by contemplativeinquiry

“The unified field of cosmic energy that I had experienced before now became a massive tree of radiant energy suspended in space. Larger than the largest galaxy, it was composed entirely of light. The core of the tree was lost to the brilliant display but limbs and leaves were visible around its edges. I experienced myself as one of the leaves, the lives of my family and close friends were clustered around me on a small branch. All of our distinguishing characteristics, what made us the individuals we were, appeared from this perspective to be quite minor, almost arbitrary variations of this fundamental energy.

“I was taken around the tree and shown how to move from one person’s experience to another and it was ridiculously easy. Different lives around the globe were simply different experiences the tree was having. … At this point, I was the tree. Not that I was having the full range of its experience, but I knew myself to be this single, encompassing Consciousness. I knew that its identity was my true identity. … To experience my true Identity filled me with a profound sense of numinous encounter”.

The above experience is reported by one of Stanislav Grof’s research subjects in his inquiry into “non-ordinary states of consciousness”. As a young psychiatrist in Soviet era Czechoslovakia Grof pioneered the therapeutic use of LSD. The authorities welcomed ‘progressive’ chemical treatments as an alternative to the bourgeois introspection of psychoanalysis. Seeking greater freedom, and given an opportunity to work in the USA, Grof became a Professor in the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. He continued his clinical and research work until it was banned in 1967 due to a moral panic about psychotropic drugs. His response was to invent holotropic breathing, a ‘natural’ and legal method of giving people access to the same states. Grof became a founder of the Transpersonal Association, which affirmed the place of spirituality in the therapeutic domain. Grof also developed a close association with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and became a leading figure in the counter-culture of the day.

Grof disliked the limitations he perceived in conventional scientific culture, in particular the view that “our boundaries were defined by the surface of the skin, and consciousness was seen as nothing more than the product of that thinking organ known as the brain”. He thought that scientific culture had developed in an ethnocentric way and was irrationally closed to information gained in non-ordinary states. For him, there was a limiting conflation of ‘objective reality’ and ‘consensus reality’. Anything referenced beyond this was open to dismissal “as the product of an overly active imagination or a mental disorder”, and thus delegitimised in conventional scientific discourse. Grof became interested in archetypal images like the world or cosmic tree because he found them coming up frequently in sessions, as phenomena inviting “numinous encounter”.

For me, reports of this kind add strength to the image of the world tree, though my personal experience of it is different. Some images, like that of the the world (or cosmic) tree, or tree of life, appear in many different cultures and historical periods. They are widely thought of as universal. But the specific ways in which they appear, and the meanings ascribed to them, vary with place, time and culture.

Stanislav Grof The Holotropic Mind: the Three Levels of Human Consciousness and How They Shape Our Lives San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993 (Written with Hal Zena Bennett)