Author: Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas


Exploring a (deep) psyche is a daring adventure. This book is a collection of dr. Grof's findings and hypotheses based on numerous psychedelic trips. It is a very interesting read and it might help you integrate your recent journey. Like with other books on sub-/un-conscious psychology and spirituality, we do not have a way to test the claims/ hypotheses. So, I recommend that you take what you read with especially big grain of salt.


Because world views create worlds, and world views are shaped by our individual and collective psyches, our collective future depends on the willingness of enough individuals and communities to undergo that depth of transformation and awakening that can support our civilization’s re-entry into the larger community of being from which modern Homo sapiens has imagined itself to be fundamentally separate.

There is overwhelming evidence that consciousness is not the product of the human brain, but a basic aspect of existence; the brain mediates consciousness, but does not generate it.

The human psyche is also not limited to postnatal biography and the Freudian individual unconscious. It contains two additional domains that are of critical importance—the perinatal layer, closely related to the trauma of biological birth, and the transpersonal layer, which is the source of experiences which transcend the limitations of space, time, and the range of our physical senses.

The most interesting insights from holotropic states are those concerning the strategy of therapy. There exists a large number of schools of psychotherapy, which disagree with each other in regard to some fundamental aspects of theory and therapy. As a result, representatives of different schools disagree about the relevance of various issues and interpret the same situations differently. The work with holotropic states resolves this dilemma by offering a radical alternative. Entering these states activates an inner self-healing intelligence, which automatically guides the process to unconscious material that has a strong emotional charge and is close to the threshold of consciousness. It then spontaneously brings this material to the surface for processing.

Psychonautics can be defined as the systematic pursuit and use of holotropic states of consciousness for healing, self-exploration, ritual activity, artistic inspiration, and as a spiritual, philosophical, and scientific quest.

This episode of psychospiritual death and rebirth is then interpreted as dying in the old role and being born into the new one.

Early experiments with LSD and other psychedelics also showed that the roots of emotional and psychosomatic disorders were not limited to traumatic memories from childhood and infancy, as traditional psychiatrists assume, but reach much deeper into the psyche, into the perinatal and transpersonal regions.

Due to its proclivity to induce experiences of empathy, sympathy, emotional closeness, openness, and oneness, MDMA has been often referred to as an empathogen or entactogen (from the Greek en, meaning in and the Latin tactus, meaning touch). It has the reputation of having saved many threatened relationships and marriages.

Dominant paradigm maintains its governing influence on scientists until some of its basic assumptions are seriously challenged by new observations. Initially, the scientific community dismisses the inconvenient findings as products of bad science, attributing them to lack of experience, mental derangement, or dishonesty of the individuals responsible for them. When the observations withstand the test of time and are independently confirmed or supported by other scientists, it results in the period of “abnormal science.” In this critical period of conceptual crisis and confusion, it becomes permissible to propose 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. At this time, the history of science is rewritten and new individuals become the heroes of science, geniuses who centuries ago had ideas that are now an important part of the new paradigm.

“What is left when you apply a bad theory.’’ An avalanche of anomalous phenomena.

This can be demonstrated by looking at the terms that mainstream clinicians and academicians use to describe psychedelics: experimental psychoses, hallucinogens, psychotomimetics, and even delirogens. This view reflects their inability to recognize the true nature of holotropic experiences as germane expressions of the deep dynamics of the psyche.

We actually do not have any proof that consciousness is generated in the brain.

He concluded that there was no good evidence that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does.

Scientists focus their efforts on the aspect of the problem where they can find answers: the material processes in the brain. The much more mysterious problem—how physical processes in the brain generate consciousness—does not receive any attention, because it is incomprehensible and cannot be solved.

Since we know the basic principles of television technology, it is obvious to us that the set simply mediates the program and that it does not generate it. We would laugh at somebody who would try to scrutinize all the transistors, relays, and circuits of the TV set and analyze its wires in an attempt to figure out how it creates the programs.

Yet this is exactly the kind of conclusion that traditional materialistic science has drawn from comparable data about the brain and its relation to consciousness.

A computer permanently linked with a universal information system that saves the uploaded information and integrates it into an overall information system adequately models consciousness not as a personal and local phenomenon, but a transpersonal and nonlocal one. Traces of consciousness present in the brain are also present beyond the brain.

C. G. Jung came to a similar conclusion: “The psyche is not a product of the brain and is not located within the skull; it is part of the generative, creative principle of the cosmos, of the unus mundus’’ (Jung 1964).

I was aware that there was not a good way to stop an LSD experience which was taking the form of a “bad trip.’’ Administering tranquilizers in the middle of a terrifying session would just freeze the distressing experience and prevent its positive resolution, so I provided support and encouragement for my patients as they were going through these challenging experiences. I discovered that many of them experienced a positive breakthrough which took the form of psychospiritual death and rebirth.

I was even able to distinguish four experiential patterns related to the consecutive stages of childbirth, and called them Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM I-IV).

  • BPM I is related to the advanced stage of pregnancy before the onset of the delivery;
  • BPM II portrays the stage of pregnancy when the uterus is contracted, but the cervix is not yet open; and
  • BPM III reflects the propulsion through the birth canal after the cervix is fully dilated.
  • BPM IV features the experience of birth—emerging from the birth canal and having the umbilical cord cut.

According to Freud, the newborn is a tabula rasa (clean slate); nothing that precedes birth is of interest for psychologists, including the birth process itself. Who we become is determined by an interplay between biological instincts and influences that have shaped our life since we came into this world—the quality of nursing, the nature of toilet training, various psychosexual traumas, development of the superego, our reaction to the Oedipal triangle, and conflicts and traumatic events in later life. The Freudian individual unconscious is a derivative of our postnatal history—a repository of what we have forgotten, rejected as unacceptable, and repressed. This underworld of the psyche (the Id as Freud called it) is a realm dominated by primitive instinctual forces.

To describe the relationship between the conscious psyche and the unconscious, Freud used his famous image of the submerged iceberg. In this simile, what was assumed to be the totality of the psyche was only a small part of it, like the portion of the iceberg showing above the surface of the water. Psychoanalysis discovered that a much larger part of the psyche, comparable to the submerged part of the iceberg, is unconscious and, unbeknownst to us, governs our thought processes and behavior.

In the early years of my psychedelic research, I sketched a vastly expanded cartography of the psyche that seems to meet this challenge. This map contains, beside the usual biographical level, two transbiographical realms: the perinatal domain, related to the trauma of biological birth; and the transpersonal domain, which accounts for such phenomena as experiential identification with other people, animals, plants, and other aspects of nature. The transpersonal realm is also the source of ancestral, racial, phylogenetic, and karmic memories, as well as visions of archetypal beings and visits to mythological regions.

A COEX system consists of emotionally charged memories from different periods of our life that resemble each other in the quality of emotions or physical sensations that they share. Each COEX has a basic theme that permeates all its layers and represents their common denominator. The individual layers then contain variations on this basic theme that occurred at different periods of the person’s life. The unconscious of a particular individual can contain several major COEX constellations. Their number, intensity, and the nature of the central themes varies considerably person to person. The layers of a particular system can, for example, contain all the major memories of humiliating, degrading, and shaming experiences that have damaged our self-esteem. In another COEX system, the common denominator can be anxiety experienced in various shocking and terrifying situations, or claustrophobic and suffocating feelings evoked by oppressive and confining circumstances. Rejection and emotional deprivation, damaging the ability to trust men, women, or people in general, is another common motif. Situations that have generated profound feelings of guilt and a sense of failure, events that have resulted in a conviction that sex is dangerous or disgusting, and encounters with aggression and violence can be added to the above list as characteristic examples. Particularly important are COEX systems that contain memories of encounters with situations endangering life, health, and the integrity of the body. This could leave the impression that COEX systems always contain painful and traumatic memories. However, it is the intensity of the experience and its emotional relevance that determines whether a memory will be included into a COEX, not its unpleasant nature. In addition to negative constellations, there are also those that comprise memories of very pleasant or even ecstatic events—memories of loving and fulfilling relationships, episodes of harmony in the family, stays in beautiful natural settings, major accomplishments and achievements, and so on.

It was also true that, in the initial psychedelic sessions of a therapeutic series, especially when lower dosages (15–200 mcg) were used, the biographical material often dominated the picture. This stage proved to be very important for the exploration of various layers of the psyche and their relationship to the dynamics of the symptoms, deemed “chemoarcheology,” or the “onion-peeling of the unconscious,” as some of my clients called it.

I found out that keeping the eyes open was not the most effective therapeutic strategy [when LSD administered].

In the course of this research, it became clear to me that the COEX systems were not limited to the biographical level, but reached much deeper into the unconscious. In my present understanding, each of the COEX constellations seems to be superimposed over and anchored in a particular aspect of the birth process (a basic perinatal matrix or BPM). The experience of biological birth is so complex and rich in emotions and physical sensations that it contains in a prototypical form the elementary themes of most conceivable COEX systems. However, a typical COEX system reaches even further and its deepest roots consist of various forms of transpersonal phenomena, such as ancestral, collective, and karmic memories, Jungian archetypes, conscious identification with various animals, phylogenetic memories, and others.

In humans, complexes manifest as involuntary fantasy images, attitudes, and actions that are specific for them. They can be found everywhere and at all epochs; they are “numinous” and can be detected above all in the realm of religious ideas. According to Jung, complexes have not only an obsessive, but often possessive, character: “Everybody knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes.’ What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us.” Complexes behave like sabotaging imps and give rise to all sorts of annoying, ridiculous, and revealing actions; they are behind the phenomena that Freud called “psychopathology of everyday life”—slips of the tongue and falsifications of memory and judgment. Intellectual knowledge of a complex is useless; its harmful action will continue until we discharge it. Then it rises into consciousness and can be assimilated. [Hm, I don't agree with the last sentence. I believe that complexes can only be discharged on an unconscious level as well. Therefore, I think there is no way we can consciously discharge it. We don't know how to impact the unconscious domain. Ture, we can resolve it during (or after) a psychedelic session, but it's hard to say that we are in a "regular" conscious state. It is an altered state of consciousness, which bears little resemblance to a regular one.]

The COEX systems play an important role in our psychological life: they can influence the way we perceive ourselves, other people, and the world, as well as how we feel and act. They are the dynamic forces behind our emotional and psychosomatic symptoms, difficulties in relationships with other people, and irrational behaviors. And whereas Leuner’s concept of tdysts does not imply a two-way interaction with the environment, I found that there exists a dynamic interplay between the COEX systems and the external world. External events in our life can specifically activate corresponding COEX systems and, conversely, active COEX systems can determine how we perceive ourselves and the world, and make us behave in such a way that we recreate their core themes in our present life.

This mechanism can be observed very clearly in experiential work. In holotropic states, the content of the experience, the perception of the environment, and the behavior of the client are determined in general terms by the COEX system that dominates the session and, more specifically, by the layer of this system that is momentarily emerging into consciousness.

Reliving the trauma of his birth finally resolved his difficult symptoms to such an extent that he could once again function in life.

In a holotropic state, when a COEX system is emerging into consciousness, it assumes a governing function and determines the nature and content of the experience. Our perceptions of ourselves and of the human and physical environment are distorted and illusively transformed in correspondence with the basic motif of the emerging COEX constellation, and with the specific features of its individual layers.

The mechanism described above has its dynamic counterpart: the tendency of external stimuli to activate corresponding COEX systems of persons in holotropic states and to facilitate the emergence of the content of these systems into consciousness. This happens in those instances where specific external influences, such as elements of the physical setting, interpersonal environment, or therapeutic situation bear a resemblance to the original traumatic scenes or contain identical components. This seems to be the key for understanding the extraordinary significance of set and setting for the holotropic experience.

Thus, patients are particularly sensitive to what they consider uninterested, cold, and “professional” treatment when they are under the influence of memory constellations that involve emotional deprivation, rejection, or neglect by their parents or other relevant figures in their childhood. When they are working through the problems of rivalry with their siblings, patients may attempt to monopolize the therapist and want to be the only or at least the favorite patient. They find it difficult to accept that the therapist has other patients, and can be extremely irritated by any sign of interest paid to somebody else. Patients, who on other occasions do not mind or even wish to be left alone during a session, cannot bear for the therapist to leave the room for any reason when they are connecting with memories related to abandonment and childhood loneliness. These are just a few examples of situations in which oversensitivity to external circumstances reflects an underlying COEX system.

The common denominator in the COEX systems we have described so far is the quality of emotions or physical feelings that their layers share. There also exists a different category of COEX systems that can be referred to as interpersonal COEX systems. In these dynamic constellations, the common denominator is a certain type of relationship to a specific category of people—authority figures, sexual partners, or peers.

Studies of therapeutic results have shown some difference between being in psychotherapy and being on the waiting list, but failed to demonstrate any significant differences between the results of different schools (Frank and Frank 1991). The differences are instead found inside the schools rather than between them. In each of the schools, there are individuals who are known as better therapists than their colleagues. This brings up some interesting questions: what are the effective mechanisms in psychotherapy, when can verbal therapy help and why, and what are its limits? It is clear that the answer is not to have a better understanding of the psyche and more accurate and better-timed interpretations, because these are factors that vary from one school to another. Some factors that have been mentioned as effective, on the other hand, are the quality of the human encounter between the therapist and client, compatibility and resonance between the personalities of the therapist and patient, and the feeling of being unconditionally accepted by another human being, often for the first time in one’s life.

It seems that breaking repetitive traumatic patterns in interpersonal relations (or interpersonal COEX systems) might play a critical role in successful therapy. An interesting study we conducted at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague about fifty years ago demonstrated this. This study focused on the following problem: when we look at the lives of people who have emotional or psychosomatic disorders, we discover that they tend to repeat the same kind of dysfunctional patterns in relationships with certain categories of relationships—figures in positions of authority, men, women, sexual partners, or peers. Their partners in these relationships might have very different personalities, but these clients tend to eventually develop the same kind of problems. It showed that in patients whose initial graphs showed strong expectations of dysfunctional relationships with specific co-patients, future descriptions of the actual relationships showed strong convergence with the initial expectations (“self-fulfilling prophecy”). Dysfunctional repetitive patterns could be traced to the dynamics of the nuclear family: issues with authority figures (teachers, bosses, military officers, etc.) were connected to parents who imposed discipline in the family, problems in sexual relationships to one of the parents or the pattern of their marriage, and conflicts with the peer group to sibling rivalry. The critical period was the age of five or six, when the children start to apply patterns of interpersonal behavior established within a very unrepresentative sample of the population (nuclear family) to a larger community (teachers, schoolmates, and various acquaintances). The question then was: are these patterns going to be corrected or reinforced? Since human relationships are complementary, an average person tends to respond in a predictable and expected way and thus reinforces a dysfunctional pattern. The task of a good teacher, ideal boss, and eventually the therapist is to respond in an atypical and unexpected way, to break the repetitive pattern and provide a corrective experience.

When we are working with holotropic states, it is important to be aware of the clients’ repetitive interpersonal patterns, because these can become activated and amplified and create difficult situations in therapy. However, regression in holotropic states also provides an extraordinary opportunity for a corrective experience on a very deep level. The presence of a strong and loving male or female, the simultaneous presence of a male and female who get along unlike one’s parents, and the satisfaction of unmet anaclitic needs experienced in deep regression can have an extraordinary healing and transformative effect on the previously afflicted categories of interpersonal relationships.

...convincing evidence that biological birth is the most profound trauma of our life and an event of paramount psychospiritual importance. It is recorded in our memory in miniscule details down to the cellular level and it has a profound effect on our psychological development.

It is only natural that someone confronted with this abysmal aspect of the psyche would feel a great reluctance to face it. Going deeper into this experience seems like meeting eternal damnation. Yet, paradoxically, the fastest way of ending this unbearable state is to fully experience the depth of suffering and despair that we once had to face in the birth canal, surrendering to it completely and accepting it. That changes the seemingly hopeless situation of BPM II into BPM III, reliving the stage of birth where the dilated cervix makes escape and the termination of suffering possible.

The ego death that precedes rebirth is the death of our old concepts of who we are and what the world is like, which were forged by the traumatic imprint of birth, and are maintained by the memory of it that stays alive in our unconscious. As we clear these old programs by letting them emerge into consciousness, they lose their emotional charge and do, in a sense, die. We have identified with them so much, though, that approaching the moment of the ego death feels like the end of our existence, or even like the end of the world. As frightening as this process is, it is actually very healing and transforming.

What actually dies in this process is the false ego that, up to this point in our life, we have mistaken for our true self. As we lose all the reference points we know, we have no idea what is on the other side, or even if there is anything there at all. This fear tends to create an enormous resistance to continue and complete the experience. As a result, without appropriate guidance, many people can remain psychologically stuck in this problematic territory.

Anesthesia at birth can also have profound adverse psychological consequences for postnatal life and create a disposition for addiction, including a tendency to solve problems in life by escaping into a drug state.

Freud saw the human psyche as a battlefield with two rivaling forces—libido and the nonsexual ego instinct related to self-preservation.

As we have discussed earlier, experiential therapies bring overwhelming evidence that childhood traumas do not represent the primary pathogenic causes for emotional and psychosomatic disorders. They represent superficial layers superimposed over emotions, physical energies, and contents from deeper levels of the psyche.

The biographical layers represent only one component of this complex network; important roots of the problems involved can almost always be found on the perinatal and transpersonal levels.

Birth and death are events of fundamental relevance that occupy a metaposition in relation to all the other experiences of life. They are the alpha and omega of human existence.

From observations arising from deep experiential therapy, the determined striving for external goals and the pursuit of success do very little in overcoming feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, no matter the outcome of these endeavors. The feelings of inferiority cannot be resolved by mobilizing one’s forces to overcompensate them, but by confronting them experientially and surrendering to them. They are then consumed in the process of ego death and rebirth, and a new self-image emerges from the awareness of one’s cosmic identity. True courage lies in the willingness to undergo this awesome process of inner transformation, not in a heroic pursuit of external goals. Unless the individual succeeds in finding his or her true identity within, any attempts to give their life meaning by striving for external achievement will be a futile and ultimately self-defeating, quixotic crusade.

According to Reich, the suppression of sexual feelings, together with the characterological attitude that accompanies it, constitutes the true neurosis; the clinical symptoms are only its overt manifestations. For Reich, the critical factor that contributes to incomplete sexual orgasm and congestion of bioenergy is the repressive influence of society. A neurotic individual maintains balance by binding his excess energy in muscular tensions, and thus limiting sexual excitement. A healthy individual does not have such a limitation; his or her energy is not bound in muscular armoring and can flow freely. ... The situation is thus the opposite of what Reich postulated. It is not that societal and psychological factors interfering with full orgasm lead to the accumulation and stasis of sexual energy, but that deep-seated perinatal energies interfere with adequate orgasm and, at the same time, create psychological and interpersonal problems. To rectify this situation, these powerful energies must be discharged in a nonsexual, therapeutic context and reduced to a level that the patient and the partner can comfortably handle in a sexual interaction.

He suggested that a verbal approach to psychotherapy is of limited value and that the main emphasis in therapeutic work should be on experience. According to Rank, it was essential for the patient to relive the trauma of birth in therapy; without it, treatment should not be considered complete.

In the work with holotropic states, the situation appears much more complicated. Birth is not traumatic just because the child is transferred from the paradise situation in the womb into the adverse conditions of the external world; the passage through the birth canal itself entails enormous emotional and physical stress and pain.

Jung’s collective unconscious has a historical domain, which contains the entire history of humanity, and the archetypal domain, which harbors the cultural heritage of mankind—mythologies from every culture that has ever existed. In holotropic states of consciousness, we can experience visions of characters and scenes from these mythologies, even if we do not have any previous intellectual knowledge of them. Exploring the collective unconscious, Jung discovered universal principles governing the dynamics of this domain of the psyche. He first referred to them as “primordial images”—using a term that he borrowed from Jacob Burckhardt; later he called them “dominants of the collective unconscious” and, finally, “archetypes.” According to the understanding that has emerged from Jungian psychology, consciousness research, and scholarly mythological research, archetypes are timeless, primordial cosmic principles underlying and informing the fabric of the material world (Jung 1959).

Studying the specific dynamics of the unconscious through the association experiment, Jung discovered its functional units, for which he coined the term complexes. Complexes are constellations of psychological elements—ideas, opinions, attitudes, and convictions—that are clustered around a nuclear theme and associated with distinct feelings (Jung 1960). Jung was able to trace complexes from biographically determined motifs to archetypes of the collective unconscious (Jung 1959).

Knowledge of Jungian psychology and mythology is essential for safe and rewarding psychonautics.

The symptoms of emotional and psychosomatic disorders are the result of a complicated interplay involving biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal elements.

However, when a COEX system is established, it has a self-replicating propensity and can unconsciously drive the individual to recreate situations of a similar kind and thus add new layers to the memory constellation,

Many people involved in deep self-exploration reported some interesting insights concerning the relationship between past-life experiences and the birth trauma. The reliving of birth often coincides or alternates with various karmic episodes that share an emotional quality or certain physical sensations with it. This connection suggests the possibility that the way in which we experience our birth might be determined by our karma. This applies not only to the general nature of our birth experience, but also to specific details. Being hanged or strangled in a past-life situation, for example, can translate to suffocation during birth caused by the umbilical cord twisted around the neck. Pains inflicted by sharp objects in karmic dramas can become pains caused by uterine contractions and pressures. The experience of being in a medieval dungeon, torture chamber of the Inquisition, or a concentration camp can fuse with the no-exit experience of BPM II, and so on. Karmic patterns can also underlie and shape traumatic events in postnatal biography.

When suicidal individuals undergo psychedelic or holotropic therapy and complete the death-rebirth process, they see suicide retrospectively as a tragic mistake based on a lack of self-understanding. The average person does not know that one can safely experience liberation from unbearable emotional and physical tension through a symbolic death and rebirth or through reconnecting to the state of prenatal existence. As a result, he or she might be driven by the intensity of discomfort and suffering to seek a situation in the material world that involves similar elements. The extreme outcome is often tragic and irreversible. The drive that these people feel is not really to destroy their body, but to experience psychospiritual death and rebirth.

The deepest force behind alcoholism and addiction is thus an unrecognized and misguided craving for transcendence.

Over the years, I have worked with many people who were born with the umbilical cord twisted around the neck. A significant number of them reported that they have experienced unusually strong sexual tension all their life and that they had masturbated excessively in their early childhood.

When we look at these experiences in the context of the large cartography of the psyche that is not limited to postnatal biography, but includes the perinatal and transpersonal domains, it becomes clear that the difference between mysticism and mental disorder is less in the nature and content of the experiences involved than in the attitude toward them, the individual’s “experiential style,” the mode of interpretation, and the ability to integrate them.

“The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”

The wide range of triggers for spiritual emergency clearly suggests that the individual’s readiness for inner transformation (i.e: to surrender to the process and to support the emergence and full expression of the unconscious material that becomes available) plays a far more important role than the external stimuli.

What we have learned during this experience is ineffable; it cannot be described by words. The vocabulary of our language, which is designed to communicate about objects and events in the material world, seems to be inadequate for this purpose. Yet, the experience can profoundly influence our system of values and strategy of existence.

There exists ample evidence that behind the craving for drugs or alcohol is the unrecognized craving for transcendence or wholeness. Many recovering people talk about their restless search for some unknown missing element or dimension in their lives and describe their unfulfilling and frustrating pursuit of substances, food, relationships, possessions, or power, which reflects an unrelenting effort to satiate this craving (Grof 1993).

These intense experiential sessions can be complemented with Gestalt practice, Dora Kalff’s Jungian sandplay, or bodywork with a psychologically experienced practitioner. A variety of auxiliary techniques can also prove extremely useful under these circumstances. Among them are writing in a journal, painting mandalas, expressive dancing, and jogging, swimming, or other sport activities. If the client is able to concentrate on reading transpersonally oriented books, particularly those specifically focusing on the problem of psychospiritual crises or some specific aspect of his or her inner experiences, it can be extremely helpful.

An insufficient food supply can lead to hypoglycemia, which is known to weaken psychological defenses and bring additional material from the unconscious. Tea with honey, bananas, or other foods that contain glucose can be of great help in breaking this circle and grounding the process.

Sleep deprivation, like fasting, tends to weaken the defenses and facilitate the influx of unconscious material into consciousness.

Before dealing with the psychological problems underlying addiction, it is imperative to break the chemical cycle that perpetuates the use of substances. The individual has to go through a period of withdrawal and detoxification in a special residential facility. Once this is accomplished, the focus can turn to the psychospiritual roots of the disorder. As we have seen, alcoholism and drug addiction represent a misguided search for transcendence. For this reason, to be successful, the therapeutic program has to include a strong emphasis on the spiritual dimension of the problem as an integral part.

Carefully selected music seems to be of particular value in holotropic states of consciousness, where it has several important functions. It mobilizes emotions associated with repressed memories, brings them to the surface, and facilitates their expression. It helps to open the door into the unconscious, intensifies and deepens the therapeutic process, and provides a meaningful context for the experience. The continuous flow of music creates a carrier wave that helps the subject move through difficult experiences and impasses, overcome psychological defenses, surrender, and let go.

In holotropic therapy, it is essential to surrender completely to the flow of music, let it resonate in one’s entire body, and to respond to it in a spontaneous and elemental fashion. This includes manifestations that would be unthinkable in a concert hall, where crying or even coughing is seen as a disturbance and causes annoyance and embarrassment. In holotropic work, one should give full expression to whatever the music is bringing out, whether it is loud screaming or laughing, baby talk, animal noises, shamanic chanting, or talking in tongues. It is also important not to control any physical impulses, such as bizarre grimacing, sensual movements of the pelvis, violent shaking, or intense contortions of the entire body. Naturally, there are exceptions to this rule: destructive behavior directed toward oneself, others, and the physical environment is not permissible. [Why not?]

For this purpose, the music has to be of superior technical quality and be played at a sufficient volume to drive the experience. The combination of music with faster breathing has a remarkable mind-manifesting and consciousness-expanding power.

We try to avoid selections that are jarring, dissonant, and anxiety-provoking. Preference should be given to music of high artistic quality that is not well known and has little concrete content. One should avoid playing songs and other vocal pieces in languages known to the participants, which would convey a specific message or suggest a specific theme. When vocal compositions are used, they should be in foreign languages so that the human voice is perceived as just another musical instrument. For the same reason, it is preferable to avoid pieces which evoke specific intellectual associations and tend to program the content of the session, such as Richard Wagner’s or Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s wedding marches and overtures to Bizet’s Carmen or Verdi’s Aida. The session typically begins with activating music that is dynamic, flowing, and emotionally uplifting and reassuring. As the session continues, the music gradually increases in intensity and moves to powerful rhythmic pieces, preferably drawn from ritual and spiritual traditions of various native cultures. Although many of these performances can be aesthetically pleasing, the main purpose for the people that developed them is not entertainment, but the induction of holotropic experiences. An example here could be the dance of the whirling dervishes, accompanied by beautiful music and chants. It is not designed to be admired as a superb ballet performance, but to take people to the experience of God. About an hour and a half into the session of Holotropic Breathwork, when the experience typically culminates, we introduce what we call breakthrough music. The selections used at this time range from sacred music—masses, oratoria, requiems, and other strong orchestral pieces—to excerpts from dramatic movie soundtracks. In the second half of the session, the intensity of the music gradually decreases and we bring in loving and emotionally moving pieces (heart music). Finally, in the termination period of the session, the music has a soothing, flowing, timeless, and meditative quality.

Most practitioners of Holotropic Breathwork collect musical recordings and tend to create their own favorite sequences for the five consecutive phases of the session: (1) opening music, (2) trance-inducing music, (3) breakthrough music, (4) heart music, and (5) meditative music.

In Holotropic Breathwork, we also use a different form of physical intervention which is designed to provide support on a deep preverbal level. This is based on the observation that two fundamentally different forms of traumas exist, which require diametrically different approaches. This distinction is currently not recognized by mainstream psychotherapists.

  1. Borrowing the terminology from British law, the first of these traumas can be referred to as trauma by commission. This form of trauma results from external intrusions that damaged the future development of the individual, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, frightening situations, destructive criticism, humiliation, or ridicule. These traumas represent foreign elements in the unconscious that can be brought into consciousness, energetically discharged, and resolved.
  2. Although this distinction is not recognized in conventional psychotherapy, the second form of trauma, trauma by omission is radically different in nature and requires a different approach. It actually involves the opposite problem: a lack of positive experiences that are essential for a healthy emotional development. An infant, as well as an older child, has strong primitive needs for instinctual satisfaction and security that pediatricians and child psychiatrists call anaclitic (from the Greek anaklinein, meaning to lean upon). These involve the need to be held and experience skin contact, be caressed, comforted, played with, and be the center of human attention. When these needs are not met, it has serious negative consequences for the future of the individual. Many people have a history of emotional deprivation, abandonment, and neglect in infancy and childhood that resulted in serious frustration of the anaclitic needs. Others were born premature and spent their first months of life in an incubator without intimate human contact. The only way to heal this type of trauma is to offer a corrective experience in the form of supportive physical contact in a holotropic state of consciousness. For this approach to be effective, the individual has to be deeply regressed to the infantile stage of development, otherwise the corrective measure does not reach the developmental level on which the trauma occurred. Depending on the circumstances and on previous agreement, this physical support can range from simple hand-holding or touching the forehead to full body contact. The use of nourishing physical contact is a very effective way of healing early emotional trauma, but using it requires following strict ethical rules. We have to explain the rationale of this technique to the breathers and sitters before the session and get their approval to use it. Under no circumstances can this approach be practiced without previous consent and no pressure can be used to obtain this permission.

I would like to address one question that often comes up in the context of holotropic workshops or lectures on experiential work: “Why should reliving traumatic memories be therapeutic rather than represent a retraumatization?” The best answer can be found in the article “Unexperienced Experience” by Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne (Browne 1990). He suggested that in therapy we are not facing an exact replay or repetition of the original traumatic situation, but rather the first full experience of the appropriate emotional and physical reactions to it. This means that the traumatic events are recorded in the person at the time when they happen but are not fully consciously experienced, processed, and integrated. In addition, the person who is confronted with the previously repressed traumatic memory is no longer the helpless and vitally dependent child or infant that he or she was in the original situation, but a grown adult.

Full age regression makes it possible to experience all the emotions and physical sensations of the original traumatic situation from the perspective of the child, but at the same time analyze and evaluate the memory in the therapeutic situation from a mature adult perspective.

It is surprising how many people in our culture, because of either strong Protestant ethics or other reasons, have great difficulty accepting ecstatic experiences unless they follow suffering and hard work, if then. They often respond to them with a sense of guilt or with a feeling that they do not deserve them.

In the terminal stage of the session, good bodywork can significantly facilitate emotional and physical resolution. Intimate contact with nature can also have a very calming and grounding effect and help the integration of the session. Particularly effective in this regard is exposure to water, such as soaking in a hot tub or swimming in a pool, a lake, or in the ocean.

Under these circumstances, any interpretations are questionable and arbitrary. Another reason for abstaining from interpretations is the fact that psychological contents are typically overdetermined and can be meaningfully related to several levels of the psyche (Grof 2010, Grof 1975). Giving a supposedly definitive explanation or interpretation also carries the danger of freezing the process and interfering with the therapeutic progress. A more productive alternative is to ask questions that help to elicit additional information from the perspective of the client who, being the experiencer, is the ultimate expert as far as his or her experience is concerned. When we are patient and resist the temptation to share our own impressions, participants very often find their own explanations that best fit their experiences.

When we talk about evaluating the efficacy of powerful forms of experiential psychotherapy, such as work with psychedelics or Holotropic Breathwork, it is important to emphasize certain fundamental differences between these approaches and verbal forms of therapy. Verbal psychotherapy often extends over a period of years and major exciting breakthroughs are rare exceptions, rather than commonplace events. When changes of symptoms occur in verbal psychotherapy, it happens on a broad time scale and it is difficult to prove their causal connection with specific events in therapy or the therapeutic process in general. By comparison, in a psychedelic or Holotropic Breathwork session, powerful changes can occur in the course of a few hours and they can be convincingly linked to specific experiences. The changes observed in Holotropic Breathwork are not limited to conditions traditionally considered emotional or psychosomatic. In many cases, breathwork sessions led to the dramatic improvement of physical conditions that in medical handbooks are described as organic diseases.