by Stanislav Grof, Suny Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology, State University of New York Press. 2000. ISBN 0 7914 4622
This book is about modern consciousness research. It is written by one of the founders of transpersonal psychology and covers his ideas regarding non-ordinary states of consciousness. His term for these is ‘holotropic’ experience which signifies ‘moving towards wholeness.’
His discussion draws on for example such fascinating human states of consciousness as past-life experiences, peak experiences, communication with spirit guides and channelling, near-death experiences, crises of shamans like witch-doctors, states of possession, and awakening of Kundalini. He also reports findings from his original research into ‘psychedelic therapy’ and ‘holotropic breathwork’.
One critic has commented ‘If more psychiatrists could be persuaded that human consciousness transcends the limitations of the physical brain and instead is but an aspect of what may best be described as ‘cosmic consciousness,’ we could not only expect treatment modalities to change, but we could also anticipate the possibility of culture-wide rethinking … about the nature of personhood.’
Grof was formerly Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
He claims that many mental states that modern psychiatry considers pathological and treats with suppressive medication are instead psychospiritual crises that have a healing and transformative potential.
He worked with his wife Christina for many years inducing and supporting holotropic states of consciousness with emotionally troubled people. They used a combination of accelerated breathing, evocative music and a technique of bodywork claimed to release blocked physical and emotional energy. Grof suggests that this approach brings together and integrates various elements from ancient and aboriginal traditions, Eastern spiritual philosophies and Western depth psychology.
People vary as to how they respond to the holotropic sessions. Some remain quiet and still whilst reporting later they were having profound inner experiences. Others are agitated perhaps showing violent shaking and complex movements. One can observe a wide range of emotions. People appear to relive traumatic memories. But Grof argues this is not a case of re-traumatisation. They are no longer experiencing the event as a child. Now they can analyse and evaluate the memory with therapeutic support from a mature adult perspective.
It is claimed that the therapeutic results of holotropic breathwork have been dramatically and meaningfully connected with specific experiences in the sessions. Grof says that they have seen over the years numerous instances when participants were able to breakout of depression that had lasted several years, overcome various phobias, free themselves from irrational feelings, and radically improve their self-confidence and self-esteem.
Also observed has been the disappearance of severe psychosomatic pains such as migraine headaches. It is also claimed that this therapy leads to large improvements of physical conditions that in medical textbooks are described as organic diseases such as chronic infections.
‘In holotropic states, consciousness is changed qualitatively in a very profound and fundamental way…. We typically remain fully orientated in terms of space and time and do not completely lose touch with everyday reality. At the same time our field of consciousness is invaded from contents from other dimensions of existence in a way that can be very intense and even overwhelming. We thus experience simultaneously two very different realities, having each foot in a different world.’
He goes on to say that holotropic states are characterised by dramatic perceptual changes in all sensory areas. When we close our eyes we may see images drawn from personal history or visions portraying plants or animals, scenes from nature, or of the universe. We may be experiencing realms of archetypal beings and mythological regions. And even when we open our eyes, our perception of our surroundings can be illusively transformed by vivid projections of this unconscious material. Various sounds, physical sensations, smells and tastes may also be involved.
He also describes emotions characteristic of these states. Feelings can be very intense. They may range from ecstatic rapture, content and peacefulness, to terror, murderous anger, utter despair, or consuming guilt. Such states of mind seem to match either the celestial paradises or hellish realms described in sacred scriptures of the world’s religions.
He reports that, in these non-ordinary states of consciousness, we may not be able to rely on our judgment of everyday practical matters but we can be flooded by remarkable valid information on a variety of subjects as well as deep insights concerning our personal history, unconscious dynamics, and life problems. He writes that we can also “experience extraordinary revelations concerning various aspects of nature and of the cosmos that by a wide margin transcends our educational and intellectual background.”
Finally he comments that the most interesting insights that become available revolve around philosophical, metaphysical and spiritual issues. And so he thinks heloptropic states of consciousness facilitate deep personality changes and spiritual opening. He believes that systematic disciplined self-exploration using helotropic states in a good setting sooner or later tends to take the form of a deep philosophical and spiritual quest.
‘I have seen on numerous occasions that people, whose primary interest in psychedelic sessions or in holotropic breathwork was therapeutic, professional or artistic, suddenly started asking the most fundamental questions about existence when their inner process reached the transpersonal level.’
He argues that experiences of this kind are the main source of mythologies, philosophies and religious systems describing the spiritual nature of existence.
‘They are the key for understanding the ritual and spiritual life of humanity from shamanism and sacred ceremonies of aboriginal tribes to the great religions of the world.’
Over 200 years before Grof’s book, another explorer of consciousness was the 18th century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who meticulously reported what he found. He discovered that his own holotropic experiences also showed that the spiritual dimension of reality can come across in a way that is as convincing as our daily familiarity with the material world.
An early step in his case towards a full state of awareness of what he termed ‘the spiritual world’ was apparently seeing things with his inner vision simultaneously with natural sight. Then came the perception of smells and still later the hearing of the speech of whom he called spirits. Finally there was complete perception of his presence in the spiritual world. He said he was awake to his physical surroundings on earth but was also aware of being part of the other dimension in which he saw, heard, spoke and acted.
The wakefulness of spirit came to appear to him to be exactly the same as bodily wakefulness. At first this perception was probably only occasional. And to start with he was a passive witness of events in the spiritual realm rather than someone interacting with them. However after his full admission he was to make the amazing claim that he was active in both worlds at the same time for the best part of the last 27 years of his life. He reported conversations with both good and bad spirits.
Swedenborg found that the spiritual world mirrors the spiritual state of people. Likewise, as Grof says, ‘Artists do not limit their topics to those that are beautiful, ethical and uplifting. They portray any aspects of life that can render interesting images.’ Beauty can be found where people are caring and considerate; ugliness where people are resentful or spiteful.
Grof’s book is entitled Psychology of the Future. Swedenborg’s spiritual world reflects not just our inner spirit now but also the future realm we will fully experience as an afterlife following our bodily death. Swedenborg says that in what part of the spiritual world we feel at home depends on the state of our inner character. That applies now as well after our bodily death. According to his spiritual philosophy we form our own inner character not from what we do but from why we do things. Our inner motivation counts towards our destiny.
Grof has a chapter about our reunion with the divine source. How it is fraught with many hardships, risks and challenges. What he says about organised religion could have also come from Swedenborg’s pen. Grof writes :
‘The dogmas and activities of mainstream religions tend to obscure the fact that the only place where true spirituality can be found is inside the psyche of each of us. At its worst organised religion can actually function as a grave impediment for any serious spiritual search, rather than an institution that can help us connect with the divine. By denigrating its members, it makes it difficult to believe that the divine is within them. It might also cultivate in the followers the false belief that regular attendance of formal divine service, prayer, and financial contributions to the church are adequate and sufficient spiritual activity.’
As Swedenborg would say – it is not what we do or what we believe but why we do it and believe it that matters. For it is our inner life that is reflected in our spiritual realm. And so the celestial part of the spiritual world where lived good-hearted people appeared to him as beautiful as the physical world but with nothing of its menace. He reports that true happiness can be found there – not in lazy self-indulgence but in useful active lives of kindness. The hellish part is just the opposite. No friendship can be found there because those in this negative state of spirit are too self-concerned to want to share with or put any trust in others.
For Grof – unlike Swedenborg – holotropic experiences are not unequivocal proof of survival of consciousness after death. However, he points out that according to Western neuroscience, consciousness is a product of the physiological processes in the brain, and thus critically dependent on the body. Very few people, including most scientists, realise that we have no proof that consciousness is actually produced by the brain and that we do not even have a remote notion of how something like consciousness could possibly happen in terms of physical matter.
‘In spite of it, this basic metaphysical assumption remains one of the leading myths of Western materialist science and has profound influence on our entire society.’
Whilst remaining an agnostic about what happens after death, Grof is absolutely clear that none of the interpretations based on careful study of altered states of consciousness are compatible with the monistic materialistic worldview of Western science. At the same time he acknowledges that a belief in survival and karma will have a profound impact on our behaviour. He quotes Plato as saying that disconcern for the postmortem consequences of one’s deeds would be a ‘boon to the wicked.’
As some modern authors have emphasised massive avoidance and even emotional denial of death leads to social pathologies that have dangerous consequences for humanity. Grof writes that modern consciousness research certainly supports this point of view.
Grof has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the transpersonal world and it shows. However the reader should be warned about a tendency towards repetition. Many scientists will probably feel he has over-stated his case. Nevertheless I warmly recommend this book and give it a five star rating.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems