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LSD: Doorway to the Numinous
by Stanislav Grof
Park Street Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 3/21/2013

Stanislav Grof is the Elvis of psychedelic psychotherapy. His greatest hits consist of some of the finest psychedelic research science ever conducted. His number-one quotable single is perhaps the statement that “psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy.” If even half of what Grof claims to have observed with the aid of this microscope-telescope-molecule holds water, then the systematic study of his findings would at the very least necessitate an overhaul of basic tenants governing clinical psychology and at the very most could demand a complete reboot of our understanding of reality itself.

As far-out theories tend to be regrettably cheap in the world of human-psychedelic relations, such an epochal assertion would probably prove ridiculous if Grof was not able to back it up with uncannily compelling data culled from his experience conducting more than four thousand clinical LSD sessions over the course of his career. His initial results were being correlated just as doors were slammed shut in the face of above-ground psychedelic research. Grof nevertheless felt it important to present his findings, seeing as they had resulted in some of the most effective practical methodologies regarding the psychedelic experience to have crawled out of the wreckage of the popular LSD movement’s suicidal frontal assault on the American establishment culture.

Indeed, perhaps the only real question Grof’s findings bring up is why their publication still hasn’t fundamentally transformed the practice of modern psychology and psychiatry. Those wanting to investigate for themselves why figures such as Abraham Maslow and Joseph Campbell thought Grof’s work constitutes some of the most important contributions to the theory of human mental life since the days of Freud and Jung are encouraged to start with Grof’s first book, published in 1975 as Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research and then again in 2009 re-titled LSD: Doorway to the Numinous (with a new preface and supplemental material).

Grof came onto the scene at a time when most scientists working with LSD were busy trying to unlock the mystery of the “toxic psychosis” they thought it generated. Their hope was that by understanding how substances like acid warped or deformed normal cognition, they could learn about the chemical basis of your standard-issue unhinged mind. The bizarre thing about acid was that its effects varied so wildly from person to person, and even for the same person from trip to trip, that attempts to figure out what it was “doing” to the brain ended in failure. Little by little it became clear that the classical psychedelics have few invariant pharmacological effects, but instead act as “nonspecific amplifiers of the psyche”––lifting the iceberg of the mind up above the surface of awareness to give both subject and observer a chance to peek at what’s really going on below. As Grof puts it, “A person who has taken LSD does not have an ‘LSD experience,’ but takes a journey into deep recesses of his or her own psyche.” Thus, the drug does not change the mind but instead reveals much, much more of the unconscious than is normally available for conscious processing. Grof showed that rather than “this is your brain on drugs”, what acid offers, in fact, is “this is your brain.”

Grof began his research squarely in the camp of the un-stoned academic medicine of his time, and his early enthusiasm for LSD psychotherapy had much to do with the extent to which it seemed to confirm the basic premises of the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition. This was not to last. The more Grof and his patients explored psychedelic psychotherapy, the more he was faced with experiences that the establishment medical culture considered impossible. Indeed, impossible experiences would seem to occur on acid with such knee-knocking regularity that Grof was able to hypothesize a wildly unorthodox conceptual system accounting for their formal characteristics, reinforced with illustrations from typical clinical examples.

To wit, the deeper subjects delved into LSD therapy, the more frequently they reported experiencing situations obviously linked in some way to memories of their birth experiences and lives spent in the womb––memories conventional psychology claims cannot be formed (infant nervous tissue lacks the myelin sheaths thought to be necessary for memory storage) but which nevertheless would seem to serve a major coordinative function in virtually all individual unconscious dynamics. Still further into serial psychedelic sessions, subjects were reporting experiences that read like a catalogue of every kind of psychic phenomena Western science says can’t happen: experiences of consciousness beyond the physical limit of the body, telepathic contact beyond the curvature of normal space-time, visions of the micro-infinite, achievements of cosmic awareness, connections to human lives not one’s own, identification with non-human forms of life, the basic breakdown of any sharp distinction between matter, energy, and consciousness, and so forth.

By the 1975 publication of Realms of the Human Unconscious, Grof was prepared to assert the existence of “a vastly extended cartography of the human psyche” including two new realms whose non-existence were central to the (even now) prevailing scientific worldview: the perinatal––relating to the experience of embryogenesis and birth––and the transpersonal––relating to experiences of the synchronistic, telepathic, karmic, or otherwise out-of-body variety. Resisting the tendency to either fatuously conjecture a mechanism for these phenomena or to dismiss them as mere fantasy because no mechanism yet conceived could account for them, Grof managed instead to focus on the fact that these experiences, regardless of their ontology, displayed a remarkable (though weird) formal consistency. Also, mechanism or no, subjects reporting these experiences could sometimes be observed to have “gained access to new information about areas of which they previously had no intellectual knowledge” (which is about as text-book uncanny as it gets). Most significant about experiences of the perinatal or transpersonal variety, however, was the fact that in cases of emotional disturbances it was often the individual’s contact with these unaccountable states themselves that ended up effectuating or accompanying the actual healing.

To be sure, many of these ideas were not new. Otto Rank had already caused a minor schism in the early days of psychoanalysis by insisting on the centrality of birth trauma in unconscious dynamics. C. G. Jung had already posited the existence of spooky phenomena such as a species-mediated collective unconscious or other essentially “paranormal” phenomena. Grof was familiar with Rank and Jung, even though they were both considered outré or irrelevant by the psychiatric establishment, and was open-minded enough to realize that the data derived from LSD research might substantiate their findings. Rank and Jung had the insight, whereas acid provided the evidence. Moreover, what was new was not access to these realms, as humans have been accessing them in the form of ritual and ceremony for as long as there has been human mental life. What was new was a conceptual framework integrating them into the practice of modern psychiatric medicine. Grof’s contribution is the use of insight from LSD research to propose an update to the scientific worldview in which the entire spiritual history of humanity is not pathologized.

It is of note here that Grof was not some freewheeling psychiatric anarchist out to subvert the dominant paradigm for kicks. By his own admission he began his career staunchly conservative, and he was initially extremely uncomfortable at the paradigmatic violence done to his doctrinaire assumptions by the “avalanche of indisputable clinical facts” arising from LSD research. Instead, Grof would seem to represent that all-too-rare case of a scientist who actually allowed evidence to change his mind (his own personal exposure to LSD a few months after graduating medical school perhaps played no small role in this).

It’s also worth noting that all theories concerning invisible psychological worlds within us have their origin in the investigation of altered states. Freud’s own altered states of choice were hypnosis, the trance-babble of free association, and above all dreams (plus, presumably, the whopping doses of cocaine Freud used while contemplating the rich wonder of it all). Freud’s genius was to recognize that by applying a certain conceptual framework, the otherwise meaningless jumble of words, images, and affects making up non-ordinary consciousness could suddenly appear almost monstrously coherent. To be sure, in psychoanalysis everything is an ambiguity figure, interpretable as possessing a completely separate identity depending on cognitive mode or model. In psychiatric practice the stakes of model choice are extremely high, affecting as they do the health of individuals. As such, while it’s possible to enjoy a model of the unconscious for its aesthetic or even political qualities, the only real measure of a model’s accuracy is its effectiveness in healing pain.

It is on this level that reading Stanislav Grof is a genuinely moving experience. Grof was using acid to heal trauma inflicted by some of the most horrific extremes of abuse and trauma human history has to offer. His case histories are hardcore, involving people whose lives had been ruined by atrocities many young people living today would be hard-pressed to imagine. As a Czechoslovakian working with an adult population in the late fifties and early sixties, Grof was processing trauma from the Czech experience of Nazi occupation during WWII and later abuse under the communist regime. Additionally, because of the experimental nature of LSD psychotherapy, it was at first sanctioned only in cases that were considered otherwise hopeless. Many of his case histories make for extremely disturbing reading; but they can be uplifting as well, characterized as they are by bravery and compassion on all sides. Reading Grof’s accounts of the dramatic LSD-mediated recoveries of people considered incurable leaves one with no little sadness and anger that this approach was demonized and driven out of the realm of mainstream possibilities for healing. As Grof puts it (summing up in a very small space an ocean of feeling):

For those of us who had the privilege to explore and experience the extraordinary potential of psychedelics, this was a tragic loss for psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy. We felt that these unfortunate developments wasted what was probably the single most important opportunity in the history of these disciplines. Had it been possible to avoid the unnecessary mass hysteria and continue responsible research of psychedelics, they could have undoubtedly radically transformed the theory and practice of psychiatry. This new knowledge could have become an integral part of a comprehensive new scientific paradigm of the twenty-first century.

Grof’s material, if registered appropriately into public consciousness, could considerably alter the debate concerning scientific, medical, and legal attitudes towards psychedelics… so, small wonder that it hasn’t. We may simply be waiting for the conceptual old guard to die off in the manner described by Thomas Kuhn in his landmark work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. However, more is clearly at stake here than just the philosophy of science, as the paradigm shifts potentiated by psychedelics extend beyond the practice of psychotherapy and into bitter conflicts of culture and politics. As Grof points out:

What we see in the LSD experiences and in various situations surrounding them appears to be basically an exteriorization and magnification of the conflicts intrinsic to human nature and civilization.

A fact which it is perhaps best not to forget.

In the years intervening since Realms of the Human Unconscious was originally published, Grof has written a number of books each treating and dealing with his chosen subject matter in a slightly different way. Of the lot, Realms of the Human Unconscious remains one of the best points of entry for the general lay audience, and its re-titling as LSD: Doorway to the Numinous probably reflects a move to appeal to a readership less interested in Western psychiatric practice and more enamored of the modern neo-shamanistic psychedelic renaissance (i.e., the Burning-Man dollar). The supplementary material appending this latest edition includes a 2009-era update on the state of contemporary above-ground research cautiously re-emerging from the thaw of the drug-war. Let’s hope it’s not too long before the present wave of psychedelic science catches up and produces anything of the caliber and significance of the work of Stanislav Grof. Until then, he’s still The King.

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