Remembrance of John E. Mack, M.D.: Stanislav Grof

Originally published as “Reflections on Breathwork and Alien Encounter Experiences: Stan Grof’s Recollections”, by Stanislav Grof, M.D., The Inner Door, vol. 15, no. 3, August 2003. The full length article (not available here) includes statements from John E. Mack, M.D. and Elizabeth Gibson, in addition to the recollections of Stan Grof, M.D.

John and I met in 1987 at a meeting in the Big House of the Esalen Institute, a beautiful mansion perched on a cypress-covered cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Big Sur Coast. This small working conference was organized by the Soviet-American Friendship program, initiated by Michael and Dulce Murphy as a channel for “grassroot diplomacy.” It involved four prominent Soviet scientists and representatives of foremost American academic and research institutions, including John Mack, Candace Pert, and Dean Ornish.

Michael Murphy invited me to join the group and give a talk on transpersonal psychology and the challenges it presents for the current scientific worldview. During my talk, I mentioned the work Christina and I had been doing with holotropic breathwork. This generated great interest among participants and they all wanted to have a personal experience of this technique. The group decided to forgo the afternoon program on the next day and have a holotropic breathwork session instead.

Holotropic breathwork was very popular at Esalen and it was easy to find enough people who volunteered to be sitters for this special group. As could be expected, bringing a powerful experiential element into the meeting completely changed the nature of this international encounter, which up to that point had been strictly intellectual. By the end of the afternoon, the Russians were in a close emotional and even physical contact with their American sitters, and we felt an atmosphere of genuine friendship.

The sharing group was very powerful and moving. The experiences involved regression into childhood and infancy, birth experiences and, in several instances, transpersonal and spiritual elements. One of the Russians had a profound experience of union with God and, to the surprise of everybody present, was willing to talk about it. “Of course, I remain a Communist,” he concluded his sharing, “but I understand now what people mean by God.” Dr. Belkin, the leader of the group was so touched by the experience, that he later arranged for Christina and myself an official invitation from the Soviet Ministry of Health to come to Moscow and give lectures and workshops.

John was very surprised and impressed by the depth of his own experience that included a convincing episode of a past life in Russia. As he told the group, this session took him deeper into his unconscious than he was able to reach during the years of his training psychoanalysis. He was interested in further exploration of Holotropic Breathwork and asked me what would be the best way to do it. I told him about a training group for facilitators that we were about to launch in the near future and he decided to enroll. The first meeting of this group took place in the beautiful setting of Hollyhock Farm, Cortez Island, British Columbia.

At the time we met, John was very deeply involved in the peace and antinuclear movement, but professionally, he was very “mainstream” – a brilliant academician, critical and skeptical, and committed to the traditional scientific worldview and to Freudian psychoanalysis. I will never forget seeing John on the first day of the Hollyhock training on the deck overlooking the ocean, having breakfast and reading a mainstream newspaper; I believe it was the New York Times. Since the training took place in an isolated and remote location, he was concerned that for twelve days he would lose connection with the world; to prevent it, he arranged the newspaper to be delivered to him daily at the Hollyhock Farm.

However, unlike many mainstream scientists, who are closed to any new information that threatens their worldview and hold on to their beliefs with the tenacity of religious fundamentalists, John showed an extraordinary open-mindedness and intellectual honesty. He embraced the new experiences and observations with deep interest and intellectual enthusiasm, as a genuine scientist should, whether these were his own inner journeys or those of the other group members.

It turned out that during our initial discussion about the Breathwork training, John and I had somehow failed to communicate about the format of the program. Coming to Pocket Ranch, John thought that this twelve-day meeting was the entire training, rather than what it was – the first module of a comprehensive three-year training program. But by the time he discovered his error, he was so fascinated by the phenomena he was witnessing that that he decided to continue and became a very respected and well-loved member of the group.

During the training another group member brought to John’s attention the phenomenon of alien abduction experience and mediated his contact with Budd Hopkins, one of the foremost researchers in the field. I also gave him a copy of an article by Keith Thompson about UFO abduction experience as a trigger of spiritual emergency. Fascinated by the phenomenon, John again reacted as a genuine and open-minded scientist should: he decided to conduct his own extensive research. And it certainly is a further tribute to his intellectual honesty that he was willing to publicize his findings, even if it meant jeopardizing his tenure at Harvard.

After many years of knowing John and having witnessed his transformation from a brilliant traditional scientist to an avant-garde researcher spearheading the paradigm-breaking study of “anomalous phenomena,” I feel deep admiration for his intellectual courage and integrity. He represents for me a model of what a scientist should be – an individual embracing challenging and potentially revolutionary observations, feeling excited about them, and pursuing them with great determination, even when it means facing ridicule and ostracism from the rest of the academic community.

  • Stanislav Grof, M.D., is a psychiatrist with more than forty-five years of experience in research of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Grof conducts professional training programs in holotropic breathwork and transpersonal psychology, and gives lectures and seminars worldwide. He is one of the founders and chief theoreticians of transpersonal psychology and the founding president of the International Transpersonal Association.

© 2003 Stanislav Grof, M.D.