Psychedelic Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Stanislav Grof

On July 1, 2021, the famous Czech psychedelic researcher, Stanislav Grof, turned 90 years old and was honored with a Festschrift which is a collection of essays written by colleagues, former students and friends that are a tribute to his groundbreaking and profoundly influential work with psychedelics and consciousness research. Psyche Unbound: Essays in Honor of Stanislav Grof was published by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in January 2022 and is a beautiful book that expresses the depth of appreciation for the wide-ranging, paradigm-challenging contributions this rare human being has made to our understanding of the parameters of consciousness and psychological healing processes. In the Introduction to Psyche Unbound, editors Richard Tarnas and Sean Kelly write that Grof was raised in, “that traditional Central European cultural milieu that has so often brought forth extraordinarily cultured polymaths who are as at home in Wagner and Mozart as in the Upanishads and the Tao Te Ching, in Greek myth as in contemporary physics, and who knows ten languages ancient and modern.” That description captures part of the genius that is Stan Grof because he truly is a Renaissance man that is a walking repository of knowledge and is the kind of gifted orator and writer that can express that knowledge in a clear, compelling manner for the betterment of all of us.


“That description captures part of the genius that is Stan Grof because he truly is a Renaissance man that is a walking repository of knowledge and is the kind of gifted orator and writer that can express that knowledge in a clear, compelling manner for the betterment of all of us.”

Introduction to Grof, Early Work

The first time I heard the name Stanislav Grof was in a graduate psychology classroom at West Georgia College around 1989 from a male student who had been to California and had studied under Grof. By that time, I had become deeply interested in psychedelic medicine but was unfamiliar with his work and this led me to seek out and read Grof’s seminal 1975 book, Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. This book was a detailed overview of his years working with LSD in both Czechoslovakia and later the United States and Grof was trying to make sense of what he had observed from working with hundreds of patients under the influence of LSD. Starting in the mid-1950s in Prague, Grof studied the effects of LSD on psychiatrists, psychologists, artists and psychiatric patients diagnosed with a range of neuroses including many that were severely mentally ill. In 1967 he came to the United States and worked in various psychedelic studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Research Unit of Spring Grove Hospital in Baltimore, MD until 1973 when he became Scholar-in-Residence at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA. It was during this time at Esalen that he was able to reflect upon and synthesize what he had learned in his years of psychedelic research. One issue Grof had to grapple with was that the experiences patients were reporting under the influence of LSD could not be explained or understood from the accepted tenets of Western science and medicine.


“One issue Grof had to grapple with was that the experiences patients were reporting under the influence of LSD could not be explained or understood from the accepted tenets of Western science and medicine.”

Grof Works Continues, Four Levels, Basic Perinatal Matrices

Grof was able to conceive of a larger and more inclusive cartography of the unconscious that offered a framework for understanding the vast array of strange and often intensely frightening and enlightening psychological experiences that were important and necessary components of the patient’s individualized healing process. Grof divided the unconscious into four levels: the sensory, biographical, perinatal and transpersonal. The sensory level was often the first an LSD patient experienced and was thought to be the most superficial and consisted of sounds, colors, and geometric shapes and patterns which did not really hold any symbolic or personal significance to the patient. Beyond this was the biographical level and this consisted of relevant memories in the patient’s life since birth that could be traumatic and/or positive and interestingly were deeply influencing the patient’s neuroses and psychopathologies. LSD seemed to not only recall these memories but patients found themselves experientially reliving these memories and through the reliving, they were able to somehow rid themselves of the subsequent dysfunctional influence of these memories. Beyond this was the perinatal (“around birth”) level and Grof believed that the birth trauma provided a template for understanding not only how human experience is organized in the unconscious but that experiences from birth may contain the roots of many of our deepest human struggles.


Grof observed that at some point during LSD psychotherapy sessions, there were patients reporting reliving memories of their birth, experiences in the womb and, in some cases, their own conception. He divided the perinatal level into four Basic Perinatal Matrices and each reflects a stage in the birth process as well as each stage’s concomitant psychological/emotional experiences. Basic Perinatal Matrix I or BPM I is where the baby is in the mother’s womb and under healthy circumstances, this is a time where all the needs of the developing baby are being met by the mother and it is a time of “oceanic oneness” with the mother. BPM II is when labor begins and contractions push the baby against the mother’s still closed cervix and the baby experiences the closing, intense pressure and a feeling of no escape and antagonism with the mother. As labor progresses, BPM III consists of moving into the birth canal where sensations are most intense and painful and Grof viewed this as related to an encounter with impending death. Finally, BPM IV is when the child emerges from the birth canal into light and expansiveness and this is related to the death/rebirth experience. Together these BPMs provide a template for organizing human experiences and that oftentimes in LSD psychotherapy a patient may find that the roots of their psychological struggles ultimately lead them to some aspect of their own perinatal experiences.


“Together these BPMs provide a template for organizing human experiences and that oftentimes in LSD psychotherapy a patient may find that the roots of their psychological struggles ultimately lead them to some aspect of their own perinatal experiences.”

The Transpersonal

Typically, once an LSD patient had worked through the relevant material in their biographical and perinatal levels, Grof noted that patients progressed to an entirely different level of the unconscious, the transpersonal. Transpersonal means “beyond ego” and transpersonal experiences can transcend time, space and cultural identifications and can include out-of-body experiences, past life experiences, extra-sensory perception, ancestral memories, remote viewing and many other experiences that cannot be explained by Western science. However, there is an accompanying felt sense of truth in these experiences that make them self-validating to the person experiencing them and Grof believed that it was entirely possible that the roots of some of his patient’s psychopathologies could be found in the transpersonal realms of the unconscious. While there were elements of Freud’s psychodynamic theories borne out in the biographical level of the unconscious, the transpersonal level most closely echoed some of Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious and Grof noted that experiences of a transpersonal nature during LSD psychotherapy could result in dramatic resolution of previously intractable psychopathologies.


Grof was fascinated by the transpersonal experiences his patients would report in the context of their work with LSD and on occasion he reports being able to corroborate certain perinatal experiences or transpersonal experiences. I remember reading about one case from his research in Prague where an LSD patient reportedly found themself at one point floating in a place where they were aware of spirits or disembodied energies around them and one in particular tried to communicate. This spirit identified himself by name and asked the patient to contact his mother to let her know that he was OK and gave the patient a name and a phone number. Grof writes that he later decided somewhat hesitantly to call the number and when a woman answered, Grof gave her the message and she became very emotional and reported that her son by the same name had earlier been killed in an accident. There were other incidents where patients reported what felt like past-life memories and the historical details they reported were astoundingly accurate and not something these patients would likely have knowledge of previous to their LSD experience.


“There were other incidents where patients reported what felt like past-life memories and the historical details they reported were astoundingly accurate and not something these patients would likely have knowledge of previous to their LSD experience.”

Dr. Turpin at CIIS, Student of Dr. Grof

When I was living in Marin County, CA in the 1990s, my doctoral training at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) was like a dream realized along the trajectory of my graduate education. As an undergraduate in the psychology department at the University of Georgia, I would take my psychedelically-inspired questions to my professors and they would shake their heads and cluck that this strange and unfortunate interest in psychedelics would not lead to a respectable position in professional psychology. When I was in the MA psychology program at West Georgia College there were professors like Mike Arons, Chris Aanstoos and Raymond Moody that were willing to entertain discussions on these topics and for that I am grateful. I took a Gestalt psychology class at West Georgia from June Blewett who had studied under Fritz Perls and when I attended a class party, I found myself face-to-face with her husband, Duncan Blewett, the famed Canadian psychedelic researcher who wrote the groundbreaking manual with Nick Chwelos in 1959, “Handbook for the Therapeutic Use of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25: Individual and Group Procedures.” He told me stories from his days in Canada treating alcoholics with LSD and that psychedelics were to psychology what the microscope was to biology which further emboldened me to stay on this path. That conversation and a later conversation with psychologist and psychedelic researcher Stanley Krippner convinced me to go to CIIS for my doctoral training. At the time, Jerry Garcia was still alive and the prospect of training in the Bay Area and getting to see the Grateful Dead a dozen or so times per year made CIIS incredibly attractive. The Dean of Academics at CIIS at the time was the psychologist Ralph Metzner who had been Timothy Leary’s research partner and this was, of course, another positive sign.

While at CIIS, I was able to attend classes that were taught by Stan Grof and was once invited to a memorable lunch in San Francisco with Grof and a few older graduate students that were friends. His classes always had full attendance and Grof would walk in and his presence would immediately be felt and for the next few hours he would own the room although there was not a shred of ego or arrogance in his demeanor or his treatment of his students. He would stand and lecture effortlessly in this seriously scientific-sounding Slavic accent and cadence while seamlessly weaving in his astounding knowledge of Eastern philosophy, Egyptian mythology, Jungian and Freudian psychology, the arts, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, quantum physics, anthropology, you name it, he knew a lot about it. The man was a walking encyclopedia and not once did he ever lecture with notes. The only other person I had ever seen lecture like that off the top of his head was the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell who was likely cut from the same intellectual cloth as Stan Grof. Another thing I will never forget is that when it came time for class breaks, most of the female students in the class descended upon Grof and kept him occupied during the breaks with answering questions and listening to their life stories. Stan Grof was Rico Suave long before the guy that sang “Rico Suave” was even born.


“He would stand and lecture effortlessly in this seriously scientific-sounding Slavic accent and cadence while seamlessly weaving in his astounding knowledge of Eastern philosophy, Egyptian mythology, Jungian and Freudian psychology, the arts, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, quantum physics, anthropology, you name it, he knew a lot about it.”

Holotropic Breathwork

By 1976, it was impossible to continue studying psychedelics due to reactive and repressive laws that shut down legitimate avenues of research (while doing nothing to curb the riskier black-market use). While at Esalen, Grof and his late wife Christina developed a non-drug method for accessing the deep levels of the unconscious that they called Holotropic Breathwork. “Holotropic” comes from the Greek “holos” which means whole and “trepein” which means to move toward so the word means to move toward wholeness. The technique involves lying on a mat and quickening and controlling breathing patterns while listening to evocative music that can include drumming, chanting, droning, and meditative music. The work is usually done in group settings and in pairs with one person being the “breather” and the other person being the “sitter.” Following a session of breathing, the breather then creates a mandala as a symbolic representation of their session as a tool for integration and then there is a group sharing where mandalas can be shown and continued integration can happen in a safe and supportive environment.


In 2017, I was in the second cohort of CIIS’ Certificate in Psychedelic Therapy and Research program and we were scheduled for a weekend retreat in Sonoma County, CA to learn and experience Holotropic Breathwork. I had not pursued any training in Holotropic Breathwork because I worried that it was just a “poor man’s LSD” but during that weekend, I learned how wrong I had been and that this was a legitimate tool for deep exploring of oneself. We were a group of about 40 and we were in pairs in this large room and for the morning session, I chose to be the sitter for my partner who already had some breathwork experience. Within about 3-5 minutes of the breathing and music starting, I was astounded to hear all this moaning and sobbing throughout the room as these professional physicians, psychologists, nurses, and therapists seemed to be going through some dramatic abreaction. My own experience was more intense than I expected and the insights generated from that session convinced me that Stan Grof had indeed found a way to continue the work of consciousness exploration and deep healing through non-drug means.


One of the greatest impressions that Grof’s work with psychedelics made on me was the fact that when one works with patients using a powerful psychedelic as a catalyst, one needs to be ready to accept and deal with almost infinite possibilities in the patient’s experience. There was also a chance that the patient could get worse before they get better but acceptance of the patient’s unique inner journey was paramount because Grof believed that there was an inner healing intelligence that was directing the patient’s experience and the job of the therapist was mainly to provide a safe container and a trusting, supportive presence. This concept of the wise inner healer and psychedelics allowing the patient to access their own internal resources to heal is a central tenet that guides the current trainings for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy whether it is with MDMA. psilocybin, or ketamine.


“This concept of the wise inner healer and psychedelics allowing the patient to access their own internal resources to heal is a central tenet that guides the current trainings for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy whether it is with MDMA. psilocybin, or ketamine.”

Conclusion

Stan Grof is the greatest living psychedelic researcher in the world and his life’s work has introduced countless seekers to psychedelics and depth psychology and inspired many researchers to follow the psychedelic path which has resulted in great contributions to our understanding of how to wisely use these compounds as medicines for healing and growth. In May 2020, Grof and his wife Brigitte founded Grof Legacy Training to offer specialized training to a new generation of teachers interested in properly presenting Grof’s ideas and work to the world. Grof and his work has rightfully earned him a spot in the pantheon of the great thinkers of history along with Albert Einstein, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, and Carl Jung. He was a major inspiration for my own path and he richly deserves to be respected by future generations as one of the true heavyweights of psychedelic medicine and consciousness research.


“Grof and his work has rightfully earned him a spot in the pantheon of the great thinkers of history along with Albert Einstein, Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, and Carl Jung. He was a major inspiration for my own path and he richly deserves to be respected by future generations as one of the true heavyweights of psychedelic medicine and consciousness research.”

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