Primal Therapy and Awareness
Effective primal therapy requires learning how to…
“Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the [distress] but also of ‘the one who observes’, the silent watcher. This is the power of Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then, see what happens.”… Eckhart Tolle.
In previous pieces I’ve discussed the importance of bringing the re-energized artifacts of your traumatic experience into what Tolle has described as “your own conscious presence”. This intentional effort is what makes a conscious connection to a previously unconscious survival reaction possible. These reactions are what I mean when I use the phrase 'the sensorimotor artifacts of traumatic experience'.
In order to speak intelligently about the primal process we need to define terms such as subconsciousness, consciousness, and awareness. We can do this by restricting subconsciousness and consciousness to mean something we do know quite a lot about: low and high road sensorimotor processing. The former processes incoming environmental information and organizes reflexive, survival related responses. We don’t even know that this activity is happening. When we are defending ourselves from overwhelming threats to our life, the internal and external movements that occur are called unconscious survival reactions. The memorized, complete set of these responses is called an Imprint.
It is Arthur Janov’s claim that every bit of information in that Imprint remains stored in the body..in its original state..until that information is primaled.
Primaling information involves conscious activity. It involves high road sensorimotor processing of previously stored and quarantined, low road survival reactions. When information reaches the high road it gets organized. Identifiable centers of the cortex begin to associate new incoming information with all other collected and organized information... both real time and memorized information. The unrefined, previously quarantined low road information, having been processed, can now be compared to what is happening in the present moment…the Now. If this information does not map onto real time events, information is sent to the medial prefrontal response area of the cortex, which shares connections with the amygdalae. The MPC can then shut down the (erroneous) response that the amygdalae sent to consciousness in the first place. In other words, conscious connection allows the creation of a feedback loop between the unconscious and conscious parts of the brain. This is called impulse control.
So...what is awareness?
Awareness… the 'silent watcher'… our 'conscious presence'… and, the 'one who observes'… is a complete mystery to science. Some scientists and philosophers believe that it's just an illusion.
Information flows endlessly and continuously through the unconscious and conscious nervous system. This flow of information gives us our sense of being and allows us to successfully navigate our environment. When trauma disconnects survival reaction information from consciousness, a disruption of the dynamic balance that exists between ourselves and our environment is established. This disruption is manifest in our anxiety disorders, chronic anger and emotional withdrawal, etc. Neurotic acting out is essentially uninformed behavior.
Despite its resistance to scientific inquiry, everyone experiences and uses awareness. We use it every time we intentionally dip into this information stream, extract bits of information from it, and hold it in suspension while we observe it. Scientists call this field of focus: working memory. And, its capacity is limited to small pieces of information at any one time.
Antonio Damaseo reminds us that this information stream is made up of visual, tactile, sensorimotor, olfactory, audible, and interoceptive data. And, indeed, while engaged in primal therapy, information from all of these senses may actively express themselves as we move through the unconscious survival responses of our trauma.
Joseph LeDoux’s experiments have indicated that this memorized information, once re-energized (removed from protein storage) remains accessible to consciousness and awareness for 6 hours, after which new protein storage molecules re-store the information. Therefore, during the 6 hours of the initial trauma AND during the 6 hours of recall of that trauma, that information can be cortically processed. This is our window of primal opportunity.
We can hold our trauma information up to awareness in the real time of therapy. And, we can become aware of this (still active) information after therapy. The latter usually happens when the therapist asks contact questions of the client. In both cases, this results in connection…a primal.
Our original survival responses occurred while we were in an unconscious state. We might say that those survival responses occurred while we were "not looking”. In primal therapy sessions we are trying to set the stage for the re-expression of those survival reactions while we "are looking”. Looking at, while re-experiencing, our traumatic survival reactions is the key to effective therapy.
During all of my therapy, I was aware of what my body was expressing to me. Therefore, a lot of trauma-related information reached consciousness. This allowed for an automatic correction of those heretofore unconscious survival reactions, to better map onto what was happening in the present moment. In other words, the dynamic balance between myself and my environment got incrementally restored as I primaled. This shows itself as an energetic decrease in neurotic acting out in the present. This is true emotional healing. It is not chemical repression of distress signals (which leaves those signals ready to re-activate). And, it is not behavioral repression (which replaces destructive old behaviors with new behaviors, yet leaves the old behaviors intact for future expression).
Having said this, I can easily imagine some deeply damaged client spending hours moving through her survival reaction sequences without being aware of what is occurring. I can imagine her not being able to make sense of the therapist’s contact statements because of this. This is abreaction, in Janov's use of the term. It is re-traumatizing. The opposite of healing. It is this fear, I suspect that makes many therapists devalue primal therapy.
It is my experience that most of us can naturally and safely re-activate our unconscious survival reactions and successfully primal them. It requires a strong intention to do so. And, it requires a safe container in which to do the work. A safe container is built out of mutual trust and the feeling of safety that 2 human beings may be able to establish with one another.