Playing the Cosmic Game

Two birds beautiful of wing, friends and comrades, cling to a common tree, and one eats the sweet fruit, the other regards him and eats not.

—Rig Veda

How little do we know that which we are!

How less what we may be!

—George Gordon Lord Byron

The Three Poisons of Tibetan Buddhism

We have now explored in some detail the large and encompassing vision of creation and the exalted image of human nature that have emerged from the work with holotropic states. As we are nearing the end of our story, it seems appropriate to examine the practical implications of this information for our everyday life. How does systematic self-exploration using holotropic states influence our emotional and physical well-being, our personality, worldview, and system of values? Can the new discoveries give us any specific guidelines that would help us to derive maximum benefit from what we have learned? Can we use the new knowledge in a way that would make our life more fulfilling and rewarding?

Spiritual teachers of all ages seem to agree that pursuit of material goals, in and of itself, cannot bring us fulfillment, happiness, and inner peace. The rapidly escalating global crisis, moral deterioration, and growing discontent accompanying the increase of material affluence in the industrial societies bear witness to this ancient truth. There seems to be general agreement in the mystical literature that the remedy for the existential malaise that besets humanity is to turn inside, look for the answers in our own psyche, and undergo a deep psychospiritual transformation.

It is not difficult to understand that an important prerequisite for successful existence is general intelligence—the ability to learn and recall, think and reason, and adequately respond to our material environment. More recent research emphasized the importance of “emotional intelligence”—the capacity to adequately respond to our human environment and adequately handle our interpersonal relationships (Goleman 1996).

Observations from the study of holotropic states confirm the basic tenet of perennial philosophy that the quality of our life ultimately depends on what can be called “spiritual intelligence.” It is the capacity to conduct our life in such a way that it reflects deep philosophical and metaphysical understanding of reality and of ourselves. This, of course, raises questions about the nature of the psychospiritual transformation that is necessary to achieve this form of intelligence, the direction of the changes that we have to undergo, and the means that can facilitate such development.

A very clear and specific answer to this question can be found in different schools of Mahayana Buddhism. We can use here as the basis for our discussion the famous Tibetan screen-painting (thangka) portraying the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. It depicts the Wheel of Life held in the grip of the horrifying Lord of Death. The wheel is divided into six segments representing the different lokas, or realms into which we can be born. The celestial domain of gods is shown as being challenged from the adjacent segment by the jealous warrior gods, or asuras. The region of hungry ghosts is inhabited by pretas, pitiful creatures representing insatiable greed. They have giant bellies, enormous appetites, and the mouths the size of a pinhole. The remaining sections of the wheel depict the world of human beings, the realm of wild beasts, and hell. Inside the wheel are two concentric circles. The outer one shows the ascending and descending paths along which souls travel. The innermost circle contains three animals—a pig, a snake, and a rooster.


Figure 5.

The Tibetan Wheel of Life
, held in the grip of the Lord of Death. In the middle are three animals symbolizing the forces perpetuating the cycles of death and rebirth: cock (lust), snake (aggression), and pig (ignorance). On their right side is the dark path with descending victims of bad karma and on the left side the light ascending path of the good karma. The six large segments of the wheel represent the realms of existence into which one can be born: realm of the gods, realm of the warrior deities, realm of the hungry ghosts, hell, the animal realm, and the realm of the human beings. The pictures on the rim of the wheel represent the chain of causation leading to rebirth.

Copyright © The British Museum. Reprinted with permission of the photographic service of the museum.

The animals in the center of the wheel represent the “three poisons” or forces that, according to Buddhist teachings, perpetuate the cycles of birth and death and are responsible for all the suffering in our life. The pig symbolizes the ignorance concerning the nature of reality and our own nature, the snake stands for anger and aggression, and the rooster depicts desire and lust leading to attachment. The quality of our life and our ability to cope with the challenges of existence depend critically on the degree to which we are able to eliminate or transform these forces that run the world of sentient beings. Let us now look from this perspective at the process of systematic self-exploration involving holotropic states of consciousness.

Practical Knowledge and Transcendental Wisdom

The most obvious benefit that we can obtain from deep experiential work is access to extraordinary knowledge about ourselves, other people, nature, and the cosmos. In holotropic states, we can reach deep understanding of the unconscious dynamics of our psyche. We can discover how our perception of ourselves and of the world is influenced by forgotten or repressed memories from childhood, infancy, birth, and prenatal existence. In addition, in transpersonal experiences we can identify with other people, various animals, plants, and elements of the inorganic world. Experiences of this kind represent an extremely rich source of unique insights about the world we live in.

In this process, we can gain considerable amount of knowledge that can be useful in our everyday life. However, the ignorance symbolized in the Tibetan thangkas by the pig is not the absence or lack of knowledge in the ordinary sense. It does not mean simply inadequate information about various aspects of the material world. The form of ignorance that is meant here (avidya) is a fundamental misunderstanding and confusion concerning the nature of reality and our own nature. The only remedy for this kind of ignorance is transcendental wisdom (prajñaparamita). From this point of view, it is very important that the inner work involving holotropic states offers more than just increase of our knowledge about the universe. It is also a unique way of gaining insights about issues of transcendental relevance, as we have seen throughout this book.

Biographical, Perinatal, and Transpersonal Roots of Aggression

Let us now look from the same perspective at the second “poison,” the human propensity to aggression. The nature and scope of human aggression cannot be explained simply by references to our animal origin. Seeing humans as “naked apes” whose aggression is the result of some factors that we share with animals, such as base instincts, genetic strategies of “selfish genes,” or signals from the “reptilian brain,” does not take into account the nature and degree of human violence. Animals exhibit aggression when they are hungry, defend their territory, or compete for sex. The violence exhibited by humans, which Erich Fromm called “malignant aggression” (Fromm 1973), has no parallels in the animal kingdom.

Mainstream psychologists and psychiatrists attribute the specifically human aggression to a history of frustrations, abuse, and lack of love in infancy and childhood. However, explanations of this kind fall painfully short of accounting for extreme forms of individual violence, such as serial murders of the Boston Strangler or Geoffrey Dahmer type, and particularly for mass societal phenomena like Nazism and Communism. Difficulties in the early histories of individuals are of little help in understanding psychological motives for bloody wars, revolutions, genocide, and concentration camps, phenomena that involve large numbers of people. Self-exploration using holotropic states throws an entirely new light on the problem of these forms of human violence. Probing the depth of our psyche, we discover that the roots of this problematic and dangerous aspect of human nature are much deeper and more formidable than academic psychologists have ever imagined.

There is no doubt that traumas and frustrations in childhood and infancy represent important sources of aggression. However, this connection barely scratches the surface of the problem. Deep systematic inner work sooner or later reveals additional significant roots of human violence in the trauma of biological birth. The vital emergency, pain, and suffocation experienced for many hours during our delivery generate enormous amounts of anxiety and murderous aggression that remain stored in our psyche and body. This repository of fundamental mistrust and hostility toward the world constitutes a significant aspect of the dark side of human personality that C. G. Jung called the Shadow.

As we saw earlier, the reliving of birth in holotropic states is typically accompanied by images of inconceivable violence, both individual and collective. This includes experiences of mutilation, murder, and rape, as well as scenes of bloody wars, revolutions, racial riots, and concentration camps. Lloyd deMause (1975), a pioneer in the field of psychohistory, a discipline that applies the methods of depth psychology to sociopolitical events, studied speeches of political and military leaders, as well as posters and caricatures from the time of wars and revolutions. He was struck by the extraordinary abundance of figures of speech, metaphors, and images related to biological birth that he found in this material.

Military leaders and politicians of all ages, referring to a critical situation or declaring war, typically use terms that describe various aspects of perinatal distress. They accuse the enemy of choking and strangling us, squeezing the last breath out of our lungs, or confining us, and not giving us enough space to live (Hitler’s Lebensraum). Equally frequent are allusions to quicksand, dark caves, tunnels, and confusing labyrinths, dangerous abysses into which we might be pushed, and the threat of engulfment or drowning.

Similarly, the leaders’ promises of victory tend to come in the form of perinatal images. They pledge that they will rescue us from the darkness of a treacherous labyrinth and guide us to the light on the other side of the tunnel. They vow that after the oppressor is overcome, everybody will again breathe freely. I have shown in another context the deep similarity between the paintings and drawings depicting perinatal experiences and the symbolism of posters and caricatures from the time of wars and revolutions (Grof 1996).

However, even explanations recognizing perinatal sources of aggression do not adequately account for the nature, scope, and depth of human violence. Its deepest roots reach far beyond the boundaries of the individual, into the transpersonal domain. In holotropic states, they take the form of wrathful deities, devils, and demons and of complex mythological themes, such as the Apocalypse or Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods. I have given earlier in this book several examples of these dark archetypal forces operating in the depth of our psyche. Additional potential repositories of aggression on the transpersonal level are past life memories and phylogenetic matrices reflecting our animal past.

As we have seen, the study of holotropic states discloses a very shattering and discouraging image of human nature and of the scope and depth of aggression that our flesh is heir to. However, while it reveals the enormity of the problem, it also offers entirely new perspectives and hopes. It shows that there are unusually powerful and effective ways of dealing with human violence. In deep experiential work that reaches the perinatal and transpersonal levels, enormous amounts of aggression can be safely expressed, worked through, and transformed in a relatively short time. This work also throws new light on the nature of aggression and its relation to the human psyche. According to these insights, aggression is not something that reflects our true nature, but rather a screen that separates us from it.

When we succeed in penetrating this dark veil of elemental instinctual forces, we discover that the innermost core of our being is divine rather than bestial. This revelation is in full agreement with the famous passage from the Indian Upanishads that I have quoted earlier. The message of these ancient scriptures is very clear: “Tat tvam asi” (Thou art That)—“in your deepest nature you are identical with the Divine.” In my experience, responsible work with holotropic states can bring very encouraging practical results. Deep inner self-exploration leads regularly to a major reduction of aggression and of self-destructive tendencies, as well as an increase of tolerance and compassion. It also tends to foster reverence for life, empathy for other species, and ecological sensitivity.

Psychospiritual Sources of Insatiable Greed

This brings us to the third “poison” of Tibetan Buddhism, a powerful force that combines the qualities of lust, desire, and insatiable greed. Together with “malignant aggression,” these qualities are certainly responsible for some of the darkest chapters in human history. Western psychologists link various aspects of this force to the libidinal drives described by Sigmund Freud. From this perspective, insatiable greed would be explained in terms of unresolved oral issues from the time of nursing. Similarly, excessive preoccupation with money would be associated with repressed anal impulses and sexual extremes would reflect a phallic fixation. The craving for power was most thoroughly described in the psychology of Freud’s renegade disciple Alfred Adler, who saw it as a compensation for feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.

The insights from holotropic states considerably enrich this picture. They reveal additional deep sources of this aspect of human nature on the perinatal and transpersonal levels of the psyche. When our process of experiential self-exploration reaches the perinatal level, we typically discover that our existence up to that point has been largely inauthentic. We realize, to our surprise and astonishment, that our entire life strategy has been misdirected. It becomes clear to us that much of what we have been striving for has been strongly dictated by the unconscious emotions and driving energies that were imprinted in our psyche and body at the time of our birth.

The memory of the frightening and highly uncomfortable situation to which we were exposed at the time of our delivery stays alive in our system. It exerts a very powerful influence on us throughout our life, unless it is brought fully into consciousness and worked through in systematic experiential self-exploration. Much of what we do in life and how we do it can be understood in terms of belated efforts to cope with this incomplete gestalt of birth and the fear of death associated with it.

When this traumatic memory is close to the surface of our psyche, it causes feelings of dissatisfaction with our present situation. In and of itself, this discomfort is unspecific and amorphous, but it can be projected on a large spectrum of issues. We can attribute it to our unsatisfactory physical appearance or inadequate resources and lack of material possessions. It might seem to us that the reason for our dissatisfaction is our low social status and lack of influence in the world. We can feel that the source of our discontent is insufficient power and fame, inadequate knowledge or skills, and any number of other things.

Whatever might be the reality of the present circumstances, the situation never seems satisfactory and the solution always appears to lie in the future. Like the fetus stuck and struggling in the birth canal, we feel a strong need to get to a situation that is better than the present one. As a result of this compelling drive toward some future accomplishment, we never live fully in the present and our life feels like a preparation for something better to come.

Our fantasy reacts to this feeling of existential discomfort by creating an image of a future situation that would bring satisfaction and would correct the perceived deficiencies and shortcomings. The existentialists talk about this mechanism as “auto-projecting” into the future. Consistent application of this strategy results in a life pattern that people refer to as “treadmill” or “rat-race” type of existence—pursuing fantasized mirages of future happiness, while not being able to fully enjoy what is available in the present. This misguided, inauthentic, and unrewarding approach to existence can be practiced throughout the entire lifetime until death brings the “moment of truth” and mercilessly reveals its emptiness and futility.

Auto-projecting into the future as a means of correcting existential dissatisfaction is a “loser strategy” whether or not we achieve the desired goals. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of our needs. For this reason, it can never bring us the fulfillment we expect from it. When we are not able to reach the goals we envision, we attribute our continuing dissatisfaction to our failure to reach the alleged corrective measures. When we succeed in attaining these goals, this typically does not bring what we hoped for and our feelings of discomfort are not relieved. In addition, we are not able to correctly diagnose why we continue feeling dissatisfied. We do not realize that we are pursuing a fundamentally wrong strategy of existence, one that cannot bring us fulfillment no matter what its results are. We usually attribute the failure to the fact that the goal was not sufficiently ambitious or that the specific choice of the goal was wrong.

This pattern often leads to a reckless irrational pursuit of various grandiose goals that is responsible for many problems in our world and results in much human suffering. This strategy lacks any connection to the realities of life and can thus be acted out on many different levels. Since it never brings true fulfillment, it does not make much difference whether the protagonist is a pauper or a billionaire in the category of Aristotle Onassis or Howard Hughes. Once our basic survival needs are satisfied, the quality of our life experience has much more to do with our state of consciousness than with external circumstances.

Misguided efforts to achieve satisfaction by pursuit of external goals can actually bring paradoxical results. I have worked with people who after decades of hard work and struggle finally reached the goal, about which they had dreamed their entire life, and the next day became severely depressed. Joseph Campbell described this situation as “getting to the top of the ladder and finding out that it stands against the wrong wall.” This frustrating pattern can be considerably weakened by bringing fully into consciousness the memory of birth, confronting the fear of death connected with it, and experiencing psychospiritual rebirth. By connecting experientially to the memory of the prenatal or postnatal situation rather than the imprint of the birth struggle, we significantly reduce the unrelenting preoccupation with future achievements and are able to draw much more satisfaction from the present.

However, the roots of our dissatisfaction and existential malaise reach even deeper than the perinatal level. In the last analysis, the insatiable craving that drives human life is transcendental in nature. In the words of Dante Alighieri (1989), the great Italian poet of the early Renaissance, “the desire for perfection is that desire which always makes every pleasure appear incomplete, for there is no joy or pleasure so great in this life that it can quench the thirst in our soul.” In the most general sense, the deepest transpersonal roots of insatiable greed can best be understood in terms of Ken Wilber’s concept of the Atman Project (Wilber 1980).

Wilber explored and described the specific consequences of the basic tenet of perennial philosophy, which asserts that our true nature is divine. This essence of our existence has been called by different names—God, the Cosmic Christ, Keter, Allah, Buddha, Brahman, the Tao, and many others. Although the process of creation separates and alienates us from our cosmic source, our divine identity, the awareness of this connection is never completely lost. The deepest motivating force in the human psyche on all the levels of our development is the craving to return to the experience of our divinity. However, the constraining conditions of the incarnate existence do not allow the experience of full spiritual liberation in and as God.

We can use here as an illustration a story about Alexander the Great, a person whose unique secular accomplishments would be difficult to match. He came as far in achieving a divine status in the material world as any human being can possibly hope for. This was actually expressed in one of the attributes that was commonly associated with his name—Divine Alexander. The story goes as follows:

After an unparalleled series of military victories through which he had aquired vast territories lying between his native Macedonia and India, Alexander finally reached India. There he heard about a yogi who had unusual powers, or siddhis, among others the ability to see the future. Alexander decided to pay him a visit. When he arrived to the yogi’s cave, the sage was immersed in his regular spiritual practice. Alexander inpatiently interrupted his meditation, asking him if he indeed had the power to see the future. The yogi nodded in silence and returned to his meditation. Alexander interrupted him again with another urgent question: “Can you tell me if my conquest of India will be successful?” The yogi meditated for a while and then slowly opened his eyes. He gave Alexander a long gentle look and said compassionately: “What you will ultimately need is about six feet of ground.”

It would be difficult to find a more poignant example for our human dilemma—our desperate effort to seek realization of our divinity through material means. The only way we can attain our full potential as divine beings is through an inner experience. This requires death and transcendence of our separate selves, dying to our identity as a “skin-encapsulated ego.” Because of our fear of annihilation and because of our grasping onto the ego, we have to settle for Atman substitutes or surrogates. These change as we go through life and are always specific for a particular stage.

For a fetus and the newborn, the Atman substitute is the bliss experienced in a good womb and on a good breast. For an infant it is satisfaction of basic physiological drives and of the need for security. By the time we attain the adult age, the Atman project reaches enormous complexity. The Atman surrogates now cover a wide spectrum and include, besides food and sex, also money, fame, power, appearance, knowledge, and many other things. At the same time, we all have a deep sense that our true identity is the totality of cosmic creation and the creative principle itself. For this reason, substitutes of any degree and scope will always remain unsatisfactory. The ultimate solution for the insatiable greed is in the inner world, not in secular pursuits of any kind and scope. Only the experience of one’s divinity in a non-ordinary state of consciousness can ever fulfill our deepest needs.

The Persian mystical poet Rumi made it very clear: “All the hopes, desires, loves, and affections that people have for different things—fathers, mothers, friends, heavens, the earth, palaces, sciences, works, food, drink—the saint knows that these are desires for God and all those things are veils. When men leave this world and see the King without these veils, then they will know that all were veils and coverings, that the object of their desire was in reality that One Thing” (Hines 1996). Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth-century English poet and clergyman, who was an ardent exponent of the way of life he called “felicity,” reached the same realization when he had a profound mystical experience. Here is an excerpt from his account describing this event:

The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the world was mine, and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions; but all proprieties and divisions were mine; all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world, which I now unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the kingdom of God.

Walking the Mystical Path with Practical Feet

If we accept that the material universe as we know it is not a mechanical system but a virtual reality created by Absolute Consciousness through an infinitely complex orchestration of experiences, what are the practical consequences of this insight? And what influence does the awareness that our being is commensurate with that of the cosmic creative principle have on our system of values and on the way we conduct our life? These are questions of great theoretical and practical relevance, not only for each of us as individuals, but for all humanity, and for the future of life on this planet. In trying to answer them, we will again look at the insights of people who have experienced holotropic states of consciousness.

For many religions, the recipe for dealing with the hardships of life is to play down the importance of the earthly plane and to focus on the transcendental realms. Some of these creeds recommend a shift in attention and emphasis from the material world to other realities. They suggest prayer and devotion as a way of communicating with various higher realms and superior beings. Others offer and underscore direct experiential access to transcendental realms by means of meditation and other forms of personal spiritual practice. The religious systems with this orientation portray the material world as an inferior domain that is imperfect, impure, and conducive to suffering and misery. From their point of view, reality appears to be a valley of tears and incarnate existence a curse or a quagmire of death and rebirth.

These creeds and their officials offer their dedicated followers the promise of a more desirable domain or a more fulfilling state of consciousness in the Beyond. In more primitive forms of popular beliefs, these are various forms of abodes of the blessed, paradises, or heavens. These become available after death for those who meet the necessary requirements defined by their respective theology. For more sophisticated and refined systems of this kind, heavens and paradises are only stages of the spiritual journey and its final destination is dissolution of personal boundaries and union with the divine, or extinguishing the fire of life and disappearance into the nothingness (nirvana).

According to the Jain religion, we are in our deepest nature pristine monads of consciousness (jivas) and are contaminated by our entanglement in the world of biology. The goal of the Jain practice is to drastically reduce our participation in the world of matter, free ourselves from its polluting influence, and regain our pristine status. Another example is the original form of Buddhism called Theravada or Hinayana (the Small Vehicle). This school of Buddhism is an austere monastic tradition that offers the teaching and spiritual discipline necessary for achieving personal enlightenment and liberation. Its ideal is the arhat, the saint or sage at the highest stage of development, living as a hermit in seclusion from the world. Similar emphasis on personal liberation (moksa) can also be found in the Hindu Vedanta.

However, other spiritual orientations embrace nature and the material world as containing or embodying the Divine. Thus the Tantric branches of Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have a distinctly life-affirming and life-celebrating orientation. Similarly, the Buddhist Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) teaches that we can reach liberation in the middle of everyday life if we free ourselves from the three “poisons”—ignorance, aggression, and desire. When we succeed, samsara, or the world of illusion, birth, and death, becomes nirvana. Various Mahayana schools emphasize the crucial role of compassion as an important expression of spiritual realization. Their ideal is the Bodhisattva, who is interested not only in his own enlightenment, but also in the liberation of all other sentient beings.

Let us take a look at this dilemma using the insights from holotropic states. What can we gain from moving away from life and escaping from the material plane into transcendental realities? And, conversely, what is the value of embracing wholeheartedly the world of everyday reality? Many spiritual systems define the goal of the spiritual journey as dissolution of personal boundaries and reunion with the Divine. However, those people who have actually experienced in their inner explorations identification with Absolute Consciousness, realize that defining the final goal of the spiritual journey as the experience of oneness with the supreme principle of existence involves a serious problem.

They become aware of the fact that the undifferentiated Absolute Consciousness/Void represents not only the end of the spiritual journey, but also the source and the beginning of creation. The Divine is the principle offering reunion for the separated, but also the agent responsible for the division and separation of the original unity. If this principle were complete and self-fulfilling in itself, there would not be any reason for it to create and the other experiential realms would not exist. Since they do, the tendency of Absolute Consciousness to create clearly expresses a fundamental “need.” The worlds of plurality thus represent an important complement to the undifferentiated state of the Divine. In the terminology of the Cabala, “people need God and God needs people.”

The overall scheme of the cosmic drama involves a dynamic interplay of two fundamental forces, one of which is centrifugal (hylotropic or matter-oriented) and the other centripetal (holotropic or aiming for wholeness) in relation to the creative principle. The undifferentiated Cosmic Consciousness shows an elemental tendency to create worlds of plurality that contain countless separate beings. We have discussed earlier some of the possible “reasons” or “motives” for this propensity to generate virtual realities. And conversely, the individualized units of consciousness experience their separation and alienation as painful and manifest a strong need to return to the source and reunite with it. Identification with the embodied self is fraught, among others, with the problems of emotional and physical suffering, spatial and temporal limitations, impermanence, and death.

We can experience this dynamic conflict in its full form when our self-exploration in holotropic states takes us to the brink of the ego death. At this point, we oscillate and are torn between these two powerful forces. One part of us, the holotropic one, wishes to transcend the identification with the body-ego and experience dissolution and union with a larger whole. The other part, the hylotropic one, is driven by the fear of death and by the self-preservation instinct to hold onto our separate identity. This conflict is extremely difficult and can represent a serious obstacle in the process of psychospiritual transformation. It ultimately requires that we surrender and sacrifice our familiar identity without knowing what will replace it on the other side, if anything at all.

Even if our present way of being in the world is not particularly comfortable, we might anxiously hold onto it when the alternative is unknown. Yet we sense deep within ourselves that our existence as a separate embodied self in the material world is, in and of itself, inauthentic and cannot satisfy our innermost needs. We feel a strong pull to transcend our boundaries and reclaim our true identity. It helps to know intellectually, before we get involved in systematic inner work, that experiencing the ego death is a symbolic experience and does not entail real death and annihilation. However, the fear of dying and surrendering the ego is so overwhelming and convincing that, when we are experiencing it, it is difficult to trust this knowledge and find it comforting.

If it is true that our psyche is governed by these two powerful cosmic forces, the hylotropic and the holotropic, and that these two are in a fundamental conflict with each other, is there an approach to existence that can adequately cope with this situation? Since neither separate existence nor undifferentiated unity is fully satisfactory, what is the alternative? Is it at all possible under these circumstances to find a solution, a life strategy that would address this paradox? Can we find an eye in the hurricane of these conflicting cosmic tendencies where we can rest in peace? Can we find satisfaction in a universe whose fabric is woven by forces that oppose each other?

Clearly, the solution is not to reject embodied existence as inferior and worthless and try to escape from it. We have seen that experiential worlds, including the world of matter, represent not only an important and valuable, but absolutely necessary, complement to the undifferentiated state of the creative principle. At the same time, our efforts to reach fulfillment and peace of mind will necessarily fail, and possibly backfire, if they involve only objects and goals in the material realm. Any satisfactory solution will thus have to embrace both the earthly and the transcendental dimensions, both the world of forms and the Formless.

The material universe as we know it offers countless possibilities for extraordinary adventures in consciousness. As embodied selves, we can witness the spectacle of the heavens with its billions of galaxies, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, waxing and waning of the moon, or the wonder of the lunar and solar eclipses. We can watch fantastic displays of clouds, the gentle beauty of the rainbows, and the shimmering luster of the aurora borealis. On the surface of the earth, nature has created an endless variety of landscapes, from great oceans, rivers and lakes to giant mountain ranges, silent deserts, and the cold beauty of the Arctic. Together with the astonishing variety of life forms in the animal and botanical kingdoms, these provide endless opportunities for unique experiences.

Only in the physical form and on the material plane can we fall in love, enjoy the ecstasy of sex, have children, listen to Beethoven’s music, or admire Rembrandt’s paintings. Where else than on earth can we listen to the song of a nightingale or taste baked Alaska? We could add to our list the joys of sports, traveling, playing musical instruments, painting, and countless others. The material world offers infinite possibilities for research of the organic and inorganic realms, of the surface of the earth, of the depth of the ocean, and of the far reaches of the cosmic space. The opportunities for the explorations of the micro- and the macroworld are virtually unlimited. In addition to the experiences of the present, there is also the adventure of probing the mysterious past, from the ancient civilizations and the antidiluvian world to the events during the first microseconds of the Big Bang.

Benefits from Self-Exploration and Spiritual Practice

To participate in the phenomenal world and to be able to experience this rich spectrum of adventures requires a certain degree of identification with the embodied self and acceptance of the world of matter. However, when our identification with the body-ego is absolute and our belief in the material world as the only reality unshatterable, it is impossible to fully enjoy our participation in creation. The specters of personal insignificance, impermanence, and death can completely overshadow the positive side of life and rob it of its zest. We also have to add to it our frustration associated with repeated futile attempts to realize our full divine potential within the constraints imposed on us by the limitations of our bodies and of the material world.

To find the solution to this dilemma, we have to turn within. Repeated experiences of holotropic states tend to loosen our belief that we are a “skin-encapsulated ego.” We continue to identify with the body-ego for pragmatic purposes, but this identification becomes more tentative and playful. If we have sufficient experiential knowledge of the transpersonal aspects of existence, including our own true identity and cosmic status, everyday life becomes much easier and more rewarding. As our inner search continues, we also sooner or later discover the essential emptiness behind all forms. As the Buddhist teachings suggest, knowledge of the virtual nature of the phenomenal world and its voidness can help us achieve freedom from suffering. This includes the recognition that belief in any separate selves in our life, including our own, is ultimately an illusion. In Buddhist texts, the awareness of the essential emptiness of all forms and the ensuing realization that there are no separate selves is referred to as anatta, literally “no-self.”

Jack Kornfield, a psychologist and Vipassana Buddhist teacher, describes his first encounter with the concept of anatta during his meeting with the late Tibetan spiritual teacher Kalu Rinpoche. Trying to get as much as possible from his encounter with this remarkable human being, Jack asked him with the eagerness of a zealous beginner: “Please, could you describe for me in a few sentences the very essence of the Buddhist teachings?” Kalu Rinpoche replied: “I could do it, but you would not believe me and it would take you many years to understand what I mean.” Jack politely insisted: “Please, can you tell me anyway? I would like to know.” Kalu Rinpoche’s answer was brief and succinct: “You do not really exist.”

Awareness of our divine nature and of the essential emptiness of all things that we discover in our transpersonal experiences, form the foundations of a metaframework that can help us considerably to cope with the complexity of everyday existence. We can fully embrace the experience of the material world and enjoy all that it has to offer—the beauty of nature, human relationships, love-making, family, works of art, sports, culinary delights, and countless other things.

However, no matter what we do, life will bring obstacles, challenges, painful experiences, and losses. When things get too difficult and devastating, we can call on the large cosmic perspective that we have discovered in our inner quest. The connection with higher realities and the liberating knowledge of anatta and the emptiness behind all forms makes it possible to tolerate what otherwise might be unbearable. With the help of this transcendental awareness we might be able to experience fully the entire spectrum of life or “the whole catastrophy,” as Zorba the Greek called it.

Systematic self-exploration using holotropic experiences can also help us to enhance and refine our sensory perception of the world. This “cleansing of the doors of perception” as Aldous Huxley called it, referring to William Blake’s poem, makes it possible to fully appreciate and enjoy all the possibilities of the adventures in consciousness associated with embodied existence. A general increase in zest is most dramatic during mystical states and during the hours or days immediately following them. Here it is often so intense that we can speak of an “afterglow.” In a more mitigated form, this increase in zest and a generally enhanced quality of life represent lasting aftereffects of such mystical revelations.

A person whose experience of life is limited to the hylotropic mode of consciousness and who has not had experiential access to the transcendental and numinous dimensions of reality will find it very difficult to overcome deep-seated fear of death and find deeper meaning in life. Under these circumstances, much of the daily behavior is motivated by the needs of the false ego and significant aspects of life are reactive and inauthentic. For this reason, it is essential to complement everyday practical activities with some form of systematic spiritual practice that provides experiential access to the transcendental realms.

In pre-industrial societies, the opportunity for transcendental experiences existed in many different forms—from shamanic rituals, rites of passage, and healing ceremonies to ancient mysteries of death and rebirth, mystical schools, and the meditation practices of the great religions of the world. In recent decades, the Western world has seen a significant revival of various ancient spiritual practices. In addition, representatives of modern depth psychology have developed effective new approaches facilitating spiritual opening. These tools are available to all those who are interested in psychospiritual transformation and consciousness evolution.

C. G. Jung, the forefather of transpersonal psychology, described in his writings a life strategy that addresses both the secular and the cosmic dimensions of ourselves and of existence. He suggested that we should complement our everyday activities in the external world by systematic self-exploration, by an inner search reaching into the deepest hidden recesses of our psyche. By directing our attention inward, we can connect with the Self, a higher aspect of our being, and benefit from its guidance. In this way, we can draw on the immense resources of the collective unconscious that contain the wisdom of ages.

According to Jung, we should not orient ourselves in life only on the basis of the external aspects of the situations we are facing. Our decision-making should be based on a creative synthesis of our pragmatic knowledge of the material world and the profound wisdom drawn from the collective unconscious during systematic inner self-exploration. This suggestion of the great Swiss psychiatrist is in general agreement with the conclusions that many people with whom I have worked over the years have drawn from their holotropic explorations.

I have seen repeatedly that the pursuit of this strategy can lead to a more fulfilling, enjoyable, and creative way of life. It makes it possible to be fully in the world of everyday reality and yet be aware of the numinous dimensions of existence and of our own divine nature. The ability to reconcile and integrate these two aspects of life belongs to the loftiest aspirations of the mystical traditions. Thus Sheik Al-’Alawi describes the Supreme Station, the highest stage of spiritual development in the Sufi tradition, as the state of being inwardly drunk with the Divine Essence and yet outwardly sober.

Individual Transformation and Planetary Future

The potential benefits of this approach to existence transcend the narrow interests of the individuals who practice it. This strategy applied on a sufficiently large scale could have important implications for human society and our future. In the last few decades, it has become increasingly clear that humanity is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Modern science has developed effective measures that could solve most of the urgent problems in today’s world—combat the majority of diseases, eliminate hunger and poverty, reduce the amount of industrial waste, and replace destructive fossil fuels by renewable sources of clean energy.

The problems that stand in the way are not of an economical or technological nature. The deepest sources of the global crisis lie inside the human personality and reflect the level of consciousness evolution of our species. Because of the untamed forces in the human psyche, unimaginable resources are being wasted in the absurdity of the arms race, power struggle, and pursuit of “unlimited growth.” These elements of human nature also prevent a more appropriate distribution of wealth among individuals and nations, as well as a reorientation from purely economic and political concerns to ecological priorities that are critical for survival of life on this planet.

Diplomatic negotiations, administrative and legal measures, economic and social sanctions, military interventions, and other similar efforts have so far had very little success. As a matter of fact, they have often produced more problems than they solved. It is becoming increasingly clear, why they had to fail. It is impossible to alleviate this crisis by application of the strategies rooted in the same ideology that created it in the first place. In the last analysis, the current global crisis is of a psychospiritual nature. It is therefore hard to imagine that it could be resolved without a radical inner transformation of humanity and its rise to a higher level of emotional maturity and spiritual awareness.

Considering the paramount role of violence and greed in human history, the possibility of transforming modern humanity into a species of individuals capable of peaceful coexistence with their fellow men and women regardless of race, color, and religious or political conviction, let alone with other species, certainly does not seem very plausible. We are facing the formidable challenge of instilling humanity with profound ethical values, sensitivity to the needs of others, voluntary simplicity, and a sharp awareness of ecological imperatives. At first glance, this task might appear too unrealistic and utopian to offer any real hope.

However, the situation is not as hopeless as it might appear. As we saw earlier, profound transformation of this kind is exactly what happens in the course of systematic inner work using holotropic states, whether it is meditational practice, powerful experiential forms of therapy, or responsible supervised work with psychedelic substances. Similar changes can also be observed in people who experience spontaneous psychospiritual crises and have the privilege of a good support system and sensitive guidance.

A strategy of existence integrating deep inner work with inspired action in the external world could thus become an important factor in resolving the global crisis, if it were practiced on a sufficiently large scale. Inner transformation and accelerated consciousness evolution could significantly improve our chances for survival and for peaceful coexistence. I have collected and systematically described the insights from the study of holotropic states hoping that those people who will choose this path or are walking it already will find them useful and helpful during their own journey.

A Recipe for Planetary Healing: Lessons from a Native American Ceremony

I would like to close this chapter by relating an experience of profound healing and transformation that occurred many years ago in a group of people with whom I shared a holotropic state of consciousness. Although it happened almost a quarter of a century ago, I still feel very moved and tearful whenever I think and talk about it. This event showed me the depth of the problems we are facing in our world where for many centuries hatred has been passed from one generation to another. However, it also gave me hope and trust in the possibility of lifting this curse and dissolving the barriers that separate us from each other.

After I came to the United States in 1967, I participated in government-sponsored research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center exploring the potential of psychedelic therapy. One of our projects at the center was a training program for mental health professionals. It made it possible to administer up to three high-dose LSD sessions to psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers for educational purposes. One of our subjects in this program was Kenneth Godfrey, a psychiatrist from the Veterans Administration Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. I was the guide in his three psychedelic sessions and we became very close friends.

When I was still in Czechoslovakia, I read about the Native American Church, a syncretistic religion combining Indian and Christian elements and using as a sacrament the Mexican psychedelic cactus peyote. I became very interested in having a personal experience of a peyote ceremony that would make it possible for me to compare therapeutic use of psychedelics with their ritual use. After my arrival in the United States, I was looking for such an opportunity, but without success. It turned out that both Ken and his wife were of Native American origin and had good connections with their people. When we were parting after Ken’s third session, I asked him if he could mediate for me participation in a peyote ceremony and he promised to try. Several days later, he called me on the phone and told me that a road chief, who was a good friend of his, had invited me and several other people from our staff to join a peyote ceremony of the Patawatome Indians.

The following weekend five of us flew from Baltimore to Topeka, Kansas. The group consisted of our music therapist Helen Bonny, her sister, psychedelic therapist Bob Leihy, professor of religion Walter Houston Clark, and myself. We rented a car at the Topeka airport and drove from there deep into the Kansas prairie. There, in the middle of nowhere, stood several teepees, the site of the sacred ceremony. The sun was setting and the ritual was about to begin. Before we could join the ceremony, we had to be accepted by the other participants, all of whom were Native Americans. We had to go through a process that resembled a dramatic encounter group.

With intense emotions, the native people brought up the painful history of the invasion and conquest of North America by white intruders—the genocide of American Indians and rapes of their women, the expropriation of their land, the senseless slaughter of the buffalo, and many other atrocities. After a couple of hours of dramatic exchange, the emotions quieted down and, one after the other, the Indians accepted us into their ceremony. Finally, there was only one person who had remained violently opposed to our presence—a tall, dark, and sullen man. His hatred toward white people was enormous. It took a long time before he finally reluctantly agreed that we could join the group. It happened only after much pressure from his own people, who were unhappy about further delays of the ceremony.

Finally everything was settled, at least on the surface, and we all gathered in a large teepee. The fire was started and the sacred ritual began. We ingested the peyote buttons and passed the staff and the drum. According to the Native American custom, whoever had the staff could sing a song or make a personal statement; there was also the option to pass. The man who was so reluctant to accept us sat directly across from me. It was clear that he did not really wholeheartedly participate in the ceremony. Every time the staff and drum made the circle and came to him, he very angrily passed them on. My perception of the environment was extremely sensitized by the influence of peyote. This man became a sore point in my world and I found looking at him increasingly painful. His hatred seemed to radiate from his eyes and fill the entire teepee.

The morning came and, shortly before sunrise, we were passing the staff and the drum for the last time. Everybody said a few words summing up his or her experiences and impressions from the night. Walter Houston Clark’s speech was exceptionally long and very emotional. He expressed his deep appreciation for the generosity of our Native American friends, who had shared with us their beautiful ceremony. Walter specifically stressed the fact that they accepted us in spite of everything we had done to them—invaded and stolen their land, killed their people, raped their women, and slaughtered the buffalo. At one point of his speech, he referred to me—I do not remember exactly in what context—as “Stan, who is so far from his homeland, his native Czechoslovakia.”

When Walter mentioned Czechoslovakia, the man who had resented our presence all through the night suddenly became strangely disturbed. He got up, ran across the teepee, and threw himself on the ground in front of me. He hid his head in my lap and held my body in a firm embrace, crying and sobbing loudly. After about twenty minutes, he quieted down, returned to his place, and was able to talk. He explained that the evening before the ceremony he had seen us all as “pale faces” and thus automatically enemies of Native Americans. After hearing Walter’s remark, he realized that, being of Czechoslovakian origin, I had nothing to do with the tragedy of his people. He thus hated me throughout the sacred ceremony without justification.

The man seemed heart-broken and desolate. After his initial statement came a long silence during which he was going through an intense inner struggle. It was clear that there was more to come. Finally, he was able to share with us the rest of the story.

During World War II, he had been drafted into the U.S. Air Force and, several days before the end of the war, he personally participated in a rather capricious and unnecessary American air-raid on the Czech city of Pilsen, known for its beer and its automobile factory. Not only had his hatred toward me been unjustified, but our roles were actually reversed; he was the perpetrator and I was the victim. He invaded my country and killed my people. This was more than he could bear.

After I had reassured him that I did not harbor any hostile feelings toward him, something remarkable happened. He went to my remaining four friends from Baltimore, who were all Americans. He apologized for his behavior before and during the ceremony, embraced them, and asked them for forgiveness. He said that this episode had taught him that there would be no hope for the world if we all carried in us hatred for the deeds commited by our ancestors. And he realized that it was wrong to make generalized judgments about racial, national, and cultural groups. We should judge people on the basis of who they are, not as members of the group to which they belong.

His speech was a worthy sequel to the famous letter of Chief Seattle to European colonizers. He closed it with these words: “You are not my enemies, you are my brothers and sisters. You did not do anything to me or my people. All that happened a long time ago in the lives of our ancestors. And, at that time I might actually have been on the other side. We are all children of the Great Spirit, we all belong to Mother Earth. Our planet is in great trouble and if we keep carrying old grudges and do not work together, we will all die.”

By this time, most people in the group were in tears. We all felt a sense of deep connection and belonging to the human family. As the sun was slowly rising in the sky, we partook in a ceremonial breakfast. We ate the food that throughout the night had been placed in the center of the teepee and was consacrated by the ritual. Then we all shared long hugs, reluctantly parted, and headed back home. We carried with us the memory of this invaluable lesson in interracial and international conflict resolution that will undoubtedly remain vivid in our minds for the rest of our lives. For me, this extraordinary synchronicity experienced in a holotropic state of consciousness generated hope that, sometime in the future, a similar healing will happen in the world on a global scale.

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