Realms of the Human Unconscious by Stanislav Grof

‘Realms of the Human Unconscious – Observations from LSD Research’ by Stanislav Grof has recently (2010) been republished by Souvenir Press, having originally been published in 1975. Stanislav Grof spent 17 years researching LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs between 1955 and 1972 in a psychotherapy context. He began his research in Czechoslovakia but later moved to the United States in 1967. From his research he developed a model of the unconscious, according to the LSD experience, and which he published in this book.

Having already covered the basic information in a review of Stanislav Grof’s LSD: Doorway to the Numinous this particular literary review will take a slightly different tact. Firstly, I will examine how Grof perceived the various schools of LSD Psychotherapy before it fell from legal grace and, in order to begin to create a cartography of psychedelic literature from the same period, I’ll connect the literary texts to the various psychotherapy approaches. Secondly, I’ll give a synopsis of Grof’s model of the unconscious and how it demonstrates a synthesis of ideas from other conceptual arenas, most of which Grof also touched upon in his own vast research experience.

When Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) was first marketed by Sandoz, it was done so for two principle reasons of research. Firstly, as a ‘psychotomimetic’ (mimicking psychosis); which speculates it was able to produce a ‘model psychosis’ in those who took the hallucinogen and thus be useful in both studying psychotic conditions and in order for researchers to gain a first-hand understanding. According to Grof the ‘model psychosis’ theory failed to stand up as “we failed to demonstrate any significant parallels between the phenomenology of the states induced by these drugs [hallucinogens] and the symptomatology of schizophrenia” (Grof 16) and which was verified by other research teams in Europe and the United States. Secondly, however, LSD was marketed as a key that granted unprecedented access to a patients unconscious as part of psychotherapy.

In Europe, psychiatrist Ronald Sandison coined the term Psycholytic (soul-dissolving) Therapy, of which the distinguishing marker was the utilisation of Freudian and Jungian models alongside a series of small dose LSD sessions (typically 75-150 micrograms). Relevant texts that came out of this tradition were: A Drug Taker’s Notes (1957) by Richard Heron ward, and My Self and I (1962) by Constance A. Newland. As research increased however, Grof cites two further research areas in which LSD “opened exciting new perspectives and interesting possibilities” (Grof 3) and they were in studying (1) the creative process (psychology and the psychopathology of art) and (2) the psychology of religion; and these formed part of ‘Psychedelic Therapy’.

In the United States, Psychedelic Therapy was being developed by, among others, Humphry Osmond, Abram Hoffer and Al Hubbard and involved ‘healthy’ patients taking large quantities of LSD (typically 250-500 micrograms) in the hope of producing mystical/ecstatic/religious states-of-mind in the patient. Relevant text for this research is: The Discovery of Love (1963) by Malden Grange Bishop. Also, in line with the some of the  methodology of Psychedelic Therapy was the work of Dr. Oscar Janiger who, as part of a wider study on LSD efficacy in ‘healthy’ subjects but without any explicit goal (like the mystical experience,) looked at its effects on artists and writers as part of the creative process; most notably producing the text Exploring Inner Space (1961) by Jane Dunlap.

Other relevant texts of this period are: The Joyous Cosmology (1962) by philosopher and writer Alan Watts and Island (1962) by author Aldous Huxley. Both were influenced by Psychedelic Therapy; both authors were friends with Janiger and Osmond and had LSD experiences occasioned by them; I separate them only because their texts are markedly different. For example, rather than the non-fictional, subsequent psychotherapy sessions of the aforementioned texts, The Joyous Cosmology is an idealised ‘trip’, synthesised from the culmination of Watts’ personal experience and Island is a fictional novel set within a larger context. Perhaps, for the purpose of outlining texts, we should introduce another category to this list: LSD as a de/conditioning therapy, as exemplified by The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert.

From this literary and psychotherapeutic cartography we must now turn to Grof’s cartography of the human unconscious as manifested in his patients’ LSD sessions. He recognises the limitations of providing a linear explanation, as it is an oversimplification of a multidimensional issue but Grof does so for didactic purposes. The four major levels of the LSD experience, he argues, corresponds to areas of the human unconscious: (1) Abstract and aesthetic experiences (2) Psychodynamic experiences (3) Perinatal experiences, and (4) Transpersonal experiences.

Abstract and aesthetic experiences: These experiences are very sensual and include; entoptic phenomena (visions from within the eye) and after images, with geometric or architectural patterns. Or, to the opened eye,  everything was perceived in movement, inanimate objects appearing to vibrate into life and the occurrence of optical illusions. There were also changes in aural function; picking up on sounds one might otherwise have not noted and illusory sounds without a source. And there were  emotional responses to stimuli like finding “new dimensions” in music. Grof believes these to be “superficial” and have no relevance to the unconscious, no psychodynamic actions; they are merely physiological actions of LSD. It is interesting to note how much emphasis previous thinkers like Walter Benjamin placed on sensual effects like synaesthesia (with hashish) compared to the emerging psychotherapy literature.

Psychodynamic experiences: “The experiences belonging to this category originate in the realm of the individual unconscious and in the areas of the personality accessible in usual states of consciousness. They are related to important memories, emotional problems, unresolved conflicts, and repressed material from various life periods of the individual” (Grof 44). Grof writers that understanding these problems requires (1) knowledge of Freud’s basic principles of unconscious dynamics, specifically dream work, and (2) a familiarity with the peculiarities of the “LSD state and its symbolic language” (ibid.). This is the primary focus of Psycholytic Therapy and, Grof continues, if these were the only noted phenomena brought on by LSD then it would go a long way to sanctifying Freud’s model. In order to understand their multidimensional aspect, he develops the concept of Systems of Condensed Experience (COEX Systems) as a method of elucidating the nature of each person’s particular repression.

Perinatal experiences: “The basic characteristics of perinatal experiences and their central focus are the problems of biological birth, physical pain and agony, aging, disease and decrepitude, and dying and death” (Grof 95). Furthermore, Grof writes, there are two consequences of this experience (1) the connection of birth and death being the “major philosophical issue that accompanies the perinatal experience” (ibid.) and (2) that encountering “the phenomenon of death is the opening up of spiritual and religious experiences” – of this second one, he says, it is an intrinsic part of the personality and is beyond an individual’s cultural and religious background. Conceptually Grof explores the perinatal phenomena using Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM), which he corresponds to certain archetypal mother motifs, which relate to various stages in the birthing process.

Transpersonal experiences: These phenomena are intrinsically tied to Psychedelic Therapy. They “can be defined as “experiences involving an expansion or extension of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries and beyond the limitations of time and/or space.”” (Grof 155). Grof categorises the transpersonal experiences according to the “three-dimensional phenomenal world (or “objective reality”) as we know it from our usual states of consciousness.” (ibid.) and those that don’t. Examples of the former would be ancestral, collective and past-incarnation experiences, as well as ego transcendence, group consciousness and a reduction of consciousness to cellular levels. Whilst the latter includes encounters with various ‘others’, universal mind consciousness and intuitive understanding of universal symbols. The transpersonal experiences were the ones least understood and explored by pre-LSD psychotherapy systems and Grof does a more than fair attempt at elucidating them.

As has already been stated, the experience of these phenomena rarely function linearly, yet Grof believed he’d identified certain dynamics that were pertinent for LSD Psychotherapy as a practical discourse in society. For example, he writes about transcending the psychodynamic through Psycholytic Therapy in order to reach the perinatal. And, successfully navigating the BPM results “the ego death and rebirth is experienced in a pure and final form, the pathway is opened to elements of the first perinatal matrix [like “cosmic unity”] and to various clearly transpersonal dynamic structures.” (Grof 149). Also, transpersonal experiences tended to occur later in Psycholytic Therapy after the information had been worked through and integrated. Though, I might add, I find the term integrated somwhat troublesome as it makes certain assumptions about the nature of the ego in regard to the actions of LSD.

Realms of the Human Unconscious is an excellent and fascinating text. Not only does it portray a very clear picture of LSD psychotherapy, it also manages to communicate the vast array of phenomena discovered through those methods in a succinct and understandable way. The model, as Grof hoped, works well didactically and although it perhaps raises as many questions as it answers, my guess is this was also somewhat intentional as a way of inspiring further research (when the legal time came again, as it appears it might have.) A book well worthy of the shelf in any psychedelicist, psychiatrist or theorist’s collection.

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