In 1980 the Spiritual Emergency Network, SEN, was created by Stan Grof (above) and his wife, Christina Grof. Both my parents had died in 1971 and 1972 of situations related to spiritual emergency in which they did not receive adequate support. I felt very excited by what the Grofs were doing. I knew the need for the service and immediately wanted to be supportive and learn more. During the early 1980’s I took the plunge. Now, 40 years later, I am reflecting on how fortunate I have been to know Stan and his work.
How I Aligned with Stan Grof
I attended the International Transpersonal Association Conference in Bombay, India (now Mumbai) in 1982. What an inspiration! The ancient wisdom of the East met the inventiveness of the West—defining a whole new goal for psychotherapy—reaching expanded states of consciousness. Stan Grof was the organizer of this conference.
Profoundly inspired, I began and later completed a PhD program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, ITP, in Palo Alto, Ca. Stan was one of the handful of leaders in psychology and psychiatry who built the foundations for this new kind of psychology that includes going beyond the ego into the fulfilling realms of the Soul.
I attended a long weekend workshop in Holotropic Breathwork at Esalen led by Stan and Christina. This added to my training in offering personal breathwork sessions, rebirthing and group breathwork that I had already learned from others. The Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork had something unique in their use of evocative music, group experience, as well as the integration using mandala drawing. Great additions.
I was a volunteer at SEN from 1984-1991. We changed the name to Spiritual Emergence Network, so followers would realize you don’t have to have a spiritual emergency to get support…just wanting to have support in spiritual emergence is enough.
In 1984 SEN asked me to coordinate two invited conferences at Esalen Institute, where Stan was scholar in residence and would attend. The goal was to define Spiritual Emergency for professional healthcare providers and articulate the ideal care someone would receive who was going through this crisis. Both gatherings were dynamic and brought together spiritual leaders, psychologists, and those with life-experience. Collating the talks and distilling what we shared became the root of my PhD dissertation as well as my first book, A Sourcebook for Helping People in Spiritual Emergency. The recollection of the warm embrace of congratulations I received from Stan and Christina around that book’s publication still fills my heart.
After graduation from ITP in 1988 I was licensed as a psychotherapist and specialized in supporting those disturbed by Spiritual Emergence phenomena. That has informed my life work for the last 32 years, inspiring research in Brazil, as well.
Since 2015 I have also trained Spiritual Emergence Coaches® through two courses. One is “How to Effectively Support Someone in Spiritual Emergency”, an online series of 5 webinars open to all. The second is experiential training, the “Practicum”—a 2-day live workshop that has been offered in Australia, Spain, UK, and East and West Coasts of USA. Both substantially come from Stan’s initial definition of spiritual emergency—with accessory materials from current publications and unique video interviews. I offer these to preserve the substance and integrity of his initial work. He is supportive of my efforts.
None of the above would have happened, or been so fulfilling, without Stan Grof’s influence.
Earlier in October, 2020, I had an hour-long zoom session to update with Stan and his new wife, Brigitte Grof (whom he married after Christina passed away). I was reading Stan’s new 2 volume set “The Way of the Psychonaut” (2019) that brings together all of his work in research and psychotherapy. (It’s the training manual for his new Grof® Legacy Training). Stan is now almost 90 years old—still brilliant, full of energy and kindness. We explored how we might support each others’ work now…and Stan, ever a source of inspiration, suggested I branch out into also training more people in how to sit with those who are dying, to ease their passage. “Yes”, I thought, “that fits with what I am doing…and I did train hospice workers in the early 1990s…Why not more now?”
On October 17, IMHU was a sponsor in screening the new film, “The Way of the Psychonaut,” depicting the life and work of Stan over the last 60 years. I participated in a live panel after the film was shown. We had 360 registrants to this heartwarming,inspiring film.
The Same and Different: Curiosities and Suggestions
In sum, my way of doing psychotherapy was vastly enriched after meeting Stan Grof, experiencing his therapeutic practices, learning from his associates and his books. The theories I hold dear about psychology and psychiatry’s theories and practices are still very aligned with Stan’s. I feel immensely grateful to him and grateful that I have had the good fortune to live at a time I could personally meet him.
It’s still a great curiosity to me that he came into being a psychotherapist from his conventional training as a medical doctor, and 7 years of Freudian psychoanalysis in Czechoslovakia, a country blasted apart by the Nazi invasion and war in the 1930s and 40s. His life choices were very limited in his early years. I was born 16 years later than Stan, into postwar USA in the first wave of baby-boomers. The tone of life sounded optimism, safety, security and an abundance of choices encouraging exploration. At age 20 I became a follower of Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese abbot recognized as an enlightened master, then teaching in California. When Stan was overseeing research into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy I was either sitting on my Zen pillow meditating near Suzuki—or attending training in bio-energetic and Neo-Reichian therapies from pioneering leaders in these “alternative” therapies. Yes, I briefly dipped into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy…but only as an adjunct to meditation practice. Thus, Stan and I came into the mission of supporting others achieving non-ordinary states of consciousness from quite different angles…
I love Stan and all that he has done and all that he is. I also wish that he had included more about the power of meditation in his two volumes, The Way of the Psychonaut, as it claims on the books’ covers to be the “Encyclopedia for Inner Journeys”. He does acknowledge the ancient wisdom traditions for their technologies that expand consciousness. He does reflect that these ancient traditions did initiate followers into the zone of cosmic consciousness. He honors them. But he advocates psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and Holotropic breathwork as the best way to the highest experiences—and he does not share any practical advice about meditation or prayer or ethics, i.e. how to live into and stabilize in the highest states of consciousness.
My view: we can taste these non-ordinary states through the powerful means of psychedelics and breathwork because they catapult us over the wall through the fires of exchanges with our demons into the “secret garden” and then pitch us back into ordinary reality when we “come down”. I believe most of us need meditation, too, for the full “meal”. For some the meditation path is the best and only avenue towards Self-realization. I still believe in the need for the discipline of spiritual practice, and embracing the do’s and dont’s of ethics articulated by the ancients (e.g. the Yamas and Niyamas of Yogic philosophy). These focused attention practices together reveal the path, guide us through the fires, give us the key to unlock the gate to the “secret garden” (directo communion with the Divine), and allow us to go back and forth at will. Your next book, Stan?
Emma Bragdon, PhD is the founder and Executive Director of Integrative Mental Health for You, IMHU.org. She teaches many of the 34 courses offered at IMHU. All of them bring spirituality into the theory and practice of psychology and illuminate the healing potentials of the phenomena of spiritual emergence, aka spiritual awakening via spiritually-transformative experiences. Emma is available for personal coaching. EmmaBragdon.com
IMHU courses mentioned in this article. Click on title to find out more:
- How to Effectively Support Someone in Spiritual Emergency
- More on training to become a Spiritual Emergence Coach®
IMHU full catalogue of courses are HERE.