“Psychology of the Future” By Stanislav Grof
Most of us in our ordinary state of consciousness identify with only a small part of who we really are. In nonordinary states of consciousness we have the ability to access a deep inner intelligence that guides us through the healing and transformation process. These states can lead to real spiritual experiences, as differentiated from religious dogma. In this way nonordinary states have the ability to help us understand human consciousness and present us with the potential to evolve.
One nonordinary state of consciousness is the holotropic state. This word means moving in the direction of wholeness. A therapy entitled Holotropic Breathwork can induce this state by means of breath work, music and bodywork. While remaining in our ordinary state we can simultaneously experience other dimensions of existence. These experiences can be intense.
Indigenous cultures around the world routinely induced holotropic states by means of chanting, drumming, breath work, meditation, dance, psychedelic materials, etc. Shamans in ancient cultures induced these states at will for the purpose of healing. Archeological evidence dating back 30,000 to 40,000 years indicates the primal mind was engaged in these states and that the ordinary state of consciousness was transcended. There is evidence these states were induced by the Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, etc. in their secret and sacred rituals involving death and rebirth.
In the early years of the development of psychological theory, holotropic states played a role in treating clients. As time passed, psychotherapy drifted away from this modality. Modern psychotherapy tends to treat these states as disease and often prescribes medication to alleviate symptoms. Psychedelic therapy in particular has a stigma surrounding it due to prevalent unsupervised use in the 1960s.
Holotropic states are being rediscovered as a therapy. This is leading to a change in our understanding of consciousness. With this change in understanding a new model is needed which encompasses modern psychotherapy and holotropic therapy.
Traditional therapy is biographical in orientation, calling on memories from infancy, childhood and later life. In addition to this material holotropic therapy can extend these memories to the birth experience and beyond. Memories of the trauma of birth are called perinatal. Beyond the perinatal experience is the transpersonal realm. Transpersonal means experiencing beyond the personal or beyond the boundaries of our skin and ego. Each of these experiential states can be divided into sub groups consistent with the variations in experience.
Holotropic states generally entail having the experience of the memory. They tend to be more sensory and physical in nature such as the experience of drowning or of suffocating. The emotions and physical sensations of the experience are re experienced in these states. These states also seem to automatically bring to consciousness memories with the strongest emotional charge.
In the perinatal state we remember the trauma of birth which is an experience of dying to an aquatic world and being born into an air breathing world. The process of birth has four stages beginning with the experience of the fetus prior to birth and three distinct birthing stages which follow. Each of these three stages results in a different and unique experience for the child. These experiences are very traumatic and important and have life long physical and spiritual implications.
The transpersonal states go beyond the biographical and perinatal states. In these states we transcend our physical skin boundary and our ego boundary. The first transpersonal state is experienced within the field of space and time and might include: identification with other persons, oneness with life and all creation, experiences of extraterrestrial beings and worlds, etc. The second state goes beyond space and time to include: spiritistic and mediumistic experiences, encounters with spirit guides, experience of cosmic consciousness, etc. The third state is characterized by a sort of interaction between the internal and external worlds such as: synchronicities, spiritual healing, ceremonial magic, etc.
Understanding these holotropic states informs us that we can obtain information about our world in new ways. We can learn by intimately experiencing that which we seek. Once we have had these experiences the next step in our evolution would be learning to live from them in our daily lives. It has not yet been determined how we can permanently hold these states in our consciousness. This new model of consciousness has widespread implications not only for psychology but also for Western science and philosophy.
Holotropic therapy suggests that the root of many psychological disorders goes much deeper than the biographical information that has been used in traditional psychological therapy. In fact many of these so called disorders are actually spiritual emergencies and hold the potential for deep healing. In traditional therapy medications are prescribed in an attempt to suppress symptoms. In the holotropic model this is not thought to be warranted, rather the deeper root cause is to be experienced and through this experience alleviated. The term spiritual emergency is associated with growth through holotropic therapy. It denotes the potential through these states to emerge into a higher level of spiritual awareness.
We in the west are coming to realize that in the pursuit of our materialistic, technologically driven lifestyle we have left behind the spiritual life. We are now realizing that profound personal experiences on the inward journey bring richness and meaning to our lives. Individually we feel that our lives are missing something, that we are somehow alienated. On the collective level this has resulted in a global crisis where we are not respecting our planet and its life giving resources. Each person and all people, as well as the earth herself, will benefit from the emerging shift to an inner, spiritual life.
Spiritual emergencies can be triggered by a variety of occurrences from physical and emotional trauma to failures and disappointments in our professional and personal lives. It appears that an individual’s readiness is the most important factor in awakening. Holotropic therapy is not appropriate for everyone. If a person is aware of what is happening and is open to transpersonal experiences they are thought to be a good candidate for this approach. Individuals who do not have this insight, who use projection as a primary means to deal with their problems or who suffer from persecutory delusions are not good candidates.
It is difficult to categorize spiritual emergencies since each individual psyche is a multidimensional and multilevel system with no boundaries. Broad categories have been established with many overlaps. These categories include shamanic crisis, communication with spirit guides, UFO experiences, near death experiences and many others.
Treatment of spiritual emergencies differs with the intensity of the experience. These treatments include talking with a transpersonally trained therapist, regular sessions of experiential therapy and encouraging the individual to surrender to the experience they are having. These basic approaches can be supplemented with Gestalt practices, sandplay, bodywork, writing, painting mandalas, dancing, jogging, swimming or other sport activity. For people who are in an experience of extreme spiritual emergence no in residence facility exits with a holotropic, transpersonal orientation.
Traditional therapy often does not get to the root of the problem. The therapist is seen as the one knowledgeable and in charge of the session. The client is a hopefully willing but sometimes passive participant. This form of therapy focuses on suppression of symptoms usually through medication. In the holotropic therapy model the goal is to bring the root cause of symptoms to full awareness so that they can be resolved and released.
Holotropic therapy assumes each individual normally identifies primarily with their physical body and ego, thereby not living up to full potential. This false identification leads to many emotional and psychosomatic problems. In a holotropic session unconscious material is brought to consciousness. This process is guided by the individuals own inner healing instinct. The therapist supports the process. Inherent in this process is an expanded awareness beyond the limited body/ego awareness.
Breathing in a holotropic session consists of rapid, deep, cyclical breathing tying the inhalation to the exhalation. This loosens psychological defenses and allows repressed material to surface. Drumming, chanting, music of a high quality but with little content and in a foreign language, if vocal, is used to further enhance the holotropic state. These forms of sound have been used in rituals since ancient times. In most sessions a natural releasing of bodily tension occurs as the session progresses to emotional release. If this does not happen naturally, the individual is assisted by a holotropic therapist. The session concludes with the individual drawing or painting a mandala followed by group sharing. Holotropic sessions are of a few hours’ duration. Usually individuals experience powerful changes within the span of one session. This compares to traditional therapy which may take long periods of time and not show comparable results.
One important aspect of the holotropic state is that it gives the individual new information concerning extrasensory channels. Aldous Huxley experienced these states and concluded that the brain could not be the source of them. He concluded that the brain acts as a reducing valve that protects the individual from the infinitely large cosmos.
All pre industrial people had a rich spiritual life with direct experiential knowledge of the non material world. They believed this aspect of life was essential to understand and live in the material world. This orientation to reality is very different from that prevalent in the industrial world today where only matter exists. Western science believes that consciousness is a product of the physical brain even though absolutely no proof exists that this is true.
Holotropic states are important to our evolution since they can give us a direct experience of the spiritual dimension of life in a way that is as real as our everyday material world. This naturally leads to a discussion of spirituality as differentiated from religion. The spiritual path is a very personal inward experience. Most religions are based on the visions of a mystic in a holotropic state. However as time has passed this original teaching has become clouded. Most religious organizations today discourage direct spiritual experience since knowledge of the inner path results in independent thinking and individuals cannot then be controlled by religious dogma. A deep mystical experience dissolves boundaries and fosters knowledge of oneness and wholeness. Religions are divisive. They unite people within the religious group and often pit them against anyone outside the group. In this way organized religion is a very big part of the global problem in our modern world. It is the rare individual who continues to subscribe to the Western materialistic worldview after a holotropic experience.
Holotropic states also bring clarity to the experience of death and dying. In ancient cultures the world over death and the acceptance of it was recognized for its tremendous healing powers. Biological death was not thought to be the end of existence. Life was thought to continue in some form beyond death.
Our modern Western culture has adopted a denial of death. We trivialize it and sanitize it, even turn it into entertainment. Experiential encounters with death, through the holotropic experience, meditation, and near death, out of body, and psychedelic experiences can and often times do lead to a richer, fuller life and a deeper more real spiritual experience. These experiences can lead to dropping the fear of death which in turn leads to deep healing within the individual. This healing experience has wide social implications. This inner personal transformation may be an important factor in ending wars and healing our planet.
When the inner process reaches this transpersonal level, most people begin asking basic questions about why they are here. Who is in charge? Is anyone or anything in charge? What is my role? What is my relationship to whomever or whatever is in charge? Do I have many lifetimes or one? Am I fulfilling my destiny? Do I have a destiny?
Research over many years with people who have experienced these transpersonal states shows that their visions are of an infinitely complex virtual reality created and permeated by superior cosmic intelligence. These visions seem to mirror ancient mystical traditions and their teachings. Modern science in its new or emerging paradigm is coming to these same realizations.
It is common in holotropic states for people to have experiences of oneness with all life – plants and animals – as well as inorganic material. Everything can appear to have consciousness in the holotropic state. These visions were common in ancient cultures – they were called deities or demons. It’s as though our psyche has access to all mythological figures and worlds. Carl Jung called these universal patterns the collective unconscious. These visions can be a sort of bridge to the divine and are not to be confused with it.
These visions or experiences of the absolute or divine have certain attributes in common: transcending the analytical mind; not bound by space or time; transcending duality; a field of light, consciousness and infinite intelligence; and a cosmic sense of humor. At times there is a feeling of merging with the divine and at times a feeling of being the observer or witness of it. Full understanding of these states requires direct experience.
The result of having these deep experiences allows people to realize their own divine nature and their identity with the source. This is the most important discovery that can be made on the inner spiritual journey and is at the heart of all great wisdom teachings.
If it is true that these states are our true birthright then why do we feel separate? Why must we journey to realize what is already true? One explanation is that the intention of this divine play we find ourselves in may simply be to offer us an adventure in consciousness. A good actor or actress can sometimes over identify with their role and merge with the character they are playing. So can we in this divine play. In order to find our way out of this merged state we must turn inside to a systematic inner quest. As we have more and more experiences of the transpersonal realms, we loosen our identity with our role in the play. Life becomes easier and more fun. This inner search eventually leads to the emptiness behind all forms – including our own. We are ultimately experienced as our own illusion. The fear of death is transcended. It is important to regularly access the transpersonal realms in order to maintain this material/spiritual balance.
Consciousness research and transpersonal psychology can help us understand the current global crisis and help alleviate it. Throughout history people have committed many acts of war and atrocity, many in the name of god. People have been driven by a need for violence and greed in their lives. In our modern times we continue to make war on each other. We now are also making war on our home planet by over consuming and not being responsible stewards. We continue to produce weapons of greater and greater destruction realizing that deployment of these weapons may some day destroy all life on the planet. It has not been shown that peace is assured by strength. Just the opposite appears to be true.
This proclivity toward violence and greed is psychospiritual. It reflects the level of consciousness evolution of our human species. Holotropic states and transpersonal psychology can provide deeper understanding of these dangerous elements in the human psyche and ways of confronting and overcoming them. As each individual turns inward and undergoes deep transformation, the species evolves. Hopefully in time.