In the weekly video meetings with my therapist, I often complain psychiatry lacks the vocabulary to articulate the experience of the “spiritual.” “How do I articulate my experience – my spirituality – without sounding like a New Age soccer mom on the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise? ”
Her face is calm, listening.
“Why does it seem like there’s a wall between my internal and external consciousness and that wall is crumbing?” I ask her. “Am I in? Out? Both? Neither? I feel like I’m standing on both sides of a locked door.”
I stare at her, frustrated. I’m asking her for answers I’m unlikely to get. In the past two years, I’ve noticed subtle perceptual changes in my consciousness. It’s a real concern. I don’t know if these changes are a consequence of spiritual growth, Alzheimer’s disease or I’ve gone galloping, ass-slapping loco.
She smiles, almost smirking.
I am at that age where supplemental Medicare insurance plans pile on my floor beneath the mail transom to an annoying degree, but I have a mental clarity I’ve not known in years. Over the course of my life, I’ve been diagnosed with everything from manic-depression and delusional paranoia to PTSD. And, my “spirituality,” since 2004, includes a regular practice of seated meditation which has led to some pretty spooky episodes in the ether. There have been some real changes in my consciousness but I don’t have the words to express those changes in a proper context.
But sometimes the universe speaks to you: I was asked to write a review of The Way of the Psychonaut: Stanislav Grof’s Journey of Consciousness. I accepted because film and psychedelics are two areas of interest. Little did I realize the film would address key questions I had concerning consciousness and spirit.
The film opens with a cuddly two-shot of the filmmaker, Susan Hess, and the Czech psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof, the man Albert Hofmann called “the godfather of LSD.” Susan explains in voice-over how she found it impossible to tell the story of Stanislav Grof without inserting herself into the narrative. And begins to slowly and quietly tell the story of her own spiritual crisis, eventually leading to the work of Stanislav Grof.
I don’t belong on this planet, Ms. Hess informs us. Even after a seemingly successful career, she still has an overwhelming sense of displacement. In Paris, she finds love but has a difficult time getting pregnant. For her, this is a clear sign of a spiritual crisis. She learns to journey up up up through the darkness, meeting her ghostly teachers, who tell her to reconnect with the energies of the earth; but she has a second crisis, after successfully giving birth to two children, and sees her toddlers demonstrate a reluctance to go through tunnel-shaped passageways….
Her biographical detail is delivered minimally, however, in brief scrapbook stills with little audible commentary. Susan the teenage ballet dancer. Susan on the catwalk. Susan prepped for breast surgery. This seems to be her strategy. Supply images almost subliminally and communicate with the subconscious directly. A wide-shot of Earth, explaining her deep sense of alienation in a swirl of Van Gogh clouds, saying she was born on the wrong planet, followed by photos of scrapbooked “happiness” in childhood.
Though her biography’s inessential details don’t support her telling of the Stan Grof story, what she omits informs her process. Ms. Hess is hyphenated Hollywood, a writer-actor-director-producer. As an actress, she was Crockett’s squeeze on an episode of Miami Vice (with, incredibly, Julian Beck of the Living Theatre) and in a thriller with Amanda Seyfried, Gone. She also wrote a comedy called Not Dead Yet. Clearly, she is not in the ranks of ‘transgressives’ like Nick Zedd or Joe Christ. She’s a filmmaker responsible to her financial backers.
What’s telling is that she – like one of cinema’s great cartographers of the divine, Maya Deren (and, dare I say, cinema’s anti-christ, Leni Riefenstahl) – came to film by way of dance. Her dance training is a clear influence on her approach to making film. There are no wasted movements in her camera’s choreography. She has “poetic economy.”
Her professionalism is not in question. Ms. Hess is a skillful filmmaker. Her editing is remarkable. Her learned abilities and resources are of a kind that can only be obtained in Hollywood. Her intentions are sincere and an exhaustive amount of work was devoted to this project.
So why does her film feel flat?
The answer, I suspect, is watchability1It could also be the pandemic. Festivals have chosen streaming over theaters. Films are not designed for small monitors. This film might actually pop on the big screen. for a general audience. Stanislav Grof’s theories of birth trauma and fetal memory are complicated– the sensation of suffocation in the birth canal; the emotional impact of a troubled marriage on the womb; the trauma of a fetus formed in the aftermath of brutal rape. How do you depict such complex concepts in digestible, bite-sized pieces like a quartered candy bar?
Ms. Hess succeeds in this regard. This is the service of films produced for mainstream audiences. They serve as an introduction, and Psychonaut is a great introduction. You want to know more? Read a book.2At AbeBooks I picked up two volumes by Stan Grof for under 13 bucks.
In other words, the documentary is a clear presentation of Stan Grof and his ideas but her demographic isn’t cranky, acid-dropping old black men like me. This movie is for the coven of nose-twitching Samantha Stevens I know dancing sky-clad in the woods of upper Connecticut. Enter the Void for the Hallmark Channel. This is not a fault. Stan Grof’s story is contextualized in their language. Just sayin’ she ain’t talkin’ to me (nor am I saying she should).
In archival black and white footage, we learn Stan Grof was born in Czechoslovakia during the early years of World War II, endured its torturous horrors as a child and later found himself imprisoned by its post-war communist regime. It was while in commie custody the seventeen year-old Grof had his first experience with altered states of consciousness.
For two sleepless weeks, he was dragged from his cell by state thugs and subjected to intense interrogation at random intervals. He was required to recount his life history from his birth to the present in a wonky state of mind. Curiously, he claimed he learned to enjoy this experience of state-sponsored sadism. He tells the tale in the film, suggesting this was the foundational experience that formed the basis of his theories. Later, as a young medical student, Grof engaged in some state-sponsored sadism of his own. He electro-shocked schizophrenics and put them in insulin-induced comas.
Then, in 1954, the facility that employed him received samples of LSD-25 and he spent six to eight hours at a time observing how patients responded to Albert Hoffman’s problem child. It wasn’t until two years later, as students were restricted from its use, Grof parked himself under a stroboscopic disco-ball and dropped acid for the first time. His ego dissolved, his brain glowed and he experienced integrated wholeness with the cosmos. “What they taught me in university that consciousness was created by the activity of the neurons in the brain was absurd. Consciousness is a cosmic phenomenon,” he said of the experience.
Stan, with his wife, psychotherapist Christina Grof (who I would’ve like to have seen more of in the doc), along with Abraham Maslow and Victor Frankl, cultivated the field of Transpersonal Psychology, a therapeutic school incorporating the wisdom of ancient spiritual traditions with Western psychology’s view of human behavior. Out of this, the Grofs developed Holotropic Breathwork for use in psychedelic therapy. Holotropic Breathwork, by the way, is a legal means of achieving psychedelic states of consciousness through yogic breath techniques. These innovations brought the Grofs to Northern California’s Esalen Institute.
Central to Grof’s theories of consciousness and spiritual liberation are birth trauma and perinatal memory. Before this doc, I had never considered “birth trauma” or imagined a fetus dreaming in the womb. So, obviously, I’ve never encountered Otto Rank’s The Trauma of Birth. Or knew of Freud’s fickle relation with the work. All I got is Susan Hess’ computer-animated interpretations of Grof’s understanding of Rank’s ideas.
It was an acid-flash oooo-wow moment.
In fact, my favorite moment in the film illustrates the experience of perinatal memory. It’s one of Susan’s suggestive, near-subliminals. A rumpus of nightmare phantoms in the womb. Monsters in the uterus. Transitional entities of the Bardo in a post-death/ pre-birth phantasia.
Here, you meet the sword-wielding Kali…
Susan Hess’ world of Stan Grof fades to black and my therapist stares back from the monitor. She’s unaware of Grof and his work. The surprise of the birth canal doesn’t come up much in our discussions. She acknowledges there is a general lack of a “spiritual vocabulary” in psychiatry, with the exception of thinkers like Carl Jung, who found inspiration in the Hopi, but certainly not in the public health sphere.
I stare back, glum. What’s behind my frustration with the seeming deadness of speech? Why does it appear “consensus-reality” is flatlining faster than the “prose” of a stale best-selling novel?
My therapist smiles again and surprises me with her response.
She’s a member of Alaska’s Athabascan tribe. Given my other complaint, that the majority of clients at the clinic are black and hispanic yet the staff is overwhelmingly white, she’s an unusual addition to the staff. She shares with me a universally-applicable truth from her people’s store of wisdom, a lesson learned from the earth’s vibrational energies. She points out the psyche is a dimension of the cosmos.
Hmmmm. Maybe Grof is on to something.
Image: The Way of the Psychonaut
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly named Stanislav Grof’s wife who helped cultivate the field of Transpersonal Psychology and co-create Holotropic Breathwork. It has been corrected to reflect that it was Christina Grof.