The weekend retreat at the hot springs up in redwood country, mentioned last time, is one I’ve done before. Holotropic Breathwork is the brainchild of Stan Grof, a former researcher into altered consciousness. Using yogic breathing as a starting point, he developed a protocol for encouraging what he calls the holotropic state, which generates dreamlike, spiritual, and transcendent experiences. The participant lies on a mat next to an observer as stirring music plays at high volume for three hours. Breathing rapidly, one begins to feel powerful emotions; screaming or crying may follow. Since the eyes are kept closed, or covered with a mask, visuals and dream sequences arise. Sensations of past lives, contact with spiritual beings, and many other powerful experiences are often reported. This is strong medicine, not for the highly anxious, unstable, or faint of heart.
Before describing some insights I’ve gleaned from this work, let me emphasize that I remain agnostic about the meaning of what one sees or feels in holotropic states. Do images that appear to derive from another time and place indicate veridical past lives? Does the sense of angelic presence indicate actual visitation by angels? Let’s just say I’m not convinced. But I’m amenable to the possibility that information flows through channels not recognized by conventional science. By opening our minds through practices like Holotropic Breathwork, we may increase our sensitivity to such influences. This could happen absent reincarnation and ethereal beings if memory imprints could diffuse through time and space. But even this much is speculative, and I don’t insist upon it. (On the other hand, I believe enough evidence suggests something along these lines that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility.)
With my current outlook, I place minimal emphasis on the visual or narrative content of the holotropic experience. Instead, I try to discern a deeper message. I use what happens to enrich my understanding of the human dilemma.
The last time I went to the hot springs was a year ago. At that time I’d recently been released from the hospital after a major illness that brought me face-to-face with mortality. The Breathwork experience, powered by vast relief, seemed like a celebration of survival, of life’s joyous drive to continue. In fact, organic energies surged so strongly through my system that for ninety minutes or so I was in a state of orgasmic release, my entire body writhing and contracting with wave after wave of erotic pleasure. Needless to say, this felt delightful. It didn’t inform me so much as exhilerate me. I left the weekend as if reborn.
This recent weekend, though a full year later, felt like a continuation on the theme. Once again powerful energies of life flowed through me. But rather than feeling pure sexual ecstasy, I experienced alternating horror and bliss. Visions of personal past griefs and scenes of war and dismemberment brought me to tears. But tableaux of devastation alternated with images of germinating blades of grass, of hatching chicks, of sunlight on verdant fields. The sight of fresh life erased all sorrow and spurred me to giggle with abandon, thrilled by the world’s unstoppable creativity. But then, after a time, the despair again took hold, and then again the joy, and so on. Eventually, the sorrow and celebration existed simultaneously in my mind: sobs and laughter no longer distinguishable.
The theme of delight and torment, alternating and mutually reinforcing, has been a staple of my path for years now. The two come to me as inseparable partners, each feeding the other. But during this weekend I saw deeper. I realized that orgasm and anguish are essentially the same. Sadomasochists have understood this for a long time, of course. But I’m not talking about turning pain into pleasure as a means of entertainment. Instead, it’s a matter of realizing that joy and despair are both echoes of life’s insistent call.
Copulation, pregnancy, birth, growth, and affection are all indicators of expansion. We experience them as potent and positive. Separation, illness, deterioration, decay, and death indicate contraction. We find these equally potent but negative. Yet life demands both to continue. Death feeds new life. This is true materially, as every organism builds itself from the debris of something that lived before. But it is also true in an informational sense. For example, evolution proceeds when a previously successful species begins to falter and disappear.
So agony and ecstasy express equally, though oppositely, life’s imperative to manifest. Creativity yearns for growth but depends on decay and responds strongly to both.
Recognizing this makes it easier for me to accept loss and pain. On one level I experience them as dismaying. But with a wider perspective, I can find symmetry and beauty in my system’s ability to respond to life. I live, therefore I feel. To resist sorrow is to reject half of what moves life forward: contraction. And to reject half is to reject all. Life can’t progress on expansion alone, any more than humans can walk on one leg.
I realize this all sounds abstract. I question whether anyone else will share the relief I find in this perspective. But my adventure in the redwoods seems to have opened my heart a bit, so I feel more able to embrace life in its full expression, to bow before its harrowing demands. I offer these thoughts in hopes that others might use them to find peace in the midst of a suffering, joyous world.Share on Facebook