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"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series Audio Set

Essential Shifts Interview: Stanislav Grof

"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series

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Essential Shifts Interview: Stanislav Grof

Visionary: Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD

What if our propensity to war and aggression had deep roots in the trauma of birth? That’s one of the provocative theories of Dr. Stanislav Grof, drawing from fifty years at the frontiers of consciousness research. There is, he believes, reason for cautious optimism that we can transcend our destructive impulses if large numbers of people engage the healing work that becomes possible in non-ordinary or "holotropic" states such as those used by shamans.

We can clear unresolved traumas, patterns, and fears and begin to live as more peaceful planetary citizens. A multi-leveled understanding of psychology that goes deeper than post-natal biography is key. By opening the door to the further reaches of consciousness and creating rites of passage that take us through a meaningful encounter with death, our view expands, our consciousness connects with others, and we shift beyond Newtonian/Cartesian understandings into a more sacred view of the universe.

View Transcript

Institute of Noetic Sciences: Welcome to the program, everyone who’s joining us! We’re very honored to have Dr. Stanislav Grof joining us today to reflect on the larger shifts that we’re undergoing on the planet right now. Stan is an MD PhD, and has over 40 years of experience in researching non-ordinary states of consciousness. He was one of the original pre-eminent psychedelic researchers and he moved from that work into creating something called holotropic breathwork, which I actually facilitate and feel very blessed that he’s brought that work into the world. And Stan has also been very seminal in the formation of the field of transpersonal psychology, in its development, and articulating that in a whole series of books and articles and conferences. His most recent books are Cosmic Gain, Psychology of the Future, and most recently, or coming out soon, is The Ultimate Journey. So it’s just a real honor to have you on the show today. Thanks, Stan.

Stan Grof: Thank you for having me.

IONS: So what we’re doing with folks is asking first to start with the big picture context which is, How do you see our current global situation?

SG: Like other people, I’m very, very concerned. The situation is very dangerous and, I think, unprecedented in human history because of the overpopulation that we have, because of the degree of industrial pollution, because of all the doomsday scenarios, because of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. So I’m very, very concerned. I’m also moderately optimistic because of some of the things I have seen in the work with non-ordinary states of consciousness. Many people, quite independently, both in the work of psychedelics and holotropic breathwork, when they look at the situation in the world, they see that we are involved in a kind of a race. On one hand, if we continue with the kinds of strategies and politics that we have, that we might not have much time, that we might not make it. On the other hand, if somehow that whole process is internalized, then it could lead to an evolutionary jump that would bring us to a completely new place in evolution.

IONS: I know you’ve done a lot of work around shamanism and rights of passage and how these collective dynamics play out, or how our internal dynamics play out in collective processes. Can you speak a little bit about that?

SG: Well, I think the common denominator is that it’s responsible work with what I call holotropic states of consciousness, which is a certain subcategory of non-ordinary states of consciousness: the kinds of states that shamans experience in their visionary sort of initiatory crisis, the kinds of experiences that people have in native ceremonies like rights of passage, the kinds of experiences that the initiate has in the ancient mysteries, or that people experience in some systematic, powerful, spiritual practice, or in spiritual emergencies, or spontaneous states. And what you can see in all these different varieties of working with non-ordinary states is a certain form of predictable transformation. For example, you see a tremendous reduction of violent impulses, a development of tolerance, of compassion. People also have transpersonal experiences when they identify with other people, when they identify with animals, with the universe—and, without any kind of specific training or programming, they develop very profound ecological sensitivity. They start feeling like they are planetary citizens rather than members of a particular culture or nation. So that’s the basis for my moderate optimism. The reason why it’s moderate is because I question whether we have enough time for that kind of transformation happening on a large enough scale. But I’ve certainly seen it in many people individually.

IONS: And that transformation can be fairly rapid—so, if we extrapolate that to the collective level, some precipitating cause could really catapult it forward much quicker than we might think.

SG: It’s really amazing, the changes that you see in people without really teaching anything or without trying to program people. It’s something that really develops from inner sources when people are working on some of the traumatic experiences that alienated them from that kind of vision, which are the childhood traumas in infancy or childhood, which is the first trauma or prenatal crisis, or even some transpersonal matrices like karmic matrices and so on.

IONS: The perinatal and prenatal template that we have in our psyche, as you’ve discovered, is particularly active in the formation of our whole worldview. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how the same dynamics and imagery play out often on a collective level

SG: For me, the discovery of this perinatal domain in the unconscious was a tremendous surprise, because my medical training and my psychological training didn’t prepare me for that. I was taught in the medical school that there couldn’t be any record of birth because the cortex of a newborn is not mature enough. The neurons are not myelinized, which means are not covered with the myelin sheaths, and this was kind of given as an authoritative reason why there couldn’t possibly be any record of birth. So these were observations that emerged quite spontaneously in people’s process. And when I saw it repeatedly I realized that it’s a very natural kind of thing, if you realize the trauma of birth reflects a situation of vital emergency extending for a period of anything from an hour or two to fifty hours, in a situation where the fetus might have come close to death or might have died and had to be resuscitated. So it’s like a pool of very problematic emotions and physical feelings that can certainly complicate the individual’s life after birth. It can be a source of very emotional psychosomatic problems, all kinds of wrong strategies in life that ultimately don’t work or don’t bring satisfaction. These imprints can create problems in interpersonal relationships and so on. So this is on the individual basis—but there is a number of observations in non-ordinary states suggesting that the existence of this kind of domain in the unconscious could really be a significant factor in the dynamics of wars, of bloody revolutions, of genocide, concentration camps and so on. People who are reliving birth typically come up with the kind of images that repeatedly have been used during wars to portray the enemy. They show that much of what we project on the enemy are really our own unfinished unconscious drives. And also, people discover it quite specifically, this connection between birth and collective violence—in that, when they are reliving birth, the different stages, they experience simultaneously images from the collective unconscious. For example, when they experience a stage when the fetus is stuck in the birth canal, this is associated typically with images of wars and revolutions where the individual is sort of in a passive victimized role. When then, the process moves, when the cervix is open and there’s a struggle through the birth canal, this is associated with images of bloody revolution, the tremendous drive to overcome the oppressor and, it is said in many revolutions, breathe freely again. And then the moment of birth or the reliving of birth is typically associated with images of success of a revolution or end of war and so on. So there are these very, very interesting parallels that you can make between the individual death-rebirth process and these various difficult socio-political manifestations.

IONS: So to some extent then, when people have all this unresolved birth-trauma in them, they’re drawn to recreate that in some fashion on a collective level because there’s part of their psyche that’s drawn to the revolutionary fire, to the intensity, to the feeling of constriction. Would you agree with that?

SG: Very much so. You know, when I first published this (this was in the book Realms of the Human Unconscious in 1975) I got a letter from Lloyd Moss from New York City, who is a psychoanalyst and a journalist, and he was very excited by seeing that material because he said that it very much confirmed the findings of his own research. At the time when he wrote me the letter, he had analyzed 17 major situations prior to the onset of wars and revolutions. And he studied particularly the speeches of the military leaders and the politicians from this time. And he found out that there was an abundance of figures of speech and metaphors and so on drawn from biological birth process. For example, when these leaders were describing the enemies, they were talking about the enemy squeezing the last breath out of her lungs, strangling us, not giving us enough space to live, like Hitler's Lebensraum, you know, not enough living space. So he concluded that what’s happening in these kinds of situations that somehow, for reasons that he didn’t quite understand, the perinatal level in our unconscious is activated on a collective scale. The leader is somebody who is closer to that material than other people, and he steps out and sort of spells it out. You know: "We’re all feeling threatened because they’re trying to get us and we will go and get them before they get us." And then manages to mobilize people into war and then it is a major permission, then, to act out some of these unfinished things from the unconscious. And when war starts, the Freudian superego is really replaced by what Freud called the war superego where, for the kinds of things that you would get into prison in peacetime, you get medals. Suddenly pillaging and killing and raping is permissible. And the content of these perinatal matrices really become part of our everyday reality.

IONS: So really, for us to move into a healthier civilization is quite difficult if we at least don’t get the leaders to process some of this unresolved material because otherwise they’re just continually drawn to recreate it collectively in some fashion.

SG: What Lloyd Moss said, at least we should all learn somehow this symbolic language of the perinatal level, the way we learned several decades ago for the Freudian sexual symbol so that we can decipher it when somebody’s using it, we can see what’s happening. Whereas we are not aware somehow of the perinatal level when these kinds of demagogic speeches are being used. They tend to mobilize people, people respond to it, instead of seeing it as a sign of some unresolved issues that a leader might have.

IONS: How does this connect to the rite-of-passage work? I know that the perinatal imagery tends to figure prominently in the whole kind of death-rebirth process and traditional rights of passage. Say a bit more about how that may play out collectively.

SG: I was part of a very, very interesting symposium in 1973 which was organized by Margaret Meade and Katherine Bates, who was the daughter of Margaret Meade and Gregory Bates. And it happened in a castle in Austria, and it was called "Ritual: Reconciliation and Change." And the basic thesis there was Margaret’s idea that the reason why we have so many unresolved problems with the young generation is that we lost meaningful rights of passage. All these ancient and preindustrial cultures really had powerful rights of passage where they offered a context where it was socially sanctioned. People could work through some of these dangerous destructive and self-destructive emotions. And the reason that we lost them, or the consequence of the fact that we lost them, is that some of the things that which otherwise would be happening in a controlled way in rights of passage are now becoming part of our everyday reality. And the young people who don’t have the rights of passage create their own, which are very typically anti-social and destructive and self-destructive. There has been a movement, particularly in the United States, to recreate the rights of passage and see that this could be kind of a remedy for the problems that we see in the young generation.

IONS: That sort of leads naturally to the second question we’ve been asking folks which is, What are the most essential shifts required for us to evolve to the next level culturally? And so a much more rigorous understanding of perinatal dynamics and how that plays out in conscious psychology as well as rights of passage. Those are things you would really think would be important elements of helping us move to another level.

SG: I think it’s happening on a number of levels. One source of the problem is the whole Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm married with monistic materialism which describes the universe as this sort of mechanistic system which ultimately is meaningless, missing the deeper underlying unity, the meaningful interconnectedness of everything from astrophysics down to psychology. And this general paradigm then has specific manifestations which are quite dangerous, I think, and problematic—One of them being the biological theories that we have, the idea of evolution being driven primarily by survival of the fittest; theories like the selfish gene and the triune brain, describing aggression or something that’s natural, that reflects the fact that we come out of the animal realm; and the Freudian idea that the psyche is primarily driven by basic instinct, and everything that’s positive within us is a reaction formation or sublimation of some instinct. So, I think, it's a paradigm that has been really, very seriously questioned by developments in physics, in biology, psychology, and in other areas. I think it’s very important for us to move to a much more organic paradigm that emphasizes unity, synergy, cooperation, and so on. So that’s the large picture. Then in terms of the personal transformation, certainly there seems to be a lot to be done in relation to the perinatal and the prenatal material. I think that what we’ve found in consciousness research has serious implications for birth practices and for child-rearing. For example, the importance of prenatal preparation of natural childbirth, things like underwater births or the kinds of practices that LeBoyer introduced into obstetrics. And then I think the major thing could be if we could find ways of making the various transformation techniques more available. Some of them very ancient like various meditational practices, and some of them modern from some powerful experiential psychotherapies, to responsible supervised work with psychedelics and sacred medicines.

IONS: It would be terrific if all of those things could move forward in a much more substantial way. That kind of leads to the next question which is, How does your work and current passions fit with the larger shifts? You can talk a little about the book that’s just coming out shortly. And it seems like you’re in a phase of tying together all the different threads of research and insight into a cohesive package.

SG: As you know, my passion in the last fifty years has been the study of holotropic states and I think that this work has implications for all the different levels of the problems that we have talked about. This work definitely points to a new paradigm. It shows the universe as a system which is organic, which is permeated by superior intelligence—that sort of master blueprint, not the Newtonian super-machine. It also leads to a very different understanding of the psyche—and the word psyche is not limited to post-natal biography and the individual unconscious the way the Freudian model, which is being used in current psychiatry and psychology, but portrays the psyche more the way it’s described in some of the great Eastern philosophies. The psyche of each of us is ultimately commensurate with the creative principle itself. The Hindus talk about the fact that we are not namarupa; we are not name and shape; we are not body-egos. Our true nature is with Atman-Brahman. And the work with non-ordinary states certainly supports that kind of a perspective. It also shows that our deepest nature is not the bestial way Freud saw it, but divine. Although we certainly carry in our unconscious elements that Freud described, but they function more like a screen that separates us from what we really are rather than reflecting our true nature. So those are some of the important insights. I have written more specifically about the kinds of insights people had in relation to the kind of unbridled violence and insatiable greed, that are two very powerful forces driving human evolution—about the sources of these forces in the unconscious—some of the biographical routes, some of the perinatal routes, some of the transpersonal routes—and also how responsible work with holotropic states could help us to come to terms with these forces that in the past have really driven human history. We have now come to the point where we cannot afford to have these kinds of forces being the dominant principles because the consequences are simply too serious for the first time in history.

IONS: What differentiates that from your previous books in this context?

SG: I have written two books recently which are now being published. One is called The Ultimate Journey, which is about the relationship between consciousness and death, and it’s a very comprehensive treatment of death and also includes a chapter on the work that we have done using psychedelic therapy with terminal cancer patients as a preparation for death. It’s a means of relieving the fear of death and transforming the experience of dying. But the book also explores all the things that we mentioned earlier like death-rebirth in shamanism, in rights of passage, in the ancient mysteries, in the great religions of the world, and so on. It explores the eschatological mythology, the question of posthumous journey of the soul, the question of karma and reincarnation, and so on. And the second book that’s coming out is very different. That’s the one that really differs from all the previous ones which is a book of personal stories. It’s called When The Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities. And it’s stories of things that happen to Christina, myself, strange encounters with shamans, with psychics, peculiar synchronicities. Also some things that I have observed in my clients—past life experiences that could be verified, or out-of-body perceptions which were veridical—in other words, people experienced astral projection to other places and the accuracy of that perception could be verified. So the common denominator of all those stories is that they describe events that should not have happened if the universe were the way it’s described by materialistic science. Those things would be, in principle, considered impossible. So it covers the same territory, but the angle is very, very different from my previous books, which were kind of written in a more professional language.

IONS: I look forward to reading that. You’ve definitely been living on the frontiers for many decades and it’s exciting to see all the different experiences that have emerged from that. The final question we’ve been asking folks—bringing this down to a very personal level—is about practical recommendations for things that people can do to create positive change, both in themselves and the world.

SG: I think the important thing is to start from ourselves and combine somehow activist work which we are doing in the external world, with some kind of in depth self-exploration. I believe that one or the other simply is not enough. I have to think here about wonderful dialogue that happened between Ram Dass and Daniel Ellsberg in one of the Asilomar conferences of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology, where they started from very, very different perspectives. Ram Dass basically was saying that all we should do is just be in love in some kind of systematic self-exploration and transformation and that in itself would be enough to change the world—referring to the yogis who never leave the cave where they meditate, and yet, according to the Indians, made very significant contributions to what’s happening in the world. And Daniel Ellsberg had a very different opinion—he saw himself as an activist who is there every time there is a problem and is sort of getting busted, making headlines, and so on. His contribution is this activist fight for what he considers to be pride. And then you can see, as the interview continues, we’re slowly sort of accepting bits and pieces of each other’s positions, so that Ram Dass at the end of the interview said that you have to do some really significant inner work, but then you use some of these new insights and bring them into the world—which he certainly did, with many many other things, including his participation in Seva and so on. And on the other hand, Daniel said you have to be an activist, but maybe in order to get a clear perspective as to what really has to be changed and about the skillful means, it is really important to do some inner work before you start changing the world. Change yourself. This was a wonderful, wonderful example of what we all can do – just combining those two.

IONS: It does seem to be part of the larger call of the day where the consciousness movement is beginning to get politically active and political activists are starting to sit meditation retreats or do holotropic breath work. I think out of that cross-pollination between those two worlds we’re going to really see something spectacular emerge.

SG: I think we have many separate movements—the pacifist movement, the ecological movement, the feminist movement, and so on. But I think we need to bring them together and have all these movements spiritually informed, or coming out of a deeper kind of spirituality—which hasn’t always been the case. Although people pursue the right values, I think we need more than that.

IONS: I completely agree with you. I think that seems like a good place to close. Do you have any other parting words or things you want to share with the folks?

SG: You asked about our contribution—I think that the most significant contribution is the work that we have been doing with people. First with psychedelics, and then, when that became difficult, the development of the holotropicbreath work. We have personally participated in sessions with over 30,000 people, some of them in very large groups and so on. So this is where we have seen some of the changes I was talking about.

IONS: So if people want to find a holotropic breath work practitioner in their area they can…

SG: We have a website, for those people who would like to either experience the potential of the holotropic breath work for themselves, or just get a sense of what it has to contribute. They could participate in a workshop where people do individual work, but then also share in the groups so you get both the inner and the outer perspective. You know what this kind of transformation process has to offer.

IONS: I can personally vouch for the training being extraordinarily transformational, really one of the most important things I’ve done in my life. Thank you so much for bringing that work to the world.

SG: Thank you for all of the work you have been doing and thanks for having me.

IONS: Thanks for being on the show, Stan, and I look forward to talking to you soon.

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"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series

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birth, death, holotropic, trauma
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