Primal Zen

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  Table of Contents

1) Introduction
2) Words
3) Silence, Feeling, and Attention
4) Thought
5) Forms of Attention
6) Essential Practices of Silence - Still Attention
7) Essential Practices of Silence - Active Attention
8) Zen & Primal

Chapter One: Introduction

The Union of Attention and Feeling

Zen is to the institution of Buddhism what water is to a fully stocked kitchen. It's not colourful, it's not spicy, but it's simple and essential.

Zen is an amalgamation of original Indian Buddhism and ancient aboriginal Chinese Taoism. Both Buddhism and Taoism officially came into being around 500 BC, the former through Gautama, the Buddha, the latter through Lao Tzu, a Chinese sage. As Buddhism spread into China in the 7th Century AD, Taoist influence created a unique hybrid called Ch'an. Later, when it spread to Japan, it became known as Zen.

In the 20th Century, Zen has found a new home in America, and another unique hybrid is forming - the amalgamation of Zen and feeling therapy. Both methods of personal growth and discovery recognize that attention to the present moment is healing and enlightening. In Zen, that attention is fostered through meditation (zazen), and in primal therapy, that attention is fostered through primalling - allowing and encouraging the expression of feeling in movement and sound.

Both Zen and Primal recognize that one of the greatest defenses against fully being/feeling is excess thinking and talking - the act of getting "lost in our heads." To primal, we have to move from thinking to feeling, from fantasy to reality, from the head to the body. When this is allowed to occur, the pain we are hiding from is felt, and its expression is called a primal. To practice zazen, we also have to move from thinking to feeling, from fantasy to reality, from the head to the sensations of life-as-it-is. To be fully this and that together - sensation, what simply is - is called enlightenment.

The key is attention and feeling. As we primal, we attend to our feelings, to the present and all it has to offer. We begin to awaken from the old dream and enter life as-it-is. Not co-incidentally, "Buddha" means "the one who is awake." The practice of Zen is the art of pure attention. Primal and Zen are a healing match.


Since my teens, I have practiced Zen informally, and also formally at the Toronto Zen Centre, which was an affiliate under the guidance of Roshi Philip Kapleau. My involvement with various Native American healers and traditional leaders has broadened my experience to include aboriginal forms of attention, which, in China were the predecessors to Zen.

Quite a few years ago, during a significant nightmare, I spontaneously awoke into a primal. Having read and believed the theory, I understood the experience and began to practice, first on my own and then with my therapist, Mary Dell. Both Mary and I recognized that I was able to find and drop into feelings quickly, and integrate and ground myself relatively easily. We have attributed this to my years of Zen and related work.

On the mat, meditative attention allows me to shift my attention away from thinking, to my feelings and body, keep it there, and let the primal experience unfold. Even at the most terrifying moments of impending death and dissolution, there is an underlying sense that my attention, (my apparent Self) will integrate and pull itself together. After a primal, there is a stronger ability to hold attention where it is needed - either in pure body sensation or the integration insights into rational consciousness.

Between sessions, the Zen perspective of returning to the sensations of the moment, life-as-it-is, has allowed me to recognize the rising of old patterns of thinking and behaviour and choose other paths of action and living instead. I feel that the union of Zen and Primal has allowed me to amalgamate and maintain significant levels of healthy change.

Zen As A Primal Modality

Modern primal therapy encourages the use of various modalities, from Gestalt to bodywork, to assist in the unfolding of the primal process. Most methods are used in therapy sessions, but not in the client's everyday life. I believe that the popularity of behaviour and cognitive therapies (besides an escape from feeling) lies in the behavioural tools introduced to the client for daily use. A criticism of primal has always been that "we break them down, but we don't put them back together."

Integration and grounding in life is necessary for healthy change, and Zen practice is an ancient method that can be instituted as a powerful primal therapy tool, both in session and in the redevelopment of a healthy life.

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© January 2000 by Sam Turton.