For example, people who relive different stages of birth, often experience simultaneously elements of what C.G. Jung called the "collective unconscious"; this can be either its historical or mythological aspects. Thus people who re-experience the stage of birth where they were stuck in the womb before the cervix opened, might identify with different people throughout history who were in a prison, or who were abused and tortured, such as the victims of the Inquisition and people who were in Nazi concentration camps. Similarly, the reliving of the desperate struggle to free oneself from the clutches of the birth canal after the cervix dilated can be associated with images of revolutions and with experiential identification with freedom fighters of all ages.
These experiences of one's birth can also open into archetypal visions of the collective unconscious. People who feel stuck in the womb can experience themselves as being in hell, with actual experiences of the demonic figures or of infernal landscapes as we know them from mythology and from religious art. Similarly, individuals who re-experience the difficult propulsion through the birth canal at the stage of birth when the cervix is open often describe archetypal visions of various deities who represent death and re-birth such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, Persephone, and Dionysus. They might also have the visions of crucifixion or actually experience death and resurrection in full identification with Jesus Christ.
Beside the perinatal level, we have another vast transbiographical domain, the transpersonal level. As I have described earlier, some people can first get in touch with the transpersonal realm in connection with the death-rebirth process; however, others experience it independently in a pure form. The spectrum of transpersonal experiences is extremely rich. Beside the already mentioned elements of the historical and mythological collective unconscious, it is possible to experience convinced identification with various animals, plants, and other aspects of nature and of the cosmos. A particularly important type of transpersonal experiences are karmic or "past-life" memories. These experiences can suddenly catapult us into another century, another country, and another culture. They are extremely vivid, intense, and convincing and are typically accompanied with a sense of personal remembering ("what I am experiencing now is not happening to me for the first time, I once actually was this person living in that historical period"). In many instances people are able to bring from these experiences astonishing and accurate new information about the times and cultures which they had visited. We have also observed that past life experiences have an amazing therapeutic potential.
DiCarlo: Why should a person consider that the types of experiences you have just described are more than simple fantasies and imaginations produced by the brain?
Grof: This is the attitude that is usually taken by those people who have traditional scientific training. But if you really study these experiences, as I have done for the last thirty-six years, you find out that the situation is much more complex.The information that these experiences tend to provide is often incredibly rich and specific and of such a kind that it could not have possibly been acquired through the ordinary channels. It is not something that one can get from teachers, books, movies, or television. Identification with animals typically involves dimensions that can not be conveyed by traditional means, for example, specific non-human instinctual feelings, body sensations, and emotions. In experiences involving other cultures and historical periods, it can be very detailed information about architecture, costumes, weapons, and social organizations of various societies. In some instances, the information concerns specific historical events and can be verified by independent research in historical archives.
Also, people frequently discover that their past life experiences are in some way connected to their present life situation. For example, certain emotional and psychosomatic problems which could not be explained or alleviated by various forms of traditional therapy, disappear after a profound experience of this kind. In addition, karmic experiences are often associated with meaningful synchronicities. For example, a person has a difficult relationship with another person and has a past life experience that shows the two of them engaged in some sort of violent conflict. One of them is the victim and the other the aggressor. If this person completes reliving that incident and reaches a sense of forgiveness, his or her attitude towards the other protagonist changes in the positive direction. That is in itself impressive and interesting. However, what is quite extraordinary is that at exactly the same time a significant change in the same direction often occurs in the other person, whose attitude is also radically changed. This can happen even if there was not a conventional communication or connection of any kind between these two persons.
These observations suggest that the belief in reincarnation is not a product of wishful thinking or some superficial metaphysical speculation; it is clearly a pragmatic concept, reflecting an effort to understand the complexity of these experiences that spontaneously emerge in non-ordinary states. Psychiatrists who deny that the phenomenon of reincarnation is a fascinating and legitimate field of study are obviously not very familiar with non-ordinary states of consciousness and, more specifically, with the complex and fascinating nature of karmic experiences.
DiCarlo: Would you say your cartography of the psyche tracks the perennial philosophy-the inner teachings which all religions throughout the ages seem to share? Does it correlate with the experiences of saints and mystics who have peered into these other domains?
Grof: Very much so. I have written a book called The Cosmic Game that specifically explores the insights from non-ordinary states of consciousness regarding the "Big Picture" of life. The book shows the deep similarities between the experiences that many people have reported to us in our research and those described by different systems of perennial philosophy. The book also shows how the insights into the nature of reality -- matter, time, space, consciousness -- strikingly converge with the concepts that characterize what has been called the new or emerging paradigm in Western science. In other words, the insights that people get into the nature of the cosmos in non-ordinary states are in fundamental conflict with the old, Cartesian-Newtonian world view, but are very similar in nature to descriptions that we find in quantum-relativistic physics and other avenues of the new paradigm.
DiCarlo: Could you briefly state what some of these insights have been?
Grof: For example, the Newtonian understanding of the world is that matter is indestructible, objects are solid, time is linear, and space is three-dimensional. The universe is a totally deterministic mechanical system, where everything is connected through chains of causes and effects. In the worldview of traditional science, the material world exists objectively in an unambiguous way. The observer reflects more or less accurately this "objective reality", but his or her presence does not change anything - the world is uninfluenced through the act of observation.
In non-ordinary states, the material world is experienced as a dynamic process where there are no solid structures and everything is a flow of energy. Everything is perceived as patterns of energy and behind patterns of energy there are patterns of experience. Reality appears to be the result of an incredibly precise orchestration of experiences and the observer plays a very important role in the creation of the universe. This is exactly the picture that is now emerging from various areas of new paradigm science. It has become apparent that consciousness has a very fundamental role in the cosmos. It is not a side-product of inert, dead, and inactive matter that somehow appeared in the universe more or less accidentally after billions of years of evolution. Consciousness and creative intelligence permeate all of nature and the entire universe has an underlying master blueprint. This is also an image that comes very close to the mystical worldview and to the understanding that one finds in the Eastern spiritual philosophies.
DiCarlo: So you would be in agreement with Willis Harman's M-3 metaphysical assumption, that consciousness is primary, that it existed before matter?
Grof: Very much so, in view of my own findings, it is the only perspective that makes any sense. As I briefly mentioned earlier, in transpersonal states of mind, one can subjectively experience identification with other people, with animals, with plants, and even with inorganic materials and processes. Everything that one can experience in the everyday state of consciousness as an object, has in the non-ordinary state of consciousness a subjective correlate. This shows that the psyche and consciousness of each of us is, in the last analysis, commensurate with "All-That-Is", because there are no absolute boundaries between the bodyego and the totality of existence. In this sense, we can experience ourselves as anything between the bodyego and the totality of cosmic consciousness, or the creative principle itself. That is very reminiscent of the message of the Upanishads, "Thou Art That" ( You are Godhead, identical with the creative principle of the universe).
There exists substantial evidence that consciousness is not a by-product of matter, an epiphenomenon of the neurophysiological processes in our brain, but a primary attribute of existence. The material reality is a creation of cosmic consciousness. To use modern terminology, the world we live in is "virtual reality", created by the technology of consciousness. In the course of this century, quantum-relativistic physics has seriously undermined the belief in the tangible and unambiguous nature of our material reality. It has thrown a new light on the ancient Buddhist idea that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In the subatomic analysis, matter in the usual sense of the word, disappears and what remains is pattern, relation, mathematical order -- elements which we would certainly associate with consciousness rather than matter.
DiCarlo: Would you suggest that the transpersonal domains of the psyche which you describe, are other-than -physical realities, with a life and vitality of their own? That independent of the person who may be perceiving them, these domains of experience exist with their own inhabitants, their own natural laws and their own phenomenon?
Grof: Traditional science claims in a very authoritarian way that the material universe which we experience through our five senses, is the only existing reality. And if we experience other realities, such as historical or archetypal elements of the collective unconscious, these are seen as illusory experiences derived from the perceptions and memories of this world. In other words, transpersonal experiences are fantasies or hallucinations. This position is presented as an evident scientific fact that has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt, but a closer examination clearly shows that it is an unfounded metaphysical assumption. Modern consciousness research actually has brought ample evidence that there are other experiential dimensions of reality with specific and demonstrable characteristics. To borrow an analogy from electronics, material reality is just one "holographic cosmic channel". There are other "channels" that are equally real or unreal as this one.
DiCarlo: Would you also be in agreement with people such as Robert Monroe who has reportedly explored different dimensional levels of reality in his "out-of-body" experiences?
Robert Monroe has developed some very effective means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness, with special emphasis on those that are conducive to out-of-body experiences. In non-ordinary states, the sharp difference between what is "real" and what is "unreal" tends to disappear. Our ordinary material world appears less real and the world of the archetypal beings and other aspects of the transpersonal world become very convincing and believable. Careful study reveals that they are more than fantasies or hallucinations. Once we realize that in both instances we are dealing with "virtual realities", the distinction between what is "real" and what is derived becomes rather arbitrary. In view of all that we have discussed earlier, at least some of the experiences that Robert Monroe describes represent legitimate and relevant dimensions of existence.