on the stage of the performing arts auditorium at Appel Farm near
Elmer, New Jersey.
Pearson and Riskin mentioned that it was easier to work in holotropic
breathwork with primal people - that we were able to go directly to
the work at hand. Dr. Stanislav Grof had mentioned in a workshop I
attended five years ago, that primal clients do well in holotropic
breathwork since repressed material is easily triggered in them. His
chief criticism about primal therapy was that its theoretical framework
did not allow for the transpersonal experiences which sometimes occurred
during primal psychotherapy.
Dr. Arthur Janov has always claimed that evoked transpersonal material
in a regression therapy is prima facie evidence that the patient
has become overloaded with unconnected pain. He believes that when
more material is accessed than can be integrated, the spill-over reveals
its presence as symbolized ideation. Perhaps, that is so, but the
important question which, as far as I know, he has not answered is:
Is it possible to resolve a trauma by experiencing the trauma as symbolized
ideation? After having read what he has written about holotropic breathwork
I believe that Janov would answer with a emphatic "No."
After introductory background lectures, instructions and with answers
to our many questions, we divided ourselves into pairs -- one of the
pair to be a sitter or helper while the other did the breathwork.
In the afternoon, our positions would reverse. I had hoped that I
would breathe in the first session since I felt tense and had shoulder
and back pain that morning and wanted to put those symptoms to good
use, but my partner asked to go first, so I had to wait until the
afternoon for my session, at which time my symptoms had left.
Since I had been bothered by the loudness of the music during the
morning, I was given earplugs to use during my afternoon session.
As we returned from lunch, I wished I had eaten less because even
a normal sized meal usually interferes with my primal feelings. So,
conditions were not ideal and besides, I was beginning to tire.
The lights were lowered and the music began. I lay on my back and
as instructed began deeper and faster breathing. Access to repressed
memories was slow, but after about five minutes, the deep breathing
coupled with the loud music had begun to induce in me the internal
rotation trauma of my birth. I asked my sitter to place his elbow
in a fixed position with pressure over my right rib cage. I then turned
my body so as to reexperience the fetal birth rotation.
Then, the progress of my birth stopped. I felt stuck. I began begging
my mother to help me. I felt that she was not hearing me, so I became
angry and pleaded louder and louder for help from her. I was screaming
so loudly that I feared others would think I had truly "flipped out."
I finally reached a point where I could not yell any louder but still
felt that she was not hearing me.
David, one of the facilitators, came by and asked how I was doing
and if I had any physical symptoms. I mentioned that my chest ached,
and he began pressuring it on my request. The physical struggle to
get born was beginning to be felt. But, his hand pressure was not
enough to really connect to the feeling. I needed still more chest
pressure, so he lay on top of me, his chest on mine, and used the
full weight of his body to maximize the pressure. My wanting to get
out -- to get born, then felt more intense and imperative.
Even though the pressure had increased to an alarming degree, the
need to make progress in my birth journey was getting stronger and
the pressure was still not enough. That has always been my problem
in primal therapy. Naturally, the therapist does not want to take
a chance of hurting me, but unless I have maximum pressure it never
feels as though it is enough and for that reason the connection sometimes
seems incomplete. How much pressure would feel sufficient ? Answer:
when the point is reached right before my bones would break! The need
to recreate the original trauma is inexorable.
Each time I felt the hopelessness, frustration and deep anguish
in my plight and had despaired in trying to get out of the situation,
I wanted, instead, to die. Over and over David reminded me to continue
breathing as he continued to apply pressure to my chest. I feared
I was being pushed beyond my endurance. Again and again the pressure
of the birth canal was duplicated as I continued to struggle to get
out of my mother's grip and what I felt was a final "death" grip.
I was exhorted to "Keep Breathing." "Just a Few Minutes More," David
encouragingly urged. I was getting more fatigued. I felt further effort
Between my exhausting attempts of being born which had met with
failure, I gazed around the stage. The other tormented group members
(I saw the breathers that way!) were on their backs with their helpers
seated next to them. I envisioned a scene out of Dante's Inferno.
The breathers to me seemed to be lost souls in hell-fire being tortured
by devils, personified as the sitters. It was the kind of symbolic
imagery a good Catholic lad, such as myself, would conjure up!
The images of hell were the perfect analogy for where I found myself
-- in a hopeless no man's land between the nine months bliss of the
womb and the outside world. I could neither proceed with being born
nor return to the womb-comfort I had earlier known. The torment seemed
endless. I felt that the only solution for the relief of my suffering
was complete annihilation. I had tried to continue the birth process,
but nothing I could do would end the indescribable emotional and physical
suffering of being stuck in the birth canal. Death would have been
Over and over, I was reminded to continue the breathing. And again
and again, I was being returned to my suffering, fatigue and hopelessness
of my efforts to be born. I wanted to just give up and leave the breathwork
session. Why had I come so far (from Louisiana to New Jersey) to suffer
As a fetus, I felt I was at the end of my life and could not endure
more of the suffering; that I simply had to get out of the torture
chamber of my mother's pelvic bones (and David's death grip!). Somehow
with his encouragement, I somehow mustered the necessary energy to
push my way out of the birth canal and David's powerful embrace.
As I lay on my back struggling to get out of his body pressure,
my footing was not good. I kept slipping, so he relaxed his hold and
I crawled over next to the stage wall to get more traction and pushed
with my feet against the wall over and over again, until I finally
had the feeling of release.
At last, the torment was over. But, it was not a feeling of elation
or of success, as I was worn out both physically and emotionally.
I feel certain that this is how I felt after my actual birth.
Each breather, upon the completion of his experience was encouraged
to draw a mandala -- a drawing within a circle which suggested our individual
holotropic breathwork experience. The only scene which would have fitted
the agony I had been through immediately came to mind. It was the vision
of Hell I had seen and the futility of living I had felt during my birth.
is probable that David reminded me to continue holotropic breathing
only once or twice, but I was in a place of remembered torture so
I considered his reminders as proddings to return to the torment.
Looking back on the experience, I am very happy for his help and
encouragement. Undoubtedly, I could not have achieved the completion
of the feeling I was in without his encouragement to continue and
his applying much pressure to my chest and back. I then asked a
woman participant to hold me.
Without David's support and reassurance, I would have given-up
as, I believe, I had originally abandoned hope in the birth canal.
When effort during birth had became useless I had become hopeless
for relief and sought death as the way to end the torment. Naturally,
I was eventually born. The feelings at Appel Farm, that day, encompassed
both my early failure and final success of birthing.]
The vision I had had was not as clear as other transpersonal images
I had with Stan Grof in a previous holotropic breathwork session in
New Orleans, but it was clear enough! On each corner of the drawing
I wrote the words "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter." - which perfectly
fitted my frame of mind while enduring the physical and emotional
torment of the birth-canal death-grip.
My crayon drawing showed high cliffs from which tormented souls
were being pushed by Satan's minions into pits of the fires of eternal
damnation. After drawing our mandalas in another room, we group members
gathered on the stage in a circle to explain our drawings and our
breathwork experience to one another.
My first day at the International Primal Association convention
A Past Lives Session
On Friday I attended a past lives group therapy session conducted by Dr. Daniel W. Miller, a clinical psychologist. After answering my many questions, he used a guided imagery exercise to help our small group begin the experience. In the exercise I soon encountered a bearded old man who seemingly wanted me to follow him but who would not move to continue his journey! The picture image had stuck! I told Dan that I believed the old man was myself and that my nickname when I was a toddler had been "Old Man" because of the many wrinkles I had when I was born. The "past-life" experience I was having was at an impasse.
The impasse was not resolved and I don't remember what happened next, but somehow I got into a birth experience from this place as Dan began pressuring my chest on my request. Soon, I had a feeling of release as I scooted across the smooth dance studio floor a distance of, perhaps, twenty-five feet. I felt particularly energized and kept pushing myself backwards on my back until I was exhausted and could go no further. I was breathing deeply. I rested awhile and then crawled back to my mattress which lay on the floor. The session was over and I was surprised that the hour and one-half workshop had ended so quickly. Time seemed to have been compressed. I had to hurry since I did not want to be late for my massage session.
I arrived at the therapeutic massage quarters of Marie Regis, a French-born, New York based licensed massage therapist from whom I would have my first-ever massage. I explained to her my ambivalent feelings about receiving touch; how I wanted it and did not want it depending on whether I was close or distant from my birth feelings. In my mind, being touched equated to receiving love, but it also, at times, triggered pain - the pain of being born.
Marie was young and attractive and to my mind this would be a plus since to the infant me there was no one more desirable than my mother. Since I had just completed a deep birth feeling, I was in a new-born space, and being touched was something I needed and wanted.
I removed my shirt. I told Marie I wanted to be touched on my chest. I lay down and as soon as she touched my chest, I began primalling, "Touch Me, Mom," I pleaded, "Please Like Me, Mom" ; "You Gotta Like Me, Mom" ; "I'll Die if You Don't Like Me, Mom" as I cried deeply while begging for my mother's love, care and touch. I had felt these feelings before, but coming immediately after the birth feeling and being touched by Marie, the primal was unusually deep and I decided to deepen it even more by removing my undershirt and trousers. Marie continued the touching and used oil to rub my stomach and chest.
During the session she asked how I felt about the feelings I was having and was I taking in love and care? I replied that, no, I was not able to "take in" the loving touch because it was not being done out of any particular feeling she had for me. I explained that I felt that she was giving me touch because I was paying her for the massage. My resistance to being able to receive her loving touch was intransigent. But when the session was over, I had to admit to her that, at times, for fleeting moments, I had been able to take in her concern for me and that it had felt very good.
Again, the time had been compressed, and before I realized it, the one hour session was over. She asked what I had thought of the massage session. I was more or less left speechless as no words could have conveyed to her the depth of my gratitude for the session which had triggered the very deep feelings. Later, I thought many times of the well-known axiom in primal therapy of how important it is to take risks and do what you fear to do.
Because of resistance and unconscious fear, I had waited two decades to have that massage session! But upon returning home I immediately made an appointment with a local therapeutic massage therapist.
Sand Tray Work
For many years I had heard positive comments about Dr. Bill Smukler's sand tray process and was anxious to construct such a tray. Bill's sand play room was surrounded by tables on which lay hundreds of small items from the many thousands in his collection. [Bill, who is 84, is the originator and developer of The Ark, a 40 day intensive feeling psychotherapy experience.]
The trays used were large aluminum oven cooking containers in which were a few inches of sand. I was told by others that my unconscious mind would choose the items which I would use to build my sand tray and would deal with my subconscious issues. But, for the past year-and-a-half my unconscious mind had become my conscious mind.
Eighteen months earlier I had received a possible death sentence diagnosis of a brain tumor which had opened me up to re-living my near-death in the birth canal and which also triggered a severe depression during which thoughts of death predominated. The brain scans I had had showed no tumor existed, but the obsession and fear of death and dying remained as the floodgates of memories of my traumatic birth had been opened.
The primals of nearly dying during birth occurred almost daily but for only a couple of minutes each time. The depression slowly lifted and preoccupation with death diminished. After a year, the length of the primals increased to 20 minutes and their frequency dropped to about one each week.
So, even before I began my sand tray process, I knew exactly which items I needed to choose to symbolically create a tableau of my near-death in the birth canal. I immediately found a figurine of the largest of the dinosaurs, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the star of Jurassic Park which had disproportionately huge and powerful jaws. I then searched for and found a tiny figure of a baby which I placed between the reptile's jaws and placed in the sandbox. I then began looking for scary, nightmarish monsters and found the creature from another movie, Alien, (which itself contains powerful traumatic birth symbolism.) I found a few other creepy looking creatures which I arranged beneath the towering dinosaur which was crushing the baby in its jaws.
I found a minature doll of a well-dressed attractive woman and placed it in the sand tray, behind the dinosaur, but facing away from the reptile. The doll would represent my feelings during primals when I felt my mother was not hearing me during my birth while I was pleading for help from her.
I then searched for other images of death with which I surrounded the dinosaur and its victim. I used skulls, a human skeleton, a serpent and other macabre items. Finally, I chose two "power" animals -- a gorilla and an elephant. These were the only two positive subjects I had used in the sand tray and represented the power I would need to be able to get unstuck and get born.
The next day Bill helped me with my sand tray. He began with the induction of a light relaxation/hypnosis exercise and I then began to explain the scene which lay before us. The light hypnosis did not unearth any unconscious reasons for my choice of items for the reasons I explained above, but the exercise convinced me of the potential power of the sand-play process.
While Bill and I were discussing my sand tray, two women were in the room quietly looking in respectful silence for items with which to construct their own sand trays. The next day one of them approached me with supportive concern. It was a very touching and emotional exchange for me as I was able to take in her feelingful reflections on the conversations which she had overheard between Bill and me.
* * *
There were other feelingful moments at the IPA convention which touched me deeply. During Bill Smukler's tribute, Marie Regis, a massage therapist, gave her tribute and then sat on the floor next to Bill's chair and laid her head on his lap. Unfortunately, I had used my last exposure of film so was not able to record this moment of tenderness. I was happy to have met developmental psychologist, Dr. Aletha J. Solter, the keynote speaker, with whom I had been corresponding. I left Appel Farms early Sunday morning for the Philadelphia airport accompanied by wonderful memories of a magical week.
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