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Beyond Psychotic Experience - Stan Grof interviewed by Jon Atkinson

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From Asylum Magazine, Summer 1999 Volume 11 #3


Beyond Psychotic Experience

Stan Grof interviewed by Jon Atkinson

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 treated.

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 brain pathology.

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 experiences?

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 tranquilizers.

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 option.

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 functioning.

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 detrimental.

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 uncomfortable symptoms.

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 to.Ē

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.

Created 9/5/2001 19:27:32
Modified 9/5/2001 19:27:32
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