Each year when you ask for donations, I get a sinking feeling that my lifeline to truth and honesty is in danger of disappearing. I pray that day will never come.
I am one of the many prisoners whose spirit is lifted each month when the guard kicks The Sun under my cell door. I thank every donor whose generosity helps keep this magazine alive.
I am a guidance counselor and coordinator of gifted-and-talented services at a small public elementary school. Our fifth-grade students, who are learning about nature’s water cycle, will be reading Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Social Life of Water” [September 2009]. Supplementing our science lessons with poetry helps to integrate the curriculum by teaching writing with other subjects. One of my gifted students recently wanted to know why he had to write well when describing a classroom science station, since it wasn’t about composition but about condensation. Perhaps Hoagland’s poem will help him see that “no water is lonely water.”
Angela Winter’s interview with Stanislav Grof [“Across the Universe,” August 2009] was yet another compelling piece of evidence that the medical model of treating mental illness is significantly lacking. Merely suppressing symptoms, rather than fully understanding and managing them, is unsatisfactory.
In Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment Of Mental Illness Really Any Good? Richard Bentall, a clinical psychologist and university professor, advocates person-centered treatment in which the patient may, for example, choose to hear voices rather than suffer the stultifying side effects of psychotropic drugs. He further makes the point that recovery rates from mental illness in the developing world are superior to those in the West, where drug companies make billions from their products. The bridge Grof describes between science and alternative methods, such as those practiced in ancient cultures, must be built.
I enjoyed the Stanislav Grof interview but was alarmed by his contention that “the worst thing you can do is give tranquilizers to someone in the middle of a bad trip.” Perhaps there is some truth to this in a safe and controlled environment, with compassionate guides like Grof in attendance. But in the real world, if someone is freaking out, a tranquilizer can be a lifesaver.
I’m in my fifties and have taken psychedelics since my adolescence. For the most part I’ve had positive, even transformative, experiences, but I had a couple of scary trips as a teen. In one instance I am certain that, but for the availability of a “downer,” I would have been damaged for life. I did need to address the source of my terror eventually, but the circumstances of that particular acid trip were not the appropriate setting for “soul work.” Thank God for that tranquilizer. There is a time and place for repressing symptoms.
Stanislav Grof equates one of his visions during an experiment with LSD with the dharmakaya, or primary clear light of Tibetan Buddhism. The problem is that the clear light in Tibetan Buddhism is not a light per se, much less a vision induced by a drug and a strobe. It is the full realization of nonduality.
No doubt Grof had a dramatic experience; so did I when I took LSD. But there is a fundamental difference between the altered states induced by drugs and those revealed by meditation.
Though I was heartened by the case Stanislav Grof makes for an “all-encompassing” spirituality, I was puzzled that he perpetuates the artificial split between so-called “talk therapy” and experiential methods like his own. The phrase “talk therapy” is a pejorative, implying that such therapies stay on the surface, using words rather than emotions. My own lifelong symptoms of eczema, asthma, and hay fever subsided as the underlying dynamics became known to me during Jungian analysis.
There are limits to what any approach can do, surely, but “talk therapy” is a straw man. Holotropic breathwork is primarily a cathartic method and has its own clinical limits. As Grof himself points out, when breathwork is paired with ongoing psychotherapy, its effects have a better chance of being integrated into new, stable psychic structures.
Stanislav Grof responds:
To Name Withheld: Based on my experience, administration of tranquilizers during a “bad trip” is fundamentally wrong. Creating a protective environment and allowing the experience to run its natural course is infinitely preferable. Such experiences can be deeply healing and transformative, because they bring to the surface traumatic unconscious material and make it available for processing. Administering tranquilizers freezes the experience in a difficult place and prevents successful resolution. This can result in decades of unnecessary hospitalization and medication to continue holding this material down. LSD is a catalyst; if we take it, we do not have an “LSD experience” but an experience of the deep recesses of our own psyche, which is the source of various emotional, psychosomatic, and interpersonal problems in our everyday life. Even if there are still problems after the pharmacological effect of the LSD subsides, we can do much with a combination of breathwork and bodywork. Tranquilizers should be used only if everything else fails.
To Nancy Telos: I am aware of the profundity of the dharmakaya experience as described in the Bardo Thodol and did not make the comparison lightly. I usually emphasize that there was much more to it, and using the term “light” is not fully appropriate. There was certainly transcendence of all opposites, immense intelligence and creativity, and a deep sense that this experience contained all of existence.
The question of whether genuine spiritual experiences can be induced by psychedelic substances is a challenging one, and there are several different perspectives on the issue.
Some hardcore materialistic scientists welcome the observation that psychedelics are able to induce the experiences described by mystics. For them this indicates that what the mystics consider revelations are only products of aberrant chemical processes in the brain.
Another perspective is that, since psychedelics have the power to induce mystical experiences, they are not ordinary chemicals but sacred substances: sacraments that connect the users with real, numinous dimensions of reality. The proponents of this perspective essentially share the viewpoint of shamans and healers in native cultures.
A third perspective acknowledges that psychedelic substances are able to induce experiences that are practically indistinguishable from those described by saints, prophets, and mystics of all eras, but says these experiences are not necessarily genuine or of equal spiritual value to those attained through meditation, fasting, devotional prayer, pious behavior, and a lifetime of service to God, or those that occur spontaneously as a gift of divine grace. In this view the ultimate decision about the value of mystical experiences induced by psychedelics should be made by spiritual teachers and religious figures, not scientists.
Huston Smith, the famous scholar of comparative religion, has suggested a fourth perspective on the issue of “chemical mysticism.” In his opinion there is no doubt that psychedelic substances facilitate genuine mystical experiences, but he strongly cautions that the value of these experiences and their impact on the individual’s life critically depend on the context and setting. The experience of a devout seeker after years of serious spiritual practice and religious studies would certainly be more valuable than one that occurs to a totally unprepared guest at a party where somebody throws a handful of sugar cubes laced with LSD into the fruit punch.
To Dr. Meredith Sabini: Verbal psychotherapy often takes years, and major breakthroughs are rare exceptions rather than commonplace events. When relief of symptoms occurs on such a broad time scale, it is difficult to prove causal connection with the therapeutic process. In a psychedelic or Holotropic Breathwork session powerful changes can occur in the course of a few hours and can be convincingly linked to the experience. Many participants in my workshops have favorably compared the progress achieved in several holotropic sessions to that of years of verbal therapy.
I read with interest Lois Judson’s essay on her chemical addiction [“The Closest I’ve Come to God,” August 2009]. I have been involved in healthcare for more than thirty years and am currently a psychiatric nurse, as Judson was until recently. Our profession can ill-afford to have its members stealing narcotics and overdosing the way she did. It saddens me to see otherwise good and decent human beings succumb to what I view as a genetically influenced disease.
It seems people need to reach their own personal low before they decide to change. Many in Judson’s situation become mired in self-pity and a victim mentality. I am heartened that she is taking charge of her life by working, exercising, and writing.
No thinking individual can accept God based on somebody else’s assertions or dogma. Each of us needs to discover God in his or her own way. Judson seems to be doing that, and my heart goes out to her.
I’ve been a Sun reader for at least twelve years and have read many letters saying The Sun is too dark, too painful, too negative.
Yours is the only magazine I know, in a culture where hundreds of magazines shout at us from the newsstands, that reflects my own struggle. I read it cover to cover, always saving Readers Write for last so I can savor it like a dessert. Seldom is a story without hope. Most of the time some insight or deeper understanding emerges. Always it’s real.
If you want mindless happiness, look elsewhere. Leave The Sun to those of us who can relate to the pain of others and still find joy in the world.