Remembering Summer part 4

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Remembering Summer

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.


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Behind the Scenes part6

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Behind the Scenes part5

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Behind the Scenes part 4

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Behind the Scenes part 3

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Behind the Scenes part 2

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Behind the Scenes

“If you want to catch beasts you don’t see every day,
You have to go places quite out of the way,
You have to go places no others can get to.
You have to get cold and you have too get wet, too.”
― Dr. Seuss
The 2013 Thanksgiving Retreat is fast approaching. Scattered among my email for assisted living, male performance enhancements, and pleas from AARP (American Association Retired Persons) to join before it’s too late, are the many letters I receive asking, “How do you guys plan and prepare for Retreats?” Great question!
The following is just a tiny glimpse into the planning and clinical thought processes that inform the logistical and clinical preparations for Retreats. To those who may be “on the fence” or unsure about attending, I urge you to sign up as the 2013 Thanksgiving Retreat will be the “state of the art” event, the culmination of over 35 years of Retreat experience. In true dialectic fashion, the very reasons you may not want to attend are the disguised primal reasons you probably need to attend. Think about it!
I myself do not want to go, and for that very reason, I am going. Gretchen on the other hand, cannot wait to go, and for that reason… we will not let her go! Mark Grieshaber is ambivalent, and for that very reason, he is coming (but, he must fly coach class and will only attend the 1st hour of each group.)
As you can see, therapy is an ongoing, flowing, and organic process. Always in flux.

Behind the Scenes

Retreats require extensive planning that usually begins 9-12 months prior to securing a date and announcing the event. Gretchen and I begin by pouring over hundreds of Retreat site brochures and visiting endless web sites in search of facilities that meet the unique needs of a Primal Institute Retreat site. Approximately 4 weeks into this extensive exercise in futility, on the verge of adrenal-pituitary failure, comes the realization that we already have a perfect site for our needs. La Casa de Maria, in beautiful Santa Barbara California offers us the perfect combination of beauty, privacy, and easy access only 90 minutes from Los Angeles. The next step is to reserve our date. We have been fortunate in part, due to our early planning in usually obtaining our preferred times (Thanksgiving and early summer.)
As many of you know, La Casa is owned and operated by a Catholic charity and administered by the Our Lady of Anhedonia order of Catholic Nuns. The property is well maintained and they run a tight ship. They are also fierce negotiators with business acumen to spare. Put it this way, if we were the Indians and the Nuns were Dutch settlers in 1625, we would have sold them NYC for $24.00 and thrown in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont.
Here’s a brief breakdown of what actually happens: Sister Mary (The Hammer) Kelley informs us of the yearly price/rate increase, usually a not insignificant price increase, citing increased operating costs, yada, yada, yada. I usually manage a weak “whatever happened to your vows of poverty”? Or I used to play in a band with your new Pope. This is of course before Gretchen silences me with “that look.” You know, the one all husbands know and instinctively obey and understand.
Throughout the years, the Institute has been committed to absorbing these price increases, or as much of them as possible, rather than burden our patient population during these difficult, financial times. One can say that we’re natural caretakers, or that we are deeply in touch and connected to our species-specific humanitarian consciousness. However, I think our Accountant nailed it spot on, when he said “you’re idiots! Raise your fees!”
Approximately four months from Retreat date, as patients continue to sign up, we begin to get a feel for who will be attending. At this point, clinical planning slips into high gear. Appearances to the contrary, Retreat sign up and attendance is not based on a 1st come 1st served basis. In fact, some that apply are denied a place based on clinical issues. Acceptance is determined by a variety of clinical concerns with the following examples only touching the surface of all the logistical and clinical data that must be evaluated prior to accepting a patient for a Retreat.
A great Retreat experience cannot be left to chance or happenstance. While some patients are denied a spot at a given Retreat, others may be encouraged to attend. Again, clinical considerations outweigh all others in our decision to accept or deny someone a place at the Retreat. The patient’s best interest is always our clinical compass and in service to this vision, we offer financial assistance to those in need, in order to ease the financial strain of attending. This assistance ranges from full scholarship to various fee reductions. As many as 50% of those attending Retreats may have already received some degree of financial assistance at some point from the Institute or Primal Family Support Services (our newly created charity) to spread “Primal Consciousness” and make affordable therapy available to those in need. (Your tax-exempt donations are most welcome and appreciated.)
In addition to evaluating individual patient needs and suitability for a Retreat, the needs of the Retreat environment itself must be factored in and attended to. In practice, this means that our deny or accept decisions and our financial flexibility extended to some patients, must all converge to help create the optimal effective environment.
It is no accident that every Retreat includes patients with severe gastric distress and/or chronic sleep Apnea, accompanied by 120 decibel snoring (research suggests that jet engines approach 118 decibels.) Creating just the right atmosphere in the close quartered dormitory, takes years of experience, but it is well worth the effort when it all comes together.
A great Retreat is like cooking a casserole. Lots of little ingredients in just the right proportion! We are always careful to include several E.T.L. patients in our Retreat “casserole.” E.T.L. refers to “extreme third liners” or those patients for whom obsessive ruminations, ideological rigidity, and a passion for subversive pedantics dominate. In other words, they defend against pain, theirs and yours, primarily thorough thoughts and ideas. We can usually rely on “E.T.L.s” to disrupt group cohesion in a variety of helpful ways. They are well meaning and quite loveable, and the information they disseminate comes from their heart as they try to be helpful, but often the result is quite the opposite of what they hope for, often bringing on hostility from various group members. Care must be taken to protect the E.T.L.s, as they are quite sensitive and fragile at these moments.
Nevertheless, E.T.L.s contribute by facilitating group cohesion and group identification as most group members emotionally bond in their anger towards E.T.L.s. A typical example of this occurs at a highly emotional moment in a primal group. At just the right moment, always a very tender, poignant, on the verge of accessing a long repressed, life altering emotional moment, the E.T.L is compelled to interject a mood breaking, cognitive based excursion away from the goose bumped, emotional laden atmosphere that was only moments ago washing over the entire room. Naturally, some people react with a bit of irritation. I still get misty eyed when I think about one of these E.T. L. moments from last summer’s Retreat. “Jim” (fictional name) was in the throes of an epiphany that involved him remembering the only time in his life when his mother treated him with tenderness and love. As copious, chest heaving emotional tears cascaded down his agonized face, one of our well chosen E.T.L.s blurted out “I hate my Buddy, in fact, I hate everyone’s Buddy and can someone please explain the “Giving” exercise!” Well, you could hear a pin drop and you could actually feel the energy field in the room glow with a bewildered animosity toward the confused E.T.L. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies “ I love the smell of group in the morning!”
As you can see, our casserole is coming along quite nicely!
I vividly remember discussing this fascinating process with Vivian Janov one summer Retreat over a wonderful ocean viewing sunset, each of us enjoying a locally produced glass of red wine. I said “E.T.L.s seem to trigger in the group a return to our species specific tribal ancestral roots, producing intense anger and divisive emotions that split the group into factions of “us and them”. She said, “I think you’ve had enough wine”!
We also of course, strive to include veteran patients or “E.F.L.s” – extreme first liners. These patients are usually languishing in some form of 1st line intrusion, or out and out birth feelings, are often given special financial consideration for the vital role they play in “splitting” group cohesion. These patients divide the group because of what they represent – different things to different people. To some patients, they seem to represent “the Primal Holy Grail” something they seek to attain or achieve or struggle towards. For others, they may be confused or even repelled by what they witness. Either way – Bingo! Great Retreat, our casserole is simmering. Again, this is but a small glimpse of the thinking and planning that precedes a Retreat.
We are extremely proud of our unbroken consecutive record of 27 Retreats that include a major plumbing crisis at La Casa. Be honest, you’d miss it if it didn’t happen! Cold showers, ankle deep water on the floor; we leave no stone unturned, spare any expense to create the perfect Retreat environment. The perfect yet delicate balance of stress, frustration, poor personal hygiene, and Primal release.
Approximately 4-6 weeks before the start of a Retreat commence the major physical renovations. If you were to visit the site now, you would be reminded of a Four Seasons style hotel, complete with all the associated luxury amenities. At our behest, the work now begins to transform La Casa in accordance with our unique needs. In addition to the aforementioned plumbing calibrations, many other modifications are completed to create the “rustic” atmosphere so conducive to emotion… and skin rashes.
A special arrangement with the California Department of Corrections ensures that the hyper-compressed, stained, and tattered mattresses’ you all expect, will be waiting for you when you arrive – on loan of course from local prisons and detention centers. Our goal among many, is to prevent deep restful R.E.M. stage sleep, so crucial in keeping Retreat attendees on a hair trigger of explosive outbursts and tenuous social coping. Our casserole is coming along nicely as we continue to add additional spice and flavorings.
Central air conditioning is of course disabled for Retreats in the summer months and for Retreats in cooler weather, uncomfortable, dry, throat constricting, volcanic heat is available. Using dialectics and Primal Theory as our “North Star”, pervasive emotional, tactile, somatic, and social overload converge to create the ultimate feeling environment.
The last few weeks leading up to a Retreat are quite hectic as we finalize the above-mentioned details and lockdown the final list of patients attending. Each patient is discussed at length in terms of their progress in therapy, goals, obstacles to progress, and how best to tailor the Retreat for their specific clinical needs. In the case of former patients returning and those that have been away from the Institute for a year or more, we routinely contact family, friends, and co-workers to obtain a complete picture of their current functioning. Most of the lawsuits from this “alleged invasion of privacy” have indeed been dropped or settled.
The final 2 weeks before a Retreat are quite stressful and have at times, even threatened my usually tranquil marriage to my wife, Gretchen. As deadlines approach, tensions rise, nerves become increasingly frazzled. I begin making frequent trips to supervise the physical alterations to the Retreat site while Gretchen holds down the fort and completes equally important tasks here in Los Angeles. Some of you may have noticed the evolution of our “Retreat Welcome Package”. Its humble beginnings started as a single Xeroxed sheet with meal times and a buddy list. The current version is a singular, Gretchen vision. A glossy compendium of Everything- book length, containing hundreds of buddy questions, secret words, and secret word instructions, postmaster protocol, secret Santa ethics code and much, much more! All of this presented in a Primal Institute logo tote bag, glossy multi-color folders, Primal Institute logo T-shirt and stock shares of Kleenex Inc. I did successfully veto the Hermes luggage gift sets and the 800 count Egyptian thread bed linens she insisted you all could not live without. Win a few, lose a few!
A word about the “secret words” that each patient receives, designed to help target some clinical issue a patient may be struggling with or unaware of completely. In the rare instance we disagree on the choice of a secret word for someone, when the dialectical or theory based choice is unclear – we go to “The Coin of Wisdom”. The “Coin of Wisdom” is a John F. Kennedy fifty-cent piece and it has settled many a clinical debate over the years. I usually “call” heads, Gretchen is partial to “tails” so it works out rather well.

Research Revealed

Ten years ago in partnership with a major University we began a study. “Primal Pain and Diminished Awareness”, and our twice yearly retreats played a major role in the research design. “Does Pain Make You Stupid?” was one of the many research questions we sought to answer.
It can now be revealed that the “boring, welcome to Casa de Maria” presentation given by a “Casa employee” at the start of every retreat has always been our beloved Office Manager, Atty Castle – Always! Atty in a variety of disguises, twice even as a male Casa employee! Not one patient has ever noticed the obvious deception or noted the many bizarre disguises Ms. Castle employed.
More research results in the coming months will follow, but you can see from initial data that pain does indeed make us stupid!
Well, I hope this little glimpse into the planning and theoretical structure of retreats has been somewhat illuminating as to the care and effort we put into every retreat.
We look forward to seeing you all soon in Santa Barbara.

Barry M. Bernfeld, Ph.D.
Los Angeles October 2013

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