Assoc. Prof. Dr. Dilarom Demiralay
In the mid-70s, Stanislav Grof, a well-known specialist in transpersonal psychology, and his wife Kristina developed a method of deep empirical self-exploration and therapy, which was called holotropic breathing. This method, combining such simple elements as accelerated breathing, ethnic, ritual and trance music, as well as certain forms of body work, generated a whole range of those experiences that were observed during other types of deep self-examination.
The experiences evoked by holotropic breathing had a powerful healing and transformative effect. Many holotropic sessions brought to the surface difficult emotions and unpleasant physical sensations of various types. The full manifestation of these emotions and sensations makes it possible to free a person from their disturbing influence.
In the experience of holotropic therapy, it has been established that experiences that were previously considered the prerogative of seers, mystics, saints, enlightened ones, are experiences available to any person under certain controlled situations. Thus, physicians who participated in psychedelic therapy training programs in medical clinics in the 1950s and 1960s had the same kinds of experiences as their patients. From the point of view of classical psychiatry and psychotherapy, these experiences sometimes looked pathological. However, the most important discovery of transpersonal psychology was that such experiences arise in every person on the way to integrity and harmony, and in this sense, although unusual, they are normal. In this sense, from the point of view of the transpersonal approach, many of those whom we call mentally ill are people who are stuck in the process of moving towards wholeness, in their problems.
Holotropic therapy has opened up new types of psychotherapeutic mechanisms. Unlike therapy focused on re-experiencing trauma, remembering it, and directed at verbal work with trauma, holotropic therapy began to work with trauma as a process that must be maintained and which in no case can be programmed. From a wholeness and health orientation point of view, it does not make much sense to talk in the language of various schools about what is a problem, because if we gathered, say, a council of specialists from various schools, we would get many answers to what is the cause of the disease, how to work with it, what drugs to prescribe, what types of psychotherapy to carry out, what is the cure, what are the criteria for completing the healing process, what are the principles of diagnosis.
Holotropic therapy has shown that the healing process is often incomprehensible at the level of our common sense and theoretical ideas drawn from various psychotherapeutic and psychological schools. Moreover, in deep work, the healing process often resembles madness and is completely incomprehensible. Therefore, the main strategy of holotropic therapy is not to try to determine in advance what the problem is, what we will work with, but to support any processes that arise when working on problems. Neither the doctor, nor the patient, nor the participants in the training of personal growth decide what will be worked with, but they all trust the wisdom of the process or holotropic consciousness.
And finally, holotropic therapy threw a kind of challenge, a gauntlet to most traditional approaches: psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, some types of humanistic therapy and showed a certain limitation of these approaches. Moreover, the facts discovered in holotropic therapy and in transpersonal psychology have raised new questions about the nature of reality: after all, what kind of world does it have to be in order for the experiences that we encounter during a holotropic breathing session to be possible? Is it really possible to relive your birth experience, because according to the traditional medical model, it is impossible to remember these events due to the fact that the newborn has not completed the process of covering the nerve fibers with myelin and there is a phenomenon of so-called “infantile amnesia”. Nevertheless, the experience of holotropic therapy has shown that it is possible not only to relive the experience of childhood traumas, a biographical experience, but also to relive the perinatal experience, i.e. pertaining to birth. And what is more, it is possible to discover boundless areas called transpersonal experiences, areas of action of archetypes, myths, those spaces where we can experience the most incredible, most unusual states and experience the entire spectrum of superpsychic phenomena, be one with the world, with the universe, experience ecstatic states.
Holotropic therapy has discovered that the roots of problems are not only rooted in the events of biographical trauma, this is just one of the levels of fixation of the problem. At a deeper level, traumas are rooted in the experience of birth, in the “trauma of birth” in the words of the psychologist Otto Rank, who introduced this topic into European psychology. And at a deeper level, trauma events can be based on transpersonal experiences.
Unlike therapies that focus on working with trauma recall, free association around trauma, and restructuring the context of the traumatic situation using different techniques, holotropic therapy focuses primarily on integrating trauma and, more broadly, all voices of experience. Any psychotherapy, if it is successful, is always associated with self-knowledge, and this self-knowledge is carried out as an integration in a holotropic state of consciousness. We are constantly establishing a dialogue, unceasing communication, restoring the life-giving inseparable fabric of consciousness, which itself consists of endless communicative flows of communication between different parts of ourselves. Consciousness is the living tissue of communication, it is created by communication and connected into one whole, which means that between one part of the integral consciousness and the other there is always instant communication, instant understanding, there is no distance, there is no barrier – this is the quality of all-connectivity , the quality of a potentially unlimited possibility of communication.
According to holotropic therapy, the symptoms of psychosomatic and emotional disorders represent an attempt by the body to free itself from old traumatic imprints, heal itself and simplify its functioning. They are not just troubles and complications of life, but also carry a great opportunity to change life. Effective therapy is carried out through temporary activation, intensification and progressive resolution of symptoms. Holotropic therapy shares this principle with homeopathy. The homeopathic therapist uses those remedies which, in the process of healing, produce the symptoms that the client himself exhibits. A holotropic state of consciousness tends to function as a universal homeopathic remedy in that it activates any existing symptoms and exteriorizes symptoms that are latent.
This understanding applies not only to neuroses and psychosomatic disorders, but also to many situations that classical psychiatrists diagnosed as psychotic and considered as manifestations of serious mental illness. The failure to recognize the healing potential of such extreme states reflects the narrow conceptual framework of Western psychiatry, which is limited to postnatal biography and the individual unconscious. Experiences for which this frame does not give a logical explanation are related to pathological processes of unknown origin. An extended cartography of the psyche that includes the perinatal and transpersonal realms provides a natural explanation for the intensity and content of such extreme states.
Another important assumption in holotropic therapy is that the average person in our culture rarely reaches their real potential and abilities. This poverty is due to the fact that the people of our culture are identified with only one aspect of their existence – the physical body and personality. False identification leads to an inauthentic, unhealthy life and contributes to the development of emotional and psychosomatic disorders of psychological origin. The occurrence of depressive symptoms that are not organic can be seen as an indication that life has reached the point where it becomes obvious that the old ways of living no longer work and it is time to change them. As the life situation collapses, the contents of the unconscious begin to break through into consciousness. This breakthrough can occur in such areas of life as family and sexual life, professional areas, or affect all human life at the same time. The content and depth of this breakthrough correlates with the development of neurotic and psychotic phenomena. The resulting situation is a crisis or even a catastrophe, but also a great opportunity.
The main goal in holotropic psychotherapy is to activate the unconscious, release the energy associated in emotional and psychosomatic symptoms, and turn these symptoms into a stream of experience. The task of the facilitator or therapist in holotropic therapy is to support the experiential process with full faith in its healing nature, without attempting to change or direct it. This process is guided by the client’s inner healing mind. Here it is very important for the therapist to support the process of experiential disclosure, even if he does not rationally understand it. Some powerful healing transformative experiences may not have any specific content at all. They consist of a succession of intense increases in emotion and physical tension and gradually deepening relaxation. Often, insights and specific content emerge later in the process, or even in later sessions. In some cases the resolution arises at the biographical level, in others it is in connection with perinatal material or with various transpersonal themes. Dramatic healing and personal transformation with lasting effects often emerge from experiences that elude rational understanding.
The cartography of consciousness, tested and proposed by Stanislav Grof, turned out to be a more universal map of human development than it was originally supposed. No matter what spiritual tradition or school we follow, no matter what psychotherapy methods we use, in any case we need to solve the same tasks of restoring the integrity of the communicative fabric of consciousness, the task of integrating into a larger whole.
If we are developing, if we are striving for something more, then in the end we must go through the whole of Grof’s cartography in order to be able to control the energies corresponding to the perinatal level. The path of holotropic breathwork is quite universal, because no matter which path we take, we must inevitably go through the same phases of internal development. Holotropic therapy gives us the opportunity to walk this path in a controlled, safe environment.
From the point of view of the integrative approach, problems, misfortunes, complexes are topologically complex zones of silence, this is always a break in communication, connections, their distortion. There is always something detached from our lives instead of being freely present in the present moment. Subtle ties are torn in the very fabric of consciousness and life, and something falls out. In such a case, the universal method for integrating these zones of life is simply to raise the level of energy, which on another level is a request to these zones of silence. At the level of experience, this means that the material that we have not remembered for years suddenly begins to be experienced even more vividly than it once was. And so, if at this moment we maintain this state, do not lose our presence, experience, realize what is happening, then what happens is what is called the magic word healing or integration. Then the folds of the communicative fabric of consciousness are smoothed out. The process of healing is the process of communication. Then what was in the zones of silence or in the zones of death is what is no longer heard: there is no communication, no communication. And our nature is arranged in such an amazing way that we ourselves can include what was trauma into our lives and heal ourselves.
This is holotropic wisdom with its philosophy of support, not philosophy of control or manipulation, it is very simple and at the same time complex, requiring the highest sensitivity to what to support, how to maintain, in order not to project. Holotropic therapy has raised the question of the nature of reality in a new way, since what was previously considered a fantasy, pathology, turned out to be intimately connected with our human nature. So many functional psychoses are stages on the way to greater wholeness. And what was considered dreams that had no relation to reality turned out to be a reading of cosmogonic psychology or archetypal structures of personal mythology.
The question of how the structure of the world should be in order for things like healing, like instant interaction, to be possible in it, sends us back to the ancient texts of the mystical traditions, that there is something like a unifying field. Apparently, there are some mechanisms that allow an instantaneous connection between experiences, people, events, considered to be separated in space and time. And in a sense, what happens in holotropic breathing sessions is like traveling in a time machine. In expanded states of consciousness, we begin to actively interact with our past and future. And by directly influencing our past, realizing it, changing it, we simultaneously restore the integrity of ourselves in the present. And then the whole chain of life develops differently, as if we had lived a different life. It turns out that one fact of awareness is enough to get rid of many symptoms and problems. This is why holotropic therapy has been the key to other therapies. If we understand the essence of the holotropic approach, we can feel confident because we understand the essence of any psychotherapeutic approach.
In fact, the same principle works in all approaches, which consists in the fact that healing, self-knowledge are separate facets, separate names for the same process. And we are required not to interfere in this process, but to feel its subtle internal dynamics, tracking by symptoms, by zones of pain and discomfort where we are closed, where we are stuck. The body itself, with its pain, discomfort, rigidity, tells us what to relax, what to let go, where to go. It’s an amazing approach, a direct approach that provides a platform for a new type of work, for a new psychotherapy, a new healing. Unlike psychoanalysis and many other approaches that appeal to psychoanalysis and where most of the work takes place in the field of verbal communication, holotropic therapy presents another possibility, the possibility of non-verbal communication, the opportunity to look at everything from a bird’s eye view. Another unique feature of holotropic therapy is the fantastic intensity of the work. Here we seem to be shaking off everything that has stuck to us, here we have the opportunity to free ourselves from our habitual personality, from our habitual cell and model a new personality more open, more whole, healthier right in the session, to recognize a new self.
Consciousness is an open communication system. We are always in communication with ourselves, with the world, with other people. This communication is not only the exchange of information, words, emotions, thoughts, but also the exchange of matter and energies. We are connected with the world by many channels: the channels of the five senses, the channels of bioenergetics, the channel of intuition, etc. The stream of life flows through us. We maintain the constancy of our environment, what is called our body, our “I”, precisely due to the fact that we are constantly in communication. If the functions of communication flows change, our internal structure changes, our “I” changes, our consciousness changes. If we were Taoist practitioners, we could say that this flow is nothing but the Tao that flows freely through us as we follow this flow at every moment of our lives. If we resist without following the Tao, then there are sharp corners, skids, mismatch between the speed of the flow and the speed of our life. We feel discomfort in the body, stiffness, fatigue, we do not connect to the flow of speech, something does not match. If we are not sensitive to our life and to the flow that flows through us, we get problems, warning signals, symptoms, which then unfold into illness. We have zones of silence: we are afraid of something and cannot talk about it.But in principle, everything that unfolds in a session of holotropic breathing is the desire of our body to join the flow of life, into a holotropic state, into a natural, state of maximum energy and well-being. This is an amazing gift to man, a gift from his own nature. We are arranged in such a way that if we follow this flow, then we come to a state of maximum energy, maximum knowledge of maximum naturalness, maximum freedom, etc. If we slow down this flow, problems begin. Due to the fact that we live in a certain range of human prejudices, human limitations, human vision operate in us. Our problems can lead to a mid-life crisis, when around the age of forty people have complex symptoms, because the cage in which the person lives is too small. Since at the same time there is an awareness of unlimited freedom and a desire to get out of the cage, often the only way out for our spirit is to go through a catastrophic situation, illness or even death itself. Death too is the liberation of this cell from this body. If we do not listen to these signals, do not feel them, do not get involved in life, do not learn to be a flow, then we will inevitably pay with the collapse of our lives, the loss of health.