Holotropic Breathwork and Vipassana Meditation

From time to time in these chats, we bring up matters that perhaps are not so directly related to Buddhist teachings, but that resonate with the values and perspective that Ginger gives us in her talks. I’d like to do that tonight, by mention of a technique of self-exploration that I practice myself and facilitate for others. It’s called Holotropic Breathwork–have any of you had experience with it?

There are ways in which Holotropic Breathwork can be seen as complementary to Vipassana meditation, with a compatible perspective and some comparable techniques. It’s those aspects of it that I’d like to review briefly. The practice was created in the 1970s by Stanislav and Christina Grof; it is based on research into the nature of the psyche that Stan Grof, an eminent psychologist, had conducted since the late 1950s, first in his native Prague, Czechoslovakia, then at a research center in Maryland, and finally at the Esalen Institute in California. Grof was one of the originators of what is now called “transpersonal psychology”; he is viewed as one of the principal contributors to depth psychology in the second half of the 20th Century, a successor to Freud and Jung.

His research began with clinical experiments with LSD, when the newly discovered drug had circulated only among a few psychological laboratories in Europe, where researchers thought it might reveal experientially some important traits of the human mind. In the mid-1950’s, as a newly graduated medical student, Grof participated as a subject in one of those experiments, and the experience catapulted him into a new world view. He had been formed as an agnostic Freudian psychotherapist in a materialistic Communist society; but he felt that he had a mystical insight, and had directly experienced a spiritual context of life that he could never again ignore.

Key to Grof’s research was a notion of what’s called “non-ordinary states of consciousness.” The idea is that our ordinary conception of reality, what we experience in our daily lives, draws on only a restricted capacity of our minds—that we are capable of entering other states of awareness which show reality to be infinitely more vast and complex than we ordinarily know. That is not to say that drugs necessarily bring us there, but Grof became convinced that a certain class of these non-ordinary states could be highly therapeutic and heuristic—that is, they teach us about the nature of reality. He called that class of states “holotropic,” a word derived from Greek terms  meaning “moving towards wholeness.” Many cultures throughout history have had ways of inducing these “holotropic” states, and from Grof’s perspective, meditation is one of them.We may not all enter holotropic states on these Monday night sits, but that can certainly happen on longer retreats—Ginger’s own account in her book, relating the reliving of a pre-verbal trauma, is a case in point. Research done on Tibetan monks in deep meditation supports the idea that they enter other states of consciousness, with altered brain waves and other measurable physical effects. In other cultures, means to enter holotropic states might include music, drumming, dancing, deliberate pain, use of plant substances, or altered patterns of breathing.

By the early 1970s, as a few of you may recall, LSD had become widely available and subject to abuse. Government support for its use in research was withdrawn, and Grof searched for other ways of inducing holotropic states. Drawing on information from LSD research and practices of shamanic and other cultures, he and his wife Christina created Holotropic Breathwork. It involves no drugs, but only the use of relaxation, deep breathing, and carefully composed programs of world music to put clients in a non-ordinary state, normally lasting about three hours. In those states, clients can enter into deeper levels of their subconscious minds, helping them resolve psychological conflicts, and experience their interconnection with other people, with the collective unconscious, with the web of life, and with its spiritual context. Some of these techniques, and elements of the world view that goes along with them, echo Buddhist practice and teachings.

To begin with, Holotropic Breathwork shares with Vipassana meditation an emphasis on breath. It’s worth taking note of the centrality of breath, not only as a physical process that sustains life,but for its symbolic meaning as a link to spiritual realms. That link is embedded in human language.The Latin term spiritus refers both to breath and to the soul or principle of life, and the same is true of the Greek pneuma, the Chinese qi, Japanese ki, the Sanskrit prana, and the Hebrew ruach [roo-ahk]. The Book of Genesis tells us [2/7],  “And the Lord God formed man …and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

Another fundamental principle in Holotropic Breathwork is what’s referred to as the “inner healer.” The notion here is that you naturally know what you personally need to resolve your inner conflicts and to move towards integration or wholeness. If you go deeply enough into your subconscious mind, you find something fundamentally good, something that yearns for health. This is far afield from the Christian notion of original sin, and from the Calvinistic idea of the total depravity of man, where salvation can come only from the grace provided by a transcendent God. It is closer to the Hindu notion of atman, the divine within, which is also fundamental in Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes referred to as ‘Buddha nature.’ There are subtle distinctions here that we can’t go into, but the point is that both Buddhism and Breathwork accept that at your core, you are ‘nobly born’—you are good, and you know what you need for a fulfilled life.

Perhaps no teaching in Buddhism is more basic than “interconnectedness,” the notion that we are we are only a passing manifestation of an infinite web of interdependent realities, material and spiritual, ultimately rooted in the divine principle. Everything is dependent on something else for its existence, and ultimately connected with all that is. Holotropic Breathwork can give us an experiential glimpse into that reality.

Perhaps Stan Grof’s most original contribution to depth psychology is his map of consciousness. That map is empirically derived, based on clinical research into non-ordinary states, and reinforced now with 50 years of experience with people traveling in those realms. It vastly expands the image in depth psychology of what consciousness is.

Grof speaks of three levels of the unconscious mind. The first is the personal, biographical level, the repressed elements of our personal experience that lie below consciousness, or experiences that never reached consciousness at all. That was the level explored by Freud. But Grof found that as people enter non-ordinary states, they often encounter a level of consciousness that seems more fundamental than that—one associated with what seem to be memories of their own births. He called that the “Perinatal” level—meaning “around birth”; it’s the level first explored in psychology by Otto Rank. Often through the level of perinatal experience, sometimes more directly, we seem to encounter a level of the subconscious that is deeper still, one that takes us beyond our individual experience into collective memories of the human race. This is the collective unconscious spoken of by Carl Jung. With that map, which I can give here only in very sketchy terms, Grof synthesized the work of the major figures of depth psychology, bringing it into a coherent system.

But beyond that, in the Holotropic Breathwork, he provided a tool with which we can explore those realms, deeply and experientially, in a way that is conducive to psychological health and to personal integration or wholeness.

The profound experiences that result have implications not only for the field of psychology, but for our entire conception of reality. It indicates, for example, that consciousness is not simply a byproduct of chemical or electrical processes in individual human brains, because we can each have direct experience of elements of consciousness that have not previously entered into our personal and biographical lives. It implies that consciousness is a fundamental principle of existence, something that permeates all of reality. That is an ontology that is consistent with traditional Buddhist notions: we are interconnected with each other and with the rest of existence not only on a level of material being but on a level of consciousness. In non-ordinary states, for example, people have felt that they can identify with the consciousness of, say, an ancestor, or a whale, or even a tree.

Jack Kornfield, Ginger’s meditation teacher about whom you hear much in these sessions, is also trained as a psychotherapist and wrote the introduction to a book on Holotropic Breathwork recently published by Stan and Christina Grof. The Grofs offer, he writes, “a psychology of the future, one that expands our human possibility and reconnects us with one another and the cosmos….” Kornfield goes on to say this: “My own training as a Buddhist monk…first introduced me to powerful breath practices and visionary realms of consciousness. I have felt blessed to find in their work a powerful match for these practices in the Western world” (HB, ix-xi).

Jack and Stan Grof, in fact, are close personal friends, with a long association, and for decades now they have presented annually a joint workshop, which they call “Insight and Opening,” that combines the techniques of Vipassana meditation and Holotropic Breathwork. As Jack said in one of these workshops that Ginger and I attended almost 10 years ago, both of these techniques “touch the place of your own inner knowing.” Both, too, have a similar approach—bringing a quality of attention to images that arise in the mind, experiencing them fully and then, without judgment or analysis, letting them go. Holotropic Breathwork requires no psychoanalyst to interpret your psychodynamics, but only a facilitator, to help you manifest your own inner wisdom. In the workshops that combine mindfulness meditation and Breathwork, which Ginger and I ourselves have offered from time to time, the meditation often becomes a way of integrating images and issues that arise in the Breathwork sessions.

In case any of this piques your interest, I should mention that beginning on March 21, I’ll offer a series of five weekly lectures and discussions on the psychology and thought of Stan Grof at the C.G. Jung Center on Montrose. For the last of those sessions, we’ll be privileged to have Grof himself, who’s now in his early 80s, participating with us, via Skype from his home in California. This course is timed to coincide with an annual event called Global Holotropic Breathwork Day, in which groups all over the world will be “breathing,” as we say, in the same 24-hour cycle.That takes place on April 13, and here in Houston, with Ginger’s support, my colleague Pam Stockton and I will offer a workshop on that day at the Dawn Mountain Tibetan temple on Richmond. We’ll have an introductory session the evening before. Ginger sent out a communication about this, but if you missed that and want to know more, just let me know, and I’ll send you the links.

That leaves us time to talk some about all of this: I invite any comments or questions about Grof, the Breathwork, or its relationship to Insight Meditation.

March 4, 2013