The psychedelic professor: Marin researcher hopes to see a renaissance on the study of LSD
"If you remember the Sixties, you weren't there." That tongue-in-cheek phrase has been uttered countless times by baby boomers, from the Fairfax old-timer hanging on to the ponytail despite a long-since receded hairline to the doting grandmom for whom those chaotic years seems like a lifetime ago.
Stanislav Grof has no trouble remembering the 1960s. For the 77-year-old Mill Valley resident and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, they will forever be etched into his mind as the years that dealt a resounding blow to his life's work. Grof, a psychiatrist and a native of the former Czechoslovakia, had immersed himself into scientific research of the impact of psychedelic drugs on the human mind. When use of LSD and other drugs helped spawn the counterculture era here in the Bay Area and elsewhere, the government crackdown that followed virtually killed his research.
Grof subsequently focused on inducing "nonordinary states" without drugs, and his work has certainly elicited chuckles and groans from mainstream psychiatrists over the years. But Grof is deadly serious about his work, and hopes for a renaissance on the study of psychedelics, particularly as therapy for terminally ill patients and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, such as troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Grof first encountered LSD in the mid-1950s, soon after the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman discovered the drug at the Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland. It dramatically altered both his mind and his career path. Grof has written nearly 20 books on the subject. His latest, out this month, is "LSD: Doorway to the Numinous" (Park Street Press) is a second edition to his 1975 volume, "Realms of the Human Unconscious." Grof spoke to here about his first psychedelic experience, the backlash of the hippie movement and his career.
Q: You took LSD for the first time in 1956 at the lab where you worked. How long did it take you to connect your personal interest in psychedelics with your interest in psychoanalysis?
A: I had a very, very powerful experience of cosmic consciousness. My teacher's particular focus was in training the brain waves, which is exposing people to a powerful strobe light of different frequencies, and then checking if the brain waves in the optical cortex would actually pick up the frequency that you are feeding in. In the middle of my session, I was exposed to this powerful strobe that just took it to a whole other level. Up to that point I saw aesthetic, beautiful images, geometric images and kaleidoscopic images that looked like stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral. But the moment the strobe light was turned off there was an incredibly radiant light. At the time it seemed like what it would have been like in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb went off. My consciousness left my body and had no more boundaries. It is very difficult to put into words.
Q: I would imagine.
A: Mystical experiences are ineffable. Coming down later on, I was in a physical universe and there were phenomena happening for which I didn't have a name for at the time. I had a feeling that I went back to the Big Bang. I had been quite disappointed with Freudian psychoanalysis at that time in my life. And as I was coming down, I got a whole new energy, and I thought that if I was stuck with psychiatry, this was by far the most interesting thing I could do within it - focusing on these nonordinary states of consciousness. Since that time, over more than 50 years, I have really done very little professionally that did not involve these nonordinary states.
Q: That speaks to how powerful that first experience was.
A: I had additional experiences that current psychiatry cannot explain at all. I really believe today that if psychiatrists in the mainstream would pay attention to the study of these experiences, it would lead to a revolution that would be comparable to what the physicists went though in the first three decades of the 20th century when they went from Newton to Einstein.
Q: When you first came to this country in 1967 at the invitation of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, you encountered a very different environment regarding LSD than you did in Prague. The CIA had been doing covert tests with LSD on people in the 1950s in San Francisco, and those experiments subsequently saw this area become the center of the psychedelic drug scene in the 1960s. When did you first learn that LSD was being used for fun in the Bay Area and elsewhere, and what did you think about that?
A: It was very unfortunate. I learned about it first in the mid-1960s, when Timothy Leary had his first experiences and started proselytizing and people started taking it in the streets rather than having a supervised session. Czechoslovakia ... was the only other country besides Switzerland that produced its own pharmaceutically pure LSD. Training was required to administer it.
Here the situation was very different. There was Leary, and then there was a paper published about the changes in the chromosomes and journalists made the connection that if you take LSD, you will have a deformed baby. You also had this whole generation of hippies ... part of the anti-war movement, and very strict legislation came down that did not stop anything in the streets but practically killed the legitimate research that was going on.
Q: You believe that the crackdown on LSD had a greater negative impact on the scientific community than on the people taking it for fun?
A: Yes, because they could get it on the streets, although they didn't know if it was pure and they didn't know how much they were getting. People were also doing it under very crazy circumstances, driving cars, going to Woodstock.
Q: You did an interview in 1984 with Albert Hoffman, the chemist who discovered LSD more than 65 years ago. In it, Hoffman called the unsupervised use of psychedelic drugs "a tragic misunderstanding of the nature and the meaning of these kinds of substances." It sounds like you agree with him on that subject.
Q: Psychedelics are very powerful tools. By their nature, they are not a panacea nor are they the devil's drug. The intention and the setting determine the result. Everything that happens with LSD is attributed to the substance. Can you imagine a similar discussion about the knife? Is the knife dangerous or useful? A surgeon would say one thing, the chief of police would be talking about something else, a housewife would be talking about cutting salami and an artist would talk about carving wood.
Q: You wrote of the dramatic personality changes in terms of values and philosophical beliefs that often occur in people who have experimented with LSD. Did you personally experience the shift you describe?
A: Yes, very dramatically. I grew up in an atheistic environment. So I had no exposure to religion. As a result, I am somewhat of a strange example of someone who was brought to mysticism and spirituality through clinical work. Usually it's the other way around. My philosophy is somewhere between Buddhism and Hinduism. I talk about holotropic states, a subcategory of nonordinary states, which I believe has healing and transformative potential that we can learn about the consciousness. I really believe that if mainstream scientists pay attention, it would lead to a completely different world view that would strongly converge with Eastern spiritual philosophies.
Q: Your book has a section that projects a renaissance of the field of psychedelic research following a very long fallow period after the 1960s. Are you optimistic about the future of your field?
A: I am moderately optimistic. There is a general move from talking therapies to experiential therapies. My wife and I developed one of them, holotropic breathwork, where people can have experiences similar to psychedelic experiences without any substances, it's just breathing and music and bodywork. For therapists who are comfortable with inducing nonordinary states without drugs, bringing psychedelics would just be a logical step.
I compare LSD to a microscope or telescope. There is a whole micro world there that we don't know anything about and we cannot study unless we have a microscope, and there are galaxies that we cannot study unless we have a powerful telescope. The telescope and the microscope don't create these worlds. They just make it possible for us to study them. In the same way, LSD does not create these experiences, but in the same way it just releases this deep content from the psyche. That makes it very unique.
Q: What is your perception of our society's treatment of psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin?
A: The industrialized civilization fears not only psychedelic substances but even just the states they induce, because those states can be induced by a variety of non-drug means. And we are the only group in the history of the humanity that does. All the other cultures that I have ever heard about held these states in very high esteem, and they spent a lot of time developing safe and effective ways of inducing them, and in regular intervals they would have sacred events or rituals.
Marin Independent Journal
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