|Realms of the Human Unconscious by Stanislav Grof|
In 1975, I presented the first edition of Realms of the Human Unconscious to my professional colleagues and to the general public with somewhat mixed feelings and not without hesitation, because I was fully aware of how unusual and surprising some of its sections might seem to a reader who has not had a firsthand experience with psychedelics or some other type of non-ordinary state of consciousness.
This volume is the second U.S. edition of the book, now re-titled LSD: Doorway to the
Numinous. In it I summarize and condense, in a systematic and comprehensive way,
observations and experiences gleaned during the first seventeen years of my
research with LSD and other psychedelic substances; it represents the first of a series
of books about LSD and psychedelics that I have written. Exploration of the potential
of psychedelics for the study of schizophrenia, for didactic purposes, for a deeper
understanding of art and religion, for personality diagnostics and the therapy of
emotional disorders, and for transforming the experience of dying has been my
major professional interest and has consumed most of the time I have spent in
I know from my own personal development how difficult it was for me to seriously
consider and eventually accept the implications of some of the quite extraordinary
observations from LSD sessions. I had resisted the influx of the revolutionary new
data that I was exposed to in my everyday clinical work and kept trying to explain
them within the accepted theoretical frameworks, until my tendency to defend
traditional ways of thinking was defeated and overwhelmed by an avalanche of
indisputable clinical facts. Whenever I violated the boundaries of tradition,
conventional thinking, and commonly shared assumptions, it was only because rather
convincing evidence made the old concepts incomplete, unsatisfactory, implausible,
I would like to emphasize in this context that I did not indulge in iconoclastic pleasure
in opposing the existing concepts and theories. On the contrary, having been rather
conservative by nature, I experienced a considerable amount of discomfort when the
accepted systems proved inadequate. I had to suffer through a long period of rather
unpleasant conceptual chaos, with a painful lack of any meaningful guidelines. This
lasted until I developed a broader theoretical framework that seemed to introduce
new order into the research data and made possible a simplifying integration and
synthesis of the most important observations.
Looking for an appropriate form to communicate my findings, I rejected what
seemed to be a tempting alternative, namely censoring or truncating some of the
most unusual observations in order to avoid disapproval and harsh criticism of my
colleagues. In addition to being personally and professionally dishonest, such an
approach would have defeated the very purpose for which this book was written. It
seemed important to share the data in their true form, including the challenge that
they represent to our common sense and to scientific thinking. I therefore decided to
take the risk of attacks, fierce criticism, and possible ridicule for the sake of integrity
and accurate reporting.
In the early stage of my psychedelic research, I suggested that the potential
significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology and medicine or the telescope has for astronomy. My later experience with psychedelics only confirmed this initial impression. These substances seem to function as relatively unspecific amplifiers that increase the cathexis (energetic charge) associated with the deep unconscious contents of the psyche and make them available for conscious processing. This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method or tool available in mainstream psychiatry and psychology. In addition, it offers unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and
for consciousness evolution.
Naturally, the tools of this power carry with them greater risks than more
conservative and far less effective tools currently accepted and used by mainstream
psychiatry, such as verbal psychotherapy, anti-depressants, or tranquillizing
medication. Clinical research has shown that these greater risks can be minimized by
responsible use and careful control of the set and setting. The safety of psychedelic
therapy, when conducted in a clinical setting, was demonstrated by Sidney Cohen's
study based on information drawn from more than 25,000 psychedelic sessions run
by therapists in different parts of the world. According to Cohen, LSD therapy
appeared to be much safer than many other procedures that had been at one time
or another routinely used in psychiatric treatment, such as electroshock therapy,
insulin coma therapy, and psychosurgery (Cohen 1960).
However, legislators responding to unsupervised mass use of psychedelics did not get
their information from scientific publications, but from the stories of sensation-
hunting journalists. The legal and administrative sanctions against psychedelics did
not deter lay experimentation, but they all but terminated legitimate scientific
research of these substances. For those of us who had the privilege to explore and
experience the extraordinary potential of psychedelics, this was a tragic loss for
psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy. We felt that these unfortunate
developments wasted what was probably the single most important opportunity in
the history of these disciplines. Had it been possible to avoid the unnecessary mass
hysteria and continue responsible research of psychedelics, they could have
undoubtedly radically transformed the theory and practice of psychiatry. This new
knowledge could have become an integral part of a comprehensive new scientific
paradigm of the twenty-first century.
Now, thirty-five years after I stopped conducting official research with psychedelics, I
can make an attempt to evaluate what has been called the "golden era of
psychopharmacology" -- to review the past history of psychedelic research and try to
glimpse into its future. After having personally conducted over the last fifty years
more than four thousand psychedelic sessions, I have developed great awe and
respect for these compounds and their enormous potential, both positive and
negative. They are powerful tools and, like any tool, they can be used skillfully,
ineptly, or destructively. The result will be critically dependent on the set and setting.
The question whether LSD is a phenomenal medicine or a devil's drug makes as little sense as asking a similar question about a knife -- is it a dangerous instrument or a very useful tool? Naturally, we will get a very different report from a surgeon, who bases his or her judgment on successful operations performed with a knife, and from the police chief, who investigates murders committed with knives in back alleys of New York City. A housewife would see the knife primarily as a useful kitchen tool and an artist would employ it in carving wooden sculptures or woodcuts. It would make little sense to judge the usefulness and dangers of a knife by watching children who
play with it without adequate maturity and skill. Similarly, the image of LSD will vary, depending upon whether we focus on the results of responsible clinical or spiritual use, or the deliberately destructive experiments of military circles or the secret police.
Until it is clearly understood that the results of the administration of psychedelics are
critically influenced by the factors of set and setting, there is no hope for rational
decisions in regard to psychedelic drug policies. I firmly believe that psychedelics can
be used in such a way that the benefits far outweigh the risks. This has been amply
proven by millennia of safe ritual and spiritual use of psychedelics by generations of
shamans, individual healers, and entire native cultures. However, the Western
industrial civilization has so far abused nearly all its discoveries and there is not much
hope that psychedelics will make an exception, unless we rise as a group to a higher
level of consciousness and emotional maturity.
Whether or not psychedelics will return into psychiatry and will again become part of
the therapeutic armamentarium is a complex problem and its solution will probably
be determined not only by the results of scientific research, but also by a variety of
political, legal, economic, and mass-psychological factors. However, I believe that
Western society is at present much better equipped to accept and assimilate
psychedelics than it was in the 1950s. At the time when psychiatrists and
psychologists started to experiment with LSD, psychotherapy was limited to verbal
exchanges between therapist and clients. Intense emotions and active behavior were
referred to as "acting-out" and were seen as violations of basic therapeutic rules.
Psychedelic sessions were on the other side of the spectrum, evoking dramatic
emotions, psychomotor excitement, and vivid perceptual changes. They thus seemed
to be more like states that psychiatrists saw as pathological and tried to suppress by
all means, than conditions to which one would attribute therapeutic potential. This
was reflected in the terms "hallucinogens," "delirogens," "psychotomimetics," and
"experimental psychoses," used initially for psychedelics and the states induced by
them. In any case, psychedelic sessions more closely resembled scenes from
anthropological movies about healing rituals of "primitive" cultures and other
aboriginal ceremonies, than those expected in a psychiatrist's or psychotherapist's
In addition, many of the experiences and observations from psychedelic sessions
seemed to seriously challenge the image of the human psyche and of the universe
developed by Newtonian-Cartesian science, considered to be accurate and definitive
descriptions of "objective reality." Psychedelic subjects reported experiential
identification with other people, animals, and various aspects of nature, during which
they gained access to new information about areas of which they previously had no
intellectual knowledge. The same was true about experiential excursions into the lives
of their human and animal ancestors, as well as racial, collective, and karmic
On occasion, this new information was drawn from experiences involving the reliving of biological birth and memories of prenatal life, encounters with archetypal beings, and visits to mythological realms of different cultures of the world. In out-of-body experiences, experimental subjects were able to witness and accurately describe remote events occurring in locations that were outside of the range of their senses. None of these happenings were considered possible in the context of traditional materialistic science, and yet, in psychedelic sessions, they were observed frequently. This naturally caused deep conceptual turmoil and confusion in the minds of conventionally trained experimenters. Under these circumstances, many professionals chose to shy away from this area to protect their respectable scientific world-view and professional reputation and to preserve their common sense and sanity.
The last three decades have brought many revolutionary changes that have
profoundly influenced the climate in the world of psychotherapy. Humanistic and
transpersonal psychologies have developed powerful experiential techniques that
emphasize psychological regression, direct expression of intense emotions, and
bodywork leading to release of physical energies. Among these new approaches to
self-exploration are Gestalt practice, bioenergetics and other neo-Reichian methods,
primal therapy, rebirthing, and holotropic breathwork. The inner experiences and
outer manifestations, as well as therapeutic strategies used in these therapies bear a
great similarity to those observed in psychedelic sessions. These non-drug
therapeutic strategies involve not only a similar spectrum of experiences, but also
comparable conceptual challenges. As a result, for therapists practicing along these
lines, the introduction of psychedelics would represent the next logical step in their
practice, rather than a dramatic change in it.
Moreover, the Newtonian-Cartesian thinking in science, which in the 1960s enjoyed
great authority and popularity, has been progressively undermined by astonishing
developments in a variety of disciplines. This has happened to such an extent that an
increasing number of scientists feel an urgent need for an entirely different world-
view, a new scientific paradigm. Salient examples of this development are:
It is very encouraging to see that all these new developments that are in irreconcilable conflict with traditional science seem to be compatible with the findings of psychedelic research and with
transpersonal psychology. This list would not be complete without mentioning the
remarkable efforts of Ken Wilber to create a comprehensive synthesis of a variety of
scientific disciplines and perennial philosophy (Wilber 2000).
Even more encouraging than the changes in the general scientific climate is the fact
that, in a few cases, researchers of the younger generation in the United States,
Switzerland, and other countries have, in recent years, been able to obtain official
permission to start programs of psychedelic therapy, involving LSD, psilocybin,
dimethyltryptamine (DMT), methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine (MMDA), and
ketamine. I hope that this is the beginning of a renaissance of interest in psychedelic
research that will eventually return these extraordinary tools into the hands of
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