Saturday, November 19, 2016


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I’ve recently been reading some of the work of Ken Wilber and Stan Grof. For a long-time fan of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, it’s been interesting to find these guys—both still alive—who carry the torch in a world that has become darkly materialistic and where rationalism appears to be going off the rails. I became familiar with the work of Grof and Wilber a long time ago and kind of forgot about them during the last 20 or so years, but I recently rekindled my interest in connecting with their decidedly non-materialistic approaches to the ways we perceive the world. In 1967, working with Abraham Maslow and others to create a fuller picture of what it means to be human, Grof coined the term transpersonal psychology.

The need for a new kind of psychology grew in part from Grof’s work with patients under the therapeutic influence of psychedelics such as LSD. When the government outlawed the use of these substances, even by doctors, Grof found another way for patients to access the transpersonal realms for healing. He named this other way, Holotropic Breathwork. With its capital letters and legal trademark, the name kind of rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a little pretentious and just another of the countless avenues of spiritual entrepreneurialism we see today. Not that there’s anything wrong with protecting your ideas—I’m all for copyright protections—but I did have to overcome an ingrained skepticism to learn more about it.

In trying to find out more about this weirdly named thing I found a local guy on Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork Community named Jimmy Eyerman. Looking into it a bit more, I found a podcast interview where Dr. Eyerman discusses the HB process. Although I’d read Grof’s definition of “holotropic” and had a basic understanding of the word, its meaning really sank in when I heard Dr. Eyerman talk about it. Simply put, the word means “movement toward wholeness.”

I think it sank in because I finally related the word holotropic to similar words I already knew from long-ago botany classes: phototropic (the tendency of plants to reach into the light) and geotropic (the tendency of roots to reach into the earth).

Dr. Eyerman has led something like 11,000 people on HB journeys, and in the podcast he talks about some of the experiences they’ve had. Meanwhile I’ve been reading Grof’s Psychology of the Future and getting more insight into the HB experience. As I learned more about HB, something kind of stuck in my craw—it’s temporariness. It seems that an HB experience is similar to a psychedelic experience in the sense that it can often be just that, a wild experience, a visit to a place you come back from and more or less forget about. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it seems like a half-step, like doing something inspiring on the weekend, only to feel stuck in drudgery the rest of the week.

That idea got me back to Wilber’s discussion in his book Integral Psychology of “states” versus “structures.” If I read him right, Wilber held that a goal of psychological evolution is to integrate the “states” into “structures.” Experiencing a state would be like realizing, briefly, that you had two arms. The next time you might realize you have two legs—and hopefully you didn’t forget about your arms during the interim. Eventually you realize you have a whole body, and if you play your cards right, that realization sticks, and now you have a fully realized structure to get around in.

The structure isn’t static like a building because time isn’t static. A structure in time is a process, and adjustments can be made to the structure to improve the process. Now the leap: What if holotropism, the tendency of one’s structure to reach toward wholeness, is as fundamental a process to humans as phototropism and geotropism are to plants? Why fight it?

This idea got me to thinking about the little bit of shamanic journeying I did back in the ‘90s with guys like Michael Harner. In shamanism, your drum is the horse you ride into the shamanic journey. I think writing and photography can be shaman’s drums as well, leading one into new ways of seeing the world. I see photography as being more primal than writing since images are its language, but I think rational writing can complement the primal art of seeing—and one of these days I hope to figure out how to do that.

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