From Asylum Magazine, Summer 1999 Volume 11 #3
|Beyond Psychotic Experience
Stan Grof interviewed by Jon
Could you talk about how see the relationship between what
is termed psychotic experience, and the long term pathological problems that can
be associated with it.
I would say that among the people who are treated as psychotic there is a
substantial subgroup of people who are really involved in a transformative
process. And if itís differently understood, and differently supported, it can
actually manifest itself in a form of healing that can be transformative. If
itís misunderstood, and they get labels and tranquilizers, they can get
started on a lifetime of pathology.
The term psychosis was developed in the context of the medical model. It implies
some form of disease. Where as what we are trying to say is that certain intense
states, of dramatic emotions, of visionary or psychosomatic manifestations and
so on, they donít have to be necessarily disease states. That having those in
itself doesnít justify a pathological diagnosis. And the outcome can depend
very much on the set and setting, the surroundings and how the condition is
What kind of positive effects can a supposedly psychotic experience have if
it is treated in the most desirable way?
Well the idea is that if people have say dramatic states which involve a lot of
painful emotions, and other kinds of experiences, that the organism is actually
trying to get rid something. Itís trying to purge something, and so ideally it
can result in emotional and psychosomatic healing. It can result in radical
personality transformation where people can feel better about themselves and
about the world, they can function better, they enjoy life more.
We work with a much larger model. The kinds of conceptual frameworks in
psychology that see the psyche as something that can be explained from postnatal
events, and from the Freudian individual unconscious, they donít have any way
of accounting, in a believable way, for some of the extreme states, or powerful
states of violence, of fear of death, or fear of destruction of the whole world.
Where as if you have a larger model which includes not just post natal biography
but something like biological birth, which is for many people a very dramatic
event, then if the organism is trying to clear such a fundamental trauma you can
explain very dramatic emotions and very unusual states and sensations. And if
you add to this the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, archetypes
and so on, then you can quite believably explain some states that would
otherwise be considered to be very exotic, like for example mythological
reality, deities and so on.
So much of this depends on having a large enough model of the psyche if youíre
trying to explain some of the extreme states of some of the so called psychosis.
If youíre trying to explain it in a narrow theoretical framework you will not
be able to do it, and everything that doesnít fit, that goes beyond that
framework gets labeled as pathology and youíd suspect some kind of exotic
With that standard reaction of assuming brain dysfunction, the approach of
orthodox psychiatry is to administer major tranquilizers. What effect do you see
this as having on the person who is going through these non-ordinary
Well basically if you have a situation where the unconscious opens on a very
deep level and these contents start surfacing, and it becomes uncomfortable and
you apply tranquilizers at this point, it tends to sort of freeze the process
mainly, and effectively prevent a kind of a resolution of this. This is the same
in psychedelic states. The worst thing that you can do to people having a bad
trip is to give them tranquilizers because many of the so called bad trips, if
they are properly handled, are supported while itís happening, you know so
they cannot do anything to themselves or to others while this is happening, then
in most instances they end with radical breakthroughs.
The state itself is very unpleasant for the person who is clearing a very
difficult aspect of themselves, so if itís allowed to run it can be completed
and integrated, it will be a major healing event. And if you apply tranquilizers
you might reach a situation where itís too late, itís too close to the
surface and too much is happening, you will not be able to really push it back
deep enough into the unconscious. And so you might have to keep people on
maintenance doses, and every time you start reducing the dosage that stuff will
be coming back. So you kind of freeze it. You prevent effective resolution. And
of course people are on tranquilizers for many years and youíre running the
risk of side effects, irreversible neurological damage, actual addiction to some
Then again I would not like to talk against tranquilizers in general. There are
certainly states where they are quite indicated, and people can be in states
that donít really respond very well to the kind of alternative strategy that
we are suggesting. For example people who are heavily paranoid, they donít
usually cooperate, they will not accept this kind of help. Lots of people are in
this state where theyíre projecting, and they would be dangerous to themselves
or to others, then tranquilizers would be very useful and appropriate for
approaching it. So we just like to present our strategy as an alternative, as an
Are there any techniques for gaining someoneís trust in the possibility
that with support the experience may be beneficial to them?
I think if you are personally familiar with the states that people are in, which
can happen if you did some powerful inner work, or you have some episodes of
spontaneous non-ordinary states, then you know intimately the territories, so
youíll be able to talk with those people in a language that they understand.
You will not invalidate their experiences and you will ask intelligent
questions. Otherwise if youíre going to be approaching in a traditional
framework, where thereís no real understanding of non-ordinary states, then
you are asking questions from a totally different world and you canít expect
that there will be very deep contact.
Itís like say a pre-adolescent trying to understand what it is to have a
sexual orgasm. You would have a situation where a pre-adolescent would be
interviewing somebody whoís already having sexual experiences, interviewing
them about sex, and would want to be perceived as an expert in that area. We
have this kind of idea in psychiatry that itís enough to go to medical school
and read the right books and then that makes you an expert. To have done some
work with psychedelics or with these states can help. They always say that
unless youíve had the experience there is just no way that you can have an
idea. So what Iím saying, by having had personal experiences and letting
people know that you have an idea of where they are, well that itself will
cultivate trust because you are asking them questions that make sense.
What about a situation where someone begins with trust, enters into a
non-ordinary state, and then that trust is suddenly lost? Are there precautions
that can be taken with this?
Well the first and most important thing is that you understand that you are
exploring your inner world, and that if you do any serious exploration of this
kind, that you do it in an internalized way. Because whatís happening here is
that the ordinary relationship that we have between the consciousness and the
unconscious will shift very radically, and while you will have now powerful
access to the unconscious you will be also handicapped in term of conscious
And in addition there is a tremendous danger of confusing the inner world with
the outer world, so youíll be dealing with your inner realities but at the
same time you are not even aware of whatís happening, You perceive a sort of
distortion of the world out there. So you can end up in a situation where
youíre weakening the resistances, your conscious is becoming more aware, but
youíre not really in touch with it properly, youíre not really fully
experiencing whatís there, not seeing it for what it is. You get kind of
deluded and caught into this.
So thatís the first and most important thing is to create the right
circumstances, a protective environment. And do it in an internalized way.
Donít interact with the external world until you know that youíre back to
your ordinary reality testing.
Thatís the right set and setting, but even then thereís no guarantee that
thatís not going to happen. You have to understand that if something is
happening to you, say with LSD, that itís very unlikely that because you took
LSD your current environment has changed, and what is changing is your
relationship with your unconscious. So the major problem in any kind of work of
this kind really is projection, where people cannot recognize this. A lot of it
can be prevented with the right set and setting. And with the right person being
there with you.
Could you say something about the relation between a particular psychotic state,
and the emotional atmosphere and symptoms which prevail in the period
immediately after that state, in the everyday world of consensus reality.
Anything that before was in the deep unconscious, now in the psychedelic state
itís going to start surfacing. And if you donít complete that internally
then you can end up in a situation where that condition is now close to the
surface, youíre really under its influence for an indefinite period after the
session. Itís not something thatís related to the LSD, to the psychedelic,
it has to do with the shift of the relationship between your unconscious and
your consciousness. Itís like a dream, with a dream something that was part of
you, but in a deep unconscious, takes over and youíre going to be experiencing
as if it were happening now. After a psychedelic session you can get back in
this state in everyday life.
Could you clarify the ideas you have about the internalization of symbolic
experience, and the externalization of emotionally expressing experience. You
talk about control and the abandon of control.
Well what we do in the holotropic breathwork, [a form of therapy which aims to
approximate the effects of psychedelics,] we create a situation where you can
let go of control where there is support and understanding. And there, on your
own terms, you can confront your unconscious. And doing this kind of work in a
protected situation can take the charge away from everyday situations. You
donít want to loose control in San Francisco airport. But if there is support
to let go to the inner process, that gives you the possibility of coming to
terms with it, express what you couldnít express, and integrate it.
The expression is important but it has to be done in a special kind of
situation. Working with emotions is extremely useful, but you hold back to some
extent as long as you know that the emotions are inappropriate, you hold back
your reactions or actions in everyday life. You can create working situations,
whether they are psychedelic sessions, or holotropic sessions, or meditation,
when you can really process whateverís coming from within. Itís also a
situation where you can differentiate, you can discriminate whatís yours and
whatís really out there. To confuse those two is very unproductive, very
After intense psychotic experience, if it does move in a beneficial manner,
what do you mean by integrating the experience?
It means completing it emotionally and physically with the gestalt completed.
That means there are no more disturbing emotions coming up, no more
And then part of the integration would be to handle successfully the interface
with the cultural environment. You can get into a lot of trouble by having had
unusual experiences and talking about these. So part of the integration is being
aware of where other people are, what they can understand and canít
understand, with whom you can talk about certain things, and with whom you
donít talk, the kind of metaphors you chose. We had, in one of the Spiritual
Emergency newsletters, a cartoon showing a naked yogi hanging on a tree with his
foot and a guy in a straight jacket saying ďWhy do they call you a mystic and
me a psychotic?Ē and the yogi says, ďThe mystic knows whom not to talk
People get into trouble either by acting in the external world while they are
still in the non-ordinary state, when they confuse realities, and sometimes they
do it after the experience when they donít discriminate, they donít
differentiate, they talk about it indiscriminately. They walk around trying to
convince people that ďyouíre God, you should just experience itĒ, or that
thereís consciousness after death. People get into trouble about it, by trying
to convince everybody they have a message and become messianic.
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