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When the Impossible Happens is a part-anecdotal, part-theoretical exploration of 'non-ordinary' states of consciousness. Using both his patient's and his own personal experiences, Grof examines the significance that pre-natal and past life memories have for traditional western psychiatry. His main contention is that experiences which clinical psychiatry would describe as 'psychotic' should instead be recognised as a species of 'spiritual crisis' which may, in fact, reveal much hitherto unknown about the human condition. Grof's early studies in 'experimental psychoses', not unlike those of the early Freud, involved the use of LSD to mimic spontaneously occurring psychotic states, in order to better understand some of the most enigmatic of psychiatric disorders. His radical approach led him to reject orthodox views of schizophrenia as a biological abnormality, or cognitive deficit in favour of mental crisis as a revelatory and potentially healing experience for the individual. As such, Grof draws a number of parallels between the experiences of schizotypal individuals and those of non-western spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Taoist meditation and Kabbala. Where schizophrenic accounts of deity-control and enhanced reality are considered as a species of pathology by psychiatrists, Grof sees such experiences as valued and considered meaningful in mystic and spiritual traditions. In fact, his recounting of patient's experiences is as much an exercise in cultural anthropology as psychiatric research.
Grof's own method of working makes use of what he refers to as 'holotropic' breathwork. The literal meaning of 'holotropic' is 'orientated towards wholeness', which in the context of Grof's work refers to those experiences, or the cultivation of those experiences, in which the individual abandons the parochiality of everyday experience in order to identify with a wider-system or higher principle. This bears a resemblance to Zen traditions, for example, in which the individual moves beyond considering themselves as a bounded self-in-isolation to a necessarily relationally-constituted being. Grof, however, radicalizes this notion further in arguing that we are able to gain access to certain deities, and that it is possible to identify with the 'creative principle itself.' In one of his many case studies, Grof recounts his experiences with a hospitalized patient presenting with a vast spectrum of schizotypal symptoms. 'Flora' had routinely failed to respond to all medical and psychotherapeutic interventions attempted by those caring for her. As a consequence, she faced transfer to a chronic ward for an indeterminate period. As all options had been exhausted, it was considered appropriate for Grof to attempt to treat her using high-dose LSD. During the sessions, 'Flora' exhibited a number of terrifying behaviors, which culminated in an apparent case of 'possession' wherein 'Flora' spoke and acted as a malign 'other', which Grof interpreted as the presence of something 'evil.' Strongly influenced by Jung, Grof argues for the existence of a 'collective unconscious' and cultural 'archetypes' which speak through the individual, and are a part of their making sense of their experiences. However, for Grof this becomes very concrete and real, for instance, he argues that the individual can recount 'past experiences' which are not symbolic, but are historically true and verifiable. One can, therefore, literally find oneself in the presence of a deity or an historical/ancestral figure. He cites a number of examples of 'synchronity' or recurrence, wherein the individual experiences a number of 'significant' coincidences which cannot be 'explained' other than with reference to some 'other' organizing principle which remains, in our everyday lives, unknown to us.
It is here that Grof and I must part company, for whilst we might accept that there are certain common symbols such as God/devil which lend themselves to the dynamics of human thought, it stretches the bounds of credulity to argue that these correspond to some externally-existing reality. This is not to say that such symbolization isn't meaningful for the individual, rather that we must be aware of the huge leap which is then made when we say that it corresponds to a past-life or unconscious experience which has historical reality. Grof argues that the concept of linear causality is not sufficient to explain strange coincidences, and that 'something else' must be at work in such wildly improbable synchronicities (a patient spoke of a pig-god symbol, which was later revealed to correspond exactly with an ancient religion). However, whilst it seems fair to say that the explanatory principle of linear causality is not sufficient in describing or evoking the aesthetically rich experience of the 'non-ordinary', we should perhaps be wary of thinking that the whole notion needs to be 'thrown out.' Rather, we might consider that such language is not suited to the task at hand (i.e. talking therapy), where perhaps a phenomenological or aesthetic explanation would be more fruitful. Grof's approach is in danger of substituting one 'inadequate' explanatory principle (i.e. linear causation, science) for another which remains mysterious and 'other' to everyday understanding. Grof's synchronicities can only be seen as 'proof' of some higher-organizing principle if we already accept the existence of such a system. Indeed, a number of the 'proofs' given in his case studies are circular. For example, a patient describing a vision of a religious scarab-symbol was astonished to see a similar, rare insect at the window of the consulting room a few minutes later. Of course, this would naturally seem significant if the individual was already exploring a similar theme and was already 'seeing' according to a particular interpretation. To then attribute some 'cosmic' significance to this coincidence, as Grof does, is highly questionable.
The use of psychotropic drugs as a catalyst to bring schizoid symptoms to crisis point also raises important ethical concerns. The danger in such a case is that administration of LSD could lead to a complete psychotic break, or total personality disintegration. Whilst we might accept that experimental drug-use may give psychiatrists an insight into schizophrenic phenomenology, the apparent 'ease' with which Grof accepts its general use is profoundly worrying. Alarmingly in Flora's case, it seemed that this experiment was carried out as there was 'nothing left to lose', which raises a number of issues relating to psychiatric abuse of power and informed consent. To most readers (including myself) I feel that this will be a source of great discomfort.
© 2007 Laura Cook
Laura Cook is a research student at the University of East Anglia, and a trainee Integrative Psychotherapeutic Counsellor. Her research interests include philosophy of psychopathology, modernist literature and psychoanalysis. She is the editor of Applying Wittgenstein by Rupert Read, forthcoming with Continuum Books.