The Varieties of Primal Experiences

By John A. Speyrer

A primal is a reliving of an earlier traumatic event. Each person in the therapy would have their own personal list of types of primals though the most common types would appear on everyone's list. When I began this article I thought I would list about one-half dozen categories of feelings, but soon the list became large as more and more theoretical categories of primal feelings came to mind. I'll just stop where I am!

  • A Complete or Full Primal is one in which all of the energy unearthed during the feeling is re-lived and experienced. This is how a primal is ideally experienced. The specific traumatic event during birth or in one's infantile, toddlerhood or childhood is re-lived with the emotion which was repressed at the time of the original trauma. Thus one feels the same need, hurt, anger, jealousy, frustration, or sadness which accompanied or should have accompanied the original event.

  • An Incomplete or Partial Primal is one in which the energy unearthed during the feeling is not completely felt. The residual energy of the feeling after the incomplete primal can be diverted into symptoms or acting out behavior. (See The Aftereffects of Two Uncompleted Primal Sessions )

    For example, once I asked a non-primal friend to sit for me while I was having the primal feeling. During the feeling I had second thoughts about this and I became concerned that the person might be upset or uncomfortable, and my concern stopped the primal. An hour later the residual energy of the feeling caused me to have an anxiety attack since there was much unresolved material still in consciousness. Another example might be a telephone call which interrupts a primal in progress. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to continue the feeling after the interruption.

    Another way of defining an Incomplete or Partial Primal is one in which the entire trauma is not relived or processed. This may simply be because the event was of a magnitude that one's body protects the primaler from feeling all of the feeling at one time.

  • A Symbolic Primal has been defined by David Freudlich, M.D., as acting-out behavior without regression. The feeling that is being acted out is correct although it does not involve the original perpetrator of the trauma.

    For example, during toddlerhood, when I would fall down, I would often strike out in anger towards the person helping me to rise. That same anger was present when I was handled after my birth. I had just gone through such a severe trauma that I could no longer bear being touched. That lashing-out behavior was a symbolic primal and though it was a re-living of the original feeling, the lashing out was directed to the wrong person(s).

    I prefer using the term, symbolic primal, to mean a displacement of the energy of the repressed feeling towards a symbol of the perpetrator or event during a primal feeling. In spite of the displacement, it is, most likely, a way of lowering the charge value of the repressed trauma so that eventually the symbol is no longer needed and then one may have the primal directed towards the correct source of the pain.

    For example, I once had a primal feeling of anger directed towards God for the sufferings He allowed in the world. A few minutes later, in the same primal, the anger became directed towards my mother for the sufferings of my birth.

  • A General Primal brings together, in one feeling, a number of events which had the same emotional content.

    For example, the re-living the fear endured before an early surgery can occasionally comprise experiences also endured during a childhood automobile accident.

  • A Specific Primal consists of one particular scene or event in one's early life.

    For example, I have had a primal of reliving a tonsillectomy operation at age five.

  • A Fragmented Primal is the reliving of only a small fraction of a traumatic event at a time. In Cure By Crying, Thomas A. Stone calls this a "spoonful" of feeling. Oftentimes a severely traumatic event cannot be relived in its entirety in one session since one's defenses will not allow it. Such a fragmented primal may last only seconds before one becomes shut down. The shut down is often accompanied by a body symptom which absorbs the residual energy. Primal feelings usually occur at the rate which can be integrated. Pushing the primaler to feel more than he is ready or able to feel can cause or exacerbate psychiatric and/or psychosomatic conditions. Over time, larger and larger portions of the feeling can be felt with no such residuals.

    An example of this would be a re-experiencing of the fear of dying in the birth canal. When I originally had access to this trauma the primals would rarely last any longer than a minute or two. Later I was able to feel this trauma for longer and longer periods of time. Presently I have reached the point where I feel the pain of dying during my birth for as long as twenty minutes and the feelings now include elements other than the fear of dying which were not a part of the feeling months ago when that phase of the process began .

  • A Positive Primal is the reliving of an event which was neither traumatic nor negative but which nonetheless entailed deep emotional content.

    For example, one may have primals about the loving care of a grandparent.

  • A Pre-verbal Primal is a primal feeling devoid of words.

    Usually expressing the feeling is helpful in intensifying the primal feeling, but occasionally primal feelings of events which happened prior to the age of speech will have no words even though the feelings are intense. And yet, sometimes expressing one's feelings in pre-verbal primals may intensity them.

  • An Interconnected Primal is one which combines, in a serial fashion, a number of traumatic events with the same emotional or physical content.

    Once I was re-living a birth experience of coughing and spitting up phlegm while lying on the floor of my living room when I immediately went into a feeling of a near-drowning experience in a baby wading pool at age four. I experienced the coughing up of water from my lungs during the near-drowning primal. The scene of the near-drowning in the wading pool was very specific. I lived the falling backwards into the pool due to the pool's slippery bottom, then the inhalation of water and then the coughing up water. I even clearly visualized the statuary at the center of the pool

    An interconnected primal may also refer to a primal feeling with contains two or three "lines" of consciousness. Arthur Janov, Ph.D., the originator of primal therapy, has divided primal pain levels into:

    • First line (pre- and peri-natal - pre-verbal consciousness),
    • Second line (feeling consciousness) and
    • Third line (intellectual or cognitive consciousness ).

  • An Anti-Primal occurs when the primaler ". . . identifies with the negative parental opinion of the child.

    The "bad" parental introject becomes the un-real self and completely overwhelms the real self. 'You're right, Mom/Dad, I am no good.'" (David Freudlich, M.D. in What Is A Primal?)

  • A Sensory Primal is a primal which includes reliving one or more of the sensory inputs of the early feeling.

    For example, it is possible to re-live the visual, tactile, auditory, or/and olfactory content of the original trauma while re-experiencing its emotional impact.

  • A Dry Primal is a primal which has little feeling content but which has other elements usually associated with primal feelings, such as insights.

  • A Current Primal involves the re-living of a recent event.

    For example, one may feel in a complete way, as an adult, the inconsiderate treatment of a hospital nurse(s) during a recent hospital confinement.

  • An Uncovering Primal occurs when material is brought into consciousness during the feeling when the primaler has no conscious knowledge of the event being re-lived. The material being relived is a complete surprise to the primaler.

    Sometimes, in cases of early sexual abuse the person has no knowledge that such an event occurred.

    Such primals may be complete or partial:

    • A complete uncovering primal occurs when the material was completely repressed and presently wholly out of conscious memory.

    • An incomplete or partial uncovering primal is when the event is known to have occurred, but certain aspects, such as the emotions which accompanied the trauma are revealed for the first time because of repression or because of the age of the person when the trauma occurred.

  • An Insight Primal is one which is accompanied by a revelatory element -- a "so that's why" understanding of how one's early deprivations or traumas have produced negative or even positive behavior patterns. Sometimes during a primal, or even a day or two after, one gains automatic insight and understanding of how the trauma molded or influenced certain of our behaviors or life philosophy.

    For example, a person may gain understanding of why he became a scholar: "My mother was a teacher and when I did well at school it was the only time I felt she loved me. So that's why I had to get a Ph.D. and teach at a university."

  • Intrauterine Primals. Some are blissful; others are not.

    I have had primals of simply floating peacefully in the amniotic sac. A friend has had many years of intrauterine primals during which the umbilical cord was wrapped uncomfortably around his neck.

  • Birth Primals. These common primals can be rich and variable. Because of its nature, the birth process has the potential for causing a large number of different traumas, both physical and emotional. Some of my physical birth traumas have included:

    Difficulty in beginning the breathing process including suffocation, asthma, anoxia, coughing, choking and spitting up large quantities of mucous; guttural throat sounds; neck torsion pressure; facial pressure, including jaw, cheek bones, gums and head pain due to pressure and molding, feelings of being inverted, internal rotation, pressure involving the chest, lower and upper back; hands turned inward, arms twisting; twisting of legs, pressure on legs; shoulder blades compressions; full body spasms, seizures and contractions, twistings, convulsions and vibrations; painful muscular strainings of the chest region, neck region, jaw muscles, facial muscles, stomach and buttock muscles. profuse body perspiration, straining and pressuring of neck region, jaw muscles, facial muscles, stomach and buttock muscles; guttural throat sounds, droolings; shakings; tremblings; head standing (to mimic pressure against cervix); head pushing; excessively flowing saliva; burning of eyes, wailing, etc. Perhaps I should also add here the burning of my eyes probably due to use of silver nitrate solution.

    For examples of emotional birth feelings see,

    Physician Frank Lake's Birth Trauma, Claustrophobia and LSD Therapy and Clinical Psychologist Stephen Khamsi's Birth Feelings: A Phenomenological Investigation

  • A Transpersonal Primal is a primal feeling which has elements which extend beyond the biographical life of the primaler. This is a controversial type of primal. Some therapists and clients in the regressive therapy field believe that these experiences are objectively "real."

    According to primal therapy's originator, Dr. Arthur Janov, such experiences are evidence that the primaler is enduring an overload (more than can be resolved) of repressed trauma being released during the regression. He believes that transpersonal experiences reflect the primaler's symbolization the content of his biographical pain.

    Some of those therapists who place no personal credence in the "reality" of such experiences, nevertheless believe that by accessing the transpersonal elements of traumas can help in its resolution.

    An example of a transpersonal primal was a complete identification I had with the sufferings of Christ crucified during a particularly physically and emotionally painful primal of dying during my birth process.

    Dr. Stanislav Grof, the Czech-American psychiatrist and co-discoverer of holotropic breathwork, has defined transpersonal experiences as ". . . experiences involving an expansion or extension of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries and beyond the limitations of time and/or space." Unlike Dr. Janov, Dr. Grof believes that sometimes it is necessary to access transpersonal material in order to resolve a particular trauma.

    On pages 156 and 157 of The Realms of Human Unconscious, (1975) Psychiatrist Stan Grof lists some tentative categories of transpersonal experiences. (Reprinted with his permission):

      I. Experiential Extension within the Framework of Objective Reality"

        • Embryonal and Fetal Experiences
        • Ancestral Experiences
        • Collective and Racial Experiences
        • Phylogenetic (Evolutionary) Experiences
        • Past-Incarnation Experiences
        • Precognition, Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, and "Time Travels"

        • Ego Transcendence in Interpersonal Relations and the Experience of Dual Unity
        • Identification with Other Persons
        • Group Identification and Group Consciousness
        • Animal Identification
        • Plant Identification
        • Oneness with Life and with All Creation
        • Consciousness of Inorganic Matter
        • Planetary Consciousness
        • Extraplanetary Consciousness
        • Out-of-Body Experiences, Traveling Clairvoyance and Clairaudience, "Space Travels," and Telepathy

        • Organ, Tissue, and Cellular Consciousness

      II. Experiential Extension beyond the Framework of "Objective Reality"

        • Spiritistic and Mediumistic Experiences
        • Experiences of Encounters with Suprahuman Spiritual Entities
        • Experiences of Other Universes and Encounters with Their Inhabitants
        • Archetypal Experiences and Complex Mythological Sequences
        • Experiences of Encounters with Various Deities
        • Intuitive Understanding of Universal Symbols
        • Activation of the Chakras and Arousal of the Serpent Power (Kundalini)
        • Consciousness of the Universal Mind
        • The Supracosmic and Metacosmic Void