Primal Therapy and Spirituality

by Bruce Wilson

The main purpose of this blog is to discuss the science of primal therapy, but I want to address a question that goes beyond science: is primal therapy compatible with spirituality and is spiritual practice compatible with primal?

First, let’s define those amorphous terms, “spiritual” and “spirituality.” To scientific skeptics, they often elicit a gag reflex. At worst, spirituality is condemned as “woo,” at best, it’s put in scare quotes, held it at a distance like some stinking, dead animal with comments like, “just what the hell is ‘spirituality’?” Check out the many blogs and websites devoted to skepticism and you’ll see that spirituality is usually equated with religion, God (or Satan), magic, the occult, mysticism, new age, ghosts, souls, spirits, fairies, angels, or a number of other supernatural concepts, and often scorned as “woo,” “spooky stuff” or worse. In my former life as a hard scientific skeptic, I had this same response, and I admit, I still have a visceral revulsion to the words, “religion” and “religious.”

Today, I often use the word, spirituality, but not in the supernatural context. In fact, I think the word needs to be updated to fit the scientific worldview. I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way—Tom Clark, Ursula Goodenough, Stuart Kauffman, Mark Vernon, and other scientists and scholars are developing their own version of naturalistic spirituality that has nothing to do with spooks, deities, ghosts, spirits, or the supernatural. In fact, Kauffman’s recent book is called, Reinventing the Sacred. (Sorry about that gag reflex, skeptics.) Another great book in this vein is The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, by French philosopher, André Compte-Sponville.

Arthur Janov regards all religion and spiritual seeking as neurotic. He believes, as John Lennon did, that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Anything associated with religion, spirituality, meditation, or other spiritual practices is “booga-booga,” nothing more than a defense against primal pain. But in Why you Get Sick, How You Get Well (1996), Janov gets closer to what I think is a reasonable definition of spirituality. He writes:

I am often asked whether primal therapy is spiritual. I never know what the question really means…. If spiritual means having decency, kindness, and generosity and being loving and caring, then to be spiritual is to be fully human, which means fully feeling. The more feeling the patients become, the more human they will act. (p. 248)

Here I believe Janov is close to the mark, but he doesn’t go far enough. Indeed, first and foremost, spirituality is a state of deep feeling. But I would take it beyond simple feelings of decency, kindness, generosity and caring to others and extend it to a longing to connect with others, nature, and the universe at large. Taken to the extreme, it can manifest as a mystical experience where the sense of self drops away and one feels united with what’s “out there.” The self-other duality vanishes and one becomes “One” with the universe. In their book, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience, neuroscientists Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg refer to this state as “Absolute Unitary Being” and speculate about the brain changes that occur during such states.

“Whoa! What’s this?” the primal sceptic may ask. “Mystical experience? One with the universe? That sure sounds like booga-booga to me!” To this I say – not necessarily.

Rather than viewing all spirituality as a defense against primal pain, which I think is a very diminished view, let’s consider that spirituality may actually be a normal, healthy part of human nature, something that evolved in our psyche during our long prehistory. In his book, Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World, biologist Charles Fisher writes that our preverbal, hominid ancestors experienced life in “animal harmony with nature,” largely free of the cognitive noise we humans experience because of our self-centered, conceptual, thought-obsessed, dualistic minds. In Fisher’s view, “it is this duality of our evolution that sets us apart from other species and inspires our most profound intellectual and spiritual yearning.” In my view, that spiritual yearning is an attempt to reconnect with our prehistoric nature and know the world in a non-rational, intuitive, feeling way. In other words, it’s as natural as breathing, eating, and sex. I call it primal spirituality.

Primal spirituality is rooted deep within our emotional brain centers and by far predates our cognitive notions of spirituality, religion, etc. Affective neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has said that spirituality is likely an expression of our biological drive to be socially connected with other humans. In a Philoctetes Center roundtable entitled, “Mind, Brain, and Spirituality: Toward a Biology of the Soul,” Panksepp defined spirituality as “being in the world as your self and completely as your self and not someone else. As soon as you’ve achieved that, you’ve achieved a deep spirituality.” How primal.

We all have different predilections for spiritual feeling and it’s not surprising that those who have less of it might view it as delusional or childish. But even Daniel Dennett, one of the most outspoken atheists of our time, has admitted to a fondness for hymns, ceremony and ritual. He says they evoke a religious feeling that he defines as natural, as long as it doesn’t involve the supernatural. In this sense, spiritual feelings and spiritual beliefs are worlds apart and I believe (but can’t prove) that strong spiritual beliefs are a sign that our natural tendency toward spiritual feeling has been hijacked to serve as a defense against primal pain. Primal pain distorts spiritual feeling rather than evoking it, and it usually takes the form of supernatural beliefs. As long as we can believe that God or Jesus or Mohammed or whatever deity du jour is living “up there” in heaven or some other supernatural realm watching down on us, we can feel secure that we are safe and death loses its sting. Belief tries to make the unknowable into the known.

Religious zealotry, fundamentalism, and extremism are examples of spirituality gone very wrong. The more intense the primal pain, the more intense is the need to believe and to enforce those beliefs on everyone around you. In these cases, God really has become a concept by which we measure our pain.

However, I would also include radical scientific skepticism in this category. Rationalism as the sole arbiter of reality can itself become a belief system, and in its most refined state it is expressed as scientism – the belief that science and reason can and will eventually answer all questions about life, the universe and everything. Rationalists are intolerant of uncertainty and demand evidence for everything, but as the Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith wrote, “what a dusty answer gets the soul when hot for certainties in this our life!”

Both forms of extremism — religious or scientistic — often diminish with primal therapy. As one opens to one’s deepest feelings, strong ideologies and beliefs lose their importance and one becomes more tolerant to the unknown and the unknowable. The wisdom that lies deep within us is liberated and we can once again be guided by our instincts in harmony with reason. One does not take precedence over the other. Science becomes a tool, not an ideology. And rather than being antithetical to primal feeling, some spiritual practices are not only compatible with it, but are enhanced by it, and vice versa. On his website, Primal Zen, Sam Turton has a wonderful essay on how Zen medition and primal can work together to improve well-being. Ironically, the end states of primal therapy and Zen practice are remarkably similar – one becomes who one is, here and now. In the last words of a dying Zen master, “there’s just this and nothing more!”

And here again I come back to primal spirituality, which more than anything is characterized by doubt and wonder. When I look out at the old growth maple forest outside my window and watch two hawks weaving and dodging through the trees in search of prey, I can only marvel at their beauty and ask, “What is this? How did this beauty and complexity come to be? What caused it?” And answering those questions is…silence. No words, no thoughts, just silence. Silence is not a feeling, but primal feeling can allow access to that silence, just as can meditation. And from the silence comes creativity, which I believe to be a fundamental property of nature. (For more on this, I recommend Kauffman’s book noted above, and Albert Low’s, The Origin of Human Nature.)


Creative Commons License
The Primal Therapy and Spirituality by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

13 Replies to “Primal Therapy and Spirituality”

  1. I’ve almost since the beginning thought of primal practice as spiritual practice. To me it’s getting in touch with “all that is.” For me it could be considered t be an extension of Vipassana or mindfulness meditation. I sit or lay quietly and observe what’s happening on every level, emotional, physical and mental, and then go one step further. I express any feelings that come to my awareness that are ripe for expression. If I have the spontaneous urge to express, I do. To me this is all one continuous, connected process. To me “primal” [just a word that we are familiar with] is the ultimate spiritual practice.

  2. What I see you tapping into is what I call the infant mind and many call this “spiritual” because of the “high” or liberating experience of tapping into it. I feel that this level of experience is what neurologically underpins our forms of trust. When we trust in communication with our higher reflective abilities such as empathy, objectivity, and creativity, we tap into and integrate in a motivational way our virtues of goodness, truth, and art, respectively. Respectively again, the supportive trust perspectives that allow real communication with these higher virtuous capacities are: the ability to Feel and express honestly, the ability to have mindfulness in a way that can focus and and remove focus without stringing long lines of preconceptions on the new information coming in, and finally the ability to be at Play which means to get into the music etc. letting suggested or new perspectives be accepted temporarily as important or new, or as the new important interaction, but with a realization that it cannot hurt you because it is in “virtual” mode, such as playing with swords, or being tickled knowing it will stop, or watching a movie knowing that it isn’t truly real.

    Spirituality to me demands more than high experiences, and these high experiences which circuit around a feeling level can be quite phony and artificial and just an escape, needed or not. So there I agree with Art, however, if these modes of trust connect in a feeling motivational way with the higher reflective abilities supporting our virtues, then we have real virtues, or actualized virtues, and true in depth feeling, and this to me is primal or real spirituality.

    High without such connection can be useful at times but is not, to me, real spirituality. It is quite often a defense against pain as Art has said, in my experience anyway. I always asked after such “high” experiences if I was a better person for it and the answer in me was “No, because it only gives relief it doesn’t engage me in more virtuous behavior in a way that is feeling and emotionally motivating and real.” I found that real connections that don’t skip the second line but embrace it along with the rest doesn’t give me a high, I am just a better person.

    This is best summed up in what I have said before, “We can’t forgive from the heart, until we have felt from the heart, and we can’t repent from the heart until we have forgiven from the heart. The reason for this is because until then the need to punish others still blocks us from feeling what we did to others, and this is because we can’t feel safe enough to do this until we know we can forgive ourselves. Forgiving ourselves and repenting from the heart, this alone, can yield a desire to truly change our lives. This, is real spirituality.

    So, summing up, I agree with both you and Art about the issue of spirituality. The high of skipping the second line and going straight to the first line awarenesses may have value from time to time but they are escapes from reality, not to say this is always bad, while complete integration is true spirituality because it involves emotional, feeling, and motivational connections to the processes that underlie your virtues.

    It must be said that there is a wisdom with such connections that lead to “highs” of non ego, but it’s like this: When I am afraid of a cloth fluttering in the wind I may be excited and want to check it out because of the high I am getting, but when I have seen the cloth for what it is, not a ghost not an angel and not anything from outer space, and hold it in my hand, then I say “Oh, is that all that was?” Then both the fear, the awe and the high leave me and I am content completely in my own skin, not needing to transcend anything, but having that sense of transcendence as a routine ordinary part of my life.

    One Zen master once said that “in the beginning mountains aren’t mountains anymore, and trees aren’t trees any more” this he called the first stage of Satori, then he said, “but finally mountains are mountains again, and trees just trees”, and this he called the second final stage of enlightenment. Another said, “This carrying water, this chopping firewood, this miraculous experience, this ordinary life,”.

    I would therefor suggest that playing gently with many perspectives may yield primal integration and awareness over time, but this comes finally from a comfortable zone that integrates the third, the second and the first line in stages where one connection falls into another, not is skipping the second line for a “high” experience however “spiritual” some may say that is, since that high doesn’t yield a more virtuous life, meaning a life in which virtue is a part of our motivations.

    Finally I have to quote our dear friend Arthur Janov again with my favorite of his lines: “If it’s bigger than life, it isn’t real.”

    Rev. David Mitchel Stow

  3. I think what led Janov to discount spirituality as a part of primal therapy was his finding that primal pain seems universally to be about things that happened or didn’t happen in childhood: abuse, neglect, lack of love etc, etc.
    So in his therapy, clients are steered away from talking about spiritual concerns since that isn’t where the pain is. In that kind of a therapy it wouldn’t be a good idea to go into it with the expectation of a spiritual journey. Although it does seem like it happens.

    I find that effective primalling leaves me feeling more connected, relaxed, feelingful, and with new insights about my current life and childhood. I don’t call that a “spiritual” experience, but I suppose you could. So what I think is, there seems to be the possibility of an end result of feeling more spiritual, but to me, it isn’t a part of the primal process as I understand it. I don’t consider myself spiritual so there isn’t much more I can say on this.
    I have seen people who do very deep primalling and have healed extensively in the way Janov describes, and yet also have a spiritual practice which is separate from this.


  4. Good points, Phil. Not everyone has a sense of spirituality, nor do they need to develop it. But those who do shouldn’t be told that it’s a defense against primal pain or “booga-booga.”

    Indeed, spirituality can be used as a defense, as can any human trait, including primalling! But to paint all spiritual feeling with the same black brush is unfair to those who feel it is an integral component to who they are.

    Ironically, a spiritual practice can make you more aware of your feelings. It can also help you go deeper into feelings by helping you disengage from compulsive and habitual thought patterns. For example, common questions people ask themselves in Zen practice are “Who am I?”, “What is this?”, or “What is happening right now?” These can tune you in to the moment and alert you as to how you actually feel.

    I am not advocating an airy-fairy, spaced-out kind of spirituality, such as what you see in New Age movements. Nor am I advocating spiritual or religious ideas and beliefs. Real spirituality is about being connected to the here and now and the world around you. I call it “spacing in” rather than “spacing out.” There is nothing supernatural about, although it may extend your concept of the natural.

  5. Bruce, I like how you describe real spirituality.
    I can relate to becoming “connected to the here and now and the world around you”.
    No, I wouldn’t paint spirituality with a black brush, because, as you say, people may find it an integral component of who they are, including spiritual or religious ideas and beliefs. Those aren’t likely to be problems people are seeking therapy to have changed anyway.
    In this article you have addressed the question of whether primal therapy and spirituality are compatible.
    Of course, there are differing views on how you define both of those things, and that is where there can be a lot of different opinions.

  6. Bruce, you do a great job in gathering research of other authors. I just wish, of course, that you would include those who EXPERIENCE past lives, where our spirit/soul continues thru an EVOLutionary process, maybe a spiritual process of our spirit learning to LOVE….which i sense is the core of spirituality, because LOVE makes us feel as ONE, because of the compassionate LOVE that is felt for all!

  7. Thanks for your comment, Dianea. I’ll be discussing the issue of past lives, cellular consciousness, and other phenomena in a later post. Indeed, love is a key component of spirituality, although I’m not sure how it relates to spirits, souls and past lives.

  8. I have found experiences that were transcendent of an anxious self awareness, but these things were not a true integration of the first line. they skipped to it. This is unreal. Real spirituality to me is necessarily based upon connecting our motivational feelings with our higher reflective abilities such as empathy, objectivity, and creativity. The lack of feeling awareness is indeed destructive of these connections and so not truly spiritual in my mind.

    Being more feeling and spiritual is definitely about love. You have to feel your needs before love which is the meeting of those needs can be felt. Without feeling what really happened to us we can’t let go of the past or past struggles and so we can’t feel love or give love in healthy ways. Virtues are in fact healthy ways and skilful ways to feel love and to be motivated by love.

    However, love which is symbolic is a block to feeling and true spirituality. People in loving families don’t need to say the word love over and over like a mantra, because their needs are met, and people who are truly feeling don’t think much or talk about their “self” as self awareness is a survival mechanism that we are usually only aware of when we are self concerned.

    I don’t see anything other than feeling what really happened to us as useful to real spirituality. We must feel what happened to us honestly in order to forgive honestly and we must forgive honestly to see what we have done wrong to others and to repent or turn from our harmful hurtful ways. This is primal spirituality, not skipping to a state that temporarily gives a sense of release from ego consciousness.

    When I have arrived at a more feeling state I often think of the times I glimpsed an non-ego state, but then I don’t see it as special I just say “Oh, is that all that was?”

    Also having meditated long hours in a Zen monastery in Los Angeles California, I found that the processes used were repetitive and unnatural things that had to be repeated constantly. Primalling doesn’t require constant rituals or re-primalling forever, and that is how you know that it and not “meditation” is the real deal.

    I only use a variety of real and unreal perspectives because they amount to a way of dismantling neurotic defences in a gradual way with lots of escape doors ready if needed. I would feel horribly oppressed at the thought of constantly having to talk in sugar coated language and recite the word love over and over or to have to regularly sit in “meditation” other than as a temporary mental medicine perhaps.

    It is an out of sync and not fully integrated connection to the first line from the third. I too use it but its because the ability to distance from pain is just as important as to get closer to it, as this gives a sense of control and safety, especially when primalling alone. However I would never refer to it as an alternative except in the sense that some may find that meditation is a place of safety from feelings as yet too powerful to feel. Many perspectives in regard to feelings can help to break down neurotic defences in a gradual way.

    Thus, to sum up, I don’t believe in “high” non-ego states as true integration and connection, any more than the constant syrupy use of the word love shows anything but how much pain is present in the user. However, taking many perspectives can slowly drop one into the honesty of feeling that truly does integrate and heal from our various forms of post traumatic stress. Many perspectives and virtuous loving ones especially give this sort of “pain” little room to hide.

    David Mitchel Stow

  9. Well done .Bruce and others. Buddhism teaches that the path to enlightenment is through suffering. Is it possible that the early practioners of buddhism envisioned that there was a better way by experiencing their own pain?

    1. Jesus also said something, or supposedly said something, that was very intriguing along these lines. He didn’t say “take up my cross” as most Christians try to do. He said take up your own. Makes you wonder if he too saw the value of “feeling your pained need”.

  10. I went through Primal Therapy from 1978 to 1980 at the Primal Institute in L.A. when Art was there with Vivian. I was a nonbeliever at the time and was okay with that. During the deepest primal I ever had, of being abandoned in a hospital as an infant of 6 months of age, I experienced in my head, at the height of that deep feeling event of what I can only describe as “bone crushing loneliness,”—during the height of that primal, I heard the following statement made very much as if somene else was saying it: “we had to bring you here.” At the time, I pretty much ignored that given everything else I was experiencing. That primal shattered a life-long depression and when I stood up from laying on the floor as we did back then at the Institute, my back seemed to kind of snap up straight; I had always had a noticeble degree of scholiosis, or curvature of my upper spine. That, and my eyes changed according to my wife, and me. They brightened up considerably, rather than looking chronically sad. That is how effective that primal was, though it did take me over a year to work up to it. It was truly wonderful to feel that, even if it was hell to get to it. (For example, earlier in the day before the primal, I would have sworn there was a solar eclipse that day, plus my legs wouldn’t work right.) At any rate, several years after I left the institute, I had what I would call a spiritual experience. It is a different order of experiencing, but one that is part of everyone’s potential it seems to me. I came to see that denying that order of experiencing is itself a defense because spirituality as I came to know it, leads one to feel more, not less; it also leads one to be more vulnerable in human affairs because you really can’t love unless you are willing to be vulnerable in a good way you might say (as opposed to being just plain stupid and walking into situations that are patently bad for oneself). In any event, I am more clear about the normalcy of spiritual realities than I am about anything else in life. It is, in fact, the whole life and basis of everything deeply and truly human. I had other brief spiritual experiences after that, but perhaps that for another time. Take care everyone.

  11. Bruce, I started Primal Therapy in the late 60’s when Janov was collecting data for the Primal Scream. I’ve stayed in touch with him since trying to let him know that my spiritual experience via something called The Diamond Approach has clarified for me the difference between healing the ego and healing or realizing the soul.
    He says he has never seen a soul and doesn’t believe that such a thing exists.
    However, I’ve written a play(I’ve won awards for other one’s I’ve written.” that compares Primal Therapy with Spiritual experience. And I’m looking for a director who understands both cathartic therapy and spiritual therapy. Do you know of such a person? Or, better yet, have you ever done any stage directing?
    I’d love to hear from you,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *