Domains of the Psyche
It is perhaps unsurprising that, from the point of view of the expanded consciousness at work in NOSC, our understanding of the psyche might itself become expanded. Two additional domains beyond the Biographical loom large in breathwork and may help clarify how healing can occur in NOSC:
1.) The Biographical
The Biographical Domain begins at birth and extends to the present. It is a trove of information, available from memory for cognitive analysis and interpretation. Material that is intractable to recall may be encouraged to reveal itself through various techniques, perhaps most notably hypnosis and dream analysis.
2.) The Perinatal
Sigmund Freud proposed that the psyche of the newborn is a Tabula Rasa. This posits that the earlier imprints were made chronologically on this “clean slate”, the greater the impact upon the emerging psyche and non-ordinary consciousness work confirms and extends this view. The publication of “The Trauma of Birth” by Otto Rank in 1924, however, challenged Freud’s assertion. Grof’s observations amplify Rank’s hypothesis that the process of birth can create imprints which carry forward into life, creating behaviors that may confound when viewed from within an exclusively biographical framework.
The Perinatal Domain includes the entire birth process, from conception to emergence. Within this Grof has identified four distinct stages he calls Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM) that comprise the Perinatal Domain.
Birth Perinatal Matrix 1 (BPM I)
BPM I, begins at conception and extends until the first onset of contractions. On the positive side BPM I is characterized by bliss, oceanic feelings of being nourished by one’s immediate environment and of being connected to the one-ness of the universe. On the negative side may appear toxicity from the ingestion of radically inappropriate elements such as alcohol, drugs, tobacco and caffeine, as well as threatening interventions such as attempted abortions and violent physical assault. The fetus may also be subjected to more subtle imprints such as maternal depression, fear and anxiety.
During BPM I the fetus essentially floats, suspended in the amniotic sac quite unconnected, absent gravity, to terrestrial influences. It encounters no hard surfaces, has no experience of time as something with a beginning and an end, and grows and thrives within this entirely undifferentiated environment. During the ninth month, however, begin contractions that mark the onset of the second stage of birth, BPM II. These grow steadily in intensity and frequency to the point when the uterus, the strongest muscle in the body, exerts hydraulic pressure of up to 50 lbs per square inch upon the fetus, momentarily compromising, if not eliminating, the oxygen supply entering the fetus through the umbilical cord. The cervix is not yet dilated so there is no possibility of escape from this challenging “No Exit” situation.
The conditions of BPM II contribute to a somatic imprinting that the blissful existence known heretofore by the fetus is over. This stage is characterized by feelings of rejection, entrapment and engulfment that may be expressed during breathwork by feelings ranging from claustrophobic panic and existential angst to utter hopelessness and hellish despair; “This will never end”.
The contractions normatively culminate in the dilation of the cervix, allowing a way out. Here begins the third distinct stage of birth, BPM III, during which the fetus experiences being squeezed and pushed from the only environment it has ever known towards an unknown destination. For the first time the possibility arises that another location even exists, and the passage through the birth canal, though only a few centimeters by terrestrial measure, can be experienced by the fetus as a journey of a thousand miles.
BPM III activates a life and death struggle of epic proportions, characterized by fear, aggression and imminent annihilation. Feelings during breathwork of this third stage of birth can include a death-rebirth struggle, murderous rage, tumultuous sexual feelings and scatological imagery contained in scenes of war, social disorder, orgies, filth and generalized chaos.
This stage culminates in BPM IV, known to us as “birth”, during which the fetus emerges into the alien environment of air, light, clear sound and rapid temperature changes. Having gone from a place within, where all its basic needs were satisfied, the new-born now finds itself held upside-down by its ankles, shocked into taking its first breath by being struck and by having its literal life-line, the umbilical cord, summarily cut. This is followed, as often as not, with the infant being further separated from the mother to sleep in a room full of other infants similarly treated. These unnatural protocols can be negatively manifest as a fear of change and further, experienced as abandonment, severe abuse and being cast out. BPM IV can also include death-rebirth experiences and a sense of ecstatic liberation; memories can include anesthesia, the pressure of forceps and sensations associated with various obstetric maneuvers and post-natal interventions.
The four Basic Perinatal Matrices proposed by Grof indicate that the birth process is considerably involved, bringing into question the idea of the newborn’s psyche being the Tabula Rasa proposed by Freud. The experiences of individuals exposed to Holotropic Breathwork strongly suggest that the Perinatal experiences we all undergo can have considerable bearing upon our fundamental approach to life, creating imprints that may radically affect our subsequent ability to function.
Karolinska Institute Studies
Interestingly, a group of studies conducted independently at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden by Jacobson and Nyberg et al give preliminary confirmation to this proposition. Seeking “to test the hypothesis that opiate addiction in adults might stem partly from an imprinting process during birth when certain drugs are given to the mother”, the researchers retrospectively studied by logistical regression 200 opiate addicts against 262 siblings as controls. Their conclusions were that, “The results are compatible with the imprinting hypothesis”, and in a companion study that, “obstetric practices may be risk factors for adult drug addiction”. (See abstract of these studies below).
Transpersonal Psychology posits the existence another source of psychic data from which we may be able to draw inferences. Consensus reality is in disagreement as to whether it exists, or even can exist; it is, quite literally, from a realm beyond the personal. The closest parallel from within existing theory would be the Collective Unconscious proposed by Carl Jung. Embrace of the Transpersonal Domain requires us to accept that psychic information from a source beyond our rational mind might have bearing upon the psyche.
As rational materialists these are extremely problematic notions for us to embrace on any level, never mind applying it to such a critically important area as our well-being. The fact remains, however, that anecdotal experiential evidence indicates that we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to include the reports of countless individuals who have experienced anomalous events in non-ordinary states. These include identification with archetypes, historical figures and events, feral and mythological creatures, near-death experiences and other phenomena.
However, it is no more necessary that the breather should ‘understand’ or ‘believe in’ the source of that which ails them for healing to occur than it is for a patient in the doctor’s office to understand the micro-biological mechanisms that fuse their broken bone.
Participants also frame their experiences within what Dr. Grof has termed Systems of Condensed Experience, or COEX Systems. We can see a COEX as a string of beads having two components, the thread being the emotionally charged theme of the COEX and the beads the life-events within which the theme is manifest. COEX themes can include, amongst others, feelings of Abandonment, Rejection, Humiliation, Aloneness, Failure, Danger and Fear, etc. Thus a recent event of being humiliated by a boss can be emotionally experienced as a similar event by peers at college, by a teacher at school and by a parent in early childhood; these may followed by a Perinatal memory relating to humiliation or even by a memory of a humiliating episode from a Transpersonal source. Such bundling of emotional residue can result in an explosive charge being released during breathwork. Phenomena like road-rage, as well as other instances of exaggerated and inappropriate emotional response, may be more comprehensible when the COEX principle is included in our point of view.
Given society’s lack of success in stemming the tide of individuals afflicted with depression, anxiety, addictions and psycho-spiritual challenges such as loss of meaning in life, it can be reasonably suggested that our existing knowledge of the mechanisms leading to these situations may be incomplete. Preliminary outcomes from exposure to Holotropic Breathwork by individuals with various conditions strongly indicate that this work may have a useful role to play as an adjunct to existing therapeutic endeavors and spiritual path work.