Although Freud (1927, 1961) and Janov (1970) perceive religion as an
illusion for which only neurotics have a need, my personal experience is
that primal therapy enabled me to return to the valuable parts of my
religious roots that I had rejected or been cut off from for many years.
Through my therapy I was able to regain access to my soul. The end of all
our exploring, T.S. Eliot (1930) says,
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
My organizational method will be historical: I will attempt to give the
flavor of my childhood religious training in liberal Protestant theology,
explain my rebellion against it, and tell what I learned in primal therapy
that enabled me to arrive where I had started with a fresh perspective and
at a new definition of religion. I will conclude with some notes on a
EARLY RELIGIOUS TRAINING
My early religious experiences were a mixture of positives and negatives.
As a boy I felt good when I entered church. Warm and friendly faces turned
to welcome us as we--Dad, Mom, my two sisters, my brother and myself--came
down the aisle wearing our Sunday best, a family, together, part of a caring
community. I relished this weekly re-welcoming ritual. From the corners of
my eyes I looked for my girlfriend. Once seated in the pew, I listened to
the organ, letting the music fill me as I watched the candles flicker on the
altar before the white marble stone with the commandments cut into it and
lettered in gold. I went into a meditative trance, which was deepened by
the singing, the litanies, the unvarying rituals. In church I got a direct
bodily experience of mild religious ecstasy--right-brained, hypnotic, full
of lovely endorphins. And when the entire congregation stood and I got to
belt out "A Might Fortress is Our God," the hair stood up on the back of my
neck. I liked the feeling experience of church.
I also enjoyed the mental stimulation of Sunday school and catechism
classes, in which we learned about and debated theology, learned how to
distinguish factual history in the Bible from myth, learned how to interpret
myth and parable, and entered into wide-ranging philosophical questioning.
I whetted my mind on the ancient and fascinating questions that religion at
its best tangles with: If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, didn't he
know we would screw up when he created us? Do we have freedom of choice, or
have our actions been predetermined?
The adults who taught me were never doctrinaire; they did not try to impose
their beliefs. On the contrary, they seemed to want me to think for myself.
They welcomed inquiry and encouraged diversity of opinion. I had a safe
forum for stretching my mind and building my self-esteem. Looking back, I
suppose I was lucky to have such positive experiences for body, feelings,
and mind in that particular Episcopal church.
The negative experiences eventually became heavier and led to my breaking
with the church soon after puberty. The first negative, and perhaps the
most important, is that I was forced to attend church by my father. More, I
had to shine the shoes of the entire family the night before. I hated
shining all those shoes--often twice or thrice to meet Dad's stringent
standards. My smoldering rebellion against him spilled over onto enforced
There were other negatives. Like most children, I was quick to note the
glaring contradictions between adult ideals and behavior, and I resented the
"Do as I say, not as I do," attitude. The Bible says, unequivocally, "It is
easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man
to enter the kingdom of heaven," yet here was a congregation far wealthier
than the starving Ethiopians, in whose name I was exhorted to clean my
plate. A commandment declared, "Thou shalt not kill," yet chaplains blessed
our troops in Korea. I felt that not killing meant not killing under any
circumstances. I was a hard-liner, wrathful in my judgments. On some
Sundays I mumbled about hypocrites and whited sepulchres, loud enough only
for my parents to hear me.
Sex was the final straw. When the divine hormones exploded in my body like
an atomic bomb, I ached for sexual contact and had less tolerance for
suppression of any kind. Making an appointment with my minister, I marched
myself into his study (which I judged far too plush and comfortable for a
man of God), and announced that I saw no reason, in the Bible or elsewhere,
not to pursue sexual intimacy. The commandment, "Thou shalt not commit
adultery," applied only to married people; I had looked up adultery in the
dictionary--my church training had honed my skills. Reverend Davis looked
thoughtfully out the study window. An ornate clock on the wall ticked.
After some minutes of meditation, he suggested masturbation.
I left in a hurry. I was already doing that. Spilling my seed--which was
also frowned upon in the Old Testament. That was no answer at all. I
wanted contact, with another person; I craved intimacy and ecstasy. Shortly
thereafter, I announced to my parents that I would no longer attend church.
Dad hit the ceiling.
"You damn sure are going to church!" he bellowed. I was prepared for this
reaction, his standard one, to be followed, I assumed, by beatings with The
Belt. I knew what he could dish out, and I was willing to take it in what I
saw as my martyrdom. Through church, I'd learned how saints had been
willing to die for their beliefs rather than submit to tyranny. I was
ready, even eager, to be martyred for mine.
Denying me this glory, Mom pointed out to Dad that as a boy he had been
forced to attend church because he was the minister's son, but that there
was no reason for me to go if I no longer believed. It was one of the few
times she stood up to him for me and I appreciated it. He calmed down
somewhat, only insisting that I be working hard at chores while the family
was at church. I was delighted at this arrangement; I felt that I had stuck
to my beliefs and won. I had won a measure of independence, but I had cut
myself off from my religious roots. For many years I was willing to have
thrown out the baby of religion with the bathwater of hierarchical authority
systems. It was not until I did primal therapy and began to untangle Dad,
authority, religion, and church that I began to look back.
PRIMAL RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES
During primal therapy I had four major experiences that led me back to
religious roots even deeper than those I had found in church and that
enabled me to reappraise institutionalized religion. Two of these were not
discrete experiences but ones that accumulated over many primal sessions,
beginning on my first day of therapy. I had the then-remarkable sensation
of being carried along on a flow of feelings and bodily movements that were
mostly outside of my conscious control--even though I was neither having sex
nor under the influence of a hallucinogen, the two sources of such feelings
in my pre-primal life. At first I was terrified by such powerful feelings
arising in unfamiliar circumstances. So difficult was it for me to believe
that such feelings could arise in "me" that I was tempted to look under the
mat I was lying on to see whether my therapist had hidden an electrode
there, through which he had zapped me with 1000 volts.
Gradually, I came to enjoy this state of surrender. Through such
experiences I learned that I did not need drugs or sex to move from a state
of conscious control to a state in which I turned my conscious self over to
a higher power, much as I might surrender my body to a breaking wave while
body-surfing. Once I went with it, the ride upon the wave of feeling became
exhilarating rather than terrifying. I enjoyed contacting this larger force
that seemed to be within me, around me, and grander than me all at once.
A similar experience happened in a much more modest manner. Lying on the
mat opened to my feelings and bodily processes, I began to feel such quiet
processes as the pulsation of my interior organs and the continuous waves of
my smooth muscles. For the first time I understood what was meant by the
"still, small voice" in the Bible--it was a deep inner voice in me that I
could hear only when I got away from the busy-ness of my daily struggles,
and it spoke not in English or in tongues but in the language of my cells
and the ebbing and flowing tides of my gentler feelings. Through these
experiences I discovered that religion need not be an exterior dogma based
upon someone else's faith in their experience but might be a personal
experience forming out of my own cellular truths, not pie-in-the-sky but
something as real and immediate as the pulsation of my own heartbeat.
In touch with this human, animate experience, I felt in touch with a
profoundly religious experience. The Latin roots of "religion" are
instructive here, meaning either to "tie back" (as does exterior authority)
or to "connect with again"--as we do when we re-connect with our inner
processes. That's exactly what I was doing: re-connecting with my inner
processes, from which I had been cut off for so long that I returned to it
as if for the first time. Through my primal process, I moved from a
religion heavy in tie-backs, which I had rejected, to a religion of
Now, I have no need to "swim in a sea of manufactured devotion in order to
remain faithful to the real experience of devotion and love" (Keleman,
1985). I don't need to tell others what to do or how to believe, I don't
need to seek an exterior ultimate authority, I don't need to preach. I
don't even know much about what's "right"--except for me.
Contacting what's right for me, I discover it is primal, persistent,
contact-producing, ordering, and vital. I find I have a bodily sense of a
meaningful cosmos which I feel through the ordered rhythms of my body, the
seasons, and the slow wheeling of the stars. I feel closer to nature and
also to the best parts of the human tradition.
My early church experience, I realized, had triggered a similar state: the
mild trance in church, away from distractions, had focused me in a natural
body process and allowed me to hear the still small voices within me.
The third primal experience came after many hours of repeated sessions of
rage and terror at having to fight my way out of the birth canal unassisted.
(I think Mom was reciting Byron's Don Juan to divert her mind from the pain
of drugless childbirth while the doctor, eager for a non-intrusive birth,
let me be shoulder-stuck for an hour until I freed myself.) In a sort of
sped-up time-lapse film that ran quickly backwards, I went from birth to an
inter-uterine state to conception to floating in the icy vastness of space,
surrounded by the faint light-pricks of distant stars. At first my
Observer-mind came in with, "Hm. Symbolic ideation. The soul floating in
space between embodiments and all that." But he quickly changed his
diagnosis: "Nope. You're a tiny part of the whole shtick, old boy. An
atom in space, a mote of consciousness, a tiny fragment of the Godhead."
Later, I realized that this correlated with a mystical experience I once
had in Asia in which I perceived that everything that isis God fragmented
and that transcending the illusion of separateness brings us to the
conclusion that we-are-all-one (hardly an original idea, but one as ancient
as the Vedas and as corny as Dr. Bronner). Nonetheless, knowing cognitively
and experiencing are radically different states. Both the mystical and the
primal experiences seemed to have a common core, though the attendant
feelings in the former were joy and laughter, in the latter fear and aloneness.
Together, these two experiences--primal and mystical--formed a whole in
which I could see how I was both a tiny, individualized fragment of the
universe and, simultaneously, "God," and that I could tune in to one or the
other way of perceiving "truth" at any given moment, depending upon whether
feelings of separateness or union were ascendant, but that a higher truth
was the paradox that "I" existed in two realms at all times and was part of
the infinite and eternal, as well as the finite and immediate.
My Episcopalian training helped me conceptualize this thought with a sense
of strange familiarity, although reading Buddhism and Alan Watts also
helped. I felt personally comfortable in the long mystical religious
tradition in a way I could not have been without my early training.
The fourth primal experience I had that seemed to me profoundly religious
(that is, re-connecting) got me through my fear of my own death. After
rejecting, as an adolescent, the Christian concept of heaven, I settled for
a pantheistic view--I'd go back into the soil and supply nourishment for
flowers, which would then have within them my molecules. Now Freud thought
that a basic underlying need that religion fills is the fear of death. My
own experience, however, was that I came back to religion only after I had
lost my fear of death through my primal experience.
This experience occurred when I was mourning for my long-dead grandfather
who had given me a lot of unconditional love when I was a child. So
marvelous was our relationship for me that as a boy in church I always
substituted the phrase "God the Grandfather" for the traditional "God the
Father." For me, God the Father was a wrathful and jealous god, whereas God
the Grandfather was the embodiment of compassion and loving kindness.
Yet when Granddad died--I was fourteen and away at prep school--I did not
mourn at all. I was thankful that Mom gave me the option of not attending
his funeral. An outside observer might have thought me callous, but quite
the opposite was true: Granddad's leaving was so profoundly shocking to me
that I could not face it then. I had to wait another fourteen years to feel
strong enough, through therapy, to begin to grieve.
"I love you, Granddad!" I sobbed, weeping disconsolately for hours. My
shells broke and dissolved as the innermost petals of my heart re-opened.
Wide open, feeling the bittersweet pang of a lost deep love, I wept and
wept, mourning Granddad and letting him go. And then a strange thing
happened. Once I had let him go, he came to me. First, I felt the almost
physical sensations of warmth that his love had always sent into me. I felt
his love, alive, surrounding me, penetrating me, filling me with joy. And
then, though my eyes were closed, I saw him, standing in the room, smiling
at me, his blue eyes twinkling from behind his rimless spectacles. Sensing
him there, I was filled with great peace. Simultaneously, all fear of death
left me. In an intuitive flash, I knew that death was only a beginning of
I have no way to verify it scientifically--even if I wanted to--but I am
convinced that Granddad, in some form, was with me in that padded,
windowless room, as real as anything I know to be real. Since that day I
often experience Granddad's presence with me, and I understand the concept
of guardian angels. He is a wise guide who helps me in my work as a
therapist and as a writer, and he helps me be a great daddy to my two boys.
I know that when I die, Granddad will be there to guide me through whatever
journey awaits us into that country from whose borne Shakespeare thought no
traveler had returned.
I had this experience long before I read the reports of Moody (1975) and
others on the Near Death Experience (NDE) or before I saw the documentary
film on C.G. Jung in which the old Swiss dreamer, recounting his own NDE,
when asked by the interviewer if this means he believes in an afterlife,
replied with his lovely little smile and said:
"Oh, I don't believe in an afterlife. I know."
Having that knowledge, I no longer fear death. Yet it was after this loss
of the fear of death that I found myself more and more drawn to religion.
Nor was it any conventional religion with a concept of heaven. Through
these last two primal experiences, I know that I, and Granddad, (and
probably everybody, but I'll let you decide for yourself), have always been
and will always be. I sense that we are all connected in some way--and have
always been. What greater re-connection could there be, than to feel that?
These experiences--of having someone "dead" come to me, of experiencing
myself as an eternal bit of a unified but constantly changing universe, of
hearing the still voice within, and of rediscovering that I could trust in
and surrender to a higher power--seemed direct perceptions of religious
experience. Though there are many paradigms through which I might
conceptualize them, I like choosing the most dramatic one available. For
me, that's a revitalized religious one that owes much to Buddhism,
shamanism, and a Jungian Christianity that honors rather than disparages the
body. I hope for a community of similarly-minded people, though I have as
yet--of this writing--to find one. Perhaps this paper is my message in a
bottle cast upon the universal seas whose slow tides I have come to trust.
WHAT I GAINED FROM LIBERAL PROTESTANTISM
I'd like to make a few observations on what I think I gained from my early
religious training: these are gifts I value and which I ponder how to pass
on to my children without the accompanying garbage-dogma.
First, church framed a bodily experience (which I had in other contexts) as
a religious one and gave me a weekly "hit" of that feeling. Consequently, I
was both familiar with the feeling and not starved for it. I could
recognize it when it reappeared in primal sessions and I was not so hungry
for it that I needed to leap upon the bandwagon of one of the self-styled
gurus of our times.
Second, Episcopalianism introduced me to a systematic way of talking about
religious experience. The antiquity of this system has the advantage that
it has confronted most of the important religio-philosophical issues that
beset a human being; in that, little has changed in two or three thousand
years. Being a recipient of and a participant in that continuous and
continuously-evolving stream of consciousness gives a sense of
identification with a large part of humanity (in the Judeo-Christian
tradition) and also provides a way of languaging matters of the soul.
Unlike fundamentalism, liberal Protestantism has not attempted to freeze a
4000-year old "science" and to apply it unquestioningly to today but has
encouraged the evolution of both scientific and religious thought rather
than opposing them. I found my religious training to be a helpful adjunct
to my more academic education. It developed my capacity for abstract
thought and my ear for the rhythm and cadence of English poetry.
Third, tangling with religious questions early on, I was never so
unsophisticated that I felt the need to swallow the swill of one of the
spiritual panderers of our times, as have so many of my contemporaries. I
mentioned above that I was not starved for religious feeling; nor was I
starved for religious thought. No guru was saying anything much different
from what I had already heard long before. I was simply put off by the
hierarchical Oriental relationship which takes so little account of the
Occidental individual, as Joe Campbell (1987) often pointed out, and I'd had
plenty of that with Daddy. The terrible abuse of this
parent-hunger/soul-hunger by such people as Joya and Rajneesh, Jim Jones and
Jim Bakker, must make a sane person question the unmet needs of the leaders
as well as the followers. My early religious training made me impervious to
Last, liberal Protestantism articulates a view of the universe as
essentially good, true, and beautiful. Through primal therapy, I think that
I have re-arrived at that view. Having within and around me now a continual
and direct experience of "God's" (choose your own word) presence, I perceive
the universe as a positive and loving place wherein human consciousness may
expand toward the good, the true and the beautiful.
For all these gifts from my early churching I am thankful.
NOTES TOWARD A PRIMAL RELIGION
I have a dream. In it a community of feeling people, re-connected with
themselves and their human biological ground, work together to mine the rich
sources of our religio-mythic heritage, drawing from it the best of our
rituals (which are enactments of our dreams) and mythopoetic traditions to
form a religion free of hierarchy and dogma.
Many of us have begun this process already, both in re-connecting with our
somatic processes and in constructing personal mythologies that give them
outward expression. I intuit that a time is coming when a new religion will
take shape out of experiential process psychotherapy, transpersonal
psychology, world religions, myth, and art (in the largest sense of that
word). It will be democratic rather than plutocratic, egalitarian rather
than hierarchical, experiential rather than dogmatic, feeling-based rather
I suppose I'd like to re-create that childhood experience of coming in and
seeing all those welcoming faces again, knowing we shared a common belief
In my dream-vision I see members of this community coming together in a
strange new ritual: in a semi-darkened room--or even better, out in nature,
where God is clearly present--they lie down together (yet separate) and
enter the depths of their human feeling process. Perhaps their journey to
these depths is aided by music, drumming, or other ancient rituals.
Afterwards, they sit in a circle and speak to one another from their inner
voices, as Quakers do.
I have a memory of a cartoon, perhaps in The New Yorker, in which two men
in suits and ties are standing in front of an imposing edifice upon which
are the words, "First Church of the Primal Scream. Services Sunday." One
man says to the other, "I suppose it had to happen sooner or later." I
certainly hope it will.
Campbell, J. (1987) "Beyond Dogma: The Vision Quest Experience." Audio
tape #1296, New Dimensions Foundation, Inc., San Francisco.
Eliot, T.S. (1930) The Complete Poems and Plays, p. 145. New York,
Freud, S. (1927, 1961) The Future of an Illusion. New York, Anchor Books.
Translated by W.D. Robson-Scott.
Janov, A. (1970) The Primal Scream. New York, Laurel.
Keleman, S. (1985) "Finding a Religious Ground." Audio tape, Center Press,
Moody, R.A. (1975) Life After Life. New York, Bantam.
Melville put it beautifully: "I am a very religious man without a religion." The psyche seems to me religious ground. Also -- love, children, birth, death, nature, good art, solid work -- some of my own loves.
A co-founder of the Primal Center in Berkeley and Nevada City, CA, I see primal as the most religious therapy available.