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Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities

An Interview with Stanislav Grof

by Janice  & Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Copublishers

Stanislav Grof, M.D., Ph.D. is one of the world's foremost researchers of the further reaches of the human mind. A psychiatrist who has researched non-ordinary states of consciousness for over 50 years, he is one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. Dr. Grof is the bestselling author of numerous books, and his latest, When the Impossible Happens, presents a mesmerizing firsthand account of inquiry into such topics as survival of consciousness after death, synchronicities, reincarnation, and remembering birth and prenatal life. Dr. Grof lives in Mill Valley and is a professor of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

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The Share Guide: Dr. Grof, you've written extensively about the phenomenon of synchronicity--meaningful coincidences which defy a rational explanation. This seems to dovetail with our previous interview, which was with Jack Canfield, on The Law of Attraction (described in the bestseller The Secret). Both concepts relate to the idea that there's an interaction between the psyche and the world of matter, and that our thoughts can affect reality.

Stanislav Grof: I have personally experienced over the years many examples of this kind of thing--an interaction between the psyche and what we consider the material world, the objective reality. This is something that should not be happening if the universe is really  the way it's described by materialistic science. I have also seen countless examples of synchronicity with my clients and other people. It is an unquestionable phenomenon. Dr. Carl Jung was the first to describe this phenomenon,  and his radical discovery challenged some of the most basic assumptions of the materialistic world. It took Jung 20 years of collecting observations before he dared to present this information to his colleagues.

The Share Guide: Did people believe him?

Stanislav Grof: No! And even now, it's not generally accepted by academic circles. Because it challenges something that's very, very essential to traditional science--which is the idea that the universe is basically governed by chains of cause and effect.

The Share Guide: To better illustrate this concept of synchronicity, can you give an example?

Stanislav Grof: Here's an amazing story that I heard from Joseph Campbell during one of his seminars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. He used to live in Greenwich Village in Manhattan on the 14th floor of a high-rise building. His study had two sets of windows--one was overlooking the Hudson River, which was a very beautiful view and those windows were open much of the time. The other two windows faced Sixth Avenue, and they were hardly ever opened. Joseph said those particular windows were only opened a couple of times during the 14 years he lived there.

Joseph was, at the time of this story, working on his World Encyclopedia of Mythology--in particular, the first volume called The Way of the Animal Powers, a comprehensive encyclopedia of shamanic mythologies of the world. And he was specifically working on a chapter on the mythology of the African bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. In that mythology, the praying mantis is a central, heroic figure. So Joseph was surrounded by all these articles about the praying mantis and pictures of the praying mantis. Just as he was working on this, he suddenly had this completely irrational impulse to go and open one of the windows on the side that he never opened. So he does this and looks out of the window, and he automatically turned his head to the right without really knowing why, and there on the 14th floor of the high-rise building was a great specimen of praying mantis. And Joseph said the praying mantis gave him this meaningful look, and then just continued up the wall. So that's a remarkable example of synchronicity, because you don't see many praying mantis in lower Manhattan!

The Share Guide: Synchronicities happen all the time, especially once you're open to the concept. It seems crazy that so many people chalk much of this up to coincidence. Do you think this is due to rigid thinking?

Stanislav Grof: Yes, this is something that you find very often in the scientific circle. These people practice something I call "scientism" rather than science--they have a rigid conviction that the current worldview is definitive and it's absolutely accurate; no major surprises are accepted. They cannot imagine that the worldview would change radically, but this is how science naturally proceeds.

The Share Guide: In the past you've done extensive research and therapy using psychedelic drugs, including LSD. But don't you currently use Holotropic Breathwork instead to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness?

Stanislav Grof: Yes. Holotropic Breathwork is a method that my wife, Christina, and I developed when we lived at Esalen Institute, because we did not have permission to use psychedelics anymore. So we experimented with breath and music and bodywork, and we put these together to create a very powerful method of therapy and self-exploration. We started this back in the mid-70's. You can actually induce the same spectrum of experiences that we used to do with psychedelics. Holotropic Breathwork is now used all over the world, in many workshops, seminars, etc.

The Share Guide: You've found that people can achieve therapeutic results as dramatic as those with psychedelic drugs?

Stanislav Grof: Yes, the results are very similar. Actually, we feel that the combination of breathing and releasing bodywork that we're using is more effective at clearing psychosomatic symptoms than psychedelics were.

The Share Guide: For our readers who are unfamiliar with Holotropic Breathwork, can you give a brief description?

Stanislav Grof: First, we normally do this work with groups, although it can also be done individually. But when people experience it in a group with connection to others, it's a much more powerful way of using this method. I've tried to dispel some of the misconceptions that people have about non-ordinary states of consciousness, so when these groups meet, we spend several hours preparing for the experience.  It seems that during the industrial and scientific revolution, these non-ordinary states were basically rejected.  And many of the tools used and the context in which they can be produced have actually been outlawed. We don't have a category in current psychiatry that would say, "This is a spiritual experience." Many people over the years who have experienced non-ordinary states of consciousness have been diagnosed as mentally ill and hospitalized. They've been given tranquilizing medication when in other cultures this type of experience would be considered to be perfectly normal. So with our Holotropic Breathwork workshops, we try to dispel some of the misconceptions beforehand and explain the range of experiences that people can have. We ask people to find a partner and we work with half of the group at a time. So half of the group are "breathers" and half of the group are what are called "sitters."  We do an introduction, which is designed to relax people as much as possible, and make way for the inner healer to take them wherever they need to go. And then we ask them to breathe fast in a particular way, tying the inhalation and the exhalation into kind of a circle of breath--and then allow anything that emerges to happen. People can make any sound that emerges, any kind of body movement. The only restriction is not to do anything that would hurt them or others or destroy the precious property of the place that's hosting the workshop.

The Share Guide: This is pretty far from traditional talk therapy!

Stanislav Grof: It resembles in many ways what happens in Kundalini yoga, only people are not in the lotus position; they are in the reclining position.

The Share Guide: Traditional talk therapy seems to have very limited success for those with deep-seated problems. With a method like Holotropic Breathwork, you seem to get much faster results.  Many people stay in talk therapy for years and never seem to resolve their issues. What are your thoughts on this?

Stanislav Grof: One of the problems is that the definition of the psyche which is currently accepted in psychiatry and psychology is painfully limited and superficial. It's limited to what we can recall that happened to us since the time we were born. Freud introduced the concept of the unconscious mind, but it's still limited to the time after birth.  Freud described the newborn as a clean slate. In other words, there's nothing that precedes birth that's of any interest for a psychiatrist or psychologist--including birth itself, which is incredible. Psychiatrists put a lot of emphasis on the conditions of nursing, and the importance of the early relationship between the mother and the child, but at the same time they ignore the fact that the hours before and during birth are a major psychological event that's tremendous.

The Share Guide: They don't think that we're conscious then, right?

Stanislav Grof: Right, but this is incorrect. So one of the things that you have to do when you work with these non-ordinary states--or the special subcategory of holotropic states [holo means "whole" and tropic means "moving toward" so holotropic means "moving toward wholeness"]--is deal with the fact that the psyche is larger than traditional psychiatry defines it.  Besides the biographic domain, there is what I call the perinatal domain, which contains all the stages of birth that we went through, recorded in photographic detail.  There are also prenatal experiences. In addition, there is another domain of the psyche which we now call transpersonal. This includes such things as experiencing oneness with other people, experiencing group consciousness, experiencing identification with various animals or other life forms, transcending time, and having collective karmic experiences. We can even have experiences and encounters with various mythological figures from cultures that we never personally studied. It's observing these experiences that led Jung to the conclusion that we don't have just the Freudian individual unconscious, but also what Jung called the "collective unconscious," which is actually two different domains or aspects: the historical, where we carry the history of humanity in our psyche; and the archetype, where we carry our cultural heritage and mythologies.

The Share Guide: You stated in your latest book that biological birth is the most profound trauma of our lives. Can you explain?

Stanislav Grof: When we started working with LSD years ago, we discovered that it's a misconception that we are not aware during the birth process. What happened was that during LSD sessions, people without any guidance or prompting suddenly started reliving in photographic detail what happened to them when they were in the clutches of childbirth. For me this came as a surprise, because in my traditional medical training I was taught that there can't be any consciousness at birth--the child doesn't notice that something strange is happening; it's not recorded anywhere. The reason that's usually given for this is the cortex of the newborn is not mature enough to record that kind of experience. This is incorrect. Because of course, the same would then apply to the nursing experience, which is immediately following and much more subtle than the experience of birth. Yet in spite of this, psychiatry generally accepts that the experiences of nursing are perceived and very important, but not birth itself. So there is an unbelievable paradox that's so surprising for a discipline that prides itself on being logical.

The Share Guide: Was there any backlash in your field when you first started writing about these unconventional ideas about birth?

Stanislav Grof: It was a mixed reaction. Some people in the academic circles found it extremely interesting, and the argument that I just mentioned made a lot of sense to them.  Other people were stuck in their belief that the brain is not developed enough. But you don't have to have a developed cortex to have memory; in fact, there's species that don't have any cortex at all and they still have memory. Several years ago, the Nobel Prize was given to Eric Kandel for his work on the memory mechanism of the sea slug. I think it's incredibly inconsistent to give a Nobel Prize for studying the memory mechanisms in a sea slug and at the same time deny that such a highly organized brain as that of a newborn baby is incapable of recording memories of the first hours of life.

The Share Guide: Do you think the field is getting any better these days, and opened up more?

Stanislav Grof: Yes. There are numbers of professionals who have parted ways with these traditional concepts. They often end up in our various workshops. Then they experience for themselves memories of birth and so forth. But often when they return to their academic setting, they just decide to continue playing the game because they are afraid to be considered unscientific or irrational.

The Share Guide: So is the field of psychiatry rather polarized now?

Stanislav Grof: Yes, because the new research and evidence is in such conflict with the current world view that dominates science. And it's not just one field. There was a time when I was interacting with anthropologists, and several of them told me fantastic stories about their experiences doing fieldwork in Shamanic cultures. They actually had manuscripts about this work that they didn't dare to present to their professional colleagues because they were afraid that they would damage their reputation.

The Share Guide: In your latest book, When the Impossible Happens, you talk about how in certain parts of the world, such as Brazil, people are more open minded. Do you think that all of us would benefit from experiencing Holotropic Breathwork and other non-ordinary states of consciousness? And if everybody did this, how do you think it would affect Western society?

Stanislav Grof: I'm very interested in what responsible, supervised work with these holotropic states would do for people--and also participation in shamanic rituals and other powerful forms of extreme psychotherapy. I am also interested in spontaneous near-death experiences and spontaneous episodes of non-ordinary states that we call "spiritual emergencies." Current psychiatry would see these as psychotic states, but all these experiences can profoundly transform people. And people who engage in responsible exploration with holotropic states tend to develop a certain kind of world view and a certain kind of attitude. For example, their level of aggression and anger is significantly lowered and they develop a sense of compassion. They experience a melting of boundaries--racial boundaries, gender boundaries, cultural boundaries, political boundaries--and they tend to develop an all-embracing attitude towards the world and a tremendous interest in international peace. People also develop spontaneous, profound ecological sensitivity when they experience holotropic states of consciousness. They suddenly see the essential oneness with other people, with other species, with nature, and so on. They realize that we cannot do anything to the earth that we would not simultaneously do to ourselves. So you don't have to teach people ecology; they just experience it on a very personal, cellular level. I believe that people who have these experiences become a different kind of human. They are very much oriented towards service, towards synergy and cooperation, rather than competition at the expense of others. If more people were like this we'd have a much better chance for survival as a species.

The Share Guide: You write a lot about reincarnation in your current book.

Stanislav Grof: Yes, I have a significant chapter in the book entitled "Have We Lived Before?" This is something that comes up a lot in Holotropic Breathwork sessions and we also saw it daily when we worked with psychedelics. It's a very common, very important category of human experiences.

The Share Guide: Do you think past life memories are a result of people having actually lived previous lives or could they relate to tapping into the collective consciousness?

Stanislav Grof: Past life memories are experiences that often happened in other centuries and frequently in other countries that we know nothing about. And so in that sense, it comes from the collective unconscious. But does this prove that we have lived before as a separate unit of consciousness? I would have to say no. It's a very good hypothesis that explains certain observations, but it is still a hypothesis, and there's always more than one to explain the facts. In the history of humanity, there have been incorrect hypotheses to explain observations, such as Aristotle who believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Reincarnation is our hypothesis to explain the characteristics of past life experiences that have been verified as fact, with clear information about certain cultures and historical periods. And these experiences also seem to be connected to various forms of emotional and psychosomatic disorders. Those are all facts that anybody who is open-minded and interested can verify by their own research. But that's not necessarily proof that we have lived before. Even in India, the cradle of ideas about reincarnation and karma, this would be considered a very low-level, popular explanation of these kinds of experiences. The high level spiritual teachings of India will tell you that there's only one entity that ever incarnates, which is Brama. The whole universe is just one being that assumes these different roles--the split units of Brama take on autonomous identities. So the experience of being separate is an illusion; we are all manifestations of the same being.

The Share Guide: Some people have a profound fear of heights, yet can't relate this to any direct experience in life. Is this related to a past life? Could it be that a person died falling from a great height in a past lifetime and that's why they don't like heights now?

Stanislav Grof: In one of my books, Psychology of the Future, there is a chapter on emotional and psychosomatic disorders, and there is a section specifically about fear of heights. Besides anything that might have happened in childhood, for example, or what might have happened in another lifetime, there is a very profound connection between the final stages of birth and the experience of falling. So the fear of heights could have something to do with what was experienced in the final stages of birth.

The Share Guide: Certain people with mental impairments, like autism, have extraordinary abilities in certain areas. Some of these people can play music or paint beautifully or do complicated math, but they can't take care of themselves. What do you think causes this, and do we all have untapped genius abilities?

Stanislav Grof: There is no way there's a logical explanation for the idiot savant who is able to tell you which day of the week was a particular date within a range of 100 years. This is obviously information coming from sources that are on another level.

I think we all definitely have untapped abilities--and experiencing the holotropic state increases the probability that you will be able to use it in some creative way. I think this type of phenomenon is one more challenge to the traditional view that you can explain everything by studying the physiology of  the brain. It's one of those things that we call anomalous phenomenon and a lot of them happen in non-ordinary states of consciousness.

To learn more about Stanislav Grof and Holotropic Breathwork, visit his website at www.holotropic.com. 

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