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Grof and the Transpersonal Experience

by Robert Waxman


Dr. Stanislav Grof believes the transpersonal experience has therapeutic value for patients with psychological problems and mental illness. He was a leading supporter of LSD psychotherapy in the 1950’s and 60’s, and was seeking acceptance of this treatment from psychiatrists, scientists and psychologists (Grof, 2006, p. 220). In his book, Spiritual Emergency (1989), Grof defines transpersonal as, "referring to transcendence of the ordinary boundaries of personality that includes many experiences that have been called spiritual, mystical religious, occult, magical, or paranormal" (p. 10). This definition is brought to life in the film (based on the book), The Razor’s Edge (1946, Fox Films). The main character, Larry Darrell, is living alone on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, hoping to understand the meaning of life. His teacher visits him and asks if anything out of the ordinary has occurred. Darrell says he transcended his physical body, and for one brief moment - he and God were one. Darrell is describing the nature of a transpersonal experience.

In Beyond the Brain (1985), Grof expands his definition of the transpersonal experience: "having a sense of cosmic unity, identification with the Universal Mind, or experience of the Supracosmic and Metacosmic Void deserve special attention…They have enormous therapeutic potential." (p. 131). Grof is basing this definition on his experimental, therapeutic work with LSD during the 1950’s and 60’s.

Mood Altering Drugs in Various Cultures

Many cultures around the world have used mind-altering substances throughout history (Smith, 1995, p. 518). "The student of world religion has long known about the sacramental use of such special agents as alcohol, plants, mushrooms, etc., to facilitate contact with the gods or make available spiritual knowledge or powers" (Jordan, 1963, p. 114). Religious scholar Dan Merkur concludes, the ancient Hebrews and early Christians were using psychedelic substances during their sacrifices and rituals (Grof, 2006. p. 57). According to Kubby (1995), the ‘manna from heaven’, referred to in The Book of Exodus (JPS, 1985), was a hallucinogenic mushroom growing plentifully in the desert. This mysterious food kept the Hebrews alive for forty years. The Hebrews appreciated the mushroom, and drawings from the period, show Hebrew priests wearing religious garb with mushroom shaped headdresses (JewishEncyclopedia.com). For the Hebrew wandering forty years in the desert, the mood-enhancing effects of psychedelic mushrooms must have seemed heaven-sent.  

The Greeks had a special elixir to raise their state of consciousness (Clark, 1968, p. 95). "In Ancient Greece the Eleusinian Mysteries required the drinking of a secret potion as part of the initiation ordeal, Plato made guarded reference to a drug much like LSD in The Laws" (Clark, p. 95). LSD derives from a grain fungus called ergot (Wikipedia, 2007, LSD). The Greeks may have known of its hallucinogenic properties. Clark continues, "There is also good evidence…the Aztecs used psychedelic mushrooms. In Mexico’s back country, ceremonies are still carried out…utilizing such mushrooms" (p. 95). The Hindus refer to an uplifting potion called soma juice, "sometimes mixed with milk and water….produced intoxication; specifically it produced visions and a sense of strength and expansion" (Ingalis, 1971, p. 188). Native Americans and other indigenous groups smoked various types of compressed herbs and peyote, "scholars have ignored the positive aspects of peyote religions and have refuted their benefits because peyote is a drug, and strange to white people, so its use in worship must be a debilitating and immoral practice" (Clark, p. 96). The South African Bushmen and American Plains Indians had visions from altered states of consciousness, "...particularly among the religious practitioners of these cultures (Gronloh, 1977, p. 1).

LSD and Mysticism

After Grof had several LSD sessions in the mid 1950’s, he became a pioneer in this field (Grof, 2006, p. 349). Excited about the therapeutic benefits of LSD, he distanced himself from conventional psychiatry (Grof, 2006, p. 324). The development of transpersonal psychology became his life’s work. According to Crownfield (1979), "Grof focuses on the psychological dynamics of such experiences. He examines them descriptively, sympathetically, hierarchically. His ordering principle is the degree of departure from ordinary time-and-space existence." (p. 247).

When Grof was living in Prague in the 1950’s, he had unlimited access to LSD-25 (Grof, 2006, p. 331). In one of his early sessions he had a transpersonal-mystical experience:

I felt a divine thunderbolt had catapulted my conscious self out of my body. I lost my awareness of the research assistant, the laboratory, the psychiatric clinic, Prague, and then the planet. My consciousness expanded at an inconceivable speed and reached cosmic dimensions. There were no boundaries or difference between me and the universe. (Grof, p. xxxiii)

Grof’s account reads like an eloquent version of Larry Darrell’s soliloquy in The Razor’s Edge (1946). Both men believe they are having an out-of body experience, and both feel a sense of oneness with the cosmos.

The mystical experience is a sought-after goal for followers of esoteric-religious philosophies. The mystic goes through an extensive process of initiation before experiencing higher realms of consciousness (Baigent, 2006, p. 233). Grof (2006) reports, LSD speeds-up the preparation process to just 45 minutes after taking it (Grof, p. xxxiii).

Patients’ Experiences with LSD

Some patients are familiar with spiritual, mystical or religious ideas and are predisposed to having a ‘peak’ experience during an LSD session. According to Jordan (1963),

The point is that LSD per se, does not determine the particular nature or significance of the experiences. Of crucial positive importance is the personality of the subject with his current attitudes and problems, the physical setting of the session, and the interpersonal relations between doctor and subject. (p. 119)

In one study, patients’ were expecting to have a ‘peak’ experience before their LSD sessions. "61% (of 194 subjects) indicated they had ‘an experience having a greater understanding of myself and others’. Some subjects reported ‘peak experiences’ that dramatize, crystallize, and make lucid certain dim feelings which hitherto had neither clarity nor convincingness" (Havens 1964, p. 220). Mystics and spiritual seekers of the 1960’s wanted to experience higher levels of consciousness. LSD helped them understand the true nature of the self. Many patients also experienced spiritual ecstasy. According to Pahnke (1965),

This experience has been called by various names: psychedelic-peak, cosmic, transcendental, or mystical. Nine universal psychological characteristics were derived from the study of the literature of spontaneous mystical experience reported throughout world history from almost all cultures and religions: Unity, Transcendence of Time and Space, Deeply Felt Positive Mood, Sense of Sacredness, The Noetic Quality – insight or illumination on an intuitive, nonrational level, Paradoxicality, Alleged Infallibility, Transiency, Persisting Positive Changes in Attitudes and Behavior. (p. 6)

The first five characteristics mentioned by Pahnke are discussed here in greater detail: unity, transcendence, positive moods, sense of sacredness and insight or illumination.

Unity

Spiritual seekers want to feel a sense of unity with The Godhead or cosmos (Cooper, 1997, p. 277). According to Alexander,

Various states of consciousness are hierarchically arranged, with the whole being understood as ‘the ultimate’ state of awareness, an organizing principle which binds the cosmos together and which is immediately available to the consciousness of those who will avail themselves of the proper techniques for its attainment. (p. 201)

For a spiritual seeker, an LSD session was the opportunity of a lifetime. According to Grof (2006),

An experience that happens to a devout seeker after years of serious spiritual practice and religious studies would certainly be more valuable and influential than one that occurs to a totally unprepared and unsuspected guest in a party at Berkeley, where someone throws a handful of sugar cubes laced with LSD into the fruit punch. (p. 222)

It is easy to understand why LSD became so popular during the 1960’s. Feelings of unity were a central part of the flower-child philosophy of love and acceptance. A long list of PhD’s, doctors, authors and celebrities were in favor of using LSD. Dr. Louis Jordan West reports, "…either LSD is the most phenomenal drug ever introduced to psychiatry, or else the results were evaluated by criteria imposed by enthusiastic, if not prejudiced people" (Novak, 1997, p. 99). Aldous Huxley labeled LSD, "a mystical, religious experience" (Novak, p. 93). Isodor Thorner (1965) wrote, "One who has had a mystic experience is convinced that non-empirical referent of his perception is imminent in nature as a whole and that he has been in some sense one with it; union with divine has been achieved" (Novak, p. 82). This feeling of unity causes the LSD patient to feel relaxed, calm, and ecstatic. Many felt their inner-self, merge with the one universal-self (Jordan, 1963, p. 116). This is the final goal for the spiritual seeker: the microcosm merges with the macrocosm (Baigent, 2006, p. 212). This concept is prevalent in religious writings, parables and fables throughout the world (Grof, 1989, p. 5). Included in these stories, are universal teachings about an individual’s consciousness connecting to The Source. A sense of unity, therefore, becomes an individual’s reality. Havens (1964) explains, "…the more we move away from the usual subject-object mode of thinking, the more ready we are to interpret the sense of Unity as an immediate apprehension of Reality" (p. 221).

Transcendence

Another widely reported effect of taking LSD is the sensation of being outside the body. The OBE (out-of-body experience), is a sought-after goal for spiritual seekers and mystics (Grof, 1989, p. 12). According to Hines (1923), "Direct communion with God has been vouchsafed, and this lifts them to a plane higher than the rest of humanity and to that degree of authority wherein souls less blessed come to them for knowledge and guidance" (p. 42). 

The practice of releasing the astral body goes back to the time of the ancient Egyptians (Regardie, 2003, p. 223). The Pyramid Texts (circa. 2500 BCE), describe the Pharaohs visiting The Far World and gaining higher knowledge (Baigent, 2006, p. 209). The Gnostics also believed the astral body separated from the physical after death (Bloom, 1996, p. 101). The archetype of a resurrected Messiah is a metaphor for an astral body returning to life. According to Grof (1989), the OBE allows the consciousness of the astral body to gain higher knowledge in its travels (p. 12). Hines (1923) speaks about the attainment of this knowledge,

Another feature marked in its clarity is the mystic’s emphatic assertion that a knowledge of things eternal has been gained, and that God himself has revealed to the mind of his servant the reality of his divine existence and the attitude of mind he wants his servants to have toward him. (p. 45)

Mystics wanted to obtain this knowledge, so they practiced releasing their astral-bodies at will. Once the astral body was released, they transferred their consciousness from the physical to the astral body (Grof, 1989, p. 12).

While experiencing transcendence, some patients returned from the LSD experience without any fear of death. According to Pahnke (1969), "It seems as if the mystical experience, by opening the patient to usually untapped ranges of human consciousness, can provide a sense of security that transcends even death." (p. 12). When people lose their fear of death, they can live a better life. They can change their beliefs about judgment day, the devil, and going to hell. Others can transcend the mundane matters of mortal existence and begin developing positive beliefs. Crownfield (1979) explains, "All limits can be transcended through the discovery that they are beliefs and alternative beliefs are possible" (p. 259). This statement also applies to the moments before death.

The last thoughts of a dying person should be tranquil. (Kasley, 1948, p. 170). Rituals, such as ‘last rites’, are comforting to the individual and negative thoughts are transformed into positive ones (Beliefnet.com, 2007). If LSD therapy can direct the patients’ thoughts to love, goodness, truth and beauty; the death experience will be peaceful and emotionally painless. Pahnke (1965) argues, "If the use of psychedelic psychotherapy for the dying patient ever should become widespread in our society, there would probably be a change in our whole approach toward death" (p. 20).

Positive Moods

During the 1950’s and 60’s, many people wanted to try LSD to feel good. "The transformation of LSD from a medical affair to a cultural crusade occurred not only at Harvard in the early 60’s or in San Francisco in the 1967 summer of love, but in Los Angeles in the late 1950’s" (Novak 97).

Many depressed people had transpersonal experiences while taking LSD (Novak, 1997, p. 91). They experienced a sense of euphoria that many thought unattainable through traditional therapy. These individuals wanted to change their negative moods into positive ones. The first time Dr. Sidney Cohen tried LSD, he said, "the problems and strivings, the worries and frustrations of everyday life vanished; in their place was a majestic, sunlit, heavenly quietude" (Novak, p. 92).

Sense of Sacredness

The transpersonal experience has many variations depending on the beliefs of the individual. According to Crownfield (1979), "The ambiguity of drug-induced experiences and their volatility are well known. The suggestibility of subjects using these techniques is high. The analogies between these experiences and those of the mystics are ambiguous and in need of interpretation" (p. 248).

Grof does not know if his patients’ experiences are religious-mystical (sacred) or imaginary (Grof, 2006, p. 11). According to Havens (1964), "We are here confronted with inner events which are described both as ‘religious-mystical’ and ‘hallucinatory’. Seldom has the demand for the rethinking of the nature of mystical, experiential religion been so insistent." (p. 219). It is important for the medical community to know if a patient is having a reality-based mystical-religious experience. Medical acceptance of transpersonal psychology depends on the reality-based nature of the patients’ experience. Havens (1964) continues, "If there are hallucinatory elements in these mystical visions, how may one determine the trustworthiness of the wisdom and insight which seem to flow from them?" (p. 220). Grof (2006) discusses this controversial issue with Carl Sagan, who is skeptical about the nature of the transpersonal experience. Grof argues:

It is the problem of the ontological status of transpersonal experiences such as: experimental identification with other people and other life forms, veridical out-of-body experiences, visions of archetypal beings and realms or ancestral, racial, karmic, and phylogenetic memories. Are they hallucinations and fantasies without any basis in reality or instances of authentic connection with dimensions of reality and sources of relevant information that are normally inaccessible to our consciousness? (p. 327)

If the transpersonal experience is hallucinatory, it is not a sacred experience (Hines, 1923, p. 45). Grof believes a patient is not hallucinating during an LSD session, and Hines believes a spiritual seeker is not hallucinating during a mystical experience (p. 45). Combining these two experiences creates the phrase, "drug mysticism" (Havens, 1964, p. 219). Its proponents thought God was the architect of these biochemical substances, suggesting ‘a sense of sacredness’ was pervasive during LSD sessions and peak mystical experiences (p. 219). Havens continues,

My reading of many reports of psychedelic experiences, plus conversations with some who have claimed religious visionary experiences under drugs, suggest that they are a drawing-together, a focusing and vivifying, a confirmation of insights and meanings from many sources. This concentration of knowing is suggested by the phrases, ‘this is it’, ‘now I’ve seen it’, ‘face-to-face with God,’ which occurs in the records (p. 219).

It is generally known in esoteric traditions, communing with The Deity is a life-transforming event. Spiritual aspirants re-evaluate their lives, identify causes of unhappiness, and begin the process of healing (p. 219).

Insight and Illumination

Esoteric religions have a special title for an enlightened person. It is generally known in Kabbalah, this person is a Tzaddik; in Buddhism - a Bodhisattva; Hinduism – a Guru; Sufism – a Shaikh. This person eliminates the lower desires of the ego, and merges the personality with the divine consciousness (Scholem, 1991, p. 91). By gaining insight, and using advanced intuition, the enlightened person finds the natural path leading to illumination of mind (Scholem, p. 88).

When Grof began his LSD experiments in the late 1950’s, he started developing a radical combination of ancient mysticism and Freudian psychotherapy. According to Crownfield (1979), "Grof points out analogies between transpersonal experiences with LSD and those of mystics are drawn: by a backward reflection, Grof thus interprets mystical experiences by analogy with LSD" (p. 248).

By the early 1960’s, Grof and his associates began understanding the potential for LSD as a therapeutic drug. During an LSD session, the patient viewed his life objectively, and everyday problems were resolved (Crownfield, 1979, p. 248). Grof was determined to use LSD as a therapeutic aid. He wanted patients to gain insights into the self. According to Jordan (1963),

A type of phenomenon regularly reported by LSD subjects is alteration of self…sometimes one’s self-image will change simply in terms of self-confidence, views about one’s abilities, or the sense of one’s importance in life. In other instances the very structure of self will radically change." (p. 117)

Grof’s therapeutic techniques helped the patient to see, feel, and hear the nature of the self. Some patients experienced a feeling of self-illumination and wholeness, "moving in the direction of wholeness defines holotropic consciousness" (Grof, 2006, p. xvii).

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