Perhaps it’s selective amnesia, but I cannot recall a Retreat that hasn’t been a unique and valuable therapeutic experience. However, recently I have found myself reflecting on my experience at our last summer Retreat, which for me, stands out even among the great ones of recent years.
As is often the case, we had an interesting mixture of attendees, patients from all over the world, from Australia to Japan, Europe and the USA. Ages ranged from 21 years old to patients in their 70’s, across the entire diagnostic spectrum. Primal Therapy has always attracted a broad range of individuals from all cultures and backgrounds. The unifying bond is the recognition that repressed feelings from childhood have had a major impact in their lives and that “Primal Consciousness” offers a roadmap back to themselves, a way to reconnect to the person they once were and can become again if they can learn to trust the wisdom of their deepest feelings.
In the history of human affairs, psychotherapy and Primal Therapy in particular, hold a unique position. The mission statement of Primal Therapy is to create a relationship and an environment of freedom and safety. To stimulate, articulate, feel, express, resolve and integrate our deepest feelings and losses, from past to present. To restore brain, neurological, hormonal, and behavioral balance in the service of living fuller lives, to tolerate the risks and perils of experiencing “now” through full attachment to the people in our lives. To live without pretense.
It is uniquely gratifying to witness at Retreats, experienced patients “mentor” newer patients in a very organic, informal way. No one is trying to mentor anyone, but mentoring and education via insight and kindness happens all the time. To see some of the newer patients be vulnerable and open up to intense emotion, perhaps for the first time, is powerfully dramatic and speaks to the atmosphere of safety and acceptance that is special within the Primal community. After all these years, I am still in awe of the impact of the 3-week intensive program and the Retreats, and the ways in which they can change lives. So, hats off, and a hearty “well done!” to everyone who attended.
I know very well that emotions are ephemeral; this is what makes us uniquely human. The good times never last, but thank goodness, the bad times too, ebb and flow and eventually give way to better times. Such is life. I accept this personally and professionally. Most of us have some ability to viscerally recall past feelings states. In fact, if you think about it, that’s a damn good explanation of therapy… connecting to previous feeling states . Primal people, in particular, cultivate this ability to access previous feeling states. In therapy we learn to do this, get better at this, outsmart defenses and allow grief. We call this “being open and less defended.” I’ve always thought that dialectically speaking, feeling pain should lead naturally to greater commensurate ability to feel non-painful emotions like joy, happiness, playfulness, calmness, gratitude and generosity to name just a few. I still believe this, but may have discovered a little speed bump, or hiccup that complicates our journey to mental health.
I’ve been curious for years why certain patients attend many Retreats, always do well and retain the visceral ability to recall how they felt while at the Retreat. They seem to be able to access the feeling of being at a Retreat and can retain this feeling with little difficulty. They may have a greater ability to use their Retreat experience and insight as they move forward in their lives following the Retreat. When the next Retreat comes along, time and circumstance permitting, they often choose to attend. But there is another category of patient that despite previous and profoundly important experiences and breakthroughs at Retreats, do not attend Retreats or do but very infrequently. Reactions range from disinterest to repugnance and hostility to the very idea of attending yet another Retreat.
I have often felt like the unwelcome Jehovah’s Witness knocking on doors just trying to discuss or encourage these patients to consider another Retreat. We have tried all possible ways to encourage some people including financial scholarships and often this is still insufficient to overcome their particular type of amnesia. Is it possible that some form of repression or affective amnesia prevents these patients from being able to retrieve the emotional progress of past experience, to reconnect with past experiences of well, connection? Experientially, neurologically, we are better calibrated to feeling painful emotions, so is it possible that important “positive” experiences are crowded out by grief ? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s just run of the mill resistance to change and the general tendency to cling to the familiar. Maybe it is the obvious fear of intimacy or a resistance to dealing with the feelings triggered while navigating relationships. Regardless, it is curious that despite important, powerfully emotional and life affirming experiences, some patients are reluctant to put themselves back into that environments. Again, I want to stress that this is not due to lack of time or of financial obstacles. Curious indeed.
Life and research teach us that we learn by doing. The more we do, the better we learn. Any task, skill or capacity is best served by as much practice and repetition as possible. Play a “G” chord on the piano over and over and over, until your hand via muscle memory effortlessly forms that shape. Repeat for years and for other chords shapes and a piano player you will be.
Our nervous system can be calibrated for pain, better known as childhood, or with help, guidance, and a little luck, recalibrated to include pains counterpoints… love, joy, attachment and happiness. Sometimes the piano comes to us, but more often we have to make considerable effort. We have to decide we want to play music, buy a piano and most importantly, prioritize our lives to include sitting on that bench and making music. Over time, we become capable of new musical skills and the horizon is wide open.
Therapy itself involves a retraining of our capacities. Through access to our history we come to live in the moment and a less painful future becomes a realistic option. It seems foolish not to take advantage of one of our most potent Primal interventions – the Retreats.
The weeklong residential, total environment comes closest to matching the impact of our early lives with our families. As children, our families, our needs, our pain was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The total immersion of the Retreat environment facilitates a depth of experience and access and intensity not available or possible anywhere I know of.
So please, next time we decide to organize a Retreat, don’t make me feel like I’m selling vacation rentals in Chernobyl! Man up or Woman up! And recalibrate your nervous system to include intimacy, fun, human connection, and emotional transparency. The ability to sleep on a mattress manufactured in 1923 is but one of the many benefits just waiting for you.