to the infinite
breathwork and the integral vision
by martin boroson,
work of stan grof applied to the
psychology of ken wilber
how to create an effective plan for personal growth
the last four decades, the west has seen a flowering of new forms of
therapy, new spiritual paths, and the unprecedented availability of
eastern spiritual traditions. but with so many products in the supermarket
of transformation, how do we find the product we need, when we need
it? many people have spent years - and a small fortune - in some form
of therapy or spiritual practice that was not well-tailored to their
needs. finding the appropriate therapy is made even more difficult by
the outright disagreement amongst the various schools of psychology
and spiritual paths about technique, values, and even about the nature
of reality itself.
considered by some to be the "einstein of consciousness,"
has carefully developed a theory that gives coherence to this problem.
it is a blueprint for a "total" path of self-exploration,
a vision that he calls "integral." marshaling considerable
evidence, he suggests that consciousness is arranged as a spectrum,
encompassing matter, life, mind, soul, and spirit. in modern times,
each of these levels has been the concern of a different branch of knowledge:
physicists look at matter; biologists look at life; psychologists look
at mind; and mystics have focused on soul and spirit. unfortunately,
each discipline tends to ignore or downplay the importance of the others.
a truly holistic or integral path would encompass all levels of the
spectrum, acknowledging that we are composed of all of these dimensions.
wilber suggests a "plan" for therapy or self-exploration that
would address each level:wilber suggests a "plan" for therapy
or self-exploration that would address each level:
a practice (or practices) from each of those levels, and engage whole-heartedly
in all of those practices. for the physical level, you might include
physical yoga, weight lifting, vitamins, nutrition, jogging, etc.
for the emotional/body level, you might try tantric sexuality, therapy
that helps you contact the feeling side of your being, bioenergetics,
etc. for the mental level, cognitive therapy, narrative therapy, talking
therapy, psycho-dynamic therapy, etc . for the soul level,
contemplative meditation, deity yoga, subtle contemplation, centering
prayer, and so on. and for the spirit level, the more non-dual practices,
such as zen, dzogchen, advaita vedanta, kashmir shaivism, formless
christian mysticism, and so on.
hesitate to give that list, because, as you know, there are literally
thousands of wonderful practices for all of those levels, and i shudder
at excluding any of them. but please just focus on the general idea:
take one or more practices from each of the levels of your own being
- matter to body to mind to soul to spirit - and exercise all of them
to the best of your ability, individually and collectively. (2)
this is a
noble path, a truly royal road, and one that gives a radically new and
expansive way for individuals to develop their potential. this spectrum
idea, wilber suggests, can also be used by physicians and therapists
to diagnose patients - to ascertain where in the spectrum the patient's
illness originates, and then create an appropriate treatment plan. (3)
but wilber's approach, although typically thorough, probably strikes
most people as an impossible challenge. imagine coming home from a difficult
day at work, after a long commute, and then doing the chores, spending
quality-time with the kids, and then beginning a regimen of jogging,
tai chi, psychotherapy, chanting, and meditation (not to mention community
service and political activism). it is a great theory, but hard to imagine
in daily life. however the work of another leading light of transpersonal
studies, stanislav grof, may provide a more efficient and practical
solution, embracing the entire spectrum in one path.
grof, a czech psychiatrist, is one of the pioneers of clinical consciousness
research, and has been cited by wilber as "arguably the world's
greatest living psychologist." (4) with christina grof, he
developed a technique called holotropic breathwork, in which clients
gain access to a non-ordinary state of consciousness through deep, fast
breathing. this process is strengthened by evocative music, and is supported
by a considerable degree of preparation and personal attention. clients
lie on a mattress and close their eyes, but are free to move their bodies,
or cry, scream, sing, chant, shout, move, spit up, meditate, etc., as
the inner experience demands.
this state of consciousness, clients can remember, discover and explore
any level of the spectrum of consciousness. they can experience aspects
of their own birth, repressed or unfinished trauma ( e.g.,
childhood abuse, car accidents), bioenergetic release, unconscious family
dynamics, intuitive wisdom, psychic awareness, shamanic journeys, past
lives, deities, angels, and formless mystical consciousness. in addition,
each of these experiences is normally carried into consciousness by
a particular form of practice (one of the "thousands
of wonderful practices"), helping the client to explore it in the
most appropriate way. holotropic means moving toward wholeness
, and grof believes that each holotropic experience moves the individual
to the next appropriate step on his or her journey toward wholeness.
can now consider holotropic breathwork in three ways - as diagnosis,
healing, and prescription - each illustrating its benefits as an integral
or full-spectrum path.
breathwork selects the level of the spectrum at which a person's effort
is most effective.
we enter a holotropic state with an open mind and no agenda, the psyche
seems to "select" the experience that is most charged or "ripe"
at that time. grof calls this the "radar function." the experience
that emerges could not have been predicted or planned, but it invariably
turns out to be highly relevant to the participant's growth. it is as
if we open ourselves completely to discovering what is really going
on at the deepest levels of our being at that time, and we allow that
experience to evolve and teach us. in other words, the holotropic
session brings an individual directly to the cutting-edge of his or
her personal evolution. from wilber's point-of-view, we could
say that holotropic breathwork determines the level of the spectrum
that is most efficient for present growth. the radar function is like
a highly sophisticated diagnostic tool that instantly pinpoints the
problem or potential that is most charged emotionally and most significant.
like a form of internal triage, holotropic breathwork sorts out what
is the most urgent. some examples:
person believes that he needs to express anger toward his mother,
and has been talking about this for years in therapy. but during his
holotropic session, he re-experiences a car accident he had many years
ago. revisiting the moment of impact, the sudden fright, the need
to scream, and the way he froze in terror, he is able to release his
scream from a frozen state. this unlocks his anger.
person feels blocked in her practice of meditation, is starting to
despair, and may give up practice altogether. during her holotropic
session, she re-experiences a moment of her birth when the passage
was blocked, and she went into fetal distress. she releases this trauma
at a physical and emotional level, and then finds that her concentration
and ability to sit still in her meditative practice has improved.
person who has taken drugs recreationally is being overwhelmed by
mystical images, and is desperately trying to avoid a psychiatric
admission. during his holotropic session, he re-experiences a near-death
experience in childhood in which he "left" his body. working
through this trauma emotionally and physically helps to "ground"
him back in his body.
person who has been in therapy for many years, working on issues of
sexual abuse, feels locked in a pattern of blame. in her holotropic
session, she encounters an angel who opens her heart. she is overwhelmed
with compassion and is able to forgive her abuser.
these cases, intensive work at the wrong level of the spectrum would
be inefficient, if not actually counterproductive. it would be far simpler
to invite the psyche to choose the appropriate level for the next step.
breathwork selects the form of practice that is most appropriate to
an individual's present needs.
form of therapy or spiritual path has its list of do's and don'ts, and
its own prescribed method for treatment or spiritual progression. in
meditation, you sit absolutely still, and in trance-dancing, you move
until you're ecstatic. in bioenergetic therapy, you express your anger,
and in kundalini yoga, you direct this energy internally. but holotropic
breathwork is extraordinarily method-free. clients are simply encouraged
to allow whatever is emerging as they breathe deeper and faster. they
are only "required" to keep their eyes closed, so that the
experience is not projected onto others, and to stay on their mattress,
so that they can be kept safe. there is no time limit, no noise limit,
no rules of posture or diet, no institutional hierarchy, no guru, no
sacred text, and no dress code. if the inner experience wills it, clients
can scream, cry, chant, pray, regress to infancy, speak in tongues,
meditate, move into yoga postures, leave their body, enter their body,
punch a pillow, shake, sweat, gyrate - the list is endless. an inner
healing mechanism is allowed to do whatever is necessary for healing
and transformation of the individual, dictating the actual form of practice
or therapy, without imposition of anyone's academic framework, cultural
background, or religious belief. the holotropic breathwork session provides
a physical and emotional space in which the deepest dimensions of our
being are given encouragement to work their magic. the actual form and
method of transformation is chosen by the emerging experience. we could
say that spirit itself chooses the form and method of its evolution.
breathwork directs a client to forms of self-exploration that will
be most effective outside of the holotropic experience.
breathwork provides a prescription for other forms of healing. in this
sense, it is like an all-embracing referral agency. if you are confused
about what therapy or spiritual practice to pursue, simply gain access
to a deep, non-ordinary state of consciousness, and see what emerges
naturally. one client found herself vacillating between a commitment
to t'ai chi , hatha yoga or zen meditation. but
after a series of holotropic sessions in which her body spontaneously
went into yoga postures, each accompanied by physical healing and spiritual
insight, her path was clear. she committed herself to a formal practice
of hatha yoga . another person found that in spite of his intense
spiritual quest, his holotropic sessions focused on a lonely part of
his childhood. this was an important "prescription" to do
some inner child work, or supportive psychotherapy, outside of the sessions.
in this sense, holotropic breathwork is not simply one of the "thousands
of wonderful paths", but is a meta-path, a post-modern clearing
house for everything from biofeedback and psychoanalysis, to alcoholics
anonymous and past-life regression, to sufi dancing and kriya yoga.
these additional therapies can augment the practice of holotropic breathwork,
until, perhaps, the inner dynamic shifts and a different form of practice
a big experience
acknowledges the importance of working through all levels of consciousness.
from extensive clinical observation, he discovered an extraordinary
phenomenon that is consistent with wilber's concept of the spectrum.
grof noticed that an individual's issues are grouped along certain themes.
there are common patterns linking one's emotional issues, physical problems,
birth dynamics, and profound universal spiritual questions. grof calls
these threads or chains "systems of condensed experience,"
or coexs for short.
is the way a coex might emerge in a series of holotropic breathwork
has suffered most of her life from persistent throat infections. emotionally,
she feels inhibited from expressing herself. during her first holotropic
breathwork session, she remembers a music teacher from elementary
school who viciously told her that she "couldn't sing a note."
in another session a childhood incident emerges in which her brother
tried to strangle her. in re-experiencing this, she screams and screams
- releasing long-held muscular tension in her throat. as her process
deepens in subsequent sessions, she experiences a moment of her birth
when the umbilical cord was around her neck, and she realizes that
at a deep, unconscious level, she has always confused the drive to
emerge and be free with a life-threatening, choking sensation. when
her process deepens to the transpersonal level, she re-lives a past-life
as a man be-headed for his religious convictions. and then one day,
she has a shift on an entirely symbolic level. she experiences herself
as a swan, singing as it dies. for the first time in her life, she
has an image of singing while dying, rather than singing
or dying. in this session she feels her voice restored to
her, and her fear of death is diminished. having released so much
fear and tension in her throat through this process, she now rarely
gets a throat infection.
to grof, coexs are finally resolved when they have been addressed at
all levels.(5) this embracing vision offers hope to those die-hard
seekers who have been through encounter groups and re-birthing, psychoanalysis
and magic mushrooms, but have found that the same old problems keep
reappearing. to those many weary souls, holotropic breathwork offers
the possibility that other dimensions of the psyche, and other forms
of release, when accessed, will do the trick. the most transformative
experience may have been right there all along, awaiting only the humility
of the ego, the freedom from method, and the openness and safety of
spectacularly, in holotropic breathwork, we can have experiences that
touch on several levels of the spectrum at once, or even embrace the
entire spectrum. it is common for individuals to have a profound spiritual
realization at the same time as a major physical release. in this simultaneous
experience, we also become aware that all levels of being are deeply
interwoven. long before the end of our journey, before we have solved
all our problems or united with the infinite divine, we experience an
ever-deepening awareness - in the fabric of our being and the fibers
of our body - of the seamlessness of creation.
whole spectrum embraced
wilber has been credited with unifying freud and the buddha, creating
an integral vision that spans the past and future of consciousness,
and more. and holotropic breathwork, free to meander everywhere and
anywhere across this spectrum, brings us directly to the cutting edge
of our evolution. it requires only that we lean toward the truth that
is emerging now and here, in the deepest and farthest reaches of the
present moment. with unprecedented openness - in theory and method -
it embraces all the ancient forms of worship and all the modern means
of personal growth, and even holds space for those paths yet to be invented.
through it, we can gain access to the entire spectrum of consciousness,
to all the magnificent dimensions of being, and we can travel along
any or all of wonderful therapies and paths, aiming always, steadfastly,
at the one, integral goal.
"radar to the infinite"
© martin boroson, 1998
a truly integral path, he maintains, would also include the inner ("interior")
and the outer ("exterior") of everything, as well as the cultural
or social aspect of each level. following his lead in the citation,
i am simplifying his work here.
wilber, k., "a ticket to athens", interview in pathways:
a magazine of psychological and spiritual transformation, 1997
wilber, k. et. al., transformations of consciousness. boston: shambhala.
wilber, k., the eye of the spirit. boston: shambhala, 1997, p.165.
in grof's cartography, these are the sensory, personal unconscious,
perinatal, and the transpersonal.
to the infinite originally published in the inner door, 10 (4) 5-6,
november 1998. reprinted in taylor, k. [ed], exploring holotropic breathwork,
selected articles from a decade of the inner door, handford mead, 2003,
boroson is the author of the interfaith creation story, becoming
me, and the one-moment master. he can be reached at www.martinboroson.info.