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Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas: The Birth of a New Worldview

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The following is excerpted from Pathways to Wholeness: Archetypal Astrology and the Transpersonal Journey, published by Muswell Hill Press. 

Breakthrough in Europe

In the mid-1960s, Stanislav Grof, a young Czechoslovakian psychiatrist working at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague, made some extraordinary discoveries concerning the fundamental structures of the human psyche. Conducting sessions with a wide range of individuals in a program of systematic LSD psychotherapy, Grof and his clients encountered experiences that gradually and then irrevocably challenged the orthodox Freudian model in which he and his colleagues were working.

The experiences that emerged during these sessions suggested a far deeper understanding of the human psyche and the cosmos itself than had been previously imagined in any existing psychological theory. After supervising over 3000 sessions and studying the records of another 2000 from colleagues around the world, Grof eventually introduced a far-reaching new model that accounted for the observations of his clients’ sessions, integrated a number of other psychological theories, and reached into areas of human spirituality described by the great mystical traditions of the world.

Grof’s research, although representing a dramatic breakthrough in Western psychiatry and psychology, is supported by many precedents in non-Western and preindustrial societies. Since the dawn of history, guided non-ordinary states of consciousness have played a central role in the spiritual and ritual life of humanity. Stretching back more than 30,000 years, the shamans of ancient cultures began their healing professions through a spontaneous or induced experience of death and rebirth. In a firsthand way, they explored territories of the psyche that transcend the boundaries of normal individual awareness. Similarly, in the rites of passage, initiates were guided into non-ordinary—or what Grof has termed holotropic (from holos, meaning “wholeness”; and trepein, meaning “moving toward”)— states of consciousness and had a personal experience of higher realms that transcend the physical world.

In the ancient mystery religions of the Mediterranean, neophytes participated in various mind-expanding processes in order to move beyond the limits of individual awareness and experience directly the sacred or numinous dimensions of existence. The celebrated Mother Goddess mysteries of Eleusis, for example, which were held near Athens for almost two thousand years, we are now virtually certain used ergot, a naturally occurring form of LSD.1 Many of the creative and intellectual giants of Western culture, including figures such as Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Euripedes, Sophocles, Plutarch, Pindar, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero, all attest to the life-changing power of their experiences at Eleusis or one of the other mystery sites.

As well as the ritual use of psychedelic substances, many cultures have used methods such as trance dancing, rhythmic drumming, sensory overload and sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, breathing maneuvers, fasting, meditation, and other techniques to enter holotropic states. Preindustrial cultures around the world understood an important fact of human nature that we in the modern West have forgotten—that exploring the psyche can mediate a profound reconnection with the cosmic creative principle, helping people to heal a range of emotional and physical problems, transcend their fear of death, and reach a more integrated level of functioning in everyday life.

Modern consciousness research, such as that conducted by Grof, has found that individuals who undergo these transformative processes automatically develop an interest in spirituality of a universal, non-sectarian, and all-encompassing nature. They also discover within themselves a sense of planetary citizenship, a high importance given to warm human relationships, and the desire to live a more simple and satisfying life in harmony with nature and ecological values.

The considerable time and resources that other cultures devoted to finding effective techniques for exploring the inner terrains of the psyche is in marked contrast to the values in our modern industrial society. The dominant world view in Western civilization is concerned primarily with the external and physical layers of reality. In many ways it denies the existence of the human psyche altogether, and especially of higher spiritual or transpersonal states.

Grof’s research thus provides an unexpected gateway to a deeper knowledge of the long-neglected inner world. As we will see, the systematic exploration of the unconscious in holotropic states can initiate a profound transformation of awareness—a transformation that many now believe is urgently needed if we are to face and successfully overcome the great problems of our time. However, the journey into the heart of the psyche can be an immensely challenging process, exposing individuals to the depths and heights of human emotional experience. A map of the inner terrain, a way of understanding and predicting what might take place during holotropic-exploration sessions, would therefore be of invaluable benefit.

An Unexpected Rosetta Stone

For years, Grof and his colleagues had looked unsuccessfully for some kind of diagnostic system—such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test (MMPI), Shostrom’s Personal Orientation Inventory (POI), the Rorschach Inkblot Test, and others—to predict the experiences of their clients in deep self-exploration. Decades later, when the cultural historian Richard Tarnas discovered and systematically applied what Grof would later call the “Rosetta Stone” of archetypal astrology to this problem, Grof had to ironically concede that the one successful predictive technique turned out to be a system that was even more controversial and beyond the range of conventional science than his research in psychedelic therapy. Despite their deep initial skepticism toward astrology, however, the correlations that he and Tarnas observed were striking and consistent over time. Whether the catalyst was Holotropic Breathwork, a psychoactive substance, or a spontaneous eruption of unconscious contents during a psychospiritual crisis, archetypal astrology provides, in Grof’s words, “the only system that can successfully predict both the content and timing of experiences encountered in non-ordinary states of consciousness in experiential psychotherapy.”2

Given the widespread misunderstanding of and skepticism toward astrology in the modern era, a brief preface is required before we proceed. Although many of the founders of modern science—notably Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei—retained a deep belief in the principles as well as the practice of astrology, and of a higher cosmic intelligence or God, subsequent generations would later discard this understanding as the relic of an older time. Although the astrological vision became deeply discredited in the modern scientific West, the world view underlying it maintained credibility and continued to flourish in the philosophical movements of late Neoplatonism, Idealism, and Romanticism, in a direct lineage from Socrates and Plato.

This situation began to change in the mid-twentieth century, however, with the work of the pioneering psychiatrist C. G. Jung. Jung’s discovery of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, his formulation of synchronicity (“an acausal connecting principle”), and his speculations concerning the anima mundi (world soul) provided a conceptual framework for the mature rebirth of a more psychologically oriented and nuanced form of astrology. Brought to fruition through the writing of figures such as Dane Rudhyar, Robert Hand, and Liz Greene, this new approach drew on the insights of Jungian depth psychology while leaving behind many of the fatalistic dogmas of the old astrological tradition. Hand’s work also set the stage for a much more rigorously self-critical and self-questioning discipline.3

Then Grof’s friendship and collaboration with Tarnas was to initiate another major leap in the field. A highly respected philosopher and psychologist, as well as historian, Tarnas gained international acclaim with his best-selling The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), which went on to become required reading in a number of university courses around the world. He followed this in 2006 with Cosmos and Psyche, in which he presented over five-hundred pages of systematic and compelling evidence to support his groundbreaking theory.

Tarnas begins by introducing the concept of archetypes that has played such an important role in the Western philosophical tradition. For now, we can describe the archetypes simply as primordial patterns of experience, which influence all people and cultures in the form of basic habit patterns, instincts and emotions. In Cosmos and Psyche’s bold hypothesis, Tarnas suggests that the dynamic interplay of these timeless universals that have shaped our history occurs in coincidence with geometric alignments between the planets and the Earth, intelligible through an emerging epistemology and method of analysis which he calls archetypal astrology.

In contrast with traditional astrological belief and practice, the archetypal approach that Tarnas introduces is non-fatalistic and non-deterministic. The archetypes are recognized at all times as being complexly multivalent and multidimensional—taking different forms in different situations and at different times in people’s lives. Each archetypal complex can manifest in a wide range of possible expressions, while still being true to its basic thematic character. Tarnas carefully demonstrates that the methodology he presents is archetypally predictive rather than concretely predictive. Although planetary alignments can illuminate many essential characteristics of an historical epoch or individual life experience, and even suggest basic expected characteristics of an upcoming period, he emphasizes that the specific concrete expression the archetypes will take at any time remains indeterminate—contingent on additional factors such as cultural context, free will, co-creative participation, and perhaps unmeasurables such as karma, grace, and chance.4

It should be acknowledged that many of the fundamental tenets of the emerging archetypal world view concerning the nature of the human psyche and of the universe itself are compatible with the most recent branches of modern science, including quantum-relativistic physics, Pribram’s holographic model of the brain, Sheldrake’s study of morphogenetic fields and morphic resonance in biology, Prigogine’s study of dissipative structures, systems theory, chaos theory, cybernetics and information theory, the anthropic principle in astrophysics, and others.5

Grof also mentions the pioneering attempts of Ken Wilber and the successful accomplishment of Ervin Laszlo in integrating transpersonal psychology into a new comprehensive paradigm.6 I would further note Keiron Le Grice’s work in The Archetypal Cosmos, which draws on the implications of Tarnas’ research and integrates many of the new scientific theories in direct support of an archetypal or holotropic world view.7 Perhaps the most concise way to describe this emerging paradigm in science is the realization that consciousness, rather than being an accidental by-product of neurophysiological and biochemical processes in the brain, is an integral component of the universe itself.8

The most well-known area of Tarnas’ study to most readers has been his exploration of cyclically unfolding archetypal dynamics in human history and culture, deeply informed by the principles of Jungian and transpersonal depth psychology. A less widely known aspect of his inquiry, and the area on which this book concentrates, is based on his research with Grof into holotropic states of consciousness. In 1990, I proposed the term holotropic astrology to describe this facet of Tarnas’ research that is specifically concerned with holotropic states.9

Tarnas refers to astrology as a kind of “archetypal telescope” directed on the psyche, a way of understanding and contextualizing the material that emerges in deep self-exploration. Grof similarly concludes that the role of holotropic and psychedelic states of consciousness in psychology is comparable to that of the microscope in biology and the telescope in astronomy. When responsibly combined, the therapeutic effectiveness of these powerful magnifying processes of the psyche cannot be overstated. During my own three decades of research with workshops, consultations and personal experience, I have come to believe that archetypal astrology and holotropic exploration have the potential to revolutionize humanity’s relationship with its deeper nature and help us to rediscover a more harmonious relationship with each other, the natural world, and the larger cosmos.



1. Wasson, Ruck, and Hoffman, Road to Eleusis.

2. “Cycles and Symbols Conference” (1990), San Francisco, California.

3. See Hand, Horoscope Symbols and Essays on Astrology.

4. Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche. Tarnas suggests that the fundamental component in a cultural or scientific paradigm is its cosmology. The cosmology of a world view refers to the actual physical place, the context within which that world view exists, and, more deeply, to its metaphysical and cosmic dimensions. With Cosmos and Psyche, I believe that the emerging holotropic world view finally has its missing component: an essentially Platonic- Pythagorean universe which is intelligibly ordered by archetypal patterns of meaning and experience, and in which the macrocosm of the solar system mirrors archetypal processes in the microcosm of human life.

In this world view the highest and most treasured capacities of human reason and cognition are ultimately recognized as expressions of the universe’s own intelligence. But, integrating the modern development of an autonomous self, the human being is also recognized as having both freedom and responsibility for consciously and creatively enacting these powerful forces in the most life enhancing forms possible.

5. See Capra, Tao of Physics; Herbert, Mind Science; Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order; Wolf, Taking the Quantum Leap; Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe; Pribram, Languages of the Brain; Sheldrake, A New Science of Life; Prigogine, From Being to Becoming; Gleick, Chaos; Bateson, Mind and Nature; Barrow and Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.

6. Wilber, Atman Project, Spectrum of Consciousness, and Up From Eden; Laszlo, Creative Cosmos, Science and the Akashic Field, and Subtle Connections: Psi, Grof, Jung, and the Quantum Vacuum.

7. Le Grice’s inauguration, with co-editor Rod O’Neal and assistant editor Bill Streett, of the influential journal Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology in 2009 is another encouraging development. This annual journal publishes articles by scholars in the field of archetypal cosmology with solid academic and professional criteria. Some of the new generation of archetypal astrological scholars contributing to this journal include Rod O’Neal, Grant Maxwell, Chad Harris, Sean M. Kelly, Becca Tarnas, Bill Streett, and Clara Lindstrom.

I would also mention the series of illuminating online articles by Bill Streett, the best monthly columns I have seen that integrate Tarnas’ archetypal approach and methodology.

8. See also Grof’s overviews on the convergence of consciousness research with modern science in Beyond the Brain and Healing Our Deepest Wounds, and von Franz’s Number and Time: Reflections Leading Toward a Unification of Depth Psychology and Physics.

9. The first material in this field to be published, that I am aware of, was by Grof in a chapter of his book When the Impossible Happens (2006) entitled “Psyche and Cosmos: What the Planets Can Reveal About Consciousness.” He followed this in 2009 with an article in Archai, Issue 1 (The Birth of a New Discipline) called “Holotropic Research and Archetypal Astrology.”

Matthew Stelzner, a doctoral student of Tarnas and Grof at the California Institute of Integral Studies, is also highly experienced in the practice of archetypal and holotropic astrology, and his podcasts with guests such as Tarnas are a rich source of insight into cultural trends, current events, and famous personalities. See correlationspodcast.blogspot. com as well as his informative lectures on Ustream matthew+stelzner.

Renn Butler”s life long interest in the techniques of self-exploration and transformation began in the 1960s when he was exposed to adults inspired by Jungian depth psychology and Gestalt. He underwent the training as a Holotropic Breathwork™ facilitator with Stan and Christina Grof qualifying in 1989. Pathways to Wholeness is his first book.

All our books are distributed by SUNY Press in North America. Renn’s book can be purchased from:

It is also available from Amazon.com

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