Primal Theory and Spirituality: The Myth of Irreconcilability.

Frederick M Farrar

Morality as Flight from Pain

Arthur Janov, the founder of Primal Therapy, has, like Freud, taken the view that all religious or mystical beliefs are flights from the reality of primal pain. Consider the following statement which Janov makes in an article on consciousness:

“My hypothesis is that morality does not exist on the deeper levels of human existence. Morality is a third-line concept involving the ‘shoulds’ and exists when individuals have lost their internal access. On the feeling level of existence there is no morality, no notion of right and wrong, only what is. Feelings, unlike morality, are never judgments; they are states of being. Morality is what fills the gap when people leave their feelings behind....Feelings are the only moral principles for natural man...Morality is basically a totalitarian notion since it involves an outside power coercing people into certain modes of behaviour. It contravenes the principle of self-determination...Suppression and moralism go hand in hand. Moralism is the way suppression is carried out, and suppression is the wellspring for moralism." 1

I have chosen this extract because of its suitability as a nexus for discussing a range of issues.

I would, first of all, like to challenge the statement. Whilst it is true that morality does not exist on the deeper levels of human existence, it is not true that morality only comes into existence when individuals have left heir feelings behind. In saying this Janov denies the place of conceptual thought in human being. This is a view which enslaves the conceptual mind to the immediacy of emotionality and feeling. It fails to address the question which it implicitly brings to the fore, namely, how does the feeling person make decisions when afflicted by conflicting feelings? Eeny-meeny-miny-mo? Or, “I feel we should bomb Hanoi today, but then again I feel we should bomb my mother.” Or, “I really don’t feel like hurting people, even if they are Nazis. So why don’t we wait for them to hurt us first. Then we’ll really feel like hurting them back!” I am being facetious of course, but only to draw out the absurdity of Janov’s stated position.

Though , as Janov points out, morality is frequently abused and misused  by the powerful as an instrument of social control , true morality is nothing other than the clarification of our actions on the basis both of our feelings and of their anticipated general effects. To deny the necessity of this function as an integral part of normal life is to inflate the role of immediate feeling whilst suppressing the role of intelligent reflection. It implies that conceptual thought should do no more than act as a relay for the more primitive feelings of the deeper levels. There is no hint here of the functions of synthesis and transcendence wherein the lower is incorporated into the higher.

Conflict and Responsibility

What I find disturbing in Janov’s view is its ability to elude responsibility for conflict. If we say that conflict is inevitable in human behaviour, Janov can say that that is because of neurosis. People are not sensitive enough to each other and so they behave badly. If people were less neurotic, then they would behave more sensitively to each other and insoluble conflicts would not arise. According to this line of reasoning sensitive people are not to blame for the world’s conflicts. It's the neurotics who are at fault in their flight from pain.

In denying responsibility for conflict the person who thinks like this also denies responsibility for the world. He’s doing his bit to be sensitive. What more can he do? Well, he could grow up and face facts. Feelings are no substitute for hard thinking where hard thinking is called for. This is not an unfeeling point of view. Its a necessary and realistic point of view. And if the primal person’s only response to difficult circumstances is to wring his hands and despair at the lack of feeling in the world, then his non-primal associates can be forgiven for feeling a certain amount of contempt for his self-cherishing naivety.

The truth is that whether you are sensitive or not conflicts will arise which will give rise to conflicting feelings. This is not because of a widespread insensitivity. It is because people are separate and free. They are free to embark upon adventures whose consequences for other people they cannot foresee, some good, some bad.

A leader and his government, concerned by the lack of water for irrigation, decide to build a damn. Everyone thinks its a great idea. But eventually the habitat downstream from the damn begins to suffer and fishermen and their families begin to go hungry. Meanwhile the villages around the damn have grown. The women have had more babies and the old people haven’t died. They now need the damn. The people downstream feel neglected and abandoned and so they become angry and begin to protest. The people upstream feel threatened by the protests and put pressure on their government not to give in. This only makes the situation worse. The people downstream begin to feel afraid that nothing is going to be done and realise that they are fighting for their lives. So are the people upstream. Can we in all honesty and soberness say that the problem here is a neurotic lack of sensitivity? Of course not. And neither can we say that morality only begins when feeling ends. Morality begins when feelings have reached an impasse which cannot be resolved by further feeling. Morality demonstrates the limits of feeling not the end of feeling.

Spiritual Isolation

The consequences which flow out of Janov’s view are enormous. Once he has allied himself to this position he must then turn his back upon traditional human wisdom, which recognises the necessity and value of moral and ethical guidance in human behaviour. All of this wisdom, from East to West, North to South, both ancient and modern, must necessarily be cast into the bin of pre-primal history, tainted with the stigma of neurosis and inadequacy. Why? Because some neurotics have learned how to feel.

If I could be accused of taking an isolated quote and exaggerating its importance that would not be so bad. But, actually, Janov is very consistent in his thinking. Primal man, according to Janov, naturally loses all religious, moralistic or ethical inclinations. “He feels just himself,” he says, “ - not a relationship to others by which to measure that self.”2 And in so saying, he obscures the fact that all living beings are nothing other than a relationship between one part of the world and another.

The Noble Savage

This latter point is significant because a great deal of what passes as Janov’s originality stems from his avoidance of traditional psychological terms. In many respects his position is much closer to that of Freud in the 1890s than that of Gestalt Therapy in the 1950s, which defines the self as a function of the organism-environment relationship. In contrast to Gestalt, Janov sees the self as a pole within an organism-environment relationship rather than as a function of that relationship. His psychology of normalcy bears the unmistakable mark of nineteenth century materialism and the revolt of biological science against nineteenth century clericalism. But this is very fitting, for despite his denial of spirituality and idealism, there is a spirit, alive and well, which runs through his writing. It is the spirit of Rousseau, and his nineteenth century ideal of the noble savage. If only the noble savage had not been spoilt by civilisation all would be well. And in that vein Janov depicts the rearing of children in a world awash with civilisation. Neurosis is thus depicted as a universal epidemic and in the absence of evidence it is assumed to prevail.

The Fabrication of Experience

The major flaw in Janov’s attitude towards thinking and feeling is the tacit assumption that conceptual thought is an abstraction from reality whereas feeling is not. Everpresent in Janov's thinking is the belief that feelings are unmistaken in their rendition of reality. This is a mistake. Our sensations and feelings, like thoughts, are also abstractions from the reality which they depict. As such they are the same in kind as thoughts but differ in degree. And because, like thoughts, they are interpretations of reality they are open to error. This possibility eludes Janov and yet it is the subject matter of some of the worlds’s greatest religions, Buddhism, Brahmanism, Taoism, and countless numbers of mystical sects down the ages. It is also an underlying assumption in world philosophy, but to no avail as far as Janov is concerned: “If there is anything that Primal Man is not interested in it is philosophy and ideology.”3 Bear in mind that after Janov wrote this, his co-author, E Michael Holden, became a  very fundamentalist born-again Christian.

The Death of God?

With regard to Western religion he dismisses it as an irrational belief in God. But since he never spends more than a brief moment considering the matter he never stops to consider what a rational belief in God might be. He dismisses Eastern meditation practice as a technique for suppressing feelings without examining the context in which those techniques are taught. Why? Is it because he is “a feeling person”? No. It is because he believes in the predominance of immediate feeling over conceptual thought. This is not feeling. It is belief, and a strongly held faith in that belief. And if we take Erich Fromm’s definition of religion as a framework of orientation and devotion, then I don’t think it would be wrong to describe this way of being as Janov's religion. His belief that philosophy is unnecessary is his philosophy. His avoidance of a deep metaphysics merely clears a way for his shallow metaphysics. And in the end, his portrayal of Primal Man, who, “does not succumb to society” or “take up its values and goals”, but rather, “takes whatever he can from it . . .without compromising himself,” his interest being “mostly to seek out beauty and enjoy it,”4 is as ugly an ideal as it is a false one. In this view it is not only God who is dead but human being itself. Janov resolves the problem of human existence, not by the traditional heroic struggle for self-determination  by forcefully breaking out out of the womb of nature, but by  steadfastly subordinating human intellect and feeling to it, in other words , by delivering man to the rule of his animal nature. Having done so, however,  he laments, “Primal Man cannot possibly be complete in today’s world”, and with that the best he can offer is that Primal Man puts up with it, meanwhile making the best of his incomplete life with incidental moments of joy and appreciation of beauty. That such a vision of reality is painful is undeniable, but for Janov it is essentially accidental. It is an accident of nature that the world is as it is and cannot permit him to become complete. It is an accident of nature that he feels the wish to be complete. And it is an accident of nature that in the absence of completeness he must feel the pain of incompleteness. Unlike the Buddha, Janov cannot accept that it is part of our human nature to  be incomplete, that we must compromise ourselves, and that we must do this every day of our lives. For the spiritual traditionalist we must do this not because the world is unreal in the Primal sense, but because, by our very human nature we are self-transcendent. The self which we think we are is always less than the self we are going to be. That we continue to cherish our old self and find it hard to let go of, is the essence of the problem of human being, a problem which Janov denies.

The Death of Primal Therapy?

After all this criticism of its founder’s views does this mean that I deny the authenticity of the Primal experience? No it does not. I believe the discovery and development of Primal Therapy to have been a wonderful gift to humanity. However I believe it began a chapter in the history of psychotherapy which is not yet finished. And in order for it to become complete I believe it to be necessary to look again and reconsider what the experience means.

Theory Affects Therapy

One element in this reconsideration should be our recognition that primal theory affects the practice and experience of primal therapy. For instance, if the therapist conceives of a human being as an essentially self-existent organism, then the therapeutic environment will necessarily convey this, whether the therapist makes this explicit to the client or not. The client will have to deal with this one way or another, and it is highly likely, given the closeness of the therapeutic relationship, that she will consciously or unconsciously accept it. Similarly, if the therapist believes in the primacy of matter in relation to mind, or that consciousness is the product of neurons, synapses, and so on, then this attitude too will pervade the therapeutic environment and condition the client’s attitudes. How could it be otherwise? And if the primal literature is imbued with such attitudes then it is obvious that it will tend to select sympathetically minded clients from the outset.

Would it be possible to strip the therapy of the attitudes of its therapists? The answer must be - no, it is not possible. The therapy must have some form of theoretical foundation whilst at the same time encouraging the freedom of thought which allows therapists to continue to grow and mature as human beings, and to notice new possibilities and errors along the way. How then could they not hold individual attitudes which of necessity must affect their clients?

It is thus misleading to talk as if all that was happening in therapy was that the client was getting back in touch with her real feeling self. There’s a great deal more to it than that. The client is imbibing the whole outlook on life of the therapist. And this includes the therapist’s theoretical stance just as surely as it includes her emotional attitude.

Science and Rationality

Janov makes great play of the scientific compatibility of Primal Therapy. But unfortunately he is rarely inclined to recognise the limitations of science itself or the role which philosophy plays in underpinning the scientific method. He treats science as a bag of tools used to fix a car, rather than as a unified system of knowledge. He relies on science greatly in the formulation of Primal theory but doesn’t deign to illuminate for his readers the philosophical assumptions which science relies on. His questioning of the soundness of knowledge, which plays such a large part in the philosophy of science, never really breaks out of the realm of ordinary experience. Concepts are measured by the accuracy with which they symbolise feelings.

Because we ordinarily feel the world to be a simple, orderly place, we measure the rationality of our concepts against the rationale of our ordinary perceptions. If concepts challenge this rationale they are likely to be suspected of being “unreal” or irrational. For instance, if a person reports experiencing God in everything, Janov will assume that that person’s conceptual faculties are behaving irrationally because her report does not conform to what we ordinarily experience. But what if that person is experiencing God in everything? What if that description is telling us something valid about her experience? Then what we have is a failure to communicate, not a case of crazy irrationality.

Reality Beyond the Rational

But let’s go further. What if reality is irrational? The root of the word rational is ratio, which concerns measurement and measurability. If a person’s experience becomes attuned to the indivisibility and oneness of reality then their experience is not measurable. It is irrational. But it is not crazy. In fact it is super- or sur-real. That person may have no other word for the experience than “God”, or “Brahman”, or the Nameless One, or Tao, or whatever. And the use of such language is precisely to escape the mundane aspects of ordinary experience.

What are these mundane aspects? They revolve around the tendency to see the world as consisting of an aggregation of separately existent parts. A tree is a tree. A house is a house. Jack is Jack, and Jill is Jill. In psychological terms I believe this is called “object-permanency”. Holding sensory stimuli together in the form of stable objects or images is a faculty of perception which develops in our infancy. But before that there must be “sense-permanency”, in that red remains red, yellow remains yellow, sounds remain sounds, and so on. All of this leads to the perception of discernible parts within our experience.

But underlying this is the continuity of experience which, seen from the point of view of its parts, constitutes a radical impermanence. Some people, either by constitution or by training, are able to appreciate this subtle but profound continuity which prevents one from seeing the world as mundane and solid. Janov does not appear to understand this, suggesting that such people are refusing to accept the simplicity of an unembellished reality, inflating it out of a neurotic need for something greater? In speaking like this, as he so often has done, Janov places millions of people, past and present, into the category of neurotic half-wits, unable to tell the difference between wishful thinking and reality.

It is obvious that Janov’s God is dead. But who is to say that his is the same God as that of Irene Smith, or Rita Lopez, or Tito Brahmbhatt? The problem is not that Janov believes there is only one reality, but that he believes there is only one way to describe it. And in thinking like this he fails to appreciate how it conditions, defines and limits his own experience. If his ordinary experience reveals to him a world of beings, of which he is one, then that is how he will think of the world ordinarily. But what of extraordinary experience? How will he conceptualise that? Janov opts for conservatism, and, to paraphrase Sri Aurobindo, he, like so many psychoanalysts before him, scrutinises spiritual experience by the flicker of his torchlight, explaining the higher lights by the lower obscurities. Aurobindo goes on to say:

“The significance of the lotus is not to be found by analysing the secrets of the mud from which it grows here; its secret is to be found in the heavenly archetype of the lotus that blooms for ever in the Light above... You must know the whole before you can know the part, and the highest before you can truly understand the lowest. That is the promise of the greater psychology awaiting its hour before which these poor gropings will appear and come to nothing.”5

The Spiritual Dimension of Human Being

Perhaps Aurobindo’s position seems a little extreme? We have, after all, gained immense knowledge by groping around in the mud. But did Primal Therapy begin as a theory built on scientific knowledge? No. It did not. It arose when people found the confidence to feel again, and to challenge the hegemony of those “experts” who said it could’t or should’t be happening. It wasn’t the mud-shovellers who created Primal Therapy. It was the blooming lotuses. And whilst it is commendable of therapists to help keep their client’s feet on the ground, that is not the same as keeping them stooped with their noses in the mud.

Traditionally, mankind bridges the gap between heaven and earth. With his feet of clay, stood upon this very earth, in this very place, at this very time, the sky of his mind embraces the whole universe and intuits the indivisible, uncreated nature of all that is. In feeling his feet of clay he perceives the movement of the clay itself, the movement of the whole through the part. And in feeling thus he realises that clay is more than clay, that lotus is more than lotus, that mind is more than mind. To honour and acknowledge this experience, which he so much yearns to do, he seeks a sacred name. Christians call it God. Buddhists call it the Tathagata, Buddha-Nature, or emptiness. Jews, recognising the whole to be immeasurable and indefinable, refuse to name it directly but refer to it as the Lord who cannot be named. Muslims call it Allah. In ancient times it was often depicted as the Uroboros, the cosmic snake, which transcribes a circle, and grows as quickly as it eats its own tail. There are many more names and symbols but I have made my point.

What is Janov’s name for this experience? It is a name which seeks to deny the experience. It is known to him as “symbolised pain”, and in knowing it so he places a ceiling on what he and his patients are able to experience. I feel this is very very sad.

* * * * * * *

19th August 1997

1. "Primal Man: The New Consciousness", p269, Janov and Holden, Abacus

2.  ibid

3.  ibid

4.  ibid

5."Psychology, Mental Health and Yoga", p14, AS Dalal, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press

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