Book Review - The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death by Dr. Stanislav Grof, 2006, Multidisciplinary Assn. for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). CA, $15.95, pps. 360.

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

"Death borders upon our birth, and our cradle stands in the grave."
-- Joseph Hall (1574–1656)

Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof's most recently published book is concerned with the psychological, anthropological and eschatological aspects of death and dying. In The Ultimate Journey he begins the study by observing that ever since society became industrialized, interest in our final passage has become taboo. Heretofore, death had been a more open and accepted part of our daily existence.

However, it was not until the later decades of the last century that a scientific study of the implications of subjects even tangential to death and dying were deemed worthy of scientific study.

Anthropologists and mythologists tell us that religions and spiritual rituals were highly regarded and greatly influenced our traditions from the very beginnings of humanity to modern times. At important milestones in life, rites of passage with appropriate ceremonies have attempted to fill a need in the human psyche that is seemingly unquenchable. And in some cultures, these activities are not simply primitive customs, but can be considered a form of psychotherapy.

Many of these religious and spiritual rituals have involved "drumming, chanting, dancing, changes in respiratory rhythm, exposure to physical stress and pain" and sometimes ingestion of psychoactive plants which triggered in their participants feelings of having died and subsequently being reborn. (p. 47)

After an initial survey of shamanism, Dr. Grof informs the reader how metaphors of sex, death and rebirth have played and still play an important part in many of humanity's rites of passage. Some of the earliest records reveal that these ancient "mysteries" dealing with death and rebirth were prevalent in primitive man's early customs, myths, and especially religions.

Little is known of the origins and details of mystery religions of ancient times. The most famous of these were the Eleusinian Mysteries which dealt with death and rebirth. It was thought that psychedelic drugs were an essential part of its ceremonies. Initiates had profound emotional healings as a result of their participation in the ceremonies which probably also included other transformative rituals referred to in the fourth paragraph of this review.

Aristotle recognized that "fully experiencing and releasing repressed emotions, which he called catharsis (purification), represented an effective treatment of mental disorders" (p. 48). Seemingly, it was the returning to the initiates' birth traumas encompassing feelings of death and dying, and their re-experiencing triumphant rebirth which produced the healing catharsis. The mystery religion of Eleusis remained popular throughout the ancient middle eastern world until it was perceived to be in competition with Christianity. In the third century, it was outlawed by a strengthened Roman Christianity which welcomed no competition. After having survived for two thousand years, the Eleusinian mysteries were no more.

I recently found an interesting passage on Google books, about this mystery religion. Its author, in referring to other mystery religions, wrote, "But these mysteries, which were rather philosophic than religious, had neither the importance nor the popularity of those of Eleusis, which were intended to remove fear inspired by the idea of death. . ." from The Religions Before Christ: Being an Introduction to the Three First Centuries of the Christian Church (1862), p. 97 by Edmond de Presseusé.

Dr. Grof writes in great detail of the after-death journey of the soul as described in the sacred dogmas of the world's past and present major religions. Final judgment of the deceased by various gods are common, and heaven and hell are described as the expected abodes for the righteous and for the malefactors. This was common in both the ancient Greek and Egyptian religions as well as in Judaic, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and early Aztec and Mayan texts describing the future after earthly death. These Books of the Dead describe the journeys which await the deceased so they will understand what is to be expected in the next world both before and after their judgment.

Religious and spiritual traditions were highly regarded and have greatly influenced our rituals from the stone age to modern times. In the Middle Ages, Christian monks had used meditation and guided imagery to experience feelings of death and re-birth. Sufism, a branch of the Muslim religion, continues to be attacked by their more traditional brethren, particularly for its mystical element. The sufis are well known for their whirling dervishes who use dance to trigger unordinary states of consciousness, that undoubtedly, on occasion, access feelings of death and spiritual rebirth. Seekers of mystical and unordinary states of consciousness experiences in many religions have paid dearly, occasionally with their lives, for seeking unity experiences with the world and especially with their deity.

More recently, research into our unconscious minds have provided researchers with maps of its characteristics. By therapeutic regressions into earlier biographical areas as well as into areas beyond our personal origins and development, many have discovered a remarkable similarity between these antipodal parts of our minds and how their contents have influenced our personalities and culture.

Dr. Grof surveys the theories of Freud, Adler, Jung, Becker, Heidegger and other psychologists and philosophers concerning the in depth significance of mankind's understandings of death and dying. He believes that early existential philosophers would be surprised to learn the extent to which modern research has influenced our understanding of the problems of death and dying.

The discovery of LSD by Albert Hoffman during the Second World War was one such breakthrough and allowed us to make the beginnings of a psychological understanding of death and dying and the incredible role they play in the human unconscious. The new experiential psychotherapies including bioenergetics, primal therapy, rebirthing, Grof's holotropic breathwork and others have facilitated the resolution of the problems of death and near death phenomena and taught us how the essence of our individual and cultural selves were influenced by factors completely unknown to us for many millennia. It is only recently have we have become able to understand the deep influence unconscious forces of both death and dying has had in creating both our neuroses and psychoses.

Dr. Grof writes,

Biological birth is a potentially or actually life-threatening event that can last for many hours. Some people have actually died in the birth process and been subsequently resuscitated. Beyond the actual vital emergency associated with the difficult passage through the birth canal, delivery also represents the death of the fetus as an aquatic creature and its transformation into a radically different organism - the air-breathing newborn. Reliving of birth in holotropic states, including the concomitant vital emergency, can be so authentic and convincing that the individual involved can believe that he or she is actually dying. (p. 309)

Reliving our early confrontation with death in an experential form of psychotherapy can resolve or diminish ". . . suicidal depression, phobias, and addiction through sadomasochism to asthma and psychosomatic pains." (p. 310)

The author continues,

Of all the various encounters with death that we can experience on different levels of the psyche, one has a particularly profound healing, transformative, and evolutionary potential: the confrontation with our mortality and impermanence, which occurs on the perinatal level in the context of reliving birth and experiencing psychospiritual death and rebirth.

The methodology for entry into ourselves used in Grof's form of psychotherapy, holotropic breathwork, does away with the need for decision or expertise on the therapists part, as the material which needs resolution is automatically presented by the mind during psychotherapy. After traumas of infancy and early life are accessed, usually issues dealing with pre- and peri-natal traumas present themselves for resolution.

If the client continues exploration he will arrive into material which transcends the previous subject matter of one's biography after birth. The author has named the category from whence this material is derived, the transpersonal domain. Almost unlimited in diversity, it also is experienced in a holotropic (an unordinary) state of consciousness. Dr. Grof writes that this material may be summed up in specific categories, each more bizarre than the later. See the author's categories as described in the first of his eighteen books, Realms of the Human Unconscious (1975).

The question of whether or not one's spirit survives death obviously has always been a concern. Early research into our deaths concentrated on hallucinations and deathbed visions as well as near-death and out-of-body experiences. After detailed examination of the literature on this subject, Dr Grof concludes that a biological explanation of this phenomena is insufficient to explain the many questions which arise during the study of such NDEs and OOBEs.

An entire chapter is devoted to the problem of reincarnation which had, and continues to have, worldwide acceptance. Some early Christian fathers of the church believed and wrote about reincarnation. The author examines children's past-life memories and cites the interesting case study of "Parmod Sharma" which previously appeared in Dr. Christopher E. Bache's book, Lifecycles: Reincarnation and the Web of Life (1991).

Dr. Grof discusses the past-life memory of "Karl" whose fascinating detailed case story first appeared in Grof's book, The Adventure of Self Discovery (1988). This remarkably detailed past-life memory began during a primal therapy session elsewhere and continued in a holotropic breathwork induced birth trauma regression at one of Dr. Grof's workshops at Esalen, California.

After LSD was discovered the question arose as to whether psychedelic drugs produced authentic spiritual and mystical experiences. The discussion covers four possible approaches to this question:
  • The secular scientists who felt that their positions were reinforced since such drugs allowed for the induction of mystical experiences. This meant, they insisted, that mysticism is simply an artifact of the physical brain.
  • Another group viewed the psychedelics as sacred material since they provided pathways to the Divine and were therefore akin to sacraments.
  • Others insisted that psychedelic chemicals could trigger experiences that could not be distinguished from those of bona fide mystics.
  • As in the third approach but some contend that the experience may have diminished value because of the less than ideal set and setting of the psychedelic induced experience.
In the late sixties and early seventies, using mostly LSD, Dr. Grof worked with over one hundred dying cancer patients at the Spring Grove hospital in Baltimore. In, The Ultimate Journey, he recounts the work of Eric Kast, Aldous Huxley, Sidney Cohen and Gary Fisher in this regard. Since LSD reduced the fear of death and dying in such patients, it was decided that it was important to specifically examine this ability of psychedelic drugs.

Results of the Spring Grove experiment were varied. As mentioned above, the loss of fear of death was a prominent result, as was a lessening of physical and emotional pain and changes in life philosophy. There was also a deepening or newly acquired spirituality in the patients as a result of the LSD ingestion. Simply stated and without going into details of how outcomes were assessed, 29% were "dramatically improved"; 42% "moderately improved" and 29% "essentially unchanged." In some individual cases, the results were spectacular.

In Chapter 14 the author presents case histories of some individual cancer victims with whom he worked at Spring Grove. Most case studies had been previously discussed in his and Joan Halifax's 1978 book, The Human Encounter With Death. What was surprising to me is that almost all cases discussed were of younger patients being, aged 42, 26, 32, 32, 36; with one being 60.

Grof had found frequent instances of severe guilt and long enduring feelings of self-hatred in the cancer patients who took part in the treatment. After treatment, the patients were able to insightfully trace the origins of their negative feelings to their early beginnings ". . . to memories of abandonment and deprivation or of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in infancy and childhood. They saw these intensely painful experiences, which involved loneliness, anxiety, anger, hunger, and other difficult emotions, as possible causes or at least contributing factors of their illness." (p. 278).

Even the site of the malignancy or its organ system had been subjected to various episodes of psychosomatic disorders or past injuries. The site of the cancers were related to their "organ of inferiority" or as Dr. Grof writes, the ". . . weakest link in the chain of their psychosomatic defenses." Certain characteristics of the cancer patients stood out.

They "generally had a higher incidence of difficult somatic symptoms and were more preoccupied with their bodies than others. Various psychosomatic manifestations, such as nausea, vomiting, tremors, cardiac complaints, and breathing difficulties" are commonplace in psychedelic therapy, regardless of the type of patient. "As the patient relives biological birth, intense and often difficult physical feelings, such as suffocation, pain pressures, muscular tensions, and nausea, reflect the extreme physical discomfort associated with the passage through the birth canal." (p. 279). The LSD therapy was especially helpful with those obsessed with death and dying and with those who had suicidal tendencies.

The psychedelic therapy had enabled the patients to become insightful into the repressed trauma which they became convinced was the cause of their cancer. Some decided to attempt guided imagery visualization techniques of Dr. Carl Simonton in an attempt to boost their immune system as a defense against their malignancies.

The work at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague where Dr. Grof was previously employed, had produced profound understandings of the psychodynamics of suicide. The preoccupation of death in depressed persons was the result of the confusion of the need to experience the death of the ego with the death of the body or biological death. Needing to relive the trauma of ego death and subsequent rebirth was confused with the wish for "destruction of the physical body."

It was this identification with the near-death experience of themselves as a birthing fetus which enabled the patients to re-experience their own early passage and brush with death and eventual survival during their traumatic birth.

The alleviation of symptoms after a single psychedelic session lasted for various lengths of time - days, weeks, and in some instances, months. Some lasted indefinitely. In some cancer patients severe physical pain was resolved instantly even in those instances when powerful narcotics did not suffice.

Even though the encounter with death in psychedelic therapy may be symbolic, it can nonetheless resolve stubborn psychological issues as well as aid clients in becoming more spiritual. Grof makes a sharp distinction between religiosity and spirituality. He feels that coming close to dying as, for example, during a heart attack, or on an operating table or in war-time combat -- are all experiences which can both be life changing as well as helping us become more spiritual.

Although the author is a psychiatrist, he seldom stresses brain anatomy. As far as I know Grof has never discussed the changes in brain neurophysiology which makes it possible for his clients to change. Perhaps he believes that the source of these changes are in actuality, beyond the brain.

The main effect of having an experience of death and rebirth is the change in attitude towards death. Fear becomes reduced or eliminated. Such fears are present in many of us as usually ". . . the memory record of the vital emergency experienced during birth and at the time of various prenatal crises" continues indefinitely, awaiting a sufficiently powerful trigger. (p. 310) Some experiencers develop an interest in the fine arts, such as music and painting, while others become interested in "mysticism, shamanism, ancient cultures, and Oriental philosophies." (p. 312.)

Carl Jung and his followers noticed how psychospiritual themes of death and dying were present as symbolic representations in humanity's interests and preoccupations. The fact that the themes were symbolic pointed to their unconscious presence. However, their close relationship to birth trauma was not acknowledged and appreciated by him or his school.

Grof believes that during the last half of life is typically when ruminations about one's decline and more frequent thoughts and worries about death and dying begin. If such concerns begin earlier, it usually points to psychopathology. The dominant force of the first half of life? Sex!

In The Ultimate Journey , Dr. Grof expresses sadness and disappointment that psychedelic therapy is presently being "denied to countless people who desperately need it." He hopes that those who can make a difference in enabling legislation, will learn of the benefits of psychedelics and make decisions to remove prohibitions from its clinical use. He concludes the last chapter of his book with these words:

In my experience, individuals who are able to confront death and come to terms with it in their inner process tend to develop a sense of planetary citizenship, reverence for life in all of its forms, deep ecological sensitivity, spirituality of a universal and all-encompassing type, aversion to violence, and reluctance to view aggression as an acceptable form of conflict resolution. Such radical inner transformation and rise to a new level of consciousness might be humanity's only real chance for survival.

For an interesting short explanation on how near death experiences can be prevented in a medical surgery setting, see this short article by Dr. Douglas Fields

Articles and reviews of cited books in the bibliography of Dr. Grof's The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death available on the Primal Psychotherapy Page:

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