Stanislav Grof on Adventures in Non-ordinary Reality

Our understanding of the transformative power of ayahuasca continues to be enriched from many sources.
Recently we've turned our attention to discoveries in the field of transpersonal psychology, looking at the range of experiences that open us to numenal or imaginal realms for healing, deep learning, and spiritual awakening. Ayahuasca, known as both "the Teacher" and "el doctore", is considered by many in the field to be the most powerful of these means.

Stanislav Grof, MDAn Interview with Stanislav Grof, M.D., on Transpersonal Psychology and the Meaning of Psychedelic Experience

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.: Thu, Mar 31st 2011

To listen to the audio recording, follow this link to:

Dr. Grof, a psychiatrist, transpersonal theorist and noted researcher of psychedelic experience, first encountered LSD as a young doctor working in Prague when the Sandoz company asked him to see if the compound had any psychiatric utility. Personal and research experience with LSD and its effects (including visual hallucinations, pre-natal and transpersonal memory and expansive, disembodied consciousness) profoundly changed his worldview away from the mainstream mechanistic view to a vision of the universe as essentially conscious. He began to recognize the reality of perinatal and prenatal memories and the transpersonal/archetypal realm (as first identified by Jung). He researched the use of psychedelic drugs as therapeutic tools and yielded positive results with reports of long lasting pain remission across varied populations. Later, when psychedelic research became outlawed, he developed alternative techniques for accessing transpersonal experiences including holotropic breathwork. In his understanding, the transpersonal is not a fantasy brought on by a feverish mind but rather a reality which is normally not accessible to ordinary consciousness due to defensive mechanisms which can be bypassed in a variety of ways including but not limited to the use of psychedelics. He believes that naturally occurring forms of transpersonal experience, including some aspects of psychosis, are not pathological but rather represent the emergence of the transpersonal into the realm of the ordinary. He is careful to suggest however that psychosis is still quite pathological when the subject of psychosis loses all objectivity and becomes truly paranoid. Grof further counsels that though it is seductively easy to view transpersonal experience as an oracle to be followed blindly, this is not a good idea. It is better to wait to make life-changing decisions until the immediacy and magic of the transpersonal has worn off and the experience can be reflected upon rationally.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

Stanislav Grof, M.D., is a psychiatrist with more than 50 years of experience in research of non-ordinary states of consciousness. In the past, he was principal investigator in a psychedelic research program at the Psychiatrist Research Institute in Prague, Czechoslovakia; Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center; Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; and Scholar-in-Residence at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

Currently he is Professor of Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and conducts professional training programs in holotropic breathwork and transpersonal psychology, and gives lectures and seminars worldwide. He's one of the founders and chief theoreticians of transpersonal psychology and the founding president of the International Transpersonal Association.

On October 5th of 2007, he was granted the prestigious VISION 97 award from the Vaclav and Dagmar Havel Foundation in Prague. Among his publications are over 150 articles in professional journals and his books,Beyond the Brain, LSD Psychotherapy, The Cosmic Game, Psychology of the Future, The Ultimate Journey, When the Impossible Happens, and Holotropic Breathwork.

Now, here's the interview.

Dr. Stanislav Grof, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Stanislav Grof: Thank you very much for having me. It's a real pleasure.

David: Well, it's an honor for me. I've known about your work for a long time, so it's really great to have this opportunity to speak with you. In fact, I remember you giving a presentation at Sonoma State when I was a young professor there, and I think I also remember being at I think it was an AHP, Association of Humanistic Psychology, conference while I was still a graduate student, and I was attending some presentation, and you were in the audience, and you spoke up to protest something that the speaker was saying, but I don't remember what it was.

Stanislav Grof: Do you remember where it was?

David: I don't for sure. I remember one important one was in Silver Spring, Maryland. I wonder if you were at that one. That's going way back.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah, very likely because I used to work in the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center.

David: That's right, so that is very likely.

Stanislav Grof: Catonsville, which is the outskirts of Baltimore.

David: Yes. Now, my own doctoral dissertation was on altered states of consciousness, and you're one of the prime movers in that area, and so we've been travelling in overlapping worlds. As I was reading your book, I was recognizing so many names of people that either I knew of or knew to some degree. And I've been greatly enjoying reading your 2000 book, When the Impossible Happens, in part because I either know or know of most of the people you mention there. And as a result of reading that book, I feel like I know you even though we've never actually met.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah, that's my personal book, most self-revealing, and maybe in places self-incriminating. It has a very interesting history because I wrote it after our house in Mill Valley burned down.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Stanislav Grof: With my entire reference library, so it became difficult to write the kind of books that I used to, where you need to refer to work of others and sort of quote passages and so on. And so I decided to write a book of personal memories, where I didn't need any reference library, or very little.

David: Well, I'm glad you did, because that's what, really, I found very compelling and charming about the book. The full title of the book is When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-ordinary Reality, and so as you point out, is really a kind of memoir. It's a perfect title, I have to say, and what an extraordinary life and career you've had.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah, well, the reason I gave it this title is because I focused specifically on stories or things that we have seen that we have experienced over the years that should be in principle impossible if the universe were the way it has been described by materialistic science.

David: Right.

Stanislav Grof: So there's a whole about third of the book on extremely unusual synchronicities.

David: Yeah, and I loved that part. I found it a very compelling read. For me, it helps that the chapters are short, and that it's so personal and so autobiographical. And I marvel that you can remember all the details of so many rich encounters. I have trouble remembering the title of the movie I saw yesterday. Have you been keeping a journal all these years? Were you able to refer to a journal or some document like that?

Stanislav Grof: Well, some of the things were already written up. I had good memory.

David: Good for you.

Stanislav Grof: What you are describing is more happening to me now, the kind of a recent memory. I will be 80 this year in July.

David: Well, congratulations.

Stanislav Grof: So this is the time when the recent memory doesn't work as well, but I still remember old things.

David: Well, you certainly do, and I'm so glad that you did. One of the other things that makes it easy for me to identify with you is that throughout the book you're struggling with the skepticism engendered by your scientific training and the succession of mind-blowing experiences that keep forcing you to go beyond the traditional scientific paradigm. And I've had a similar struggle over my career, but I haven't broken out to the degree that you've managed to do.

Stanislav Grof: Well, I think I had the major struggle in the first years, when I started working with LSD and I was seeing and experiencing things that my colleagues thought were crazy. They didn't sort of believe those were possible, and so I had to learn not to talk about it and just sort of work quietly until I convinced myself and was open to the possibility that these big authorities were wrong. If you are a medical student or you're a kind of a greenhorn psychiatrist, you have a lot of respect to academic positions and titles and people who have written books and so on. It's very, very difficult to trust your own judgment as compared to this overwhelming body of professional literature.

David: Yes, I really understand that. Well, you've mentioned LSD, and the adventure in your book and in your life really starts with your experiments with LSD in your native Prague, where it was entirely legal at the time. Maybe you can tell us a bit about your personal experience with LSD - I know you go into some detail in the book - and then how that became a professional focus for you as a psychiatrist.

Stanislav Grof: Well, I came to study medicine explicitly to become a psychiatrist - actually psychoanalyst. It happened after having read Freud. And fairly quickly, I developed a kind of disenchantment with psychoanalysis. Initially, it was mostly the practice and the results that you get - free associating on the couch - but then very quickly it became clear that the theory itself was very superficial. Not that it was inaccurate, but it was describing a relatively superficial level of the psyche and mistaking it for the whole. You know Freud has that very famous simile of the iceberg when he discovered the individual unconscious, and he said what we thought the psyche was is just the tip of the iceberg. And now psychoanalysis is discovering the nine-tenths of the iceberg that we didn't know about.

And then when you start using psychedelics or other forms of non-ordinary states like things that happen in holotropic breathwork and shamanic ritual, even in what we call spiritual emergencies, which is spontaneous episodes of these states, then you have to change this image and say whatever classical psychoanalysis discovered about the psyche is just the tip of the iceberg, and the rest remained hidden even for Freud. Or if he was aware of it, he was trying to reduce it to this model limited to postnatal biography and to the individual unconscious. And having struggled with his own students, his own followers, who were trying to extend it, like Otto Rank going into the realm of birth, and particularly Carl Gustav Jung going into the collective unconscious.

David: Right. Now, even on your very first LSD experience, you went into - you had an experience that kind of blew apart all of the traditional structures and really took you off into the realms of both Otto Rank and Jung. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about that experience.

Stanislav Grof: Well, the first experience happened when I was a beginning psychiatrist in 1956. And this was the time when I was becoming disenchanted with psychoanalysis, and we were finishing a large study of Mellaril, which was one of the early tranquilizers, and that came from Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company in Switzerland, in Basel.

So we had a very good working relationship with Sandoz, and as part of this cooperation we got a box full of ampoules, and we looked at it and says LSD 25. And a letter came with it describing the story that this incredibly powerful substance was discovered by and synthesized by Dr. Albert Hoffman, who was working with different ergot alkaloids. Ergot is a rye fungus parasite. And so this was number 25 - 25th derivative of lysergic acid, which is the basic alkaloid in LSD.

And in 1943, when he was synthesizing actually the second sample of LSD, he started having this powerful experience that lasted over two hours, and he thought initially that he was going crazy. And then when he came back, thinking there had to be some better explanation and came up with the idea that maybe somehow he intoxicated himself as he was working with the substance, although until I think his death he didn't quite understand how it happened.

David: He didn't actually ingest it. He didn't swallow any of it.

Stanislav Grof: No, no, no. He was this very meticulous Swiss professor. When you synthesize new drugs, you work with gloves, and you don't lick your fingers to see -

David: Right.

Stanislav Grof: At one point, he maybe touched his eye that was itching, and maybe that was enough for the drug to be absorbed by the conjunctival sac. But anyway, so this sample came from Sandoz with the story, and they asked us if we would like to work with it and give them feedback if there was any use in psychology and psychiatry for the substance.

And on the basis of a pilot study which was conducted in Zurich by Dr. Stoll, they suggested two possible uses. One was to give it to "healthy" people and do all kinds of examinations before, during, and after - you know, psychological tests, biochemical tests, electrophysiological tests, and so on - and find out what's happening in the body when the psyche of people is so profoundly influenced. So it's always great to have a model, experimental psychosis and so on.

But then there was a second tape which kind of became my destiny, and it said that they felt also that maybe this could be used as a kind of unconventional teaching tool for psychologists, for psychiatrists, for students, for nurses, where they would have a chance to spend several hours in the world that seemed to be very much like the world of some of their patients.

And so I was in that situation where I was really disappointed with psychiatry. I was questioning whether I should have even gone that direction; I initially wanted to work in animated movies. So I became an early volunteer, and this is where I had this really transforming experience. Now, what happened is that my preceptor who got the substance was very interested in electroencephalography, and so everybody who wanted to have this experience had to agree to have EEG before, during, and after.

But anyway, at that time he was particularly interested in what's called driving the brainwaves or training the brainwaves, which means exposing people to different frequencies of stroboscopic light and then picking up the record in the sub occipital cortex and finding out if the frequency of the brainwaves in that area could be influenced by what you're feeding in; if the brainwaves sort of pick up the incoming frequencies. So we also had to agree to have our brainwaves driven.

David: So you really got a double whammy not only of LSD, but also of this brain driving approach.

Stanislav Grof: Very, very powerful flashing stroboscopic light that was sort of set on different frequencies. And so the first part of the session had basically two levels: one was a very beautiful kind of esthetic display, unbelievably gorgeous geometrical patterns like stained glass windows in Gothic cathedrals, or arabesques, or kaleidoscopic displays. Today I believe that I saw fractal images - it was those fractals actually.

David: Yes.

Stanislav Grof: And then it sort of opened into my biography, and I got some very, very powerful experiences from childhood that I was not able to get at in situations where LSD was not involved.

David: So you were sort of at a Freudian level at that point.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah, that was like profound sort of accelerated or deepened psychoanalysis. But then when the strobe came, that just catapulted my consciousness out of my body. I lost the research assistant, the clinic Prague, and then the planet, and I had the feeling that my consciousness now didn't have any more boundaries. I sort of became the whole universe. I became kind of nothing and everything at the same time. And this research assistant, as this was happening, was following the protocol, taking it up to 60 hertz and then taking it down, leaving it in the middle of the alpha range, then the beta range, the alpha range, and beta range, and delta range, and then turning it off. And then my universe started sort of shrinking again, and I was able to find my body, but for a while I was disembodied consciousness kind of floating around my body, and I couldn't get those two together.

And this is where it became so obvious to me that what they had taught me at the university, namely that consciousness is the product of matter - that's it an epiphenomenon, that it somehow emerges out of the complexity of the neurophysiological processes in the brain - simply was not true; that consciousness was something much more basic, much more fundamental. I could actually understand how you create the experience of material world as a virtual reality through this orchestration of experiences, but I certainly couldn't accept that something like matter could generate consciousness. The gap was just so, so profound. And so coming down, I decided that this is going to be my professional interest, passion, vocation. This is what I want to explore, these non-ordinary states.

David: And certainly within the world of psychology and psychiatry, you were a pioneer setting out on that course. Today, there are people from a lot of disciplines that really support what you just said: as consciousness being primary and what we call reality being the epiphenomenon, if you will.

Stanislav Grof: Yes, well, I'm aware of that. Yeah, very exciting.

David: It is exciting.

Stanislav Grof: The other exciting thing is that after decades now, the academic circles are returning to psychedelic research. I don't know if you're aware of that. There are now at least six U.S. universities returning to psychedelic projects.

David: I was aware of some of that work. I didn't know that it's as many as six.

Stanislav Grof: Well, it's Harvard, it's UCLA, Johns Hopkins, it's UCSF, SUNI, the University of Arizona - they all have projects. Several of them actually are repeating the work that we did with dying cancer patients.

David: Well, that's great. As a matter of fact, I wanted to move on to that. You later immigrated to the U.S., and you were able to legally engage for a while in LSD research in this country, so tell us a bit about that period and disorders. For example, you mentioned cancer research. What were you exploring in terms of LSD treatment?

Stanislav Grof: Well, when I was in Prague, you know this was a kind of a pilot study. I don't know if you can imagine what it was when this powerful tool fell into our lap, and we had absolutely no idea where it's going to take us. Every day was an adventure, both in our own sessions and in sessions of our clients. But what we were doing there were sort of sessions where we used medium dosages of LSD and some other psychedelics, but a whole, long series of sessions. So one of my clients called it the onion peeling of the unconscious.

And this is where I got a really good possibility to map the psyche on levels that had not been done before, a cartography of the psyche that is being used in psychology and psychiatry - which is limited to postnatal biography and the individual unconscious - by adding what I call perinatal level, which is related to the stages of birth and then what we now call the transpersonal. Vast area that shows a lot of overlap with the Jungian collective unconscious, both archetypal and historical.

Now, this was very fascinating in terms of exploring the psyche, but it turned out not to be the most powerful therapeutic strategy, and when I came to the United States, to Spring Grove State Hospital and the Maryland Psychiatrist Research Center in Catonsville, which is basically Baltimore, we were using a different approach, which is high doses from 300 to 600 micrograms. The sessions were strictly internalized, keeping the eyes closed the whole time, and using powerful evocative music.

And we had several large projects. One was project with alcoholics from the alcoholic rehabilitation unit, kind of what's called a skid row variety - really, really difficult patients. We had one study of narcotic drug addicts in prison. We had a large group of neurotic patients, and then we had two fascinating studies. One was for mental health professionals, where we could give up to three sessions - psychiatrists, psychologists, people who do pastoral counseling, social workers, and so on - so that they get deeper insights into the unconscious.

David: Yes, one of my office mates for many years was a graduate of one of those three-session experiences.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah?

David: Yeah, and it certainly changed his life.

Stanislav Grof: And then finally we had this probably the most moving project, which was psychedelic sessions with terminal cancer patients, where we had the opportunity to see how their emotional suffering, but also the fear of death, was kind of profoundly influenced by mystical experiences with psychedelics. And in many instances pain, even pain that was not responding to narcotics, disappeared or was alleviated greatly, not just for the time of the affect of LSD, but sometimes for several weeks.

So this was quite an extraordinary study which is now being repeated in several universities, only they use psilocybin, which is the active principle of the magic mushrooms of the Mazatec Indians, very similar to LSD but has the advantage that it does not have all the bad publicity that LSD got in the '60s.

David: Right. So I gather with the different clinical populations that you worked with - the alcoholics, the drug addicts, and you mentioned the cancer patients - you saw promise there for effective treatment. Is that right?

Stanislav Grof: Oh, very definitely. I mean it's a very, very powerful tool, but it's important to emphasize that it is a tool, which means the results actually don't depend just on the substance itself but what we call set and setting - I mean who gives it to whom, under what circumstances, how you structure this experiment, how you prepare people, what kind of safeguards you build into the session, creating a supportive environment, the follow-up work and so on. And if this is done, then it's a very powerful and relatively safe approach.

David: In your book, you mention two key figures in relation to LSD: Albert Hoffman, who you mentioned here, its discoverer; and you also mention kind of in passing Ram Dass, who had been Richard Alpert, who along with Timothy Leary ended up having to leave Harvard. One person you don't mention, though, is Timothy Leary. What's your take on him? On the whole, do you think he moved the cause of consciousness forward or backward?

Stanislav Grof: Well, what he did, he proselytized LSD somewhat - not somewhat. [4 second audio break] …was promising people that trillions of the cells in their body will be singing the song of ecstasy and didn't tell them that before you go to heaven, you might also go to hell; basically sort of like anybody can take it under any circumstances. I talked to him at one point, and he said, "It's an accelerator of karma. If you have a good karma, you're fine; if you have a bad karma, bad news."

So on the one hand, he sort of brought it to the attention of the culture, but at the same time, it very effectively stopped legitimate research, and I was very sad that we lost in psychiatry what, without any question, is the most promising tool in using therapeutic experiences, causing positive transformation. I believe it's even an evolutionary tool and amazing heuristic tool, which means it's like a microscope or a telescope. I believe that properly used, psychedelics could have the function for psychiatry and psychology that the microscope has for biology or the telescope for astronomers, that you can sort of study processes that under normal circumstances are not available for observation.

David: Yes. Well, once LSD research became illegal, you developed holotropic breathwork, which has been a major focus of your work for the past 40 years or so. How did you get from LSD to holotropic breathwork as an alternative technique for inducing an altered state of consciousness?

Stanislav Grof: It was 1973. I was at the Maryland Psychiatrist Research Center. I was chief of psychiatrist research, heading this psychiatric research that was happening there, and getting to the point where I had enormous amount of data, both from Prague and from this Maryland research, and it was becoming more and more difficult to get the permission, to get the funds. There was all this bad publicity. And at one point I was approached by several publishers in a month, offering me advance royalties to write a book on LSD or on psychedelics, because LSD was now making headlines and we were the only group that was legitimately, officially researching LSD. And so I decided to take a year off and write a couple of books. I got an advance from Viking Press from this.

And at that time, I went to a party in New York City, and there was Michael Murphy there, whom I met in 1965 during my visit to Esalen. He is the co-founder of the Esalen Institute, very avant garde sort of a growth center. And he said, "What are you doing these days, Stan?" And I said, "Well, I've actually just got this advance royalty to write a couple of books." And Michael said, "Why don't you come to Esalen? Esalen is a beautiful place to write books. It's sitting right on the Pacific Ocean; it has hot springs; there are whales passing by; there are Monarch butterflies flying." He said, "We'll give you a house, and you'll do workshops for us and get food."

David: Yeah, what an opportunity.

Stanislav Grof: "We'll trade." And I said, "Incredible. Sounds fantastic." So I went to Esalen, and within a year I got so attached to California and to Esalen and to the Pacific, that I couldn't imagine going back to Baltimore. So I was doing these workshops at Esalen and other places, basically talking about the research that we had done. And there were always people who were very dissatisfied in those groups. He says, "Well, we are hearing about all these fantastic experiences, but can't we do something?" And of course I didn't have the permission, the license, to use it outside, and it was just too tricky to do it illegally.

So I remembered some observations from psychedelic research where people in Prague, when like my clients were coming down from the sessions unresolved, and we started doing a certain kind of bodywork that initially the clients actually asked for. For example, a person would be very angry and have a pain in their shoulder, and they asked, "Could you put pressure there? Could you massage it?" And then when we were doing it, they started growling and coughing and shaking, and we did it for a while, and they ended up relaxed in a good place. Or there was nausea, and when we sort of worked on the stomach, projectile vomiting came. And so I was doing this to kind of achieve better resolution, better integration of the sessions.

And during this work several patients started spontaneously breathing faster. It was called psychotic breathing, or in siddha yoga this is known as Bhastrika. You begin your meditation by 10 minutes of faster breathing. But these patients did it spontaneously, and they were telling me that the faster breathing took them back into the session. The drug was already wearing off, and when they started breathing faster, suddenly they were like in the middle of their session.

So I knew that breathing can do something with the unconscious material, that it lowers the defenses and that you get access to some of the content of the unconscious. Then I met Christina, my wife, at Esalen, who was a yoga teacher, and so we started experimenting with breathing, and then ultimately it developed into holotropic breathwork.

David: Well, I had one brief exposure to holotropic breathwork. I'm in a men's group and one of our members, who's also a therapist, I guess had been in a holotropic workshop, and he led us through an experience. And I found it to be powerful, but I really felt like I had experienced the sensations associated with hyperventilation. And I'd sort of dismissed it at some level as "merely" hyperventilation, but you spend some time refuting that criticism in one of your books on holotropic breathing. The book is titled Holotropic Breathwork, and I don't want to spend a lot of time on this right now, but maybe you can briefly take us through the main points of your rebuttal that it is "merely" hyperventilation.

Stanislav Grof: Can you be more specific?

David: Well, if I had come to you and I said, "Well, I think this is just hyperventilation," you'd say, "No, it's more than that." What would your argument be?

Stanislav Grof: Well, what it's basically about, it's not about breathing versus psychedelics and so on. It's about the relationship between the unconscious content and what we call the defenses, the psychological defenses. So we carry a lot of material from prenatal time, from our birth, from infancy, from childhood, and it goes even deeper into the collective unconscious karmic records and so on. And a lot of this material has sort of painful emotions, difficult emotions, associated with it, or even trapped physical energies associated with it. And there's a sort of a spontaneous healing movement in the psyche.

The psyche is trying to bring this to the surface for processing, but we are kind of defended against it. There are these defense mechanisms that prevent that from happening. And many people do it successfully, so they never sort of are bothered by what's happening in their unconscious. For other people the defenses are not so strong, and it can come into dreams and give them difficult, challenging dreams. And then there are a lot of these methods, shamanic techniques, the techniques that the native cultures are using in rites of passage, the different spiritual practices and so on, psychedelics, and certainly breathing techniques.

David: And also Wilhelm Reich probably needs to be mentioned as well.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah. Reich was a therapist who was the first one to start experimenting with both breathing and bodywork, unlike Freud who didn't want to touch people, who wanted to just work with free associations and verbal communications. So anyway, this is about what the relationship is between this unconscious material and the defense system. I mean how powerful the emotions are associated with the unconscious material, how close to the surface, how available this material is, and how strong the defenses are. And these different techniques, which we call uncovering techniques, they have a tendency to change this relationship, either by giving a boost to the unconscious so it overrides the defenses or weakening the defenses so that the unconscious material can emerge.

And various methods using breathing have been used like since time immemorial as part of spiritual practices, as part of shamanic practices, rites of passage, mystery religions and so on.

David: Okay, I want to go back to your fascinating book, When the Impossible Happens, and as you mentioned, the first section of the book has a number of short chapters on synchronicity - synchronicity, of course, being Jung's term for coincidences that are too coincidental to be coincidental. And the first section of your book, as I say, has a number of short chapters on synchronicities, each telling the story of some odds-defying series of synchronicities in your past.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah, you should also say that Jung, in his essay on synchronicity, actually distinguishes these extraordinary coincidences from synchronicity. What's characteristic for synchronicity is that it seems that the psyche is entering into a kind of a playful interaction with the material world, where something happens in your dream or in your visions, and then the material world kind of plays it out. Let's say you have a powerful shamanic experience involving an owl, and you walk out after the session and there is an owl or a wounded owl and so on.

David: And that kind of thing happens, right?

Stanislav Grof: Yeah, so there are other things which are coincidences. He mentions this Austrian biologist Kammerer, who first noticed that, who had the same number emerge five times during one day. One was a theater ticket; one was the number of the street car; one was a telephone number that he'd gotten. So those are unusual coincidences. But in synchronicity it involves the intrapsychic and the what we call the objective reality creating gestalts.

David: So part of what the distinction between the two, then, is meaningfulness, right? That it's not just a coincidence, but there's some kind of very meaningful connection with -

Stanislav Grof: Meaningful connection, yes.

David: Yes. Do you have your own theory of synchronicity? Or has it expanded for you beyond what Jung said?

Stanislav Grof: What synchronicities show us is that we don't live in a world where everything can be understood through linear causality - chains of causes and effects. That there are other levels, other dimensions, that are very likely superordinated to these, that form and inform. So the concept of archetypes that Jung has - very similar to the Platonic ideas - is that it's a domain. There is a [unclear] type of forms, and that they somehow shape or influence what it is we can perceive through our senses in everyday consciousness.

So if you have two synchronistic events, you don't find connection that would involve linear causality - which means horizontal - but they seem to be both influenced from above. Like there is event A and B. There's a meaningful connection, but you cannot explain it, but then you discover that there is a point C on a higher level that kind of informs both A and B. So it shows the existence of normally invisible but very important dimensions of reality.

David: For me, the most striking story was your chapter about a remarkable chain of synchronicities leading up to your first marriage to anthropologist Joan Halifax, and there were so many amazing synchronicities that you felt that the marriage was being blessed by the gods. And yet you later concluded that it was quite the opposite.

And I guess I've always been enamored with synchronicity. There have been some periods of my life, one in particular, where I experienced an amazing run of synchronicities. And I think in one of my podcasts I was going on about the wonderfulness of synchronicity, and I got an email from a Jungian listener chiding me, warning me that synchronicity is not always a good thing, and I sort of resented this listener raining on my parade, on my enthusiasm.

But after reading your account of your wedding to Joan Halifax, I think for the first time I could see what the listener was trying to get across to me. I still have difficulty not thinking synchronicity is a sign that I'm on the path. Would you say that maybe it's the archetype of the Trickster at work when it comes out that that's not the case? Because you talked about the playfulness of synchronicity.

Stanislav Grof: Yeah, well, that's one possibility. You know Jung talks a lot about the archetype of the Trickster. But the other thing is that my experiences taught me that you don't act when these kinds of things are happening, when you are in this world that seems to be magical. You wait until you have your feet on the ground when you can sort of think straight about what happened. And this applies particularly to something like psychedelic sessions when it is happening and you're really in an intense non-ordinary state. Like we had agreement with our clients, for example, that for two weeks after the session, they would not make any significant decisions in their life - getting a divorce or getting married or having a child or giving away their money.

David: Right.

Stanislav Grof: So the synchronicity will show you. I mean what will remain, no matter what the outcome is, is this understanding that there's more to the world than you thought.

David: Um-hmm, right.

Stanislav Grof: You discover there's sort of this other dimensions and so on. But I don't think that it always can be trusted as a guiding principle in your life; that you also have to at least sort of balance it with rational judgment. I mean we actually allowed ourselves to be guided by certain synchronicities, as you see in another story where I talk about going to Prague and trying to organize the conference of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology, and suddenly, by this amazing synchronicity, getting instant access to the president of the country and his brother, who was a scientist eminently interested in having this conference in Prague.

You know I was sitting there, not having been there for 20 years, not having any connections, not knowing where to start, and the bell rang, and there was a colleague of mine, a psychiatrist younger than me, with whom I did some psychedelic sessions, and he also was sitting for me. And he said, "I heard that you were here, and so I'm going to say hello. And by the way, as I was walking out of my apartment, the phone rang and there was Ivan Havel," who was this brother of the president. And they just had had a Russian scientist "who in his lecture mentioned you, and they're interested in connecting with you. And Ivan knew that we were colleagues, and so he was calling me, asking me how to get in touch with you." And this Thomas, this friend of mine, said, "Well, Stan is actually in Prague and I am just on my way to his apartment." So within 10 minutes of being in the apartment of my mother and thinking about what to do, where do I start, suddenly it just happened.

David: Yeah, people talk about "putting it out to the universe," and sometimes that sort of thing just happens. On the other hand, you have the extreme - I don't know what your take on it is, but there's that whole phenomenon of a book or a film called The Secret, that seems to suggest that all you have to do is intensely wish for things and they'll happen.

Stanislav Grof: Well, I know the affirmations and so on.

David: Yeah.

Stanislav Grof: I don't think it's a reliable method of running your life.

David: Right.

Stanislav Grof: And I can imagine synchronicities when sometimes would happen.

David: So you're not really the wild-eyed person of LSD experience that some people might imagine, because I'm hearing your sober judgment and assessment coming through on all of these issues. But both your -

Stanislav Grof: On the other hand, I learned some of those things the hard way, because in these non-ordinary states you can get carried away. But if you learn from experience, you learn the limits of this tool, and you learn how to use it responsibly and safely.

David: Both your LSD experience and your holotropic work have forced you to accept some rather unconventional ideas, and one is the notion of birth memories and even prenatal memories. What pushed you past your own skepticism in relation to these two phenomena?

Stanislav Grof: Well, it was mostly my experiences. As long as I saw it in clients, I was using my educated brain and I was trying to explain it away.

David: Yeah, you can rationalize it.

Stanislav Grof: When I had the experiences and knew how authentic they were, then I accepted it for myself, and then from that new position I looked at the literature, and I couldn't believe the medical profession, that there is the belief that there could not be a memory of birth because the cortex is not myelinized. It means that the neurons of the brain of the newborn don't have the myelin sheath. Myelin is a kind of a fatty substance. That process is not completed, and this is given as a kind of authoritative reason why there couldn't be any record of birth.

And then I started seeing the unbelievable sort of logical errors which were made in that kind of an assumption. First of all, there is a general agreement among child psychiatrists, pediatricians and so on, that immediately after birth, the fetus is very receptive. Marshall Klaus, for example, has the concept of bonding, the idea that the exchange of looks between the fetus and the mother can shape the entire relationship, future relationship, between the mother and the child. There is a lot of research on the sensitivity of the fetus in the womb - people like Tomatis and so on.

So there is an acceptance of the fact that the fetus is very receptive and sensitive and conscious after birth and also before birth, but then somehow when these hours of a potentially life-threatening situation were happening, there was no consciousness; there was no awareness that something strange is happening. It's not recorded anywhere.

And then you can look further, and you realize that memory exists in organisms that don't have any cortex at all. Actually a number of years ago, the Nobel Prize was given to Eric Kandel, this Austrian-American researcher, for studying the memory mechanisms in a sea slug called Aplysia.

David: Oh, yeah.

Stanislav Grof: So those sea slugs have memories, but according to current psychiatry, a newborn does not have the memory or cannot have the memory of such an elemental process lasting for hours.

David: I've been seeing Eric Kandel on the Charlie Rose series on the brain, and I knew that he had won the Nobel Prize, but I didn't know what for. That's fascinating.

Stanislav Grof: So, at this point, I don't have any problems. I think the academic community has a problem. I think I would attribute it to the psychological repression; that the memory of that event is so scary, so frightening - when you see it when people are reliving it - that we just simply don't want to deal with it. We don't accept it, and we use our intellect to explain it away: this couldn't have been important; my cortex was not myelinized.

David: Well, in terms of memory, you go even farther back to what might be called genetic memories of ancestral events. Do I have that right?

Stanislav Grof: Yes. We have had experiences where people had memories of the events preceding their conception. For example, one of my clients had the experience of being her mother when her mother was five years old. In Stockholm, a Swedish workshop, there was a Finnish woman who experienced identification with her father in the Finnish/Russian war, which happened 13 years before she was conceived, and she gave an accurate description of that event in her father's life. And then the couple of instances that I mentioned where it goes way, way back - one to the beginnings of the 17th century, that had to do with the beginning of the war, the Thirty Year War, the battle in the White Mountain. And then another one that goes back to another client goes back to the time when Spain was in war with England during the time of Walter Raleigh. And those were experiences where we could actually get some independent confirmation of the veracity of the experience.

David: Yeah, and speaking of independent confirmation of veracity, towards the end of the book you also recount some experiences in relation to reincarnation and also psychic phenomena. We're running out of time, so I'm not going to move you into that area, but one thing I do want to touch on before we finish up here is that you also take an unconventional view of psychosis, preferring to speak of spiritual emergencies instead. Do you see all nonorganic psychoses as "spiritual emergencies," or just certain ones?

Stanislav Grof: No. I think it's a substantial number; it's a very large subgroup of those episodes that are today seen as psychosis which can be seen as crises of spiritual opening. You have to have the large cartography of the psyche, where the perinatal - which is the record of birth - and then also the transpersonal, the collective unconscious in its archetypal and historical aspect. Those are germane parts of the psyche. So what you see in these states is not generated in the brain by some pathological process, the way contemporary psychiatrists think, but it's a kind of material emerging, you see, from these domains of the psyche, which are genuine parts of the psyche but not normally available for conscious experience.

And that's a very different problem, you know. If you have a situation that somebody has to breathe faster for 45 minutes or take 200 micrograms of LSD to experience certain things, and there are other people who experience it without doing anything, it's a different problem than trying to explain how the contents themselves are generated. But the contents are the psyche per se; they are not some kind of pathological artifact.

David: How can you tell - if you're confronted with a person who's going through some kind of psychotic experience, how can you tell which is which? How can you tell the spiritual emergency from one that you would not characterize that way?

Stanislav Grof: Well, my wife Christina and I wrote a book called The Stormy Search for the Self, where we give the criteria that would somehow identify an individual who would qualify for being called being in spiritual crisis, being in a spiritual emergency, as compared to a situation that would still appear to be more on the side of the pathology. And a lot of it has to do with the ability of the patient to see it as an inner process as compared to, let's say, a paranoid person who doesn't own it and attributes it to anything from the neighbor to Mafia to Martians and so on.

The other important thing is that people in spiritual emergency would have experiences that we see daily in groups of normal people elicited by faster breathing. For example, reliving some episodes from childhood, going through powerful experiences of psycho-spiritual death and rebirth, reliving their birth, having prenatal experiences, experiencing archetypal beings and archetypal realms, having past-life experiences. All those are normal constituents of the psyche; the unusual thing only that now they are sort of coming to the surface, which they usually don't.

David: Okay. Well, I think we need to wind down at this point. There's so much more that we could touch upon and say. I will be sure to - in my post-interview commentary - to give your web addresses, so you don't need to worry about that. But I wonder, as we close down, is there anything else that you'd like to say?

Stanislav Grof: There are two. One of them is the basically the business address where people can find about the workshops and so on. That's the But I would particularly like to mention my personal website, which is my full name,, where they can find a lot of papers, a lot of interviews. There's a whole picture archive, the history of transpersonal movement. So that's more a website where they would find new material if they don't want to go further in the kind of areas that we have been talking about.

David: And I will put links to both of those in the show notes. Dr. Stanislav Grof, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.

Stanislav Grof: Well, again, thank you very much for having me. There's nothing like to have a really intelligent and informed interviewer.

David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Stanislav Grof. I recognize that it's a departure from most of the other interviews on this series and may not be everyone's cup of tea, so to speak. Whatever your reaction to various specifics, though, I think it must be acknowledged that his fearless theoretical work integrates much of the thought of Sigmund Freud, Karl Jung, Otto Rank, and Wilhelm Reich, as well as the insights of shamanism and the perennial wisdom of a number of spiritual traditions across the world.

To sum it up, let me read a few paragraphs from the epilogue to his book, When the Impossible Happens: He writes:

"Over the last five decades, my professional observations and personal experiences along of the lines of the ones described in this book have seriously undermined the above worldview and made me question its basic metaphysical assumptions. Battling considerable intellectual resistance, I've gradually developed an entirely different understanding of the universe, of the psyche, and of human nature. This worldview resembles the systems of thought that Aldous Huxley called "perennial philosophy," particularly those of the great Eastern spiritual philosophies.

"In my current view of reality, consciousness represents a fundamental aspect of existence equal or possibly superordinated to matter rather than its accidental product. I now believe that the universe was created and is permeated by cosmic consciousness and superior creative intelligence on all its levels and in all its dimensions. The image of the cosmos as a giant super-machine with Newtonian characteristics consisting of separate building blocks gave way to a vision of a unified field, an organic whole, in which everything is meaningfully interconnected. I now see each individual human psyche as an integral part of the overall field of cosmic consciousness and essentially commensurate with it.

"More specifically, to understand the observations and experiences in holotropic states, I had to vastly expand the model currently used by traditional academic psychiatry and psychology. Thinking in terms of biology, physiology, postnatal biography, and the Freudian individual unconscious proved painfully inadequate for that purpose. The new map had to include - besides the postnatal, biographical level - two additional domains: the perinatal, related to the trauma of birth; and the transpersonal, comprising ancestral, racial, collective, and phylogenetic memories, karmic experiences, and archetypal dynamics.

"Radical changes occurred also in my thinking in regard to what traditional psychiatrists call psychopathology. I now see clearly that emotional and psychosomatic disorders that do not have an organic basis cannot be adequately explained from postnatal, biographical traumas in infancy, childhood and later life. The roots of these disorders reach much deeper to include significant contributions from the perinatal level and from the transpersonal domains.

"While the recognition of the depth of emotional and psychosomatic problems might at first seem very discouraging, it is more than balanced by the discovery of powerful new therapeutic mechanisms operating in the deep unconscious, associated with the reliving of birth, with past life experiences, experiences of cosmic unity, and many others."

So I'll leave it off there and if you're at all intrigued, I highly recommend his book, When the Impossible Happens.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

Links Relevant To This Podcast:

  • Dr. Grof wants people to know about two websites. One is, where people can find out about his clinicial workshops and training materials. The other is where he has archived many papers, interviews, photographs and documents having to do with the history of the transpersonal psychology movement.

  • Dr. Grof's book (highly recommended by Dr. Dave), When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Reality is available from