On Sunday, April 7th consciousness pioneer Dr. Stanislav Grof joined me for an illuminating conversation we titled “Waking Up at Sunset”. He spoke as a scientist, rational, balanced and cautious, and also as a human being full of inspiration, care, and earned spiritual wisdom. But what was most striking to me was his humble surrender to the mystery of what we simply cannot know now about the nature of consciousness and reality. It was a pleasure and an honor to engage with someone who has done so much to create a safe space for the larger cultural experiment that has unfolded since we first opened the “doors of perception”.
Stan began by telling the story of what originally motivated his research into non-ordinary states of consciousness. In 1956, at a time when he was bumping up against the field of psychiatry’s limited ability to effect true, lasting healing in patients, he volunteered as a subject in an experiment in which he was given LSD and subjected to powerful “brainwave-driving” stroboscopic light pulses. This experience catapulted him into a powerful life-changing experience of Cosmic Consciousness wherein he felt “completely extinguished.” He became passionate about exploring and understanding what he later named “holotropic” states of consciousness became his calling.
Stan was not interested in all “altered states” as they were then called, but in a specific subset that have healing, revelatory, and heuristic functions. “I was flabbergasted that there was no name for these states,” Stan said. “They were lumped together with delusions, referred to as “altered states” and treated as pathological.” So he coined the term “holotropic”, meaning “moving toward wholeness” to point to the transformative and integrating potentials of these states.
Stan also emphasized that he speaks as a researcher, not a guru. He was not proclaiming “the truth” about how things are, but rather reflecting what he has observed with people in these states.
I asked Stan about the ontological implications of holotropic states. He pointed to his book “The Cosmic Game” where he documented his observations that people in non-ordinary states frequently begin to ask fundamental existential questions like Who am I? What is it to be human? What is the nature of this universe? Have we lived before? Is there evil? Stan gathered more and more data and found it significant that the character of these insights were inter-subjectively identical. The resultant view of the universe and our place in it is entirely different from the materialist scientific worldview, but it does closely correlate with the “Perennial Philosophy” described by Aldous Huxley. These insights also cross-correlate with the emerging quantum-relativistic paradigm, the holographic brain described by Karl Pribram, David Bohm’s implicate order, the connectivity hypothesis of Ervin Laszlo, and Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields. In this view, awareness is not an epiphenomenon of material processes but the foundation of all knowledge, and infinitely larger than how it’s viewed by western psychology and psychiatry.
Stan noted that Western psychology views the psyche as the product of genetic factors influenced by our biography since birth (“postnatal biography”). He discovered that the cartography needed to be expanded to include “perinatal” experiences (memories of what the fetus experienced in the womb and in the stages of the birth process) and “transpersonal” experiences, which include unity consciousness, mystical experiences, archetypes, the collective unconscious and past lives. His expanded cartography of the psyche was influential in the formation of the field of Transpersonal Psychology.
Stan became especially interested in the healing potentials of holotropic states. He pioneered LSD psychotherapy. And his discovery was that under optimal conditions of set and setting, these states allowed the psyche to spontaneously integrate, with dramatic healing results. He and his wife, Christina Grof, worked together, drawing upon this new map to develop Holotropic breathwork, a non-drug method of inducing holotropic states for psychophysical healing.
I asked about several major critiques of non-ordinary states, particularly what distinguishes valid revelation from delusion. Stan acknowledged that every powerful modality has its shadow side and it’s vitally important to create a favorable context for holotropic states. He distinguished the responsible use of these substances as a part of a spiritual quest, especially when accompanied by serious spiritual practice from the recreational use of these substances at parties and raves, or by spiking the punchbowl with LSD. He concluded by arguing that in the scientific quest for knowledge “we should start with consciousness, since that’s all we really know. Even the science of astrophysics is really the story of our experience of stars.”
When I had spoken to Stan beforehand, and described the presenting question of Beyond Awakening: “How can higher consciousness enable human beings to rise to meet the unique challenges of our world in crisis?” He had related two very different, profound, and self-validating intuitions about the nature of reality that he and others have reported in high “holotropic” states. Toward the end of my private dialog we discussed these possibilities. And then Stan responded to listeners’ questions.
I invite you to listen to the full dialog here.
Also, you can read a recent paper that Stan Grof is offering free of charge to the Beyond Awakening community. It summarizes his life’s work in a single 60-page manuscript. It’s titled “The Revision and Re-Enchantment of Psychology: Legacy of Half a Century of Consciousness Research” You’re invited to download it here.