The Stormy Search For The Self, Christina Grof and Stanislav Grof, M.D., Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc, Los Angeles, 1990, $19.95, pp. 274

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

"When someone is reliving the memory of birth he or she often confronts
extreme forms of fear of death, loss of control, and insanity; as a result
he or she may behave in most unusual ways and the condition
can have a psychoticlike character."
-- Stanislav Grof, M.D.

This is a most interesting and important book. Yet, during its first reading, I was not as impressed as when I re-read it four years later. The first occasion was immediately after I had attended one of Dr. Stanislav Grof's Holotropic Breathwork workshops in New Orleans. (See From Primal Therapy To Holotropic Breathwork). I have always found the relationship between some psychoses and mysticism fascinating.

As the webmaster of the Primal Psychotherapy Page, I received a number of article submissions about this subject (See A Personal Experience in Primal Therapy by Bernadette Murphy), and have written book reviews dealing with transpersonal aspects of severe mental breakdowns. Over the years, my interest in learning more about the interfaces of psychosis, mysticism, and transpersonal phenomena has grown. I had the opportunity to re-read The Stormy Search For The Self when a local book store went out of business and offered deep discounts of their entire inventory. (Would you believe, $1.00 per book?) I bought a shopping basket of books and one of them was the subject of this review.

* * *
This book came to be written when Christina Grof began having transformative experiences initially triggered by the aftermath of the delivery and birth of her first child. The experience consisted of uncontrollable shaking and visions of white light. Two years later, when she gave birth to her second child, her defenses were again lowered and a similar, but more powerful experience occurred. Later when she began spiritual exercises with an Indian guru the process continued to build.

Soon afterwards, an automobile accident even further intensified her emerging process with feelings of union with all of the universe including feelings of death and rebirth. (Also see Mary Lynn Adzema's Resurrection On Highway 101 ). After a divorce and fearful of what her escalating lack of equanimity might signify, she sought help at Esalen in Big Sur, California, where she met (and later married) Stanislav Grof, a Czech Republic native and psychiatrist who had done extensive clinical research with the use of LSD in psychotherapy.

Christina Grof was experiencing the very same material which her husband had observed in his LSD patients who were exploring the depths of their unconscious under the psychedelic's influence. Grof soon realized that his wife was enduring a ". . .crisis of spiritual transformation and opening." Such disturbing access, they write in this book, is a relatively common experience, and has been recorded in world literature from antiquity to the present. Because of the critical nature of the material being uncovered, the Grofs named the experience a spiritual emergency. Such emergences, when properly supported, and not tranquilized away by drugs, often lead to spiritual emergence and/or physical and mental health breakthroughs, which are the result of making conscious, concealed unconscious traumas of one's past.

According to the Grofs, these experiences

". . . take the form of nonordinary states of consciousness and involve intense emotions, visions and other sensory changes, and unusual thoughts, as well as various physical manifestations. These episodes often revolve around spiritual themes; they include sequences of psychological death and rebirth, experiences that seem to be memories from previous lifetimes, feelings of oneness with the universe, encounters with various mythological beings, and other similar motifs." (p. 31)

Such episodes are to be distinguished from the more ordinary functional psychoses in that their experiencers have fewer symtoms of paranoia and of hearing persecutory "voices." The person undergoing a spiritual emergence has not lost contact with reality, and can readily be reached, but because of terror, often fears for his sanity. Those undergoing the process usually realize that the material's source is from their own mind and they project to a smaller extent. Such processes should also be distinguished from the more common and less severely disruptive anxiety attacks.

Besides the great fear, isolation and loneliness which those who face this ordeal endure ( called by many mystics, the dark night of the soul, e. g., St Theresa of Avila ), there are also periods of sublime ecstasy which accompanies the mystical and transpersonal experiences. Memories of having lived before as well as near-death and out-of-body experiences are common occurrences. (See book reviews Coming Back: A Psychiatrist Explores Past-Life Journeys by Raymond A. Moody, Jr. M.D and Beyond All Reason by Morag Coate).

The content of the spiritual emergency is often reflected in the unfolding of the traumatic biographical history of the individual undergoing the experience. For example, the individual may relive his birth, early surgeries, and near drownings. However, re-living later infantile and childhood material usually occurs before reliving one's birth and other transpersonal experiences encompassing death and rebirth. Such sequences can include contact with archetypical beings, historical figures, journeyings through space and time ( e. g., trips to planets within and outside our solar system ) as well as the biological evolutionary recapitulations of animal ancestors! (See article Psychosis, Mysticism, and Feelings).

The authors include chapters on how a person can temporarily assuage the discomforting aspects of the experiences without the use of drugs or alcohol (this helpful information may also be used by any involved in primal or other regressive psychotherapies during periods of overload and non-connection). Interesting chapters include suggestions for family and friends, addictions as spiritual emergencies, and strategies for everyday life.

The Grofs write that there is a need for an out-patient facility but one not based on the medical model, because typical psychiatric hospitalization is not needed and can harm the person undergoing a spiritual emergence. The objective of such a facility would be to encourage the full expression and release of the material pressing to enter consciousness, and would have the appearance, and physical and psychological comforts of a home environment rather than the sterile and unfeeling hospital setting.

For other articles on this subject, see on this website, The Psychology of Mysticism

Remarkably complete blog on Spiritual Emergencies