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When this kind of ritual and spiritual work happened in native and ancient cultures, the initiates actually came closer to the deeper truth in the worldview of their culture, whereas modern people who have these experiences emerge with an understanding of reality completely different from the contemporary culture.
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The Psychology of the Future: An Interview with Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD
Ed. Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series “Mysteries of Consciousness,” IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten talks with visionary psychotherapist Stanislav Grof. Grof is one of the world’s foremost researchers on the healing and transformative power of non-ordinary states of consciousness and a founder and chief theoretician of Transpersonal Psychology. He and his wife Christina are the creators of holotropic breathwork, a unique, breath-based approach to accessing deep psycho-emotional patterns. His books include Beyond the Brain, When the Impossible Happens, and The Ultimate Journey, among many others. Dr. Grof turned 80 this year.
Cassandra Vieten: Let’s start with you telling us a bit about holotropic breathwork and how the recent Global Holotropic Breathwork Day came to be.
Stanislav Grof: Holotropic breathwork started when my wife Christina and I were at Esalen. We were doing workshops there based on our psychedelic research. Discussing some of our observations made the people listening to us very unhappy. They said, “It’s wonderful to hear about all these great experiences, but can’t we do something?” Of course, we couldn’t use psychedelics at Esalen, so that got us thinking. I went back to an observation from our psychedelic work when I learned how people who were coming down and getting bodywork would spontaneously breathe faster because they said faster breathing brought them back to the experience. The breathing seemed to stimulate their unconscious. With Christina’s background in hatha yoga, we brought elements together to develop a powerful no-drug technique that facilitates an altered state of consciousness.
We work with half of the group in a holotropic breathwork session, while the other half serve as “sitters,” that is, as part of the support team. Later they will switch roles. Also, we have a few trained facilitators who go wherever special help is necessary during a session. Basically people lie in a reclining position. We do a relaxation introduction and then ask people to breathe faster, connecting their inhalations and exhalations in a kind of circle of breath. We also play powerful music, a lot of it from cultures that actually developed sound technology to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. When the breathing doesn’t resolve something, we employ a certain kind of bodywork, and after the session, people create mandalas to give expression to what they experienced.
Global Holotropic Breathwork Day was actually a birthday gift for Christina and me. I turn eighty this year, and Christina turns seventy. Our friends from Wisdom University arranged a six-week webinar, and then in the middle of it, they arranged this Global Holotropic Breathwork Day with about eighty different places in twenty-five countries. People we trained organized workshops for this day. If participants were in the same time zone, they were in non-ordinary states at the same time, and the rest of them were going through something of a wave of these experiences over the time zones. I am continuously amazed at how this very simple method can induce very powerful experiences, which in many ways resemble the experiences created by psychedelics.
Vieten: In our research on transformations and consciousness here at IONS, I have heard from people we have interviewed and surveyed that these holotropic breathwork sessions can be truly transformative and life changing.
Grof: We discovered that we are actually closer to these non-ordinary experiences than we have thought. Initially, we thought a person needed a powerful, exotic substance to get into these states. Now that we’re using these no-drug methods, we’ve discovered that many people in their everyday life fight to hold back these experiences and that there are people for whom these experiences erupt in spite of their efforts to stop them. And while it is easy for some people to get into these states, we don’t have a positive image of them because Western psychiatry regards any non-ordinary state of consciousness to be pathological. Our work has shown that these states can be healing, transformative, even evolutionary. They have what we call heuristic potential, which means that the experiences and observations from these states give us new information about the psyche, consciousness, the relationship between consciousness and the brain, as well as some evolutionary insight into the nature of reality.
I am amazed that psychiatrists haven’t recognized this. All of these different states of consciousness are called “altered states,” but there is a significant subgroup which has very positive potential—such as the states shamans experience as part of their initiatory crisis, the kinds of states shamans induce in their clients for healing purposes, the experiences initiates experience in the ancient mysteries of death and rebirth, the experiences of yogis, Buddhists, Christian mystics, Kabbalists, Hasidic Jews, and so on. These are a special category of experiences that certainly are not pathological. I was amazed that we didn’t have a distinction for mystical and spiritual experiences. So I decided to give a name to this category of experiences and called them holotropic—holos means “whole” and tropic is from trepein, which means “moving toward.” Holotropic really means “moving toward wholeness.” I use that name for all these categories of experience that I just described. Our specific method of inducing them is with breath, music, and bodywork.
Vieten: Particularly in the last few centuries, these noetic realms—or altered states of consciousness or non-ordinary subjective realms—have been essentially ignored in education, business, psychology, health, and healing. Although they find a home in religions, to some extent even organized religions have banished them. Why is this? What do you make of why these realms have been pushed to the side with their healing potential?
Grof: Industrial civilization is the only human group that has this attitude toward these experiences. Ancient and native cultures held these states in great esteem and spent a lot of time and energy developing safe and powerful ways of inducing them. What I believe happened is that at the time of the Industrial and Scientific Revolution, major discoveries were turned into technological inventions, which brought on a tremendous adoration of reason. In fact, for some years during the French Revolution, Notre Dame in Paris was called the Temple of Reason. When this happened, everything that was not rational was seen as irrational, as a kind of embarrassing leftover from humanity’s infancy in the Dark Ages.
We are now sort of a mature, civilized, rational people, and we can see that everything that is not rational is not irrational but transrational. Mystics can function perfectly rationally in everyday life, but they have also experienced dimensions of reality that are normally hidden and incorporated them into their worldview. They value the experience and source of such powerful insights.
I think what’s happening now with transpersonal psychology and consciousness research is that we are recognizing our mistake—that we have somehow thrown out the baby with the bathwater by rejecting these states. Now psychologists are slowly recognizing the value of this special subcategory of experiences. There are others that still should be considered pathology, of course, such as delirium tremens or uremia. These are not holotropic states but disoriented states in which you don’t know who you are, where you are, what is happening, what year it is, and so on. But that’s not what happens in holotropic states. In holotropic states, you have a kind of double orientation. Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler talked about it as doppelte Buchführung, which means “double bookkeeping.” You have one foot in ordinary reality and the other foot in other realities.
The important thing is that when you are in these holotropic states you place yourself in a special environment. This is not a good state of mind to work on your taxes or to handle practical things. Holotropic states require a ritual situation or a guide, such as a therapist, who creates a protective environment. Then these states are healing and transformative. But they don’t accommodate everyday reality very well. A marvelous and very positive experience during one of our workshops, let’s say, would not be so great if it were to happen in the San Francisco airport.
Vieten: So many people have these experiences, which shed light on a completely different cartography of our psyche and the nature of reality. Would you talk a little bit about where you are now in your work in terms of mapping these realms of experience?
Grof: When I was approaching my seventieth birthday, I got a phone call from Jane Banker, my editor at State University New York Press. She said, “Stan, you know, we have published several of your books where you talk about the implications of consciousness for a variety of areas. Would you consider writing one book that would bring it all together and be something of an introduction to all these other books?” Then she paused and added, “Would you specifically focus on those areas where there are observations or experiences that current psychiatry and psychology cannot explain?” Then there was an even longer pause, and she said, “And would you describe how psychiatry and psychology would have to change? What changes would they have to make in our thinking to accommodate these observations?”
That’s a tall order, eh?
Grof: But I was very excited because at that time we had holotropic breathwork training happening all over the world, and we needed some kind of manual so that people would be teaching the same kind of thing. So I wrote the book and deliberately gave it a provocative title, Psychology of the Future. If you say, “This is the psychology of the future,” people get either very excited or very irritated. In that book, I tried to describe the areas in which, as a result of these observations, we would have to change psychology and psychiatry radically, and I briefly mention the categories.
The first one is a major and vast expansion of the cartography of the psyche. Our current cartography is limited to postnatal biography and to the Freudian individual unconscious. It does not even include birth, which I regularly see people reliving. I had to add this very important area, which I call perinatal. Beyond this there is an even vaster area that we now call transpersonal. A lot of it overlaps with the Freudian collective unconscious as well as the historical, the archetypal, the mythological, and so on. So that’s the first major change.
The second change would call in the transpersonal. Emotional and psychosomatic problems that are not organic in current psychiatry actually start somewhere in infancy or childhood. When you work with holotropic states, you find out that that’s just the surface of the problems and that the emotional and psychosomatic problems have deeper roots in one of the perinatal matrices, or the perinatal stages, and then even deeper roots that are karmic, archetypal, or phylogenetic. The good news here is that on the perinatal level—on the transpersonal level—powerful mechanisms of healing and transformation exist that current psychiatry is not aware of. For example, reliving birth is a powerful healing mechanism. We see many powerful therapeutic changes after people integrate past-life experiences or allow some archetypal motifs to emerge into consciousness.
Another major change psychiatry and psychology would have to make is to recognize spirituality as an important dimension of the psyche and the universal scheme of things—which current psychiatry doesn’t do. We have a monistic-materialistic approach. If the history of the universe is the history of developing matter, and life, consciousness, and intelligence happened after billions of years as more or less flukes, then where is the place for spirit? Whereas the holotropic state embrace the idea that Jung had, that the psyche is not limited inside of the skull but permeates all of existence. It’s the Anima mundi, the mind of the universe.
A last major change would be needed in current psychotherapies. We have a tremendous number of psychotherapeutic schools, each telling something different about the motivating forces in the psyche. Why do symptoms develop? What do they mean? Each of them gives a different technique to use with a client. The holotropic states offer a radical alternative, which is that when you get into a holotropic state of consciousness, you mobilize the inner healing intelligence that is guiding the process. The therapist becomes a kind of coadventurer, intelligently supporting what is happening, but the therapist is not the doer and not in charge of the process. It’s more like midwifery. This is a radical difference from the verbal psychotherapies we have and even from some of the experiential therapies.
You can understand why current psychiatry and psychology are not eager to implement these changes. This would be more than a little patchwork. This would be a major overhaul. We would have to admit that we have it all wrong. The major error, I think, is to see consciousness as somehow emerging out of the complexity of the neurophysiological processes in the brain. I don’t believe that consciousness is the product of the brain or the product of matter. I see it as something that’s at least an equal part.
Grof: Possibly superordinating. I can imagine consciousness creating the experience of material reality through an orchestration of experiences. But I cannot imagine how it would be possible for matter—something that’s dead, reactive, and inert—to generate life, consciousness, and intelligence.
Vieten: Two things came up for me while listening to you. One is that I recently read in The New York Times Review of Books a review of a book about the state of psychiatry and psychology, which noted that between 40 and 50 percent of adults in the United States have at some point been disabled enough to qualify for Social Security benefits based on a mental disability. Also, nearly half of all adults have been prescribed an antidepressant. Now, it’s not so much that these are negative things—I am not making an anti-antidepressant statement—but that there’s clearly something lacking in our understanding of the human psyche and in our psychotherapeutic techniques. Do you think these changes to psychology and psychiatry that you’re speaking of are happening or can happen? There was an emergence of humanistic and transformative psychotherapy in the sixties and seventies, but then there was another retraction back into mechanistic, materialist, biologically oriented aspects of psychotherapy. Do you think there is a possibility of change happening at a rapid level, and what do you think the pathway toward change is?
Grof: The main pathway to change could well be disappointment with what has been done along biological lines. I wouldn’t become a psychiatrist today if the field were to remain the way it is today. There’s basically no psychology in it except for the first interview. Then you get some kind of pharmaceutical substance and deal with whether it works or not.
There’s a fundamental problem here: much of routine psychiatry focuses on the suppression of symptoms, and it’s mistaken for therapy. This comes from the fact that psychiatry historically has become a subspecialty of medicine. But in medicine you use symptomatic treatment only in two situations. One is for causal treatment. You treat the cause of the problem, the disease, and if you want to bring further relief, you also use symptomatic treatment. The other situation for symptomatic treatment is when a condition is incurable and you cannot offer anything else. In psychiatry, suppression of symptoms is confused with therapy. In somatic medicine, this would be like treating someone with a fever with ice to lower the temperature and then being satisfied because the fever is not showing. With “uncovering therapies,” you want to go beyond the symptoms, you want to know why the symptoms are there, and you want to change the underlying conditions so that the symptoms don’t have to appear—not create a situation where they cannot appear.
Let’s say you are driving a car and you don’t know anything about the car, only that when a red light appears it shows that you are running out of oil. If you take the car to a garage and the mechanic says, “Oh, red light. No problem. I’ll pull out the wires,” the light would disappear, but you wouldn’t think much about a mechanic who creates a situation where the warning signal cannot appear. You want the mechanic to do something with the car so that the warning signal doesn’t have to appear in a way that the signaling system remains intact.
With holotropic states, you actually get improvement through a temporary intensification of symptoms, plus the process takes you beyond them, beneath them. It shows you how the anxieties or the depression or maybe the choking you have during let’s say psychogenic asthma is related to your history. You bring traumatic memories into consciousness and express the pent-up emotions and energies to actually create changes in the personality. This kind of work is time consuming for a therapist, though. It’s much easier to be in a situation where you do talk therapy and after 55 minutes say, “We’ll continue next week,” or you basically exchange a few sentences with patients and give them some symptomatic treatment, some pharmacon. That treatment approach seems to appeal to psychiatrists with a tremendous load of patients and not enough time. There is also pressure from the pharmaceutical companies for this kind of an approach to emotional and psychosomatic problems.
So we would have to create a completely different system. Unfortunately the whole philosophy of current psychiatry is about finding ways to suppress symptoms. Most of its therapies are verbal or experiential—geared toward expressing emotions and/or bodywork—and they usually stay in the biographical realm. They don’t go deeper to the perinatal or the transpersonal level.
Vieten: What do you prescribe as an ongoing integration plan for people who have had profoundly healing experiences and want to integrate them into their everyday lives?
Grof: A major problem with these states, whether they are triggered by psychedelic substances or holotropic breathwork or whatever, is that they resemble more what shamans do or what happens in native cultures, inducing states that psychiatry currently sees as pathological. People today emerge with an image of reality that is not the current worldview of the industrial civilization. When this kind of ritual and spiritual work happened in native and ancient cultures, the initiates actually came closer to the deeper truth in the worldview of their culture, whereas modern people who have these experiences emerge with an understanding of reality completely different from the contemporary culture.
I wrote a book called When the Impossible Happens that is full of personal stories of what happened to Christina and me and what we have seen in this work. The common denominator of all those stories is that they should be, in principle, impossible if the current Western science worldview is correct. They’re all anomalous phenomena that challenge that worldview. The people who have these experiences have to deal with the interface. It would be ideal to have contact with people who have been there, who have had these experiences, and who can somehow discuss them with you rather than being in a situation where you’re alienated from how people see the world. The spiritual practice would be to cultivate these kinds of experiences or the insights from them. You could work with mandala drawings or keep a diary to analyze your dreams. You try to do are those things that continue your self-exploration.
Carl Jung said that if you live in such a way that you are oriented toward the external world only, your life will not be fully satisfying. One has to spend some time in focused self-exploration, consulting with a higher aspect of one’s life, and then one can live life in such a way that is a synthesis of what is learned within and without.