by John E. Mack, M.D.
We are seeing lately an expanded interest in psychotherapies, human growth-promoting workshops, and spiritually focused methods of inner exploration, which have in common the use of nonordinary states of consciousness to access deeper and more intense experience and emotion. At first glance, these approaches may appear new, deviant, or even radical. In actuality, however, they represent means of rediscovering access to realms of the psyche that have been familiar to ancient peoples and non-Western societies from the beginning of recorded time. Shamanic healing, mysticism, kundalini yoga, naturally growing hallucinatory plants, meditation methods, and ecstatic religious experiences arc but a few of the ways that human beings throughout history have opened themselves to the deeper regions of the psyche.
The imbalanced rationalism of the Western mind has succeeded in separating us from this fuller knowledge of ourselves and the universe in which we are embedded. Freud’s work might be considered in this light as a beginning effort to reacquaint our culture with these lost domains of knowledge. But in his almost exclusive focus on individual biographical development and experience, Freud turned away from the staggering implications of what he was discovering, leaving it to others to map more fully the virtually infinite reaches of the human psyche.
FREUD AND THE HISTORICAL USE OF HYPNOSIS
Psychoanalysis traces its origins to the use by Freud (1925) of Western medicine’s most familiar nonordinary state of consciousness, hypnosis, to explore the unconscious origins of neurotic symptoms (p. 19). Freud extended the use of hypnosis from its limited application by Liebeault and Bernheim as a means of removing symptoms by suggestion to its fuller use as an investigative method. It is striking that these words are being written almost exactly a century after Freud gave up the therapeutic use of hypnosis in favor of the concentration method and then free association, which led to the development of psychoanalysis itself. Although he abandoned hypnosis for complex reasons, including that he did not consider himself adept in it, Freud continued throughout his life to acknowledge his debt to hypnosis for opening to him the vistas of the human unconscious. “We psycho-analysts may claim to be its legitimate heirs and we do not forget how much encouragement and theoretical clarification we owe to it” (Freud, 1917, p. 462), Freud wrote, 25 years after he had stopped using hypnosis with his patients.
A reconsideration of the principal reasons why Freud gave up hypnosis can help us to understand why therapists and patients are returning a century later to the use of nonordinary states of consciousness, including hypnosis, for treating a variety of emotional disorders and for the deeper exploration of unconscious psychological forces. In view of the way that hypnosis was used in Freud’s time (i.e., to suggest away symptoms through the use of the doctor’s authority while the patient was in an altered state of consciousness), it is not surprising that many patients “relapsed” and that the method appeared to be therapeutically ineffectual.
In Freud’s emerging view of the therapeutic process in psychoanalysis, the figure or role of the doctor was of central importance. Therapeutic change would come to be seen as the result of many forces, but of greatest importance was the analysis of transference — the meanings and distorted attributions from the patient’s past upon the person of the analyst. The hypnotic connection, as viewed by Freud, was a highly erotized relationship whose effectiveness depended on the physician’s authority and hardly allowed detailed examination of the patient’s feelings and thoughts directed toward the doctor, on which psychoanalytic treatment came increasingly to depend.
During the time that Freud was still using hypnosis therapeutically, his illustrations of how he would work indicate the peremptory and radically nonanalytic way he might speak to patients: “You are not asleep, but you are hypnotized, you are under my influence; what I will say to you now will make a special impression on you and will be of use to you” (Freud, 1891, p. 110). More than a decade after he stopped using it, and had developed the free association method, Freud (1905) still viewed hypnosis in this authoritarian light.
The hypnotist says: “You see a snake; you’re smelling a rose; you’re listening to the loveliest music,” and the hypnotic subject sees, smells and hears what is required of him by the idea that has been given…. outside hypnosis and in real life, credulity such as the subject has in relation to his hypnotist is shown only by a child towards his beloved parents… an attitude of similar subjection on the part of one person towards another has only one parallel, though a complete one — namely in certain love-relationships where there is extreme devotion [p. 296].
The idea that hypnosis necessarily required a virtually slavish attitude of the patient toward the hypnotist may have been a carryover of 19th-century beliefs from the days of Mesmer, Puysegar, Braid, Charcot, and others. It surely was inconsistent with the emphasis on the analysis of resistance that became central in Freud therapeutic method. “The objection to hypnosis,” Freud wrote in a 1904 essay on psychoanalytic procedure, “is that it conceals the resistance and for that reason has obstructed the physician’s insight into the play of psychical forces. Hypnosis does not do away with the resistance but only evades it and therefore yields only incomplete information and transitory therapeutic success” [p. 252].
Freud’s repudiation of hypnosis as a therapeutic technique is based on the idea that the very nature of the hypnotic process necessitates the bypassing of the patient’s observing self and the surrender of executive ego functioning to the hypnotist. The belief that the patient must be a more or less passive agent, surrendering his or her will to the authority of the hypnotist to whom he or she is emotionally bonded, Svengali-like, has, I believe, prejudiced the professional view of hypnosis and perhaps our attitude toward the therapeutic use of other nonordinary states of consciousness as well.
In spite of the negative associations, it was perhaps inevitable that interest in using nonordinary states of consciousness in general and hypnosis in particular for exploring the depths of the psyche and treating emotional disorders would be revived. For with the discoveries of psychoanalysis, together with evolving interest in this century in the richness and complexity of human emotional life, we have also learned the limitations of purely verbal methods for investigating unconscious mental content and processes. Hypnotic trance states facilitate (almost by definition) the suspending of attention to the stimuli of ordinary waking consciousness and enable the intricately layered affective and cognitive domains of the inner world to emerge.
Gill and Brenman (Brenman and Gill, 1947; Gill and Brenman, 1961), Hilgard (1965), Frankel (1976), Spiegel and Spiegel (1978), Brown and Fromm (1986), and Fass and Brown (1990) have established the extraordinary value of hypnosis as an investigative tool both for exploring human perception, trance, dissociative states, and ego functioning and for treating a variety of clinical conditions. Contemporary therapeutic applications of hypnosis are far more sophisticated than the methods applied in Freud’s time. Evolving from the techniques of Milton Erickson, Erika Fromm, and others, the approaches used now are largely “permissive” rather than authoritative, permitting the patient’s own creative energies and directions to guide the process, with the hypnotist functioning primarily as a facilitator who provides a safe, structured context in which the work can proceed (Fass and Brown, 1990, p. 46).
Accessing, tolerating, expressing and integrating emotionally powerful experience are of central importance in the therapeutic use of hypnosis, for the vicissitudes of human development have for countless individuals included a wide range of encounters, stimuli, excitements, disappointments, and wounds whose pathogenic energies persist until their source can be identified and the affectively charged memories recovered and reworked. Hypnosis is perhaps the classically structured nonordinary state of consciousness, for it comprises both verbal and nonverbal techniques to facilitate and organize the emergence of affectively laden memories and to control the regressive intensity of the investigative and therapeutic processes.
Fromm (1972), Spiegel (1981), and Haley (this volume, 1993) have shown how hypnosis can be used to enhance the patient’s sense of being in charge or in control of the mind and the therapeutic process itself while affectively disturbing memories emerge. This focus on the patient’s sense of agency and empowerment is consistent with shifting contemporary notions of transference and of the therapist-patient relationship. The therapeutic enterprise in general is being perceived increasingly in nonhierarchical terms, with the analyst or therapist functioning as a facilitator in a collaborative process or dialogue. Transference attributions naturally arise, but in contemporary mutual or collaborative approaches, the distortions of perception of the figure of the analyst, whose examination once constituted the backbone of the treatment endeavor, are less likely to be encouraged. The figure of the doctor or therapist himself, including the hypnotist, is becoming less central, as authority is increasing given over to the patient’s own self-exploration and self-functioning (Gray, 1990).
This shift in our view of the nature of the therapeutic enterprise (Mack, 1990, 1992) has great implications for the use of nonordinary states of consciousness in clinical work. In the Grof holotropic breathwork method, for example, which is discussed later, the role of the figure of the leader is that of a facilitator, the transference elements are minimized, and great trust is placed in the patient’s inner wisdom during the selfdiscovery process (Grof, 1988, 1992).
TRAUMA, AFFECT, AND NONORDINARY STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Recognition and understanding of trauma have been central in the evolution of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theory and practice. Early use of hypnosis by Charcot, Lebeault, Bernheim, and Freud led to the recognition that experiences that derived from some action or event in the outside world and that overwhelmed the ego’s defenses would produce a state of unbearable and unmanageable tension, which could not be discharged except through symptom formation, pathological character development, destructive (including self-destructive) actions, or ego fragmentation. At the core of all theories of trauma are a fundamental state of helplessness and vulnerability and an inability to define, experience, express, or integrate disturbing affects that are brought about by such hurtful or threatening events. Trauma is thus the outcome of a relationship between the intrapsychic and the external worlds.
In view of the intensity with which the ego strives to ward off the distress associated with traumatic memories, it is not surprising that use of a powerful therapeutic tool like hypnosis, which can overcome defensive barriers, would have led to the recovery of traumatic memories. As Freud gave up hypnosis and developed the psychoanalytic method, he also turned to the exploration of the intrapsychic world and, to a great extent, left behind the study of trauma, especially the pathological effects of incestuous sexual seduction on the young women he was treating.
Gradually and inescapably, mental health clinicians have returned to the study and treatment of emotional trauma if for no other reason than that the pervasive, hurtful effects of physical and sexual abuse, war and the threat of war, refugee problems, racial injustice, economic inequality and losses, family breakup and instability, and separations of all kinds have forced us to reshape our theoretical formulations and reorder our clinical priorities.
Several chapters in this book address the relationship between acute and persistent trauma and affective disturbances, and the renewed attention to trauma is enabling us both to discover the complex biological, psychological, and social forces involved in it and to discover new treatment approaches while returning to and rediscovering older methods that were left behind in the development of psychoanalysis.
It is in this context — the return of our attention to trauma — that the renewed interest in the therapeutic power of nonordinary states of consciousness can be best understood. For it is through the use of such states of consciousness that clinicians can most effectively address buried memories and the associated feelings that could not be recognized, felt, or expressed at the time when the trauma was occurring. For example, Haley (this volume) describes the use of hypnosis to access feelings and memories of deeply troubling actions on the part of Vietnam veterans that so overwhelmed the soldiers’ emotional defenses and so deeply violated basic personal values at the time they occurred that the very capacity to feel itself — that which, above all, makes us human — was severely damaged. Hypnosis is used here effectively to identify, uncover, and work through traumatic memories and associated powerfully disturbing affects that were inaccessible at the time that the traumatic event occurred (Brown and Fromm, 1986). In contrast to the early use of hypnosis primarily for undoing repression and for symptom removal through suggestion, contemporary applications to the treatment of trauma involve a systematic treatment process in which hypnosis is used in conjunction with other therapeutic methods such as self-hypnotic relaxation, guided imagery and hypnoprojective techniques, and various supportive and ego adaptive approaches (Brown and Fromm, 1986, p. 277). In these approaches, the therapeutic objectives include not only the uncovering and working through of troubling affects but also ego integration, selfdevelopment, and even “learned psychophysiological control” to enable the traumatized person to react less sensitively to future triggering of traumatic experiences (Brown and Fromm, 1986; van der Kolk, this volume).
GROF HOLOTROPIC BREATHWORK
Therapeutic application of a nonordinary state of consciousness is central to the holotropic breathwork method developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof (Grof, 1988, 1992), the former, a physician trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst in Prague in the 1950s. In 1956, he became one of the first physicians to experiment with LSD soon after it was discovered by Albert Hofmann at Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland Hofmann, 1983). Grof’s personal experiences with this psychedelic agent radically changed his view of the human psyche, the therapeutic process, and his understanding of humankind’s place in the cosmos. He found that there were vast (“transpersonal”) realms of the unconscious beyond what he had found to be accessible through the free association method. Intense emotions and powerful images associated with early experiences, his own birth, and domains outside of biographical history were opened up to consciousness with the use of LSD (Grof, 1975).
During the next two decades, Grof conducted approximately 4,000 research and therapeutic sessions with LSD in Czechoslovakia and the United States. In the 1970s, he found that sessions using deep and rapid breathing with evocative music and taking place in a supportive and secure setting could access the same personal and transpersonal realms of experience as he was encountering with LSD. Over the past 15 years the Grofs have conducted thousands of holotropic breathwork sessions in small groups and workshops and have trained several hundred breathwork practitioners who are now applying their method in the United States and Europe.
My own first direct experience with holotropic breathwork occurred in 1987 with the Grofs in a small-group setting at the Esalen Institute in California. During the two-hour session, I experienced intense feelings of loss associated with the death of my biological mother when I was 8 1/2 months old, as well as a profound sense then and in subsequent sessions of both her suffering with peritonitis before she died and my father’s grief following her death — emotions about which I had spoken extensively during my two personal analyses but which I had never been able to access in such an immediate way. During that session, in which two Soviets were also participating, I had my own introduction to the transpersonal realms of the unconsciousness, namely, a powerful experience of identification with a person, other being, object in nature, or force that lay outside of my personal history. I “became” a Russian father (in what seemed to be the 15th century) who was unable to protect his four-year-old son from being beheaded by the Mongols. Out of this experience, my capacity to identify with Soviet fears, and seemingly unrealistic polit-ical defensiveness, increased greatly, enabling me to become more effec-tive in the psychopolitical work on the Soviet-American relationship in which I was then engaged. Subsequent sessions of my own involved equally powerful and valuable biographical, birth-related, and transpersonal experiences.
Drawing upon his experience with LSD and holotropic breathwork, Grof has developed a new topography, or “cartography,” of the human psyche: memories and feelings related to the perinatal, postnatal, and transpersonal levels of experience mingle in complex ways and can be accessed through nonordinary states of consciousness, including, in addition to breathwork and psychedelics, hypnosis, mystical experiences, profound meditative states, yoga, shamanic journeys, and religious ecstasies. Buried biographical memories and feelings return with special vividness and power. Birth-related experiences that can be traced to the stages of the birth process itself (Grof has identified four birth phases he calls matrices) are relived with great power (Grof, 1985). Experiences of birth, death, and rebirth open the breather’s consciousness to realms of experience beyond familiar conscious and unconscious material. Finally, the breather is able to discover affinities outside of hitherto known interpersonal relationships, experiencing profound encounters or identifications with mythic figures and potentially all of the human and nonhuman elements in the cosmos. The collective unconscious that is often largely a theoretical construct in Jung’s theories becomes a living reality in breathwork experiences.
The transpersonal dimension of the work has a powerful spiritual impact, reconnecting the breather with primary religious experiences, a sense of sacred awe from which he or she may have been cut off since childhood. Powerful heart-openings and uplifting, luminous, or transcendent experiences bring the breather to a higher sense of value and purpose and of connection with the universe. Nature itself becomes imbued (or reimbued) with deep and ineffable sacred beauty and wonder, and the destruction being wrought by technology and material desire become intolerable. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the breathwork method and psychoanalysis — or the psychoanalytically derived psychotherapies — lies in the role of the therapist. In the psychodynamic therapies, at least as traditionally practiced, the clinician’s role is central, either as a transference figure or through providing in his or her own person or interpretation some sort of corrective experience or new relationship model. In the breathwork, intense feelings in relation to the figure of the leader or facilitator, or to other supporting figures, naturally arise, and such a figure may even be distorted, idealized or devalued. But the fundamental process is not based primarily on transference or even on the actual relationship with the clinician. Instead, a kind of inner radar searches the unconsciousness in a process of opening and discovery facilitated or enabled by the therapist/leader but not focused on him or her.
As practiced in individual work or groups, a safe and secure space is found that provides enough room for the breather(s) to move around freely in response to bodily impulses or strong feelings that come up in the session. Each breather is paired with a “sitter,” who attends to his or her basic needs and safety, such as providing water, tissues, and protection from bumping into or being bumped by other breathers or accompanying the breather to the bathroom. The leader is supported by other facilitators, one of whom attends to the music. A ratio of one facilitator to four to six pairs seems to be ideal. The sessions begin in a somewhat darkened room with the breathers lying on their back in a comfortable, open position, sometimes covered with a blanket or using eyeshades so as to block out light. The breathers are instructed to put aside expectations and not to try to solve any identified problem or focus on a particular conflict or “issue” but to trust that their inner wisdom will take their consciousness where it needs to go. A brief relaxation exercise starts the process of turning inward, and instruction is given to breathe more deeply and rapidly, after which the music begins — loud and driving at first, eventually more steady, and heartful or celestial, with variations according to the choices of the facilitator.
As the turning inward process deepens, and the busy-mind activity we ordinarily associate with everyday consciousness is left behind or allowed to pass by (as also occurs in meditation), powerful emotions, body sensations and impulses, and strong images come into consciousness, which may relate to biographical or perinatal experiences or to transpersonal realms that have little to do with the known history of the individual. It is difficult to generalize, but from an ontological standpoint, the quality of the experience at its height tends to lie somewhere between fantasizing and being fully present to a new reality. One may, for example, be fully engaged in a struggle with a god or other mythic being or become quite completely a fish swimming under water. At the same time, however, a small but steady, observing ego is recording what is being experienced and can usually report on it later.
From an affective standpoint, the intensity and range of feelings are greater than I have generally noted in therapies that do not use a nonordinary state of consciousness. This is especially true when repositories of warded off feeling have been identified and brought into full consciousness and expression by effective bodywork techniques (Grof with Ben-nett, 1992, p. 16). The sessions generally last from two to three hours and are concluded by completing a mandala drawing, which may express central elements of the experience, even when breathers consider themselves inept as an artist.
The breathwork leader functions as a facilitator, enabling the value of the experience to take place by overseeing the physical space, making sure that each breather’s basic safety is ensured, noting that the music is moving the energy in the room in a positive direction (a judgment that is largely intuitive), and performing focal bodywork as needed (Grof with Bennett, 1992, p. 16). Again, transference elements may arise: the facilitator may appear to a breather as a loving or threatening father or mother figure or be confused with a god, goddess, or other mythic being. But this dimension is secondary. The therapeutic, healing, or growth-promoting work is largely the result of the psyche’s own direction, the inner radar (Grof with Bennett, 1992) that identifies the places that our consciousness needs to go. In this way, theoretical constructs or preconceptions about “what I should work on today” are put aside in favor of an unconscious knowledge of the inner realms that need to be explored at the time. Remarkably, in later discussion or through sharing in small groups, the relevance of what has occurred in the session to the breather’s ongoing life becomes apparent, sometimes with startling clarity.
HOLOTROPIC BREATHWORK, TRAUMA, AND AFFECT
The holotropic breathwork method can evoke a wide range of profound emotions and bring the breather in touch with a rich world of images and sensations whether the individual is choosing the experience for therapeutic reasons or for purposes of personal growth. The breathwork underscores, however, the important pathogenic role of trauma in human development. Trauma, as Herman (this volume) discusses, may range from a single severe physical assault to complex, chronic, and catastrophic physical and psychological affliction. Grof distinguishes traumas of commission, such as parental cruelty, childhood surgery, rape, varieties of physical and sexual abuse, war and refugee experiences, or the birth process itself, from those of omission, which are associated with deprivation, loss, or unmet emotional needs. In both instances, the therapeutic power lies in the capacity of the breather to access in the altered state of consciousness past experiences that had originally occurred under conditions in which the experience often could not even be defined and feelings could not be identified, felt, or expressed.
The traumatic history may be quite well known to the breather. In my first breathwork session, another breather, a man in his mid-50s, was screaming in fear and rage as he relived an attempt by his mother to choke him as a baby. In this first breathwork session, he told me months later, he felt in the nonordinary state of consciousness associated with this experience more relief from the fear and anger than he had felt during many years of talking about the event through other forms of therapy. Through this method, many patients are enabled to discover childhood surgery or parental relational neglect. They can obtain relief from disabling symptoms or constricting affects — emotions that have been walled off or frozen since the time of the trauma.
The memories of many forms of trauma, such as infant and early childhood surgery and accidents or acute and chronic experiences of physical and sexual abuse, are stored in the body and locked away, it would appear, as much in the tissue cells themselves as in the brain. The process of accessing or reaccessing emotions in a nonordinary state of consciousness such as occurs in the holotropic breathwork method may be related to the emotions recovered through autonomic arousal as van der Kolk discusses in this volume. Memories that seem inaccessible through associative techniques may have been recorded initially as unexpressed or even unfelt physiologically anchored energies and may require a new context and means of accessing them in order to bring about relief of symptoms and integration of the crippling pathological impact of the original experiences. As traumatic memories and associated powerful feelings become accessed during nonordinary states, intense energies expressed through body tensions, shaking, sobbing, loud vocalization, and other emotional expressions may come to the surface. Sometimes tensions become “stuck” in the musculature, requiring focal bodywork performed by skilled facilitators, to move the energy along. The facilitors provide physical resistance to the experiencer’s effort, as he or she is encouraged, paradoxically, to exaggerate the tension or strain in the involved muscle groups. The expression of a full sound, such as a groan or scream, also helps to discharge the painfully stored emotion.
In the case of situations of personal deprivation and loss, the reliving of personal wounds in a setting of caring and protection may be powerfully therapeutic. A sensitive sitter can provide comforting and holding, especialIy at the conclusion of the session, when the breather is most open and needy. It is important that the sitter recognize the special vulnerability and openness brought about by the altered state of consciousness in the breathwork session and not intrude his or her own emotional need to heal or rescue the breather. Above all, the safety provided and the opportunity to reaccess and tolerate by means of the altered state of consciousness the original loss and associated painful affects constitute the core of the therapeutic or healing process.
Following the breathwork session, in which a great deal of affectively powerful material may have come forth, it is important that breathers be given the opportunity to integrate the experience of what they have undergone by sharing in small-group discussion and individual sessions with clinicians who are familiar with the therapeutic use of nonordinary states of consciousness and with the perinatal and transpersonal realms of the unconscious. This process may be similar to the “working through” that occurs in traditional psychoanalysis except that the primary therapeutic or healing work occurs in the nonordinary state of consciousness while the talking serves to consolidate and integrate the intense feelings and personal discoveries that have occurred during the breathwork sessions. More traditional psychotherapies or “talking treatments” are particularly important following breathwork sessions in order to explore the changes and future decisions to be made concerning human relationships and work choices. After one explores the psyche through holotropic breathwork or other kinds of nonordinary states of consciousness, profound changes in worldview, values, and personal priorities are likely to occur. This can leave one feeling quite alone and “unmet” unless one has a community of friends or colleagues who have also discovered holotropic realms in their own therapeutic work or spiritual paths.
COMMON ELEMENTS AND DIFFERENCES
There are, of course, a great variety of ways of bringing about nonordinary states of consciousness in addition to hypnosis and holotropic breathwork (aforementioned) and meditation (Brown, this volume). Most of these can be used therapeutically or for personal growth work and include shamanic journeys, psychedelic substances, religious ecstatic states, yoga, relaxation techniques, therapeutic touch, bodywork (alone or in combination with psychological methods), various energy therapies and massage, and some types of music, poetry reading, and other forms of artistic experience and expression. Psychoanalysis and free association create to a certain degree a nonordinary state of consciousness, especially when dreams and associated affects are worked with intensively. But the reliance on verbalization, the interactive or ongoing relational dimension, and the interpretive process tend to limit the extent to which the method
facilitates the creation of an altered state or can provide access to the deeper realms of the unconscious.
Freud (1895) wrote of the “withdrawal of the cathexis of attention” from the outside world that occurs in hypnosis (p. 337). In his view, which he continued to express as late as 1921 and which was consistent with his emphasis on the centrality of transference, this shift in the “distributions of mental energies” occurs as a result of the patient’s directing attention onto the person of the analyst (Freud, 1921, p. 126). The perspective being offered here for hypnosis and other altered states, including meditation (“reducing the amount of sensory input,” Brown, this volume), also stresses the shift of attention away from the outside world but places less emphasis on the role of the leader or therapist, who functions more as a guide or facilitator to support the patient or client in redirecting attention to the inner world.
When the person’s energies are effectively withdrawn from the outside world, and attention and perception shift to inner feelings, thoughts, and sensations, a nonordinary state naturally occurs. Its depth depends on the person’s ability to simultaneously note and “let go of” distracting products of mental activity as they pass through awareness. This “mindfulness” or turning inward is the common characteristic of therapeutic modalities such as hypnosis and Grof breathwork and the meditation techniques and processes described by Brown (this volume). Therapeutic nonordinary states and meditation also have in common the eliciting of thoughts and feelings from the deeper levels of the psyche and the creation of a new awareness of the unconscious and the inner world. As Brown writes of the preliminary stage of meditation, “Amongst the flow of thoughts, memories, fantasies, percepts, bodily sensations and other events in the stream of consciousness the meditator also will observe the ebb and flow of emotional states.”
But the experiencing of affects, however therapeutic it may be or central to the use of nonordinary states of consciousness in a healing context, is not the purpose of advanced states of meditation. Here the focus is on awareness itself and the process of self-observation. The self itself as the instrument of knowing dissolves, and the pure experience of interconnectedness or oneness can emerge. Affects, even when fully experienced, are allowed to be held in consciousness, but only so that the perception of them, like all other perceptions, can be allowed to pass. The ultimate goal of meditation is not therapeutic, or even to bring about healing. Rather it is to bring enlightenment by gaining control of and changing the very structure of perception and information processing so that egoistic concerns can be relinquished and the experience of love, compassion, and oneness may emerge. Stated differently, nonordinary states, when used therapeutically, seek to bring the deeper realms of the psyche into consciousness in order to expand self-knowledge and to integrate memories and experiences from which we have been cut off or which afflict us through their actions outside of awareness. A skilled meditator, on the other hand, as Brown (this volume) writes, changes his view of reality itself, gaining access to expanded awareness by breaking “the code of the time-space structure of ordinary perception.”
Through nonordinary states of consciousness we can be brought into connection with the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth; with powerful feelings from early childhood; and with the transpersonal realms in which each individual can discover the capacity to identify with beings and forces in nature outside of personal biographical experience — a physical and emotional reification of Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious.
When we are able to access, or reaccess, emotions that have been warded off in the body cells or in autonomic regulatory systems, then the human organism’s previously blocked natural healing powers can become available. It is in this working through or integrative process that the greatest therapeutic value of nonordinary states may reside.
Finally, nonordinary states of consciousness have value beyond their therapeutic applications for personal growth and the expansion of consciousness. As Brown discusses in Chapter 17, the turning of attention from outer stimuli to the inner processes of thought and feeling, as occurs among experienced meditators, permits the questioning of the structure of perception itself and makes available information from a realm of being in which the distinctions between inside and outside or between psyche and nature lose their power and in which a deeply fulfilling extension of the range of human consciousness can occur.
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John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
© 1993 John E. Mack, M.D.
Chapter 16 excerpted from Ablon, Steven; Brown, Daniel; Khantzian, Edward J., and Mack, John E. (Eds.), Human Feelings: Explorations in Affect Development and Meaning. New Jersey: The Analytic Press, 1993. pp. 357-371.