PART 1: THE POLITICS OF PSYCHOLOGY
A Holotropic Experience
So she stays. In a shorter time than she could ever have imagined, she has been carried beyond the crisis and is feeling safe again. She renews her focus on the breathing, trying to increase its rate and depth the way she was instructed.
After a period of time, she finds herself looking at scenes from her recent past. Without even realizing it, she finds herself weeping as she thinks about her former situation with the husband she is in the process of divorcing. She feels a sad and stifling heaviness about those thirty years and her attachment to him. Alternately, it is scenes of her schizophrenic son that fill up her mind's eye; tears stream down her cheeks as she feels that same heaviness about her attachment to him.
Sorrow overwhelms her as she thinks about the way her existence seems to have been diffused into all the others around her—even, the scene is played before her, into her dear and now deceased daughter—leaving nothing for her. She feels that the major theme in her entire life experience has been heaviness . . . attachment, heaviness, and sadness.
This goes on for some time, with different scenes taking their turns in her mind. Visions of her mother and scenes from her early childhood make their way before her. Throughout them all, there is the thread of heaviness, the theme of darkness and dissolution. There she is, standing and watching as her mother leaves her to make a living in the big city, having arranged for her to be left in the care of her grandmother. She feels a part of her left with her mother that day. She remembers her father's sudden death; and then, with sobs, remembers some of those good times with him on their sailing adventures. She feels that part of her also had died and been taken away.
And through it all there is the music—now driving, now carrying her along . . . providing a peg-rack to hang every memory . . . seeming to fit exactly every nuance of feeling.
At some point further along, however, she feels herself climbing up a dark hill. She reaches its crest eventually, and, suddenly, it is all different. She feels that a huge weight has been lifted from her. Before her mind's eye there looms an enormous and fantastic sun, surrounded by rainbows. The effect is simply exhilarating.
But this also changes after a while. Now she finds herself floating in space, floating free in the universe. To her immense delight she flashes on the realization that she is ONE, that she is no longer attached! She realizes with joy that she is no longer diffused into those heavy experiences; no longer lost in those heavy relationships. She feels free, strong and singular, for the first time in her life.
The music seems to reflect these changes also. Now it is distinctively uplifting; its pulsing and solitary tones seem to wash through her, then to suspend and rock her in that vastness of empty and uncluttered space. The knowledge that she is one and not many remains with her, deepening in her consciousness. She feels radiant and blissful; a Buddha-like child-smile models her face for a long time, even after the music has stopped and people around her are beginning to get up and make their way into the other room where drawing materials await.
Later, when she also draws her experience in a "mandala" circle outlined on a large sheet of paper, she colors in a bright white dove-like figure with wings outstretched rising up, as it seems, with the half below it in darkness, the half above it all in light. And only later again, after sharing her picture with the group and talking about its meaning for her, does she recall that she was a Caesarian birth . . . and that the same pattern of being lifted from the darkness and pain of the womb into the light of the world had been re-enacted in several other significant incidents in her life.
When it is all over she is truly in awe and reverence for the whole process of life. And she feels deeply connected to these other wonderful dozen-odd workshop participants who have, it seems, been magically put there to share this aspect of life's mystery with her. *
The preceding account is from an actual experience of a woman in her mid-50s who participated in a weekend holotropic breathwork workshop in the Bay Area. Although this one experience by a self-described "recovering co-dependant" cannot reflect the diversity of experiences that were had by the dozen people in that workshop, it contains some elements that are typical. Of significance is the pattern of encountering and feeling through layers of unpleasant feelings and memories before coming to rest in underlying positive feelings of a more benign and pleasant, indeed blissful and uplifting, nature. It is usual for participants to report that they are left with feelings of openness, warmth, and connectedness to the world of humans and nature; with a sense of forgiveness for oneself and others; with renewed motivation for service to others and for seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts in one's life; with keen appreciation for life and for the living; and very often with feelings of connection also with a positive spiritual force or higher power that represents such qualities.
I will return to the political implications of this pattern later.
Presently, I wish to point out that this method is at one and the same
time a method of psychological growth, a means of spiritual and philosophical
quest, and a highly effective technique for healing neurotic, as well as
to some extent psychotic, psychopathology. And it is the latter mode especially—its
"psychiatric" use—that has potentially revolutionary political implications.
Politics of Psychology
It should be admitted at this point that societies have always sought to limit diversity for collective ends and, correspondingly, have used various forms of mind-control. But a cross-cultural review reveals that this practice has become increasingly insistent with the "advance" of civilization. The fact is that simpler cultures, specifically hunter-gatherer ones, were more tolerant of individual differences. We know, for example, that they were able to fashion roles for some members, who, if they lived in modern society, would undoubtedly be "put away." Shamans are the traditional example of this.
But this is not to say that hunter-gatherer peoples were just nicer
and more tolerant types than their modern successors. There were specific
economic factors that came into play here. With the amount of daily work
required for survival averaging a mere four hours, this "original leisure
society" no doubt had its advantages over the pressure-cooker complexity
of contemporary societies. Having the run of the forest, so to speak, and
so much spare time for personal, creative, or playful pursuits, it is easy
to imagine them with more congenial attitudes toward each other.
Freudian Mind-FuckI have previously noted the effects that the change in this way of life—specifically, the introduction of horticulture—has had upon our idyllic beginnings. The increasing mistrust and corresponding rise in attempts to control Nature, exemplified by the "agrarian revolution," brought drudgery, separation of humans from each other, repression, and authoritarian personality modes along with its seeming benefits in terms of security.
Yet it is with regret that I must credit Freud (1961) for being the first to point out much of the reasoned exposition of the effects of civilization on human consciousness in his Civilization and Its Discontents.3 I say I regret this because I deplore the superficiality of Freud's psychoanalysis and I regret the uses to which he and his followers applied his insights. Most relevantly, I feel that it is unfortunate that he concluded from his analysis that the repression (oppression?) of individuals and of societies was/is necessary.
Freud was a poor anthropologist and partook of much of the misinformation
concerning non-literate peoples that abounded in his day. He did not understand
hunter-gatherer cultures the way anthropologists have come to, so he concluded
that humans were basically beasts who had barely scraped their way to rise
up above what would naturally be a "savage" way of life. He saw the "beast"
in humans and it never occurred to him that it might be a product
of repression rather than a reason for repression. And this is all
rather unfortunate. For societies—and psychiatrists—that see human nature
as basically beastly will have ready justification for mind control . .
. at all costs!
New WindsBut a new wind is sweeping our conceptions of human nature. In politics we see its manifestations as empowerment of the individual and giving a voice to all sectors. The feeling that goes with this is a trust that in an ideal world all individuals, no matter how different, have something to share, rather something to add to the common good.
In psychology we see this in the form of new ways of viewing human personality, psychology, and psychopathology . . . and new ways of "healing."
Part One Notes
2. See especially Peter R. Breggin, Toxic Psychiatry (1991); R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (1967); and Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) and Insanity: The Idea and Its Consequences (1987).
Part One References
Freud, Sigmund. (1961). Civilization and Its Discontents: Standard Edition. New York: W. W. Norton.
Laing, Ronald D. (1967). The Politics of Experience. New York: Pantheon Books.
Szasz, Thomas. (1961). The Myth of Mental Illness. New York: Harper & Row.
Szasz, Thomas. (1987). Insanity: The Idea and Its Consequences. New York: Wiley.
PART 2: REVOLUTIONARY TECHNIQUES AND SOCIETAL RESISTANCE
It is interesting to me that many will have read that last sentence and flashed "LSD!"—the last such phenomenon of such import. Yet, though I am not speaking of LSD, this phenomenon is directly rooted in the LSD research of those recent decades.
In fact this has to do with the premier world researcher of LSD for therapeutic and consciousness expansion purposes and the non-drug modality, called holotropic breathwork, he has developed and is making increasingly available at comparatively low—hence revolutionary—cost.
Stanislav Grof (1988) writes,
Primal RevolutionAnd yes I know, we have heard this before. It smacks of a sales pitch. And for some of us it is highly reminiscent of the claims of one particular growth technique of the early 70s. That was primal therapy—often and derogatorily referred to as "Janov's primal scream therapy."1
But you see, primal therapy did in fact live up to much of its claims for many of us who experienced it. As expressed in the songs of the rock group, Tears for Fears, and those of John Lennon—whose two renowned albums, "Mother" and "Imagine" were written during that time when he and Yoko were going through primal therapy—this therapy did, and does, represent a revolutionary and effective challenge to the dominant insanity of our culture and, specifically, to its out-dated concepts about normality, psychopathology, and wellness.
In fact, it can be said that a great deal of the adverse publicity that was targeted at Primal—which created the derogatory popular misconception—was a direct result of the very real threat it posed to mainstream psychologists, psychiatrists, academics, and the cultural and economic institutions that spread out from them. Beyond that, it was/is a modality that requires a huge commitment from its participants; and its claims were somewhat overstated, although not extremely so. Finally, Janov made a great number of political blunders in presenting and promoting his technique.
I mention all of this because it appears that Grof's modality—though
it is in many ways identical to primal therapy in its process and its effects—does
not partake of some of primal therapy's major drawbacks. For example, it
dispenses with the huge time and money commitment that characterized primal
therapy. This alone, for a technique of consciousness expansion, has revolutionary
implications because it means it can be shared by the masses. In addition,
however, Grof has made some shrewd and correct political decisions in his
presentation of it.
Stanislav Grof was one of the first people to receive and experience the new drug from Sandoz—LSD—back in 1956 while working in the psychiatric department of the Charles School of Medicine in Prague in his native Czechoslovakia. He was immediately impressed with its potential and soon found his way into a position at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague where he was able to conduct a research project on its use with patients suffering from various forms of psychiatric disorders.
This research led him to a personal crisis in which he was forced to acknowledge the relative ineffectiveness and superficiality of his psychoanalytic concepts and training. As he later wrote,
By the time he was offered an invitation to do research at the Maryland Psychiatric Center in Catonsville in the mid-60s, he had accumulated detailed records of a thousand LSD sessions conducted for therapeutic purposes, as well as of a number conducted with artists, scientists, mental health professionals and philosophers for purposes having to do with facilitating problem solving, gaining a deeper understanding of the mind, or enhancing creativity.
In subsequent years he deepened his theories, based upon what had become the records of over four thousand LSD sessions while doing psychedelic research in Maryland and later as the first scholar-in-residence at Esalen. It was when, due to the mass hysteria surrounding the popular use of psychedelics, all research on any positive potentials of LSD was outlawed, that Stanislav Grof began his search to develop a non-drug modality that would have the same kind of powerful therapeutic and consciousness-expanding effects.
The technique he settled upon, which combined a rebirthing-style
or hyperventilation-type of breathing with evocative music, bodywork, and
art, he called holotropic from Greek roots meaning "wholeness" and
"moving towards." At around this time, he also remarried. Together he and
Christina developed and refined this modality in workshops that they co-led
around the world as well as at Esalen.
Christina Grof decided to help create a network that could be used to support these people through their crises in a way that would not interrupt the natural healing process. Thus, the Spiritual Emergency Network was born. To date, SEN has over 1,100 "helpers," receives about 150 phone calls monthly from individuals seeking help, and has a mailing list numbering over 10,000. And it is growing.2
Now, it is exactly here that we see one revolutionary implication of this movement. Authoritarian cultures tend to use authoritarian treatment modalities, which have more to do with controlling undesirable behavior (undesirable to those in power) than with fostering wellness in any essential sense. Thus, what has happened is that normal psychological healing crises—they are also called spiritual emergencies—have been labeled psychopathology and have been responded to with all kinds of coercive measures: from the mild extreme of authoritarian talk therapy and "counseling" (back into agreement with the "normal" consensus) to the brutal extreme of forcible drugging, electroshock, and even brain surgery to remove or neutralize the "undesirable" and "troublesome" parts of the brain and personality.
Relating to the milder, "talking," form of coercion, we have Grof's (1988) words:
Societal Resistances and Traps
And Western society's traditional tool of resistance to such natural unfoldment has been the psychiatric profession.
The fact that Grof was a member of just such a cadre of professional mind police, and that he was fully credentialed in that respect, but is now working against this system, makes his efforts all the more credible, hence influential in our society. I might also point out that, unlike Arthur Janov who provoked a similar movement in the early 70s,3 Grof is being careful in his truth-telling to not unduly antagonize his opposition. He has also so far successfully avoided media traps that would attempt to set him and his technique up for humiliation and ridicule and thus cripple the spread of his techniques to where they are needed. Veteran psychedelic researchers learn to be this wary.
Part Two Notes
2. For help with spiritual emergencies: Spiritual Emergence Network, 5905 Soquel Drive, Suite 650, Soquel, CA 95073; phone (408) 464-8261.
3. See, for example, Arthur Janov, The Primal Revolution: Toward a Real World (1972).
Part Two References
Hannig, Paul. (1982). Feeling People: A Revolutionary Concept in Therapy, Lifestyle and Human Contact. Winter Park, FL: Anna Publishing Inc.
Janov, Arthur. (1970). The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy, The Cure for Neurosis. New York: Dell.
Janov, Arthur. (1972). The Primal Revolution: Toward a Real World. New York: Simon & Schuster.
PART 3: REVOLUTIONARY IMPLICATIONS OF PRENATAL RE-EXPERIENCE
Also, since the carrier of the process is the music, a great deal of individual attention is not required. People can be treated in groups, which, although for practical purposes are usually kept between 10 and 30, have sometimes, with a sufficient number of assistants, extended into the hundreds.
A typical hour with a psychiatrist or psychologist costs between eighty and 150 dollars, and such treatments are usually required on a weekly basis for a time period lasting very often into the years. Consider that, for an amount of money which is about the same or only slightly higher than the cost of one such hour, a person can participate in an entire weekend intensive with much greater therapeutic potential and which may need to be repeated only monthly, one more time, or not at all.
In addition, I am excited by a development wherein clients are taking it into their own hands and, in at least one instance of which I am aware, are conducting their own intensives for themselves at absolutely no cost to anyone.
This is made possible by the fact that the therapeutic aspects of the modality—specifically the breathing and the music—release natural healing mechanisms and processes that are built in to our psyche. Once these processes are accessed, a facilitator's role is to a great extent extraneous and may even, as mentioned above, be counter-productive.
Thus, this technique combines an effectiveness much greater than mere verbal "education" (which is essentially trying to "inform" people and to persuade them into acting like good little politically correct boys and girls) with minimal requisite professional involvement. The upshot is a huge reduction in the time and money required for individuals to make significant leaps in consciousness evolution. If it is true, as many of us feel, that only a massive raising of consciousness—a quantum leap in consciousness evolution of our species—will save us from global disaster, it may be just such a technique combining maximal effectiveness and cost-effective applicability to the masses that will be required.
Another revolutionary aspect of this phenomenon is its "alternative" character. Although many of the currently certified couple hundred facilitators are credentialed mental health professionals of one sort or other, the fact that this technique is not legally considered "psychotherapy" means that all do not have to be. This is an interestingly ironic way in which holotropic has taken advantage of its exclusion from mainstream psychiatry; ironic because it is, in my opinion, one of the two or three most powerful and effective psychotherapeutic tools available today.
Luckily, it is also much more than that and can partake of the benefits of being classified an "educational," philosophical, spiritual, or growth technique or modality. Not being just for "sick" people, facilitators can be trained in it and can provide it without fear of legal repercussions concerning improper licensing or credentials. The implications are that, as long as the law remains the same, holotropic breathwork is an avenue of service available for those well-intentioned souls who would wish to bypass the mainstream's traditional training route with its accompanying brainwashing, coercion into ineffective and system maintaining techniques, financial hardships, and time requirements.
The Grofs run their own ongoing intensive training program producing
alternative healers; now three hundred plus and growing.1 It
represents an independent alternative "psychiatric" and healing system
that, along with the Spiritual Emergence Network, can be accessed by those
who would wish to break free from the autocratic brave new world of the
dominant culture into the alternative system which, for earth's sake, must
But there is another hope . . . subtler and harder to explain but perhaps even more revolutionary in the long run. I have pointed out that holotropic brings with it an alternative "psychiatric" system and its greater choice and greater chance of freedom from psychiatric and cultural oppression. I have noted the increase of awareness, individualism, and connection to human values with their concomitant increase in political assertiveness that follows from holotropic experiences. And what follows also from them is an increase of freedom from the misery and oppressiveness of our cultural conditioning, which makes possible healthier alternatives. But more importantly than all, in holotropic there exists the hope for a solution to our global threat in its facilitation of a radical and comprehensive shift in our very attitude to ourselves, our neighbors, to nature, and to the entire world in which we find ourselves.
We have long suspected that something of this radical nature needs to happen if our planet is to survive. What I am suggesting is that, in my opinion, Grof has traced our collective problem to its deepest biographical roots, providing both an understanding and, more importantly, a hope for fundamentally changing and eradicating it. The key lies in his discovery that the vast majority of us live our lives out of depressive and aggressive feelings rooted in a traumatic birth experience which is unique to our species and which, like so many other things, is exacerbated in its damaging effects by a modern technological culture. Further, the solution is suggested in the fact that healing this birth trauma opens one up to a prior template, a more fundamental one, in which the individual faces the world from a perspective of interdependence, nurturance, cooperation, and lovingness—all of which have huge political and environmental implications.
As Grof (1988) wrote,
Freud saw this as human nature, as mentioned above. What we have found out, and what Grof proves and asserts to us, is that this is neither our inevitable state nor our natural one. He is proving that our very human nature—at its earliest inceptions, that is, before birth—is in fact cooperative and interdependent with nature and the whole of humanity. No doubt this positive human state is covered over by traumatic and hurtful birth and socialization experiences which are conducive to the negativity we so often observe . . . but it can be retrieved! Unfortunately, this retrieval requires feeling it, experiencing our way back to it, not just talking about it, thinking about it, willing or wanting or even making affirmations about it in order to really bring about this fundamental shift back to our basic nature. But when we do,
The above changes are accompanied by the spontaneous emergence of deep ecological consciousness and awareness. . . . The new values and attitudes reflect the symbiotic experience of the fetus with the mother during prenatal existence and during nursing. Synergistic, mutually nourishing, and complementary aspects of this situation tend to replace automatically the competitive and exploitative emphasis of the old value system. The concept of human existence as a life-and-death struggle for survival in a world governed by the law of the jungle gives way to a new image of life as a manifestation of a cosmic dance or a divine play.
The level of aggression decreases considerably and the sense of connection and fundamental unity with the world leads to sexual, political, national, cultural, and racial tolerance. In the new context, differences are not threatening any more. They are seen as interesting and desirable variations of the one undivided cosmic web. This new vision of the world often leads to "voluntary simplicity" in Duane Elgin's sense . . . that is now seen as an expression of profound wisdom. It also becomes obvious that the only hope for a political, social, and economic solution of the current global crisis can come from a transpersonal perspective that transcends the hopeless us-versus-them psychology. . . . (Grof, 1988, pp. 262-263)
I hope it is clear now how effective and how potentially revolutionary this technique is. However, it remains to be seen if this technique will be used in any degree approaching the extent of its potential. People still have to choose this path of empowerment over the traditional one, which is one wherein they can remain dependant and helpless. Some people, it seems, are just so beaten down and brainwashed that they could never make the initial effort required to begin the process. The system has instilled too much fear in them for it to be possible for them to think of alternatives, let alone to risk "going against the stream" in actually choosing them.
Then there is the problem that many people, even if they do make an empowering effort, tend to find it much easier struggling to change the reflections of themselves that they see in the world than to take a good look inside. They refuse to acknowledge that the imperfections they see are contained also inside of them and must fundamentally be addressed there as well as on the outside. It is as if there is an insecurity that causes one to be afraid to acknowledge that one also has "problems," has psychological work to do and issues to deal with.
Fortunately, this kind of "activist machismo" is more prevalent in the past than currently. Indeed, what I have observed in very recent years is a tendency for the inner and outer ways to begin acknowledging each other's importance. From my roots in the therapeutic communities I have heard outcries and affirmations of the need to bring what we know and our energies into the society at large and into direct action at altering the societal machinery accordingly. And what I am picking up from my roots in the activist communities is a greater and greater awareness of the need to balance outer with inner work and to trace the roots of injustice deeply into oneself and to eradicate it there. This represents a coming together, a merging of two movements, two swellings of truth upon the planet. The combined force for real and revolutionary change can only be stronger because of it.
Part Three Note
Part Three Reference
Copyright © 1992 by Mickel Adzema
Mickel is a Primal Breathwork facilitator whose
experience in primal therapy, rebirthing, and holotropic breathwork extend
over three decades. He combines this focus on psychological growth
with an equally long-standing interest and involvement in mysticism, shamanism,
and the anthropology and philosophy of consciousness; and he has written
extensively on the relation of psychology and spirituality. He is the founder
of SSILLY God Ventures and is the webmaster of this site and the editor
of the magazine, Primal Spirit, as well as of the journal, Primal
Renaissance: The Journal of Primal Psychology. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 1348,
Guerneville, CA 95446-1348; phone (707) 869-9008.
Comments? E-mail me by clicking on: email@example.com Mickel Adzema
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