The Consciousness Research of Stanislav Grof : A Cosmic Portal Beyond Individuality
By Richard Yensen, Ph.D. and Donna A. Dryer, M.D., M.P.H.
©1998 Richard Yensen & Donna Dryer
Stanislav Grof began his research in Prague, Czechoslovakia, as a psychiatric resident, in the late 1950’s. His initial observations seemed to confirm and offer a laboratory proof for many of the basic tenets of Freudian psychoanalytic thought. At that time his conclusion was politically unsettling because psychoanalysis was repressed in the iron curtain countries. Forty years later the outcome of Grof’s continued research is a theoretical framework for understanding human consciousness. His theory has evolved into a wide-ranging description of the relationship between the individual ego and the cosmos. He uses empirical evidence from his clinical studies to boldly challenge accepted Western beliefs about the psyche and its relationship to physical reality.
In the United States the accounts of this research further inspired two psychologists, Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich to conclude that there was a spiritual dimension to human existence that transcended the limits of humanistic psychology. After a number of meetings with Grof, they joined with him to found transpersonal psychology, a new orientation toward research and practice. Transpersonal psychology became known as the fourth force in psychology following psychoanalysis, behaviorism and
Over the development of his career Grof has steadily moved from the reductionistic stance of psychoanalysis toward holism. He has come to re-evaluate some forms of mental illness as a crisis in spiritual evolution. His view of human development is holotropic: All individuals are moving toward wholeness. Grof’s psychology is teleological in the sense first introduced by Carl Jung: Our individual evolution can best be understood in terms of a trajectory that considers both where we have been and where we are going, rather than past history alone. Grof has applied these ideas to develop a new approach to psychotherapy and personal growth that he calls holotropic therapy. Grof’s initial work involved the use of the much maligned and controversial drug, LSD. Yet his theories were able to gain some measure of acceptance during a time when psychedelic drug research has been officially repressed.
Grof’s theoretical contributions are firmly grounded in the careful observation and scholarly description of clinical experiences with thousands of patients undergoing psychotherapy during the effects of psychedelic drugs. He holds that the effects of these drugs on consciousness resemble those of an amplifier or catalyst for the unconscious (Grof, 1976, p. 6). With this analogy he introduces the use of psychedelics as tools for the observation of psychological processes. His research attempts to
understand the dynamics of the unconscious mind, using LSD as an amplifier of unconscious mental processes. He does not use LSD as a drug that induces hallucinations or delirium(1), but rather as a cartographic tool to reveal and map the human psyche. Grof mirrors the conclusions of shamans across cultures and throughout history in his acceptance of psychedelic experience as not only valid, but
also as more useful or deeper than ordinary experience (Yensen, 1988; Yensen, 1989).
Grof was born in 1931 and raised in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He graduated from Charles University with an M.D. degree in 1956. Between 1956 and 1959 he specialized in psychiatry and trained in psychoanalysis between 1962 and 1967. He came to the United States in 1967 on a Foundations’ Fund for Research in Psychiatry Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. He joined the psychedelic research team at Spring Grove State Hospital and in 1969 was appointed Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. In 1973 he left his research and academic posts to become scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Dr. Grof has never returned to formal academic research, but continues to teach and write. He currently resides in Mill Valley, California.
(1) Psychedelic drugs are often called hallucinogens in Western scientific research and it is important to make clear the profound distinction that Grof makes. He does not regard these compounds as producing any kind of invariant “drug-effect” and he does not see them as producing simple hallucinations or delirium. He uses LSD the way a radiologist uses X-rays, an astronomer a telescope, or a biologist a microscope. The mental terrain exposed in LSD experiences he views as human consciousness, not a drug effect.
II. Grof’s Psychoanalytic Roots
Czechoslovakia is a country with a unique and tenuous relationship to the life and work of Sigmund Freud. In 1939 when the German army occupied Czechoslovakia, they confiscated and burned all psychoanalytic texts. Freud’s work was denounced as dangerous Jewish-Bolshevik propaganda. In the post-war years psychoanalytic literature slowly returned to the shelves of libraries. In 1948 the Communists took over and again banished psychoanalysis to special sections open only to Marxist critics of capitalist bourgeois propaganda. There was a lone Czech psychoanalyst who survived WW II. His survival and courage guaranteed that a small community of psychoanalysts would form in Prague. This group nurtured Grof’s development as a psychoanalyst. In fact the former president of the psychoanalytic society of Czechoslovakia analyzed Grof. The underground nature of this group kept the general populous ignorant of psychoanalytic ideas (Grof, 1976, p. 45).
III. Cultural Conditions in Prague and Preliminary Research
Grof’s theoretical framework developed through the combination of his unique gifts for observation and the opportunity he had in Prague to pursue repeated LSD sessions within long-term individual psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy. During the cold war, the fortuitous union of the rich intellectual tradition of Prague with socialized medicine in the Communist State created an opportunity. In Prague there existed respect for the autonomy of the individual physician, adequate physical facilities, positive staff attitudes, and sufficient funds to pursue a project that was apparently impossible elsewhere in the world. This project used LSD in an attempt to study the deepest roots of the human condition in a naturalistic way. The foundations of communist dogma were challenged by Grof’s conclusions about the nature of mystical experience and its relation to resolving intra-psychic conflict. No doubt this discord between his intellectual and professional evolution and the reigning ideology of the state made Grof reticent to publish his findings during this time.
Grof’s research began in 1956 when he joined an interdisciplinary team to conduct a comparative study involving a number of hallucinogenic drugs. The project was headed by M. Vojtêchovsky and was carried out in a number of coordinated research institutes in Prague-Kré. He worked at the Prague Psychiatric Research Institute in the Department for the Study of Psychogenic Disorders from 1960 to 1967. There his first study was with 72 patients who had a range of diagnoses from depressive disorders and psychoneuroses, psychosomatic diseases and character disorders to psychoses. He was using 100-200 micrograms of LSD in two to three drug assisted therapy sessions per patient. This was an initial descriptive research project into the determinants of the LSD reaction. It was a milestone study for Grof’s development since it allowed him to understand that LSD’s effects on consciousness are specific to
the unique personality of the subject and not due to an unspecified toxic psychosis or a simple drug effect. Only three patients actually improved as a result of this study, but a few continued on for up to eight sessions. This convinced Grof that repeated LSD sessions, rather than being simple repetitions of a drug state, allowed for a deeper unfolding of the layers of the unconscious mind (Grof, 1969a pp. 40-1).
IV. Observation of LSD Session Content and Phenomenology
In Czechoslovakia, Grof was able to conduct 1,600 LSD sessions himself2 and he had access to his colleagues’ reports3 on an additional 900 sessions. In order to be accepted into the study patients had to meet two criteria: 1) superior intelligence (which made possible clear verbal expression of inner experience) 2) a very poor prognosis with currently accepted forms of therapy. The poor prognosis morally justified the experimental treatment and its attendant risks. These patients received 100 to 400
micrograms of LSD in psychotherapy sessions at seven to fourteen day intervals (Grof, 1969a; Grof, 1976; Grof, 1980; Grof & Halifax, 1977). It is from this group of patients, some of whom received over 100 sessions, that Grof‘s most important observations are derived.
Grof first classified his massive observations of the subjective phenomenology of LSD experiences into four major experiential domains: A) abstract and aesthetic experiences. B) psychodynamic experiences C) perinatal experiences, and D) transpersonal experiences.