Dr. Stan Grof is a leading researcher in transpersonal psychology, a field he co-founded with the late Abraham Maslow. Grof's books include "Realms of The Human Unconscious," and "Beyond The Brain."
DiCarlo: You have been a major researcher of non-ordinary states of consciousness for the past thirty-six years. What got you interested at first?
Grof: My interest in this field of research started when I volunteered for an LSD experiment in Prague, Czechoslovakia. My original training was in Freudian psychoanalysis and reading Freud inspired me to study medicine and become a psychiatrist. However, early in my professional career, I developed a deep conflict in relation to psychoanalysis. I continued to be very excited about psychoanalytic theory which seemed to offer brilliant insights into the human psyche and fascinating explanations for various otherwise obscure problems, such as the symbolism of dreams, neurotic symptoms, religion, and what Freud called "psychopathology of everyday life". But I became increasingly disappointed with psychoanalysis as a practical tool of therapy.
About that same time, the psychiatric department in which I was working received a supply of LSD-25 from Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland. They asked us to conduct clinical research with this experimental substance, assess whether or not it had some therapeutic value, and to give them report about our findings. They gave us two initial suggestions regarding its potential uses. First of these was that, in very miniscule doses, this substance could produce "experimental psychoses" -- various perceptual, emotional, and mental changes that occur spontaneously in psychotic patients. And the second suggestion was that this substance could be used as a unique experiential training for psychologists and psychiatrists. It would make it possible for them to experience for several hours the inner world of psychotic patients and to return from there with profound first-hand insights into that world. I became one of the early volunteers in this research program and I had a very profound confrontation with my own unconscious psyche. In a sense, that experience inspired me and influenced the course of my entire professional development over the next thirty six years.
I spent twenty years conducting clinical research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances, first in the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and then in Baltimore, MD, where I served as Clinical and Research Fellow at The Johns Hopkins University. During the second year of my fellowship, Russia invaded Czechoslovakia and I decided to stay. I was offered the position of chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Catonsville, MD. I remained there until 1973, heading the last surviving government -sponsored psychedelic research project in the United States.
In the last seventeen years, my wife Christina and I have developed "Holotropic Breathwork", a powerful non-drug approach to self-exploration and therapy that uses very simple means, such as faster breathing, evocative music, and a certain kind of energy-releasing bodywork. Non-ordinary states of consciousness induced by this method involve experiences that are very similar to those observed in psychedelic sessions, however, occuring in a much more controlled way. Beside psychedelic therapy and Holotropic Breathwork, I have been also interested in related areas, such as shamanism, Eastern spiritual systems, mysticism, rites of passage of aboriginal cultures, near -death experiences, and psychospiritual crises ("spiritual emergencies); the common denominator in all these situations is that they involve non-ordinary states of consciousness.
DiCarlo: Through your pioneering work, you have developed a means of triggering non-ordinary states of reality in individuals. What might be the value in doing this?
Grof: Non-ordinary states of consciousness are certainly a unique source of deep insights into the deepest recesses of the human psyche. In my opinion their potential significance for psychiatry is comparable to the importance of the microscope for medicine or the telescope for astronomy. It is hard to believe that this area has been largely ignored by traditional psychiatrists and psychologists. I myself have been particularly interested in two aspects of non-ordinary states. First, it has been their extraordinary therapeutic or healing potential, naturally, if they are used properly and under supervision of an experienced guide. Since I am a clinical psychiatrist, this was my primary area of interest. Second, it has been their heuristic potential, that is, what we can learn in or through these states about the psyche, the unconscious, human nature, and the universe.
DiCarlo: In browsing through some professional psychological journals, I noticed that increasingly, some of the prevailing assumptions of traditional psychology are being called into question, such as "Psychological development largely ceases once biological adulthood is reached;" or "Psychological health is nothing more than not being sick;" and "transpersonal or mystical experiences are at best insignificant and at worst, signs of mental illness." As one of the principle architects of the emerging paradigm of psychology, what does your work suggest about the validity of these assumptions?
Grof: To your first point: Transpersonal psychology has amassed ample evidence suggesting that human psychological development can proceed far beyond a good interpersonal and social adjustment and adequate sexual functioning of a mature adult. The author who has written about this in the most articulate way is Ken Wilber. In his books, he offered an impressive and comprehensive synthesis of various schools of Western psychology and Eastern spiritual systems. He described in great detail additional stages of psychological development - the subtle, causal, and absolute. Since all these levels involve the spiritual dimension as a critical element, they require that spirituality be understood as a healthy and evolutionary manifestation, rather than an indication of lack of education or psychopathology.
As far as your second assumption is concerned: The attitude of Western psychiatry that sees mental health as simply the absence of symptoms certainly has to be radically revised. In the new understanding, emotional and psychosomatic symptoms are seen as expressions of the healing process of the organism, not as manifestations of disease. Obviously this applies only to "functional" or psychologically determined disorders and not to clearly organic conditions, such as tumors, infections, or hardening of the arteries of the brain. Nor would it apply in certain states which are clearly manifestations of mental disease, such as severe paranoid conditions. This new understanding can be described as "homeopathic". In the alternative system of medicine known as homeopathy, the symptoms are the seen as expressions of healing, not the disease. Therapy in homeopathy consists of a temporary intensification of the symptoms to achieve wholeness. This approach results in profound healing and positive personality transformation rather than the impoverishment of vitality and functioning that accompanies pharmacological suppression of symptoms. The emphasis on constructive working with symptoms instead of their routine suppression is the first major difference between the strategies based on modern consciousness research and those used in mainstream psychiatry.
With the new strategies, we can do much more than remove the symptoms or reach the goal of psychoanalysis-as defined by Freud in his famous statement : "to change the extreme suffering of the neurotic to the ordinary misery of everyday life." That certainly is not a very ambitious plan, particularly if you consider the amount of time, money, and energy that it takes to undergo psychoanalysis. However, to achieve positive mental health -- increase of zest, joi de vivre, vitality, creativity -- requires to open up to the spiritual dimension of existence. Abraham Maslow conducted extensive research in many hundreds of people who had had spontaneous mystical experiences, or "peak experiences" as he called them. He showed that they were conducive to self-actualization and self-realization and much higher levels of development and functioning than those that conventional psychology talks about.
This brings us to your third point, the problem of spirituality and mystical experiences. This is an issue, which represents the core difference between traditional psychiatry and transpersonal psychology. Mainstream psychiatry is based upon the Cartesian-Newtonian materialistic world view which maintains that the history of the universe is basically the history of developing matter. The only thing that really exists is matter and life, consciousness, and intelligence are its accidental and insignificant side-products.In this kind of a world view, there is no place for spirituality. To be spiritual means to be uneducated, unacquainted with modern scientific discoveries about the nature of the Universe. It means to be involved in superstition, in primitive, or magical thinking. Traditional psychoanalysis explains spirituality as a regression, as a fixation on the infantile stage -a step backwards in development rather than a step forward. In this context, the concept of God is interpreted as projection of your infantile image of your father to the sky. Interest in religious ritual is seen as analogous to obsessive-compulsive behavior of a neurotic and explained as a regression to the anal stage of libidinal development.
DiCarlo: So it is a sort of reductionism, taking what lies beyond our current models of how things work and reducing them to the existing framework and what we already know?
Grof: Yes. And here lies the fundamental difference between traditional psychiatry and transpersonal psychology which considers spirituality to be an intrinsic dimension of the human psyche and a critical factor in the universal scheme of things. This conclusion is not some kind of irrational belief or a speculative metaphysical assumption. It is based on systematic study of non-ordinary states of consciousness in which we can have direct experiences of the spiritual dimensions. These experiences fall into two distinct categories. In the first one are experiences of the Immanent Divine; they involve direct perception of unity underlying the world of separation and a realization that what we experience as material reality is actually manifestation of creative cosmic energy. The second category includes experiences of the Transcendental Divine; here we perceive dimensions of reality that are normally hidden to our senses, such as visions of deities, or archetypal figures as C.G. Jung would call them, and of various mythological domains.
DiCarlo: Could you give me some other examples of the categories of transpersonal experiences that have been described by the thousands of people you have studied over the years that would tend to shatter the assumptions of materialistic science and the traditional world view?
Grof: Traditional psychology and psychiatry have a model of the psyche that is limited to the body, more specifically the brain, which is seen as the source of consciousness, and to post-natal biography, that means to the history of the individual after he or she was born. It tries to explain all psychological processes in terms of the events which took place in infancy and in childhood. In addition, we also have the Freudian individual unconscious, which is basically a derivative of our life experiences. It is a kind of "psychological junkyard" that harbors various unacceptable tendencies that have been repressed.
The model of the psyche that has emerged from modern consciousness research and from transpersonal psychology is incomparably larger and more encompassing. It has additional domains that are extremely important from the theoretical, as well as practical, point of view. For example, the cartography of the unconscious that I have suggested on the basis of my studies of non-ordinary states has, beside the biographical level, two vast additional domains, which I call perinatal and transpersonal. The perinatal level has as its core the record of traumatic experiences associated with biological birth. The memories of the emotions and physical feelings that we experienced during our delivery are often represented here in photographical detail. However, the perinatal level also functions as a kind of gateway into the next domain of the psyche, the transpersonal.