The Journey into the Unconscious — Part 4, Stanislav and Christina Grof
This is the latest in a series exploring the inner journey into the Underworld. My inspiration is my fascination with Carl Jung’s so-called ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ as described in his Red Book, and also in a summarised, sanitised version in one chapter of Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
Following on from the digression in the previous article, I’ll return now to the next one that I had planned, about the ideas of Stanislav and Christina Grof, as found in the book they have edited Spiritual Emergency¹. Their material is similar to that I wrote about in previous articles, especially the one about R. D. Laing. (Unsurprisingly Laing contributes one chapter to their book, ‘Transcendental Experience in Relation to Religion and Psychosis’.) I therefore won’t go into detail, but include this in the series to show that such ideas are not limited to just a few thinkers.
Stanislav Grof is an intellectual giant in the field of Transpersonal Psychology. His career began in the 1950s when he worked as a psychiatrist in Czechoslovakia. There he participated in an experimental programme using LSD for therapeutic purposes, soon after it was discovered. It was considered to be an unconventional training tool, but the idea was that it might help therapists if they were able to spend some time in the worlds of their patients. They could then better communicate with them and offer better treatment. So the therapists had the opportunity to take the drug, and Grof was an early volunteer. He later moved to the USA, where he continued this work, until LSD was made illegal. He then devised a system of intensive breathing to obtain the same results without using the drug.
According to Grof, a typical sequence of LSD sessions would follow this path. (What immediately follows is based on the chapter headings of his book Realms of the Human Unconscious, Souvenir Press, 1979.) It would begin with the reliving of incidents from one’s own life, what Carl Jung would call the personal unconscious, possibly repressed traumatic memories. The expression of the held back emotions provides a cathartic release, enabling the person to move on.
There then follow similar experiences related specifically to the period leading up to one’s birth. Grof calls these ‘Perinatal Experiences’, and identifies four stages:
- I. Primal Union with the Mother (Intrauterine Experience before the Onset of Delivery
- II. Antagonism with the Mother (Contractions in a Closed Uterine System)
- III. Synergism with the Mother (Propulsion through the Birth Canal)
- IV. Separation from the Mother (Termination of the Symbiotic Union and Formation of a New Type of Relationship)
The experience of reliving one’s birth seems to liberate consciousness from its experience of separation, so that it can explore transpersonal realms. Some of Grof’s following sections are:
- Ancestral Experiences
- Collective and Racial Experiences
- Phylogenetic (Evolutionary) Experiences
- Past-Incarnation Experiences
- Precognition, Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, and ‘Time Travels’
- Identification with Other Persons
- Group Identification and Group Consciousness
- Animal Identification
- Plant Identification
- Oneness with Life and with All Creation
- Consciousness of Inorganic Matter
- Planetary Consciousness
- Extraplanetary Consciousness
- Out-of-Body Experiences, Traveling Clairvoyance and Clairaudience, ‘Space Travels’, and Telepathy
- Organ, Tissue, and Cellular Consciousness
- Spiritistic and Mediumistic Experiences
- Experiences of Encounters with Suprahuman Spiritual Entities (by which he means spirit guides, inner teachers similar to Jung’s Philemon or Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy)
- Archetypal Experiences and Complex Mythological Sequences
- Experiences of Encounters with Various Deities
- Consciousness of the Universal Mind
- The Supracosmic and Metacosmic Void
I hope that the benefits of such an approach are obvious. R. D. Laing’s patients had been diagnosed as schizophrenic and had become lost in this inner world. He could only hope therefore that they might return if this inner process were not interfered with. LSD sessions, however, can give controlled access to this subliminal world of images and archetypal figures; people return to the everyday world at the end of the sessions.
In Spiritual Emergency the Grofs’ introduction opens with the central theme of this series, that “some of the dramatic experiences and unusual states of mind that traditional psychiatry diagnoses and treats as mental diseases are actually crises of personal transformation, or ‘spiritual emergencies’. Episodes of this kind have been described in sacred literature of all ages as a result of meditative practices and as signposts of the mystical path. When these states of mind are properly understood and treated supportively rather than suppressed by standard psychiatric routines, they can be healing and have very beneficial effects on the people who experience them”.
They continue: “The concept of spiritual emergency integrates findings from many disciplines, including clinical and experimental psychiatry, modern consciousness research, experiential psychotherapies, anthropological field studies, parapsychology, thanatology, comparative religion, and mythology. Observations from all these fields suggest strongly that spiritual emergencies have a positive potential and should not be confused with diseases that have a biological cause and necessitate medical treatment… Such an approach is fully congruent with ancient wisdom as well as modern science”.
They go on to outline some of the history. In olden times, from the ecstatic trances of shamans to the revelations of prophets, saints, and spiritual teachers, “such experiences have been sources of religious enthusiasm, remarkable healing, and artistic inspiration”.
The situation started going downhill, however, when “the advent of the Industrial and Scientific Revolution dramatically changed this situation. Rationality became the ultimate measure of all things, rapidly replacing spirituality and religious beliefs. In the course of the Scientific Revolution in the West, everything even remotely related to mysticism was disqualified as left over from the Dark Ages. Visionary states were no longer seen as important complements of ordinary states of consciousness that can provide valuable information about the self and reality, but as pathological distortions of mental activity… Modern psychiatry tries to suppress these conditions instead of supporting them and allowing them to take their natural course”.
Although many conditions were found to have organic bases, which were “sufficient to establish psychiatry as a sub-specialty of medicine”, “no organic basis has yet been found for the majority of problems psychiatrists treat… The difficulties they are having are referred to as diseases of unknown origin, even if clinical and laboratory findings in no way substantiate such labels”.
The Grofs contribute the first chapter of the book. From the point of view of this series, the most important statement is that in transpersonal experiences we can encounter “deities, demons, spirit guides, inhabitants of other universes, or mythological figures, all of whom appear as real to us as the things we encounter in daily life. Thus, in the transpersonal state, we do not differentiate between the world of ‘consensus reality’, or the conventional everyday world, and the mythological realm of archetypal forms”. This is obviously directly relevant to Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious, and the “intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images” of the Sufi mystics described in the previous article. (Grof himself had an encounter with the god Shiva in one of his early LSD sessions. I discuss this and one of his patient’s extraordinary encounters with a pig-goddess in this article.)
For those interested in these ideas, the chapter by John Weir Perry, ‘Spiritual Emergence and Renewal’ contains much similar and interesting material.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). All but the most recent can be found there.
- Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1989