Welcome to Afterglow, a newsletter that will change your mind. My name is Charles Bliss and I'm a psychedelic journalist from Norwich, UK.
This week we are delving into the groundbreaking work of Czech psychiatrist Dr Stanislav Grof, who expanded the frontiers of our inner universe by administering thousands of doses of LSD in psychedelic therapy.
NASA released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope this week. They're trippy. Broadening our perspective on the cosmos in which we float — like a blue lotus flower in an infinite pond — is both enlightening and stupefying. Contemplating galaxies upon galaxies can induce a mystical realisation that we are somehow made of the same stuff that's out there in interstellar space, as discussed in the last edition of Afterglow.
What is even more inconceivable is that chemicals exist with the ability to expand our internal landscape, which seems to be as unbounded, inexhaustible and under-explored as that depicted by $10 billion infrared telescopes. Those chemicals are psychedelic compounds — and a researcher called Dr Stanislav Grof understood their potential, claiming:
"Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope is for astronomy."
Until the 1960s, Czechoslovakia was ground zero for psychedelic research in communist countries behind the Iron Curtain — and Grof was the leading psychiatrist investigating the potential of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). He later continued his work in the United States at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre in Baltimore, where he also served as clinical and research fellow at Johns Hopkins University.
In his book Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (1975), Grof concluded that psychedelic substances like LSD have unique potential as diagnostic instruments and research tools for the exploration of the mind.
"Careful analysis of the LSD data strongly indicates that this substance is an unspecific amplifier of mental processes that brings to the surface various elements from the depth of the unconscious."
Grof found that the LSD-assisted psychotherapy would bring inner conflicts occurring on the level of the subconscious to the surface, which could then be explored and hopefully resolved with psychoanalysis.
"If approached from this point of view, LSD phenomena are extremely interesting material for a deeper understanding of the mind, the nature of man, and human society."
The experience of death and rebirth, regression into childhood, union with the universe or God, encounters with demonic appearances, inhabiting past incarnations or even reliving one's own birth were all documented by Grof in his lab. One of his patients described the peak of an LSD experience:
"The scenery opened up, and an incredible amount of light and energy was enveloping me and streaming in subtle vibrations through my whole being. On one level, I was still a foetus experiencing the ultimate perfection and bliss of a good womb or a newborn fusing with a nourishing and life-giving breast. On another level, I became the entire universe; I was witnessing the spectacle of the macrocosm with countless pulsating and vibrating galaxies and was it at the same time."
The preceding passage reminds me of the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, as a foetus is suspended weightless in the glittering void of outer space. (In his book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Michael Pollan writes that Stanley Kubrick underwent LSD therapy in the 1960s, as did many other Hollywood celebrities including Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson, though Kubrick claimed that he never took consciousness-expanding drugs.)
There are parallels between embarking on a psychedelic trip and deep space travel, which is where the term psychonaut comes from. And when star-gazing into an abyss that starts to stare back, it is overwhelming to attempt to comprehend how much universe is out there. But there is also a lot of universe between your temples — and psychedelics can amplify it.
🤯 Mind at Large
A breakdown of mind-blowing ideas I encountered this week:
🎬 Film – Powers of Ten (1977) by Charles and Ray Eames. This mind-boggling documentary will impart a sense of the relative scale of yourself to the field of space and time. The camera zooms out to encompass the entire universe, then focuses in to observe atoms and quarks. An updated version from Professor Brian Cox and the BBC has also recently been released.
"You contain a universe inside yourself. There's no end to it — your conscious, your subconscious. There is no limit to what's inside you. We are very much connected."
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