Stanislav Grof, M.D., is one of this century's pioneers
in consciousness exploration. Born in Czechoslovakia, he came of age as
an atheist in a Communist country, and was trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst.
In 1954, Sandoz Pharmaceutical Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland sent a
sample of a newly-developed, little-known substance called lysergic acid
diethylamide to the lab where Grof worked, with a request that they study
it and report back their findings.
Grof's experience with LSD caused him to substantially reconfigure his worldview.
Since that time, he has devoted his professional life to the exploration
of non-ordinary states of consciousness, first with psychedelic substances
and later with non-pharmacological means.
For years, he performed legal, government-sponsored research with psychedelics,
exploring ways to utilize these substances in a psychotherapeutic setting.
His book LSD Psychotherapy grew out of his work. He is a former Chief
of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, and
is the author of over ninety professional articles and six books, including
The Adventure of Self-Discovery and Beyond the Brain, and
The Holotropic Mind. With his wife Christina, he co-authored The
Stormy Search for the Self, and co-edited Spiritual Emergency.
His current work focuses on the use of non-drug methods for deep psycho-spiritual
work. Stan and Christina Grof have developed a method called Holotropic
Breathwork, which employs specialized breathing techniques, in conjunction
with music designed to evoke deeper states.
DR: When you were growing up in Czechoslovakia, what first led you to
pursue medicine, and in particular psychiatry?
Stan Grof: It was a very interesting thing. I never dreamt of becoming
either a psychoanalyst or a physician, and I spent much of my later childhood
and adolescence very, very involved and interested in art, and particularly
in animated movies. Walt Disney was my great hero. Just before I graduated
from high school, I had an interview to start working in the film studios
in Prague. At that time, a friend lent me Freud's Introductory Lectures
in Psychoanalysis. I read it in basically one sitting, and it had a
powerful impact. Within a couple of days, I decided that psychoanalysis
was so interesting that I sacrificed my original plan for a career in animated
movies. I decided to enroll in medical school. It was almost like a conversion
DR: You started off as an orthodox Freudian, and you certainly aren't
one anymore. What profound event or events brought about the change in your
SG: I developed a very deep conflict within myself. As I became
involved in psychoanalysis, and went deeper, I was more and more impressed
with the theory of psychoanalysis. But then when I started seeing clients,
I saw how narrow its range was, that not everybody could be considered a
good candidate, and also that people must commit to doing it for a very
long time. Three times, five times each week in the traditional framework,
for a number of years. It was a great disappointment for me. And I have
to say I regretted giving up animated movies.
Just at that time, I was working in the psychiatric department in the school
of medicine in Prague. It was the beginning of the era of tranquilizers,
and we were doing a big study on Mellaril, a tranquilizer manufactured by
a company in Switzerland called Sandoz. They had also developed LSD, and
since we were one of their clients, they sent us a complimentary sample
so that we could work with it, and give them some reports as to what uses
it might have.
DR: What year was this?
SG: 1954. I was still a medical student. I had to wait until
I became a psychiatrist to have access, to have an experience. So I volunteered
for an LSD session. It was such a powerful opening of my own unconscious
that I temporarily became more interested in psychedelics than in psychoanalysis.
It kind of overshadowed my interest in psychoanalysis. Later, I realized
that LSD could possibly be used as a catalyst, that the two could be combined.
DR: It's hard for most of us to imagine what it must have been like
to take LSD for the first time in the mid-1950s, before all the publicity
had led people to preconceived judgments about it. What were you expecting,
and what happened?
SG: Well, I have to tell you, I kept a very detailed record
of all my dreams. I believed that since this had something to do with the
mind, that it would have to be understandable in Freudian terms. But what
happened there was a level that was understandable in psychoanalytic
terms, but then there was also this very, very powerful experience that
was way beyond that.
DR: Is that something you can describe in words?
SG: What happened was that my preceptor was very interested
in EEG [brain wave monitoring], and I had to commit myself to become a guinea
pig in the middle of my session. I was wired up, and she was attempting
something that called "driving the brain," which meant that you
would be exposed to a very strong stroboscopic, flashing light. The goal
was to find out of the brainwaves would pick up the frequency that you were
feeding to it. In relation to LSD, she was trying to find out how "driving
the brain" was affected pharmacologically.
In the middle of my first LSD experiment, when I watched the flashing stroboscopic
light, the nature of it all changed basically what happened was that I was
catapulted out of my body. I first lost the laboratory, then I lost the
clinic, then Prague, and then the planet. I had the sense that I was a disembodied
consciousness of cosmic universal dimensions. I witnessed things that I
would describe today as pulsars, quasars, the Big Bang, and expanding galaxies.
While this was happening, the woman who was doing the experiment very carefully
moved [the strobe light] through the different ranges of frequency -p;
delta, theta, and alpha range, all carefully according to the research protocol.
When I came back to my body, I had a very intense curiosity about this experience.
I tried to get hold of all the literature that was available. And psychedelics
became part of my work.
DR: This was something you pursued while in Czechoslovakia, and later
in the United States.
SG: I can say that since that time, in my professional career,
I have done very little that is not in one way or another related to non-ordinary
states of consciousness, with or without drugs. It is by far the most interesting
area in the study of the human psyche.
DR: What would you say are the advantages of non-drug, and drug-induced,
methods of psychospiritual work?
SG: I would say that it was a tremendously fortuitous thing
that it came in the form of a substance, a pharmacological agent. That was
pretty much the direction that psychiatric science was going at that time.
We discovered the other dimensions -p; the spiritual, or what we call
today the transpersonal dimension -p; as a kind of side effect of something
that started as a psycho-pharmacological exploration of the brain
I became more and more interested in this, but it became much more complicated
politically to work with psychedelics. This was because of the unsupervised
experimentation with psychedelics, particularly among young people. So I
became interested in similar states that are not produced by drugs. But
had it not been for the fact that this opened up pharmacologically, I don't
think we would ever have studied these non-ordinary states. So my whole
interest in finding some non-pharmacological way was inspired by what I
had experienced with the psychedelics.
DR: What non-pharmacological methods did you gravitate toward first,
and what has been the process through which you have developed your work?
SG: I would say that as long as I had easy access to psychedelics
at the government-sponsored research project at Spring Grove in Baltimore
[Maryland Psychiatric Research Center], most of my energy went into psychedelic
sessions. I was also interested in near-death experiences, which are very
powerful non-ordinary states, as well as various shamanic procedures, and
meditation. [I have taken part in] ceremonies with North American and Mexican
shamans, as well as Brazilian ceremonies
When I came to California in 1973 -p; I came first for a year -p;
I was living at Esalen Institute. I decided to stay in California, and explore
non-pharmacological methods. My wife and I developed holotropic breathwork,
where the whole spectrum of psychedelic experience can be induced by very
simple methods. You close your eyes, and breathe fast. It is enhanced by
DR: With holotropic breathwork, do some people access significantly
deeper levels than others? If so, why?
SG: I would say that this is even true with psychedelics.
There are some people who are quite resistant to psychedelics, while others
have very powerful experiences at very small dosages. We know there are
people who can start having very powerful experiences without anything,
without taking psychedelics, without [holotropic] breathing. It can happen
against their will. We call this "psychospiritual crisis" or "spiritual
emergency." This is a universal phenomenon.
DR: In some cultures, what you are calling a "spiritual emergency"
is a recognized part of growth and individuation. In our culture, at least
its symptoms are frequently considered pathological. How does our culture
move in a more inclusive direction?
SG: My wife Christina and I have written a couple of books
-p; one we wrote and the other we edited. We wrote The Stormy Search
for the Self and edited Spiritual Emergency, which has articles
by other people, pointing in the same direction.
The basic idea is that there exist spontaneous non-ordinary states that
would in the west be seen and treated as psychosis, treated mostly by suppressive
medication. But if we use the observations from the study of non-ordinary
states, and also from other spiritual traditions, they should really be
treated as crises of transformation, or crises of spiritual opening. Something
that should really be supported rather than suppressed. If properly understood
and properly supported, they are actually conducive to healing and transformation
DR: Who should and should not do holotropic breathwork?
SG: It's not so much a matter of who should and who shouldn't,
but a matter of context We like to have people who don't have a serious
psychiatric history, for example a history of having been hospitalized It's
not a question of the holotropic breathwork itself, but if people really
want to work on very serious problems, they should do it in an ongoing therapeutic
relationship, rather than flying to another city where they have no connections,
and then going home with no follow-up.
DR: So you feel follow-up is important?
SG: For someone who doesn't have serious emotional problems,
it may not be necessary, but if you are working with someone who is a borderline
personality [according to the psychiatric definition], then this kind of
work should be conducted in a setting with 24-hour supervision
DR: Do such facilities, with informed and caring staff, exist in
SG: There are very few of them. For example, we have one here
in California called Pocket Ranch, in Geyserville, about an hour north of
San Francisco. A Jungian analyst, John Perry, has conducted two experiments,
one called Diabasis, and the other called Chrysalis, near San Diego. Those
are facilities where people who had these spontaneous episodes could go.
Rather than being given tranquilizers, they were actually encouraged to
experience fully what was happening to them. with the idea that they can
get through it. One thing that is really missing is alternative facilities
where people can come to be offered support rather than suppression DR:
Can you give a general overview of the maps of consciousness that you have
developed through your work?
SG: If you work with non-ordinary states, you will find out
that if you systematically study the observations and the experiences, they
would require very substantial revisions of our basic concepts of psychology
The traditional model that we have really takes into consideration only
the body and the brain, which is the most critical for psychiatry. In terms
of what in computer language we call software (the programs, the learning
in the broadest sense), this model includes only postnatal biography. Freud
said that we are born as a tabula rasa -p;- a clean state -p;-
and that we become [what we are as] a function of the other, of mothering,
of different events, various sexual problems, and so on. This is a model
that simply is too superficial and inadequate.
I would add some very significant dimensions to it. The biographical domain
is there, and it's important, but it's not all there is, particularly when
we have more powerful ways of accessing the unconscious. There are two other
domains, which I have called the "perinatal" and the "transpersonal."
The perinatal generally relates to the trauma of birth. There are now a
number of techniques through which this can be experienced, such as primal
therapy, rebirthing, and holotropic breathwork, as well as psychedelic sessions.
Then, beyond this is another level which we now call transpersonal. Here
we find various mythological sequences, sequences from the lives of ancestors
and the history of the race, and from past lives. Here we have many of the
states described in spiritual literature, of cosmic consciousness, of the
perennial philosophy. This map of the human psyche shows that each individual
is an extension of all of existence. This supports what it says in the Upanishads.
"Tat twam asi," [which means] "You are it," or
"Thou art that." This means in the last analysis that the psyche
of the individual is commensurate with the totality of creative energy This
requires a most radical revision of western psychology.
DR: With regard to holotropic breathwork workshops, what do you hope
people can gain from it. Who should come?
SG: Are you talking about the lecture or the experiential
DR: Both, but particularly the experiential.
SG: I will be talking about the levels of non-ordinary states
of consciousness, and in that sense I think it would be interesting not
just for professionals -p; psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists,
but also for theologians. and then because we all have a psyche, and it
is very important to know ourselves, it would be worthwhile for intelligent
In terms of the experiential part, it gives people a sense of what is possible
in terms of deep self-exploration. It gives them a chance to get a taste
of the holotropic breathwork. If it is something that they find useful,
then they can pursue it on their own. Most of our energy these days is going
into training people in holotropic breathwork. We have trained over 200
people, and 200 more are in training. These workshops are available now,
in most areas of the United States.
Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor and writer who lives in Virginia
Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits
of Holistic Health (A.R.E. Press), and is a member of the editorial board
of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He can be reached
by e-mail at Redwoods@infi.net.
©1995 Daniel Redwood, D.C.