dominant paradigm presents a cosmology in which humans, as
matter, live and die in a universe governed by the laws of physics. In
this worldview, there is no room for the possibility of life after
and different states of consciousness have significance only as
deviations from that worldview.
cosmologies of other cultures—ancient and contemporary
taken for granted the existence of an afterlife. For them, dying is a
part of life, and death is a journey for which
individual can and should prepare. To aid in this, many cultures
history have developed experiential "technologies"—techniques and
intended to train initiates in the art and science of dying and
survival. These experiential "technologies" invariably involve training
in altered or non-ordinary states of consciousness throughout the
fundamental difference between Western and pre-industrial cosmologies
and their respective end-of-life technologies has profound consequences
for how societies view living, dying, death, and non-ordinary states of
consciousness. In this article, psychiatrist Stanislav Grof explores
of the key elements in pre-industrial cosmologies and their emphasis on
transformative "technologies" for training in altered states throughout
the individual’s lifetime.
general, the conditions of life existing in modern technologized
do not offer much ideological or psychological support for people who
facing death. This contrasts very sharply with the situation
by those dying in one of the ancient and pre-industrial societies.
cosmologies, philosophies, mythologies, as well as spiritual and ritual
life, contain a clear message that death is not the absolute and
end of everything, that life or existence continues in some form after
mythologies are in general agreement that the soul of the deceased
a complex series of adventures in consciousness. The posthumous journey
of the soul is sometimes described as a travel through fantastic
that bear some similarity to those on Earth, other times it is
as encounters with various archetypal beings, or as moving through a
of non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC). In some
they believe the soul reaches a temporary realm in the Beyond, such as
the Christian purgatory or the lokas of Tibetan Buddhism, in others, an
eternal abode—heaven, hell, paradise, or the sun realm.
cultures have independently developed a belief system in reincarnation
that includes return of the unit of consciousness to another physical
on Earth. The concept of karma and reincarnation
a cornerstone of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism,
the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, and Taoism. Similar ideas can be found
in such geographically, historically, and culturally diverse groups as
various African tribes, American Indians, pre-Columbian cultures, the
kahunas, practitioners of the Brazilian Umbanda, the Gauls, and the
In ancient Greece, several important schools of thought subscribed to
among these were the Pythagoreans, the Orphics, and the Platonists.
doctrine was also adopted by the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Karaites,
and other Jewish and semi-Jewish groups, and it formed an important
of the kabbalistic theology of medieval Jewry. It was also held by the
Neoplatonists and Gnostics.
for the soul’s journey.
societies thus seemed to agree that death was not the ultimate
and end of everything, but an important transition. The experiences
associated with death were seen as visits to important dimensions of
that deserved to be experienced, studied, and carefully mapped. The
were familiar with the eschatological cartographies of their cultures,
whether these were shamanic maps of the funeral landscapes or
descriptions of the Eastern spiritual systems, such as those found in
Tibetan Bardo Thödol. This important text of Tibetan
represents an interesting counterpoint to the exclusive pragmatic
on productive life and denial of death characterizing the Western
It describes the time of death as a unique opportunity for spiritual
from the cycles of death and rebirth and a period that determines our
incarnation, if we do not achieve liberation. In this context, it is
to see the intermediate state between lives (bardo) as being in a way
important than incarnate existence. It would be prudent, then, to
for this time by systematic practice during our lifetime.
as part of life.
important aspect of ancient and pre-industrial cultures that colors the
experience of dying is their acceptance of death as an integral part of
life. Throughout their life, people living in these cultures get used
spending time around dying people, handling corpses, observing
and living with their remnants. For a Westerner, a visit to a place
Benares where this attitude is expressed in its extreme form can be a
shattering experience. In addition, dying people in pre-industrial
typically die in the context of an extended family, clan, or tribe.
thus can receive meaningful emotional support from people whom they
know. It is also important to mention powerful rituals conducted at the
time of death designed to assist individuals facing the ultimate
or even specific guidance of the dying, such as the approach described
in the Bardo Thödol.
extremely important factor influencing the attitude toward death and
experience of dying has been the existence of various forms of
training for dying involving NOSC.
oldest among them is the practice of shamanism,
the most ancient religion and healing art of humanity, the roots of
reach far back into the Paleolithic era. Shamanism is not only ancient,
but also universal; it can be found in North
and South America, in
Asia, Australia, and Polynesia.
is intimately connected with NOSC, as well as with death and dying. The
career of many shamans begins with the "shamanic illness", a
initiatory crisis conducive to profound healing and psychospiritual
It is a visionary journey involving a visit to the underworld, painful
and frightening ordeals, and an experience of psychological death and
followed by ascent into supernal realms. In this experience, the novice
shaman connects to the forces of nature and to the animal realm and
how to diagnose and heal diseases. The knowledge of the realm of death
acquired during this transformation makes it possible for the shaman to
move freely back and forth and mediate these journeys for other people.
have also described rites of passage, elaborate rituals conducted by
aboriginal cultures at the time of important biological and social
such as birth, circumcision, puberty, marriage, and dying. They employ
powerful mind-altering technologies and the experiences induced by them
revolve around the triad birth-sex-death. Their symbolism involves
combinations of perinatal and transpersonal elements. Clinical work
psychedelics and various non-drug experiential approaches (such as the
has helped us to understand these events and appreciate their
for individuals and human groups.
related to the rites of passage were the ancient mysteries of death and
rebirth, complex sacred and secret procedures that were also using
mind-altering techniques. They were particularly prevalent in the
area, as exemplified by the Babylonian ceremonies of Inanna and Tammuz,
the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Osiris, the Orphic Cult, the
the Eleusinian mysteries, the Corybantic rites, and the mysteries of
and Adonis. The mysteries were based on mythological stories of deities
that symbolize death and rebirth. The most famous of them were the
mysteries conducted near Athens every five years without interruption
a period of almost 2,000 years. According to a modern study by Wasson,
Hofmann, and Ruck, the ritual potion ("kykeon") used in these mysteries
contained ergot preparations related closely to LSD.2
particular interest for transpersonally oriented researchers is the
literature of the various mystical traditions and the great spiritual
of the East. Here belong the various systems of yoga, the theory and
of Buddhism, Taoism, the Tibetan Vajrayana, Sufism, Christian
the Kabbalah, and many others. These systems developed effective forms
of prayer, meditation, movement meditation, breathing exercise, and
powerful techniques for inducing NOSC with profound spiritual
Like the experiences of the shamans, initiates in the rites of passage,
and neophytes in ancient mysteries, these procedures offered the
of confronting one’s impermanence and mortality, transcending the fear
of death, and radically transforming one’s being in the world.
books of the dead.
Experiences and observations that challenge the traditional
of the nature of consciousness and its
description of the resources available to dying people in
cultures would not be complete without mentioning the books of the
such as the Tibetan Bardo Thödol, the Egyptian Pert em
the Aztec Codex Borgia, or the European Ars moriendi .
the ancient books of the dead first came to the attention of Western
they were considered to be fictitious descriptions of the posthumous
of the soul, and, as such, wishful fabrications of people who were
to accept the grim reality of death. They were put in the same category
as fairy tales—imaginary creations of human fantasy that had definite
beauty, but no relevance for everyday reality.
a deeper study of these texts revealed that they had been used as
in the context of sacred mysteries and of spiritual practice and very
described the experiences of the initiates and practitioners. From this
new perspective, presenting the books of the dead as manuals for the
appeared to be simply a clever disguise invented by the priests to
their real function and protect their deeper esoteric meaning and
from the uninitiated. However the exact nature of the procedures used
the ancient spiritual systems to induce these states remains an
research focusing on NOSC brought unexpected new insights into this
area. Systematic study of the experiences in psychedelic sessions,
non-drug forms of psychotherapy, and spontaneously occurring
crises showed that in all these situations, people can encounter an
spectrum of unusual experiences, including sequences of agony and
passing through hell, facing divine judgment, being reborn, reaching
celestial realms, and confronting memories from previous incarnations.
These states were strikingly similar to those described in the
texts of ancient and pre-industrial cultures.
missing piece of the puzzle was provided by thanatology, the
scientific discipline specifically studying death and dying.
studies of near-death states by people such as Raymond Moody,3
Bruce Greyson and Charles Flynn 6showed
that the experiences associated with life-threatening situations bear a
deep resemblance to the descriptions from the ancient books of the
as well as those reported by subjects in psychedelic sessions and
has thus become clear that the ancient eschatological texts are
maps of the inner territories of the psyche encountered in profound
including those associated with biological dying.7The
experiences involved seem to transcend race and culture and originate
the collective unconscious as described by C. G. Jung. It is
to spend one’s entire lifetime without ever experiencing these realms
even without being aware of their existence, until one is catapulted
them at the time of biological death. However, for some people this
experiential area becomes available during their lifetime in a variety
of situations including psychedelic sessions or some other powerful
of self-exploration, serious spiritual practice, participation in
rituals, or during spontaneous psycho-spiritual crises. This opens up
them the possibility of experiential exploration of these territories
the psyche on their own terms so that the encounter with death does
not come as a complete surprise when it is imposed on them at the time
of biological demise.
Austrian Augustinian monk Abraham a Sancta Clara, who lived in the
century, expressed in a succinct way the importance of the experiential
practice of dying: "The man who dies before he dies does not die when
dies." This "dying before dying" has two important consequences: It
the individual from the fear of death and changes his or her attitude
it, as well as influences the actual experience of dying at the time of
the biological demise. However, this elimination of the fear of death
transforms the individual’s way of being in the world. For this reason,
there is no fundamental difference between the preparation for death
the practice of dying, on the one hand, and spiritual practice leading
to enlightenment, on the other. This is the reason why the ancient
of the dead could be used in both situations.
us now briefly review the observations from various fields of
that challenge the materialistic understanding, according to which
biological death represents the final end of existence and of all
activity. In any exploration of this kind, it is important to keep an
mind and focus as much as possible only on the facts of observation. An
unshakeable commitment to the existing paradigm (held by many
scientists) is an attitude well known from fundamentalist religions.
science in the true sense of the word is open to
unbiased investigation of any existing phenomena. With this in
we can divide the evidence into two categories:
Experiences and observations specifically related to the understanding
of death and survival of consciousness.
work with NOSC has generated a vast body of evidence that forms a
challenge for the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm of materialistic
Most of the challenging data are related to transpersonal phenomena
represent an important part of the spectrum of experiences observed in
NOSC. They suggest an urgent need for a radical revision of our current
concepts of the nature of consciousness and its relationship to
and the brain. Since the materialistic
of Western science has been a major obstacle for any objective
of the data describing the events occurring
at the time of death, the study of transpersonal experiences has an
relevance for thanatology.
space and time.
transpersonal experiences, it is possible to transcend the usual
of the body, ego, space, and linear time. The disappearance of spatial
boundaries can lead to authentic and convincing identifications with
people, animals of different species, plant life, and even inorganic
and processes. One can also transcend the temporal boundaries and
episodes from the lives of one’s human and animal ancestors, as well as
collective, racial, and karmic memories.
addition, transpersonal experiences can take us into the archetypal
of the collective unconscious and mediate encounters with blissful and
wrathful deities of various cultures and visits to mythological realms.
In all these types of experiences, it is possible to access entirely
information that by far surpasses anything that we obtained earlier
the conventional channels.
study of consciousness that can extend beyond the body—William Roll’s
consciousness" or the "long body" of the Iroquois—is extremely
for the issue of survival, since it is this part of human personality
would be likely to survive death.
to materialistic science, any memory requires a material substrate,
as the neuronal network in the brain or the DNA molecules of the genes.
However, it is impossible to imagine any material medium for the
conveyed by various forms of transpersonal experiences described above.
This information clearly has not been acquired during the individual’s
lifetime through the conventional means, that is by sensory perception.
It seems to exist independently of matter and to be contained in the
of consciousness itself, or in some other types of fields that
be detected by our scientific instruments. The observations from the
of transpersonal experiences are supported by evidence that comes from
other avenues of research. Challenging the basic metaphysical
of Cartesian-Newtonian thinking, scientists like Rupert Sheldrake 8seriously
explore such possibilities as "memory without a material substrate" and
academic science describes human beings as highly developed animals and
biological thinking machines. Experienced and studied in the everyday
of consciousness, we appear to be Newtonian objects made of atoms,
cells, tissues, and organs. However, transpersonal experiences
show that each of us can also
the properties of a field of consciousness that transcends space, time,
and linear causality.The complete new formula, remotely
of the wave-particle paradox in modern physics, thus describes humans
paradoxical beings who have two complementary aspects: They can
of Newtonian objects and also those of infinite fields
consciousness. The appropriateness of each of these descriptions
on the state of consciousness in which these observations are made.
death then seems to terminate one half of this definition, while the
comes into full expression.
Look at the Data
have reported a variety of interesting phenomena which challenge
notions of death and survival. These fall into two broad categories:
phenomena on the threshold of death and 2) past-life
Phenomena on the Threshold of Death
visions of people who had just died have been reported by their
friends, and acquaintances. It has been found that such visions show
significant correlation with distantly occurring deaths of the
people within a twelve-hour period.9
also exist reports of unexplained physical events occurring at the time
of death, such as watches stopping and starting, bells ringing,
or photographs falling off the wall, that seem to announce a person’s
approaching death often experience encounters with their dead relatives
who seem to welcome them to the next world. These deathbed visions are
authentic and convincing; they are often followed by a state of
and seem to ease the transition. A number of cases have been reported
which a dying individual has a vision of a person about whose death he
or she did not know.
particular interest are near-death experiences (NDEs) that occur in
one-third of the people who encounter various forms of life-threatening
situations, such as car accidents, near-drowning, heart attacks, or
arrests during operations. Raymond Moody,3
and others have done extensive research of this phenomenon and have
a characteristic experiential pattern that typically includes a
passage through a dark tunnel, personal judgment with ethical
of one’s life, encounter with a radiant divine being, and visit to
transcendental realms. Less frequent are painful, anxiety-provoking,
infernal types of NDEs.
our program of psychedelic therapy with terminal cancer patients,
at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore, we were able
to obtain some evidence about the similarity of NDEs with experiences
by psychedelic substances. We observed several patients who had first
experiences and later an actual NDE when their disease progressed (for
example, a cardiac arrest during an operation). They reported that
situations were very similar and described the psychedelic sessions as
an invaluable experiential training for dying.11
with confirmed ESP of the environment are of special importance for the
problem of consciousness after death, since they demonstrate the
of consciousness operating independently of
body. According to the Western materialistic worldview,
is a product of the neurophysiological processes in the brain and it is
absurd to think that consciousness could detach itself from the body
maintain its sensory capacity. Yet this is precisely what occurs in
well-documented cases of OOBEs.12
Naturally, people who have had an OOBE might have come close to death,
but they did not really die. However, it seems reasonable to infer that
if consciousness can function independently of the body during one’s
it could be able to do the same after death.
exists a category of transpersonal experiences that has very direct
for the problem of survival of consciousness after death. It involves
or remembering vivid episodes from other historical periods and various
parts of the world. The historical and geographical universality of
experiences suggests that they represent a very important cultural
They also have critical implications for understanding the nature of
psyche, and human beings and for the theory and practice of psychiatry,
psychology, and psychotherapy. For Hindus, Buddhists, and also for
and knowledgeable consciousness researchers, reincarnation is not a
matter of belief, but an empirical issue, based on a variety of
and observations. According to Christopher Bache, the evidence in
area is extremely rich and extraordinary.14Careful
study of the amassed evidence is absolutely necessary to make any valid
conclusions in this area. As we will discuss later, the beliefs
the issue of reincarnation have great ethical impact on human life and
our relationship to the world.
memories in children.
instances exist of small children who seem to remember and describe
previous life in another body, another place, and with other people.
memories emerge usually spontaneously shortly after these children
to talk. They often present various complications in the life of these
children and can be even associated with "carry-over pathologies", such
as phobias, strange reactions to certain people, or various
Cases like these have been described by child psychiatrists. Access to
these memories usually disappears between the ages of five and eight.
Stevenson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in
has conducted meticulous studies of more than three thousand such cases
(see his books Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, Unlearned
Children Who Remember Previous Lives 15),
reporting only those that met his high research standards.
the strongest evidence in support of the reincarnation hypothesis is
incidence of striking birthmarks that reflect injuries and other events
from the remembered life. Stevenson’s cases were not only from
"exotic" cultures with a priori belief in reincarnation, but also from
Western countries, including Great Britain and the USA. His research
high standards and received considerable esteem. In 1977, the Journal
of Nervous and Mental Diseases devoted almost an entire issue to
subject and the work was reviewed in the Journal of the American
memories in adults.
vivid reliving of past-life memories occurs most frequently during
episodes of NOSC (which may be classed as spiritual emergencies);
various degrees of remembering can also happen in more or less ordinary
states of consciousness in the circumstances of everyday life. Academic
psychiatry and current theories of personality are based on the
view". Traditional professionals are aware of the existence of
experiences, but treat them indiscriminately as indications of serious
experiences can be elicited by a wide variety of techniques that
access to deep levels of the psyche, such as meditation, hypnosis,
substances, sensory isolation, bodywork, and various powerful
psychotherapies (primal therapy, rebirthing, or Holotropic Breathwork).
They often appear unsolicited in sessions with therapists who do not
for them and do not even believe in them, catching them completely off
guard. Their emergence is also completely independent of the subject’s
previous philosophical and religious belief system. In addition,
experiences occur on the same continuum with accurate memories from
childhood, infancy, birth, and prenatal memories that can be regularly
reliably verified; sometimes they coexist or alternate with them.16
are important reasons to assume that past-life experiences are
phenomena sui generis that have important implications for
and psychotherapy because of their heuristic and therapeutic
They feel extremely real and authentic and often mediate access to
information about historical periods, cultures, and even historical
that the individual could not have acquired through ordinary
In some instances, the accuracy of these memories can be objectively
sometimes with remarkable detail.
They are often involved in pathodynamics of various emotional,
and interpersonal problems. It seems to matter little to the psyche
the pathogenic forces are related to events from ancient Egypt, Nazi
prenatal life, birth of the individual, or from the infancy and
in the present lifetime.
They have a great therapeutic potential, more powerful than memories
the present lifetime.
They are often associated with inexplicable meaningful synchronicities.
for verification are the same as those for determining what happened
year: Identify specific memories and secure independent evidence
at least some of them. Naturally, past-life memories are more difficult
to verify. However, I have myself observed and published several
cases, where most unusual aspects of such experiences could be verified
by independent historical research.17
of the Research
research of the psychological, philosophical, and spiritual aspects of
death and dying discussed in this paper has considerable theoretical
practical implications. The experiences and observations I have
certainly are not an unequivocal "proof" of survival of consciousness
death, of the existence of astral realms inhabited by discarnate
or of reincarnation of the individual unit of consciousness and
of its physical existence in another lifetime. It is possible to
other types of interpretation of the same data, such as extraordinary
capacities of human consciousness (superpsi) or the Hindu concept of
universe as lila, the divine play of consciousness of the
thing seems to be clear: None of the interpretations based on careful
of these data would be compatible with the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm
of Western materialistic science. Systematic examination and
evaluation of this material would necessarily result in an entirely new
understanding of the nature of consciousness, its role in the universal
scheme of things, and its relationship to matter and, more
the brain. Mainstream
academic science has been defending, often quite aggressively and
basic metaphysical assumption that human consciousness is the product
neurophysiological processes in the brain and is fully contained inside
the skull. This position inherited from seventeenth century philosophy
and science has thus far been impervious to modern discoveries ranging
from transpersonal psychology and various
of consciousness research to quantum-relativistic physics. It can be
only by systematic suppression of a vast amount of data from various
a basic strategy that is characteristic for fundamentalist religions,
one that should not exist in science.
their theoretical relevance, the issues discussed in this article
great practical significance. I have explored at some length in
the importance of death for psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy.
Our past encounters with death in the form of vital threats during our
postnatal history, the trauma of birth, and embryonal existence are
imprinted in our unconscious. In addition, the motif of death plays an
important role in the transpersonal domain of the human psyche in
with powerful archetypal and karmic material. In all these varieties,
theme of death and dying contributes significantly to the development
emotional and psychosomatic disorders.
confronting this material and coming to terms with the fear of death is
conducive to healing, positive personality transformation, and
evolution. As we discussed in connection with the ancient mysteries of
death and rebirth, this "dying before dying" influences deeply the
of life and the basic strategy of existence. It reduces irrational
("rat race" or "treadmill" type of existence) and increases the ability
to live in the present and to enjoy simple life activities. Another
consequence of freeing oneself from the fear of death is a radical
to spirituality of a universal and non-denominational type. This tends
to occur whether the encounter with death happens during a real brush
death in an NDE, or in a purely psychological way, such as in
experiential therapy, or a spontaneous psychospiritual crisis
conclusion, I would like to mention briefly some of the broadest
implications of this material. Whether or not we believe in survival of
consciousness after death, reincarnation, and karma, it has very
implications for our behavior. The idea that belief in immortality has
profound moral implications can be found already in Plato, who in Laws
has Socrates say that disconcern for the postmortem consequences of
deeds would be "a boon to the wicked". Modern authors such as Alan
and Ernest Becker 19
have emphasized that massive denial of death leads to social
that have dangerous consequences for humanity. Modern consciousness
certainly supports this point of view.17
a time when a combination of unbridled greed, malignant aggression, and
existence of weapons of mass destruction threatens the survival of
and possibly life on this planet, we should seriously consider any
that offers some hope. While this is not a sufficient reason for
uncritically the material suggesting survival of consciousness after
it should be an additional incentive for reviewing the existing data
an open mind and in the spirit of true science. The same applies to the
powerful experiential technologies involving NOSC that make it possible
to confront the fear of death and can facilitate deep positive
changes and spiritual opening. A radical inner transformation and
to a new level of consciousness might be the only real hope we have
current global crisis brought on by the dominance of the Western
Holotropic Breathwork is a therapeutic modality developed by Stanislav
Grof which induces psychedelic states through directed deep and rapid
coordinated with dramatic sounds and rhythms.
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