Life, Death, God and Psychedelics:
An Interview With Consciousness Researcher Stanislav Grof
BY DAVID JAY BROWN
stanislav grof, a pioneer in psychedelic enhanced psychotherapy, non-ordinary states of consciousness, transpersonal psychology and the creator of holotropic breathwork.
Few people on this planet know more about nonordinary states of consciousness than Czech American psychiatric researcher Stanislav Grof, M.D., Ph.D. Grof is one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology; the codeveloper, with his late wife Christina Grof, ofHolotropic Breathwork therapy; and a pioneering researcher, for more than fifty years, into the use of nonordinary states of consciousness for the purposes of healing, personal growth, and spiritual transformation. Grof is also one of the world’s experts on LSD psychotherapy and has supervised more legal LSD sessions than anyone else on the planet.
What kind of an effect do you think that psychedelics have on creativity and problem-solving abilities?
Stanislav Grof: Oh, a tremendous effect. We have extensive evidence in that regard. In 1993 molecular biologist and DNA chemist Kary Mullis received a Nobel Prize for his development of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which allows the amplification of specific DNA sequences; it is a central technique in biochemistry and molecular biology. During a symposium in Basel celebrating Albert Hofmann’s hundredth birthday, Albert revealed that he was told by Kary Mullis that LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction. Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize–winning father of modern genetics, was under the influence of LSD when he discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. He told a fellow scientist that he often used small doses of LSD to boost his power of thought. He said it was LSD that helped him to unravel the structure of DNA, the discovery that won him the Nobel Prize.
Steve Jobs said taking LSD was among the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He has stated that people around him, who did not share his countercultural roots, could not fully relate to his thinking.
Willis Harman collected in his book Higher Creativity many examples of high-level problem solving in nonordinary states of consciousness. I think that studying the effect on creativity is by far the most interesting area where psychedelics could be used. Offer them to people who are experts in certain areas, such as cosmology, quantum-relativistic physics, biology, evolutionary theory, and so on—individuals who hold an enormous amount of information about a particular field and who are aware of the problems which need to be solved.
Many people report unexplained phenomena while under the influence of psychedelics, such as telepathic communication or uncanny synchronicities. What do you make of these types of experiences, which conventional science has great difficulty explaining, and which seem to provide evidence for psychic phenomena?
Stanislav Grof: The number of these seemingly unexplainable phenomena is growing, and it’s occurring in all kinds of disciplines. I think Ervin Laszlo’s concept of the psi-, or Akashic, field is the most promising approach to these paradigm-breaking phenomena.I think that all this points to the fact that the current monistic/materialistic worldview is seriously defective, and that we need a completely different way of looking at reality. But there is tremendous resistance against the new observations in the academic world, because the revision that is necessary is too radical, something that cannot be handled by a little patchwork, by little ad hoc hypotheses here and there. We would have to admit that the basic philosophy of the Western scientific worldview is seriously wrong and that in many ways shamans from illiterate cultures and ancient cultures have had a more adequate understanding of reality than we do. We have learned a lot about the world of matter, but in terms of basic metaphysical understanding of reality, Western science went astray.
Do you think that the archetypes and information that are stored in the human collective unconscious are of a genetic origin—that is, stored in our DNA—or do you see them as being more like a morphic field that permeates the biosphere and incorporates cultural as well as genetic information?
Stanislav Grof: I don’t think it’s in the DNA or in the brain. I don’t think it’s in anything that we can consider to be material substrate, at least not in the ordinary sense.
So do you see it more like a morphic field?
Stanislav Grof: Yes. The best model that we currently have is Ervin Laszlo’s concept of what he used to call a psi-field; now he calls it the Akashic field. In his last two books, The Connectivity Hypothesis and Science and the Akashic Field, he describes it as a subquantum field, where everything that has ever happened in the universe remains holographically recorded, so that under certain circumstances we can tune in to it and have the corresponding experiences. For example, in nonordinary states of consciousness, we can have experiences of scenes from ancient Egypt or the French Revolution, because there’s an objectively existing record of these events in that field, and people who tap that information can reach consensus that they experienced the same kind of things.
What do you think of applying Konrad Lorenz’s notion of biological imprinting, as opposed to conditioning or learning, to the lasting psychological effect that psychedelic experiences often produce?Stanislav Grof: I ultimately don’t believe that the memories we experience in psychedelic sessions are stored in the brain—certainly not all of them. I think that many of them obviously don’t have any material substrate in the conventional sense—ancestral, collective, phylogenetic, and karmic memories, archetypal matrices, et cetera. Recently, there has been much discussion about memory without a material substrate—for example, Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenetic fields or Ervin Laszlo’s Akashic field. So I don’t believe that what we experience is stored in the brain. I believe that the brain is mediating consciousness but does not generate it, and that it mediates memories but does not store them.
What do you personally think happens to consciousness after death?
Stanislav Grof: I have had experiences in my psychedelic sessions—quite a few of them—when I was sure I was in the same territory that we enter after death. In several of my sessions, I was absolutely certain that it had already happened and I was surprised when I came back, when I ended up in the situation where I took the substance. So the experience of being in a bardo in these experiences is extremely convincing. We now also have many clinical observations suggesting that consciousness can operate independently of the brain, the prime example being out-of-body experiences in near-death situations.
Some out-of-body experiences can happen to people not only when they are in a state of cardiac death, but also when they are brain-dead. Cardiologist Michael Sabom described a patient he called Pam, who had a major aneurysm on the basilar artery and had to undergo a risky operation. In order to operate on her, they had to basically freeze her brain to the point that she stopped producing brain waves. And at the same time she had one of the most powerful out-of-body experiences ever observed, with accurate perception of the environment. Following her operation she was able to give an accurate description of the operation and to draw the instruments they were using.
So what these observations suggest is that consciousness can operate independently of our body when we are alive, which makes it fairly plausible that something like that is possible after our body is dead.What is your perspective on the concept of God?
Stanislav Grof: I had experiences—actually quite a few of them over the years—of what I would refer to as God.
I have experienced in my sessions many gods—archetypal figures of many forms from different cultures of the world. But when I refer to God, I am talking about an experience which is beyond any forms. What I experienced as God is difficult to describe; as you know, the mystics often refer to their experiences as ineffable. It could be best described as an incredibly powerful source of light, with an intensity that I earlier couldn’t even have imagined. But it doesn’t really do it justice to refer to it as light, because it was much more than that. It seemed to contain all of existence in a completely abstract form, and it transcended all imaginable polarities. There was a sense of infinite boundless creativity. There was a sense of personality and even a sense of humor (of a cosmic variety).
The experience of God seems to be, under certain circumstances, available to all human beings. If you haven’t had the experience, then there’s no point in talking about it. As long as people have to talk about believing in God or not believing in God or, for that matter, believing in past lives or not believing in past lives, it is irrelevant, because they do not have anything to go by. Their opinion doesn’t have any real basis; it reflects the influences of their parents, their preacher, or something they have read. Once you had the experiences, you know that the experiences were real and very convincing.
This interview with consciousness researcher Stanislav Grof is excerpted with permission from Frontiers of Psychedelic Consciousness by David Jay Brown © 2015 Park Street Press. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
About The Author
David Jay Brown holds a master’s degree in psychobiology from New York University. A former neuroscience researcher at the University of Southern California, he has written for Wired, Discover, and Scientific American, and his news stories have appeared on the Huffington Post and CBS News. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including The New Science of Psychedelics. He lives in Ben Lomond, California. mavericksofthemind.com