Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When the Impossible Happens

August O'Connor encountering a Groffian impossibility
How would history have changed had Sigmund Freud's favorite drug been LSD instead of cocaine?

Using lysergic acid instead of analysis to access the unconscious mind, Freud's career might have resembled Stan Grof's as recounted in When the Impossible Happens. Freud might have escaped his dreary office in Vienna, lived 14 years at Esalen Institute, taken peyote with Indians in Kansas, MDA in Palenque and ketamine in Machu Picchu, guided hundreds of patients thru the tangled jungles of their own personalities using LSD sessions, Holotropic breath work and other radical mind-opening techniques. Like Freud, Grof brings a sophisticated European mind set to bear to evaluate a lifetime of extraordinary experiences. Unlike Tim Leary and Terence McKenna, who were of Irish blood, Stanislav Grof was born in Czechoslovakia and possesses a "Slavic soul" which binds him solidly to the soil even as his yearnings for the infinite bring him face to face with experiences that would shake the sanity of many less solidly grounded men.

I'm sure that if Stan were to encounter Satan (which he does in one of the episodes in this book) he would do so calmly, all senses alert, pushing his fear into the background while striving rationally to assess the true dimensions of the experience. Stan is a compassionate scientist and brave explorer of the heights and depths of human consciousness. Of all of his many books, When the Impossible Happens is the most biographical and offers personal stories of the most astonishing high points of his long career as an passionate courtier of non-ordinary realities.

His book consists of more than 60 short episodes, from Stan Grof's first LSD experience as a fledgling doctor in Prague, to his years with his wife Christina as scholar-in-residence at Esalen, to psychic adventures in Iceland, Brazil, Mexico and Australia. This is a book of experiences not theory. And, as the title suggests, many of his experiences would be considered "impossible" according to our present model of the human mind which holds that consciousness is solely the product of some (as yet unknown) process in the brain--a position called "reductive materialism" by its supporters and "promissory materialism" by its critics. Just as the goal of modern physics is to explain not only the ordinary world but every sort of outlandish physical phenomena made accessible by Hubbles, LHCs and even newer probes on the horizon, so any serious psychologist (mind scientist) should welcome this account of dozens of exotic psychological "quarks" and "gluons" observed during a lifetime of exploring the extreme edges of human experience.

Stan is an splendid story teller and one finds oneself experiencing the emotions that he must have felt as the events were actually happening. I was pleased to discover his account of an extraordinary adventure in which I played a small role--Stan's marriage to Joan Halifax which took place in a volcanic caldera in Iceland, in a Viking wedding ritual designed by Icelandic mythologist Einar Pallson and Joseph Campbell, who gave away the bride. My wife Betsy and I brought the traditional child to the wedding--our son, Khola, who had just celebrated his second birthday a day before with the children of the kitchen staff. We wedding guests arranged ourselves in a ring around the edge of the caldera and after the ceremony, Stan and Joan went around the circle to be congratulated. At the moment when Betsy, Khola and I embraced them, the midnight sun which had temporary dipped below the horizon, suddenly rose and flooded the five of us with its brilliant light.

I know Stan slightly but over the years our paths have crossed several times since that first meeting in Iceland. As a fellow Slav and a member of his wedding I feel a personal bond. I admire him as an expecially bold scientist and always feel a bit high when coming into his presence.

Nick's not the only one who admires Stan Grof. In 2007, Vlaclav Havel, the president of Czechoslovakia, presented the VISION 97 award to Stan for his pioneering research into non-ordinary states of consciousness.

When the Impossible Happens is one of the best tour guides I can recommend into the details of some of those non-ordinary states.

Next month Dr. Stanislav Grof will experience his eightieth trip around the Sun.

Happy Birthday, Stan!

Stan Grof at Esalen SuperSymposium IV

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