ADRIAN: What an appropriate moment to honor the elders… and since your work is based on their research and discoveries, would you like to discuss Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas? This way we can put your own work in the right context and then we can emphasize your personal contribution.

RENN: Well, Grof, as you know, is the foremost researcher with LSD in psychiatry. In the mid-1950s the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague, Czechoslovakia received from the Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland samples of pure LSD-25. At that time LSD was being used and investigated by clinical researchers among other things as a way for healthcare professionals to have experiences that were similar to the mindsets and states of consciousness of their patients, so it was seen as a way to get inside the human psyche and to get a first-hand taste of some of these inner territories, to develop empathy and understanding of what their clients were going through.

Grof enthusiastically signed up for this program as a young intern or perhaps he was a psychiatrist at that point, and his first experience was incredible. The parameters of the “experiment” (which is what I think they called it) were that the psychiatrist running the session was going to be shining a strobe light at him (laughing). It was, you know, probably all in white coats in some sort of brightly lit room, but he agreed to it and I remember from his account in his When the Impossible Happens, I believe, that he felt during this experience that he was leaving the consciousness of his body and moving into outer space, beyond the speed of light and connecting with the Divine. This was his very first LSD experience. He reflected on the incredible irony that the Divine was revealing himself and allowing him to have this awakening experience in the context of a medical experiment, within the confines of a traditional scientific model, catalyzed by a chemical compound which had been created in a laboratory and all of this happened in an atheist Marxist country…

ADRIAN: And dominated by the Soviet Union!

RENN: Yes! So it was the incredible irony that dramatically changed his life and career, and he devoted the rest of his career to the research of non-ordinary – what we are now calling holotropic or “moving toward wholeness” – states of consciousness. Holotropic is the term coined by Grof, borrowing from the Greek words “trepein” which means “moving towards” and “holos” meaning “wholeness”, just like a heliotropic plant moves toward the Sun (Helios). In these states the psyche automatically knows how to clear out leftover toxic memories and blocked energies and widen the pathway to Divine Consciousness.

So he eventually had the opportunity in the late 1950s and up through the mid-1960s to work with a series of voluntary patients with systematic LSD psychotherapy and he eventually conducted over 4000 LSD sessions. He was personally overseeing two sessions a day: one in the first part of the day then another one following, 6 days a week for many years. In his own words he “was very deeply involved” and he also had access to the records of 2000 more LSD sessions from colleagues around the world. Many of the experiences that he observed fell outside of the range of the traditional Freudian psychiatric model within which he was working, not to mention the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm, and he went through several years of very painful and difficult conceptual confusion, but eventually he was able to systematize a new expanded cartography of the human psyche which accounted for the observations of his client sessions, as well as reaching into areas of spirituality described in the great religious traditions of the world.

After the drug hysteria, in large part caused by the sensationalist reporting of some tragic accidents and suicides in the ‘60s during the unsupervised use of psychedelics by young people, which was then followed by the clampdown of the authorities on legitimate psychiatric research, Stan Grof and his wife Christina developed a nondrug substitute for his earlier research which they called “Holotropic Breathwork”. This powerful technique uses deep and rapid breathing, evocative music, focused bodywork and mandala drawing and it’s done in a safe supportive environment, often in a group, which also allows people to access holotropic or non-ordinary states.

Stan Grof

Stan Grof. Picture by Alex Grey.