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Posts Tagged ‘Holotropic Breathwork’

The previous post looked at the Grof’s account of Karen’s experience of a spiritual emergency and how it was dealt with. Now we need to look at some of the implications as well as other aspects of their approach.

The Context

I want to open this section with that part of Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys that has formed the focus of my morning meditations for the last few weeks. I have persisted so long in the hope that I will eventually understand it more fully. I believe that Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and the one whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appointed as His successor, was of the opinion that one needed to read at least ten books by writers who were not Bahá’ís in order to have any hope of understanding a Bahá’í text fully. I may have conveniently chosen to believe that factoid in order to justify my own bookaholic tendencies.

Setting that aside for now, what matters at the moment are the resonances between the words of Bahá’u’lláh and the topic I am exploring more deeply here.

I have touched on how materialistic assumptions about reality will dismiss as rubbish or even pathologise phenomena their paradigm excludes from possibility.

Bahá’u’lláh directly addresses this point (page 33):

God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matters which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them:

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?

Our deification of reason has stripped the world we believe in of God and made it difficult, even impossible, in some cases for some people, to entertain the possibility that God in some form does exist, though that would not be as some white-bearded chariot-riding figure in the sky.

This is the Grofs take on this issue (page 247):

A system of thinking that deliberately discards everything that cannot be weighed and measured does not leave any opening for the recognition of creative cosmic intelligence, spiritual realities, or such entities as transpersonal experiences or the collective unconscious. . . . . . While they are clearly incompatible with traditional Newtonian-Cartesian thinking, they are actually in basic resonance with the revolutionary developments in various disciplines of modern science that are often referred to as the new paradigm.

This world-view seriously demeans us (page 248):

Human beings are described as material objects with Newtonian properties, more specifically as highly developed animals and thinking biological machines. . .

We have taken this model or simulation as the truth (ibid.):

In addition, the above description of the nature of reality and of human beings has in the past been generally seen not for what it is – a useful model organising the observations and knowledge available at a certain time in the history of science – but as a definitive and accurate description of reality itself. From a logical point of view, this would be considered a serious confusion of the ‘map’ with the ‘territory.’

This reductionist dogmatism has serious implications for psychosis (page 249):

Since the concept of objective reality and accurate reality testing are the key factors in determining whether the individual is mentally healthy, the scientific understanding of the nature of reality is absolutely critical in this regard. Therefore, any fundamental change in the scientific world-view has to have far-reaching consequences for the definition of psychosis.

A Holographic Approach

They contend that the paradigm is shifting (ibid.:)

. . . The physical universe has come to be viewed as a unified web of paradoxical, statistically determined events in which consciousness and creative intelligence play a critical role. . . This approach has become known as holographic because some of its remarkable features can be demonstrated with use of optical holograms as conceptual tools.

Their explanation of the holographic model is clear and straightforward (page 250):

The information in holographic systems is distributed in such a way that all of it is contained and available in each of its parts. . . .

It’s implications are profound:

If the individual and the brain are not isolated entities but integral parts of a universe with holographic properties – if they are in some way microcosms of a much larger system – then it is conceivable that they can have direct and immediate access to information outside themselves.

This resonates with what Bahá’u’lláh writes in the same section of the Seven Valleys:

Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.

It is crucial for us all as well as for those labelled psychotic that we cease to reduce the mind to a machine. The Grofs spell out the implications for psychosis when we refuse to take the more transcendent perspective (page 252):

The discoveries of the last few decades strongly suggest that the psyche is not limited to postnatal biography and to the Freudian individual unconscious and confirm the perennial truth, found in many mystical traditions, that human beings might be commensurate with all there is. Transpersonal experiences and their extraordinary potential certainly attest to this fact.

. . . In traditional psychiatry, all holotropic experiences have been interpreted as pathological phenomena, in spite of the fact that the alleged disease process has never been identified; this reflects the fact that the old paradigm did not have an adequate explanation for these experiences and was not able to account for them in any other way.

Assuming that we do accept that possibility of a spiritual reality, what follows? They spell it out:

. . . . two important and frequently asked questions are how one can diagnose spiritual emergency and how it is possible to differentiate transformational crises from spiritual emergence and from mental illness.

This is only possible up to a point (page 253):

The psychological symptoms of… organic psychoses are clearly distinguishable from functional psychoses by means of psychiatric examination and psychological tests.

. . . . When the appropriate examinations and tests have excluded the possibility that the problem we are dealing with is organic in nature, the next task is to find out whether the client fits into the category of spiritual emergency – in other words, differentiate this state from functional psychoses. There is no way of establishing absolutely clear criteria for differentiation between spiritual emergency and psychosis or mental disease, since such terms themselves lack objective scientific validity. One should not confuse categories of this kind with such precisely defined disease entities as diabetes mellitus or pernicious anaemia. Functional psychoses are not diseases in a strictly medical sense and cannot be identified with the degree of accuracy that is required in medicine when establishing a differential diagnosis.

What they say next blends nicely with the points made in my recent posts about where the dubious basis of diagnosis takes us (page 256):

Since traditional psychiatry makes no distinction between psychotic reactions and mystical states, not the only crises of spiritual opening but also uncomplicated transpersonal experiences often receive a pathological label.

This has paved the way to dealing with their approach to intervention and their criteria for distinguishing spiritual emergencies that can be helped from other states.

Holotropic Breathwork

Before we look briefly at their attempt to create criteria by which we might distinguish spiritual from purely functional phenomena I want to look at their recommended method for helping people work through inner crises. This method applies what the non-organic origin. This technique they call Holotropic Breathwork.

First they define what they mean by holotropic (page 258):

We use the term holotropic in two different ways – the therapeutic technique we have developed and for the mode of consciousness it induces. The use of the word holotropic in relation to therapy suggests that the goal is to overcome inner fragmentation as well as the sense of separation between the individual and the environment. The relationship between wholeness and healing is reflected in the English language, since both words have the same root.

They then look at its components and their effects (page 259):

The reaction to [a] combination of accelerated reading, music, and introspective focus of attention varies from person to person. After a period of about fifteen minutes to half an hour, most of the participants show strong active response. Some experience a buildup of intense emotions, such as sadness, joy, anger, fear, or sexual arousal.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious:

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

As Fontana makes clear in his book Is there an Afterlife?, experience is the most compelling way to confirm the validity of a paradigm of reality, so my experience of continuous conscious breathing in the 70s and 80s gives me a strong sense that what the Grofs are saying about Holotropic Breathwork had validity. My experience in the mid-70s confirms the dramatic power of some of the possible effects: my experience in the mid-80s confirms their sense that the body stores memories to which breathwork can give access. I will not repeat these accounts in full as I have explored them elsewhere. I’ve consigned brief accounts to the footnotes.[1]

They go on to explain the possible advantages of Holotropic Breathwork over alternative therapies (pages 261-263):

The technique of Holotropic Breathwork is extremely simple in comparison with traditional forms of verbal psychotherapy, which emphasise the therapist’s understanding of the process, correct and properly timed interpretations, and work with transference . . . . It has a much less technical emphasis than many of the new experiential methods, such as Gestalt therapy, Rolfing, and bioenergetics. . . . . .

In the holotropic model, the client is seen as the real source of healing and is encouraged to realise that and to develop a sense of mastery and independence.

. . . . . In a certain sense, he or she is ultimately the only real expert because of his or her immediate access to the experiential process that provides all the clues.

Distinguishing Criteria

Below is the table they devised to differentiate between the two categories of spiritual emergence and what they term psychiatric disorder. They explain the purpose of the criteria (page 253):

The task of deciding whether we are dealing with a spiritual emergency in a particular case means in practical terms that we must assess whether the client could benefit from the strategies described in this book or should be treated in traditional ways. This is their table of criteria.

They are certainly not claiming that they have an unerring way of distinguishing between these states, nor that some of those who are placed in the ‘psychiatric’ have no aspects of spiritual emergency in the phenomena they are experiencing. Readers will also know by now that I am a strong advocate of more enlightened ways of managing any such problems than those which are implied in the term ‘traditional.’

Coda

This last post turned out to  be much longer than I planned. I hope it conveys my sense of the value of their approach and of the validity of their concept of a spiritual emergency.

My feeling that their approach is a good one derives largely from my own dramatic experience of what was an almost identical method involving breathwork. In a previous sequence I have dealt with the way the breakthrough I experienced in the 70s had lasting beneficial effects on my my life, first of all in terms of opening my mind so I was able to take advantage of other therapeutic interventions. Perhaps most importantly though in the first instance was the way that the first breakthrough loosened the grip of my previous pattern of anaesthetising myself against earlier grief and pain mostly by cigarettes, gambling and heavy social drinking, so that I could realise that I needed to undertake more mindwork.

I also find it reinforcing of my trust in the basic validity of their perspective that it has led them to draw much the same conclusions as I have about the dangers of materialism and its negative impact upon the way we deal with mental health problems

It doesn’t end my quest though for more evidence to support my sense that psychosis can and often does have a spiritual dimension. Hopefully you will be hearing more on this.

Footnote:

[1] Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

After three hours I was trembling all over. I was resisting letting go and ‘embracing’ the experience. When I eventually did the quaking literally dissolved in an instant into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time. I had always known that something like it happened. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

The earlier experience had been more confusing, with no specific experience to explain it by.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

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So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

 

Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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