Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness (NOSC)

Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness


The term Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness (NOSC), being the central and essential condition of anyone undergoing Holotropic Breathwork, deserves our considered attention and understanding. The term itself, though self-explanatory on one level, can raise questions with regard to how such a state can contribute to understanding ourselves, our relationship to others and to the environment in which we “live and move and have our being”. 


On the simplest level, such every-day phenomena as day-dreaming and fantasies are NOSC, characterized by their brevity and familiarity. Similarly, such every-night phenomena as dreams are also NOSC, during which the individual’s subconscious, finding the ego-self literally asleep, expresses its contents that become part of our conscious life when they are remembered upon waking.


Freud characterized dreams as being “the royal road to the unconscious”. Holotropic Breathwork recognizes the wisdom of Freud’s dictum and extends it by offering another way to access the expanded realms of the human unconscious. By slightly increasing the speed as well as the depth of breathing, our cerebral cortex is temporarily disabled through complex bio-physiological mechanisms. This disablement affords the lower brains, that govern emotion and survival, a greater opportunity to express their contents that might include fear, joy, sadness, love etc.


The experience of such feelings indicates the establishment of a NOSC condition, into which memories and images are delivered into the mind, disabled but still conscious. Dreams are by definition remembered only upon waking and therefore at a remove in terrestrial time, whereas with experiences in Holotropic Breathwork the awake individual can choose to engage with at the very moment of their emergence. The deliberate choice to engage these psychic artifacts radically amplifies the opportunity for the unconscious material to be understood experientially, not just cognitively.


This is seen as one of the primary mechanisms by which the healing potential of NOSC is activated, and brings into question the adequacy of the term itself. “Non-Ordinary” is a generically neutral term that actually describes only its own condition, that of not being ordinary.


Holotropic States of Consciousness


The purpose of Holotropic Breathwork, however, is to activate the healing potential of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness, and the protocols of this work establish certain conditions that create this possibility.


First is the willingness of the participant to understand that these states are benevolent, (their contents being artifacts of the subconscious), and to willingly surrender to them knowing that we are being shown something of value.  This understanding is known as the “set”, the inner condition of the individual as he or she deliberately activates NOSC by relaxing, listening to music designed to activate the psyche and by breathing a little faster and a little deeper than normal.


Second is the authentic presence of trained facilitators, individuals familiar with the artifacts of the subconscious and experienced in creating and maintaining a safe place within which to support them. This is known as the “setting”, the outer condition into which the NOSC experiences can emerge.


Thus, when both “set and setting” are in effect, the outcomes from NOSC work can have considerable healing potential by moving us towards wholeness, and in this formulation are called Holotropic States of Consciousness. NOSC experiences that occur within a safe and supportive set and setting can have profound heuristic value, and it is this extraordinary effect, though largely unknown and inadequately understood, that defines Holotropic Breathwork.


A further discussion of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness and Holotropic States of Consciousness can be found in Chapter 1 of  “Psychology of the Future”, (2000), by Stanislav Grof;  “Healing and Heuristic Potential of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness.”


The following pdf contains the first three pages of this 19 page chapter:

Grof NOSC chapter inro.pdf
Adobe Acrobat document [121.9 KB]