An Effective Primal Session
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
David and I sit facing one another in a dimly lit primal room. There is a quick, steady drumbeat coming from the sound system. We’ve just finished a saging ceremony, during which we called in the people in our lives we most want to be with us in this moment. There is no conversation. Rather, David is quietly and intentionally paying attention to what’s going on within. This is the first step in the process of sensorimotor meditation…a naturopathic derivative of Primal Therapy that I call Fear Memory Integration.
As we sit in silence, with only the sound of distant drums in the background, the scent of sage drifting in the air, David lifts his hand, touches his throat, and coughs. “My throat feels tight”, he says. I say, “pay attention to your throat. There’s something calling out to you there….something needs to be heard”. Silence. “I can’t breathe”, he says, in a matter-of-fact way. I check his face. There is no evidence of oxygen starvation. No blue lips, skin is pink. And I say: “ yes, that’s your feeling. Stay with it”. More silence. He begins making other motions with his arms and legs. The arms pushing outward. His legs twitching. “Stay with it, I tell him. Something needs to be heard. Something needs to be seen. Something wants to be here with us in this circle.” “No!” , he says, his voice louder this time. “You don’t understand. I can’t breathe. Really!” “ Yes”, I say to him. “ That’s your feeling. Stay with it.”
“I really can’t breathe”, he says again. Now, I hear fear in his voice. He stays with it, now his arms and legs are flailing. His head is shaking back and forth. He is bouncing up and down in his chair. “Stay with it, David,” I tell him. “Something needs to be heard. Something’s being held back. Something wants to be here. Something wants to come home. It’s been gone a long, long time.” David's whole body is in frenzied motion. He brings his hand up to his throat. Then….everything stops. There is a moment of complete silence in the room. David's arms open outward, his eyes and mouth open wide, and he takes a deep, gulping breath. We sit in silence for a while. Then he says: “I could feel that breath moving upward through my whole body!” And, after a while, the session winds down. This whole feeling sequence lasted over an hour. He speaks to me of what he had experienced….his journey. I listen carefully, sometimes asking him contact questions. These questions are designed to let us both know if a particular sequence had been brought to consciousness (a primal) or if he had merely been re-enacting an unconscious survival state (abreaction). What was just described here is what Arthur Janov called a “primal”.
A primal is another name for a neurological connection. It is something that happens whenever a sensorimotor artifact of a former traumatic event makes its way into consciousness. Connection is the meat and potatoes of the fear memory integration process. And, it represents the beginning of a permanent release from emotional suffering and depression. This connection can break the chains of anxiety disorders, chronic anger and emotional withdrawal. Why? Because it releases trapped trauma-related information to the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the human brain that controls inappropriate primitive impulses. David's inability to breathe was an inappropriate impulse. Why? There was oxygen in the room and there was no obstruction in the throat.
David and I were working with a trapped, primitive impulse. This impulse was just a small part of a complex of impulses that formed the Imprint. An imprint is a fear conditioned memory.
In an instance of trauma, the nervous system initiates a firestorm of physical reactions, each designed to survive that trauma. These reactions involve every cell in the body and manifest as a “physical body state consisting of some combination of any and all of the following: muscle tensions, proprioceptive sensations, an organized sequence of muscle movements, and the homeostatic settings of internal organs as regulated by the autonomic nervous system” ( ).
The imprint of a trauma [the memory of it] contains a unique and comprehensive record of every one of our reactions to that trauma. Millions of reactions become linked, energetically, to create a memory. It gets trapped in subcortical brain structures, gets re-felt over and over as unconscious survival states, and is the cause of disordered anxiety behaviors. Our unwanted behaviors are blind reactions to these unconscious survival states. The Fear Memory Integration process teaches how to quiet the daytime brain long enough to become conscious of these survival states. The generation of an emotional reaction to survival state activity indicates that the survival state activity is being cortically processed. Cortical processing allows the MPC to control the impulse, if the impulse is inappropriate or out of context.
As Janov says: in neurosis, the feeling is right, but the context is wrong ( ).
Let’s look at David's journey again…
· My throat feels tight…The nervous system begins to assemble a re-enactment of David's trauma. It begins with muscle tension in the throat and a cough.
· I can’t breathe…The throat is closing. A simple statement of fact.
· He begins making other motions with his arms and legs…the nervous system continues to assemble the imprint…is putting elements of the imprint together, in its mission to recreate the entire imprint.
· No!, …. I can’t breathe. Really! I really can’t breathe…. Now, I hear fear in his voice. ….David is beginning to experience emotional fear, because of imprint activity. This indicates that an artifact of his unconscious defense state is entering consciousness.
· now his arms and legs are flailing. His head is shaking back and forth. He is bouncing up and down in his chair. …more elements of the imprint, having been joined to the throat constriction artifact, continue to intensify and broaden.
· Then….everything stops. David's arms open outward, his eyes and mouth open wide, and he takes a deep, gulping breath….the lost information contained in the trauma-related artifact, having become conscious, is now accessible to the medial prefrontal cortex. This brain area shares a 2-way nerve network with the subcortical amygdalas…the storage area associated with fear conditioning. A cortical assessment is made that the throat closing activity is unwarranted. A signal is sent via the cortico-amygdalic circuit, which shuts off the throat closing signal. After a deep breath, normal breathing is established.
In the aftermath of our session, I sit quietly, giving David the room to discuss his insights. Primals almost always result in insights… observations that relate to the work that was just finished. It might be something as simple as this: “ whenever my father attacked me, I was too afraid to scream. Because I knew that he’d hit me even harder if I did.”