The LSD Research of Stanislav Grof
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The popularization of LSD attributed notoriety to the names of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, among others. But Stanislav Grof is one of the most important figures in the development of an intentional and informed field of spiritual and psychological research inspired by the experiences of LSD. Before the time of the Harvard psychedelic club, Grof was a student of Professor George Roubicek at Charles University in Prague. Roubicek had requested a shipment of LSD-25 from Switzerland’s Sandoz Laboratories after reading a study on its potential medical uses. Grof decided to work with Roubicek on LSD research. This academic decision proved to be the most influential on the trajectory of Grof’s research into non-ordinary states of consciousness. Under Roubicek, Grof had his first experience with LSD, which he later described as “a powerful mystical experience that radically changed my personal and professional life.”
Grof continued with his research under Roubicek and graduated in 1960. Shortly after, he began work at Prague’s Psychiatric Research Institute. The more Grof studied the psychological effects of LSD, the more convinced he became that the existing academic psychology was much too narrow in its frameworks –it lacked the ability to process and interpret the incredible potential for self-understanding present in those non-ordinary states of consciousness. The reason for this shortcoming, Grof explains, had its roots in the industrial and scientific revolutions that occurred in England over 300 years ago. The Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm placed immense focus on reason and rationality. While this framework of thought thrived in the physics world, it may have hindered the field of psychology. In much of modern Western culture, non-ordinary states of consciousness have been pathologized without comprehensive inquiry into the enormous introspective and universal information they provide access to. With this new conviction in mind, Grof gravitated to an idea first posed by Carl Jung. Jung had inferred “the existence of non-material archetypal-mythological realms that contain the entire histories, collective wisdom, and totemic icons of every civilization since the dawn of time.” This collective memory exists in a realm not accessible to us in an ordinary state of awareness. Grof believes that every single person is able to access these realms through the achievement of non-ordinary states. LSD provides a strong point of access to these spaces of infinite human knowledge. This is why psychology must make way for the amplification of its theoretical frameworks. Grof argues that the “deep experiential work” catalyzed by LSD and other access granting, non-ordinary states need to be studied in order to revise and extend the “cartography of the psyche that includes important domains” that are yet to be properly mapped.
Two years after completing his doctoral dissertation, titled “LSD and its use in Psychiatric Clinical Practice,” Grof relocated to the US to teach at the University of Maryland. It was 1968 when Grof was named chief researcher at Maryland Psychiatric center. There, he met other colleagues doing similar work with LSD and other psychedelics. In addition to his research in Maryland, Grof collaborated with researchers in California –founders of Humanistic Psychology, particularly Abraham Maslow. Like Grof, Maslow had come to the conclusion that traditional psychology was ill equipped to address the several possible forms of treatment introduced by LSD. Maslow was looking to revise his own branch of psychology with the help of Grof. Together with the members of the foundation of Humanistic Psychology, Grof and Maslow established the discipline of Transpersonal Psychology. Just at the time when Maslow and Grof began work on an institute for transpersonal psychology, the US government was beginning to shut down research on LSD. Nevertheless, Grof continued LSD research in California, which culminated in the publication of his 1975 book Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research. Despite the over-simplified anti-drug rhetoric ushered in by the Reagan administration, Grof published his next book, LSD Psychotherapy, in 1980. The book focused on Grof’s idea of transpersonal understanding of the psyche, discerning the Perinatal and Transpersonal psychedelic experiences as integral to “psycho-spiritual health.”
Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness
In order to grasp why Transpersonal Psychology is so integral to the field of psychology and psychotherapy –it may be necessary to understand what a non-ordinary state of consciousness is and the benefits one can glean from them. Grof describes non-ordinary states of consciousness as “essential to understanding ourselves, human nature, and reality.” A non-ordinary state can be characterized by intense changes is one’s senses and thus changes in perception. Thought processes are also re-routed and one may feel as if they are experiencing a death and subsequent re-birth, oneness with the universe, and experiences with mythological characters, deities, and demons.
There are tremendous emotional, psychological, and societal benefits to cull from states of non-ordinary consciousness. Going back to the perinatal and transpersonal aspects mentioned earlier, LSD facilitates access to the unconscious human collective in which a deeper understanding of one’s psyche occurs. This is important for psychological and emotional well-being. Grof asserts that the results of “processing and integrating the unconscious content of the perinatal into consciousness” changes one’s personality. The experience mitigates feelings of anger and aggression while promoting feelings of compassion. At the same time, one begins to see much more meaning and joy in everyday things including nature, music, and relationships. If more people could have access to guided LSD therapy, they’d have the opportunity to process their learning within the non-ordinary state. The most likely result would be happier, well-adjusted people, translating into a happy society.
Perinatal and Transpersonal Realms
LSD opened up new fields of study by highlighting the existence of new worlds of consciousness. Grof’s research into the state of consciousness prompted by LSD and other non-ordinary states is fascinating and intriguing and serves as an incredible argument for the responsible use of quality controlled LSD in research into the immense information stored in our collective human unconscious. Grof explains that the perinatal realm is characterized by experiences of, or around, the time of birth. Modern psychology is focused on post-natal, biographical details to seek healing. The existing paradigm is based on the Freudian idea of the individual unconscious. However, experiences on LSD have proved that there is a “reservoir of collective unconscious” which stores “information about the entire cultural history of humanity.” Grof asserts that the Freudian approach excludes the healing power of the perinatal access point into the massive collective realm. In the perinatal experience, one may feel as a fetus trapped within the womb. This re-lived experience may conjure symbolic imagery that causes one to relate to people throughout the history of humankind that have been imprisoned or tortured. While this sounds like it might be terrifying, the value in it cannot be dismissed. The healing potential of relating to human suffering on a mass, historical scale is astounding. There is a richness of compassion and understanding to draw from this realm.
The transpersonal or archetypal realm occurs following the perinatal experience. It is characterized by interactions with personages from the collective human realm. For example, one may experience connections with cultures and civilizations that one has never studied before on a cognitive level. One has the opportunity to experience different time periods in human history or relate to characters of the mythological realm that symbolize certain aspects of the human condition. In this way, the person on a guided LSD experience gains access to information and knowledge that one would know little or nothing about in an ordinary state of awareness.
A New Model
The discovery of this collective human unconscious begs for the revision of the current model of psychology. It must be amplified significantly to include a model of the psyche that integrates the vast dimensions of human consciousness. Once this work begins, further investigation can be done into psychosomatic disorders –illness that manifests itself physically, but is rooted in a spiritual and psychological ailment. It may also radically improve our understanding and efficiency of the healing process by inspiring a smarter strategy of self-exploration that translates into both spiritual and physical healing. Spirituality will no longer be reduced to an after-thought of psychological health, but be a main focus point upon which wholeness depends on. Furthermore, Grof cites a necessary change in the entire philosophy of Western science that would include the role of human consciousness and the relationship between our consciousness and our brains.
Modern Western culture discerns itself as the only civilization to pathologize non-ordinary states of consciousness. Past and present cultures around the world have placed great value on states of consciousness that give way to the collective human realm. LSD provides one strong connection to the collective reservoir of human wisdom. However, Grof has developed and emphasized different ways of reaching those states. Perhaps his most known strategy is Holotropic breathing, which is meant to recreate the lack of oxygen that occurs when one is scaling a tall mountain. Other cultures and civilizations have long standing practices meant to shift consciousness. Examples include trance-inducing music and dancing, yoga, prayer, meditation, sensory deprivation, fasting, among other things. The common thread is that they all place one in a non-ordinary conscious state –thus giving access to the collective realm. These practices are the result of great time and effort invested in the desire to understand these conscious states. Stanislav Grof’s research into LSD and other access-granting substances and practices make for the strongest argument for a new psychology –amplified to match the vast territory of our minds.