Episode 30: Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD - When the Impossible Happens - The Evolution of Psychology Beyond its Cradle

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My friend and collaborator in this dialogue, Dr. Stanislav Grof, stands very prominently in the line of C.G. Jung, James Hillman, Abraham Maslow, and others who have in very extensive and well-documented case studies taken psychology and psychiatry well beyond the conventional borders and confines of its cradle into the vastly expanded world we can now see unfolding within and all around us.& It has been the expanding premise of Living Dialogues from its own inception that the evolution of a new worldview is progressively beginning to dawn in human consciousness, birthed by a co-creative planetary sharing.& Hence we say “Dialogue is the Language of Evolutionary Transformation”TM.& Jonas Salk said in the latter part of the 20th century that we are entering a new “metabiological stage” of evolution.& We’re beginning to pay attention to consciousness itself and its origin, and realizing in many, many different ways as we join with many, many different pioneers that consciousness is not some accidental byproduct of the physical mass of the brain -- but, quite the contrary, consciousness is the very stuff and substance of existence itself.& And so, in that larger perspective, what we’re really about is I think an initiatic crisis of the species, of the human being itself -- needing to go beyond the old conventional, narrowly reductive and “monisticly” materialistic scientific models of what we understand reality to be.& Although not yet penetrated into the general mainstream culture, quantum physics and discoveries in the biological and other sciences in the last 80 years have already greatly changed and expanding our models of reality.& In his “opening the veil” on the psyche in the West in the late 19th and early part of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud was a pioneer then, but his attempt to put his insights into the “hard science” mold of the day kept them confined in the box of the personal biography, with a somewhat mechanistic model of his categories of id, ego and superego.& Where we have gone since and where we go next on this amazing journey is the subject of this dialogue.& And stay tuned in the next two weeks here on Living Dialogues for a continuation of these themes with our mutual friend and fellow consciousness pioneer, Richard Tarnas.


Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD – When the Impossible Happens – The Evolution of Psychology Beyond its Cradle

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Duncan Campbell: From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous councils and ancient wisdom traditions through the work of western visionaries, such as Plato, Galileo, and quantum physicist David Bohm, mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning—a dia, flow, of logos, meaning--beyond what any one individual can bring through alone. So join us now, as together with you, the active deep listener, we evoke and engage in Living Dialogues.

For the next half hour, we’re going to be speaking with Dr. Stanislav Grof about his new book; essentially, his autobiography of an incredible life of over five decades of research into alternative states of consciousness. This new book has just come out. It’s subtitled “Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities.” I will be doing some additional dialogues with Dr. Grof, as well as dialogues that I’ve done previously with Stan’s colleague and great friend, a friend of mine as well, Richard Tarnas on the occasion of the publication of his great magisterial, long awaited work: “Cosmos and Psyche”.

So with that introduction I want to give a brief background on Stan. Stan is one of the founders and chief theoreticians of transpersonal psychology. He was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia where he also received his scientific training and M.D. degree from the Charles University School of Medicine and a Ph.D. from the Czechoslovakian Academy of Sciences in the mid-1950s when the substance known as LSD, which was originally discovered in 1943 by Albert Hofmann in the Sandoz laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, was still not only legal, but was used by pioneering psychotherapists, such as Stan and others, in breaking into new frontiers of therapeutic analysis and treatment. In 1967, before the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia in 1968, he was then invited as Clinical and Research Fellow to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he continued his research as Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Henry Phipps Clinic of Johns Hopkins University. In 1973, Stan was invited to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, where he lived until 1987 as Scholar-in-Residence writing, giving seminars, lecturing with a number of the visionaries of the day, including a close friendship with Joseph Campbell, and where he met and married his wife Christina Grof, who herself had been a student of Joseph Campbell. Together they developed Holotropic Breathwork; a way to access non-ordinary states of consciousness without ingestion of substances, but using music and deep breathing in a ritual, ceremonial way akin to indigenous ceremonies for the same purpose. Stan is the founder of the International Transpersonal Association and its past and current President. They have, together, Stan and Christina, organized large international conferences over the last two-and-a-half decades in the United States and on five continents, including seminars and conferences in Czechoslovakia, India, Australia, and Brazil. They live in Mill Valley, California where Stan also is Professor of Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Pacifica Graduate School in Santa Barbara. And finally, these are just selections from a very lengthy biography, Stan has published over 140 articles in professional journals, as well as numerous books which have been translated into over 16 languages.

So, Stan, that was quite an interesting headline of what you’ve done in a vast and amazing life and it’s really just the dry surface of what you really go in to, in such a beautiful way, in your new “When The Impossible Happens.” So I want to welcome you here to the program and it’s a real pleasure to have you here.

Stanislav Grof: Thank you very much for having me and, as always, it’s a great pleasure to talk to you.

Duncan Campbell: One of the things, I think, after we’ve done all of that curriculum vitae, that would be interesting for our listeners to know is where you fit in the 20th and 21st Century in the great art, we may say, of the development of psychology as a discipline and the contributions it’s made to human culture. I think I’d like to start with Sigmund Freud and then C.G. Jung and perhaps a reference to your great friend also, James Hillman with archetypal psychology and the contributions he made to it, and then leading up to your establishment with Abraham Maslow and others, of the field of transpersonal psychology. I think that would be a very interesting way to, in a nutshell, give people the sense of the older scientific, quote unquote, paradigm that, in the 19th Century, Sigmund Freud tried to establish for psychology and how C.G. Jung broke free of that and, in a sense, is a bridge person, not only to the work of Joseph Campbell, but to the eventual appearance of transpersonal psychology, which brings in to the domain of research and treatment, not only the individual lifetime, sometimes called the post-natal biography of the patient, and confined to that arena of the individual unconscious becoming conscious. But with Jung, we get into the collective unconscious and we start to really open up into a much more vast series of domains which you particularly have been really the great pioneer of the 20th Century in opening up.

Stanislav Grof: Well, in many ways, this is also an outline of my professional development because I originally started as a very convinced Freudian. My initial intention was to actually work in animated movies. I had no idea that I would become a physician, let alone a psychiatrist, and it was reading Freud’s introductory lectures to psychoanalysis that, basically overnight, changed my professional intentions and I enrolled in the medical school with the very, very explicit goal to become a psychoanalyst. And as I was kind of deeper involved with psychoanalysis, I started seeing its limitations. Initially, it was not seeing its theoretical limitations, but the practical limitations; the fact that it takes a very long time, not months but years, enormous amounts of time, energy, and money and I realized even after years, frequently, the results are not exactly breathtaking. And I got to a situation where I started regretting that I had chosen psychoanalysis and started kind of thinking nostalgically back about the animated movies. And then something very, very important happened in my life where I volunteered for an experiment with LSD that was sent to the Department of Psychiatry where I was working by people from Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company. They mentioned in that letter this serendipitous discovery of LSD that Dr. Albert Hofmann made when he was synthesizing the substance and actually intoxicated himself accidently. And they did some preliminary studies, actually the son of Dr. Hofmann’s boss Dr. Stoll in Zurich, made this pioneering study that overnight became kind of a world sensation because these absolutely miniscule dosages of LSD, millionths of a gram, were able to induce a condition lasting about six to eight hours that, in many ways, resembled what psychiatric patients, people who are labeled as psychotics. So, Sandoz people were now sending samples of this substance to different universities and psychiatric research institutes and even individual therapists. And they were asking if we would work with this substance and let them know if there was any legitimate use for it in psychiatry and psychology. So, I became one of the early volunteers and I had an experience that took me far, far beyond anything that I ever experienced in psychoanalysis or that I read in psychoanalytic literature. And as a result of it, the study of these non-ordinary states of consciousness became my passion so that in the last fifty years now, I have done really professionally very little that would not be, in one way or another, related to these non-ordinary states.

Duncan Campbell: And the thing I think is so interesting about it is that it’s not just the field of psychiatry or psychology that we’re talking about here. That in your life experience and your work within that discipline and that field and you’re opening it up in the radical ways that you have that we’ll talk more about. Basically, we’re talking about the evolution of a new world view beginning to dawn in human consciousness. And Deepak Chopra had mentioned that Jonas Salk had said that we are entering a new “meta-biological stage of evolution.” We are actually beginning to pay attention to consciousness itself and its origin and realizing in many, many different ways from many, many different pioneers that consciousness is not some accidental byproduct of the physical mass of the brain. Quite the contrary. Consciousness is the very stuff and substance of existence itself and that we live in an alive, communicative universe, very much as the original indigenous inhabitants of the planet understood it, but with all the additional complexity that’s been brought forward through the modern mind. And so, in that larger perspective, what we’re really talking about is, I think, an initiatic crisis of the species, of the human being itself, needing to go beyond the old conventional scientific models of reality itself. And in that regard, we see that Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, for instance, in the 19th Century were eager to make their particular insights into human behavior “respectable” by trying to put them in the mold of what today is called “hard science,” which of course ignores quantum physics and all the other discoveries in physics of the last 80 years. But that attempt to actually reductively reduce the process of consciousness to categories and frameworks and molds that could be seen from the narrow materialistic box where matter is primary and consciousness is the epiphenomenon, as Deepak Chopra said, is something that you were completely taken out of by your first LSD experience and then subsequently have discovered additional ways to access this much larger, richer world of the psyche. And to speak in a very technical way, you have talked about the “ontological reality” of the archetypal realms, the ancestral realms, the astral realms, and so on. What that means to the layman, of course, is that these are real experiences. These are not hallucinations. They are not the figments of a pathological or psychotic imagination. So perhaps we should step, now, forward into where psychiatry went from Freud. And maybe talk a little bit about C.G. Jung and how he influenced you as you began to continue this lifelong exploration of consciousness through psychiatry, but well beyond its conventional borders.

Stanislav Grof: Well, I think the seed of these new views that are now opening up for us was already in the history, the early history, of psychoanalysis where there were renegades, very brilliant people who were part of the Viennese circle of Freud’s, but had their own independent ideas. One of them was Otto Rank who came up with the idea that the psychological history doesn’t begin at birth, but that it actually includes the birth process itself and the prenatal state. Another one was, of course, Carl Gustav Jung who came up with the idea that we don’t have just the individual unconscious that Freud was talking about, but collective unconscious in which there is a record of the entire history of humanity and also the cultural history, the archetypes, the sort of mythological heritage that becomes available to us under certain circumstances. So, in a sense, this was what happened with psychedelics was a validation of the points of view that were brought by these renegades. As we were working with LSD, usually the initial sessions had a lot of biographical material, but then sooner or later as we continued, this vast area opens up, which I called perinatal, where people were reliving different stages of the birth process and the experiences took them to prenatal life and so on and, in a sense, validated Otto Rank’s insights about the importance of the birth experience. But it didn’t even end there and then the experience started opening further into the collective unconscious, into human history, into these mythological archetypal realms. And ultimately the image of the human psyche that emerged out of it started resembling more and more the kind of image that you find in the great Eastern spiritual philosophies where the Hindus, for example, say we are not namarupa, we are not what we would call body ego, what they call name and shape—namarupa. But our true deepest identity is with the creative principle itself, with Brahman, and each of us has a representation of that creative universal energy, which would be called Atman in Hinduism. So, what emerged out of this work was, in a sense, extremely new and surprising but it was also very, very old. It was rediscovery and reformulation of something that has been known in certain circles not for centuries but for millennia.

Duncan Campbell: And before we talk about a very specific example of that in the story of Martha, perhaps you could talk briefly about the contribution of James Hillman and archetypal psychology and his role in the bridging from Jung’s work, let’s say, to your work in transpersonal psychology.

Stanislav Grof: Well, among others, James Hillman wrote a book re-visioning psychology, where he…

Duncan Campbell: Yes.

Stanislav Grof: …brought this archetypal perspective and he sort of brought, I think, a Jungian psychology to a new level. And in a sense, the work that we have done with non-ordinary states, whether it was with psychedelics, or the Holotropic Breathwork, or the work with people in spontaneous episodes of non-ordinary states of consciousness validated this perspective because they showed the kind of ontological reality of this archetypal world. There has been a discussion in philosophy going on for centuries between the so-called realists and nominalists in relation to the platonic Ideas, with a capital I, or Forms with a capital F. And the nominalists were saying, well what Plato talked about, the Ideas, the Forms, the archetypes—they are just names, they are abstractions. For example, when we have the image of the Great Mother goddess, it is an abstraction of all the characteristics that we see in individual mothers. Now the realists are saying no, there’s actually a realm in which these archetypal Forms have real existence, they actually are super-ordinated to this level. They form and inform what is happening in the material world. So, the Jungians started referring to this whole domain as being not imaginary, but imaginal in the sense that different people can visit these realms in their experiences and they can actually reach consensual validation about them in the same way in which those of us who watch a particular television channel will agree that we experience the same thing.

Duncan Campbell: And so in this particular program we have such limited time here I just wanted to sketch out the broad outlines as we’re doing here. And we might go back to the Freudian archetype, or I shouldn’t mix metaphors here, the Freudian method, let’s say, of psychiatry that many people are familiar with where the patient comes in and the premise of Freudian psychology is that the individuals lived biography after the birth is the relevant subject matter and that there is some unconscious trauma that’s buried in that individual biography that can be revealed through the method of free association where the role of the psychiatrist is to sit and intuit when, in free associating and the verbalization of the experience of the patient, the patient may stumble across some aspect that the therapist intuitively feels is really pregnant with some kind of knotted up trauma that can be unwound and released if he can stimulate it by guiding the patient further in the talk therapy to get into and process that particular issue that’s revealed itself in free association. And what you found is that not only is the method itself very clumsy and time consuming and expensive, but also that the framework is very limited of Freudian psychology as you said. And so, with psychedelic therapy, for instance, you found that when people were undergoing a psychedelic session supervised by a masculine and feminine doctor and nurse normally, there would be a kind of inner radar where the psyche itself would kind of scan the ocean of the collective unconscious, as it were, and zone in like a laser to a particular matrix or complex that needed to be released. And in that way, the use if psychedelics not only illuminated other domains of the psyche where this complex could be rooted, say, in the perinatal experience of birth or in an ancestral realm, or in a past life, or in an archetypal realm, but also that the experience itself had tremendous healing possibilities and sometimes drew on mythological experiences of the collective unconsciousness that were not even in contemporary society, but maybe in the world of the Greeks. And with that background, I’d like you to talk about the story of Martha because I thought that was one story that really brought all of this together in chapter six in your new book, “When The Impossible Happens” called unorthodox psychiatric methods where conventional psychiatry had completely failed to actually illuminate the problems that Martha was having, and yet in the psychedelic sessions revealed a mythological matrix that, once apprehended, completely released her from her symptoms. So, perhaps you could just take us through that. I think it’s quite fascinating.

Stanislav Grof: Yes, it was a patient whose diagnosis was borderline psychosis and sort of a strange, hard to describe, distorted body image. And after unsuccessful treatment, she entered our program of psychedelic therapy. And then in one of her sessions, these strange physical feelings became very amplified to the point that she wanted to stop the sessions and I somehow managed to convince her to stay with the experience. And then, it gradually became an experience of identification with a tree.

Duncan Campbell: And tell a little bit about the symptoms and what they were triggered by, because I remember she had this, what was called, distorted body image.

Stanislav Grof: She was being sort of sexually pursued by a man.

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell