Spirituality

Has Psychology Failed

the Acid Test?

Stanislav Grof

(interviewed by Jerry Snider)


The sensationalism surrounding the widespread use of LSD in the late sixties resulted in legislative overkill that virtually ended psychotherapeutic LSD research. Thirty years of studies were put on the shelf, with little attention paid to their findings. Of course LSD itself did not disappear. It is still widely available and still widely used, but serious investigation into its unique effect on the human psyche was all but abandoned. What did the research show? And was it just LSD that frightened the authorities, or was there something more? Could it be that LSD research was abandoned in part because it was forcing psychology into areas it feared to tread, opening up the paranormal to legitimate scientific investigation?

Stanislav Grof, M.D., began his research into the psycho-therapeutic uses of LSD in 1960 at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Over the years, he conducted more than 4,000 psychedelic sessions. What he found were some highly unusual experiences - including encounters with archetypal beings, visits to mythological realms of various cultures, past incarnation memories, extrasensory perception and episodes of out-of-body states - that could not be described by the narrow and superficial conceptual model used in academic psychology. Convinced that such experiences were not simply drug- induced, but rather represented natural and normal manifestations of the deeper dynamics of the human psyche, Grof saw the need for a much larger cartography of the psyche than had previously been allowed. This, he felt, would not only require revision of our ideas about the human mind, but revision of traditional beliefs about the nature of reality.

Dr. Grof is the founding president of the International Transpersonal Association, and has taught and lectured in academic and workshop settings worldwide. He is the author of numerous books, including LSD Psychotherapy (Hunter House, Alameda, CA), on which this interview is based. His latest book is The Holotropic Mind.


LSD has been both demonized and lionized. What do you think is the single greatest misconception about LSD?

Stanislav Grof: I would say these two reactions reflect the basic misconception, that LSD is either good or bad. It is neither. By itself, LSD has no intrinsic healing potential, nor does it have any intrinsic destructive potential. The outcome depends on who is doing it, with whom, for what purpose and under what circumstances. Yet everything that happens under the influence of LSD tends to be credited or blamed on the drug itself.

Years ago, during the initial flurry of bad publicity over LSD, I had a very interesting discussion with Humphrey Osmond, one of the early pioneers of LSD research. He pointed out the ridiculous turn the debate had taken by pointing out that LSD is just a tool. He said if the worth of some other tool, a knife for instance, was discussed in the same way LSD was, you'd have a policeman saying it was bad, while pushing statistics of people killed with knives in back alleys. A surgeon would see it as good, pointing out the healing possibilities of the knife. A housewife might talk about cutting salami. An artist might talk about wood carving. As you can see, what is being said says less about the knife than about how it is used. We don't make the mistake of blaming or crediting the knife with how it's used, but with LSD it's all kind of thrown together.

 

You have concluded from your studies that LSD psychotherapy is least effective with two groups, excessively compulsive people and spiritually highly-developed people. Why is this?

Stanislav Grof: The defenses are strongest with excessively compulsive people, whereas the spiritual master may have already experienced all those states where psychedelics would take them.

 

So LSD psychotherapy is most successful with basically intelligent, normal acting people who, like most of us, have a couple of significant emotional blocks?

Stanislav Grof: Yes. They can function well. They have a family and a good job. They're very successful and, at the same time, have difficulties seeing any deeper meaning in life. There's a kind of "So what?" attitude, like, "I'm making a lot of money and I have a family. So what?" What they're lacking is a feeling of deep connection to existence and a kind of zest in life.

 

Aldonous Huxley likened the brain to a valve that allows us to take in only as much "reality" as we can handle. He felt that psychedelics open this valve and let a larger reality flow in. You write, "a person who has taken LSD does not have an 'LSD experience,' but takes a journey into deep recesses of his or her own psyche?" What is the terrain of the experience? Where do psychedelics take us that everyday reality doesn't?

Stanislav Grof: First of all, it's not limited to psychedelics. I include psychedelics in a much larger category of nonordinary states. Psychedelics are one way to access these states, but so are certain kinds of breath work, rebirthing, sensory isolation, primal therapy, drumming, chanting and so on.

As far as the topography, what I discovered during twenty years of clinical research is that when somebody was beginning with psychedelics and using relatively small dosages, the first thing that surfaced was a lot of biographical material. These experiences stayed, by and large, in the context that has been defined by traditional psychology, which is limited to biology, postnatal biography and the Freudian individual unconscious. But as the sessions continued and the dosage increased, we found patterns of experiences for which the traditional psychological context doesn't have any conceptual framework, patterns like sequences of psychological death and rebirth, encounters with archetypal beings, visits to mythological realms of various cultures, past incarnation memories, extrasensory perception, episodes of out-of-body states and experiences of cosmic consciousness.

What is absolutely amazing is that traditional academic psychology and psychiatry has not admitted any evidence from the study of nonordinary states, whether this evidence is coming from history, comparative religion or anthropology. Virtually all of the world's cultures, other than our Western industrial civilization, have held these states in very high esteem and spent a lot of time trying to develop some powerful techniques for getting into them. Our society, on the other hand, has not only pathologized them but outlawed the tools and the context. They have, in effect, discounted the entire spiritual history of humanity. That's why I think work with nonordinary states, including LSD therapy, is one of the most fascinating areas in psychology and psychiatry. It is something that can really bring completely new discoveries and can facilitate what we call a paradigm shift.

 

In your work with psychedelics and nonordinary states, you discovered a series of four stages that correspond both to shamanic death/rebirth rites and the stages of natal development. Could you explain these perinatal matrices?

Stanislav Grof: Perinatal experiences are quite regularly accompanied by a complex of physical symptoms that can be best interpreted as a derivative of biological birth. I found they provide clues to the understanding of many otherwise puzzling aspects of LSD experiences.

The experiences come in four patterns. It doesn't necessarily follow the order of one, two, three, four, which is the order of the progress of biological delivery. But there are patterns of experience that can be associated with the different stages.

The first perinatal matrix is related to primal union with the mother, to the original state of intrauterine existence during which the mother and the child form a symbiotic unity. The elements of undisturbed intrauterine existence can be experienced in LSD sessions in a concrete biological form, or in the form of its spiritual counterpart, the experience of cosmic unity. With eyes closed, the phenomenon of cosmic units is experiences as oceanic ecstasy. With the eyes open, it results in an experience of merging with the environment and a sense of unity with perceived objects.

LSD subjects confronted with the second perinatal matrix frequently relate it to the very onset of biological delivery. In this situation the original equilibrium of the intrauterine existence is disturbed, first by alarming chemical signals and later by muscular spasms. Individuals in this matrix report an experience of "no exit." Subjects feel encaged or trapped in a monstrous claustrophobic situation, which is typically absolutely unbearable. While under the influence of this matrix, the individual cannot see the possibility of any end to his or her torments.

The third experiential matrix is associated with the second clinical stage of biological delivery. In this stage, the uterine contractions continue, but the cervix stands wide open and makes possible gradual and difficult propulsion through the birth canal. LSD subjects confronted with this matrix may experience a realistic reliving of various aspects of the struggle through the birth canal. Or it may be experienced as an atmosphere of titanic fight, sadomasochistic orgies, intense sexual sensations, scatological involvement and the element of purifying fire occurring in various combinations. This stage constitutes the death-rebirth struggle. While matrix tow, the no-exit situation, involves sheer suffering, the experience of the death-rebirth struggle represents the borderline between agony and ecstasy and the fusion of both.

The fourth perinatal matrix seems to be meaningfully related to the third clinical stage of delivery. In this final phase, the agonizing process of the intense struggle culminates; the propulsion through the birth canal is completed and the extreme intensification of tension and suffering is followed by a sudden relief and relaxation. The symbolic counterpart of this final stage of delivery is the death- rebirth experience. Physical and emotional agony culminates in a feeling of utter and total annihilation on all imaginable levels. The experience is usually described as "ego death"; it seems to entail an instantaneous and merciless destruction of all the previous reference points in the life of the individual.

After the subject has experienced the limits of total annihilation and "hit the cosmic bottom," he or she is struck by visions of blinding white or golden light. The claustrophobic and compressed world of the birth struggle suddenly opens up and expands into infinity. The general atmosphere is one of liberation, salvation, redemption, love and forgiveness. There is often a strong tendency to share and engage in service and charitable activities. Their universe is perceived as indescribably beautiful and radiant.

 

How do these matrices fit into the transpersonal?

Stanislav Grof: Perinatal experiences seem to represent a frontier between the personal and the transindividual, as is reflected by their deep association with biological birth and death. The transpersonal realm then reflects the connections between the individual and the cosmos. Intimate knowledge of the transpersonal realms is absolutely essential, not only for the understanding of the psychedelic process but for any serious approach to such phenomena as shamanism, religion, mysticism, rites of passage, mythology, parapsychology and schizophrenia.

 

Is that what happens with a bad trip, you get caught in one of these matrices and don't understand the framework?

Stanislav Grof: Yes. We have a very kind of superficial model of the psyche, where unless somebody was seriously abused or battered, there are supposed to be no difficult elements in the unconscious. Then we are surprised when something like Nazism or Communism comes along, or the things happening in Uganda or Somolia, or what happens during the uprisings in prisons, where emotional suffering is unbelievable and destructive and self-destructive behaviors emerge. And there's simply no explanatory system because the traditional model of the psyche has nothing to offer.

 

So you see these same four perinatal matrices working themselves out in culture and history, as well as individual lives?

Stanislav Grof: In my book Beyond the Brain, there's an epilogue showing the connections between these matrices and some social/political phenomenon. for example, in a totalitarian regime, people seem to get stuck in the second matrix. It's as if they find themselves stuck in the womb. There's usually a lot of imagery of defecation. Then, when the process moves to the third matrix, you get a lot of these historical images related to revolution.

Lloyd Demause, the New York psychoanalyst/journalist who has studied a number of situations prior to outbreaks of major wars and revolutions, gives examples of how leaders, who were trying to mobilize the nation to war or revolution, all used figures of speech or metaphors related to biological birth. For example, "The enemy is closing in; it is strangling us; it's squeezing the last air out of our lungs." The solution to the political struggle is also presented in terms of birth imagery: "There is light on the other side of the tunnel; I will lead you to life; we all are going to breathe freely again," and so on.

The development of the atomic bomb included six or seven secret codes that used birth symbolism. For example, the plane that carried the Hiroshima bomb was named after the pilot's mother, Enola Gay, and they painted a nickname on the bomb, which was Little Boy. The agreed upon code that was wired to Washington when Little Boy was dropped was "the baby was born."

 

What about our current cultural period? The social climate today has a feeling of hopelessness, of being trapped. People have lost faith in most of our institutions, especially our political institutions. In our urban populations, the rampant crime keeps people feeling trapped. Are we in any single classic stage?

Stanislav Grof: Yes. Many people who have these inner experiences, take a larger look and see that we have now enacted in our world a lot of the elements you would encounter internally when you are in a transformation process. For example, you would encounter tremendous unleashing of aggression. You would confront destructive and self-destructive tendencies within yourself if you have an inner experience. There is also a liberation of repressed sexuality. This has been happening for years. Just about every aspect of sexual behavior has been openly presented in the media. There are all kinds of very unusual sexual experiments such as S&M parlors, sexual slave markets, fist fucking - all these things have sprung up. So the sexual impulse is sort of being released and acted out, and also the aggressive. There is an increase not only in criminality but in terrorism as well, all over the world. Then you have satanic elements emerging from the collective unconscious. The deep levels of the psyche are now being ventilated.

 

What can we do as a society to confront the problems these behaviors bring about?

Stanislav Grof: I think the problem is that instead of confronting the core issues experientially, where it would become transformative, we are acting them out in society. An essential kind of imperative in work with nonordinary states is to create a safe framework in which people can confront it internally. In acting it out, you may kill someone. So what seems to be happening now is that we are in a race, where if we continue projecting and acting out all these tendencies, we are on a trend that is very clearly destructive and it's unlikely we will make it as a species. If, on the other hand, that process could be internalized, it might end up in a major evolutionary jump in consciousness.

Many people feel the crisis we are facing is a crisis in consciousness. It has a lot to do with the fact that we lost spirituality. The religions are very seriously undermined, but I believe religions are part of the problem, not part of the solution. A lot of the world's conflicts, at lease on the surface, are actually religiously motivated. Look at what's happening in the Middle East or India. What we need instead of religion is spirituality, where you actually connect experientially to the transpersonal dimensions of existence. You have a personal experience rather than going to church and listening to somebody talk about the spiritual experiences of people who lived two thousand years ago.

 

I know you believe that experimentation with LSD should be supervised, but since people are going to use it regardless of its legal status or wise usage, what advice do you have for people who are trying to make these discoveries on their own?

Stanislav Grof: What's most important, at least on a social level, is the need to recognize there is an extremely powerful drive in human nature for transcendence. The need for a transcendental experience is stronger than sex. If you study history, you find that every other culture, except the industrial civilization, honored it. They had rituals and technologies for people to access transcendental experiences in a socially-sanctioned framework, in the context of rituals, ceremonies and so on. Psychedelics have that potential. A nonordinary state has the potential to take you to the transcendental place. In other words, the motivation for those experiences is extremely strong. This is what is manifesting in the drug scene. So I believe the only way you can really counteract this taking of drugs - I'm talking here about heroin and alcohol, cocaine, crack and so on - is to offer the means to have a genuine experience. I see drug addiction and alcoholism as a very unfortunate and misguided effort to reach transcendence. It is coming from a transcendental need, and the only way you can counteract it, is to open up channels to a pure, clean spiritual experience.

If it's true there is this powerful transcendental pull in people, some kind of silly program like "Just Say No" is simply ridiculous. If I say the drive is more powerful than sex, you can compare it with a situation in the sexual realm. What success would you have with a program trying to eliminate masturbation through a campaign of "Just Say No." The only way you can influence masturbation is to open up the way to adult sexuality, because behind it is a very powerful drive. To the extent there is a transcendental drive behind drug taking, the only way to influence it is to open the way to mature spirituality.


(Reprint, Magical Blend Magazine, December 1996 edition.)

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Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.