Psychology of the Future

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.

Dr Stanislav Grof

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.

He writes:

‘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

Drifting through life – How to stop?

drifting
Drifting in the arctic

There are things in all of us that we need to face up to. Perhaps it is a relationship going sour, a health problem, or a business decision. When we find ourselves drifting, some crisis is likely to then occur. Better to prevent difficulties getting out of hand than allow circumstances no longer under our control to push us into a corner.

Drifting as a Pre-disposition

The problem is worse if we are the kind of person who isn’t used to taking the initiative – for whom drifting seems to be an inbuilt disposition. This might show in conversation: “I’m sure you’re right.” “I’ll leave that up to you.” Those of us who are a bit timid find others taking advantage of our ‘better nature’. One sign of this is if we were to feel fed up with the way others take advantage of us or feel quietly resentful when sidelined, or put on. We can be much too passive for our own good.

The freedom to change

The good news is it is possible to become more assertive and proactive. This is because of our inner freedom to change. One might object that this question of free-will is a bit controversial. Our social, legal, financial and physical circumstances affect the opportunities around us for what we can do. And our personal histories and temperament will also affect our sense of possibilities.

But despite this we do have personal choices. No one is forced into drifting through life. We can make up our own minds about things including whether to believe that we are free to make up our own minds! If inner freedom applies to small matters like whether to read this article, date that person, or take on that stray cat as a pet, then surely it also applies to more important issues such as which political party to vote for or which things to value in life.

If you doubt the freedom of personal choice, just consider these questions. Do you not feel you can adopt whatever attitude you please? Can you not change how you live your life? Don’t you feel responsible for how you react to events?

Actually many people do recognize that being human, we have many private choices in life; whether to continue drifting along with the crowd or to do our own thing; whether to adopt worldly or spiritual values. We may make decisions using so-called `enlightened self-interest’ or alternatively ethical ideas like what is fair or sincere. The outer determinants of behaviour do not prevent inner freedom of choice. Although our choices may sometimes need to remain hidden until outward circumstances change, inwardly we are in a state of balance between for example optimism and pessimism or honesty and self-deception, Which we turn to is our own choice.

One’s readiness to accept responsibility.

With private freedom comes a sense of personal responsibility. Sadly, not all of us face up to this. Easier to stay drifting along as if there were no deeper challenges to waken us up out of complacency. Often and in various ways we may slide into letting life around us govern how we think and behave – in a way that enables us to blame ‘it’ if ever we feel criticised. So it tends to be “someone else’s fault – not mine!”

Not surprisingly, psychological therapists generally accept that if clients persist in blaming some other person or thing for their problems of living, then no real therapy is possible. A therapist may ask such an individual whose partner keeps running him or her down or using violence “Why not do something about it like insisting on a trial separation to bring the other person to their senses.” In not accepting the responsibility for the way they live their lives, they cannot start to take hold of their own self and destiny.

And in my experience if I asked clients about the aspects of therapy that they found particularly useful, they often cite the discovery and assumption of personal responsibility.

However, readiness to accept responsibility varies considerably. For some individuals it is extraordinarily difficult and this issue is the main task of psychotherapy. Once they assume responsibility they give healing a chance, and therapeutic change almost happens automatically without much further effort for the therapist.

Most of us are facing life’s problems without professional help. But also here an act of will freely made is required. When we better understand the problems we are causing ourselves and our families, we may then either do nothing about it and carry on drifting along in our old habits or we may actually then resolve to change for example, our addiction to work, our avoidance of some personal issue or our emotional dependence on some particular person etc. We need to make a decision to take hold of our life rather than drift on as before.

Courage for change

Taking the bull by the horns seems scary at first. After all it is easy to imagine the bull may turn round and gore us to death. But if we take courage we find that it is not so dangerous as we thought. We may have had no suspicion that there was any courage within us to be found. Yet my experience with many anxious clients shows that courage arises within when they started to take responsibility for their own development; rather than drifting along and passively allowing themselves to be complacently swayed this way and that by the events of their lives.

A longer version of this article

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Childhood — How do I tackle unhappy memories?

childhood

Even living as independent adults in their forties, people can still be haunted by their experience of being mistreated as a child. Such individuals also tend to have recurring negative moods and worry, and long-lasting problems like poor self-esteem, or low self-confidence. From my experience of over thirty years as a clinical psychologist, I can say that an unhappy childhood is usually one of the main causes.

Whether therapy for an unhappy childhood is necessary

It is probably unhelpful to dwell on very bad memories and re-open deep wounds without a good therapist. However, not everybody with an unhappy childhood needs help. If you have not suffered serious abuse, it may not be necessary. There is much you can do to help yourself start to turn your life round. Partly, this will involve reflecting on how you respond to life’s challenges now. But also, it will involve reconsidering your past, through adult eyes, to gain a more mature perspective on yourself as a child and on your parents at that time.

Clinging to childhood wounds

It can be surprising for adults to learn how their behaviour is so unconsciously influenced by the ‘hurt resentful child’ still in their heads. If we cling to childhood wounds, they can distort our current relationships, produce  emotional blocks and lead us to make inappropriate responses.

For example, one’s response to authority figures, as an adult, can be governed by the kind of thoughts and feelings one had as a ten-year old child facing a punitive parent. As an adult it may mean difficulty tolerating any form of criticism or direction at work. It is as if the supervisor were like one’s parent who was punishing or dominating.

If the response to an over-critical parent has been ‘You blame me for everything’, then one is likely to be ready to feel blamed for mishaps and errors at work.

If the response to an over-controlling parent has been ‘If it weren’t for you I could have …’, then one is likely to feel prevented from gaining a bonus or promotion.

Looking at one’s childhood through adult eyes

The adult mind can understand things in a more mature way than can a child. For life isn’t as black and white as it is to the youngster who doesn’t appreciate the effects of stress and responsibility on parents’ behaviour. The child has only a dim knowledge about the real dangers lurking in the outside world that parents seek to protect him or her from. As a child you probably will not appreciate the time constraints on busy people preventing them attending to all what you want.

Your feelings may be based on an accurate perception. On the other hand whilst your parents mistreatment of you should not be dismissed as insignificant, have you missed any good qualities in them? You might see anger in your parents as dislike and intolerance of you. Could it at least in part have been due to a concern for your knowing right from wrong as they saw it. Or if you thought of a parent as stubborn or dogmatic could you now see his or her views as having conviction and strength?

Looking for positive aspects of one’s childhood

For some people it is relatively easy to recall a pleasant experience with a parent. For others, however the process is a bit more difficult. And for some it feels impossible. Without an effort to look at the positives as well as the negatives, you can get yourself into a negative mood and miss out on any sense of appreciation for your parents positive qualities and fail to recall the good times.

 I believe that to dilute some of that sense of hurt from past mistreatment, one has to take another look at the whole picture of one’s childhood through the eyes of love and compassion. Don’t just consider parent’s bad points but ask yourself about any acts of kindness you can remember. What were their strengths as well as their weaknesses? Can you recall any words of good sense they passed on. Have you acted on their useful advice?

Parents’ criticism of us and attempts at directing us when we were teenagers, may have been unappreciated at the time but could have derived from concern and hopes for our future well-being. A parent giving more time and energy to someone else, with their own unique needs, doesn’t necessarily mean she or he didn’t love you as much.

When we take a holiday flight, the plane flies above the clouds where all is gloom, into the bright sunshine. Likewise, if we try to raise our minds above any exaggerated negativity we can find positive ideas that illuminate the past and provide a more balanced view not just of our parents but of people we now meet in our everyday lives.

Spirit of loving kindness

Many people have come to realise that looking for the good in other people has opened them to receiving a spirit of loving kindness rather than mistrust and wise discernment rather than uncertainty. I strongly feel that being able to see people for what they really are – their good points as well as any bad ones — does actually reduce the intensity and frequency of negative moods and cynicism. The improvement in communication and quality of relationship that ensues, can improve one’s self-confidence and increase one’s sense of self-worth.

But how can we hope to do this if we are carrying around bitterness and disrespect for the parents who had some unappreciated good as well as bad qualities?

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems