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Film Review: The Way of the Psychonaut

The Way of the Psychonaut
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Stan Grof

“If I am the father of LSD. Stan Grof is the godfather. Nobody has contributed as much as Stan for the development of my problem child.” 

—Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD

Stanislav Grof is a giant in the field of psychedelics. He has supervised thousands of sessions of LSD-assisted psychotherapy and mapped out new terrain in the human unconscious. Thus, he became the intellectual successor to the likes of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. When LSD was banned, Stan and his wife Christina developed holotropic breathwork. It is a powerful method of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. Psychedelic medicine would not be where it is today without Grof’s groundbreaking work. So a new documentary on his life and work is a welcome addition to the cultural landscape of the psychedelic renaissance.

The Way of the Psychonaut

The new film, The Way of the Psychonaut, is named after Grof’s two-volume encyclopedia on non-ordinary states of consciousness. The director is Susan Hess Logeais, a filmmaker who uses her own journey of working with non-ordinary states. Logeais illustrates and brings alive the kinds of experiences that Grof explored throughout his career. Of course, given the deeply intimate nature of the psychological experiences uncovered by Grof, this personal approach is a wonderfully appropriate way to tackle this terrain.

Personal and Transpersonal Psychology

Along with the likes of Abraham Maslow, Stan Grof was a founder of the field of transpersonal psychology. Accordingly, the film explores many phenomena that Grof has charted in his work. However, it chooses to focus more on psychological material coming from the individual’s personal history than on the transpersonal aspects of altered states. If your interest is in experiences of past lives or similarly peculiar phenomena, you’ll find comparatively little of this material covered here, because the film’s focus is largely on Grof’s monumentally important work relating to the psychological importance of the birth process.

The Experience of Birth

Grof supervised several thousand LSD sessions with patients. He repeatedly found that people undergoing these experiences would engage with psychological material that seemed to reflect four phases of the birth process, which he describes these as union with the mother, contractions, passage through the birth canal, and finally, independent existence outside the womb. A highlight of the film is the way it depicts these four states using interpretive dancers. This is a highly approached modality to illustrate experiences that are typically deeply somatic.

The Man Himself

A host of luminaries make appearances in the film. These commentaries illustrate Grof’s considerable influence in the fields of psychology and spirituality in the 20th century for the viewer. We hear, from contemporary spiritual figures like Jack Kornfield and Fritjof Capra, just how important an intellectual figure Grof is. Beyond this, however, is something one is less likely to get by just consuming his many books: a feel for the man himself. The director couples the interviews with the testimonials of his many friends and colleagues. In this way, the film paints a portrait of a truly wonderful man whose work has benefited countless lives.

A Talented Healer

While scholar-in-residence at the Esalen institute, Grof ran sessions working with altered states of consciousness. Of course, he inevitably found himself in some tricky situations. From soothing people and uncovering profound rage, to helping people work through psychotic episodes, Grof clearly had to have a unique gift for understanding how to navigate the choppy waters of what he called spiritual emergence. Another relevant term, also coined by Grof, is “holotropic,” meaning “moving towards wholeness.” This much is clear from Grof’s written work: he has an incredibly deep understanding of the natural healing capacity of the mind. From hearing these personal stories of the man himself, operating in his field, It is clear this is no mere intellectual knowledge. Grof has embodied this spirit so deeply as to become a powerful instrument of healing himself.

Where to Begin?

Stan Grof has been an incredibly prolific writer, contributing vast amounts to our understanding. Such a body of work can be a daunting prospect for the newcomer. However, once hooked on Grof’s work, it is a joyous. For those of you who wish not only to learn about the work of one of the giants in the field of psychedelics but also get a glimpse into the man himself, you will not be disappointed by this new documentary.

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