Healing and Transformation: The Use of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness

With special reference to the work of Stanislav and Christina Grof

By Martin Boroson, Martin Duffy and Barbara Egan

Psychological illness, or neurosis, can be defined simply as a restriction of consciousness or – to borrow a Hopi Indian idea – a way of living that calls for a new way of living. Psychotherapy, self-exploration and spiritual questing can all be seen as attempts to gain access to the “foreign” realms of the psyche, the territory that transcends the tight, limited boundaries of the ego. Healing begins when the individual finds some way to reach across the divide between ego and non-ego, and acknowledges some of the material as his/her own. The individual dies to his/her former self-image and world-view, and is reborn at a higher (more expanded) level of awareness.

Psychotherapists call this realm beyond ego, the unconscious. In discovering a collective aspect or layer of the unconscious, Jung suggested that the content of our mind is not limited to what we have experienced since birth. Our normal, everyday state-of-consciousness, dominated by the ego, can be called “ordinary reality”, and all other realms of the psyche or states-of-consciousncss can be called “non-ordinary”. In a non-ordinary state of consciousness, the universe can appear fluid and non-mechanical, space and time are relative, moral absolutes vanish, death is but a transition and life exists in a variety of forms. Stanislav Grof, one of the world’s foremost researchers into the healing properties of non-ordinary states of consciousness, calls ordinary reality “hylotropic”, meaning matter-orientated, and the latter, non-ordinary reality, “holotropic”, meaning wholeness-orientated.

Grof observed that the phenomena experienced in a non-ordinary state are thematically linked to one another, and to issues in one’s conscious life or “ordinary” reality. He calls these thematic links “systems of condensed experience” (COEX). An example of a COEX in one individual might be:

Personality:           Fear of intimacy, claustrophobia

Psychosomatic:   Asthma or tightness in the chest

Biography:           Near death experience of drowning or lack of oxygen. Smothering family life; repressive environment

Perinatal:           Experience of being suffocated (swallowing mucous or being strangled by the umbilical cord).

Transpersonal:    Symbolic (or past-life) experience of being buried alive, hanged, etc.

According to Grof’s model, everyone has several different COEX’s operative at one time, and each would have a positive and a negative charge. By experiencing each aspect of the COEX, an individual can clear its negative influence from ordinary life. Using the example above, one could have the full emotional and physical response appropriate to the experiences of drowning, choking, repression (e.g. screaming, fighting, crying, giving up). This would free up the psychological and/or physical pattern, rather than perpetuate the experience in a locked, frozen or jammed form in the unconscious. Each experience of one level of a COEX would subsume major changes of perception and philosophy of life, as well as concrete changes in everyday life. In the above example, the individual might find him/herself able to break free of restricting situations, such as a relationship or job, and find improvements in his/her breathing, self-expression and emotional life. The individual would feel free within, and know that, in the final analysis, the constriction was internal, i.e. maintained in his or her own state of consciousness.

As one goes deeper into the psyche, into the transpersonal realms, it becomes impossible to sustain a belief in simple cause and effect. What one develops instead in a non-causal, more mystical world view that everything the individual has suffered is in some way necessary. Individuals who complete a process of death and rebirth will say that their suffering – no matter how painful or “wrong” from the point of view of ordinary reality – advanced their growth. They are connected to a deeper sense of spirituality, or feel that their existence is part of a greater whole.

Non-Ordinary States for Self-Exploration and Healing

One method through which a non-ordinary state of consciousness can safely be experienced is Holotropic Breathwork, devised by Stanislav and Christina Grof. Deep breathing and carefully selected music are used to induce a non-ordinary state, and focused bodywork is used to finish a session. This work is typically done in a group setting, although everyone’s process is individual. Maximum attention is paid to the safety (both physical and emotional) of the setting. Generally, workshops are residential, in a place removed from ordinary reality, to enable participants to “let go”. A great deal of preparation and integration is done around the sessions, as in any sacred, transforming ritual. Participants are urged to go fully towards any experience that emerges and to suspend judgement until after the experience is completed.

One of the advantages of this work is that the unconscious selects the most important or relevant issue. No ideology is imposed on the client, and the facilitator is not in the role of all-knowing interpreter. The unconscious is completely trusted to provide the necessary healing experience, without therapeutic intervention or prediction. For some people, healing may come in a completely calm and quiet way. For others, it may involve a huge emotional or bioenergetic release. And it can come from any part of the mind or body. As an adjunct to ongoing therapy – particularly for a client who is blocked, has a traumatic history or is very emotionally charged – a holotropic workshop can be invaluable. The preparation for such an experience, and the continued exploration and integration of what emerges, can be done effectively in individual or group therapy.

Holotropic work can often provide a “breakthrough” experience for people whose personal therapy is stuck. A holotropic session encourages and allows the unseen unconscious factor to emerge without any theoretical programme, and gives people a powerful tool for overcoming resistance.

Spiritual Emergence and Non-ordinary States

Research into non-ordinary states of consciousness indicates that many experiences that have been labelled psychotic are actually mystical, and potentially healing, if they are allowed to occur in a safe and supportive environment and if they are properly integrated. The traditional therapeutic situation tries to explore symptoms while ensuring that they do not get too big or unmanageable. The psychiatric model actually tries to suppress symptoms altogether and mistakes that for a cure. In the holotropic model, symptoms are facilitated, i.e. they are helped and encouraged to get as big as they need to until they are resolved. From a holotropic point of view, the problem is not the appearance of the symptom, but the ego’s attempt to control it. In many cases, we have seen longstanding, intense anxiety conditions and psychosomatic disorders resolve, once the client was given permission to allow the non-ordinary experience implicit in the symptoms to emerge fully (i.e. with its visual, emotional and physical components).

It must be stressed that experience with non-ordinary states should be undertaken only in very carefully constructed situations, and that this technique of self-exploration is not suitable for everyone. But for the vast majority of ordinary seekers – people whose pain and confusion has led them to get help, to question who they are – this method of self-exploration holds great rewards and the possibility of profound transformation.

Our culture is certainly one of the most spiritually impoverished of all time. Going about our ordinary lives, obsessed with what Grof calls the nine-to-five “hamburger stand” consciousness, we fail to see the vast, meaningful dimensions of the human soul that await just behind a thin veil. As a culture we have lost the means, and the belief in the importance of gaining access to our deeper selves. It is a skill that most other cultures in the world have considered not just sacred, not just special or exalted, but vital to life itself.


Grof, Stanislav, The Holotropic Mind, 1992, Harper San Francisco Beyond the Brain, 1985, SUNY

Grof, Stanislav and Christina, The Stormy Search for the Self: Understanding and Living with Spiritual Emergency, 1991, London

Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, 1989, Los Angeles

Jung, C.G., Memories, Dreams and Reflections

(All available from Compendium, London)

Barbara Egan, Martin Duffy and Martin Boroson together form the Transpersonal Psychotherapy Group. They are currently training in Holotropic Breathwork with the Grofs. They run three-day, one-day and week-long holotropic workshops in Ireland. For information, contact the Transpersonal Psychotherapy Group, 59 Waterloo Lane, Dublin 4. Telephone: (01)6685282