On June 19, 2013, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report that bemoaned the sorry state of the humanities and social sciences in higher education. They presented several reasons for this drop-off. Here we look at a different reason: a fundamental topic of the humanities is the human mind and its fullest development, but the liberal arts have systematically neglected a major advance on how to study our minds—some would claim the major advance. Shamefully, when they see the word psychedelic, many scholars’ minds snap shut. Put simply, the “psychedelic renaissance” (e.g., Cooper 2012, Sessa 2012) has left the liberal arts and sciences behind (Brown 2013, Roberts, 2013). Although many students and in-the-psychedelic-closet faculty recognize this, the closed-mindedness of old fogy department bulls and administrators block this path of intellectual inquiry. Perceived or misperceived, this supposed attitude censors intellectual curiosity and our ability to examine our minds using psychedelics. Otherwise, psychedelics could enliven the humanities and invigorate the arts and sciences. The analysis of Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” samples a psychedelic base for vast intellectual progress.
Microscope to the Mind
Unlike other psychoactive drugs—both medical and non-medical— which usually have specific effects, psychedelics act as magnifiers of subjective thoughts, feelings, and perceptions—a sort of microscope of the mind. A person’s psychological set and the setting where he or she takes them are the two major influences on the experiences. Psychedelics can be used, Stanislav Grof says, as “unspecific amplifiers” that make “it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method or tool available in mainstream psychiatry and psychology.” (2009, xxv). Expressing a judgment that many in the community of psychedelic scholars would agree with, psychiatrists Roger Walsh and Charles Grob evaluate Grof’s explorations of the human mind: “He has therefore perhaps seen a vaster panoply of human experience than anyone else in history” (2009, 139). What an extraordinary opportunity for the arts and sciences!
As each new psychology presents itself in the world of ideas, its implications for the arts and science sprout. Using the perinatal part of Grof’s wider cartography of the human mind as a basis for interpreting Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” illustrates one way to using the perinatal level of his theory and to his wider theory as psychedelic methods of intellectual inquiry (Roberts 2013). These point to a still wider range of psychedelic derived ideas from other investigators. If the humanities dare, they can update their idea pool and enrich themselves with a large untapped reservoir of ideas.
A Map of the Human Mind
Grof’s theory portrays four levels of our minds. The shallowest is what most people think of as “psychedelic.” It contains the perceptions and thoughts that psychedelics provoke. The content of the second level is the biography of the person. His or her personal life experiences that may have been repressed can be brought to awareness during low and moderate does of LSD during psychotherapy. Much to his surprise at the time, Grof’s patients in Czechoslovakia dove still deeper into their minds and with the help of psychedelic sessions recalled experiences having to do with their births. In many cases, he was able to confirm these memories even far back into the womb. This chapter focuses on this perinatal level.
A forthcoming 2-volume anthology Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances: Chemical Paths To Spirituality and God (Ellens 2014) will include this analysis of Luther’s hymn and chapters by others who examine psychedelic and other leads from psychoactive substances for religious studies and theology. The Seeking the Sacred set will model how other humanities may enrich themselves with psychedelic and other psychoactive leads too.
Perinatal Elements in Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
This article illustrates the rich set of ideas that come from Grof’s perinatal level by using the four substages of that level to understand Martin Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. In that hymn, the four perinatal stages—basic perinatal matrices (BPM’s)—appear in order, and as is often the case in movies, TV shows, myths, and legends, the third BPM is developed in most detail. Greatly simplified, Grof’s perinatal level has four stages.
BPM I. Early fetal life. For most people, this is a “good womb” experience; although, it may include “bad womb” episodes. For others, especially if the mother is sick or distressed either physically of mentally, it may be predominantly a “bad womb” experience. Memories of the good womb are felt as a relaxed bliss with all cares taken care of, emotional warmth, and all’s-right-with-the-world feelings.
BPM II. When contractions start but the cervix is still closed, feelings of being trapped with no hope of escape occur. The world is seen as hostile, meaningless, threatening, and evil.
BPM III. Unlike BPM II, where there is no hope and nothing one can do except suffer, hope exists. The passage through the birth canal is felt as a cosmic struggle of the forces of good and evil, life and death, fighting, setbacks, and struggling. At the end of BPM III, the baby may experience what seems like death, say by crushing, fire, or other destroying force, but this leads to BPM IV.
BPM IV. Rebirth, release, success, joy, a new life, and celebration are typical feelings of this stage.
Spiritual and religious events, images, emotions, ceremonies, gods and goddesses, spiritual beings, ideas, and theology receive strength and confirmation as they trigger their respective BPM’s, both activating them and drawing energy from them. Easter, of course, is the Christian perinatal observance par excellence.
The many rich connections between religions and the BPM’s are too varied, extensive, and complex to go into here (Grof 1998), but an analysis of Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God starts us on the first steps toward appreciating the richness of Grof’s perinatal ideas for religious studies.
BPM Elements in Luther’s Hymn
Grof’s BPM I—The Good Womb
safe, secure, no worries, relaxed, all needs taken care of
Transition BPM I to BPM II.
trapped in agony, helplessness, hopeless, meaningless
BPM III—Through the Birth Canal,
fighting against terrible odds, seeming to die but being rescued “from without” by magic, an amulet, or phrase, or by a supernatural force. Apparent death turns into rebirth. Leaving an old life for a better new one.
success, rebirth, joy and glory
A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing:
Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, And armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal
Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing, Were not the right man on our side, The man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he. Lord Sabaoth his name. From age to age the same, And he must win the battle.
And though this world with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, We tremble not for him; his rage we can endure. For, lo. his doom is sure: One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, No thanks to them abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours Through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever
As in life, the BPM’s of Mighty Fortress may overlap. For example, “the right man on our side” and “The Spirit and gift are ours” echo BPM I’s sense of safety, while “he must win the battle,” and “to triumph through us” suggest a presentiment of BPM IV and also provide hope, energy, and resistance during the BPM III struggle.
A Psychedelic Wake-up Call for the Humanities
The report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the sorry state of the humanities and social sciences has its perinatal elements too. While the humanities used to occupy the peak of academic status (BPM I), now the humanities are not getting the scholarly respect that AAAS members think they deserve, fewer students are majoring in these disciplines, financial support is waning, departments are shrinking, (BPM II). In my Psychedelic Studies class in the Honors Program at Northern Illinois University (Roberts 2013b), I have students from across the curricular spectrum including the humanities, social sciences, and arts. Psychedelic insights excite them about the nature of the human mind and its fuller development—a fundamental humanistic topic. To pull the AAAS and the humanities out of their BPM II funk, a dose of psychedelic ideas—even experiences— (BPM III) would put old fogy ideas behind them and advance them into the 21st Century (BPM IV).
Perinatal theory is not limited to religion. In 1977 Grof demonstrated that political and military leaders used perinatal imagery to whip up their people into warlike moods. From Alexander the Great to Hitler, perinatal imagery reaches deep into people’s minds by stirring up unconscious memories of their perinatal development. In Hitler, we see the BPM I of an imaginary past golden age of the Teutonic peoples. Loosing WW I, colonies and land lost, and the economic disaster of the depression activate BPM II feelings of constriction and its concomitant desire for more room (Lebensraum), and, of course, the way out of BPM II is the fighting, struggle, and war of BPM III in order to get to the birth of the BPM IV of the glorious 1000-year Reich.
Beside rhetoric, politics, psychology, and history, Grof’s overall four-layer theory and especially its perinatal level enrich other topics in the liberal arts:
- Philosophy: In “Sartre’s Rite of Passage,” Thomas Riedlinger (1982) analyzes Sartre’s mescaline experience as unresolved BPM II, which flavored his philosophy thereafter. A “cardboard world” of meaningless suffering, a sense of being trapped, a “no-exit hell”—these catch BPM II emotions and ideas.
- History: Ryan (2004) spotted perinatal elements in the Gettysburg Address.
- Art criticism: Grof points to H. R. Geiger as a master of BPM II (2013).
- Mythology: after he received an early manuscript of Grof’s Realms, Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, wrote “…I have found so much of my thinking about mythic forms freshly illuminated …” (1972, 258).
- Religious studies and theology: In The Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, Huston Smith recommends Grof’s clinical research for its view for “what the mind is…judged both by quantity of data encompassed and by the explanatory power of the hypotheses that make sense of this data, it is the most formidable evidence the psychedelics have thus far produced.” (1977, 156)
- Cine criticism: Movies, novels, and TV shows frequently express Grof’s wider four-level theory and its perinatal level, often dwelling on scenes that activate perinatal feelings, especially the struggles of BPM III. I’ve found that these ideas shed light on Brainstorm (1986), Snow White (2006) and Pink Floyd: The Wall (2013). Kackar and I analyzed Fight Club: as its title suggests, a very BPM III movie.
Besides Grof’s works, a “Psychedelic Renaissance,” as Sessa’s book calls it (2012), endows the humanities with resources, publications, and ideas that can enrich their understanding of the human mind (Roberts 2013). Is there a more fundamental topic for the liberal arts, sciences, and social sciences than the nature of our minds?
Open-mindedness is one of the highest values in the liberal arts and sciences, and experimental evidence from Johns Hopkins Medical School has shown that under the right conditions psilocybin can—but does not always—increase open-mindedness (MacLean et al 2011). Psilocybin is a psychoactive ingredient in some mushrooms. Are scholars in the arts and sciences open-minded enough to follow this evidence, even to practice what they preach? This article provides a sign post they might follow: Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” takes on deeper psychological meaning when a perinatal light shines on it, and the perinatal level is just one of four levels in Grof’s wider cartography of our minds; more insights come from his full theory. Still more ideas are emerging from the publications along the vast horizon of psychedelic researchers, scientists, clinicians, and scholars (Brown 2013, MAPS 2013, Roberts 2013, Sessa 2012). Experiences beget ideas. What ideas will sprout when scholars of the liberal arts examine and experience the psychedelic seeds of thought?
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Stanislav Grof photo by Eugene Titov, courtesy of Creative Commons license.