It might be useful to just briefly introduce the perinatal matrices here. So what Grof discovered, by extrapolating from the thousands of clinical records that he had from these sessions, was that people’s experiences tend to fall into three broad categories. He felt that psychedelics are to psychology and psychiatry what the microscope is to biology and the telescope is to astronomy, and used in a responsible way these substances offer unparalleled insights into the deeper and broader dynamics of the human psyche. He found that people’s experiences emerge from three broad levels of the psyche.
The first layer of the psyche, he termed the BIOGRAPHICAL, and these are the traditional experiences that are well known from conventional psychotherapy. Many of these were introduced by Freud (so we could call this the Freudian layer of the psyche, as well). This layer includes physical and sexual abuse, various childhood traumas, sibling rivalry, severe toilet training, and a hostile family atmosphere. There was another category of experiences that have not yet been integrated in most schools of psychotherapy and these are very serious illnesses, operations, or accidents. Grof found that these events (especially if they represent a threat to life or breathing, such as suffocation, near-drowning experiences, attempted strangulation by a sibling or diphtheria, whooping cough, and other serious illnesses) leave often a permanent trace in the psyche that can then be released and completed later on, as they routinely surface years later in deep self-exploration.
The second layer of the psyche, Grof termed PERINATAL (“peri” means “surrounding,” like a periscope goes around and “natal” of course means birth). Perinatal experiences represent a very profound encounter with biological birth as well as death and mortality. Grof found that these experiences tend to occur in four broad thematic clusters of experience and he termed the Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs).
The first perinatal matrix (BPM I) is based around the union with the mother and in an ideal womb situation oxygen is supplied and waste products are taken away through the umbilical cord. The fetus is floating in an amniotic sack and is essentially an aquatic organism. When people access this matrix in sessions or sometimes just spontaneously they tend to have experiences of blissful connection, unity, sense of higher meaning, and they can have images of heavens or paradises from various parts of the world, even those which they had never heard of. They can describe specific details about these archetypal terrains which can be verified by looking in reference books in a library. This was essentially laboratory proof of Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. There are also toxic womb experiences, if the mother was under a lot of stress, was sick, had serious accidents or also was using drugs or alcohol – then there can be various degrees of toxicity in the womb and these can also leave a trace in the psyche until faced and worked through.
The second perinatal matrix (BPM II) is based around the onset of labor contractions where the cervix is still closed. When people access this memory there can be a sense of being engulfed by a compressing force. The whole Universe seems to close in on a person – there can be images of being swallowed by a whale or being constricted by a giant octopus, or trapped in a huge spider web, as well as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and victimization. People often reflect on the biblical story that when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise the curse on them was that in pain and sorrow shalt thou bring forth children… very interesting.
The second perinatal matrix is a very logical and convincing source of clinical depression, of what’s called the endogenous type of depression where people feel no interest in anything and have no confidence, that the world seems to be absolutely meaningless, like an absurd cardboard world in which death, suffering, and alienation are all that really exists. When people access this matrix in their inner lives, there can be a feeling of existence in hell. However, Grof makes the distinction that the perception that hell is eternal represents a confusion between real time and subjective time. While the perception is that you’re in a hellish realm of suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it and that there’s no way out, no exit, full surrender to this experience consumes it from the psyche and allows the process to move to the next stage. The sense of being in an eternal negative situation can only last minutes in real time but it can feel like an eternity.
The third perinatal matrix (BPM III) is based on the dynamic stage of labor. Here the cervix is open and the fetus is being slowly forced down the narrow birth canal by uterine contractions that oscillate between 50 and 100 pounds of force. There’s an activation of enormous biological energies at this point. He describes it as a sort of biological and instinctual inferno. It is a life-threatening or potentially life-threatening event and this is because of the suffocation. In the birth process the oxygen supply to the fetus comes through an artery in the umbilical cord and that is fed by arteries that are wound through the uterine walls, so every time there’s a contraction it cuts or diminishes the flow of oxygen to the fetus. This is experienced as suffocation and choking and if this is serious enough it can lead to permanent brain damage.
I actually work in a group home about 22 years next month and almost all the people that I’ve had the privilege of working with, did experience this cerebral palsy from anoxia at birth, a lack of oxygen at birth. This situation can also be complicated by the umbilical cord around the neck or pressed between the head and the pelvic bone. So it is a very intense experience and there’s an activation of enormous aggressive energies in the fetus but because it can’t fight back, scream or leave the situation, these energies are pent-up and then jammed back into its own body and musculature for later discharge. Additionally, the fetus introjects the powerful driving forces of the mother’s contracting body into its own musculature and these become the basis of judging, punishing, and cruel attitudes later in life, the desire to hurt others – this is a very important root of sadistic feelings.
People can also experience sexual arousal connected with this stage of birth, based on the suffocation in labor, and demonic energies. There can also be scatological experiences and these seem to be related to the fetus encounter with blood, fetal liquid, mucus and sometimes feces and urine in the final stages of delivery. Sometimes it gets into their mouth – people can be grimacing, gasping, and determinedly coughing as they relive this. There can also be very intense feelings of disgust as people confront the mandatory waste products of biological existence. It has an archetypal quality, including images of giant cesspools or piles of excrement, as well as seeing images of decaying bodies. These experiences seem to impress on people the Buddhist truth that all things are temporary and ultimately the biological side of our nature is something that comes and goes. Perinatal experiences impress on us the need to access something beyond the physical realm, to reach transcendence. Finally, people can have experiences of pyrocatharsis, of passing through purifying fire. I think Grof mentioned somewhere that Jung had observed this in his patient’s dreams, but I was unable to find a reference for it. Maybe some Jungians more thoroughly versed in Jung’s work may be able to find out this reference. The fire seems to have a purifying quality, purifying everything that is rotten in people’s souls and preparing them for rebirth.
The final perinatal matrix, the fourth perinatal matrix (BPM IV), is based on the sudden intensification of pressure in the final stage of delivery, followed by explosive liberation as the infant crowns and comes out of the birth canal and into the delivery room. This is experienced as an ecstatic liberation from danger and threat, enormous decompression of space. Space opens out into infinity and people can have images of giant halls and cathedrals that seem to share the quality of openness of space. They can have images of the end of wars or revolutions, or medicines that benefit both sides in a conflict, the end of storms. Women can at that moment relive the successful delivery of their own children. People also access the Divine at this point. Various Mother Goddesses experiences such as Isis, Demeter, Lakshmi, Parvati, or Mary are very common in people sessions and it doesn’t seem to be dependent on what culture of origin or what people’s beliefs are: these experiences just appear and have a very powerful numinous quality. You feel you’re in the presence of a greater being. People can also access the masculine faces of the Divine: identification with the resurrection of Christ, Dionysus, or Osiris, with God, or with the Divine in a more abstract form such as radiant light.
So this was the second layer of the psyche, the PERINATAL.
The deepest layers of the psyche, which are beyond even the perinatal, Grof termed TRANSPERSONAL. He coined this term I believe in 1968 and just very briefly, the most common of these include ancestral, racial or collective memories, for instance Caucasians can experience episodes from the slave trade, or identification with Jews in the concentration camps, or with the Mongol invasions of Middle East in the 12th century, and many others. There are past life experiences, not very common but are very powerful and often involve verifiable elements like details from history that the subject could not have possibly known. People can also identify with the consciousness of other people, groups of people, all of life, or all of creation. They can experience the consciousness of a specific animal or plant, or even inorganic materials and processes, archetypal experiences, mythological sequences, experiences of the Universal Mind, Absolute Consciousness, or the Super-Conscious Void. These are the ultimate experiences referred to in the mystical traditions that modern people can access through these types of holotropic self-exploration.