This article/story was originally published in the January 2014 edition of the Inner Door: A Publication of the Association for Holotropic Breathwork™ International.
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Moving Towards Wholeness: A Personal Story of Integration
“Once you learn how to die, you may then be able to fully live” (Reader, 1994, p. 12).
The room became expansive as the doctor yelled, “Don’t fall asleep, just keep breathing, and stay awake!” The pain was unbearable, and my body felt like it was submerged in a pool of ice water due to the lack of blood circulating through my body. I heard the nurse yell to a doctor across the room, “I can’t get a pulse; the veins in his upper body are collapsing!” I could not stay awake much longer. The idea of falling asleep felt very appealing, and there was a strange beauty to the idea. I knew I was dying and accepted it as my destiny. It did not feel like dying at all; it felt more like a transitory process into another life. I knew that my physical body would cease to exist, but the inward journey I was about to take would propel me back to the stars. I finally gave in and drifted out of consciousness to embark on a journey “home,” but instead I woke up in the intensive care unit of St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
That was the night of New Year’s Eve, 2003/2004, and when I woke, I saw my family standing around me. I could feel the intravenous needles penetrating the veins in my arms and another tube that had been placed inside my nose. One of my family members told me that I had ruptured my spleen from my snowboarding accident. The doctor told me I was about five to ten minutes from being pronounced “dead on arrival.” I did not just rupture my spleen; according to the doctor, it “blew up” and was the “worst spleen” he had ever seen. No wonder I had heard a loud “pop” when I hit the ground. I lost about five to six pints of blood internally, had my spleen removed, and a massive blood transfusion. I am thankful to this day that the doctors and everyone else involved acted quickly to save my life. I am blessed with a second life to live. Sixteen would have been too young to die.
The near-death experience (NDE) might be one of the most interesting human phenomena to investigate. This experience produces profound changes that modern science has yet to figure out. Some say that it is purely physiological, while others suggest that the NDE can provide great insight about the nature of human consciousness. It is hard to ignore the ineffable and mystical experiences that the person who has undergone a near-death experience brings back to share. Modern-day technological societies deem the NDE experience as physiological reflexes of the brain and body and/or pathological, while other cultures that still preserve/maintain aspects of their primitive roots/culture see it as a spiritual experience and honor the person who has gone through this powerful transformation.
Having experienced this interesting phenomenon, I am not quite sure what the NDE is. I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to figure it out. Over the past few years, I have stopped taking the role of the researcher and asking how and why the NDE phenomenon happens. My main concern has shifted – what do I do with it, and how do I integrate it back into my life? How can I create wholeness in my life from this experience? These questions are much more important to me than seeking the ultimate truth or the mystical aspects of the experience.
My NDE sparked an interest in exploring the role of human consciousness. I became obsessed with reading books about non-ordinary states of consciousness, as I tried to find some grounding or a framework for my experience. This exploration and interest in human consciousness and non-ordinary states prompted me to study transpersonal psychology at Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont. During my second semester, I was fortunate enough to take a one-credit weekend Holotropic Breathwork workshop. I saw the description and read the name Stanislav Grof and immediately told myself I had to sign up. I was a fan of Grof: reading one of his books gave me reason enough to pursue my degree in transpersonal psychology.
The weekend workshop took place in southern Vermont, a small town called Pawlet. There, I was introduced to Lenny and Elizabeth Gibson, who were the workshop facilitators and instructors for the course. When I arrived for the weekend, I became very skeptical of the technique. I didn’t think breathing could produce profound changes in consciousness and provide an extraordinary experience. I spent the night listening to Lenny give a lecture about the origins of Holotropic Breathwork and heard some of the regularly attending (or ‘regular participants’) participants sharing their experiences from previous breathwork sessions. I still couldn’t buy into the hype that breathing could produce powerful extraordinary experiences. After all, I had danced with death, been to the edge and back, and had a few very far-out psychedelic experiences; there was no way that breathing could produce something as intense. I was totally wrong.
My first breathwork experience was by far one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had, besides my NDE. This session involved my birth experience and my experience with dying. It was a combination and reliving of every traumatic, far-out experience I had had in my life till that point. During my experience, I relived my NDE, where I was introduced to “entities” who told me that I would bring my life experiences and my NDE back to teach to my community. I was left dazed and confused about what that meant and the responsibility of that message gave me an uneasy feeling. I didn’t like the idea because, even though I like to talk about my NDE, I don’t at the same time, because of the dismissive responses I am likely to get.
How does one integrate such extraordinary experiences back into everyday life? What does it mean to integrate such experiences or move them forward? Our lives are often so hectic that it seems impossible to get anything done at times. If we are constantly moving around, how can we begin to process our inner experiences? These questions accumulated over the next two to three years after my first breathwork session. The experience was so powerful and life-changing that I decided to keep attending workshops and eventually did my internship for school as a 5-day Holotropic Breathwork workshop. Breathwork has been so important to me because of the possibilities it offers of integration. Previously, I had been unable to integrate my psychedelic experiences and NDE; they left me floating around space with no grounding – a lost cosmic explorer, if you will. Breathwork helped me come back to my body and begin to embrace the wisdom and knowledge that came from all my previous extraordinary experiences. This has really taught me the meaning of creating wholeness in my life.
During senior year at Burlington College, students are asked to create a “degree project,” which is usually an accumulation of the work one has pursued as an undergraduate. I thought about creating a three-credit course, as I remembered the message about teaching from my first breathwork experience. My academic advisor, knowing that Holotropic Breathwork had been a huge part of my studies at Burlington College, became very excited and supportive of the idea, and we decided to pitch the idea to the board. With the help of the Gibsons, I drafted a class syllabus, course description, and catalogue description to present to the board. The course proposal was accepted, and the class was offered during the Fall 2013 semester at Burlington College.
The course, “Stanislav Grof’s Psychology of Extraordinary Experiences” is an integration of my extraordinary life experiences and my experiences with Holotropic Breathwork. The course is based around an experiential learning component which includes a weekend Holotropic Breathwork retreat. To give the course grounding and a theoretical framework, the class explores the theories and research of Grof. Other topics that are explored in the course are rites of passage, shamanism, ancient wisdom traditions, depth psychology, and transpersonal psychology.
“Psychology of Extraordinary Experiences” represents the culmination of topics and interests of my undergraduate studies at Burlington College. The process of crafting the class has allowed me to integrate my studies and dig deeper into my understanding of the function of holotropic experiences. I have had a few unique independent study opportunities over the years such as traveling to Hawaii to study plant medicine, ethnobotany, and shamanism with ethnobotanist, Kathleen Harrison. I have also studied Holotropic Breathwork with the Gibsons, who have learned from Grof, and I most recently traveled to Oakland, California to attend the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference hosted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and 2013 Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference in New York City. At both conferences, I learned from many of the professionals who are conducting research about their work in consciousness studies, holotropic states of consciousness, and the potential that psychedelics hold for healing many psychological disorders. The class and related material have become my method of integrating and “giving back” these unique opportunities that I was able to pursue as an undergraduate.
What are the benefits and possible potentials of working with extraordinary experiences, and how can these types of experience shape our lives? How can one work with these experiences to gain a better understanding of the concept of life and death instead of dismissing them as mechanical or biological processes of the brain and body? How can sensible actions create responsibility and respect when it comes to dealing with holotropic or non-ordinary states of consciousness in order to reduce the risk of psychological or physical harm? Lastly, what are the future implications and applications of working with extraordinary experiences, and is it possible that such experiences can create cultural/societal change and healing in the world? The class and this paper are my attempts to answer these questions.
The course was also created to help educate and bring awareness to the importance that extraordinary experiences hold for human beings on individual, cultural, and universal levels. The implications of utilizing and understanding such experiences hold the potential for reshaping and rethinking current dilemmas that people face in an ever-changing world. Learning how to integrate experiences rather than denying or dismissing them is necessary for personal, social, and cultural change. When integration is possible, extraordinary experiences can serve as catalysts for healing, creativity, and imagination -- as they have throughout human history.
This Degree Project has been an important part of my creative and integrative process, in which I have learned how to integrate and work with my experiences rather than suppressing the troubling aspects. It has taught me the importance of creating a safe container. Working with these types of experiences with responsibility and respect can create wholeness in a person’s life. Miraculous transformation can take place if we accept the decisions that we have made in our lives.
During what I thought was the last moment of being alive, I realized I had to surrender and accept my life, my decisions, and my regrets. In those last moments, I learned the importance of letting go. Understanding this concept is something that can benefit all people. August Reader says, “Once you learn how to die, you may then be able to fully live” (Reader, 1994, p. 12).
Reader, August. (1994). The internal mystery plays: The role and physiology of the visual system in contemplative practices. ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation. 17(1), 3-13