Holotropic Experiences and Their Healing and Heuristic Potential
The source of observations explored in this article has been long-term systematic study of what academic psychiatry calls 'altered' or 'non-ordinary states of consciousness.' The primary focus of this research was on experiences that represent a useful source of data about the human psyche and on those that have a healing, transformative, and evolutionary potential. For this purpose, the term 'non-ordinary states of consciousness' is too general; it includes a wide range of conditions that are not interesting or relevant from this point of view.
This article summarizes observations focusing on a large and important subgroup of non-ordinary states of consciousness for which contemporary psychiatry does not have a specific term. I have come to the conclusion that, because of their unique characteristics, they deserve to be distinguished from the rest and placed into a special category. For this reason, I coined for them the name holotropic. This composite word literally means "oriented toward wholeness" or "moving in the direction of wholeness" (from the Greek holos = whole and trepein = moving toward or in the direction of something). The full meaning of this term and the justification for its use will become clear later in this paper. This name suggests that in our everyday state of consciousness we are fragmented and identify with only a small fraction of who we really are.
Consciousness can be profoundly changed by a variety of pathological processes - by cerebral traumas, by intoxications with poisonous chemicals, by infections, or by degenerative and circulatory processes in the brain. Such conditions can result in profound mental changes that would be included in the broad category of 'non-ordinary states of consciousness'. However, they cause 'trivial deliria' or 'organic psychoses', states associated with general disorientation, impairment of intellect, and subsequent amnesia. These conditions are very important clinically, but are not of great interest for consciousness researchers.
In holotropic states, consciousness is changed qualitatively in a very profound and fundamental way, but it is not grossly impaired like in organic psychoses or trivial deliria. We experience invasion of other dimensions of existence that can be very intense and even overwhelming. However, at the same time, we typically remain fully oriented and do not completely lose touch with everyday reality. Holotropic states are characterized by a specific transformation of consciousness associated with dramatic perceptual changes in all sensory areas, intense and often unusual emotions, and profound alterations in the thought processes. They are also usually accompanied by a variety of intense psychosomatic manifestations and unconventional forms of behavior.
The content of holotropic states is often spiritual or mystical. We can experience sequences of psychological death and rebirth and a broad spectrum of transpersonal phenomena, such as feelings of union and identification with other people, nature, the universe, and God. We might uncover what seem to be memories from other incarnations, encounter powerful archetypal figures, communicate with discarnate beings, and visit numerous mythological landscapes. Our consciousness might separate from our body and yet retain its capacity to perceive the immediate environment and remote locations.
Western psychiatrists are aware of the existence of holotropic experiences but, because of their narrow conceptual framework limited to postnatal biography and the Freudian individual unconscious, they have no adequate explanation for them. They see them as pathological products of the brain, symptomatic of a serious mental disease, psychosis. This conclusion is not supported by clinical findings and is highly problematic, to say the least. Referring to these conditions as 'endogenous psychoses' might sound impressive to a lay person, but amounts to little more than acknowledgment of the professionals' ignorance concerning the etiology of these conditions. It is hard to imagine that and how a pathological process inflicting the brain could produce the rich and intricate spectrum of holotropic experiences, involving such phenomena as shattering sequences of psychospiritual death and rebirth, encounters with archetypal beings, visits to mythological realms, past life sequences from other cultures, or visions of flying saucers and alien abduction experiences. In addition, careful study of the nature of these experiences and the information they convey directly contradicts such an interpretation. One of the tasks of this paper is to explore the ontological status of holotropic experiences and to demonstrate that they are phenomena sui generis - normal manifestations of the human psyche that have a great healing and heuristic potential.
Read Dr. Stan Grof's complete paper here: Psychology of the Future.pdf
Re-published by SoulFriends with Dr. Grof's permission.
Copyrighted. Dr Stan Grof. All rights reserved.