Steve Paulson: Speaking with Stanislav Grof, author of a number of books including “When the Impossible Happens”and “The Ultimate Journey”. You’ve said that your life changed dramatically one day in 1956, the first time you took LSD. What happened then?
Stanislav Grof: Well, I initially wanted to work in animated movies and then reading Freud changed my decision and I enrolled in a medical school, became a psychiatrist. Then, as I was getting sort of deeper into psychoanalysis, I was more and more disappointed initially, not actually with the theory, but with the practice: how long it takes, how much money and so on. So I kind of starting regretting having chosen this discipline and I should have sort of really gone into animated movies. That would have been a better career. And then something happened that really changed, in one day, it changed my life, personally, professionally.
I was working at the psychiatric department of the School of Medicine in Prague and we just finished a large study of a substance called “Mellaril”, which came from Switzerland, from Sandoz pharmaceuticalcompany. So we had a very good working relationship with them and one day we got a box of ampules. We open it and it said, “LSD-25”. It came with a letter from Sandoz. It said this was a very interesting, sort of investigative, new substance that was discovered, basically, by accident by Dr. Hoffman, who intoxicated himself accidentally when he worked with this substance.
Paulson: Albert Hoffman.
Grof: Albert Hoffman, yeah. There was a Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Stoll, who did a pilot study with a group of “normal”people and a group ofpsychiatric patients and published this paper on LSD that overnight became a sensation. The sensation was not that much the psychedelic effect because mescaline was already known in a pure form, but it was the incredible of power. Millionths of a gram changed mental functioning for hours. The supply came from Sandoz and they said, “Will you work with this substance? We feel that maybe there is some use for it in psychiatry and psychology.”
Paulson: So the idea then was the use would be for therapeutic purposes?
Grof: Well, he actually mentioned the possibility of psychotherapy but the main focus was experimental psychosis, that when he gave it to these people, it seemed that the experiences that they were having were very similar to what you see in naturally occurring psychosis. So this would be like a model that we could work with when you take a group of “normal”people and doall kinds of tests, psychological, electrophysiological, biochemical, give them the substance, repeat them and again afterwards and you would get an insight as to what’s happening biologically when the mental function, it gets so profoundly influenced. And if this is the case, then what we call “mental diseases”might not be mental diseases at all; they would be kind ofaberrations of body chemistry. It’s considerable that the human body could produce, under certain circumstances, these minuscule dosages of this similar substance, if not LSD per se, and if that’s the case then we would develop some kind of antidote and you would have something that would be a Holy Grail in psychiatry, which means a test-tube solution for schizophrenia and other psychosis.
Paulson: So here you were, a young psychiatrist, this shipment of LSD just arrived at your lab in Prague, you decided to take some.
Grof: Well, there was a suggestion in the letter, “Maybe this could be used as a model of psychosis, experimental psychosis.”But there was alittle other clip which kind of became my destiny or karma, if you want. It said, “There’s a possibility that this substance could be used as a kind of unconventional, educational tool that psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, students would have the chance to spend a few hours in the world that was very much like the world of their patients and as a result of it, be able to understand them better, to communicate with them more effectively and, hopefully, be more successful in treating them as a result of it,”which was certainlysorely needed in psychiatry. And so I was in this situation when I was really regretting having chosen psychoanalysis and this seemed like a whole new possibility so I became one of early volunteers and that’s where I had an experience that was, in a few hours, really changed me personally and sent me professionally in a completely new direction.
Paulson: What happened during that first experience?
Grof: Well, my preceptor was very interested in electroencephalography and at the time when he got this sample from Sandoz, he was particularly interested in what’s called “driving the brain waves”or “entrainingthe brain waves”, which means exposing people to a stroboscopic light and then finding out in the sub-occipital area in the EEG, electroencephalography, if the brain waves pick up the frequency that you are feeding in. So those of us who wanted the session also had to agree to have our brain waves driven in the middle of this experiment. Between the third and fourth hour, when my experience with LSD was culminating, which was powerful enough, this research assistant came and said this was time for the experiment. So she took me to a small room, I laid down. She put the electrons on my head and then asked me to close my eyes and then put this gigantic strobe above my head and turned this on.
Paulson: So you had a strobe light?
Grof: A strobe light on top of me.
Paulson: On top of the LSD.
Grof: And suddenly there was light like I had never seen in my life, I couldn't imagine existed, like you read about the mystical experiences like millions of suns, you know. At the time, I thought, “This is what it must have been like in Hiroshima,”when the bomb went off. Today I think it wasmore like, what’s it called, dharmakaya in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the primary clear light that you see at the moment of your death. But what happened was my consciousness was catapulted out of my body, the research assistant, the clinic, Prague, the planet and suddenly I had the feeling I became nothing. My old self was extinguished but I had the feeling I became all of existence.
Then as I was sort of coming down a little later, I had the feeling of being in the physical universe or even being the universe and there were things happening for which, at the time I didn’t have names, but later I read about the big bang and the black holes and white holes.
Paulson: Are you saying you had visions of this sort of like the big bang and black holes?
Grof: Yeah, but I was also it at that same time. It’s very difficult to describe. Usually the mystics as it’s, those things are inevitable that happened. As I was sort of going through this, she was being very scientific. She took the strobe light from 2 Hertz, 2 frequencies per second, up to 60 and back and kept it for awhile in the alpha band and the theta band and the delta band, following the protocol and then turn it off. Then my consciousness started shrinking again. I found the planet. I found Prague. I found my body. Then for quite awhile, I had great difficulties connecting my body, aligning my body somehow with my consciousness or consciousness with my body. I understood that what they taught me in the medical school about consciousness somehow coming out of the complexity of the neurophysiological processes in the brain is simply not true. Consciousness was something much, much larger. It was a kind of a cosmic phenomenon and that somehow our individual psyche partakes in this larger cosmic matrix or it’s kind of teased out of it and gets connected somehow to this experience of body. But those are two different things.
Paulson: You’re saying you came to that conclusion right away? Just from this very first experience? Or is it something that you had to reflect on and to work out in your mind?
Grof: Well, I mean, the basic idea was there. Of course, then years, you know, it is like over 50 years now, this was 1956 so then it got kind of fleshed out and crystallized in my additional sessions and all the observations with other people.
Paulson: Now what had been your scientific orientation before that experience? Did you have a sort of a more conventional, materialistic understanding of science?
Grof: I grew up in a family that had no religious affiliation. It kind of went back to a drama in our family when my mother and my father met in a small Czech town. My mother was from a strictly Catholic family. My father was from a family that had no church affiliation and the local church refused to marry them. It seemed like it wouldn't happen at all until my grandparents made a major financial donation to the church and my parents got so upset by this they didn’t want to commit me or my brother to any religion. So we had classes in religion, actually, but for me, this was leisure. This was free hours. So I had no exposure. From this kind of background, I went to medical school at a time when we were controlled by the Soviet Union so we got the purest materialistic doctrine that you can have.
Paulson: So you were an atheist at that time?
Grof: I was an atheist, convinced. I thought I had a scientific world view. The history of the universe is the history of matter and somehow life, consciousness, intelligence is something that happened after billions of years of this development of matter, which was reactive, which was dead and it happened as a kind of fluke in an insignificant part of the universe that has billions of galaxies.
Paulson: So then you had this, quite literally, this mind-blowing experience, which you say changed your life.
Grof: So I’m a somewhat unusual case of somebody who was brought to mysticism, not to religion, but to mysticism, to spirituality, by scientific research, laboratory and clinical research. Usually it’s the other way around. People get very intense religious indoctrination and then they discover materialistic science, they tend to think the whole thing is nonsense, nonscientific, primitive, magical, thinking, “I am a scientist. I am a rational person.”And they tend to reject anything related, not justto religion, but to spirituality. They usually don’t distinguish between some kind of primitive folk superstition and systems like Tibetan Buddhism or Sufism, based on centuries of intense personal self-exploration.
Paulson: So what happened then, in your career, after that? It sounds like you entirely switched tracks.
Grof: Well, I joined a group of scientist who were both psychologists and psychiatrists and biochemists working in a group of research institute in Prague who had access to psychedelics. For the first two years, we pursued the experimental psychosis idea, which means we had a group of about 40 people, including ourselves, who came to the research institute and then get one of the psychedelics that we had, LSD, then we had psilocybin, we had ordered a tryptamine derivative, which were developed in Budapest by Dr. Csaba. We had mescaline from Germany.
Paulson: Was all this legal to do at the time?
Grof: It was legal. It was research, yeah. So we came for a day and we got one of the psychedelic substances and then we came for a day where we got a placebo and both during the placebo days and the psychedelic days, we were going through a series of investigations. We were drawing blood every hour on the hour. We were collecting samples of urine. We were doing electrophysiological experimentation, very, very scientific. During this time, something started dawning on me. We were giving these substances in the same dosages and the same circumstances and each of the experimental persons had a very different kind of experience, unbelievable range of experiences. So I realized this was not an ordinary pharmacone. You wouldn't have pharmacology if you wouldn’t know exactly what the effects would be, if you give it to them and you don’t know what’s going to come up. Then also if we had the same substance repeatedly, each session was different. Then at some point I realized we are actually working with a catalyst. We are not having LSD experiences or psilocybin experiences. We are having experiences of ourselves.
Paulson: It would seem that the psychedelic, whether LSD or psilocybin, was triggering something inside your head.
Grof: Yeah, but it was clear that this was bringing something from the depths of the unconscious, which was there anyway. So I started seeing something like LSD like a microscope or a telescope, like a tool that makes it possible for you to study phenomena which were real but were not available without using that. The telescope supposedly doesn’t create new galaxies. We believe they are there and we wouldn't see them if we didn’t have that, the same with the microscope. So the LSD became like a tool for me to explore the psyche.
I moved out of this group and I went back to psychoanalysis but now sort of LSD-assisted or psychedelic-assisted psychoanalysis and that was the beginning of a whole, whole other area to discovering somehow the dimensions of the psyche.
Paulson: So then you continued your scientific research and you would bring people in to . . .
Grof: Yeah, but this time it was clinical.
Grof: It was clinical research, patients who couldn't be helped by any of the other existing therapeutic methods and giving them mostly LSD, psilocybin to some of them, and spending with them five or six hours, keeping records what was happening, giving them the best possible support I could and then asking them afterwards to write an account.
Paulson: How many sessions do you figure you sat in on?
Grof: Personally, over 4,000 psychedelic sessions over the years.
Paulson: Over 4,000?
Paulson: Has anyone else witnessed so many psychedelic sessions?
Grof: Not in the academic circle, but I know there are people who are doing it outside of the official . . .
Paulson: Yeah, and to put this into perspective, this was all before Timothy Leary and Richard Albert did their infamous studies at Harvard.
Grof: Tim Leary had his first session in ‘65, whereas the session I described was like ‘56, nine, almost ten years before. So by that time, LSD was very respectable. Czechoslovakia, I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia was one of the two countries officially producing pharmaceutically pure LSD, Switzerland and then Czechoslovakia. So we had not only the official permission to do it, but we were one of the two countries where pure pharmaceutical LSD was available. LSD was, at the time, printed in the official Czech pharmaco pay together with insulin, tetracycline, antibiotics, caffeine.
Paulson: Times have changed.
Grof: Yeah. And we had a system that people had to go through in order to get the permission. You had to have five personal experiences and then 30 sessions with clients, which were supervised by somebody who already had the experience and then you could get your own. And you had to have a Ph.D. or an M.D. It was strictly professional.
Paulson: So you said that you were using this in a clinical setting. You were treating patients. What kind of results came out of people using a substance like LSD?
Grof: Well, we saw positive changes in patients who couldn't be changed by anything else. The effects were just far beyond anything that you can achieve by talking.
Paulson: What kinds of effects? What actually happened to these people?
Grof: What happened is that they would regress to childhood. It would take them to memories which had a strong emotional charge and these memories would emerge into consciousness. They would be able to express the emotions and if there were certain physical energies held back, they would sort of be expressed in tremors and movements and so on. So it was like an experience of purging. The substance itself would find the areas that needed to be worked on, which was already tremendous because you know we have in psychotherapy a number of schools and each school tells you something different about how the psyche functions, why the symptoms are there, what they mean and, particularly, how you work with them. Whereas here, it’s the inner healing intelligence that starts operating and you have to basically become a co-adventurer. You just support what is happening. You are not in charge. You are not telling people where to go or what it’s about. They tell you where they have been.
Paulson: Now, the way you’re describing this, it sounds like a very positive experience. You’ve used words like “healing”and “unlockingthings that were buried”. Was it always positive?
Grof: Well, psychedelics are catalysts, you see, that sort of change the relationship between the unconscious and consciousness. In favor of unconscious, the unconscious becomes available. Now whether this would be healing, transformative, or if it’s going to be destructive does not depend on the drug itself. We talk a lot about set and setting. Who does it? For what purposes? What is the context? What is the support that you are giving to the person? So it’s very different if you prepare the patient for 10 hours and then you have one or, ideally, two - we were using male/female - so dyad, and these people would stay with the person for several hours and then you keep the person safe overnight and then you talk with them the next morning. That’s a somewhat different setting than what was happening at Woodstock, where they were sort of handing out all kinds of stuff, full hands, nobody knew what they were getting. There was nobody holding the kite string, nobody.
Paulson: This can be very destructive if it’s used improperly.
Grof: Well, it was also considered as chemical warfare. There were all kinds of experiments that were done by the military and by secret service. You could compromise diplomats when you put it in their drink. There were fantasies about putting it in the water supply and disorganize life in the cities then take over, use it in aerosols.
We had this very interesting experience. We got a supply of a substance called “niamate”, which was a tricyclic antidepressant, and we were doing work with depressed patients. Then when the dose of them who were not helped with this were then put into this LSD program and we found out that after the premedication was Niamid, we couldn't get LSD reaction for three weeks. We published a little paper, we thought, with an interesting observation, in a very obscure Czech journal and within a very short time, we got over 100 requests mostly from military V.A. hospitals and so on and we realized that they had a fantasy of premedicating their soldiers with Niamid and then somehow getting LSD into the city or into the unit of the enemy and then simply bring their own resistant people and take over.
Paulson: So you’re talking about very powerful substances.
Grof: Yeah. There were also these instances, there was a situation in the Pentagon when they wanted to test what it would look like and gave it to somebody and the person thought he was going crazy and jumped out of the window. Bad things can happen with alcohol, which is nowhere as powerful as LSD. So there is a tremendous potential. There’s also a big danger. If you use something that doesn’t have big risks, it also does not have great potential. But the more powerful of the two, the greater risks you are taking.
Paulson: So what you’ve described so far is the early part of your career, starting out as a psychiatrist, using the techniques of psychoanalysis, working in clinical settings, trying to help people sort out some of their personal issues. At some point, maybe from the very beginning, I don’t know, you became very interested in what’s been called “non-ordinary states of consciousness”. Obviously we’re talking about some of these now.
Grof: Well that was actually my first session. This was a non-ordinary state and then right there I felt, “I’m stuck with psychiatry. If you’re a psychiatrist, this is by far the most interesting thing you can study so I will study these non-ordinary states.”
Paulson: So where did you go with that though? Because it seems like you took this interest in non-ordinary states of consciousness in various different directions.
Grof: So there was the first two years, which was this sort of experimental psychosis, and then in that process, discovering that we are dealing really with a catalyst and a tremendous tool to explore the psyche, something that can get you into the unconscious much faster and much deeper than talking. If there’s anything to psychoanalysis, this could actually deepen and accelerate the therapeutic process. So I became interested in these two different aspects of psychedelics. One, we can call heuristic, something that can really help you to learn something about the psyche on levels that are not normally available. Then the second one was the therapeutic something, which could really accelerate the therapy in the patients who are somehow available for therapy but also extended to categories that we cannot influence in any other way.
So I think the most important part of my work then became mapping the psyche. I came with this very narrow model of psychoanalysis, which is basically limited to post-natal biography and the Freudian individual unconscious.
Paulson: By post-natal, you mean after we’re born.
Grof: Yeah. Freud said the newborn is a clean state. There’s nothing there of interest for a psychologist. So what we become depends on what happens to you after birth, what kind of mother you had, what kind of nursing or toilet training, psychosexual traumas and so on. Suddenly when we were working with psychedelics, this just proved to be painfully narrow, painfully superficial.
Grof: When people took LSD, it took them first to birth. Suddenly they started talking about being trapped in the system that was killing them, that they couldn't get out of and they have the feeling they’re going crazy, they’re going to die, they will never come back. Birth was not part of my conceptual framework. You see, this is not something that I was taught in psychiatry during medical studies or in my psychoanalytic training.
Paulson: Well supposedly we can’t really remember back to our birth. Our brain hasn’t been developed that far.
Grof: The idea in the medical studies was that the cortex of the newborn is not mature enough. The technical term is not myelinized. They neurons don’t have the fatty sheaths protecting them. This is given as a kind of very authoritative reason. “How could you remember birth? Your brain is not myelinized.”When I saw these experiences and then I experienced it myself, I realized the experiences are there. It’s up to the neurophysiologist to show where it is recorded and how it is recorded.
Paulson: You’re saying that there were times when you took LSD or another psychedelic you went back to the moment of birth yourself?
Grof: Oh yes, yeah. I had several sessions, very high dose sessions, that took me through birth with all the stages, with details.
Paulson: What makes you think that you really did that, as opposed to it was some sort of a reconstructed, imaginary trip as if you were going back to the moment of birth.
Grof: Well it’s extremely authentic. When I was in the womb, for example, I tasted the amniotic fluid, which I never tasted in my post-natal life and I couldn't sort of conjure up. Many people with whom I worked gave details about what happened during their birth without having intellectual knowledge of their birth and we had the chance to go into birth records or talk to the mother or some other people and verify that. I have actually a couple of stories in the book When the Impossible Happens, when people remembered things at the time when they were in the womb, where they remembered what happens right after they were born.
Paulson: Can you tell me about one of these stories that you heard?
Grof: One of the stories was actually from holotropic breath work that is a non-direct method that my wife Christine and I developed where you just use accelerated breathing, music and certain kind of body work. There was a psychologist who was quite conservative, just barely opening up to come to something like holotropic breath work. He got in a state where he felt caught, trapped, and was fighting. There was several of us that sort of had to hold him down and encourage him to go through. Then he had a tremendous kind of a release, got into a very relaxed and peaceful place and then during the sharing said, when he was describing it, said the most unusual thing was when he got born, there was this very intense smell of fresh leather and he asked me how could that be part of birth. I said I don’t know. This would have to be part of the ambiance. It certainly doesn’t belong to birth itself. Then he checked with his mother and it turned out he was Austrian. He grew up in the Tyrol and his mother was involved in making what’s called lederhosen, the typical leather pants, and so she was inexperienced, this was her first pregnancy. She was in a shop. She was sewing these pants and then the labor pain came. She thought that she was just getting sick but then, actually, it turned out to be birth unsupported. She was alone and so he was born into this environment where there was sort of fresh-cut leather all over the place. So we have some histories of this kind.
Now I realize also that there’s unbelievable logical problem with how mainstream psychiatry thinks about births because there is a general agreement that the situation immediately following birth is extremely psychologically important. Even child psychiatrists and pediatricians believe in the important of bonding, just the exchange of the looks between the newborn and the mother. And then of course nursing is generally considered to be important. We have now a lot of research and prenatal research showing the sensitivity of the fetus already in the womb. So we have a sensitive creature in the womb, sensitive right after the birth, but that creature didn’t notice what could have been hours of a life-threatening situation and it’s not recorded anywhere.
Paulson: But you’re saying those few hours, at the moment of birth, could affect someone 50 years later.
Grof: All through their life, yes. If you imagine that the ordinary traumas that we deal with in psychoanalysis have some kind of lifetime impact, this is a situation that could be 30, 40, 50 hours. That fetus could have died in the birth canal and had to be resuscitated. It’s a trauma on a completely different level. Now in terms of the myelinization, we know that you don’t need not only a myelinzied brain, you don’t need a brain at all to have memories. Because in biology they will tell you that memory is really a property of living matter.
Paulson: Wait, what do you mean? That memory is a matter of living matter?
Grof: Protoplasmatic, yeah. Eric Kandel, for example, got an Noble prize, I think, 15 years or so ago for his study of memory mechanism in a sea slug, aplysia. So sea slugs have memories but a newborn cannot have memory of birth because the cortex was not myelinized? You don’t need to have a brain to have memory. It’s something that belongs to biology. So there is this unbelievable logical inconsistency in the thinking. The only way I can understand it now is that the memory is so scary that we just don’t want to go there. We don’t want to deal with it and we actually can use our intellect in science by explaining it away, “This couldn't have been important. My cortex was not myelinized.”
Paulson: But there still is a standard view. I mean you talk to neuroscientists and 98% of them, more than that I would guess, would say that everything that happens in our minds is based on brain function. The physical nature of the brain is what generates consciousness.
Grof: Well I think that’s related to another problem because there is a very highly developed material organ, the brain of the newborn child. The problems start when you go further back, when, let’s say, you start having experiences of early embryonal stage or I have a number of instances where people experience something from the life of their ancestors or identify with their father at the time 15 years before their conception.
Paulson: You’re saying somehow that they can perceive this, something that happened to their own parents.
Grof: Yes and then you have this whole area of the Jungian collective unconscious where you can evict experiences from human history, from different periods of human history. Jung also talked about the archetypal collective unconscious where we can experience mythology of other cultures that we have never studied in this lifetime. So there we really get to the problem of where does that come from.
Paulson: And when you start talking about Carl Jung and his notion of the collective unconscious, which has been a tremendously powerful idea for the last century, I think a lot of people would say, “Fascinating. But you’ve left science by this point.”Are you still in the scientific realm herewhen you talk about this kind of thing?
Grof: Well, I believe you are in a scientific realm but science isn’t there yet. I mean the materialistic science is not there. We are talking about what John Mack, who was a Harvard psychoanalyst talked about as anomalous experiences, the certain experiences that occur and conceptual framework cannot explain. But that doesn’t mean that those experiences don’t exist. Thomas Kuhn wrote this book “The Structure of Scientific Revolution”, where he showed how many times these happened in scientifichistory, that the whole generation, the Academy was thinking about the universe in a certain way and then observations came that were challenging it and then there was chaos and struggle and then some whole new understanding emerges and history is rewritten until something else comes. There was a time of the geocentric astronomy. After Copernicus it took 100 years before the heliocentric system was accepted. There was a time when in chemistry there was the idea that there was this royal substance, phlogiston, and all the other substances are compounds involving phlogiston. Then people like Lavoisier and Dalton came with the atomic theory. They think this was crazy and people were fired because they didn’t believe in phlogiston.
Paulson: What you’re saying is that our standard theory of consciousness, what most scientists today, what most philosophers of mind would say the mind is a product of brain function. You’re saying that really just doesn’t hold up based on your own experiences on your research. True?
Grof: Yes. First of all, very few people realize, including people in the scientific circles, that we have absolutely no proof that consciousness is coming from the brain. We have proof that there are systematic correlations between states of consciousness and the anatomy, physiology of the brain.
Paulson: Right. If certain parts of the brain are damaged, for instance, it can dramatically change mental function.
Grof: Yeah, you have a temporal tumor, you have certain changes of consciousness, which are different from the changes that you would have with a frontal tumor and so on. You cut off the oxygen supply and you lose consciousness. So there are these systematic correlations but then there is a big logical jump which is made, which is called technically “non sequitur”, it doesn’t really follow. None of it shows that consciousnessactually is generated in the brain.
Paulson: But isn’t that the obvious explanation?
Grof: No. I usually give the example of television. There’s a systematic correlation between what’s happening with the components in the television set and the kind of program that you get, the picture and the sound. Now all that it says is there’s a systematic correlation. It doesn’t prove that the program is generated in the box. Then if you study the box down to the molecular level of all the wires there, that one day you will understand why Sullivan showed up at 7:00 with the Beatles or why you’re getting the Mickey Mouse cartoon. It still leaves open the possibility that the set mediates the programbut the program is coming from somewhere else.
Paulson: OK. Well let’s play on this idea then. If consciousness is not generated by the brain where is it? Where does it come from? What is it?
Grof: OK. I have had quite a few psychedelic experiences myself and others that were non-drug like with the breath work and so on and I have sat with over 4000 people. We have done the holotropic breath work with probably over 35,000 people including large groups. So today if I would answer the question I would be somewhere where the great Eastern spiritual philosophies are that consciousness is a primary attribute of existence. It’s a cosmic phenomenon. It cannot be reduced to anything else. And I think I would end up in a situation where it would be easier for me to imagine what is described in the great Asian scriptures that the material reality is a virtual reality created by cosmic consciousness. This would be easier for me to imagine than the fact that matter which is dead, inert, reactive, can generate something like consciousness. I mean the gap is so phenomenal there and this is the point you see. We have shown these correlations but nobody has ever tried to show how matter could possibly generate consciousness. We have studied the brain to great, great depths and so on but nobody has ever published to my knowledge any theory how it could possibly happen that matter would generate consciousness.
A number of years ago I went to a bookstore and I see a book by Francis Crick who we call adventurer of the helical structure of DNA. It was called ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis”with a notethat was on the book ‘Nobel Prize winning scientist explains consciousness.”So I said ‘Wow. I have to read this.”I startedreading it and I see the astonishing hypothesis is your hopes and sorrows and joys and worries is nothing but the activity of your neurons. OK. So I open it and he says ‘Well let’s simplify it a little. Let’s look at what’s happening when you look at something. I’m looking at you so according to materialistic science this is a material object light is reflected it comes through my retina creates electrical changes chemicals changes that creates a neural impulse going through the optical tract ends up in the sub-occipital cortex more electricity more chemical changes“and then he givespages and pages of experiments proving this that all this is happening when I’m watching something. Then he leaves it there where actually that’s where the problem begins. What is it that can create from electric and chemical changes a reasonable facsimile of what is there gives it to me as a conscious experience in living colors?
It sort of reminds me of the Sufi story where you have a guy under a lantern sort of crawling on his knees and looking for something. Another guy comes and says ‘What are you doing?”He says ‘Well I lost my keys here. I’m looking for them.”The guy says ‘Can I help you?”And the two of themare crawling and then the newcomer says ‘I can’t find anything. Are you sure you lost it here?”He says ‘Oh not here over there.”He says ‘Well why are you looking here?”He says ‘Because it’s dark there. We wouldn't have a chance.”So we have a good chance of finding things what’s happening in the retina what’s happening in the neuronal tract the optical tract what’s happening in the cortex but then the fundamental question ‘How does consciousness come out of that process?” nobody has tackled it.
Paulson: And you’re saying that really the conceptual apparatus of modern science of brain science has no means of tackling that question.
Grof: It has no relevance to the nature and origin of consciousness in my understanding. Even if you go as far as Stuart Hameroff when you take it to the tubules.
Paulson: His microtubules.
Grof: Right. When you see the whole thing functions like a computer and so on and maybe that’s the interface where consciousness is somehow is generated you still are stuck with the question ‘How does that happen? How is it possible that matter can generate consciousness?”
Paulson: So is this a question that’s just beyond science something that science will never be able to explain?
Grof: Yeah I think science is much better in answering questions related to how things happen rather than why things happen. We can do incredible things with electricity without really understanding what electricity is the kind of a similar kind of a situation. We have a false belief that we understand what electricity is electromagnetism because we learn how to use it in our life but that’s not really an answer to the question ‘Why?”
Paulson: Well earlier you said that one of the results of your early work with LSD is that it totally transformed your own conceptual understanding of the world. You had been an atheist and then you said you moved to a more mystical understanding of the way things work. Taking off your scientific hat now and getting into the mindset of that more mystical understanding of the cosmos do you come to any clearer understanding of some of these things that we’ve been talking about?
Grof: I wrote that book called ‘A Cosmic Game”. It’s called ‘Explorations in the FartherReaches of Consciousness”or something like that. When I specifically focuson those parts of the sessions where people who are dealing with ontological cosmological questions ‘What is the nature of the universe? Is it really just a material system that created itself or does it have a master blueprint? Is there kind of creative intelligence? If there’s a creative principle how am I related to the creative principle? Have I lived only once? Who are we? Where are we going? Why is evil in the world?”and so on and what I found out is that from people you get bits and pieces of a world view that is radically different from the materialistic world view but has a cohesion of its own. It’s really the way of looking at the universe that you find in systems that all this is actually called perennial philosophy there was a certain way of understanding the universe that emerged throughout centuries in different countries.
Paulson: There was a commonality among various wisdom traditions.
Grof: Yes. And people who systematically experiment responsibly with these non-ordinary states they come up with that kind of a world view. Spirituality is a significant aspect of the human psyche. It is a critical aspect of the universal scheme of things. We are not material beings. We are not human beings having spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having human experience, the possibility that we might have had previous existences and so on. That is a very very coherent alternative view of looking at the world. That happens to people who have the access to what I call ‘holotropic states” which is a certain subgroup of these non-ordinary states of consciousness the things that happen to shamans during initiatory crises or the states they use when they’re treating their clients or what happened in a rites of passage what happened in ancient mysteries what happens to you in different forms of meditation and so on.
Paulson: What are those kinds of experiences you’re talking about? You’re talking about profound mystical experiences that have the sense of unity?
Grof: Well that’s part of it. But what I was talking about that I found in the experiences of different people bits and pieces of it that were basically feeding into this overarching alternative world view like some of the people had past life experiences which is a whole interesting category in its own right. Other people would have the experience of seeing the divine light what they consider to be the creative principle. Others have actually lost themselves in it and they became it like in the Upanishishads and the question of ‘Who am I?”, thou are that.You aregodhead. You are not an ordinary human being. Other people would experience your identification with other species both animal and botanical. I had an experience of becoming a sequoia tree when my whole body image was a sequoia tree. I was experiencing photosynthesis. I was experiencing exchange of minerals and water in the root system and so on.
Paulson: Was this after you had taken LSD?
Grof: Yeah in a psychedelic session yes. So you see not everybody has experienced this. We’re all to in its totality but if you sort of look at sessions where people ask these different question they are parts of this world view which is radically different. And it’s not only similar to what all this actually talk about as perennial philosophy but you find out also powerful connections to some scientific breakthroughs like quantum relativistic physics and new biology shell drakes morphogenetic fields and theory of chaos the holographic paradigm and David Bohm and Karl Pribrams holographic model of the brain. My new hero is now Ervin Laszlo who has this concept which he calls ‘the connectivity hypothesis”that answers many of the paradoxes and puzzlesfrom modern physics, biology, psychology, and so on. He talks about the so-called psi field or a akashic field. It’s like a sub-quantum field where everything that has ever happened remains recorded holographically and is still available in these non-ordinary states.
Paulson: So you’re saying something that doesn't have any material basis to it there’s no physical basis to it. It’s something else.
Grof: No no. There are fields.
Paulson: Fields. Energy fields something like that.
Grof: Fields yeah. Or possibly the field of consciousness itself has the memory. Now this is very different from how we think. Fields are acceptable in physics.
Paulson: Obviously this is also highly speculative. I mean this is a theory that might support some of the kinds of experiences that you’re talking about but it would seem like it will always be just a theory because there’s no way that you could ever confirm that could you?
Grof: You know Ervin Laszlo wrote a lot of books. Many of them are popular books where he just gives people the essence of this. But he has for example the book ‘Interconnected Universe”wherehe goes into the mathematics and the physics. It’s not just something that he came up as a speculation. You really need to have some knowledge of mathematics and physics to follow that. He is a real scientist. He’s a kind of polyist. So it’s a very serious hypothesis and it’s the only one I know only scientific system that I know that gives me any kind of explanation how it is possible that I for example took LSD and suddenly was in ancient Egypt or I was suddenly back in the French Revolution.
Paulson: You’re saying there’s no way that could just be sort of a flight of fancy, a flight of your imagination?
Grof: No. This is for a long time I was trying to see it that way. But there’s no doubt in my mind now that you can have experiences where the information which is coming is way beyond anything that you learned in this lifetime. I’ve seen and had experiences of identification with animal species where you literally become those animals. You become an eagle and you have a body image of the eagle and you suddenly understand how you fly how you work the air currents. You see the world the way you would see through the optical system of an eagle not through the optical system of a man. Not many people who think about the mechanics of the flight unless you are Leonardo da Vinci or something.
Paulson: So really what you’re saying then is where would those images come from if not this tapping into this kind of I don’t know information field, energy field? Because you’re saying it doesn’t exist anywhere in your own head to begin with so it has to come from somewhere else.
Grof: No. I had a long discussion with Carl Sagan who was a great astronomer but for some reason he took on all of these things that in his mind were unscientific.
Paulson: He was a skeptic.
Grof: Yeah he was a skeptic. He wrote the book ‘The Demon Haunted the World”and so on. I was one of the surviving people whohad something to do with the beginnings of transpersonal psychology and he asked for confrontation. So Christina and myself and he and Ann his wife we met in a Boston hotel. John Mack was there who I mentioned already. He said ‘Well Stan you’re an educated person. You studied medicine and psychology and people believe what you say. You cannot spread these delusions,”he said.‘There’s a lot of this hoax and scam in the world. We have to be scientific,”he said. ‘Therewas Horace in Germany who they called Der Kluge Hands, the smart hands and claimed he could do mathematics and they dug out a figure in Italy which they claimed was a petrified giant.”I said ‘Carl this is not what we are talking about.”Hesaid ‘Well what are we talking about?”I said ‘Well about the ontological nature of transpersonal experiences. Can they be explained as fantasies, hallucinations something that you concocted out of your everyday experience?”He said “Give me examples.”So I mentioned thesethings like the eagle and so on. He says “Oh American children watch television six hours a day and you get a lot of information and the brain records it all and if something comes out of there it had to come through the sense the old empiricist dictum.”Then in mydesperation I brought the near-death experiences and gave him an example from Carl Sabun’s book where the patient of cardiac arrest was sort of watching this situation from the ceiling and then . . .
Paulson: An out of body experience?
Grof: Yeah out of body and then came down and was watching the gauges and so on and afterwards gave an explanation. So I said ‘What do you think about things like this?”He said ‘This of course didn’t happen.”I said ‘Didn’t happen? Carl Sabun is a cardio surgeon. He’s studied his patients and he wrote a book about it. What do you mean it didn’t happen?”He says ‘I’ll tell you. There are many cardio surgeons in the world. Nobody would have known the guy so he makes up this story. It’s a P.R. trick.”And I knew this was the end of the discussion.Once you start questioning the integrity the sanity of the people who bring challenging experiences it’s rather fundamental isn’t it? It’s not science anymore.”Imean if he were a scientist he would say ‘Wow. Is that true. Let me look into it. Maybe let me do my own research if it’s so critical.”But he already knewwhat the world is like how it works what is possible what is impossible and nothing would convince him.
Paulson: So if we return to what you were talking about earlier the states of consciousness that go very deep the kinds of things that shamans might be involved in or as you mentioned through certain rites of passage those deepest states of consciousness is that the experience of God? We’ve barely mentioned that word. Does that word have meaning to you?
Grof: That’s what you feel when you experience it yeah. We did breath work with a group of Soviet scientists who came to Esselen and one of them and we were doing the sharing afterwards and one of them had the experience of God. There were some of his colleagues and they obviously didn’t quite trust each other and he says ‘Well of course I remain a Communist but I have to say after two days’ experience I know what people mean when they “God.”
Paulson: Because it seems that a lot of what you’ve said so far would cut against the grain of the Western understanding of God maybe through the monotheistic traditions. What you’re talking about is something different maybe more compatible with certain Eastern understandings.
Grof: Well I mentioned that I had the privilege of being at the cradle of transpersonal psychology in that small group with Abraham Laszlo and Tony Sertich. One of the major problems when we had the idea of what this new psychology would look like was ‘How do we reconcile it with what we know as science?”Then of course all these new discoveries were coming quantum relativistic physics, shell Drake and all of the things that I already mentioned. But then we also realized that what we are trying to do in transpersonal psychology is to show that science is not incompatible with spirituality. It doesn’t mean that it is compatible with religion, with the dogma.
The experiences that you have in these non-ordinary states are like the experiences of the mystics of different religions. So if you have a Christian experience it would be like Meister Eckhardt or the Hildergaard Von Bingen or if you have a kind of Islamic experience it would be like what the Sufis experience or in the Judaic tradition the hassidic Jews and so on. So it’s the mystical understanding of the world where you see the world is divine but you are divine as well. It’s not what you find in organized religions where God is out there and you have to go through a hierarchy usually for some donation or something to reach it. Christina wrote a wonderful book called ‘Thirst for Wholeness”and shetalked about her experiences in the Episcopalian church when she was a kid and they had them chant ‘Oh Lord we are miserable sinners who don’t deserve crumbs from your table. We are sick to our core. There is no health in us.” So when you have this kind of message this is a powerful vaccination against spirituality because the last place where you would look for God is inside. Then you would be dependent on somebody who was sort of offering something on the outside. So the experiences in these what I call ‘holotropic states” are something that you find in the mystical branches of the religion. We’re not talking about the dogmas of whether it’s Christianity or Islam. Those are in a sense systems which are quite dangerous in today’s world because they bring together a group of people who are relating to the same group of archetypes but at the same time they set that group against another that has chosen a different access. “You see we are Christians and you are pagans and we have to convert you or eliminate you”or‘We are Muslims and you’re infidels.” ‘We’re Jews. You’re goyim.”But then even the distinctions within thesame religion are enough to kill each other. Like ‘We are Catholics. You are Protestants.” ‘We are Sunnis. You are Shiites.”That’s not a religion that helps theworld. The spiritual experiences that I am talking about are universal. They are all encompassing. They lead people to a sense of planetary citizenship. They dissolve the boundaries that sort of create conflicts and frictions and problems.
Paulson: What do you say to the people who often come out of these traditions let’s say Buddhists who are very serious contemplatives who’ve spent years meditating who might say the way to go deeper to tap into these different realms is through your inner work through meditation. It’s not through a substance like LSD not through psychedelics. That’s almost cheating. It’s a matter of sort of figuring out how to do it yourself. How do you respond to that?
Grof: There were very interesting discussions at the beginning when it becomes clear that psychedelics can take you to a mystical experience and what the question of this instant or chemical mysticism.
Paulson: So the question is, is that really a mystical experience?
Grof: There were very quickly four groups. One was the hard core scientists who were saying “Well what the mystics think they are some profound insights into the nature of reality is nothing but changes in chemistry,”so that was oneway of looking at those experiences. The other group was saying “No there is a certain group of plants or substances. They’re special substances because they can give you mystical experiences, flesh of gods as some of the natives call the plants.” The third group was very interesting was based on Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday experiment where he gave a Harvard chapel actually psilocybin to a group of theological student of theology and some of them had placebo and then he was able to show that they had experiences indistinguishable from what you find in spiritual literature. So the question was can generate the experiences that you find in spiritual literature and the question is are they of the same value do you have to be involved in serious practice or prayer, does it have to come as grace and so on. But then there was a very interesting fourth position which was Houston Smith who said ‘It depends on the context. If you are a spiritual seeker who has done a lot of meditation a lot of reading and you have that experience it sends you further on that journey. If you went to a party at Berkeley and there was a fruit punch and a joker came with a handful of sugar cubes laced with acid and threw it in there and people were having experiences some of them happened to have mystical experience totally out of context it’s not going to really not do very much for them very likely.
Paulson: So you’re saying it’s what you bring to it.
Grof: It depends on where the people had the experience or not like Meher Baba wrote this ‘God and the Pill” which is absolutely impossible to have the experience of God through chemical means. There were people like Houston Smith who is a religious scholar who had himself experienced it and he said what I just mentioned. I had a chance to actually sit for a couple of Tibetans and they said this is very powerful. This is an accelerator of karma.
Paulson: Tibetans who had used psychedelics?
Grof: Yeah. So Lama Govinda had his experiences and so on. So it depends. Some psychics say it creates a hole in your aura and there are other psychics who say, like Anne Armstrong, for example said that they felt that it cleansed them as a channel that it made them really better psychics. So how do you decide? It’s certainly when you have that experience it feels real. As far as my own experiences are concerned I have no question that this was a kind of a mystical spiritual path but I never took it for kicks. I always took it really with an intense need to know.
Paulson: We could keep going on but we should leave it there. Thank you so much.
Grof: Thank you for having me. It’s a real, real pleasure."