“Psyche Unbound: Essays in Honor of Stanislav Grof” [Review]

Tarnas, Richard, & Kelly, Sean (Eds.). (2021). Psyche Unbound: Essays in Honor of Stanislav Grof. Foreword by Rick Doblin. Sante Fe, NM: Synergetic Press & the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. xxvi + 428 pp. ISBN: 9780998276526. Hardcover. $35. Reviewed by Matthew D. Segall.

It was 1973 when Dr. Stanislav Grof left what was then the last surviving clinical research program on psychedelics at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore. The moral panic of the “war on drugs” was in full swing, putting an end to decades of promising scientific work. Grof, undeterred, decided to leave behind his prestigious position at the center of the East Coast medical establishment to continue his research on the countercultural edges of the American continent as scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Did he imagine at the time that half a century later he would live to see the so-called “psychedelic renaissance”? 

The recent resurgence of medical research and increasing cultural openness to the healing potential of psychedelic states of consciousness owes much to Grof’s tireless commitment to advancing this work despite all the obstacles. The diverse essays collected in Psyche Unbound are a timely tribute to this grandfather of the psychedelic movement, as well as a reminder of the many fertile avenues of ongoing research that he has inspired. This collection illustrates how Grof’s contributions go far beyond just psychedelic research, as his cartography of the psyche dramatically expands our sense of what it means to be human, from sex, to birth, to death, and back again. 

The editors are to be commended for gathering and organizing such a feast, of which only a few appetizers can be offered in the space of this review. Essays by early allies like Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Frances Vaughan, Ralph Metzner, and Fritjof Capra are sure to enlighten those yet unaware of Grof’s broader influence on other luminaries of the new paradigm. Detailed applications of Grof’s framework and methods to the study of sexual ecstasy (Wade), birthing rituals (Lahood), mood disorders (P. Grof and Fox), inner healing intelligence (Mithoefer), gender reconciliation (Keepin), end of life anxiety (Grob), and the death/rebirth mystery (Bache) offer readers a comprehensive survey of his wide-ranging impact on psychotherapeutic practice. Theoretical essays bring Grof’s vast cosmological explorations into dialogue with ancient traditions including archetypal astrology (Tarnas) and Samkhya (Purton), as well as important twentieth century figures like William James (Kelly), Carl Jung (Laszlo), Alfred North Whitehead (Buchanan), and John Paul Sartre (Riedlinger). The collection, having begun with celebrations of the perennialist perspective in essays by Campbell, Smith, and Vaughan, ends with a friendly challenge from the participatory approach to religious and spiritual experience articulated by Jorge Ferrer.

Psychotherapeutic practitioners, new paradigm researchers, and seasoned psychonauts alike will find much of value in this volume. As the next generation begins to carry forward the unfinished explorations pioneered by Grof, they may do so inspired by his vision of the universe as an indivisible web of interrelated events, each representing and reenacting “different aspects and patterns of one integral process of unimaginable complexity” (1985, p. 64). These essays celebrating Stan’s life and work will surely serve to strengthen the efforts of all those seeking to aid a troubled species sorely seeking its path toward wholeness.  

Works Cited

Grof, Stanislav. (1985). Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. New York: State University of New York Press.  

Author/Editor Information: 

Richard Tarnas, Ph.D., is the founding director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of the widely read The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (1991) and Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (2006). 

Sean Kelly, Ph.D, is professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era (2010) and Becoming Gaia: On the Threshold of Planetary Initiation (2021). 

Reviewer Information: 

Matthew D. Segall, Ph.D., is a process philosopher and assistant professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology (2021) and blogs regularly at footnotes2plato.com.