Revision and Re-enchantment of Psychology: Legacy of Half a Century of Consciousness Research



Stanislav Grof, 2012

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Drawing on observations from more than fifty years of research into an important subgroup of non-ordinary states of consciousness that he calls ‘‘holotropic,’’ the author suggests a revision of some basic assumptions of modern psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy. The proposed changes involve the nature of consciousness and its relationship to matter, dimensions of the human psyche, the roots of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, and therapeutic strategy. In the light of the new observations, spirituality appears to be an essential attribute of the human psyche and of existence in general. An important and controversial subject that could be only tangentially addressed in the context of this paper is the importance of archetypal psychology and astrology for consciousness research.


Modern Consciousness Research And The Dawning Of A New Paradigm


In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, published his groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1962). On the basis of fifteen years of intensive study of the history of science, he demonstrated that the development of knowledge about the universe in various scientific disciplines is not a process of gradual accumulation of data and formulation of ever more accurate theories, as usually assumed. Instead, it shows a clearly cyclical nature with specific stages and characteristic dynamics, which can be understood and even predicted.


The central concept of Kuhn’s theory, which makes this possible, is that of a paradigm. A paradigm can be defined as a constellation of beliefs, values, and techniques shared by the members of the scientific community at a particular historical period. It governs the thinking and research activities of scientists until some of its basic assumptions are seriously challenged by new observations. This leads to a crisis and emergence of suggestions for radically new ways of viewing and interpreting the phenomena that the old paradigm is unable to explain. Eventually, one of these alternatives satisfies the necessary requirements to become the new paradigm that then dominates the thinking in the next period of the history of science.


The most famous historical examples of paradigm shifts have been the replacement of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by the heliocentric system of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo; the overthrow of Becher’s phlogiston theory in chemistry by Lavoisier and Dalton; and the conceptual cataclysms in physics in the first three decades of the twentieth century that undermined the hegemony of Newtonian physics and gave birth to theories of relativity and quantum physics. Paradigm shifts tend to come as a major surprise to the mainstream academic community, since its members tend to mistake the leading paradigms for an accurate and definitive description of reality. Thus in 1900 shortly before the advent of quantum-relativistic physics, Lord Kelvin purportedly declared in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science: ‘‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurements.’’


In the last five decades, various avenues of modern consciousness research have revealed a rich array of ‘‘anomalous’’ phenomena – experiences and observations that have undermined some of the generally accepted assertions of modern psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy concerning the nature and dimensions of the human psyche, the origins of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, and effective therapeutic mechanisms. Many of these observations are so radical that they question the basic metaphysical assumptions of materialistic science concerning the nature of reality and of human beings and the relationship between consciousness and matter.


Holotropic States Of Consciousness


In this article, I will summarize the conclusions from more than half a century of research of an important subgroup of non-ordinary states for which I coined the name ‘‘holotropic.’’ Before I address this topic, I would like to explain this term that I will be using throughout this article. All these years, my primary interest has been to explore the healing, transformative, and evolutionary potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness and their great value as a source of new revolutionary data about consciousness, the human psyche, and the nature of reality.


From this perspective, the term ‘‘altered states of consciousness’’ commonly used by mainstream clinicians and theoreticians is not appropriate, because of its one-sided emphasis on the distortion or impairment of the ‘‘correct way’’ of experiencing oneself and the world. (In colloquial English and in veterinary jargon, the term ‘‘alter’’ is used to signify castration of family dogs and cats.) Even the somewhat better term ‘‘non-ordinary states of consciousness’’ is too general, since it includes a wide range of conditions that are not relevant from the point of view of the focus of this article, such as trivial deliria caused by infectious diseases, abuse of alcohol, or circulatory and degenerative diseases of the brain. These alterations of consciousness are associated with disorientation, impairment of intellectual functions, and subsequent amnesia; they are clinically important, but lack therapeutic and heuristic potential.


The term ‘‘holotropic’’ refers to a large subgroup of non-ordinary states of consciousness that are of great theoretical and practical importance. These are the states that novice shamans experience during their initiatory crises and later induce in their clients for therapeutic purposes. Ancient and native cultures have used these states in rites of passage and in their healing ceremonies. They were described by mystics of all ages and initiates in the ancient mysteries of death and rebirth. Procedures inducing these states were also developed and used in the context of the great religions of the world – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.


The importance of holotropic states of consciousness for ancient and aboriginal cultures is reflected in the amount of time and energy that the members of these human groups dedicated to the development of ‘‘technologies of the sacred,’’ various procedures capable of inducing them for ritual and spiritual purposes. These methods combine in various ways drumming and other forms of percussion, instrumental music, chanting, rhythmic dancing, changes of breathing, and cultivation of special forms of awareness. Extended social and sensory isolation, such as stays in a cave, desert, arctic ice, or in high mountains, also play an important role as means of inducing this category of non-ordinary states. Extreme physiological interventions used for this purpose include fasting, sleep deprivation, dehydration, use of powerful laxatives and purgatives, and even infliction of severe pain, body mutilation, and massive bloodletting. By far the most effective tool for inducing healing and transformative non-ordinary states has been ritual use of psychedelic plants.


When I recognized the unique nature of this category of non-ordinary states of consciousness, I found it difficult to believe that contemporary psychiatry does not have a specific category and term for these theoretically and practically important experiences. Because I felt strongly that they deserve to be distinguished from ‘‘altered states of consciousness’’ and not be seen as manifestations of serious mental diseases, I started referring to them as holotropic. This composite word means literally ‘‘oriented toward wholeness’’ or ‘‘moving toward wholeness’’ (from the Greek holos 5 whole and trepo/ trepein 5 moving toward or in the direction of something). The word holotropic is a neologism, but it is related to a commonly used term heliotropism – the property of plants to always move in the direction of the sun.


Holotropic States And The Spiritual History Of Humanity


The name holotropic suggests something that might come as a surprise to an average Westerner – that in our everyday state of consciousness we identify with only a small fraction of who we really are and do not experience the full extent of our being. Holotropic states of consciousness have the potential to help us recognize that we are not ‘‘skin-encapsulated egos’’ – as British philosopher and writer Alan Watts called it – and that, in the last analysis, we are commensurate with the cosmic creative principle itself. Or that – using the statement attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French paleontologist and philosopher – ‘‘we are not human beings having spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings having human experiences.’’


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