The surprisingly delightful musings of a humble Virginian whose satiric paeons to a plausible utopia implicitly shame the cynical zeitgeist of our times, causing it to cry, as 'twere, 'Damn, what was I thinking?' or words to that effect.

May 2018

On the Transpersonal Vision of Stanislav Grof

I've been listening to the Transpersonal Vision, a series of casual lectures by Stanislav Grof, a pioneer in the use of LSD for psychotherapy. Having been tantalizingly introduced to the subject of shamanic therapy by Aldous Huxley, James Fadiman, Tom Shroder, Rick Strassman, and above all Terence McKenna, I was prepared to hear a rousing defense of psychedelics from the apparent grandfather of this entire movement and a call to action on behalf of the millions of unnecessarily suffering human beings who could find relief and psychological insight through the guided use of LSD and the other persecuted shamanic medicines of the world. And in fact the first few hours of Grof's insights provided rousing affirmations of my faith in these long-suppressed cures, suppressed by scientific hubris and a governmental war on drugs, which is actually a crackdown on religion, insofar as it bans ancient, natural substances that have been used in spiritual contexts for thousands of years. As Terence McKenna puts it, the idea of an "illegal plant" would have been incomprehensible to preliterate shamanic societies that valued their connection with the planet.

At about the five-hour mark, however, the discussion veered into the topic of holotropic breathing, a procedure whereby Grof contends that patients (or clients) can gain the benefits of psychedelic therapies without using drugs or plants.

This kind of bothered me. As a long-time "client" of the mental health system in America, (indeed a 40-year veteran of the same), I have practiced breathing cures (and many other related fads) until I was blue in the face! And yet here I am, still with the same basic depression that I had four decades ago! I ask myself: How much proof does Grof need to know that this new therapy, for most people at least, is of modest help at best compared to LSD (psilocybin, mescaline, etc.) -- and yet Grof really does seem to equate his results with those experienced through the use of LSD -- which, if true, only tells me that LSD and psychedelics aren't necessarily as helpful as I thought!

What excited me about Grof was that he had been perhaps the first person to "see through" the psychotherapy of his time and discover that it was simply ineffective, that for all the hoopla, time, and money, folks just were not getting cured "at the end of the day," or even offered real lasting relief, except perhaps of the soporific sort afforded by addictive barbiturates and SSRIs.

I therefore saw this plug for holotropic breathing as a step backward by Grof, a relinquishing of his insistence on real, undeniable, dramatic results in favor of a semi-effective, partially useful fad -- a move made necessary, perhaps, on a professional basis given the near outlawing of LSD research, but a step backward all the same into the proffering of "just another therapy." Grof, to me, was no longer sounding like the great innovator in therapy but rather just another purveyor of half-baked cures. To be sure, he cited impressive-sounding results, but no more impressive than one might hear from any cure-monger who gets a one-hour special on PBS to describe their solution to dieting, anxiety or depression.

I know that breathing techniques have an ancient lineage, but we must distinguish between what breathing techniques have done and could theoretically do and what they actually do achieve for the average American patient like myself, at least when unaccompanied by psychedelics.

Being convinced that true help is out there in the form of plants that exist on our planet and have been used for millennia, I am not in the mood to hear of another breathing exercise. Indeed, every time I hear of a new cure a la holotropic breathing, I'm reminded of the following lines from Shelley in "A Hymn to Intellectual Beauty", for I consider such nostrums, compared to the guided therapeutic use of psychedelics, to be but...

Frail spells whose utter'd charm

might not avail to sever,

From all we hear and all we see,

Doubt, chance and mutability.

Of course, psychedelics don't do away with "doubt, chance and mutability," but they do allow many people to "take them onboard" and accept them as an integral part of life, to examine their life critically and live more fully, while recognizing themselves as a true part of nature, something that our smart-phones are trying their best to make us forget, as a proliferating number of apps run interference between human beings and their first-hand experience of the world.

So this is why I am disappointed in these lectures: As a long-time victim of the ineffective status quo in treatment brought about by the war on drugs, I feel that it's time for a full-court press for the legalization of psychedelics in a therapeutic setting. This is not the time for suggesting that a few incredibly simple breathing exercises could work just as well. Not only is that not true based on my lengthy personal experience, but it gives comfort to the enemy of shamanic substances, who could easily use this alleged sufficiency of breathing exercises to justify a continuation of the ban on psychedelic therapy.

Copyright 2017, Brian Quass (follow on Twitter)