Psychology of the Future: lessons from modern consciousness research

by Stanislav Grof

Photo by Arleen Hartman

The term transpersonal literally means “reaching beyond the personal”. The experiences that originate on this level involve transcendence of our usual boundaries (our body and ego) and of the limitations of three-dimensional space and linear time that restrict our perception of the world in the ordinary state of consciousness.

In the ordinary, or normal, state of consciousness we experience ourselves as Newtonian objects existing within the boundaries of our skin. Our perception of the environment is restricted by the physiological limitations of our sensory organs and by the physical characteristics of the environment. We cannot see objects from which we are separated by a solid wall, ships that are beyond the horizon, or the other side of the moon. If we are in Prague, we cannot hear what our friends are talking about in San Francisco. We cannot feel the softness of lambskin unless the surface of our body in direct contact with it.

In addition, we can experience vividly and with all our senses only the events that are happening in the present moment. We can recall the past and anticipate future events or fantasize about them; however, these are very different experiences from an immediate and direct experience of the present moment. In transpersonal states of consciousness, none of the above limitations are absolute; any of them can be transcended. There are no limits for the reach of our senses and we can experience with all the sensory qualities episodes that occurred in the past and occasionally even those that have not yet happened, but will happen in the future. The spectrum of transpersonal experiences is extremely rich and includes phenomena from several different levels of consciousness.

The existence and nature of transpersonal experiences violates some of the most basic assumptions of mechanistic science. They imply such seemingly absurd notions as relativity and arbitrary nature of all physical boundaries, nonlocal connections in the universe, communication through unknown means and channels, memory without a material substrate, nonlinearity of time, or consciousness associated with all living organisms, and even inorganic matter. Many transpersonal experiences involve events from the microcosm and the macrocosm, realms that cannot normally be reached by unaided human sense, or from historical periods that precede the origin of the solar system, formation of planet earth, appearance of living organisms, development of the nervous system and emergence of homo sapiens.

I have coined the name, holotropic, a composite word which literally means “moving in the direction of wholeness”. It suggests that in our everyday state of consciousness we identify with only a small fraction of who we really are. In holotropic states, we can transcend the narrow boundaries of the body ego and reclaim our full identity.

In holotropic states, consciousness is changed qualitatively in a very profound and fundamental way. We remain fully orientated in terms of space and time and do not completely lose touch with everyday reality. At the same time, our field of consciousness is invaded by contents from other dimensions of existence in a way that can be intense. Holotropic states are characterized by dramatic perceptual changes in all sensory areas.

The research of holotropic states reveals a remarkable paradox concerning the nature of human beings. It clearly shows that, in a mysterious and yet unexplained way, each of us contains the information about the entire universe and all of existence, has potential experiential access to all of its parts, and in a sense is the whole cosmic network, to the same degree that he or she is just an infinitesimal part of it, a separate and insignificant biological entity. As absurd and implausible as this idea might seem to a traditionally trained scientist and to our common sense, it can be relatively easily reconciled with new revolutionary developments in various scientific disciplines usually referred to as the new or emerging paradigm.

My wife, Christina and I have developed an approach that we call “holotropic breathwork.” It induces very powerful holotropic states by a combination of very simple means---accelerated breathing, evocative music, and a technique of bodywork that helps to release residual bioenergetic and emotional blocks. In its theory and practice, this method brings together and integrates various elements from ancient and aboriginal traditions, Eastern spiritual philosophies, and Western depth psychology.

The use of various breathing techniques for religious and healing purposes can be traced back to the dawn of human history. Since earliest history, virtually every major psychospiritual system seeking to comprehend human nature has viewed breath as a crucial link between the body, mind, and spirit.

It has been known for centuries that it is possible to influence consciousness by techniques that involve breathing. The procedures that have been used for this purpose by various ancient and non-Western cultures cover a wide range from drastic interferences with breathing to subtle and sophisticated exercises of various spiritual traditions.

Profound changes in consciousness can be induced by both extremes in the breathing rate, hyperventilation and prolonged withholding of breath, as well as by using them in an alternating fashion.

We came to the conclusion that it is sufficient to breathe faster and more effectively than usual and with full concentration on the inner process. Instead of emphasizing a specific technique of breathing, we follow even in this area the general strategy of holotropic work, to trust the intrinsic wisdom of the body and follow the inner clues. In holotropic breathwork, we encourage people to begin the session with faster and somewhat deeper breathing, tying inhalation and exhalation into a continuous circle of breath.

Deliberate increase of the pace of breathing typically loosens psychological defenses and leads to a release and emergence of unconscious (and superconscious) material.

In holotropic breathwork, the consciousness-altering effect of breath is combined with evocative music. Like breathing, music and other forms of sound technology have been used for millennia as powerful tools in ritual and spiritual practice.

To use music as a catalyst for deep self-exploration and experiential work, it is necessary to learn a new way of listening to music and relating to it that is alien to our culture.

It is essential to surrender completely to the flow of music, let it resonate in one’s entire body, and respond to it in a spontaneous and elemental fashion.

Holotropic breathwork sessions vary in their duration from individual to individual and, in the same individual, also from session to session.

After several decades of work with holotropic states, I have no doubt that the new insights concerning the nature of consciousness and the dimensions of the human psyche have general validity and are of lasting value.


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[Stanislav Grof, born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, is a psychiatrist with over 40 years experience of research into non-ordinary states of consciousness and one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. He is the founder and current president of the International Transpersonal Association. Grof has published over 140 articles in professional journals and several of his books have been translated into other languages.]