In his book The Adventure of Self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration, Stanslav Grof presents his new cartography of the human psyche as developed during his clinical work with psychedelics and holotropic breathwork. Whereas traditional psychotherapy is conceptually confined to the recollective material of each individual’s biography, Grof’s model extends to the trans-biographical, including the perinatal level.
The perinatal level of the psyche is characterized by the presence of allegories of birth and death. It is accompanied by immediate acute suffering including exaggerated physiological manifestations such as nausea, suffocation, temperature fluctuations, etc. This present agony is alternately or simultaneously experienced as sequences of birth and death, of a human and/or transcendental variety. Although cited as impossible by current neurophysiology, due to a lack of a fully myelinized cerebral cortex in newborns, specific and verifiable details of an individual’s birth are recalled. These memories demand a revision of certain outdated theories.
This deep reencounter with birth can resolve profound existential crises by internalizing the intrinsic spiritual aspects of the experience and by exploring the various facets of the collective unconscious. The experience is vast, including features that are archetypal, mythological, mystical, transpersonal, and more. Because they all revolve around birth (perinatal), the clinical stages of birth serve as a satisfactory model to classify and understand the dynamics of the perinatal level of the subconscious. The stages correspond to the four perinatal matrices: the Amniotic Universe, the Cosmic Engulfment (or No-Exit), the Death and Rebirth Struggle, and the Death and Rebirth Experience.
The first basic perinatal matrix (BPM I) is termed the Amniotic Universe. Its biological basis is the symbiotic unity of the fetus and maternal organism. The lack of boundaries and obstructions allows a completely undisturbed life. This intrauterine existence is much akin to the modern deprivation tanks, where a removal of the senses provides a melting into an oceanic ecstasy. The mystical dissolution of boundaries can be a blissfully trusting and heavenly experience, or a disintegration of the familiar and reliable, leaving a generalized anxiety of fear and paranoia. Pleasant imagery may relate to floating within the ocean or in outer space as an astronaut attached to the mothership by a tether, and Eden experiences. Negative imagery leads into the BPM II, including contaminated waters, chemical warfare, evil metaphysical forces, and malicious astral influences.
The second basic perinatal matrix is called the Cosmic Engulfment. Its biological basis is the first clinical stage of delivery. Life is now disturbed by chemical signals of impending mechanical restrictions of the contracting uterus. The umbilical cord can become constricted causing a lack of blood and oxygen and therefore warmth and nourishment. This cosmos is no longer a place of blissful dissolution, but of existential angst. There is an imminent yet unidentified danger afoot. The individual is not unified with the environment, but is condemned to a claustrophobic nightmare with no escape. This is now a hellish experience of suffering and metaphysical loneliness. The individual is lost in a void, separated from its surroundings by the restriction of the umbilical cord. Negative imagery arising features a depersonalization and derealization, perceiving all beings including oneself as mindless, meaningless robots; simply cogs of a diabolic machine.
The third basic perinatal matrix is the Death and Rebirth Struggle. The biological basis is the second clinical stage of birth, in which there is cervical dilation and propulsion through the birth canal. The journey from heaven and hell delivers one into purgatory, where the individual is purged, cleansed, and prepared. BPM III is a struggle for survival amidst crushing pressures. The further restriction of the umbilical tether leads to suffocation and anoxia, which feels like catching afire. Allegorically, this burning is a pyrocatharsis, a purifying fire that blazes through the ripe karmic seeds of the individual’s psyche. Other imagery includes raging elements of nature such as volcanoes and tidal waves, high technological weaponry such as atomic bombs, and sexual orgastic experiences. The volcanic ecstasy of this third matrix is a build up and explosion of contractions and unimaginably pleasurable releases. There is still a sense of something sinister among the pleasure, which can give the imagery a sadomasochistic angle, for example being amongst a satanic orgy of demonic witches. The key to understanding the difference here is that suffering is no longer hopeless or helpless, but has a direction and a goal. The individual is being purged and delivered into the light.
The fourth basic perinatal matrix is known as the Death and Rebirth Experience. Its biological basis is the third clinical stage of actual birth. The umbilical cord is finally completely cut. One emerges an individual separated from the all or the mother. The individual is now expelled from Eden and forced to fend for himself. This event is the birth for the fetus and death for the re-experiencer of what Alan Watts referred to as the skin-encapsulated ego. In both cases there are visions of a tunnel and a white light at the end. A final pyrocatharsis is suffered as light enters the eyes and the entire nervous system is intensely stimulated, and the weight, or lack of weight, of the body is felt for the first time. Imagery from BPM IV can include the delivery doctor as a destructive deity or sacrificial priest, using his forceps and anesthesia as destructive yet helpful tools at the threshold to and from this world.
The four basic perinatal matrices are only one signature feature of Stanislov Grof’s new cartography of the human psyche. The trans-biographical map extends beyond the recollective material utilized by traditional psychoanalysis, as far transcendental and as deep as perinatal. Only here are some of the most profound existential crises resolved and reconciled.