Theoretical Framework

The Perinatal Domain

   It was Grof’s consistent observation that any COEX system that starts manifesting itself in the process of holotropic therapy (or psychedelic therapy, or potentially any other form of experiential therapy capable of reaching pre-biographical content) will sooner or later begin to reveal its roots as embedded in the perinatal domain. It is at this time that the healing process really starts to take off.

Psychospiritual Death and Rebirth

   We have already briefly mentioned that, as we extend our exploration into the perinatal realm, we are setting ourselves up to undergo a process perhaps best described as psychospiritual death and rebirth. Sometimes we may also encounter the term ego death.[13] When we search for these terms online, we usually get lofty descriptions e.g. “complete loss of subjective self-identity”, or “an imageless experience in which there is no sense of personal identity”, or even something like “the obliteration of the Self”, etc. Often, confusion between the concepts of ego death and enlightenment is also encountered. In any case, there seems to be no shortage of people who feel compelled to describe this process, explain it or otherwise comment on it, which only shows how fundamental and universally important it is to a human being’s life. 

What we see in the practice of Holotropic Breathwork is that people usually don’t encounter ego death as a single, distinct, definite event, but rather experience it multiple times, getting an opportunity to see and appreciate it through different optics and from different angles, at various levels of depth of insight. This often happens over the course of many years. It may occur in a single person’s life on one occasion as a series of subtle intimations hinting at various aspects of the life-death dyad. At another time, it may seem as if the process of dying and being born is constantly manifested in everything around them. On yet another occasion, that same person may undergo a radical, once-in-a-lifetime, full-blown experience of a total ego dissolution. This may occur e.g. during a high-dose psychedelic session, with full awareness of the dying process and the subsequently resulting clear memory of the moment of the ultimate “letting go”. But these are mere examples. In practice, there really is no limit to the ways one may experience the universal Mystery of Death and Rebirth. So, it is pretty much up to each of us to decide whether we wish to include in our understanding of the ego death the sum of all its possible manifestations, in their many nuances, occurring on various levels and in diverse areas of our lived experience, or if we wish to reserve the term only for a single, perhaps exceptionally powerful instance of it.

Basic Perinatal Matrices – BPM I-IV

   Now, for the thoughtful holotropic practitioner, it will be a good idea to further break down the perinatal domain into its subcategories, as the knowledge of these may help to stabilize and integrate the process of self-exploration later on, in its more advanced stages.

Grof recognized a distinctive pattern in how the perinatal content tends to reveal itself in the holotropic process. There are four qualitatively distinct subdomains in Grof’s model of the perinatal. Grof calls these four sub-domains Basic Perinatal Matrices (or BPM). These matrices form a sequence of experiential content that occurs over the course of our intrauterine development (or, in other words, pregnancy). This nine-month-long period happens to be of cardinal importance in shaping the character of the entire subsequent life of every individual. Once we succeed in directly contacting this early period of our development, we will begin to intuitively understand how it vitally informs every aspect of our postnatal life.

Let’s take them one after the other…

BPM I

   The whole process of psychospiritual death and rebirth, as we undergo it during the very early stages of our biological life, begins in the first basic perinatal matrix. This is the experiential world of the intrauterine life, of what Grof sometimes called the amniotic universe.[14] The fetus is unaware of any boundaries whatsoever, does not differentiate between inner and outer, its own organism and the maternal organism. There is a genuine unity of the fetus and its surrounding environment.

If everything goes well and undisturbed during this early period, then people who re-enter this experiential realm later in the holotropic process often describe experiences of “vast regions with no boundaries or limits, […] identify with galaxies, interstellar space, or the entire cosmos. A related experience is that of floating in the sea, identifying with various aquatic animals, such as fish, jellyfish, dolphins, or whales, or even becoming the ocean. This seems to reflect the fact that the fetus is essentially an aquatic creature. Positive intrauterine experiences can also be associated with archetypal visions of Mother Nature, safe, beautiful, and unconditionally nourishing like a “good womb”. We can envision fruit-bearing orchards, fields of ripe corn, agricultural terraces in the Andes, or unspoiled Polynesian islands. Mythological images from the collective unconscious that often appear in this context portray various celestial realms and paradises as they are described in mythologies of different cultures.”[15]

The amniotic universe of BPM I [*]

Sometimes, however, even intrauterine life does not progress ideally, with all kinds of disturbances occurring. This would include various instances of accidents, illnesses of the mother, an autoimmune reaction of the maternal organism, drug abuse, emotional distress, etc. When we are reliving these experiences of what could be called the “bad womb”, we “have a sense of dark and ominous threat and often feel that we are being poisoned. We might see images that portray polluted waters and toxic dumps. This reflects the fact that many prenatal disturbances are caused by toxic changes in the body of the pregnant mother. Sequences of this kind can be associated with archetypal visions of frightening demonic entities or with a sense of insidious all-pervading evil. Those of us who relive episodes of more violent interference with prenatal existence, such as an imminent miscarriage or attempted abortion, usually experience some form of universal threat or bloody apocalyptic visions of the end of the world.”[16]

As soon as the first contractions occur, the fetus moves into the next stage…

BPM II

   The second basic perinatal matrix is where things start getting dramatic. The fetus, until now experiencing itself as one with the maternal organism, suddenly finds itself being seriously threatened by the beginning contractions. Its entire environment, indeed the whole cosmos, turns hostile and the situation is now getting progressively worse. The mechanical pressures are increasingly terrifying, and, worse still, the fetus begins to experience periodically returning states of suffocation, as the flow of oxygenized blood through the vascular tissue of the placenta becomes obstructed during the contractions. The entire “known universe” collapses on the fetus, unleashing actual Hell. The cervix has not yet opened, the pressures are increasingly unbearable, the situation seems fatal.

BPM II – The Maelström and other common manifestations

Grof observes that, when we are reliving these experiences in holotropic (or psychedelic) therapy, “we typically feel that we are being sucked into a gigantic whirlpool or swallowed by some mythic beast. We might also experience that the entire world or cosmos is being engulfed. This can be associated with images of devouring or entangling archetypal monsters, such as leviathans, dragons, whales, giant snakes, tarantulas, or octopuses. The sense of overwhelming vital threat can lead to intense anxiety and general mistrust bordering on paranoia. Another experiential variety of the […] second matrix is the theme of descending into the depths of the underworld, the realm of death, or hell. …

  It is only natural that someone facing this aspect of the psyche would feel a great reluctance to confront it. Going deeper into this experience seems like meeting eternal damnation. Yet, the fastest way of terminating this unbearable state is surrendering to it completely and accepting it. […] It is an important stage of spiritual opening that can have an immensely purging and liberating effect.”[17]

BPM III

   When the claustrophobic hell of BPM II reaches its full manifestation and we finally surrender to it, the process reaches a turning point. The cervix opens and that constitutes a decisive shift in the situation. Although the severity of the mechanical pressures of the contractions continues, or even keeps increasing and the threat of annihilation is still imminent, there nonetheless is an important qualitative change – the situation is not hopeless anymore, because there is now a way out. It is a transition from Hell, to “Hell with a perspective”. The third matrix is a fight for life. It involves hurting and being hurt, both as a result of the desperate struggle to be born. It is marked by a peculiar, highly emotionally charged mixture of huge violent impulses directed both towards the environment as well as ourselves, intense anxiety and a surreal blend of bizarre imagery and sexual excitement.

 A terrifying, phantasmagoric ride through BPM III

BPM III “is an extremely rich and complex experiential pattern. Besides the actual realistic reliving of different aspects of the struggle in the birth canal, it involves a wide variety of imagery drawn from history, nature, and archetypal realms. The most important of these are the atmosphere of titanic fight, aggressive and sadomasochistic sequences, experiences of deviant sexuality, demonic episodes, scatological involvement, and encounter with fire. … 

… The Titanic aspect of BPM III is quite understandable in view of the enormity of the forces operating in the final stage of childbirth. When we encounter this facet of the third matrix, we experience streams of energy of overwhelming intensity, rushing through the body and building up to explosive discharges. …

Aggressive and sadomasochistic aspects of this matrix reflect the biological fury of the organism whose survival is threatened by suffocation, as well as the introjected destructive onslaught of the uterine contractions. …

Sexual experiences that occur in the context of BPM III are characterized by enormous intensity of the sexual drive, by their mechanical and unselective quality, and their exploitative, pornographic, or deviant nature. They depict scenes from red-light districts and from the sexual underground, extravagant erotic practices, and sadomasochistic sequences. …”[18]

As the flaming agony of the final stages of BPM III runs its course, our mind finally opens to the great experiential resolution of the whole death and rebirth process: we become a newborn. Dying and being born, fear and ecstasy, defeat and victory, confusion and order, futility and purpose – they are all now parts of one perfect whole.[19]

BPM IV

   The fourth matrix is the matrix of reunion with the maternal organism. It is the final destination, reached after a long and hard struggle. It is the Home to which we have returned after a difficult and dangerous adventure. It is the same Home from which we earlier embarked on our journey, yet, we ourselves are not the same anymore. Everything old and corrupt has been burned in the fierce blaze of the final stages of BPM III, and here we are — a genuinely new entity, a self-aware individual with a unique creative potential, full of divine light, born into an entirely new world. This is transcendence!

BPM IV — Transcendence

Let us conclude this section on Basic Perinatal Matrices with one last excerpt from Grof’s Psychology of the Future:

“The ‘dying’ and the agony during the struggle for rebirth reflect the actual pain and vital threat of the biological birth process. However, the ego death that precedes rebirth is the death of our old concepts of who we are and what the world is like, which were forged by the traumatic imprint of birth and are maintained by the memory of this situation that stays alive in our unconscious.

As we are clearing these old programs by letting them emerge into consciousness, they are losing their emotional charge and are, in a sense, dying. But we are so identified with them that approaching the moment of the ego death feels like the end of our existence, or even like the end of the world. As frightening as this process is, it is actually very healing and transforming. …

… What is actually dying in this process is the false ego that, up to this point in our life, we have mistaken for our true self.”

Study

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The promise that is the basis of the term “Promised Land” is contained in several verses of Genesis in the Torah. In Genesis 12:1 it is said:

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

In other words: “Go and have an adventure!”

“While the traditional model of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis is strictly personalistic and biographical, modern consciousness research has added new levels, realms, and dimensions and shows the human psyche as being essentially commensurate with the whole universe and all of existence.” Grof, 1985, Beyond the Brain

Some indigenous peoples have been using psychoactive plants (and sometimes animal products) for healing and spiritual purposes for thousands of years. Many of them developed original, elaborate contexts for this, both theoretical and practical. These so-called shamanic traditions can be found within tribal communities all over the world, with the Amazonian region being the richest, both in quantity and variety.

Abraham Maslow’s book “Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences” is widely recognized as the initiatory paper of Humanistic Psychology.

You can find a list of Stanislav Grof’s books in the Study section of this website. There is also a list with additional recommended reading, links and further information sources in the Integration section.

Since bodywork obviously involves some degree of physical contact, it is important to say that, in Holotropic Breathwork, bodywork is always initiated by the breather, and never takes place without the breather’s consent. GTT certified facilitators are carefully trained in Focused Energy Release Work and are required to follow high ethical standards in their practice.

An exception here may be a single-participant session, with only the breather and a qualified facilitator present. Even single-participant sessions, however, can be conducted with a sitter present, in addition to the facilitator.

Holotropic Breathwork® is an internationally registered trademark, and only holders of a GTT certificate have the right to use it for their public practice.

The popular term “set & setting” which is now widely used in Depth Psychology and psychedelic circles, was originally coined by Timothy Leary in the early 1960s.

In the ancient Chinese Taoist tradition, the term Wu-Wei is to be found. Among its English translations we find the likes of “non-doing”, or “effortless action”.

The cited verses appear in the seminal, most ancient Taoist text Neiye (內業) or Inward Training. The text describes breath meditation techniques and qi (氣) circulation.

Excerpt taken from Harold D. Roth’s book Original Tao.
(credits: Wikipedia)

Quantum mechanics is a difficult subject, and few, if any, people really understand it in its entirety. Fortunately, a number of authors have done a fantastic job in popularizing the basic ideas involved, e.g. Amit Goswami, Fred Alan Wolf, Michio Kaku and Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1975), among others. As to general systems theory, Fritjof Capra delivered a good and accessible introduction in his books The Turning Point (1982) and The Web of Life (1996).

Tav Sparks deceased on August 9th, 2020.
Rest in Peace, Tav.

Fun Fact

According to Wikipedia “The last country to produce LSD legally (until 1975) was Czechoslovakia”.

Skeletal formula and ball-and-stick and space-filling models of the lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) molecule.
(credits: Wikipedia)

The word “psychedelic” consists of two Greek words: “ψυχή” [psukhḗ] meaning “mind, soul”, and “δῆλος” [dêlos] meaning “manifest, visible”. Thus the word “psychedelic” means “mind-manifesting”.

The famous Flammarion Engraving depicts a man, clothed in a long robe and carrying a staff, who is at the edge of the Earth, where it meets the sky. He kneels down and passes his head, shoulders, and right arm through the star-studded sky, discovering a marvellous realm of circling clouds, fires and suns beyond the heavens. It has been used as a metaphorical illustration of either the scientific or the mystical quests for knowledge.

That is to say, insight into the nature of the actual “substance” of the mind, as opposed to merely the internal dynamics of it.

This same principle can be found in other words too, like the word “heliotropic” meaning “moving toward the sun” (used with reference to plants that tend to follow the movement of the sun).

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This is to say that, during the transpersonal experience, we may, for instance, experientially identify with some other being, e.g. an animal or a person, in contrast to our usual identification with our regular self. During this experience, we will be fully and intimately aware of that being’s mental and physical constituents and characteristics, as it experiences them in and of itself. However, we may also experientially transcend the associated sense of “I-ness” itself. This is the “self-reflecting” aspect that remains constant across both the examples considered — experiencing yourself as the ordinary “you”, as well as the “you” being the animal or other person. The psychedelic or holotropic experience may, on occasion, move beyond this sense of “I-ness” altogether. At that point, there is no “you”.

In the theory of Psychoanalysis, we have the classic categories of id, ego and superego. Roughly speaking, the id represents unconscious biological drives, the superego internalized rules of conduct from childhood (personal hygiene training, boundary enforcement, etc.), and the ego a self-aware “I”, functioning as a balancing mediator between the other two. In the expanded, holotropic state of consciousness, we may, for instance, have a vivid experience of identifying simultaneously with our regular self and the self of our father, resulting in a new perspective on our relationship with our actual father, as well as the relationship of the respective internal sub-personalities (ego and superego). At other times, our experience may exceed the boundaries of the psychoanalytic model (if, for instance, we happened to be previously familiar with it, and tended to view the internal workings of our mind through its optics) so dramatically and to such a degree, that it would render the entire Freudian conceptual construction completely irrelevant. Consequently, it would be necessary for us to adopt a broader, more comprehensive image of our self.

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All illustrations on this page are from the world famous, one and only Stanislav Grof ‘s psychedelic paintings collection.

Having a psychological origin or cause rather than a physical one.

When searching for a psychotherapist for this particular kind of combination, it is important to bear in mind that not every psychotherapeutic approach will work well here. It is important to find a therapist who has integrated the transpersonal approach into his or her conceptual framework.

This may include not only Holotropic Breathwork, but also Psychedelic Therapy, certain types of shamanic healing approaches e.g. the “Yagé” ceremonies of the South American indigenous people, or any other kind of therapy based on the holotropic principles, as described by Transpersonal Psychology.

This particular principle is understood to be of prime importance, specifically under the ethos of the Grof Transpersonal Training school. In other types of breathwork, or with practitioners who decided to diverge in their practice from the GTT methodology, you may sometimes encounter facilitation practices where the facilitator enters physical interaction with the participant on a more autonomous basis. Whether this is for the benefit of the participants or not is subject to ongoing debate, but at GTT (and Holotropic Bohemia), we, as facilitators, always err on the side of self-restraint.

For the interested reader, several academic papers elaborating on the topic can be mentioned:

Laurel Watjen: An Argument for the use of Holotropic Breathwork as an Adjunct to Psychotherapy   (PDF)

Sarah W. Holmes, Robin Morris, Pauline Rose Clance, R. Thompson Putney: Holotropic breathwork: An experiential approach to psychotherapy (PDF)

Tanja Miller, Laila Nielsen: Measure of Significance of Holotropic Breathwork in the Development of Self-Awareness (PDF)

A long-term study with 11 000 participants was completed by James Eyerman at the Stress Center of Hyland Behavioral Health, Saint Anthony’s Medical Center in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 2001 (starting in 1989). The study was concluded with the following: “Among the 11 000 inpatients, the experience was well tolerated. There were no reports of problems at the end of the sessions. Nursing staff reported no untoward sequelae or complaints following the breathwork during this 12-year period.”

detailed study report

Holotropic Breathwork practitioners oftentimes regard this navigating function as “the inner healer”, or “the inner healing intelligence”, especially in the GTT community. However, the concept of an innate ability of humans to progress towards greater levels of inner integrity, health and completeness (under the presupposition that obstructions to this process are removed, or at least temporarily kept at bay), is not unique to the holotropic conceptual framework. There is, for instance, a corresponding concept to be found in Hindu philosophy, although it’s framed quite differently. It is the concept of Ishvara. Ishvara can be understood as the Supreme Being, a personal god/Self of every individual, who chooses each instant of a devotee’s life, selecting experiences moment by moment from the individual’s “karmic storehouse”, with regard to the devotee’s optimal spiritual development.

Subtle energy is a concept of a natural force currently not recognized by Western science. It was, however, widely adopted across multiple spiritual and medicinal systems all over the world. Among the most well known systems utilizing this concept are Taoism and Yoga, where subtle energy is regarded as “Chi” or “Prana”, respectively. In Sanskrit, Prana essentially means breath, “life force”, or “vital principle”.

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

In real life, however, many partial deviations occur from this general, ideal structure. A 24-hour-long delivery with the use of anesthetics will have a different impact on the psychological formation of the fetus than a spontaneous and uncomplicated delivery, or e.g. a delivery via Cesarean section.

Stanislav Grof conducted more than 4500 LSD-assisted therapeutic sessions. While not all of these were completed as early as the time when he formulated the concepts of COEX Systems and Basic Perinatal Matrices, these concepts remain as relevant for the work with holotropic states of consciousness today, as they were back in the ‘70s.

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Citation from Stanislav Grof – Psychology Of The Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research (2000)

Amnion is the innermost membrane that encloses the embryo of a mammal, bird, or reptile.

The concept of psychospiritual death and rebirth is specifically relevant to Psychology, Mythology (the universal myth of the “Hero’s Journey”, as described notably by Joseph Campbell, currently being also powerfully popularized by Jordan B. Peterson), Christianity, and Eastern spiritual traditions and practices. In each of these contexts, ego death will have a slightly different meaning or emphasis, although they are all complementary, and pertain to the general idea of death and rebirth. We can also find an equivalent concept in Shamanic traditions, where it is connected to the so called “shaman’s illness” and the experience of “dismemberment”.

Bear in mind that this rather extreme example comes from experimental research with sustained administrations of very high doses of LSD, and involves a person with a serious psychiatric diagnosis. It gives, however, a good example of how far holotropic therapy (in this case psychedelics-assisted) can potentially reach.

Now and then, cases are even reported in which people undergoing particularly turbulent episodes of surfacing difficult COEX systems, seem to be attracting external situations they apparently can be in no control of, e.g. perhaps unexpectedly occurring accidents or calamitous events, which nonetheless appear to be complementing their subjective experiential realities with striking relevance.

These types of events would fall under the category of so called synchronistic occurrences, a concept originally outlined by Carl Gustav Jung. To the present day, we don’t have much satisfactory understanding of this phenomenon and the concept of synchronicity has been criticized by some as rather unscientific. Scientific or not, it remains true that those who have encountered a major synchronicity at first hand in their lives, usually have little doubt about the significance of the event.

The occurrence of this kind of mismatch is sometimes called “cognitive dissonance” and it counts in Psychology and Psychiatry as a cause of extreme psychological discomfort. Hence we have our personality set up in such a way as to prioritize the avoidance of such a state by all means.

Grof elaborated on the concepts of both COEX Systems and Basic Perinatal Matrices already in his first book Realms of the Human Unconscious, originally published in 1975, which was shortly after he was forced by the new legislation to abandon his psychedelic research.

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