Expanding Grof’s Concept Of The Perinatal


Christopher Bache, 1996

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This study criticizes Grof’s description of the perinatal dimension of consciousness as being slanted in the direction of personal psychology and as not providing an adequate explanation for the transpersonal features of perinatal experience. Specifically, it is argued that Grof does not sufficiently explain the therapeutic rationale for the appearance of such extreme collective suffering as regularly occurs when an individual’s therapy reaches the perinatal level. I propose that in order to explain the phenomenology of perinatal experience, we must hypothesize that the patient in these instances has expanded beyond the individual subject. Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic fields is incorporated to suggest that the patient in these sessions might best be conceptualized as the species itself, or the morphic field of the species mind. Possible explanations for Grof’s tilt toward personal psychology in his presentation of perinatal dynamics are explored. The implications of this expansion of perinatal theory for understanding frightening NDE’s is summarized.


In a recent paper in this journal, I proposed a perinatal interpretation of frightening NDEs,  arguing that all three forms of FNDEs–inverted, hellish, and meaningless void experiences– be understood as rooted in the perinatal level of consciousness (Bache, 1994). In that project, Grof’s formulation of the perinatal dimension was accepted as it stood and applied to the problem of FNDEs.  I wish to deepen that analysis by now turning a critical eye to Grof’s concept of the perinatal itself. I critique Grof’s description of the perinatal level of consciousness and propose an expansion of the concept. If successful, this exercise in transpersonal theory will, in turn, deepen our understanding of the dynamics of FNDEs.


In his many books, Stanislav Grof has documented the perinatal level of consciousness as a  domain in which the personal and transpersonal dimensions intersect and blend in a complex fashion.


While never allowing the perinatal to be reductively conceptualized as the mere reliving of one’s biological birth, his analysis of perinatal dynamics has nevertheless listed strongly toward the personal side of the equation, leaving important transpersonal dynamics unexplained. The purpose of this study is to attempt to correct this imbalance by suggesting a rationale for the appearance of transpersonal phenomena in perinatal experience that goes beyond Grof’s formulation. Toward this end I will identify a set of questions left unaddressed in Grof’s account and will draw upon Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of formative causation and morphic fields to outline answers to these questions. This expansion of theory will not negate Grof’s detailed and powerful analysis of the Basic Perinatal Matrices, but is intended as a step toward a more balanced account of this complicated domain. If we can advance Grof’s discussion, it is only because we live in an intellectual environment which his many books have helped create.


The Problem


There is a subtle ambiguity in Grof’s account of the perinatal that runs throughout his books. On the one hand, perinatal experience is defended as being a category of experience that is sui generis and not reducible to personal categories (1976:99-100; 1980:282; 1988:9-11), while on the other hand the burden of Grof’s explanation of perinatal experience lists decidedly in the direction of personal psychology. He has demonstrated that perinatal experience intertwines biographical and trans-biographical experiences and represents a dynamic interpenetration of these two levels of consciousness. We would expect, therefore, that a complete explanation of perinatal experience would be balanced between these two modes, that it would explain as much in one direction as it does in the other. What we find, however, is an explanation that works out the logic of the personal side of perinatal experience in considerably greater detail than the transpersonal side. No matter how many times he reminds us that perinatal experiences cannot be reduced to the birth trauma, the sheer volume of explanation that he provides in that direction cannot help but leave the reader thinking of the perinatal disproportionately in terms of biological birth. The very name “perinatal” reinforces this tendency.


Indeed, Grof’s phrasing in key passages supports this inclination. For example, in Beyond the Brain he writes, “The central element in the complex dynamics of the death-rebirth process seems to be reliving the biological birth trauma” (140). If the birth trauma is “central,” then the transpersonal components of perinatal experience are not central and must represent some sort of overlay on this more fundamental core. This is not, in fact, a mere semantic lapse but accurately reflects the general direction of Grof’s analysis. He convincingly demonstrates that the patterns of physical and psychological perinatal symptomology mirror in a condensed and over-determined fashion the experiences of the fetus before, during, and after delivery. Meanwhile, the logic of the appearance of transpersonal perinatal experiences is not explained except as constituting experiential parallels to biographical experience. Even while acknowledging that individual subjects may experience the perinatal level almost entirely in philosophical or spiritual terms, the thrust of Grof’s analysis to date is to see biographical experiences as forming the thematic core of perinatal experience and to view transpersonal experiences as drawn in through a form of thematic resonance.


Because this is an important point, let me allow Grof himself to make it. Of the many places where he discusses the complex relation of transpersonal and personal elements in perinatal experience, the most complete account appears in The Adventure of Self-Discovery. After reminding the reader that the perinatal process transcends biology and that we must avoid the trap of seeing birth as an all-explanatory principle, he goes on to summarize various transpersonal aspects of perinatal experience. Here he writes:

The perinatal unfolding is also frequently accompanied by transpersonal experiences, such as archetypal visions of the Great Mother or the Terrible Mother Goddess, hell, purgatory, heaven or paradise, identification with animals, and past incarnation experiences. As it is the case with the various associated COEX systems, the connecting link between these transpersonal phenomena and the BPM’s is similarity of the emotions or physical sensations involved….

…Identification with the fetus in various stages of the birth process seems to provide selective access to themes in the transpersonal domain that involve similar emotional states and psychosomatic experiences. Some of these themes have the form of archetypal sequences; others depict situations from the collective memory banks of humanity, or even from the holographic archives of nature related to the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms. (1988:10-11)

This explanation, however, leaves an important problem unaddressed; namely, what therapeutic role do these experiences have?  Why should persons who are engaging unresolved fetal trauma get involved in torturous experiences of collective suffering or excruciatingly painful archetypal sequences?

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