Armageddon and Apocalyptic Imagery
as Metaphors of Birth Trauma

by John A. Speyrer

The hallucinatory experiences of imagery discussed in this article are much more typical of holotropic breathwork regression therapy and particularly LSD therapy than of primal-oriented therapy. However, such transpersonal types of events can occur in either form of psychotherapy, and even outside of regressive therapy. The requisite is that the recipient experience an extreme flooding of repressed emotion. On such occasions the material can present in symbolic fashion. The emotion is accurate but the dredged-up material is experienced as a symbolic event instead of as the original traumatic material which was repressed.

These types of hallucinatory happenings can be experienced through any of our senses, including smell, vision and hearing accompanying emotions of terror/fear or of bliss and ecstatic joy. The variety of experiences are endless. One may seemingly experience personal revelations from deities and witness or experience scenes of torment and torture - including accompanying emotional insights and what appear to be instant understandings of profound truths.

-- John A. Speyrer - Webmeister, The Primal Psychotherapy Page

"When analytically adjusted psychiatrists have recognized that the content of the
psychosis is 'cosmologic,' we need not avoid the next step, that of analysis of
cosmology itself, for then we shall find that it is nothing other than
the infantile recollection of one's own birth projected on to Nature."

-- Otto Rank in The Trauma of Birth (1929)

The boundaries of the mystic's ego are "strong enough to encompass and contain
the energies of the prenatal dimension. But if these boundaries are not
strong enough they will break and the result is a psychotic."

-- G. H. Graber, in Pranatale Psychologie (1974)

Even as a disconnected feeling, the truth will out. The violence of birth will reveal itself in many ways, of which dreams and nightmares are only the most well known.

We all have our own personally crafted stories, our dreams, of the end of the world -- of our own destruction and annihilation as do our religions and rituals. Their sources are ultimately each person's near death during one's birth process.

In 1997, Harry Bosma of Holland made a Sleep and Dreaming Survey of the types of dreams which were more prevalent in patients mostly with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. He wrote of the survey results: "I . . . wondered if there would be other recurring themes than just the violence theme. But violence simply seems to be the most important theme." (Quoted in my article, Fibromyalgia and the Traumas of Birth )

The theoretical underpinings of the relationship of one's birth pangs to world destruction and apolcalyptic armageddon are not as extraordinary as they first appear. Our mind and its dreams manufacture symbols based on the building materials at its disposal. For many, these symbols are sometimes religious ones. Often the themes are of violence. The scourging and crucifixion of Christ is a common one. Why themes of religion? Some assert that religious symbols are derived from the "God part" of our brains - our temporal lobes. Amazingly enough, that also is the source or the keyhole through which we relive our repressed early traumas. (See my article, Mysticism and Psychopathology )

Tsunamis, earthquakes, wars and mass murder can allow us to unconsciously search for symbols which we can use in the stead of the traumas of our birth. It would seem that concepts of apocalyptic visions of the end of the world scenarios have a natural explanation and are tied to the events which occurred during our feelings of near-death as we entered the world. Arthur Janov writes in a recent blog, "The ideas that flow out of feelings remain symbolic derivatives of them; for if one were to feel the real feelings behind them, one would be in great pain....Pain is never set down just as an idea; it is an experience, and it is that experience one must revisit and relive in order to understand the origin of one’s ideas.(More on Beliefs (Part 1/3), June 20, 2009)

Both prophesies of yesteryear and of contemporary times, which predict that armageddon awaits us, thus have a basis in mankinds own repressed memories. Religious mystics are not the only ones who have written about their "dark night of the soul" death-like symbolic experiences. All existential philosophers and many visual artists have long used these and similar symbols to portray such negative emotional and physical crises, including, S. Kierkegaard, S. Dali, Satre, H. Giger, and others ( See my book review of Hans R. Giger's, Necronomicon , 1999.).

The difficult economic times many are presently experiencing can also provide powerful fodder for some to project symbols of experiencing their earlier encounter with death. Our most recent economic recession has been accompanied by a series of mass killings when some violent dreams became translated into violent actions. The feelings of loss and pain which accompanied some of our births are more keenly experienced than others experience and can become inner calls for death and destruction. The economic recession caused psychological depressions. And like hurricane Katrina triggered murders and suicides, the recession resulted in a series of attacks on others proded by the loss of jobs and of money. Sleep may become difficult; impatience and anger more easily triggered as one rattles the cage of worries, all driven by the unconscious pain felt at our very beginnings. (See Virginia Tech Terror: The Terror of Birth & The Origins of Violence)

Severe economic recessions, like apocalyptic scenarios of wars and the destruction caused by natural catastrophic events like hurricanes, can also take a toll on our equanimity and allow early repressed traumas to be triggered and do their nefarious work. The act outs become extended beyond the immediate family and sometimes become random acts of mass killings as we have witnessed during the last quarter of 2008 and so far, through the first quarter of 2009.

The tendency of those individuals who had been strained to the breaking point during their pre- and peri-natal traumas may begin or turn up a level of child abuse and spousal abuse. The tendency had been present from the abuser's very beginnings but became easier to trigger when the economic recession effects began causing psychological depression as the act outs become closer to the original repressed feelings of anger and rage.

Anton Boison, was a forester, minister and language teacher and believed that there was an important relationship between acute psychotic reactions and resultant transpersonal experiences. He knew it because he had been there. In 1921 he was confined in a state mental hospital. Later, he was to become the first chaplain of a U.S. Mental hospital. He felt ". . . that certain types of mental disorders and certain types of religious experiences are alike attempts at reorganization''. . . of one's psyche. (The Exploration of the Inner World, p. 15)

In describing his own descent into mental illness, Boison writes, that ". . . the disturbance came on very suddenly and it was extremely severe. I had never been in better condition physically; the difficulty was rooted wholly in a severe inner struggle arising out of a precocious sexual sensitivity dating from my fourth year. . . . With the onset of adolescence the struggle became quite severe. It was cleared up on Easter morning in my twenty-second year through a spontaneous religious conversion experience which followed upon a period of black despair. . . . Then came a love affair which swept me off my feet and sent me forth on the adventure which has resulted in this book." (ibid.)

Apart from the paragraph above he does not detail exactly what he believes triggered his mental breakdown, and feels it "wise" to not give more personal details. However, based of the frugal information given above, those of us in regressive-type therapies will easily be able to surmise the proximate source of his nervous breakdown as Boisen mentions that he "failed to make the grade" with the object of his love. After nine years of "wandering," he was hoping that he would become "reinstated with her. . . ." (ibid.)

In 1920 such a reinstatement did occur. And predictably, the psychotic disturbance soon accompanied shortly after by . . ."feelings of world catastrophe, followed by environmental and natural resources shortages. The presence of forces of evil were made known to him. He felt terror. Time had become compressed." (ibid.)

In, The Exploration of the Inner World, he recounts how others at the mental institution described their journeying all around creation as well as his own voyage to the antipodes of the universe. Anton Boisen believed that there is an important relationship between acute psychotic reactions and resultant transpersonal experiences, such as recapitulating the evolution of various animal species. This had become apparent to him in 1921during his confinement in a state mental hospital.

When the experience is "successful,'' Boisen believed that it is recognized as a religious experience that can transform one's character. When "unsuccessful,'' it becomes known as insanity. Radical psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, expressed the same sentiment when he acknowledged: "Mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, but the mystics swim whereas the schizophrenics drown."

During his psychotic ideation, Boisen felt that the world was to be destroyed in an upcoming catastrophe. Remarkably, his visions were like some present day concerns of widescale disasters brought about by global warming. Boison's visions were of upcoming catastrophic ecological disasters which would result in depleted soil, toxic water, and widescale suffering. He wrote that all his premonitions foretold widescale death and ultimate world destruction.

It almost seems that Boisen was prescient about the ecological fears of today. Is the present alignment between those who support the reality of such disasters, which may or may not be in our future, and those who disbelieve in its reality have dissimilar psychological characteristics? Perhaps future ecological and environmental concerns are more typical of those who have explored their own unconscious mind and had transpersonal experiences than those who have not? Is there a relationship between how toxic was the womb for the developing fetus vs. the person's later assessment of the toxicity of his present environment?

In, "America's Apocalyptic Rebirth Fantasies in Contemporary Films" , psychohistorian Victor Meladze examines birth/death themes which appeared in a spate of popular movies. In nearly every movie plot, the mastery of death is effected through a birth/rebirth ritual. The fantasy material that is projected strongly supports the theories of prominent psychoanalysts, neuropsychologists and psychohistorians that death anxiety is linked to birth trauma." Universal mythology has deep roots in the themes of death and rebirth. Joseph Campbell, in The Masks of God, has written that the prominence of such themes are also common in religious and ceremonial rituals and for that reason merit study and interpretation.

The question which presents itself is: Why does world mythology continually re-create instances of the themes of death and rebirth? Perhaps it is so common because its sources lay in themes which all mankind experiences. During birth many experience a sense of death and dying and a subsequent re-birth. The "experience of dying" occurs during the process of being born and if the trauma was not too severe, a subsequent feeling of having escaped perdition and gained redemption when the success of being born is realized. Others can never feel this success as they are born half dead and unconscious.

All of Meladze's movie reviews seemingly have re-birth themes. He mentions that when he wrote his essay, "several major motion pictures with apocalyptic, end-of-time themes had been released."

He writes that much of ". . . the fear of death and the need to gain mastery over it is a common thread of nearly every popular film of the past five years. And, in nearly every case, the mastery of death is effected through a birth/rebirth ritual as if to nullify the lingering effects of our birth traumas. The fantasy material that is projected strongly supports the theories of prominent psychoanalysts, neuropsychologists and psychohistorians that death anxiety is linked to birth trauma." (Read America's Apocalyptic Rebirth Fantasies in Contemporary Films - by Victor Meladze)

According to Meladze the apocalyptic visions derived from birth traumas are symbolically projected unto the movie screen in personal triumphs of success at birthing and failure of being stillborn.

Sophy Burnham, author of, The Transforming Power of Mystical Experience, (1997), writes that during her transcendental experiences she was able to see "into the structure of the universe," and witnessed the future destruction of the planets by raging fires, with millions of years passing and more life developing. (Read book review.)

In psychiatrist Stanislav Grof's form of regression therapy (holotropic breathwork) one may relive one's birth traumas in both real and symbolic mode. According to Austrian, ex-Catholic priest, Adolf Hall:

"Grof expressly mentions apocalyptic visions in his account of the various images that are sighted on such a journey. Dragons, for example, may appear, or angels and devils in deadly combat, right up to the final release from all anxiety, with a great deal of light and radiant colors, as in the last two chapters of John's Apocalypse, where the bride of the Lamb comes down from heaven in the form of a golden city with twelve pearly, glittering gates.

Grof makes no sharp distinction between psychotic disturbance and mystical ecstasy. He simply accepts the ability to integrate one's experiences into everyday life as the boundary line between a clinical and a religious episode. According to Grof, the "transpersonal" sphere includes both saints and madmen. This conclusion is theologically acceptable too." -- Adolf Holl, The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit (1998), p. 11-12.

In his book, Beyond the Brain: Birth Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, Dr. Grof, an earlier explorer of the unconscious with the therapeutic use of LSD, describes the second the third phase of his birth schema as being "closely related to the theme of horror, agony, and death." (p. 407) There is much violence against a helpless victim. Undergoing tortures and torments may seem endless with specific scenes common, as for example a civilian undergoing carpet bombing. During the regressive experience, the receiver of the violence may shift into being the perpetrator of the attacks. (ibid.)

"It can now be seen that such experiences [war combat] not only function in the same manner as the birth trauma, but actually precipate a revival of the birth trauma at the deep mental level at which it lies buried."
--W.R.D. Fairbairn, M.D. Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality,
Misc. Papers, p. 276 - (1952)

The personal psychological aftermath of war can be as bad and often worse than the combat experience itself because it forcefully reminds some combatants of an earlier horror when they felt they had come very close to dying. In Iraq, one in 5 to one in 8 of returning soldiers suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Possibly the increased rate of post traumatic stress disorder compared to earlier wars has to do with western traumatic birthing practices. In the PTSD of soldiers returning from war we have the evidence of birth trauma writ large.

A movie which drops many clues that it is about birth trauma is, Jacob's Ladder, (1990 - Tim Robbins). It recounts the story of Jacob Singer, who faces armageddon and apocalyptic forces, both in his last combat battle in Vietnam and in the hallucinations and post traumatic stress episodes dredged up by his psyche upon his return home.

Seemingly, demonic forces are continually trying to kill him. He becomes convinced that he will soon be sent to hell. In his anguish, he cries, "Help me," "It's going to kill me," and later,"I don't want to die." and finally, "I was in Hell." So is the movie really about re-living the protagonist's combat experiences or his birth trauma? I say an emphatic "Yes" to both.

Dr. E. Michael Holden, neurologist and first medical director of the Arthur Janov's Primal Institute, as a youth, had for many years, experienced a fearful recurring dream. His recounting:

In the nightmare, "I am a five year old boy who is walking along a path in the woods, and a bony skeletal hand reaches out through the bushes and grabs my collar, hauls me roughly into the center of a clearing and I am placed up on a marble altar of sorts, and held down by seven women skeletons dressed in black.

My first assailant, who I can now see, is also a woman skeleton (The "woman skeletons'' - had long brown hair on their skulls). dressed in black and the content of the nightmare which is primary: she raises a sixteen inch black handled cooking knife above me, and plunges it into my chest, and I feel my ribs break and I feel my heart start to bleed. I go out like a candle and as far as I can tell, I am dying."

Holden sometimes awoke from the repeating nightmare unable to move or breathe and "full of death awareness." After completing his internship, he was under much less pressure and read, Janov's, The Primal Scream, with the result that the childhood nightmare returned and without therapy began spontaneously regressing to birth feelings on his own.

Soon, the birth feelings took on a life of their own, lasting many hours of the day and night. One day, he had a regressive feeling of his babyhood and got to a point where he could no longer breathe. Suddenly the feelings and visions took on elements of Christian mysticism. Since this article is not about spirituality, I'll skip to his "revelations" of world-wide destruction and death and concentrate on what he said was shown to him.

Skeletons, whom he called "Mr. Death", appeared to him, but Dr. Holden told them that the time had not yet arrived. In his childhood, he had been obsessed with death. He had the spirit of death in him as he told the psychotherapists and psychoanalysts of his childhood. But now he began to interpret what was happening to him as attempts by the devil to possess him. However, he was convinced that Jesus Christ had other plans for him.

During a telephone conversation, Dr. Holden had asked me where I lived and when I answered, "Louisiana" he assured me that I would escape atomic destruction, but that both the east and west coasts of the country would be destroyed. He predicted that the coming of Christ and the final battle of armagedden would soon occur. He believed that we were living in the last generation of mankind. "Nuclear war is coming to America," he predicted. "There will be troops in our land. There will be tidal waves. There will be famine. There will be earthquakes.... What is coming next, he said, is nation warring against nation, and kingdom against kingdom."

Dr. Holden had predicted the end of the world, foreshadowed by the eruption of Mount St. Helens. When that expected time arrived, he changed the projected date. Later, he again revised the date of the catastrophe. He continues,

"In 1975, on Christmas Day, I had an extraordinary opportunity to have a detailed and completed intrauterine primal in which I experienced complete weightlessness, saw a sea of red in front of me, tasted bloody amniotic fluid, knew that I was dying and knew that my mother was dying, but that was only the feeling,...I was only starting the process."

Holden's end of the world scenario was a projection of his repressed birth traumas and the source of his obsession with death during his childhood, although he seemingly did not recognize this. For a recounting of some of Dr. Holden's birth material, see Dr. Arthur Janov's, Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience (1983) pps. 275-276, which appears to be the pre-birth primal, which Dr. Holden is describing. (Read the transcription of an audio tape in which Dr. Holden recounts his spiritual and regressive experiences.)

It is not only Christians who have predicted the second coming of a religious figure who promises both retribution and salvation and whose beliefs foretell the end of the world at that time. Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presently awaits expectantly for the arrival of the "Guided One" - the Mahdi - who will rule the earth for seven years, when all will become Muslim, whereupon the world will end. A war of cataclysmic proportions will foretell his coming.

Middle Eastern religions have many such dogmatic predictions of the coming of a savior, presaging widespread destruction and the elimination of enemies of their particular peoples. The messiah or savior is expected by the Orthodox Jews and the Christians await the second coming of Christ -- all appearances presaged by world destruction and widescale suffering. It seems to be a common dogma of faith. Since we were all born, it is a mythology which we all share, although with huge individual differences in the severely of its imprinted trauma.

In Lara Jefferson's, These Are My Sisters, (1952), the author poetically describes her dark night of the soul and subsequent liberation through a spontaneous deep feeling episode, in the confines of a straightjacket, as a patient in a mid-western psychiatric hospital during the 1940s. Her book describes primal/mystical re-experiencings of repressed feelings experienced on a psychotic ward of a mental hospital at age 29. The regressions had resulted in such improved functioning that she was soon released from the institution. (She had requested that she be confined in a straightjacket which undoubtedly was used as a object for her to rage and fight against. I believe that she had intuited that she needed something against which to relive her fight to get born!).

Jefferson only ambiguously describes the sufferings she endured in her plight during her voyage into herself. She only described them as forms of symbolically unintended travel: ". . .I have felt it sweep me and take me -- where -- I do not know - all the way through Hell (pains of birth) , and far, on the other side...still, I have no way of telling about the things experienced on that weird journey" (to be born.) [my additions].

"After the first death, there are no others."
-- Dylan Thomas, Poet

The child who lost a parent always remembers the catastrophic emotions which accompanied the parent's death. Because of the severity of the loss, the mourning and shocked child's fantasies include images of death and destruction, such as being in wars, storms and cruel mass murders and is described by psychologist, Dr. Maxine Harris, in The Loss That is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father.

These representations are sometimes forever etched in the memories of the survivors. Perhaps the mind, as a protective device, substitutes these symbols rather than accepting the direct unvarnished truth of their very personal disaster which reaches back into the pain and suffering - the near death experience - of their own birth. Harris writes that after the loss, the child's previous "natural order" life becomes one dominated by death.

The intergenerational continuance of the pain and suffering of neurosis may be prolonged by many means. Could not the the parent's death be a reinforced trigger to the "death in the birth canal" trauma of the child as the trauma of giving birth can shake from repression the trauma of the birthing mother's own birth? (See Maternal Birth Trauma & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

British novelist, Virginia Woolf, recounts that her mother's "death was the greatest disaster that could happen; it was as though on some brilliant day of spring the racing clouds all of a sudden stood still, grew dark, and masked themselves; the wind flagged, and all creatures on the earth moaned or wandered seeking aimlessly." (ibid., pps. 9-10).

"Birth and death are interchangeable terms. . . The change-over from pre-natal to post-natal life involves an ordeal as severe as dying. Hence the fear of death begins at birth and is based on a maelstrom of bewildering experiences that are covered by infantile amnesia but break through in nightmares or become converted into symptoms."
-- Nandor Fodor, Ph.D., The Search for the Beloved (1949)


The traumas of our births powerfully pervade our early dreams, but as we become older and thus further away in time from those early hurts, they become more unavailable as do our bothersome phobias of the dark and of claustrophobia - both traumatic birth residuals. However, the unconscious leftovers from our pre- and peri-natal memories remain in pristine states, ready to spring forth unexpectedly when triggered by traumas in the present or arise during intensive psychotherapy. Readily accessible or not, their tentacles reach deeply into our everyday lives.

It has been claimed, that because of the unconscious pervasive power of our earliest traumas, many of us function in our day to day existence as "walking fetuses." But it is not only in our beginnings and in our day-to-day living that our birth pains intrude into our lives. At our death they have an even deeper hold of our psyche - because, most of us, at that time, will unwillingly tap into those memories. This is so because during our births we had felt what it was like to die. For many of us, this memory is the most powerful of all and is never fully resolved (See, Psychotherapy for the Dying: Principles and Illustrative Cases with Special References to the use of LSD, by Gary Fisher, Ph.D.)

Doyle Henderson and Australian psychiatrist, Graham Farrant, both believed that everything we do - even the words we use in conversations, reveal our birth and intrauterine pain. They claim that it is easy to find out what kind of birth a person has had. One's posture reveals it as does one's fears and concerns and even the characteristics of our voices. Henderson writes: "You can guess what happened to people long ago, if you'll just listen to what they say they felt during the past week." (Panacea: The Ultimate Alternative! (1998) .

According to Farrant, just asking the question: "What do you most want now?" reveals one's early trauma as can reading body language. Movie producer, Samuel Goldwyn, once shared a comical truism, "Just by looking you can see a lot!" But, in the case of perceiving birth trauma residuals in others, I'll add a caveat to his observation: "Only if you know what you're looking for!"

In one of her many books, co-author, Sheila F. Linn wrote, "Not only the behaviors we request of others, but even what we most want in our homes (colors, silence, music, water, furniture, etc.) can tell us about our earliest experiences." Healing Our Beginnings (2005), by Sheila Fabricant Linn, Dennis Linn and Matthew Linn, p. 67).

Japanese Bomb Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Appropriately enough, co-author Jesuit priest, Matthew Linn, writes in the same book (ibid., pps. 5-6) that his conception was during the immediate period after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. He believes that the wartime environment was also his womb environment and influenced his "pessimistic tendency", which he feels was a inclination to recapitulate intrauterine fears of destruction. The mechanism which makes this possible is unknown but there are enough cases extant to show that, sometimes, fetal memory can tap into the world and environment of one's parents. (See, Birth & Pre-Birth Trauma on TV).

In another book, Father Linn recalls the symbolic imagery, referred to above, which he had experienced in his mother's womb: "I felt helpless and defenseless, as if I were in the middle of a war. I saw boats sinking, bombs falls, and fire everywhere. I felt my father's fear of being taken from his home and forced into a violent conflict in a faraway place. I felt my mother's fear that something could go wrong....I saw myself struggling to stay alive in the face of a firestorm."Remembering Our Home: Healing Hurts & Receiving Gifts from Conception to Birth (1999) (same co-authors as above) , pps. 10-11.

Also see Index of Articles on Symbolic Regressions on this website .

A bibliography of Millenniumism with associated comments has been published on the web. See,
Henry Lawton, "The Dream of the Millennium: A Selective Bibliography," M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture 3(8) [Feb, 6, 2010]

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