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When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-ordinary Realities
by Stanislav Grof
Sounds True 
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 3/6/2010

I was first introduced to Stanislav Grof’s writings with his 1992 offering The Holotropic Mind. Since that time, I have read a number of his other books, chapters, and articles, as well as assorted interviews with him. Though I’ve enjoyed them all, When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-ordinary Realities is my hands-down favorite.

When the Impossible Happens presents a panoply of strange trips that Stan and those with whom he has worked over the last fifty-plus years have had during their explorations of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Situations of extreme synchronicity, the magical powers of an Indian swami, experiences of cellular and/or cosmic consciousness, past lives, UFOs, ESP, disembodied sight, near death, astral projection, the mysteries of a crystal skull, holophonic sound, martial arts, clairvoyance, channeling, archetypes, astrology, and other New Age mind states are documented in this straightforward narrative. Along with stories from Stan’s more recent work with Holotropic Breathwork, voyages sparked by a wide variety of substances—peyote, ketamine, toad venom, ayahuasca, MDA—are vividly described. While a few of the tales, such as Stan’s first LSD trip, have appeared previously in his writings, for the most part this book contains stories that I had not seen before. The chapters are short and largely independent, making this an engaging read that is easy to pick up and dip into at any time.

An important category of experiences derived from Stan’s research relates to his observation of situations that fall into various stages of what he calls the “basic perinatal matrix”. Suppressed memories, from before and during birth, appear for some people to have a profound influence on their psychological make-up later in life. In several cases where individuals’ relived memories from this time in their lives, those memories appear to have been verified by parents and relatives. One Breathwork participant who re-experienced his birth, reported the strong smell of leather; he later discovered that he had been born in a leather shop. A woman on LSD who relived her birth had a powerful vision of an oak tree; she then learned that her mother had been visualizing her own childhood memory of such a tree, at the exact time the daughter was being born. Such situations are curious, but the fundamental biological link at the base of them makes them easier to accept. This is not, however, the case with all of the “impossible” stories presented.

One of my favorite chapters in the book showcases a Brazilian painter and psychic named Luiz Antonio Gasparetto. Luiz has created over five thousand paintings, completed in the style of assorted dead artists whom he claims to channel while he works. After meeting him in São Paulo, Stan arranged for Luiz to visit the California retreat center Esalen, in order to share his unique talent. Before he arrived at Esalen, Luiz performed a demonstration for a small group, during which time the lights went out while he was painting. He continued cranking out excellent paintings, despite working entirely in the dark. At Esalen, Stan wanted those attending the demonstration to be able to watch Luiz paint; however, the fact that Luiz was able to do so in the dark was so astonishing, that an experiment was devised. The room Luiz worked in was only lit by a red light, which would not allow him to view colors accurately, but which would allow attendees to see what he was doing:

Luiz started to paint and, with astonishing speed, he kept producing one remarkable painting after another, each in the style of a different famous painter—van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin, Rembrandt, Monet, and many others. He was using both of his hands, at times painting two pictures simultaneously, one with each hand. Much of the time, he was not looking at the paper at all; he kept closing his eyes and bending his head backwards or to the side. He actually painted a Manet portrait upside down, under the table, and with his right foot, without looking at all. Luiz’s stunning performance lasted a little over an hour. When he stopped painting, the floor around him was covered with large paintings, twenty-six of them altogether. In spite of the red light in the room, all the paintings were painted in appropriate colors.

The amazing story of Luiz Antonio Gasparetto’s visit to Esalen doesn’t end with his artistic ability; several additional eerie psychic impressions from Luiz are presented that defy rational explanation. Intrigued, I looked online and was able to find a few videos (unfortunately not in English) that show the artist at work. Even if Luiz is somehow “faking it”, the speed at which he is able to produce paintings that appear incredibly similar to the works of great masters is astonishing, and worth checking out.

Throughout my life, I have wrestled with conflicting ideas from the materialistic, scientific worldview and the subjective, spiritual experiences accessible via non-ordinary states of consciousness. In this book, Stan discusses his own struggles with the contrasts between these two belief structures, and his attempts to explain the seemingly unexplainable.

A commonly reported aspect of non-ordinary states of consciousness is that the mental landscape experienced seems realer than everyday reality. There is a resounding permanence felt within the transpersonal state of oceanic bliss and interconnectedness that one does not feel within the consciousness of our everyday meat puppet existence. That subjective feeling is powerful and hard to shake. This feeling has been the inspiration for religions, the building of temples, the creation of rituals, and the acceptance of a wide range of ideas that seem incongruous with the scientific method’s way of knowing the world.

For those who have experienced such mind states, it is difficult to dismiss their seeming validity. And the more that one experiences them, the harder it becomes. The shamanic worldview, the picture of reality as sketched by the Perennial Philosophy, is powerful because one feels it first-hand. There is no need to “believe” in some antiquated abstract ideas simply because they have been repeated for hundreds or thousands of years within assorted religious tracts.

Materialistic skeptics will write off some of the tales presented within this book, and pooh-pooh many of Stan’s speculations. Indeed, a few of the synchronicities that were profound to Stan struck me as seeming merely coincidental. Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, non-ordinary states of consciousness tend to enhance that ability, and sometimes we project connections between things where they don’t actually exist. Beyond simple projection lies delusion; I’ve witnessed folks inspired by the transpersonal wander down that path as well. Nevertheless, one need not actually draw any conclusions to enjoy this book. I am comfortable with the idea that people do have experiences that they might characterize as “impossible”, regardless of how they might feel about such experiences. If Stan’s interpretation of such experiences moves further into the breach than some scientists are willing to step, this is understandable, based on his many years of experience in the field. Whether or not the experiences themselves can be explained by the current scientific paradigm, it unquestionably is good science to describe and catalog the wide range of psychological mind states that When the Impossible Happens expounds upon. Stan is to be commended for presenting this documentation in a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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