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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Coexes and Complexes

Additionally, in his research, Grof found that people would have experiences that had a similar character or nature and seemed to be variations on a theme. These emotionally relevant memories are stored in the form of complex dynamic constellations that he calls a “COEX system,” (or COEX) which is short for a “system of condensed experience.” These are emotionally charged memories from different periods of our lives that share in common a certain quality of emotion or physical sensation, a basic theme which permeates all layers, with the individual experiences reflecting variations on the theme (Grof, 2000a, p. 22). For example, a person might experience several different events of their personal biography that involved, for example, being strangled by an older sibling, or perhaps choking on food, or some object at another time. A person might also experience having the umbilical cord wrapped around their neck during birth, and in a nonordinary state, may have experienced being hung in a prison, lynched, or strangled by someone (experiences that the person had never personally experienced). All of these would be then part of a “choking COEX.”

Originally the COEXes only involved personal biographical information, but as Grof’s work progressed, the roots of the COEXes went much deeper and included perinatal and transpersonal phenomena as well. The idea of the COEX is very similar to Jung’s notion of a complex, but not identical—there are some significant differences as well. First of all, COEXes include the perinatal which is completely missing from Jung’s notion of complexes. Also, with complexes, the core of the complex is an archetype. With a COEX, the core can be a past life experience or a physical experience such as a part of the birth process, with the oldest event forging a prototypical pattern to which later memories cluster (Grof, 1975).

COEXes work in two ways, they shape perceptions of reality and also influence present behavior, like a magnet attracting similar experiences, which resemble the core experience of the COEX. COEXes also sometimes have a typical cluster of somatic symptoms. By experiencing a COEX in a nonordinary state, one can get insight into seemingly irrational elements in symptoms and behavior, and reliving them can change one’s clinical condition as well. In Realms of The Human Unconscious, Grof (1975) gives several examples. Like complexes, COEXes function relatively autonomously and have a repetitive quality to them, a kind of repetition compulsion if you will. Excessive emotional charges are attached to the COEXes, which seem to be the summation of the emotions of all of the linked experiences and by reliving them, the accumulated energy can be discharged, allowing the COEX to dissipate.

The perinatal level is not only central in the cartography, as the point where personal meets transpersonal, but perinatal phenomena with their emphasis on birth and death represent a critical interface between these realms as well. Grof explains that experiences of death and rebirth allows the individual to philosophically disidentify exclusively with the body and the ego (Grof, 1985, p, 191). The birth process is so rich and complex in physical and emotional sensations and material that it contains in prototypical form elementary themes of most conceivable COEX systems, and so the “COEX constellations are superimposed over and anchored in a particular aspect of the trauma of birth” (Grof, 2000a, p. 23).

The process of physical birth can be separated into three distinct stages along with the condition prior to birth. Grof calls these stages Basic Perinatal Matrices. The COEX systems link to the Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs), which function as organizing principles for materials from other levels of the unconscious. I will briefly describe and characterize each stage, and then later we will go into a more in-depth and playful portrayal of them when exploring my game, Monomythopoly.

BPM I is the intrauterine environment before the contractions start—the primal union with the mother. BPM II represents the condition once the contractions have begun and before the cervix has opened—cosmic engulfment and no exit or hell. BPM III represents the opening of the cervix and the propulsion through the birth canal—the death-rebirth struggle, while BPM IV represents the emergence of the child from the mother—the death-rebirth experience. (Grof, 2000a) Since the perinatal matrices function as organizing principles for materials from other levels (Grof, 1975, p. 101). They are like the archetypal core, if you will, of a complex, but they may aggregate different complexes as well. They are strange attractors of the psyche.

Grof’s model is elegant and explains many things with which Freudian psychology struggled and found difficult to explain. Grof also relates the perinatal matrices to different spiritual and biological experiences as well as psychopathological syndromes, and Freudian erogenous zones. Grof’s descriptions and explanations are clear and sensible and do not suffer the convoluted reasoning psychoanalysis uses to explain the some of these things. Grof’s BPMs have their own deep order which he says “can best be described as ‘experiential logic.'" Grof emphasizes that “the connections between the experiences characteristic for various stages of birth and the concomitant symbolic themes are not based on external similarity, but on the fact that they share the same emotional feelings and physical sensations” (Grof, 1998a, p. 140).

Grof relates that when he was mapping the experiential territories from his LSD research:

I believed I was creating a new cartography of the psyche. However, when I completed a map of consciousness that included the different types and levels of experiences . . . it dawned on me that it was new only from the point of view of Western academic psychiatry. It became clear that I had rediscovered what Aldus Huxley called “perennial philosophy,” an understanding of the universe and of existence that has emerged with some minor variations again and again in different countries and historical periods. Similar maps have existed in various cultures for centuries or even millennia. The different systems of yoga, Buddhist teachings, the Tibetan Vajrayana, Kashmir Shaivism, Taoism, Sufism, Kabballah, and Christian mysticism are just a few examples. (Grof & Grof, 1990, pp. 24-25)

Nothing in Grof’s background that would have sparked this. He did not receive any religious training as a child and his medical education took place against the backdrop of Marxism in Czechoslovakia, where even Freud was basically forbidden.

Grof’s work represents a synthesis and integration of many different schools of depth psychology (Grof, 2004). From his work with holotropic, nonordinary states of consciousness (NOSOCs) Grof postulates that a new Psychology of the Future (2000a) is needed to reflect this expanded cartography and also to include the many other insights gained from the work with these states. This new Psychology of the Future (Grof, 2000a) would require changes in the following categories: the nature and architecture of emotional and psychosomatic disorder; effective therapeutic mechanisms; strategies of psychotherapy and self exploration; the role of spirituality in human life; and our view of the nature of reality: psyche, cosmos, and consciousness.

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