top of page
  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

To Freud and Beyond—A New Map Needed

As a young man, Dr. Stanislav Grof wanted to be an animator, yet he abandoned this dream when he read and was riveted by Freud's (1933) New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, which lead Grof to become a psychiatrist instead. Grof loved Freudian theory, but when it came to actually helping people, he found that psychoanalysis was not only too long and too expensive, but that the results were not very impressive. In the mid-1950s, Grof was reflecting on his decision, regretting that he had not become an animator, when he got the chance to participate in a study with the drug LSD that Albert Hofmann and Sandoz Pharmaceuticals had developed and was testing. This powerful experience in November 1956 was a turning point in Grof’s life and career and, his work from that point onwards has involved nonordinary states of consciousness and other related fields of interest (Grof, 2001).

Grof’s work with psychedelics yielded many interesting insights that led him, during the 1960s, to create a new expanded cartography of the psyche (Grof, 1975). Grof's Freudian training only took him so far—while some of the experiences that people had during psychedelic sessions reflected biographical material from childhood, there were many other experiences that did not correspond to the Freudian personal unconscious. Some subjects had experiences that seemed to be archetypal in nature, and were not consciously known to the person and thus seemed to reflect Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious. Still others had non-human experiences like becoming an eagle or a granite mountain, where they came away with insights that later were confirmed by research. Also, a significant number of people seemed to experience their own birth.

Otto Rank (1924/1993) had previously written about the birth experience in his book The Trauma of Birth, which caused Rank's ousting by Freud, much as Jung’s (1912/1976) work Symbols of Transformation (Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido), recently republished in 2001 as Psychology of the Unconscious, had caused Jung's parting with Freud earlier. Indeed when Freud read Rank’s book, Freud was severely shaken for several months because he felt that Rank’s discovery was so important that it might eventually prove more important than Freud's own work. Freud had earlier suggested that the trauma of birth might indeed be the blueprint for all future anxiety, and Rank ran with this idea. Indeed Freud referred to Rank’s book as “the most important progress since the discovery of psychoanalysis” (Grof, 1995, pp. 438-439).

Rank believed that all human mental life has its origin in the anxiety and repression of the birth experience, and that later traumatic events derive their power from this trauma. He saw that in childhood and later life we are constantly trying to master this trauma and that the birth trauma plays an important role in religion, art, and history. Rank also felt the birth trauma must be relived to effectively treat neurosis (Grof, 2004). Jung's (1912/1976) Symbols of Transformation also contains material on the birth of the hero and death and rebirth motifs. These books that caused both Jung and Rank to split with Freud contained birth related motifs, proving birth to be a touchy subject!

Campbell (1988) in The Power of Myth describes Rank’s book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909/1970) in relation to our own spiritual and psychological journeys and remarks that in that book, Rank:

declares that everyone is a hero in birth, where he undergoes a tremendous psychological as well as physical transformation from the condition of a little water creature living in a ream of amniotic fluid into an air-breathing mammal which will ultimately be standing. That’s an enormous transformation, and had it been consciously undertaken, it would have been indeed, a heroic act. (pp. 124-125)

For Rank the experience of paradise lost and the difference between the pre and post womb experience, was the trauma of birth, not the actual physical birth process itself. In other words, Rank felt that the trauma was in being expelled from the womb and being born, not the actual trauma that occurred as a result of the baby going through the rigors of labor. Rank felt that violence and weapon-making reflected a desire to get back into the womb, rather than focusing on the aggression that Grof associates with the passage through the birth canal. (Grof, personal communication, January 30, 2005). Grof's work elaborates and furthers Rank's work in that it concentrates on and articulates the importance of the actual physical stages of the birth process, which Rank did not consider.

Grof’s expanded cartography of the psyche not only incorporated the Freudian personal unconscious, and the Jungian collective unconscious, but also the “Rankian level” that mirrored the birth process which Grof termed the perinatal level, meaning “around birth.” This expanded cartography can be pictured as an hourglass with the personal unconscious at the bottom, the perinatal level at the meeting point of the two glasses and the collective/transpersonal unconscious, or archetypal level above, which includes but is not limited to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious, and is comprised of ancestral, racial, collective and phylogenetic memories, karmic experiences, and archetypal dynamics [see pop up chart with the different things that were experienced transpersonal] (Grof 2000a; Grof and Tarnas, 2002, seminar)


bottom of page