At the heart of this book is the relationship between Dr. Stanislav Grof’s controversial theories of transpersonal psychology and the artwork of H. R. Giger, which provide an uncanny illustration of those theories. Giger’s lifelong struggle with nightmarish biomechanical visions takes on a whole new meaning when set against the backdrop of Grof’s concept of ‘Basic Perinatal Matrices’ or BPMs. By grasping the essential characteristics of the four stages of imprinting of the birth trauma on the human psyche, as mapped out by Grof, the reader discovers a synergy between the work of these two great figures, each in his own way dedicated to the the therapeutic catharsis of latent memories (for Grof, this is the clinical application upon his patients, while for Giger, this is the personal expression experienced as universal form through art).
The text that follows is excerpted from this new book of Grof’s essays and Giger’s art, presented here in abbreviated form such that the viewer of this site might grasp the profound transformative insights made available through this exceedingly unique edition of psychological literature and surrealist art:
First Basic Perinatal Matrix: BPM I (Primal Union with Mother)
The first perinatal matrix (BPM I) is related to the intrauterine existence before the onset of the delivery. The experiential world of this period can be referred to as the “amniotic universe.” The fetus in the womb does not have an awareness of boundaries and does not differentiate between the inner and the outer. This is reflected in the nature of the experiences associated with the reliving of the memory of the prenatal state.
During episodes of undisturbed embryonal existence, we typically have experiences of vast regions with no boundaries or limits. We can identify with galaxies, interstellar space, or the entire cosmos. A related experience is that of floating in the sea, identifying with various aquatic animals, such as fish, jelly fish, dolphins, or whales, or even becoming the ocean. This seems to reflect the fact that the fetus is essentially an aquatic creature. I refer to this experience as oceanic or Apollonian ecstasy. Positive intrauterine experiences can also be associated with archetypal visions of Mother Nature – safe, beautiful, and unconditionally nourishing like a good womb. We can envision fruit-bearing orchards, fields of ripe corn, agricultural terraces in the Andes, or unspoiled Polynesian islands. Mythological images from the collective unconscious that often appear in this context portray various celestial realms and paradises as they are described in mythologies of different cultures.
When we are reliving episodes of intrauterine disturbances, memories of the “bad womb,” we have a sense of dark and ominous threat and often feel that we are being poisoned. We might see images that portray polluted waters and toxic dumps. This reflects the fact that many prenatal disturbances are caused by toxic changes in the body of the pregnant mother. Sequences of this kind can be associated with archetypal visions of frightening demonic entities or with a sense of insidious all-pervading evil. Experiences of a hostile womb feature vicious animals and fierce demonic entities. Those people, who relive episodes of more violent interference with prenatal existence, such as an imminent miscarriage or attempted abortion, usually experience some form of universal threat or bloody apocalyptic visions of the end of the world. This again reflects the intimate interconnections between events in our biological history and the Jungian archetypes.
Second Perinatal Matrix: BPM II (Cosmic Engulfment and No Exit or Hell)
While reliving the onset of biological birth, we typically feel that we are being sucked into a gigantic whirlpool or swallowed by some mythic creature. We might also experience that the entire world or cosmos is being engulfed. This can be associated with images of devouring or entangling archetypal monsters, such as leviathans, dragons, whales, vipers, giant snakes, tarantulas, or octopuses. The sense of overwhelming vital threat can lead to intense anxiety and general mistrust bordering on paranoia. Another experiential variety of the beginning of the second matrix is the theme of descending into the depths of the underworld, the realm of death, or hell. As Joseph Campbell so eloquently described, this is a universal motif in the mythologies of the hero’s journey (Campbell 1968).
In the fully developed first stage of biological birth, the uterine contractions periodically constrict the fetus, and the cervix is not yet open. Subjects reliving this part of birth feel caught in a monstrous claustrophobic nightmare; they experience agonizing emotional and physical pain, and have a sense of utter helplessness and hopelessness. Feelings of loneliness, guilt, absurdity of life, and existential despair can reach metaphysical proportions. A person in this predicament often becomes convinced that this situation will never end and that there is absolutely no way out. An experiential triad characteristic for this state is a sense of dying, going crazy, and never coming back.
Reliving this stage of birth is typically accompanied by sequences that involve people, animals, and even mythological beings in a painful and hopeless predicament similar to that of the fetus caught in the clutches of the birth canal. This can be a medieval dungeon, a torture chamber of the Inquisition, a smothering and crushing mechanical contraption, a concentration camp, or an insane asylum. Our suffering can take the form of pains of animals caught in traps or even reach dimensions that are archetypal. We may feel the intolerable tortures of sinners in hell, the agony of Jesus on the cross, or the excruciating torment of Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the mountain in the deepest pit of Hades. Other images that have appeared in sessions dominated by this matrix include the Greek archetypal symbols of endless suffering, Tantalus and Prometheus, and other figures representing eternal damnation, such as the Wandering Jew Ahasuerus or the Flying Dutchman.
While under the influence of this matrix, we are selectively blinded and are unable to see anything positive in our life and in human existence in general. The connection to the divine dimension seems to be irretrievably severed and lost. Through the prism of this matrix, life seems to be a meaningless Theater of the Absurd, a farce staging cardboard characters and mindless robots, or a cruel circus sideshow. In this state of mind, existential philosophy appears to be the only adequate and relevant description of existence. It is interesting in this regard that Jean Paul Sartre’s work was deeply influenced by a badly managed and unresolved mescaline session dominated by BPM II (Riedlinger 1982). Samuel Beckett’s preoccupation with death and birth and his search for Mother also reveal strong perinatal influences. Going deeper into this experience seems like meeting eternal damnation. And yet, this shattering experience of darkness and abysmal despair is known from the spiritual literature as the Dark Night of the Soul. It is an important stage of spiritual opening that can have an immensely purging and liberating effect.
Third Perinatal Matrix: BPM III (The Death-Rebirth Struggle)
Many aspects of this rich and colorful experience can be understood from its association with the second clinical stage of biological delivery, the propulsion through the birth canal after the cervix opens and the head descends into the pelvis. In this stage, the uterine contractions continue, but the cervix is now dilated and allows gradual propulsion of the fetus through the birth canal. This involves crushing mechanical pressures, pains, and often a high degree of anoxia and suffocation. A natural concomitant of this highly uncomfortable and life-threatening situation is an experience of intense anxiety.
Besides the interruption of blood circulation caused by uterine contractions and the ensuing compression of uterine arteries, the blood supply to the fetus can be further compromised by various complications. The umbilical cord can be squeezed between the head and the pelvic opening or be twisted around the neck. The placenta can detach during delivery or actually obstruct the way out (placenta praevia). In some instances, the fetus can inhale various forms of biological material that it encounters in the final stages of this process, which further intensifies the feelings of suffocation. The problems in this stage can be so extreme that they require instrumental intervention, such as the use of forceps or even an emergency Cesarean section.
BPM III is an extremely rich and complex experiential pattern. Besides the actual realistic reliving of different aspects of the struggle in the birth canal, it involves a wide variety of imagery drawn from history, nature, and archetypal realms. The most important of these are the atmosphere of titanic fight, aggressive and sadomasochistic sequences, experiences of deviant sexuality, demonic episodes, scatological involvement, and encounter with fire. Most of these aspects of BPM III can be meaningfully related to certain anatomical, physiological, and biochemical characteristics of the corresponding stage of birth.
The titanic aspect of BPM III is quite understandable in view of the enormity of the forces operating in the final stage of childbirth. When we encounter this facet of the third matrix, we experience streams of energy of overwhelming intensity, rushing through the body and building up to explosive discharges. At this point, we might identify with raging elements of nature, such as volcanoes, electric storms, earthquakes, tidal waves, or tornadoes. The experience can also portray the world of technology involving enormous energies – tanks, rockets, spaceships, lasers, electric power plants, or even thermonuclear reactors and atomic bombs. The titanic experiences of BPM III can reach archetypal dimensions and portray battles of gigantic proportions, such as the cosmic battle between the forces of Light and Darkness, angels and devils, or the gods and the Titans.
Aggressive and sadomasochistic aspects of this matrix reflect the biological fury of the organism whose survival is threatened by suffocation, as well as the introjected destructive onslaught of the uterine contractions. Facing this aspect of BPM III, we might experience cruelties of astonishing proportions, manifesting in scenes of violent murder and suicide, mutilation and self-mutilation, massacres of various kinds, and bloody wars and revolutions. They often take the form of torture, execution, ritual sacrifice and self-sacrifice, bloody man-to-man combats, and sadomasochistic practices…
Fourth Perinatal Matrix: BPM IV (The Death-Rebirth Experience)
This matrix is related to the third clinical stage of delivery, to the final expulsion from the birth canal and the severing of the umbilical cord. Experiencing this matrix, we complete the preceding difficult process of propulsion through the birth canal, achieve explosive liberation, and emerge into light. This can often be accompanied by concrete and realistic memories of various specific aspects of this stage of birth. These can include the experience of anesthesia, the pressures of the forceps, and the sensations associated with various obstetric maneuvers or postnatal interventions.
The reliving of biological birth is not experienced just as a simple mechanical replay of the original biological event, but also as psychospiritual death and rebirth. To understand this, one has to realize that what happens in this process includes some important additional elements. Because the fetus is completely confined during the birth process and has no way of expressing the extreme emotions and reacting to the intense physical sensations involved, the memory of this event remains psychologically undigested and unassimilated. Our self-definition and our attitudes toward the world in our postnatal life are heavily contaminated by this constant reminder of the vulnerability, inadequacy, and weakness that we experienced at birth. In a sense, we were born anatomically but have not caught up with this fact emotionally. The “dying” and the agony during the struggle for rebirth reflect the actual pain and vital threat of the biological birth process. However, the ego death that precedes rebirth is the death of our old concepts of who we are and what the world is like, which were forged by the traumatic imprint of birth and are maintained by the memory of this situation that stays alive in our unconscious.
As we are clearing these old programs by letting them emerge into consciousness, they are losing their emotional charge and are, in a sense, dying. But we are so used to them and identified with them that approaching the moment of the ego death feels like the end of our existence, or even like the end of the world. As frightening as this process usually is, it is actually very healing and transforming. However, paradoxically, while only a small step separates us from an experience of radical liberation, we have a sense of all-pervading anxiety and impending catastrophe of enormous proportions. What is actually dying in this process is the false ego that, up to this point in our life, we have mistaken for our true self. While we are losing all the reference points we know, we have no idea what is on the other side, or even if there is anything there at all. This fear tends to create enormous resistance to continue and complete the experience. As a result, without appropriate guidance many people can remain psychologically stuck in this problematic territory.
Experiential completion of the reliving of birth takes the form of psychospiritual death and rebirth, giving birth to a new self. When we overcome the metaphysical fear encountered at this important juncture and decide to let things happen, we experience total annihilation on all imaginable levels – physical destruction, emotional disaster, intellectual and philosophical defeat, ultimate moral failure, and even spiritual damnation. During this experience, all reference points – everything that is important and meaningful in our life – seem to be mercilessly destroyed. Immediately following the experience of total annihilation – hitting “cosmic bottom” – we are overwhelmed by visions of white or golden light of supernatural radiance and exquisite beauty that appears numinous and divine.
Having survived what seemed like an experience of total annihilation and apocalyptic end of everything, we are blessed only seconds later with fantastic displays of magnificent rainbow spectra, peacock designs, celestial scenes, and visions of archetypal beings bathed in divine light. Often, this is the time of a powerful encounter with the archetypal Great Mother Goddess, either in her universal form or in one of her culture -specific forms. Following the experience of psychospiritual death and rebirth, we feel redeemed and blessed, experience ecstatic rapture, and have a sense of reclaiming our divine nature and cosmic status. We are overcome by a surge of positive emotions toward ourselves, other people, nature, and existence in general.