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Going With Love

by Renn Butler

Book review of The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death

by Stanislav Grof, M.D., M.A.P.S., 2006.

Death and dying are the most universal and important experiences in human life, yet until the late 1960s, prominent members of Western civilization—including our medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers—showed an astonishing lack of interest in these crucial areas. “The only plausible explanation for this situation is massive denial of death and psychological repression of everything related to it.” So begins Stanislav Grof’s new opus on death, dying, and transcendence, The Ultimate Journey, a heartfelt review of past and present efforts to redress this serious omission in our culture.

Grof writes that our modern industrial civilization typically gives more attention to the wardrobe, makeup, and even plastic surgery for the corpse than to counseling dying individuals and their families. This is in marked contrast to preindustrial societies for whom death and dying were paramount in their worldviews and important inspiration for much of their art and architecture. For example, the shamans of many cultures—going back at least thirty thousand years—began their careers with a spontaneous or induced experience of death and rebirth. They explored, firsthand, territories of the psyche that transcend the boundaries of individual consciousness. Similarly, in the rites of passage, initiates were guided into non-ordinary or holotropic (“moving toward wholeness”) states of consciousness and had a personal experience of numinous realities that transcend biological death. In the ancient mysteries, neophytes participated in various mind-expanding processes or “technologies of the sacred” to move beyond individual consciousness and experience directly the higher transpersonal dimensions of existence. The Goddess Mysteries of Eleusis, for example, held near Athens for almost two thousand years—and which it is now virtually certain used ergot, a naturally occurring form of LSD—had as their participants many of the creative and intellectual giants of Western culture. Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Euripedes, Sophocles, Plutarch, Pindar, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero all attest to the life-changing power of their holotropic experiences at Eleusis or the other mystery sites.

Grof also reviews the themes of the Egyptian, Tibetan, Mayan, and medieval European Books of the Dead. These sacred texts had a dual purpose: to prepare the dying for the adventures in consciousness that follow biological demise and to guide initiates through experiences of psychospiritual death and rebirth in healing rituals. Preparation for death in these cultures was recognized as identical to spiritual practice for living. In the central theme of the book, Grof writes that the preindustrial societies recognized a basic fact of human nature that we have forgotten—that facing death in supported holotropic states opens connections with transpersonal dimensions of reality beyond death, resulting in a transcendence of the fear of dying, as well as healing of emotional and psychosomatic problems, increased vitality, and higher functioning in everyday life.

The benefits of undergoing these inner transformative experiences have now been rediscovered in modern times through powerful experiential processes such as LSD psychotherapy and Holotropic Breathwork. Grof and his colleagues conducting sessions in these modalities for the past fifty years found that individuals working through unfinished aspects of their biological birth also confront and consume their fear of death in the process. These perinatal sequences then automatically open out into experiences of spiritual rebirth, archetypal and mythological domains, and unitive ecstasy. Rather than the ultimate biological disaster and personal defeat, death represents a gateway to a fantastic cosmic panorama, a vastly freer mode of consciousness which the individual experiences as his or her own rediscovered higher nature.

People who experience death and rebirth sequences of whatever provenance automatically develop an interest in spirituality of a non-sectarian, universal, and all-encompassing nature, feelings of planetary citizenship, and a high value placed on warm human relationships. They also discover what the mystics have understood, that the representations of death in the psyche, including its substantial bardo states and hells, are, like all forms, actually empty and ultimately products of our own consciousness—a consciousness that is now recognized as essentially commensurate with the Absolute Consciousness and All There Is.

Grof further enriches this promising new picture by reviewing important developments in the fields of thanatology, scientific study of reincarnation, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and messages and visits from the Beyond. Reputable published data from researchers in these fields, while by themselves cannot be considered “proof” of survival of consciousness after death, together represent a wave of compelling anomalous phenomena that have not been convincingly explained in the traditional scientific paradigms. Grof suggests that the conflict between science and spirituality was completely unnecessary and reflects a misunderstanding between different domains of reality.

In the book’s most engaging section, Grof reviews the groundbreaking work with terminal cancer patients conducted by staff at the Spring Grove Hospital in Maryland, the last federally funded research project with psychedelics in the U.S. until the modern era. Describing in detail the research design, protocols, and procedure of these sessions, as well as a number of poignant case studies, Grof recounts the dramatic and often surprising therapeutic results the Spring Grove team observed in the five categories of: alleviation of emotional suffering, physical pain and distress, fear of death and attitude toward dying, time orientation and basic hierarchy of values, and psychological condition of the survivors. He and his colleagues repeatedly witnessed an astonishing process “that closely resembled the initiation practices of the ancient mysteries of death and rebirth and often involved experiential sequences similar to those reported in the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead.” The inner experiences of these individuals gave them access to transpersonal and unitive domains of consciousness that helped them to live their final days, weeks, and months with less physical pain and fear of death, with more peace of mind, enjoyment of the present moment, and improved quality in their relationships. The accounts of these individuals’ transitions are deeply moving and represented exceptionally rewarding experiences for the caregivers. Based on this and other well-published research, Grof invites administrators, legislators, and politicians to inform themselves by reading the professional and scientific journals, rather than the questionable reports of sensation-hunting journalists. He makes a heartfelt and convincing case that we may be depriving the dying of powerful healing tools to make their transitions easier, more joyful, and more dignified.

Grof concludes The Ultimate Journey with two chapters on conscious dying graciously offered from Laura Huxley’s book This Timeless Moment. The first chapter describes the support Aldous Huxley gave to his wife Maria during her dying process: “Let go, let go. Forget the body, leave it lying here; it is of no importance now. Go forward into the light. Let yourself be carried into the light. No memories, no regrets, no looking backwards, no apprehensive thoughts about your own or anyone else’s future. Only light. Only this pure being, this love, this joy. Above all, this peace. Peace in this timeless moment, peace now, peace now…” The second chapter, “O Nobly Born!” describes his second wife Laura’s support years later during Aldous’ own death: “Light and free you let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward and up; you are going toward the light. Willingly and consciously you are going, willingly and consciously, and you are doing this beautifully—you are going toward the light—you are going toward a greater love…You are going toward Maria’s love with my love. You are going toward a greater love than you have ever known. You are going toward the best, the greatest love, and it is easy, it is so easy, and you are doing it so beautifully.”

I recommend this book to anyone seeking to come to terms with their own or anyone else’s mortality. From its strikingly appealing cover, its presentation of humanity’s rich mythologies of death and rebirth, the reviews of consciousness research, and forty pages of brilliantly reproduced sacred frescoes, evocative tomb paintings, vivid mandalas, and precious personal photos—this book is itself an urgently needed manual for conscious dying and conscious living. It seems clear that our industrial civilization is plundering the earth to compensate for a deep unconscious fear of death and dying. Yet modern consciousness research is confirming what the shamans, mystics, and priestesses have always known. As the poet Rabindrananth Tagore realized: “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”

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