Paul Vereshack in Conversation with Thérèse Gaynor

Thérèse: It seems that you feel it’s important to separate out the work you’re doing from traditional Primal Therapy?

Paul: Primal Therapy is a feeling and body based therapy that is spreading around the world among people who, by and large, do not have a broad psychological and psychiatric background. It’s almost like a folk movement on some level and this is how it should be. However, because it’s being spread around the world in this way by people who don’t have really solid basic mental health training, there is a development in my opinion, of dangerous self practices. To me these centre around the belief that if one can only keep feeling and feeling and feeling, regardless of the level of disintegration people may already have and may in this therapy get into, that if they can just keep feeling, all will be well. In my opinion, people are getting hurt, due to this orientation. While for most people there is huge truth in this business of feeling very very deeply and for along time, none the less there is damage being done and people are going to psychological places they can’t come back from. It’s not the rule but it is happening. I personally know someone who was literally dying from exhaustion and his non medical Primal Therapist wanted him to move into the therapist’s own home and do more intensive and deeper work. This lack of clinical judgement due to lack of over all mental health training can have seriously negative consequences.

I separate myself from the primal community because my work is client centred. I believe that a therapy should move forward by free association; the associations that client themselves are producing, and at the level and depth of intensity that a client is moving into. I believe that the therapist’s mind should be empty of theory, such as “knowing”, for instance that if the client will just do their birth work all will be well. This attitude about what the client should find and do can produce many kinds of difficulties such as false memory syndromes. Skipping over a life time of hurts to go to the therapist’s favourite theory creates clients that are full of psychological holes. I call it Swiss Cheese Therapy. Rather than that approach I believe that the therapist should be concentrating on becoming resonant with the various levels of movement in the client and gently moving a client ever deeper but only gently and only with a very strong sense of therapist ignorance about what should come next.

I believe that therapists should sit with their clients in a complete emptiness of mind; empty of all theory and thoughts and beliefs. It is my belief, (yes I have some) that the deepest and most creative and properly articulated kind of therapy comes when the therapist’s mind is free from everything except from resonance with the client. That free floating client centeredness, which operates from a base of having come to this belief after a long and complete training in Psychiatry, and psychotherapy in particular plus coupled with years of practice, separates me from those who want everyone to grab their piccolos, flutes and drums and jump on the band wagon of what ever popular theory marches down the street at the time.

Thérèse: and the move into teaching?

Early on in my professional life the people who taught psychotherapy were professors. They were the psychoanalysts of that particular age; the most highly qualified and most highly trained people who had proceeded carefully and slowly up through the university system. It never occurred to me to teach primal therapy. I’m not a university professor. When I began to see what was being taught, those who were quite willing to be teachers, and who were coming from very narrow backgrounds, and as I saw the damage that was being done, it seemed important to me to jump into the fray. I came to feel that someone with real background training needed to jump into the fray and say; “Hold on a minute here, what’s happening is not okay.” The main stream of mental health was avoiding these new amazing techniques and there was no one to pick up the job. That’s why I had no choice and have become a teacher of Feeling and Body Oriented Depth Psychotherapy. I am not the most primal person I know by any means, but no one else has this kind of hospital training. I certainly make mistakes but I do see them and continually ask for feed back from my clients.

Thérèse: I’m curious about the emptiness of mind you speak about. You are after all sitting comfortably in the knowledge and groundedness of core training and the development and practice that comes with experience. Does not this “knowledge” or unconscious knowing, offer you something other than just an empty mind? Does this not allow for a level of safety, comfort and ease in clinical practice?

Paul: I think you’ve put your finger on a great paradox in therapy. I think that to practice therapy one has to have learned and to be well read and to have some formal training in what is referred to as abnormal psychology. It’s important to know when you’re moving into a schizophrenic process, an organic brain process, a manic depressive process etc. You are correct here.  I think that our basic grounding of knowledge is a very important thing because what a client produces falls into that holding environment of the therapists’ intellectual knowledge and clinical experience. Gradually the intellectual knowledge and the clinical experience meld together and form the base from which one practices. I think that for me the experiential quality of the base, the sense that there is much in me waiting to listen and if necessary to move in, should my clinical sense be triggered where I feel that there is something going wrong is in fact not exactly emptiness.

Your question does challenge me to say to you that while I am listening, I hope in a ‘no mindedness’ way, the fact is that I wouldn’t call it a ‘no bodied ness’ or a ‘no experiential ness’. It’s important that therapists don’t leave aside the deepest and most balanced aspects of themselves. But still, in our work when clients begin to bring highly charged and highly complex, non-nameable in the moment, emotional material, there can be a huge pull on the part of the therapist to intrude into the client from within their own fears and from within their own defensive knowledge. It’s that which I ask therapists to try and neutralise and the only way that you can really neutralise the automatic defensive responses of the deepest self this is to lie in a dark sound-proofed room with a therapist who won’t interrupt you for a few years so that you become comfortable with what formerly would have triggered all your defences and spilled over into your own therapy. This is of course an ideal and a place where we all fail from time to time.

In the front of my book I say that; all knowledge above the abyss is the knowledge of avoidance, and of course what I’m saying is that all knowledge and activity above the level of groundedness in very deep feelings is almost in every instance, some kind of defence. So one of the reasons I’m ostracised by my psychiatric community is that I’m asking them to lay aside an extremely sophisticated set of “knowledge” defences which has been structured over many, many years. They depend upon this for a sense of safety and for their income.

I think that psychotherapists, myself included act from terror. That is my most terrible truth. Therefore, traditional therapists inside and outside of Psychiatry are not going to move too quickly into this area, which asks us all to go so deeply into and so often successfully dissolve, to a greater or lesser extent, that terror. Therapists don’t even want to know they have all this terror. Denial as we say is not just a river in Egypt. We are bringing seeds however with this new approach, and the garden is growing for sure. For me, psychotherapy is one of the greatest defences ever devised. I talk about all these issue in the on line book on my website at www.paulvereshack.com

Thérèse: This is a strong statement to make. Some part of me can relate to it completely but there is another part of me that is balking at your suggestion that the practice that I have become part of is no more than a defence against perhaps experiencing my own depth of terror and an inherent assumption in this that I may not have achieved this.  Can you say more about this?

Paul: I believe that psychotherapists learn a body of theory in order to feel safe and structured in what can be the very frightening and seemingly chaotic core of human beings. If I can sit down in front of a client and I’ve been certified in knowing what’s really going on in terms of mental function, then I’m standing on a good solid platform of safety. I think this is one of the most subtle processes in the world. A psychotherapist welcomes a client into their office and sits down with a sense of security. The therapist has a sense of security and that security is intertwined in a most profound and subtle and complex way with what they think they know.

Take one such psychotherapist and lie them down in a dark sound-proofed room and ask them what they are feeling and you’re going to have a psychotherapist who no longer feels secure. That lack of security and the journey that begins at that point into the sobbing or writhing or twisting or screaming or vomiting or whatever, begins a journey at whole new and deeper level; the place I call level four. Once you begin that journey all other therapy discussions feel thin and without substance. It is here we really see that, ‘All knowledge above the abyss of deep feelings is avoidance.” So I am a very demanding person when I meet a therapist. I want to know if they’re prepared to lie down and get chaotic and get comfortable with the generative forces of the mind so that then and only then they can learn to sit quietly and allow others to heal at that level.

Am I being all pompous and adversarial at this point?

Thérèse: You’re expressing an opinion that could offend and while I may have a response, I don’t feel offended, I feel invited to re-consider and re-examine my own practice and my position in the therapeutic space. But more importantly it feels that I am being invited in a very direct way to re-examine my own journey, to consider again, the idea that I can only journey with my clients as far as I’ve made the journey within myself This Self examination has an integrity and could never be about an arrogance that I feel you are suggesting could exist.

Paul: I am arrogant; I know this about myself and make no apology for this. There was a book written when I was a student by a psychologist, whose thesis was that training destroyed our natural healing ability. Interestingly and sadly he ultimately took his own life. I’m sure that he had very little support from within his professional community.

The un-compromising statement of my position is that, all knowledge above the level of deep feeling which I call the abyss is the knowledge and activity of avoidance and that brooks no exceptions. What this means is that, the moment that someone starts talking to me I am aware that they are trying to weave a web of a mutual validation around the structures they have acquired in order to feel safe. I will not be a part of that web.

At this point there is an intersection for me with Zen philosophy, which says hold no belief, and expects a person eventually to shed the structures of personality; it’s false beliefs and knowledge. Of course, if we had absolutely no personality we would have no way to reach out and connect with, and I hate to say it, manipulate our fellow human beings in order to make our way in the world. The illustration that illuminates this for me is the example of the classical Samurai warrior who when he is fighting is completely responsive to the environment. He is not encumbered, he has become a person who is just completely in alignment in each moment and responsive in each moment. That’s not a personality function; it is if you like, the whole brain shorn of anything that might impede it. So that when Zen says hold no belief, that’s the kind of thing that we’re talking about.

Unfortunately in Western civilisation and actually in Eastern civilisation this ideal of being an uncontaminated responsive human being, who is prepared to be present in the world, fully responsive and without being manipulative, is for me like a goal which fades forever in front of me as I try to move toward it. As I have struggled with this within myself, I’ve realised that everything I do is at some level lodged in my ego systems. In some way or other I’m being charming and verbal and entertaining with you right now and that is not my goal. I see it as part of me and it can be fun but I don’t see it as the end point of my growth. I would like a little less charm and to be a little more silent in this world but I’m very much in the world and in the battle of our species to become more conscious.

Thérèse: I wonder if at this point it would be helpful to hear something of the specifics of your therapeutic approach; Deep Feeling Therapy and how it works?

Paul: Usually people who come to me have been to other therapists, mostly to talking therapists and have found that they are not touching the core of themselves but working around it. I begin by taking an initial psychiatric history and usually in the first few sessions a client chats with me because I want to get to know them, I want to get a feeling for them and I want them to get a feeling for me. Slowly but surely I will ask them, as they are sitting up on my mat if there is a feeling behind what they are talking about. If they then pause to examine this they begin to realise that there is a feeling there, but that they have just talked over it. I might say something like, “Well, suppose you stop talking now and enter your body and turn your awareness to your feelings and don’t do anything else. Stay out of your head and notice what begins to come to you.”

Deeper feeling therapy is much more a receiving kind of experience. The feeling or the pain and its texture, if focused upon begins to act as like magnet and often to a clients surprise, some sort of connection comes to them and comes to them in a different way than an intellectual appreciation. At this time I suggest that they might work more effectively if they were to lie down and I were to darken the room. I don’t start with it that dark so as to not frighten new clients. And I might say to them, okay let’s go back to the feeling, and so the journey begins. I begin to ask them over and over again not to talk to me so much but to stay inside the feeling and to allow that feeling to bring deeper material and allow that sequence to rise in intensity and to bring relief without insight or to bring relief and insight and then to tell me what they saw or what they felt.

I encourage them as we go along to engage their bodies, to let their body’s move. Their body might want to curl up or writhe around or twist or shake. So slowly but surely I introduce them into putting the horse before the cart, the cart being the intellectual discussion. Slowly they begin to put their feelings and bodies in front of their head stuff so to speak. Insight and other connections get drawn into consciousness in a way they can actually experience rather than just think about. At the same time I am very present and for me, presence is about alignment; sensing and feeling and knowing where your client is, not in a magical way but in a general way, how far along they are in a sequence of primal experience. I don’t generally interrupt a client, I wait until they are at the end of a sequence. It’s about encouraging them not only to engage their body but their vocal chords, to make sounds if that urge is there. I’ve learnt that if a client is using more than five to ten words with me, then they have become ungrounded from their body. To stay grounded in experiencing, these words should be very short and brief and primitive and childlike.

It’s important to meet your client where they are. If you have a university professor speaking in a convoluted intellectual way then it’s important to respond at an intellectual level but always pushing the envelope a little, always trying to simplify it. And so, people go deeper and deeper. I have learned that a real primal journey which gets into tremendous pain really is a two to five year journey and something that you often must give yourself to for the rest of your life. And this brings us to a whole other issue about this kind of therapy because it does involve a change in how we behave.

There comes into being an ever increasing sensitivity. We in this business tend to get triggered more easily than other people and find ourselves once again in a big feeling. It takes a number of years to realise that one must change one’s life. It’s important to be in an environment that is healthy and aligned with healthy emotional principles. Long conversations and even short conversation with someone who has not done this work require a degree of dishonesty in a primal person which they are no longer willing to put up with. A degree of dishonesty is needed in the sense that, if you want to engage in an intellectual discussion which I can feel in my gut is your way of avoiding your own feelings, frankly, I don’t want to collude with you in that and I’d rather not spend time with you. We become somewhat isolated and people who have concerns about primal therapy say that you become isolated. The say that you become unsocial and I’d like to respond and say that,  no we just can’t stand the bullshit any more.

Somebody once asked Fritz Perls (the inventor of Gestalt Therapy) a question and he didn’t respond and the person said; excuse me, I’m talking to you, why aren’t you responding? And Fritz said, “ Because I’m the one in ten thousand.” And the guy said, “Well, what do you mean you’re the one in ten thousand/” Fritz responded, “I’m the one in ten thousand who won’t get hooked into your bullshit.” Well, I’m not that harsh but I do not want to waste the energies of my life in social situations that don’t meet me directly without defence. Now there’s what seems to be arrogance. When someone starts to dump their stuff on me conversationally, I’m not going to take it. I’ll be social and courteous but I’ll move on.

Thérèse: Again, I’m not sure that I would consider what you’re describing as necessarily arrogance?

Paul: No, what I would say is that I am trying to live in truth and I have very powerful beliefs about what is true and what isn’t. And in that sense it may seem arrogant from the outside but I just feel like I’m trying to live in truth. When I return to the centre of myself or as close as I can get, I don’t see complete honesty, I don’t see complete clarity and depth. I can see a troubled child in me who is trying very, very hard to be the best that he can be and often fails and that makes me sad.

The things that I’m saying now are things I would say to a client after a year or two of therapy. I think it’s important for a client to know that I’ve struggled with suicide, that I can wake in the morning filled with terror and depression and that this whole journey has been about saving my life. The more I save my life, the more energy I have left over to listen to someone else.

Thérèse: Taking up on how you’re describing your work, it would be interesting to hear your thought about emotional hijacking or overwhelm when working at a deep level through the body?

Paul: I talk in the book about astronauts re-entering the earth. If they go in to the atmosphere too steeply they will burn up. If they don’t go in steeply enough they will bounce off and be lost forever. So working within a level of tension that is productive is important as opposed to totally disorganising. I think your question has to do with the art of therapy. It’s the holding environment that a therapist provides that really to some extent determines (offers clients the freedom) the degree of chaos a client can handle. And for me that’s really about being profoundly present and for me this means being completely aligned with and comfortable with what the client is doing so they receive the non-verbal message that they are okay and that what they are doing is okay.

I think that the problem that many therapists struggle with is, that they return their clients to shallow therapy when they get triggered and they start making comments or theorising or whatever. It is also true that the client’s personal strength, (ego strength) and their level of pre therapy damage and chaos are factors that differ from client to client. Some clients can go down into the most unbelievable chaotic places and reassemble themselves or their self will reassemble itself, and they can get off the mat and continue on with their world and with their life. Some can’t.

The question of re-traumatisation is a very important question and it is intriguing to me that many people who talk about re-traumatisation are afraid to offer what is one of the most important holding environments in deep therapy and that is touch and holding. If a client is going very deep and a therapist is prepared to honour their request to be held which could be; holding their hand, sitting with an arm around their shoulder, lying down face to face arms wrapped tightly around each other, this physicality offers a really, really powerful containment. I’m going to say something really radical here because I have a big feeling about it. When  therapists considers themselves to be experts in early trauma and these therapists are afraid to hold their clients, I find this a huge dishonesty. I don’t see how a therapist can practice the healing of early trauma without being prepared to provide some level of holding at the clients request; it has to be client centred.

We’re at a stage in our development in our society where people are so frightened of touch that to offer the kind of therapy that is required for deep trauma a therapist has to be prepared to risk their reputation and their livelihood. This cutting edge of human experience must be faced. I see not offering touch and holding to deep working clients who request it, as, and I use the strongest word I can find here, as an abomination. To take clients into a deep place and not be prepared to hold them makes a mockery of the whole business of healing.

However, from time to time, a client will fall through their normal level of intensity into a whole deeper level of seemingly catastrophic material. The big question for all of us at this point is; how much depth is okay? Notice I’m not saying how much of that should we allow but how much of that is okay. This is where therapists get pushed really hard in their ability to be with people and to use clinical judgement. On three occasions clients have consulted with me who have been moving deeper and deeper into these chaotic areas and it is clear that their bodies have been breaking down. And I’ve had to be quite firm in telling them that I feel they are harming themselves and need to do less intense work until they can discern more clearly what is the appropriate level for them. On some very few occasions I have actually stopped someone primaling when I have felt that they were harming themselves. This is an area that pushes me to the edge of my own fear, my own terror, and my own personal work; what I have done and where I have gone inside myself. It’s like the final frontier and this is where different therapists as individuals becomes very, very important. I feel that I have possibly failed the occasional client because I felt that what they are doing was doing harm and I have stopped them. And yet I could have been wrong. Is this real professional judgement or am I just being triggered into some fear of my own. A tremendous amount of humility is required in this place. So, as arrogant as I may appear sometimes from the outside, in this place I am very humble because sometimes, I just don’t know the answer.

So if you travel with me you’re travelling with someone who isn’t perfect and who doesn’t know the answer but I will try my level best not to interfere with what seems like real growth. But there is another kind of growth which is not real at all and that’s where people are making a tremendous fuss, like they are the absolute soul of chaos and in actual fact they haven’t broken through their defences at all or if they have, they’ve broken through in a way where they are very contained. I think there is a lot of therapist pleasing that goes on. I’ve had feedback about from people about some of the world’s most significant primal therapists. These people talk about many clients in famous practices who put on a tremendous display for the benefit of the therapist and we call this pseudo-compliance.

A very interesting thing that happens, almost any time I have said to someone that I’m not feeling comfortable with what they are doing right in the moment and that I’m not sure that it’s real primal work, is that this statement has been met with rage. I believe that people who are doing this false primal work or pseudo compliance, have a very deep belief in what they are doing and in their journey and some clients have left my practice because they didn’t want that kind of feedback. Well then, if someone has to leave because I’m giving them what I feel to be the truth, then they will just have to leave.

Thérèse: And what’s your sense of what’s happening? Do you believe it’s about disconnection, disembodied energy discharge, pseudo-compliance or something else?

Paul: Well it may be about disconnection but I think there are therapists who encourage a kind of feeling acting-out and the therapist may feel that it’s real and the client may feel that it’s real and they come to have a belief system which is almost as profound as the one they came into therapy with, what ever that was, and I think it’s misinformation. It’s very interesting because forcing oneself into a feeling above defences is a very powerful defence. Therapy as a defence is one of the most common things in the whole world. Most people don’t want to do this level of work and this is how they avoid it; by seeming to do it, with the collusion of their therapist. To come back to what’s going on; I would have to say that this kind of “show” work is due to psychological miss-information. It’s a misunderstanding of ones own processes and probably should be pointed out very quickly when a client starts doing this kind of thing.

Thérèse: It’s clear that you have very strong opinions about therapy and I’m wondering what your thoughts are about therapies that may not pay particular attention to the body?

Paul: This is not therapy, this is just collusion. Let me be really clear here about what I feel. It’s collusion by therapists, collusion by teaching therapists and its collusion by clients. The whole thing is just a gigantic dishonesty. If the person is not grounded in their feelings and in their bodies then it’s not therapy, it’s a gigantic dishonesty. Gendlin has said and I totally agree that therapy without a body shift misses the point.

We are in a very early stage in the evolution towards consciousness in our species and those of us who believe in grounding our work in feelings and in the body and in using touch and holding are at the absolute spearhead of that growth of consciousness.

Thérèse, please may I do a little advertising here? Because I believe that these new techniques are possibly capable of saving our species from annihilating itself, let me say that any time ten people get together and ask me to come and give them a seven day Intensive Workshop in this therapy, I will fly to where ever they are. The cost is $1,000.00 Canadian funds for each person and this is much less in Euros. The methods I use are outlined on my website.

Thank you for this opportunity to share my ideas.

Paul Vereshack B.A., M.D., D.Psych. has retired his medical licence. He still practises as a “Medical Psychotherapist” His twelve years of post high school education which gave him his degrees in Arts, Medicine and Psychiatry are all from The University of Toronto. He has been in the private practice of different kinds of psychotherapy for more than forty years and for the last twenty five years has devoted himself exclusively to the practice of Feeling and Body Oriented Depth Therapy. Dr. Vereshack has taught psychotherapy courses at two Canadian Universities. Paul was born in London England in 1937 and moved to Toronto Canada in 1940 where he has lived ever since. He practices part time and teaches Depth Therapy in week long Intensives.