by Martin Boroson ©1999
In the last four decades, the West has seen a flowering of new forms of therapy, new spiritual paths, and the unprecedented availability of Eastern spiritual traditions. With so many products in the supermarket of transformation, how do we find the product we need, when we need it? Many people have spent years—and a small fortune—in a form of therapy or spiritual practice that is not well-tailored to their needs. The situation isn't helped by the outright disagreement amongst the various schools of psychology and the various spiritual paths about technique, values, and even about the nature of reality itself.
The Integral Vision
Ken Wilber, considered by some to be the "Einstein of consciousness", has carefully developed a theory that gives coherence to this problem. It is a blueprint for a "total" path of self-exploration, a vision that he calls "integral". Marshaling considerable evidence, he suggests that consciousness is arranged as a spectrum, encompassing matter, life, mind, soul, and spirit. In modern times, each of these levels has been the concern of a different branch of knowledge: physicists look at matter; biologists look at life; psychologists look at mind; and mystics have investigated soul and spirit. Unfortunately, each discipline tends to ignore or downplay the importance of the others. And in psychology alone, different schools seem to address different levels of the mind. A truly holistic or integral path would encompass all levels of the spectrum, acknowledging that we are composed of all of these dimensions. (1)
Wilber suggests a "plan" for therapy or self-exploration that would address each level:
Take a practice (or practices) from each of those levels, and engage whole-heartedly in all of those practices. For the physical level, you might include physical yoga, weight lifting, vitamins, nutrition, jogging, etc. For the emotional/body level, you might try tantric sexuality, therapy that helps you contact the feeling side of your being, bioenergetics, etc. For the mental level, cognitive therapy, narrative therapy, talking therapy, psycho-dynamic therapy, etc. For the soul level, contemplative meditation, deity yoga, subtle contemplation, centering prayer, and so on. And for the spirit level, the more non-dual practices, such as Zen, Dzogchen, Advaita Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism, formless Christian mysticism, and so on.
I hesitate to give that list, because, as you know, there are literally thousands of wonderful practices for all of those levels, and I shudder at excluding any of them. But please just focus on the general idea: take one or more practices from each of the levels of your own being -- matter to body to mind to soul to spirit -- and exercise all of them to the best of your ability, individually and collectively. (2)
This is a noble path, a truly royal road, and one that gives a radically new and expansive way for individuals to develop their potential. This spectrum idea, Wilber suggests, can also be used by physicians and therapists to diagnose patients: ascertain where in the spectrum the patient's illness lies, and then create an appropriate treatment plan. (3)
But Wilber's approach, although typically thorough, probably strikes most people as impossible challenge. Imagine coming home from a difficult day at work, after a long commute, doing the chores, spending quality-time with the kids, and then beginning a regimen of jogging, Tai Chi, psychotherapy, chanting, and meditation (not to mention community service and political involvement). It's a great theory, but hard to imagine in daily life. However the work of another leading light of transpersonal studies, Dr. Stanislav Grof, may provide a more efficient and practical solution, embracing the entire spectrum in one path.
The Holotropic Practice
Dr. Stanislav Grof is one of the pioneers of clinical consciousness research, and has been cited by Wilber as "arguably the world's greatest living psychologist" (4). With Christina Grof, he developed a technique called Holotropic Breathwork™, in which clients gain access to a non-ordinary state of consciousness through deep, fast breathing. This process is strengthened by evocative music, and is supported by a considerable degree of preparation and personal attention. Clients lie on a mattress and close their eyes, but are free to move their bodies, or cry, scream, sing, chant, shout, move, spit up, meditate, etc., if the inner experience demands. In this state of consciousness, clients can have experiences that relate to any part of the spectrum, including: formless mysticism, archetypes (eg. deities, angels, mantras), past lives, shamanic journeys, bio-energetic release, repressed trauma (eg. childhood abuse, physical accidents), regression to infancy, and birth. And for each experience that emerges, at each level of the spectrum, any of the "thousands of wonderful practices" can emerge spontaneously. "Holotropic" means "moving toward wholeness, and Grof believes that each holotropic experience moves the individual to the next appropriate step on their journey toward wholeness.
We can consider Holotropic Breathwork in three ways, each illustrating its benefits as an integral or full-spectrum path.
1. As diagnosis:
Holotropic Breathwork selects the level of the spectrum at which a person's effort is most effective
When we enter a holotropic state with an open mind and no agenda, the psyche seems to "select" the experience that is most charged or "ripe" at that time. Grof calls this the "radar function". The experience that emerges could not have been predicted or planned, but it invariably turns out to be relevant and effective to the participant's growth. It is as if we open ourselves completely to discovering what is really going on at the deepest levels of our being at that time, and we allow that experience to evolve and teach us. In other words, the holotropic session brings an individual directly to the cutting-edge of his or her personal evolution. From Wilber's point-of-view, we could say that Holotropic Breathwork determines the level of the spectrum that is most efficient for present growth. The radar function is like a highly sophisticated diagnostic tool that instantly pinpoints the problem or potential that is most charged emotionally and most significant. Like a form of internal triage, Holotropic Breathwork sorts out what is the most urgent. Some examples:
A client believes that he needs to express anger toward his mother, and has been talking about this for years in therapy. But during his holotropic session, he re-experiences a car accident he had many years ago. Revisiting the moment of impact, the sudden fright, the need to scream, and the way he froze in terror, he is able to release his scream from a frozen state. This unlocks his anger.
A person feels blocked in her practice of Zen meditation, is starting to despair, and may give up practice altogether. During her holotropic session, she re-experiences a moment of her birth when the passage was blocked, and she went into fetal distress. She releases this trauma at a physical and emotional level, and then finds that her concentration and ability to sit still in her meditative practice has improved.
A person who is being flooded with mystical images and subtle energies, triggered by recreational drug use, is desperately trying to avoid psychiatric admission. During his holotropic session, he re-experiences a near-death experience in childhood in which he "left" his body. Working through this trauma in a physical way (bodywork and catharsis) helps to "ground" him back in his body.
A person who has been in therapy for many years, working on issues of sexual abuse, feels locked in a pattern of blame. In her holotropic session, she encounters a divine being who opens up her heart. She is overwhelmed with compassion and is able to forgive her abuser.
In these cases, intensive work at the wrong level of the spectrum is inefficient, if not actually counterproductive. It is far simpler to invite the psyche to choose the appropriate level for the next step.
2. As healing:
Holotropic Breathwork facilitates the method or practice that is most appropriate to an individual's present needs
Every form of therapy or spiritual path has its list of do's and don'ts, and its own proscribed method for treatment or spiritual progression. In meditation you sit absolutely still, and in trance-dancing you move until you're ecstatic. In bioenergetics you express your anger, and in kundalini yoga you re-direct it internally. But Holotropic Breathwork™ is extraordinarily method-free . A client is simply encouraged to allow whatever is emerging as they breath deeper and faster. They are only "required" to keep their eyes closed, so that the experience is not projected onto others, and to stay on their mattress, so that they can be kept safe. There is no time limit, no noise limit, no rules of posture or diet, no institutional hierarchy, no guru, no sacred text, and no dress code. If the inner experience wills it, the client can scream, cry, chant, pray, regress to infancy, speak in tongues, meditate, move into yoga postures, leave their body, enter their body, punch a beanbag, shake, sweat, gyrate—the list is endless. An inner healing mechanism is allowed to do whatever is necessary for healing and transformation of the individual, dictating the actual form of practice or therapy, without imposition of anyone's ego needs, academic or cultural background, or belief structure.
The Holotropic Breathwork session is a physical and emotional space where the deepest dimensions of our being are given encouragement to work their magic. And the actual form and method of transformation is chosen by the emerging experience. We could say that Spirit itself chooses the form and method of its evolution.
3. As prescription:
Holotropic Breathwork directs a client to forms of self-exploration that will be most effective outside of the holotropic experience
Holotropic Breathwork provides a prescription for other forms of healing. In this sense, it is like an all-embracing referral agency. If you are confused about what therapy or spiritual practice to pursue, simply gain access to a deep non-ordinary state of consciousness, and see what emerges organically. One client found herself vacillating between a commitment to T'ai Chi, hatha yoga or Zen meditation. But after a series of holotropic sessions in which her body spontaneously went into yoga postures, each accompanied by physical healing and spiritual insight, her path was clear. She committed herself to a formal practice of hatha yoga. Another person found that in spite of his spiritual hunger, his sessions were focused on a lonely part of his childhood. This was an important "prescription" to do some inner child work, or supportive psychotherapy, outside of the sessions.
In this sense, Holotropic Breathwork is not simply one of the "thousands of wonderful paths", but is a meta-path, a post-modern clearing house for everything from biofeedback and psychoanalysis to Alcoholics Anonymous and past-life regression to Sufi dancing and kriya yoga. These additional therapies can augment the practice of Holotropic Breathwork, until, perhaps, the inner dynamic shifts and a different form of practice is "prescribed".
A Big Experience of Everything
Grof acknowledges the importance of working through all levels of consciousness. From extensive clinical observation, he discovered an extraordinary phenomenon that is consistent with Wilber's concept of the spectrum. Grof noticed that an individual's issues are grouped along certain themes. There are common patterns linking one's emotional issues, physical problems, birth dynamics, and profound universal spiritual questions. Grof calls these threads or chains "systems of condensed experience", or COEX's for short.
Here is the way a COEX might emerge in a series of Holotropic Breathwork sessions:
Samantha has suffered, most of her life, from persistent throat infections. Emotionally, she feels inhibited from expressing herself. During her first Holotropic Breathwork session, she remembers a music teacher from elementary school who viscously told her that she "couldn't sing a note". In another session, a childhood incident emerges in which her brother tried to strangle her. In re-experiencing this, she screams and screams--releasing long-held muscular tension in her throat. As her process deepens, in subsequent sessions, she experiences a moment of her birth when the cord was around her neck, and understands that at a deep, unconscious level, she has always confused her drive to emerge and be free with a life-threatening, choking sensation. When her process deepens to the transpersonal level, she re-lives a past-life as a man be-headed for his religious convictions. And then one day, she has a shift on an entirely symbolic, spiritual level. She experiences herself as a swan, singing as it dies. For the first time in her life, she has an image of singing while dying, instead of singing or dying. In this session she feels her voice restored to her, and she loses her fear of death. Having released so much fear and tension in her throat through this process, she now rarely gets a throat infection.
According to Grof, the COEX's are finally resolved when they have been addressed at all levels (5). This embracing vision offers hope to those who have been through encounter groups and re-birthing, psychoanalysis and mushrooms, but have found that the same old problems keep reappearing. To those many weary souls, Holotropic Breathwork offers the possibility of other dimensions of the psyche, and other forms of release, that, when accessed, will do the trick. The most transformative experience may have been right there all along, awaiting only the humility of the ego, the freedom from method, and the openness and safety of the setting.
Most spectacularly, in Holotropic Breathwork, we can have experiences that touch on several levels of the spectrum at once, or even embrace the entire spectrum. It is common for individuals to have a profound spiritual realization at the same time as a major physical release. In this simultaneous experience, we also become aware that all levels of Being are deeply interwoven. Long before the end of our journey, before we have solved all our problems or united with the Infinite Divine, we experience an ever-deepening awareness—in the fabric of our Being and the fibers of our body—of the seamlessness of Creation.
The Whole Spectrum Embraced
Ken Wilber has been credited with unifying Freud and the Buddha, creating an integral vision that spans the past and future of consciousness, and more. And Holotropic Breathwork, free to meander everywhere and anywhere across this spectrum, brings us directly to the cutting edge of our evolution. It requires only that we lean toward the truth that is emerging now and here, in the deepest and farthest reaches of the present moment. With unprecedented openness—in theory and method— it embraces all the ancient forms of worship and all the modern means of personal growth, and even holds space for those paths yet to be invented. Through it, we can gain access to the entire spectrum of consciousness, to all the magnificent dimensions of Being, and we can travel along any or all of wonderful therapies and paths, aiming always, steadfastly, at the one, integral goal.