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Publications Book Reviews
Adventures in Non-Ordinary Realities
Reviewed by Charles S. Grob, MD on Dec. 1, 2006
In the fall of 1956, while a junior resident in psychiatry at the Medical School of Charles University in Prague, Stanislav Grof had an astonishing experience. It would catalyze his career path for the next five decades—investigating the therapeutic, transformative, and evolutionary potential of consciousness exploration—and lead to the development of a new field of transpersonal psychology. A faculty mentor studying brain wave entrainment administered LSD to Grof and then directed a flashing stroboscopic light toward his closed eyes. Grof describes being “hit by a vision of light of incredible radiance and supernatural beauty . . . I felt that a divine thunderbolt had catapulted my conscious self out of my body.” From that point, Grof was committed to revealing therapeutic mechanisms previously unknown to the psychiatric profession by exploring, in Freud’s words, the “royal road into the unconscious.”
For twenty years, first in his native Czechoslovakia and then, following the Soviet invasion in the late 1960s, at Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, Grof became the psychiatric profession’s most accomplished researcher of psychedelics, presiding over several thousand formal treatment sessions. Despite observing remarkable therapeutic responses in his patients, many of whom suffered from chronic, debilitating psychiatric and addictive disorders, he was derailed in the mid-1970s by the political suppression of human research using hallucinogenic drugs. No longer legally permitted to investigate psychedelics, Grof redirected his efforts to the study of nondrug-induced holotropic (“moving toward wholeness”) states of consciousness and treatment models for spiritual emergencies. Eschewing mainstream psychiatry’s orthodox reliance on suppressive pharmaceutical agents, Grof perceived that spontaneous holotropic crises, if correctly understood and properly treated, could result in deep healing, positive personality transformation, and spontaneous spiritual opening.
When the Impossible Happens charts Grof’s fifty-year inquiry into the realms of the human unconscious. Using numerous anecdotal accounts, he illustrates the value of exploring holotropic states of consciousness through his own experiences and those of his close friends, colleagues, and patients. Excavating the deep dynamics of the psyche, a variety of astonishing encounters with nonordinary realities are described, including synchronicity, telepathy, astral projection, veridical out-of-body experiences, past-life experiences, visions of archetypal beings and realms, and ancestral, racial, karmic, and phylogenetic memories. While many of these are spontaneous, nondrug-induced experiences, others are catalyzed by the profound effects of psychedelics. Far from the neurochemical artifacts and symptoms of toxic psychoses that mainstream psychiatry would assert, Grof provides a compelling alternative approach to understanding and responding to such perturbations of inner experience.
Although often regarded as a heretic by his more convention-bound contemporaries, Grof’s work and vision deserve careful reexamination, particularly in light of the recent resumption of sanctioned psychedelic research. In his most recent book, he has mapped a course for a new and more conscious field of psychiatry, one that honors the sacred plants and alkaloids passed down from ancient shamanic practitioners and discovered in modern laboratories. Through the exploration of these extraordinary states of consciousness and explication of their profound and intrinsic healing potential, the professionals of this future psychiatry may one day reacquire their birthright as physicians of the soul.