Perinatal Experiences

The most important common denominator and focus of the experiences originating in this area of the unconscious is a group of problems related to biological birth, physical pain and agony, disease, aging, decrepitude, dying and death. It is important to emphasize that the encounter with these critical aspects of human life typically takes the form of a profound first-hand experience, rather than just symbolic confrontation. Specific eschatological ideation, and visions of wars, revolutions, concentration camps, accidents, decaying cadavers, coffins, cemeteries and funeral corteges occur as characteristic illustrations and concomitants of perinatal experiences. However, their very essence is an extremely realistic and authentic sense of the ultimate biological crisis which subjects frequently confuse with real dying. It is not uncommon for patients in this situation to lose critical insight and develop a delusional conviction that actual physical demise is imminent.

The shattering confrontation with these alarming aspects of existence and deep realization of the vulnerability and iinpennanence of humans as biological creatures has two important consequences. The first of these is a profound emotional and philosophical crisis that forces individuals to question seriously the meaning of existence and their values in life. They come to realize through these experiences, not intellectually but on a deep, almost cellular level, that no matter what they do, they cannot escape the inevitable. They will have to leave this world, bereft of everything that they have achieved and accumulated. This process of ontological crisis is usually associated with a definite crystallization of basic values. Worldly ambitions, competitive drives, and cravings for status, power, fame, prestige and possessions tend to fade away when viewed against the background of the mandatory ending of each human drama in biological annihilation.

The other important consequence of this shocking encounter with the phenomenon of death is the opening of areas of religious and spiritual experience that seem to be an intrinsic part of the human personality and are independent of the individual's cultural and religious background and programming. The only way to resolve the existentialist dilemma described above is through transcendence. The individual has to find reference points that are beyond the narrow boundaries of his or her perishable physical shrine and the limitations of the individual life span. It would appear that everybody who experiences these levels develops convincing insights into the utmost relevance of the spiritual dimension in the universal scheme of things. Even positivistically oriented scientists, hard-core materialists, sceptics and cynics, uncompromising atheists and antireligious crusaders such as Marxist philosophers and politicians, suddenly become interested in the spiritual quest after they confront these levels in themselves.

The sequences of dying and being born (or reborn) that are characteristic of the process of perinatal unfolding are frequently very dramatic and have many biological concomitants, apparent even to the outside observer. Subjects may spend hours in agonizing pain, with facial contortions, gasping for breath and discharging enormous amounts of muscular tension in tremors, twitches, violent shaking and complex twisting movements. The face may turn dark purple or dead pale, and the pulse show considerable acceleration. The body temperature usually dscillates in a wide range, sweating may be profuse, and nausea with projectile vomiting is a frequent occurrence.

It is not quite clear at the present stage of research how the above experiences are related to the circumstances of the individual's actual biological birth. Some LSD subjects refer to them as reliving of their birth trauma, others do not make this explicit link and conceptualize their encounter with death and rebirth in purely symbolic, philosophical, and spiritual terms. However, even in this latter group perinatal experiences are quite regularly accompanied by a complex of physical symptoms that can best be interpreted as a derivative of biological birth.

In addition to the seizure-like motor discharges and other conditions described above, there may be cardiac distress and irregularities, and hypersecretion of mucus and saliva. Such subjects also assume various fetal postures and move in sequences that bear a similarity to those of a child during the stages of biological delivery. In addition, they frequently report visions of or identification ' with fetuses and newborn children. Equally common are several authentic neonatal feelings, postures and behavior, as well as visions of female genitals and breasts.

Most of the rich and complex content of the LSD sessions reflecting this level of the unconscious seems to fall into four typical clusters or experiential patterns. Searching for a simple, logical and natural conceptualization of this observation, I was struck by the astonishing parallels between these patterns and the clinical stages of delivery. It proved very useful for didactic purposes, theoretical considerations, and the practice of LSD psychotherapy, to relate these four categories of phenomena to the four consecutive stages of the biological birth process and to the experiences of the child in the perinatal period. For the sake of brevity I refer to the functional structures in the unconscious which manifest in these four major experiential patterns as Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM I-IV). I see them as hypothetical dynamic governing systems that have a similar function on the perinatal level of the unconscious as the COEX systems have on the psychodynamic level.

Basic perinatal matrices have specific content of their own: concrete, realistic and authentic experiences related to individual stages of the biological birth process and their symbolic and spiritual counterparts (exemplified by .the elements of cosmic unity, universal engulfment, no-exit, death-rebirth struggle, and death-rebirth experience). In addition to manifesting specific content, basic perinatal matrices also function as organizing principles for the material from other levels of the unconscious. Perinatal experiences can thus occur in psychedelic sessions in association with specific psychodynamic material related to various COEX systems, and also in association with certain types of transpersonal experiences. Particularly frequent concomitants of the birth experience are memories of diseases, operations and accidents from the individual's life, archetypal phenomena (especially images of the Terrible Mother and the Great Mother), elements of group consciousness, ancestral and phylogenetic experiences, and past-incarnation memories.

Individual perinatal matrices also have fixed associations with activities in the Freudian erotogenic zones and with specific categories of psychiatric disorders. All these complex interrelations are shown in the synoptic paradigm on pages 75-78. They provide clues to the understanding of many otherwise puzzling aspects of LSD experiences, and also have far-reaching implications for psychiatric theory. This paradigm demonstrates, among other things, the close parallels between the stages of biological delivery and the pattern of sexual orgasm. The similarity between these two biological patterns is a fact of fundamental theoretical importance. It makes it possible to shift the etiological emphasis in the psychogenesis of emotional disorders from sexual dynamics to perinatal matrices, without denying or negating the significance and validity of the basic Freudian principles for understanding the psychodynamic phenomena and their mutual interrelations.

In the following text, Basic Perinatal Matrices will be discussed in the sequence in which the corresponding phases of biological delivery follow during childbirth. In serial LSD sessions this chronological order is not maintained, and elements of individual matrices can occur in most variegated sequential patterns.

! The death-rebirth process docs not consist of one single experience of dying and being reborn, 110 matter how profound and complete this experience might feel. As a rule it takes a great number of death-rebirth sequences and an entire series of high-dose LSD sessions to work through the material on the perinatal level, with all its biological, emotional, philosophical and spiritual manifestations.

In tliis process the individual has. to .face the deepest roots of existential despair, metaphysical anxiety and loneliness, murderous aggression, abysmal guilt "and inferiority feelings, as well as excruciating physical discomfort and the agony of total annihilation. These experiences open up access to the opposite end of tHe spectrum—orgiastic feelings of cosmic proportions, spiritual liberation and enlightenment, a sense of ecstatic connection with all of creation, and mystical union with the creative principle in the universe. Psychedelic therapy involving experiences on the perinatal level thus seems to represent a twentieth-century version of a process that has been practiced through millenia in various temple mysteries, rites of passage, secret initiations, and religious meetings of ecstatic sects.

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