When addressing the work of a theoretician whose pioneering work reaches the scope and
quality achieved by Ken Wilber, even a critical essay has to begin with compliments and words
of appreciation. In a series of books beginning with his Spectrum of Consciousness (Wilber
1977), Ken has produced an extraordinary work of highly creative synthesis of data drawn from a
vast variety of areas and disciplines, ranging from psychology, anthropology, sociology,
mythology, and comparative religion, through linguistics, philosophy, and history, to cosmology,
quantum-relativistic physics, biology, evolutionary theory, and systems theory. His knowledge of
the literature is truly encyclopedic, his analytical mind systematic and incisive, and the clarity of
his logic remarkable. The impressive scope, comprehensive nature, and intellectual rigor of
Ken's work have helped to make it a widely acclaimed and highly influential theory of
However, for a theory of such importance, it is not sufficient to integrate material from many
different ancient and modem sources into a system that shows inner logical cohesion. While
logical consistency certainly is a valuable prerequisite, a viable theory has to have an additional
property that is equally, if not more, important. It is generally accepted among scientists that a
system of propositions is an acceptable theory if, and only if, its conclusions are in agreement
with observable facts (Frank 1957). Since speculations concerning consciousness, the human
psyche, and spiritual experiences represent the corner stone of Ken's conceptual framework, it is
essential to test their theoretical adequacy and practical relevance against clinical data. Ken
himself does not have any clinical experience, and the primary sources of his data have been his
extensive reading and the experiences from his personal spiritual practice. For this reason,
evaluating his ideas in the light of actual experiences and observations from transpersonal
therapy and from modern consciousness research seems particularly important and necessary.
My own background and approach have been almost polar opposites to Ken's and might thus
serve as a useful complement to his theoretical work. For almost four decades, my primary
interest has been clinical work exploring the healing and heuristic potential of nonordinary states
of consciousness (NOSC). Whatever theoretical writing I have done over the years has been
based primarily on the reports of the people I have worked with. An additional important source
of information and inspiration has been my own experiences of nonordinary states induced by
psychedelics and various nondrug means. The choice of professional literature I have studied
has been strongly determined by observations from my clinical work and the need to put them
into a larger conceptual framework.
The observations and data on which this paper is based come from two major sources:
approximately two decades of clinical psychedelic research with LSD and other psychoactive
substances, and another twenty years of work with holotropic breathwork, a powerful non-drug
therapeutic method that I have developed jointly with my wife, Christina. It combines faster
breathing, evocative music, and a specific form of energetic release work. The subjects in the
psychedelic research projects were psychiatric patients with various emotional and
psychosomatic disorders, alcoholics, drug addicts, terminal cancer patients, and "normal"
volunteers--mental health professionals, scientists, artists, clergy, and students. The breathwork
sessions have been conducted in the context of a long-term training program of professionals
and of experiential workshops with a broad cross-section of the general population. In addition to
material from psychedelic and holotropic breathwork sessions, I am also drawing in this paper on
my observations from work with individuals undergoing spontaneous mystical experiences and
episodes of psycho-spiritual crises ("spiritual emergencies") (Grof and Grof 1990).
Over the years, Ken Wilber and I have exchanged some ideas, which involved both compliments
and critical comments about our respective theories. During this time, the thinking of both of us
has undergone certain changes and developments, as can be expected in an area as rich and
complex as mapping the human psyche and exploring the dimensions of consciousness. I first
addressed the similarities and differences between Ken's spectrum psychology and my own
observations and theoretical constructs more than a decade ago. In my book, Beyond the Brain:
Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy (Grof 1985), I dedicated a special section to
Ken's spectrum psychology, in which I briefly described where my own findings agreed and
disagreed with Ken's theories.
In my critical comments, I addressed what I saw as logical inconsistencies in Ken's conceptual
system (omission of the pre- and perinatal period and misrepresentation of the problem of death)
and the lack of correspondence between his conjectures and the facts of clinical observation
(concerning the dynamics of spiritual development, the nature of psychopathology, and the
strategy of psychotherapy). In what follows, I will elaborate on the comments I made at the time
and focus on a few additional areas. I will also reflect on Ken's extensive written reply to my
criticism that has appeared in the notes to his recent book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit
of Evolution (Wilber 1995).
Omission of the Pre- and Perinatal Domain in Spectrum Psychology
My main reservation about Ken's comprehensive and detailed theoretical system concerns what I
perceive as his surprising conceptual blind spot in relation to the role and significance of
prenatal existence and biological birth for the theory and practice of psychiatry, psychology, and
psychotherapy. The discovery of the psychological and psychospiritual importance of these two
periods of human development is one of the most important contributions of experiential
psychotherapy and modem consciousness research to psychology. The observations in this
area have been so impressive and consistent that they have inspired the development of
pre-and perinatal psychology, including regular international meetings and a rapidly growing
body of literature. These observations have been so convincing that they have profoundly
influenced the actual birthing practices and postnatal care of many open-minded obstetricians
and pediatricians. In view of these facts, I found it very surprising that Ken, with his meticulous
and comprehensive approach, has completely ignored the vast amount of data from both modem
and ancient sources suggesting the paramount psychological significance of prenatal
experiences and of the trauma of birth, as well as their relationship to spirituality. This bias is
evident in his writings focusing on cosmology, human evolution, developmental psychology,
psychopathology, and psychotherapy.
Ken's description of the evolution of consciousness of an individual begins with the pleromatic
stage (the undifferentiated consciousness of the newborn) and continues through the uroboric,
typhonic, verbal-membership, and mental-egoic levels to the centauric stage. He refers to this
progression, from the newborn infant to the adult with fully integrated functioning of the ego,
persona, shadow, and body, as the outward arc. According to Ken, at the evolutionary stage of
centaur begins the truly spiritual development, or the inward arc, that takes the individual to the
lower and higher regions of the subtle and causal realms and finally to the boundless radiance of
Formless Consciousness and the ultimate unity with the Absolute (Wilber 1980).
In his account of cosmogenesis or consciousness involution, Ken closely follows the highly
culture-specific archetypal map from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Bardo Thodol (Evans-Wentz
1960), rather than creating a more general and universal description that would be applicable in
any cultural and historical context. His account of cosmogenesis thus begins with the ultimate
consciousness, the immaculate and luminous Dharmakaya, proceeds through the specific
visions of the Tibetan bardo realms, and ends--like the Bardo Thodol--with the moment of
conception when the individual who has missed all chances for spiritual liberation is facing
another incarnation. This is perfectly logical and understandable for the Tibetan text, which
describes the experiences in the intermediate state between death and the next incarnation.
However, it results in a major logical gap in Ken's system that allegedly portrays the entire
cosmic cycle of involution and evolution of consciousness.
By ending the process of the involution of consciousness at the moment of conception and
beginning the account of consciousness evolution with the undifferentiated pleromatic
experience of the newborn, Ken leaves out the entire embryonic development between
conception and the moment of birth. I find this to be an astonishing omission for a system that is
otherwise worked out with meticulous attention to detail and has received much acclaim for its
logical cohesion and clarity of thinking. Even if the fetus had no conscious awareness during
these periods and the pre- and perinatal events were not recorded in the brain (a position taken,
increasingly implausibly, by academic psychiatry), this omission would leave a strange gap in
Ken's cosmic cycle. After all, we are talking here about a period of nine months of embryonic life
during which the fetus undergoes a complex process of development from the fertilized ovum to
a fully formed and differentiated organism. This is then followed by many hours or even a few
days of a potentially life-threatening process of biological birth in which the fetus experiences a
radical transformation from an aquatic organism to an air-breathing one.
However, there exists important clinical and experimental evidence indicating that the fetus might
be conscious during these nine months, that pre- and perinatal events play a critical role in the
individual's psychological history, and that the memories of these early experiences are available
for conscious recall and reliving. The memory of birth represents an important reservoir of
difficult emotions and physical sensations that can contribute later in life to the development of
various forms of emotional and psychosomatic disorders. Reliving and integrating pre- and
perinatal traumas can have very beneficial effects; it can result in healing and profound
psychospiritual transformation. Therapists working with powerful forms of experiential
psychotherapies, such as primal therapy, psychedelic work, rebirthing, and holotropic
breathwork, or with individuals in psychospiritual crises, see these phenomena daily in their
practices. Reliving of such events often is photographically accurate and occurs even in people
who have no intellectual knowledge about their birth. The fact that it is often possible to verify
various details of these experiences leaves little doubt that they represent authentic memories
In addition, episodes of this kind are often accompanied by various specific physical
manifestations that can be noticed by an external observer. The postures and movements of the
body, arms, and legs, as well as the rotations, flections, and deflections of the head, can
accurately recreate the mechanics of a particular type of delivery, even in people without
elementary obstetric knowledge. Many details of such experiences can be confirmed if good birth
records or reliable personal witnesses are available. In his recent book, Ken calls this evidence
"controversial" (Wilber 1994, 585), but the practitioners of experiential therapies would certainly
The fact that the psychological importance of prenatal and perinatal events has not been
accepted by mainstream psychiatry reflects the rigidity of deeply ingrained beliefs rather than the
ambiguity of clinical observations. The most important of these is the conviction that the brain of
the newborn is not capable of registering the traumatic impact of birth because the neurons in its
cortex are not fully myelinized. This is not a well-substantiated scientific fact, but a very
problematic assumption that is in conflict not only with observations from experiential therapy,
but also rich experimental data concerning prenatal sensitivity of the fetus and its capacity to
learn (Chamberlain 1988; Tomatis 1991). In any case, it is hard to imagine that hours of dramatic
and often life-threatening experiences during biological birth would be psychologically less
important than the immediately following pleromatic experiences of the newborn that receive
much of Ken's attention and have an important role in his scheme. We will return to this problem
later in the section discussing Ken's ideas about psychopathology.
In addition to leaving out the entire pre- and perinatal periods from his cosmic cycle of the
involution and evolution of consciousness and ignoring the extensive evidence from modem
experiential psychotherapies indicating the great psychological significance of these periods,
Ken also fails to acknowledge the pioneering work of Otto Rank (1929), who emphasized the
paramount importance of the intrauterine experience and of the trauma of birth. Rank is the only
major figure in the history of depth psychology whom Ken treats in this way. Without any
explanation, he neither incorporates Rank's work concerning the birth trauma into his scheme of
spectrum psychology, nor subjects it to critical analysis.
In addition to ignoring all the clinical and experimental data concerning the prenatal and perinatal
periods, Ken shows the same selective bias in regard to spiritual sources. Since he draws so
exclusively on Tibetan sources in the discussion of cosmogenesis, it is particularly striking that
he does not pay any attention to Tibetan texts that discuss in detail the challenges of prenatal
development and birth (Sgam.po.pa 1971, 63-66). In Vajrayana, the intrauterine state is actually
described as one of the six intermediate states or bardos (Evans-Wentz 1960, 102). And the
Buddha himself made specific references to the trauma of birth as a major source of human
Ken responded to my critical comments concerning his omission of the pre- and perinatal period
in the copious notes to his Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (Wilber 1995,
585-88, 741-63). We have had some exchange about this issue over the years, but this was the
first time that he formulated his reaction in written form. He expresses his amazement about the
difficulties that various people perceived in the task of "integration of the Grof and Wilber
models." According to him, such integration is actually a relatively simple matter. He points out
that it was actually this lack of perceived difficulty, together with complications in his personal
life, that prevented him from making the necessary adjustments in his theory at least ten years
Opening the discussion on this subject, Ken makes a vague reference to a "large body of theory
and (controversial) evidence for the intrauterine state and the birth process (and birth trauma)"
Ken's parentheses]. And then, "having simply allowed that some of this evidence could indeed
be genuine," he creates for this entire domain a new category in his developmental scheme,
fulcrum 0 (F-O) preceding the fulcrum of the pleromatic stage (F-I) and the six subsequent ones
(Wilber 1995, 585-88). At this point, I will not argue with Ken whether the evidence for the
psychological importance of the birth trauma deserves to be considered controversial. I have
addressed this problem earlier and will return to it in another context. Instead, I will briefly
describe and discuss his proposal. He suggests that the new fulcrum shows the same general
features as any other fulcrum, namely:
1. An initial state of undifferentiation or indissociation (in this case the prenatal state)
2. A period of intense and often difficult differentiation (the birth process/ trauma itself)
3. A period of postdifferentiation and (post-uterine) consolidation and integration, in preparation
for the next round of differentiation/integration (F- 1)
The extensive and complex experiential patterns associated with the consecutive stages of
biological birth that I call basic perinatal matrices (BPMs) would thus simply become three
subphases of fulcrum 0, with BPM II and BPM III both subsumed into a single subphase
(subphase 2). BPM I would thus be sub-phase 1 of F-O, reflecting the oceanic indissociation
experience of the fetus, both in its undisturbed and disturbed aspects. BPM II would be the
beginning of subphase 2, or the differentiation process, that involves "cosmic engulfment" and
"no-exit" hellish pressure. BPM III would be the later stage of sub-phase 2, with the beginning of
the expulsion from the womb, "volcanic" ecstasy, sadomasochistic pleasure/pain, experience of
dismemberment, etc. And, finally, BPM IV would be sub-phase 3, the postpartum neonatal state,
during which the child must integrate its new sense of separation from the mother. At the same
time, this is the beginning of the pleromatic F-l, during which the infant with its new self-sense
still cannot distinguish its own self-boundaries from those of the physical world around it.
As much as I appreciate Ken's acknowledgment of the existence of the perinatal level of the
unconscious and its inclusion in his developmental scheme, I feel that the ad hoc addition of
another fulcrum (F-O) and the fusion of two perinatal matrices into one of its sub-phases do not
do justice to the importance of this domain. Although it might render an impressive graphic
scheme that pleases the eye and satisfies the need for logical order, it fails to grasp the real
parameters of the perinatal experience. The easy solution that Ken offers is in fundamental
conflict with the facts of observation. First of all, the second and third matrix are related to two
phases of birth that are in many respects radically different from each other, both physiologically
and experientially. For this reason, lumping them together into one subphase of F-O makes little
In addition, the urgency and extreme intensity of birth experiences and their association with a
serious threat to body integrity and to survival of the organism put them into a completely
different category than the stages of postnatal development. A radical transition, from an aquatic
form of life whose needs are being continually satisfied by placental circulation to the extreme
emotional and physical stress of the birth struggle and then to a radically new existence as an
air-breathing organism, is an event of paramount significance that reaches all the way to the
cellular level. Even a relatively normal birth without complications is certainly a process of an
entirely different order than learning to speak or developing an ego. This is clearly evident from
the amount of time it takes in experiential therapy to bring the perinatal material into
consciousness and integrate it. And a difficult birth and poor postnatal circumstances can
constitute a profound trauma that colors the entire life history of the individual.
Much of what has been said above is related primarily to prenatal and perinatal events occurring
in the context of the early psychobiological evolution of the individual. It seems that much of
Ken's initial hesitation to include these stages in his scheme was based on his uncertainty
whether the events from this time are consciously experienced by the fetus and ot recorded in the
memory banks. However, this is only one aspect of the problem. Perinatal matrices are not
defined as stages of the psychobiological evolution of the fetus, but as experiential patterns that
occur in self-exploration of adults involving NOSC. They are are thus primarily related to
psychospiritual evolution and only secondarily serve as indirect evidence for the importance of
the early psychobiological events. In other words, they are much more than simple records of the
original fetal experience. Besides containing distinct fetal elements, they also function as an
important interface with the archetypal and historical domains of the collective unconscious and
with species consciousness. For this reason, they cannot be simply reduced to a fetal fulcrum. I
will return to this point later in this article.
The Psychological Importance of Biological Death
Another major difference between my own observations and Ken's model involves the
psychological importance of biological death, both in connection with the perinatal level and
independently from it. In his early writings, Sigmund Freud expressed the opinion that the
problem of death is irrelevant for psychology, since our unconscious does not know linear time
and thus does not recognize and acknowledge our mortality and impermanence. However, later
clinical observations related to the phenomena that seemed to challenge his concept of the
"pleasure principle" led him to the conclusion that it is impossible to have a viable psychological
system without including the phenomenon of death as an essential element (Freud 1955).
This realization represented an important turning point in Freud's theoretical speculations. To
account for psychopathological disorders that seemed to defy the "pleasure principle" (such as
sadomasochism, automutilation, and violent suicide), he formulated in the last two decades of his
life a psychology that was significantly different from his early writings. In his final version of
psychoanalysis, he described the psyche as a system reflecting the conflict between two
opposing forces, the sexual instinct, Libido or Eros, and the death instinct, Destrudo or Thanatos
According to a statistical survey conducted by Brun (1953), 94 percent of psychoanalysts
refused to follow Freud in this final stage of his thinking. The observations from NOSC clearly
show that Freud was essentially correct in his assessment of the importance of death for
psychology, even though they do not specifically support his understanding of Thanatos. These
new findings show that what Freud refers to as Thanatos is not a biological instinct, but a
psychological force reflecting the individual's encounters with life-threatening events from
postnatal biography and, particularly, from the perinatal period. These connections make the
element of biological death essential for the understanding of the disorders that defy Freud's
"pleasure principle" and a variety of other psychological phenomena (Grof 1985).
In addition, the psychological representation of death has deeper sources in the archetypal
domain of the collective unconscious in the form of eschatological deities and motifs and also
plays an important role in karmic experiences. Freud saw Thanatos as a biological instinct and
did not recognize the deep psychological connection between death and the trauma of birth. He
also refused to accept Jung's concept of the collective unconscious and its archetypal dynamics.
And, as a materialist, he wanted to anchor psychology deeply in biology and was not ready to
give serious attention to the karmic dimension of the psyche. However, in his general awareness
of the psychological importance of death and in his (unfortunately superficial and fleeting)
recognition of the possible significance of birth, Freud was far ahead of his followers, whose
writings Ken uses as his main sources.
Ken does not simply ignore Freud's later writings as do the majority of Freud's followers. He
actually keeps the term Thanatos, but changes the meaning of this concept in a way that dilutes
and trivializes Freud's insights. For Freud, Thanatos was a brutal force that operates throughout
our life and finally reduces us back to the inorganic state. For Ken, Thanatos is a relatively meek
evolutionary mechanism associated with the transformation of consciousness from one level to
the next. It is instrumental in the process of abandoning one developmental stage and moving to
the next one (Wilber 1980). This involves generally a long and slow transition that is part of
natural evolution, a kind of psychological equivalent of the first and second teething. The
problems that might occur during these developmental transitions have a different degree of
relevance than acute emergency situations that threaten the individual's survival or body
In an extensive critique of the way various theorists use the term Thanatos and of the resulting
confusion (Wilber 1983), Ken emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between biological
death and the "ego-death," or "Death" and "death." However, he himself entirely misses the
psychological importance of the experiences associated with life-threatening events and makes
no distinction between "dying" to a developmental level and the experiences associated with
biological death. He equates dying with abandoning the exclusive identification with a particular
structure of consciousness, which makes it possible to transcend that structure and move to the
next level. This mechanism would thus apply to such extended and gradual processes as
learning to speak and developing an ego.
The situation is further confounded by the fact that, in another context, Ken also sees Thanatos
as the force that drives the involution of consciousness and thus cosmogenesis (Wilber 1980). In
the outward and inward arc of consciousness evolution, Thanatos is, according to Ken, the
principle that dissolves the structures associated with various forms and levels of what he calls
the Atman project. It is the principle that is responsible for abandoning substitute selves and
substitute gratifications and mediates the movement toward the Absolute. However, in the
context of cosmogenesis, Ken equates Thanatos with the force that drives consciousness away
from the reunion with the Dharmakaya and into incarnation. Here it thus allegedly prevents the
only true gratification there is, which is the union with the Absolute, and drives consciousness in
the direction of unsatisfactory substitute gratifications that characterize the Atman project.
The experiences of encounter with biological death receive no attention at all in Ken's spectrum
psychology. This is in sharp contrast with clinical observations from deep experiential
self-exploration and psychotherapy (primal therapy, rebirthing, holotropic breath-work,
psychedelic therapy, and work with people in psychospiritual crises). In all these situations,
memories of life-threatening events such as serious diseases, accidents, and operations in
post-natal life, the process of biological birth, and crises of intrauterine life represent a category
of special psychological significance. In NOSC, additional profound encounters with death occur
in the context of transpersonal experiences, such as karmic and phylogenetic memories and
archetypal sequences. This material clearly supports the view that it is essential to distinguish
the process of transition from one developmental stage to another from the life-threatening
events that endanger the very survival of the organism.
Learning to speak and thus "dying" to the typhonic stage of development or developing an ego
and thus "dying" to the verbal-membership stage does not stand comparison with situations that
threaten the survival or integrity of the organism, such as near drowning, a serious operation, a
car accident, a difficult birth, or an imminent miscarriage. Equally powerful and compelling can be
experiences of death in a previous incarnation, identification with an animal attacked and killed
by a predator, or annihilation by a wrathful deity. Life-threatening experiences are of a different
logical type and are in a metaposition in relation to the mechanisms involved in evolutionary
processes on various developmental levels that Ken describes as Thanatos. They endanger the
existence of the organism as a separate biological entity without regard to the level of its
development. Thus, a critical survival threat can occur during embryonal existence, at any stage
of the birth process, or at any postnatal age, without regard to the level of consciousness
In my 1985 critique of Ken's views, I expressed my opinion that any model of human nature that
lacks a genuine appreciation of the paramount significance of birth and death is bound to be
incomplete and unsatisfactory. The inclusion of the perinatal level of the unconscious and of the
phenomenon of biological death and acknowledgment of their relevance would give Ken's model
more logical consistency and greater pragmatic power. However, since he lacks genuine
understanding of the perinatal dynamics and does not appreciate the psychological significance
of the experience of death, his model cannot account for important clinical data, and his
description of the therapeutic implications of his model will remain the least useful and
convincing part of his work for clinicians dealing with the practical problems associated with
various emotional and psychosomatic disorders.
The Spectrum of Psychopathology
Ken's interpretation of psychopathology is another area which is in fundamental disagreement
with the observations from experiential therapies, psychedelic research, and work with
individuals in psychospiritual crises. This is related to the fact that he uses as his sources
schools of depth psychology (particularly classical psychoanalysis and ego psychology) whose
members use verbal methods of psychotherapy, are conceptually limited to biographical models
of the psyche, and do not have even an elementary understanding of the perinatal and
transpersonal domains. Modern revisions of classical psychoanalysis that Ken heavily relies on
have refined the understanding of postnatal dynamics and object relationships, but share
Freud's narrow biographical focus.
Ken basically uncritically accepts the dynamic classifications of emotional and psychosomatic
disorders developed by the pioneers of classical psychoanalysis beginning with Sigmund Freud
and Karl Abraham (Fenichel 1945) and later modified and refined by representatives of ego
psychology, such as Otto Kernberg, Margaret Mahler, and Heinz Kohut (Blanck and Blanck
1974). The common denominator for the theories of all these authors is that they do not see
biological birth--whether it has a normal or pathological course--as an event that has
psychological relevance. They thus accept the perspective of academic psychiatrists who do not
consider birth to be a psychotraumatic experience and fail to see that it has any implications for
psychopathology, unless it causes irreversible damage to the brain cells. As I have suggested
earlier, there is a general belief in official academic circles that the newborn child lacks
consciousness and that the neonatal cortex is incapable of registering the birth process and
storing the information about it because it is not fully myelinized.
Ken has essentially accepted this position and incorporated it into the main body of his work. At
the time when he did most of his theoretical writing about psychology and psychopathology, his
theoretical speculations about psychological development and its vicissitudes had their starting
point in the pleromatic stage of the newborn. Even today, he does not have an adequate
understanding of the perinatal dynamics, their deep connection with the transpersonal realm,
and their role in psychopathology, as well as spiritual development. For this reason, he has not
been able to notice this deficit in his sources. And although he has a deep and extensive
knowledge of the transpersonal realms, he sees them as being essentially irrelevant for the
development of the common forms of psychopathology.
Ken's conclusions are in sharp conflict with the experience of the practitioners of various
experiential approaches, such as rebirthing, psychedelic therapy, and holotropic breathwork,
who witness dramatic reliving of the birth process daily in their work. However, one does not
have to have such firsthand clinical experience to be able to see the logical inconsistency in
current academic thinking concerning the psychological impact of birth. The representatives of
all the schools of dynamic psychotherapy attribute a critical psychological role to the early
mother-child relation and to the subtleties of nursing. A good example is Harry Stack Sullivan
who claims that the nursing infant is able to distinguish between the "good nipple" (the breast of
a loving mother that gives milk), the "evil nipple" (the breast of a rejecting or nervous mother that
gives milk), and the "wrong nipple" (a thumb or big toe that does not give milk at all). He sees
such experiences as instrumental in the future development of emotional and personality
disorders (Sullivan 1955).
And yet the same dynamic psychologists who attribute to the infant such sensitivity and
discrimination deny that it can be in any way influenced by the experience of biological birth. We
are asked to believe that it is possible for the infant not to experience and/or register in memory
many hours or even several days of a highly taxing and life-threatening situation and then
immediately after birth become a "connoisseur of female nipples" capable of differentiating
nuances in the experience of nursing. This is hardly an example of rigorous logical thinking or a
well-grounded scientific conclusion. It is much more likely a result of psychological repression
and denial of this extremely painful and frightening event, rationalized by the use of scientific
The justification of this position by references to incomplete myelinization of the cerebral cortex
of the neonate can hardly be taken seriously in view of the fact that the capacity of memory
exists in many lower organisms that do not have a cerebral cortex at all, including unicellular life
forms that possess primitive "protoplasmatic memory." The image of the newborn as an
unconscious being who is incapable of registering and remembering the process of biological
birth is also in sharp conflict with extensive research data showing extraordinary sensitivity of the
fetus already during intrauterine life (Verny 1987). Ken, who is usually extremely astute, sharp,
and discriminating, does not notice these extraordinary discrepancies and takes all the
psychodynamic schools at their face value.
According to psychoanalysis and ego psychology, psychogenic disorders can be adequately
understood in terms of postnatal biographical events and related psychodynamic processes.
Different psychopathological syndromes are explained as resulting from problems in specific
stages of postnatal libidinal development and from the difficulties in the evolution of the ego and
of the object relationships. Psychoses thus allegedly have their origin in early infancy while
neurotic or psychosomatic disorders are anchored in later childhood. Accepting this way of
thinking, Ken sees psychoses (autistic psychoses, symbiotic infantile psychoses, most adult
schizophrenia, and depressive psychoses) as results of regression to early developmental
stages of postnatal development, and thus as fully prepersonal and prerational disturbances. He
then associates various psychoneuroses with later fulcrums of postnatal development. By
contrast, difficulties of spiritual development are for him transpersonal and postrational disorders.
As I have already indicated, in the recent modification of his model Ken makes some
concessions to perinatal dynamics by creating for it a new fulcrum (F-O) and briefly outlining his
ideas about the implications of this revision for psychopathology (Wilber 1995, 585-86).
According to him, the new fulcrum (F-O) would participate in the development of
psychopathology in a way similar to all the other fulcrums. Developmental malformations of its
specific subphases (disruption at the dissociation, differentiation, or integration subphase) would
result in specific pathologies.
A fixation at the fusion/indissociation subphase might thus predispose a person to "somatic
mystical" fusion with the world; a disruption at the differentiation subphase might create a
predisposition to the "hellish no exit" vital shock, intense sadomasochistic activity, and
involutional depression; and fixation at the integration stage might lead to delusional messianic
complexes. Similarly, the formations and malformations at this F-0 would "incline (but not cause)"
subsequent development to tilt in the same direction. Thus a profound "no exit" malformation of
the differentiation subphase might, for example, create a strong disposition to depression,
withdrawal, and inhibitions. Ken offers here a comparison with the formation of a pearl, where a
grain of sand influences the shape of subsequent layers.
However, even with this modification, Ken does not begin to account in his theory for actual
clinical observations. In experiential psychotherapies using NOSC, people working on various
forms of depression, psychoneuroses, and psychosomatic disorders typically discover that these
disorders have a multilevel dynamic structure, In addition to their connections with traumatic
events in infancy and childhood, as expected by traditional academic thinking, these disorders
have important roots in the perinatal domain and also beyond that in the transpersonal realm
(Grof 1985). Therapeutic work on psychoneuroses and psychosomatic disorders, guided not by
the therapist but by the spontaneous healing mechanisms activated by NOSC, will thus typically
take the clients beyond postnatal biography to the perinatal and transpersonal domains.
Under these circumstances, the therapeutic process does not follow a linear trajectory. If it is not
restricted by the strait-jacket of the therapist's professional convictions, it will freely move
between the biographical, perinatal, and transpersonal levels, often even within the same
session. For this reason, effective work with emotional and psychosomatic disorders requires a
therapist who uses a framework that is open to all the bands of the spectrum. The idea of
breaking the therapeutic process into stages during which he or she is seen by different
therapists, each of whom is a specialist in fulcrum-specific treatment modality, is thus highly
unrealistic. In addition, since both the perinatal and transpersonal experiences have the quality
that C. G. Jung called "numinosity," it is impossible to draw a clear line between therapy and
spiritual evolution. With an open approach, the process that initially began as "therapy" will often
automatically change into a spiritual and philosophical quest.
The integral link between psycho-pathology and the perinatal, as well as transpersonal, domains
is even more obvious in psychotic conditions. While in psychoneuroses and psychosomatic
disorders the perinatal and transpersonal roots are not immediately obvious and have to be
discovered in experiential therapy, in psychoses they often represent a manifest aspect of their
phenomenology. Without this recognition, the phenomenology of psychotic experiences and their
relationship to mystical states will continue to present a serious challenge for Ken's conceptual
system. In discussing the relationship between schizophrenia and mysticism in his book The
Atman Project (Wilber 1980, 152), he describes his position as being "somewhere between" the
approach of traditional psychiatry, for which both schizophrenia and mysticism are purely
pathological, and the attitude taken by researchers like R. D. Laing and Norman O. Brown, who
see both as examples of ultrahealth.
Ken accepts the position of Anton Boisen, R. D. Laing, Julian Silverman, and others who
observed that, under favorable circumstances, the psychotic episode can actually result in
healing and become a growth experience: by regression in the service of the ego, the psychotic
patient returns to a deep structure (bodyself or otherwise) that was "traumatized" during its construction in infancy
or childhood . . . and then, as it were, re-builds the personality, ground up, from that point . . .
After re-contacting or "re-living" that deep complex or deep structure disturbance, then the upper
layers of consciousness spontaneously reshuffle or rebuild themselves around the newly
refurbished deep structure. (Wilber 1980, 157)
According to Ken, this process of regressive healing and transformation remains restricted to the
fulcra of post-natal biography. However, the psychotic process is not limited to material from
infancy and childhood. It also frequently includes the theme of death and rebirth and the specific
symbolism characteristic of perinatal matrices. Should we believe that for some mysterious
reasons the process of this reparative regression has to stop short of the split caused by the
trauma of biological birth, Ken's new fulcrum 0? It certainly does not stop there in deep
experiential work using NOSC. There this regression proceeds to the perinatal level where the
process often connects to the transpersonal domain.
John Perry's observations from many years of clinical work with psychotic patients clearly
demonstrate that similar mechanisms operate also in the psychotic process. They show that the
reparative regression and restructuring of personality typically includes the motif of death and
rebirth as an essential element and reaches deep into the archetypal level to the Self or the
"central archetype" (Perry 1953, 1974). John Perry's pioneering work that C. G. Jung welcomed
as "a messenger of a time when the psyche of the mental patient will receive the interest that it
deserves" (Jung's foreword to John Perry's book The Self in Psychotic Process 1953]) has
unfortunately not been mentioned in Ken's discussion of schizophrenia and mysticism.
This brings us to the problem of the participation of transpersonal elements in the experiences of
psychotic patients. While emphasizing that a sharp distinction between pre- and trans- is
all-important for this matter, Ken admits that the disruption of the egoic syntax opens the
individual not only to "mythic thinking and magical references," but somehow also to "invasion" of
material from transegoic realms that can lead to valid spiritual revelations. He suggests that the
disruption of the editing and filtering functions of egoic translation leaves the individual open and
unprotected from both the lower and the higher levels of consciousness. As the egoic
translations begin to fail and the self is drawn into preegoic realms, it "is also open to invasion
(castration) from the transegoic realms" Ken's parentheses]. He emphasizes that he personally
does not see any other way to account for the phenomenology of the schizophrenic break than
to assume that a dual process is set in motion: the individual begins to regress to the lower
levels of consciousness while, at the same time, he is invaded by the higher (Wilber 1980, 152).
This peculiar mixture of regressive phenomena and transpersonal elements in psychotic (and
mystical) experiences cannot be easily accounted for without understanding that the perinatal
realm of the psyche is not just a repository of memories of biological birth, but also a natural
experiential interface with the transpersonal domain. Without this realization, the fact that
genuine spiritual insights can sometimes be channeled through psychotic personalities and
experiences will have to remain for Ken's system "a mystery"--a fact that he himself admits.
Similarly unexplained in his theory remains the observation that "true mystics occasionally
reactivate regressive complexes on their way to mature unity states." In spite of the fact that Ken
acknowledges frequent mysterious invasion of transpersonal insights in psychotic patients,
mysticism remains for him miles apart from psychosis. It represents for him a purely transegoic
progression, whereas psychosis is primarily characterized by a regression to early infancy in the
service of the ego.
The lack of recognition of the perinatal and transpersonal elements in the dynamics of unusual
experiences leads Ken to simplistic interpretations that sometimes border on the bizarre and
absurd. A salient example is his approach to the experiences of ritual satanic cult abuse, a
complex and baffling phenomenon that in the last decades has reached epidemic proportions in
the United States. Ken attributes them to the emergence of distorted childhood memories and
gives as an illustration the infant's observation of his or her mother carving the Thanksgiving
turkey (Wilber 1994, 303). Serious researchers of the UFO phenomena and of alien abduction
experiences would also be surprised to find out that Ken believes that a similar mis-interpretation
of childhood memories could adequately account for the rich spectrum of fascinating and
puzzling observations in their field. I feel that personal experience of working with clients
suffering from problems of this kind would give Ken more respect for the extraordinary nature of
these phenomena and the depth of the issues involved.
Ken actually uses his understanding of psychoses as F-1 pathologies as a theoretical
justification for pharmacological and physiological treatments as primary therapeutic
interventions in these disorders:
Most forms of severe or process psychoses do not respond well (or at all) to psychoanalytic
therapy, psychotherapy, analytic psychology, family therapy, etc.--despite repeated and
pioneering efforts in this area. These disturbances seem to occur on such primitive level of
organization (sensori-perceptual and physiological) that only intervention at an equally
primitive level is effective--namely, pharmacological or physiological (which does not rule
out psychotherapy as an adjunct treatment). (Wilber, Engler, and Brown 1986, 127)
Ken does not mention here the possibility of successful psychotherapeutic work with many
people who by traditional psychiatry are or would be diagnosed as psychotic. While the earlier
psychotherapeutic interventions based on the psychoanalytic model were severely limited by the
therapists' tendency to interpret all psychotic phenomena in terms of postnatal development,
strategies using larger cartographies of the psyche and supporting the experiences of the clients
rather than discouraging or suppressing them are actually very promising (Perry 1974; Grof and
The manifest content of many psychoses, as well as the material emerging during experiential
work with them, shows a preponderance of perinatal and transpersonal themes, such as
experiences of diabolical torture, eternal damnation, hell and no exit, identification with Jesus
Christ, sequences of death and rebirth or destruction and recreation of the world, satanic and
demonic elements, messianic ideas, encounters with archetypal beings, or past incarnation
experiences. These are in no way occasional mysterious "infusions" or "transfusions" of
archetypal material, but essential and integral parts of the psychotic process.
This is evident in the already mentioned work of John Perry, who conducted systematic
psychotherapy with people undergoing acute psychotic episodes untruncated by tranquilizing
medication. He was able to show that the major themes and motifs emerging in their experiences
were identical with those that played an important role in royal dramas performed in New Year's
festivals of a large number of ancient cultures at a particular period of their history, the "archaic
era of incarnated myth" (Perry 1974). Perry's work clearly reveals the important role that
archetypal dynamics play in such episodes and shows their meaningful connection to the
evolution of consciousness. The essential role of archetypal elements and the collective
unconscious in many psychotic episodes has also been demonstrated by many other Jungians
and Jung himself.
A comprehensive approach to functional psychoses, mysticism, and their mutual interrelations
requires a vastly expanded cartography of the psyche that includes the perinatal and the
transpersonal domains. As the work with NOSC clearly shows, the current academic
understanding of psychoses and their relationship to mysticism is superficial and needs a radical
revision. However, Ken's conceptual framework in its present form does not offer a viable
alternative. With his linear understanding of the pre/trans fallacy, he sees psychotic states as
essentially regressive and mystical states as progressive.
This is in clear conflict with clinical observations that show a much more complex and intimate
relationship between many psychotic episodes and mystical states. David Lukoff (1985) speaks
in this regard about at least four possible combinations: mystical states, mystical states with
psychotic features, psychotic states with mystical features, and psychotic states. In my
experience, the problem of the mystical versus the psychotic is often a problem of coping with
and integrating perinatal and transpersonal experiences.
The success of this integration seems to depend more on the history and personality structure of
the individual than on the nature of the experiences themselves. In one place, Ken himself
interprets schizophrenic break with religious content as a result of influx of material from the
subtle level meeting the "false self" of an individual whose personality structure was
developmentally compromised (Wilber 1980, 157). Traumatic experiences of the early stages of
postnatal development that in various psycho-dynamic schools are seen as the causes and
sources of psychotic phenomena can certainly play an important role as factors interfering with
the ability to cope with perinatal and transpersonal experiences, as well as the capacity for
successful integration and adequate grounding of such experiences. However, early childhood
traumas cannot possibly create the often rich and intricate content of psychotic experiences,
which is clearly transbiographical in nature. To account for it, we have to consider such concepts
as the transpersonal domain of the psyche, the archetypal and historical realms of Jung's
collective unconscious, the Universal Mind (anima mundi), or cosmic consciousness.
This has its parallel in the differences in the capacity of various people to integrate such
experiences in psychedelic sessions. The administration of psychedelic substances can account
for the emergence of unconscious material from the depth of the psyche, but not for the specific
content of the resulting experiences. The complex and intricate experiential sequences in
psychedelic sessions cannot be explained simply as toxic artifacts of the interaction between the
psychedelic substances and the neurophysiological processes in the brain.
However, while the content of the experiences by far transcends the biography of the individual,
biographical factors can play a very important role in the final outcome of this process.
Depending on the history of the individual and on the set and setting of the session, these
experiences can lead to personality disintegration and long-term psychopathology, or to powerful
spiritual opening and personality transformation. Such observations show that postnatal events
are not the causes and sources of psychotic experiences, but important contributing factors.
My observations of persons in nonordinary states suggest that prenatal, natal, and early
postnatal experiences encountered in regressive work have a distinctly numinous quality and
freely merge with the elements from the archetypal and mystical realms. The memories of
intrauterine life are not just episodes of primitive failure to perceive differences, as Ken suggests
(Wilber 1995, 587), but are associated with profound mystical insights that reveal fundamental
unity behind the world of separation. Similarly, the "no exit" stage of birth typically coincides with
archetypal images of hell, the struggle in the birth canal is often accompanied by identification
with archetypal figures representing death and rebirth, and the moment of birth and reunion with
mother can take the form of divine epiphany, of an encounter with the Great Mother Goddess, or
of mystical marriage. The presence of transpersonal elements on this level seems to be an
integral part of this process, rather then a mysterious "infusion" of material from a remote part of
the developmental spectrum.
When this understanding is applied to clinical work, the distinction between mystical states with
an evolutionary potential and various psychotic states with mystical features does not depend
exclusively on the nature and content of the experiences themselves and their association with
radically different fulcrums of consciousness evolution. It is also important to take into
consideration the overall context, the person's experiential style, and his or her ability to integrate
the experiences into everyday life. In addition, the belief system of the surrounding culture and of
the professionals treating the individuals involved should not be underestimated as factors that
play a paramount role in shaping the nature of this process and its outcome. The therapeutic
implications of this approach to mysticism and psychosis have been discussed in detail in
publications specifically focused on the problem of spontaneous psychospiritual crises or
"spiritual emergencies" (Grof and Grof 1989, 1990).
Back- and Front-Door Entry into the Transpersonal
In his last book, Ken also addresses the problem of our disagreement concerning the
"chronological order of the unconscious disclosures." He points out that in my theoretical system
the dividing line between the personal and transpersonal appears to be on the level of the
perinatal matrices, whereas in his map it is at the level of the centaur. This naturally constitutes a
problem, since on his linear spectrum, these two domains are far apart. Ken's explanation for this
discrepancy is that the observations on which my cartography is based come from regressive
work. This process takes individuals from ordinary ego to Freudian childhood traumas and from
there to the birth trauma and the intrauterine state. Ken suggests that at this point, "they may
cease identifying with the physical body-mind altogether and thus fall into transpersonal,
supra-individual states" (Wilber 1995, 587).
He emphasizes that his own map is based primarily on "broad-scale growth and development
patterns" and thus runs in the other direction; however, he points out that it covers essentially
the same general territory. It reflects the order in which "these domains enter awareness as a
stable adaptation and not as a temporary experience." According to Ken, the work with NOSC
forces its way to the transpersonal domain through the "back door," whereas he describes
spiritual evolution that leads there through the "front door" and is conducive to stable
The importance of distinguishing between temporary experiences and permanent structures was
emphasized a long time ago by William James (1961) and again by Ralph Metzner (1980) who
discussed the difference between transcendence and transformation. While I certainly agree that
it is important to distinguish between transient experiences involving various levels of
consciousness, on the one hand, and reaching a certain evolutionary level as a stable
personality structure, on the other, I have certain reservations concerning Ken's position and his
Ken's description of the mechanism through which the regressive process reaches the
transpersonal domain via the perinatal process (through the "back door") is far from plausible or
satisfactory. As I will show later on, the transpersonal realms that open up when an individual
regresses to the prenatal state involve much more than a simple loss of connection with the
physical body-mind. Such experiential identification with the fetus appears to be a genuine
mystical state of a very specific kind that is often accompanied with rich archetypal imagery and
profound insights of cosmic relevance. Episodes of undisturbed intrauterine existence can open
up into culture-specific archetypal images of paradises or celestial realms, experiential
identification with aquatic animals, or complex astronomical vistas. Experiences of intrauterine
disturbances coincide with encounters with insidious demons and authentic identification with
aquatic life forms in polluted waters.
Moreover, Ken's argument about entering the transpersonal, supra-individual space by ceasing
to identify with the physical body-mind is further weakened by the fact that the encounter with
rich archetypal imagery is not limited to the prenatal state, but occurs in connection with all the
perinatal matrices, including those that deeply and painfully engage the body. The no-exit stage
of birth (BPM II) is often associated with images of hell and archetypal figures representing
eternal damnation, such as Sisyphus or Tantalus, as well as identification with victims of various
eras drawn from the collective unconscious, and with corresponding past-life experiences.
Typical experiential concomitants of the struggle through the birth canal are archetypal images of
deities representing death and rebirth and scenes of revolutions appearing as collective or
past-life memories. Similarly, the reliving of birth is accompanied by culture-specific images of
the Great Mother Goddess and scenes of divine epiphany or sacred marriage (Grof 1985, 1987,
1992). These observations suggest an intimate and organic a priori association between the
perinatal and transpersonal levels.
I would like to mention in this context the work of Christopher Bache (1995), professor of religion
and philosophy at the State University in Youngstown, Ohio, who has very creatively further
elaborated and clarified the concept of perinatal dynamics and made an important contribution to
the understanding of the relationship between the personal and transpersonal dimensions of this
domain. Having analyzed many accounts of nonordinary experiences with perinatal features, he
concludes that the perinatal matrices, as I have described them, reflect an operational mode of
consciousness in which the personal and transpersonal blend, sharing organizational patterns
By identifying with intense experiences of the fetus, the individual connects by resonance to the
larger field of species consciousness that can be described in terms of Sheldrake's
morpho-genetic fields, of C. G. Jung's collective unconscious, or of the Oversoul. This involves
experiences of wars, revolutions, and atrocities, as well as triumphs of humanity associated with
emotions of unimaginable intensity. It is thus conceivable--and subjects frequently report this as
their insights--that by experiencing the agonies and ecstasies on a collective scale that represent
an integral part of the perinatal process, the individual heals not just himself or herself, but
contributes to the healing of humankind itself in the sense of the Buddhist archetype of the
Bodhisattva or the Christian archetype of Christ.
There are other important observations that support the notion that the perinatal domain
represents an important interface with the spiritual domain. Perinatal experiences are a strange
amalgam of three aspects of human life--birth, sex, and death--all three of which are known to be
potential gateways to transcendence. Birth and death represent the beginning and the end of
individual life and are thus natural frontiers with the transpersonal domain not only in experiential
work, but also in everyday life. Delivering women and people in near-death situations often have
profound transcendental experiences. Meditation with dying individuals and personal
confrontation with death in cemeteries and burning grounds have been used in certain forms of
spiritual practice as powerful catalysts of mystical opening. The transindividual nature of sex is
evident from its critical role in species preservation and its potential as a gateway into the
spiritual realm is best illustrated by the practice of maithuna, ritual sexual union used in
left-handed Tantra (Vamamarga) (Mookerjee and Khanna 1977).
We can now return to the problem of entering the spiritual domain through the "back door" and
the "front door." Many prominent figures in the spiritual history of humanity whom Ken uses as
examples for his developmental stages, including shamans, saints, sages, and founders of the
great religions such as the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Rama-krishna, St. Anthony, St. Teresa,
St. John of the Cross, and others, all experienced powerful visionary states that initiated and
catalyzed their spiritual development. These experiences typically involved perinatal sequences
that were strikingly similar to those that can be regularly observed in psychedelic and holotropic
sessions. Christopher Bache has clearly demonstrated this in his studies of Saint John of the
Cross (1991) and St. Teresa of Avila (1985). The reports from powerful experiential sessions
often read like passages from the Vedas, Upanishads, the Pali canon, the ancient books of the
dead, the texts of Christian mystics, and other spiritual scriptures.
The above examples show that spiritual opening typically involves powerful NOSC, often with
prominent perinatal features. These, of course, might or might not be followed by a good
integration and stabilization on a new developmental level. It is certainly possible to have
powerful mystical experiences that do not result in spiritual evolution. On the other hand, it is
also questionable how much spiritual development can occur without powerful experiences of
NOSC. Ken emphasizes that he is writing in his work about "broad-scale growth and
development patterns," about a process through which "these domains enter awareness as a
stable adaptation and not as a temporary experience" (1995).
However, he does not describe the mechanism that would be involved in such an evolution and
transformation. If there is one, it would certainly not apply to most of the prominent figures he
uses as examples. It is not clear what Ken's entry into the spiritual realm through the "front door"
would actually look like. If it is something resembling William James's "educational variety" of
spiritual development, where one would gradually open to the mystical dimension over a long
period of time, in the way in which one learns to speak or develops an ego, it does not seem to
be the mechanism driving the spiritual evolution of humanity. As the above examples illustrate,
the spiritual opening of most famous mystics involved dramatic episodes of NOSC.
During my work with psychedelics and holotropic breathwork, I have been aware of the
difference between mystical experiences and consciousness evolution. I have written in different
places about the personality changes following spiritual experiences and paid great attention to
the circumstances that are conducive to permanent beneficial changes and factors that facilitate
good integration. I have not yet attempted to offer a comprehensive theoretical framework
dealing with the problems of consciousness evolution that would summarize my observations
over the years. However, these observations leave no doubt in my mind that under good
circumstances powerful "regressive" experiences can be harnessed in such a way that they
actually result in permanent changes of the developmental structure.
At the core of our controversy is a disagreement concerning the nature of "regressive"
experiences and the role that they play in spiritual opening. Ken criticizes the position of the
people that he calls "peak theorists" who believe that the entire spectrum of consciousness is
always available, fully formed but submerged. According to him, transpersonal experience might
involve the "reentering" or "reexperiencing" of a prepersonal occasion, such as plero-matic
indissociation, perinatal patterns, archaic images, phylogenetic heritage, or animal/plant
identification. However, this for Ken does not mean that the transpersonal elements reside in
these archaic structures. It is transpersonal awareness that is instrumental in this process, not
the archaic structures themselves. In his opinion, not a single prepersonal structure can in and of
itself generate intrinsic transpersonal awreness. It can become the object of transpersonal
awareness, and thus be "reentered" and "reworked." It can then become a type of vehicle that is
used, but never its source. Ken insists that in these cases the concept of the pre/trans fallacy,
however occasionally paradoxical, thus remains firmly in place.
The critical issue here is that "regressive" experiences, not only perinatal and prenatal, but also
ancestral, racial, karmic, phylogenetic, and even those that reach farther back into the history of
the cosmos often seem to form an integral part of spiritual opening. Whether we interpret this
fact as the transpersonal awareness re-entering these archaic structures, as Ken prefers to
describe it, or as manifestation of transpersonal potential inherent within them seems less
relevant. Since, according to perennial philosophy and Ken's own system, all of creation and the
entire evolution in nature and in the cosmos is, in the last analysis, created by involution of
Absolute Consciousness, I do not see any need to treat these elements as inherently different
from the spiritual realm. The fact that superior creative intelligence guides the creative process
and manifests on all its levels certainly leaves such a possibility open.
In any case, Ken severely misunderstands the nature of perinatal experiences if he sees them as
nothing but a replay of the actual experience of the fetus. His main objection is that regression to
the pre- and perinatal state cannot convey any revelations about existence, because "the fetus
in the womb is not aware of the whole world of inter-subjective morals, art, logic, poetry, history,
and economics" (Wilber 1995, 755). I do not see, however, how this makes any difference, since
in discussing perinatal experiences, we are not talking about the fetus, but about an adult who is
reliving the experiences of the fetus. This regression is experienced by an individual with
differentiated personality and intellectual faculties that include and integrate the development
through all the postnatal fulcrums. This vast amount of information is not lost during the
regressive experience and forms an integral part of it. It certainly is conceivable that the NOSC
facilitates an entirely new creative integration of all structures with the transpersonal domain,
thus facilitating the unfolding of still new structures. Similar mechanisms have played an
important role not only in religious revelations, but also in many scientific discoveries and artistic
inspirations (Harman 1984).
Besides including the intellectual and emotional repertoire of the adult individual, regressive
experiences also mediate direct extrasensory access not only to what Ken calls "intersubjective
space" but also to information about various aspects of space-time and about the archetypal
realms of the collective unconscious. I have made over the years numerous observations in this
regard and reported them with many illustrative case histories (Grof 1985, 1987, 1992). In
addition, the processes involved are characterized by multiple holographic enfolding and
unfolding of space and time and escape any efforts of the intellect to arrange and categorize
them into a neat linear system. Ken clearly does not understand the nature and complexity of the
experiences involved, as can be illustrated by the example of the oak and acorn that he uses to
criticize Richard Tarnas's application of the dynamics of perinatal matrices to the intellectual
development of Western civilization (Wilber 1995, 755).
To ridicule the idea that regression to the womb could convey genuine mystical insights, Ken
uses the image of an oak and the acorn from which it came. He argues that the regression to the
fetal state cannot any more mediate a true mystical union with the word than an oak can unify its
leaves and branches or become one with the forest by identifying with the original acorn.
According to him, the "original union," whether conceived as the actual womb or as the
prehistorical participation mystique of primitive cultures is not a union, but an undifferentiation.
This certainly is a logical conclusion we would be inclined to draw on the basis of external
observation of these conditions when they occur in the context of linear individual and historical
development. However, our only source of information about the subjective aspect of the original
situations comes from regressive work. For this reason, all we will ever be able to say about
them apart from what we learn from experiential work, will be educated fantasies and guesses,
no matter how plausible they might appear to our logical mind. Yet we have ample knowledge
about the regressive return to these situations and we know that it is not a simple replay or
unearthing of the memories of the original state as understood by materialistic science. The
experiences involved represent extremely complex, multidimensional, and even paradoxical
phenomena that transcend attempts to fit them neatly into linear schemes. Neither Richard
Tarnas nor myself have ever thought, said, or written that the perinatal experiences are nothing
but a mechanical replay of the original birth situation, yet this is exactly the way Ken consistently
misinterprets these experiences.
To more adequately portray the nature of perinatal experiences and the insights that they
mediate, the oak of Ken's simile would have to regress to the original acorn and, while
experiencing its oak/ acorn identity, become simultaneously aware of its entire (acorn and oak)
environmental context involving the cosmos, nature, the sun, the air, the soil, and the rain. This
would also be associated with a sense of its imbeddedhess in the forest and its descent from a
line of preceding oak trees and acorns, as well as its entire development from the acorn to its
present form. And an important aspect of such an experience would be its connection with the
archetypes of Mother Nature or Mother Earth and with the creative divine energy that underlies
all of the above forms.
If the nature of regressive experiences in NOSC is correctly understood, it does not seem
surprising that they represent an important mechanism of spiritual opening and of spiritual
evolution. Besides ample evidence from modem consciousness research, this notion can be
supported by many examples from the spiritual history of humanity. The experience of
psychospiritual death and rebirth, or "second birth," that is closely associated with the conscious
reliving of biological birth, is an essential component in the ritual and spiritual life of many
cultures. It plays an important role not only in shamanism, aboriginal rites of passage, and the
ancient mysteries of death and rebirth, but also in Christianity (as indicated by the conversation
between Jesus and Nicodemus about the importance of second birth, "birth from water and
spirit"), Hinduism (becoming a dvija or twice-born), and other great religions. Some spiritual
texts also indicate that--in spite of the obvious differences--there are certain significant
similarities between the mystical state and the child's perception of the world ("you have to
become like children to enter the kingdom of God").
There are other important aspects of spiritual development for which regression to earlier stages
of evolution is absolutely essential. The most important of these are the concepts of
reincarnation and karma, ideas that seem to be surprisingly neglected in Ken's discussions of
spirituality in spite of their paramount cultural significance. The concept of reincarnation and
karma represents a cornerstone of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and
Taoism, as well as many other human groups throughout history. Since such beliefs are based
on experiences of events in other historical periods, they involve as a necessary prerequisite
temporal regression of consciousness to earlier stages of human evolution.
Conscious re-experiencing of episodes from human history and from the evolution of the
species, of the earth, or of the entire universe has been an important part of many mystical
experiences resulting in spiritual opening and growth. The psychospiritual alchemical process
has been described as opus contra naturam, working against nature, since it involves the
discovery of the spiritual dimensions of existence by retracing not only one's own psychological
history, but the entire history of creation and bringing its various stages to full conscious
awareness (Fabricius 1976). Retracing the ancestral lineage and returning to the origins is an
important part of the rites of passage of many aboriginal tribes. These observations suggest that
spiritual evolution typically does not follow a direct linear trajectory from the centaur to the subtle
and causal levels, but involves a combined regressive and progressive movement of
consciousness with good subsequent integration of the experiences involved.
Deep experiential regression can lead to full conscious manifestation of the spiritual dimension of
various stages of evolution, a dimension that was implicit and latent in them, but not consciously
experienced at the time of the original unfolding of the evolutionary process in linear time. In this
way, what was lost in involution, or cosmogenesis, is regained in regressive revisiting of its
previous stages. A new creative synthesis of the historical and transcendental is then integrated
into the present. Thus, the distinction between pre- and trans- has a paradoxical nature; they are
neither identical, nor are they completely different from each other. The spiritual opening often
follows a spiral trajectory during which consciousness enfolds into itself reaching back into the
past and then again unfolds into the new present. Michael Washburn argues, correctly I believe,
along similar lines in his book The Ego and the Dynamic Ground (1988) when he emphasizes
the "spiral concept of ego transcendence" versus Ken's "ladder concept of ego transcendence."
The problem of entry into the spiritual realm through the "back door" or the "front door" is closely
related to the question of whether children can have transpersonal experiences and whether true
spirituality can exist in cultures that are at what Ken refers to as the "magical" or "mythical"
stages of development. If reaching the centauric level were a necessary prerequisite for entry
into the spiritual realm on the individual and collective level, transpersonal experiences should
not be possible in children. The ritual and religious life of shamanic cultures and ancient
civilizations at the mythical stage of development would then be interpreted as prepersonal
activity that lacks a genuine spiritual dimension.
However, actual observations have shown that transpersonal experiences, both spontaneous
and evoked, are fairly common in children. Ian Stevenson's meticulous study of spontaneous
past-life experiences in children involving more than three thousand cases is just the most
salient example (Stevenson 1966, 1984, 1987). I have myself observed several clearly
transpersonal experiences, including sequences of psychospiritual death and rebirth, in ten and
twelve year olds who have participated in sessions of holotropic breath-work. Shamanic
literature, as well as the personal experiences of many anthropologists with shamans, leaves
little doubt that they regularly have spiritual experiences not only of the subtle realms, but also of
the causal realms. For many shamans, the entry into the spiritual domain is mediated by the
"shamanic illness," a spontaneous visionary episode with distinct perinatal and transpersonal
features. It would also be difficult to deny that the Eleusinian mysteries of death and rebirth,
conducted in ancient Greece regularly for a period of almost two thousand years, as well as
other mystery religions in the Mediterranean area, were authentic spiritual activities (Wasson,
Hofmann, and Ruck 1978).
Although Ken himself admits the possibility of transpersonal experiences in children and
shamans, he again considers them, like the transpersonal experiences of psychotics, as
"invasions" alien to the corresponding fulcrums of his developmental scheme rather than natural
and regular occurrences. As Roger Walsh pointed out in his study of shamanism, according to
Ken's scheme, the shamans who have consistently subtle experiences would have to be
short-cutting two major developmental stages, one of them actually being the rational one
Concluding this brief discussion of the differences between Ken Wilber's spectrum psychology
and my own work, I would like to emphasize that forty years of research into NOSC have
convinced me of the limitations and relativity of all models and theoretical constructs. As Thomas
Kuhn showed in his groundbreaking work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), the
entire history of Western science could easily be written as a history of human errors rather than
major triumphs. None of the theories considered definitive at any given time has survived later
discoveries, except the most recent ones that have not yet been challenged. Reality is clearly
much more complex than any of the theories that we make about it.
Whatever transpersonal psychologists have discovered and described during the first quarter of
a century of the existence. of this discipline will necessarily be complemented, revised, and
modified. The future will show how the upcoming generations of professionals will view the
issues explored in this article in the light of their own experiences and findings. They will very
likely scrutinize the statements on both sides and change or adjust them to accommodate new
observations and theories. I therefore feel very strongly that instead of engaging in the battle of
models as if they were or ever could be definitive and all-inclusive, it is wise to do the best we
can to improve them and bring them into consonance, but leave the field wide open for surprises
and new discoveries.
Thanks to the author for his kind permission to print this article on the internet.
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