Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.
The initial mutual fascination between Jung and Freud and their subsequent acrimonious break-up is well-documented. I see their approaches as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. While Freud dealt with the individual unconscious, Jung went a step further and proposed the existence of the collective, transpersonal unconscious, a repository of archetypes, myths and universal patterns. Jung never denied the existence of the individual unconscious or the importance of human sexuality. He acknowledged that without healing individual traumas the soul cannot make a step further towards the realm of the transpersonal.
The first threshold crossed by subjects taking part in an LSD procedure is a confrontation with their personal unconscious in the form of significant memories and traumas, emotional issues, unresolved conflicts and repressed material from their lives. The following words of Grof would probably act like balm on Freud’s soul:
… the observations from LSD psychotherapy could be considered to be laboratory proof of the basic Freudian premises. The psychosexual dynamics and the fundamental conflicts of the human psyche as described by Freud are manifested with unusual clarity and vividness even in sessions of naïve subjects, who have never been analyzed…
It is important to point out that Grof’s research was carried out in the communist Czechoslovakia, where Freudian psychoanalysis was banned from mainstream culture. Therefore the subjects cannot have internalized Freud’s theories before the sessions. Another significant psychoanalytic finding of Grof’s is something he called Systems of Condensed Experience (COEX Systems). To me they show how our memories are constituted and maybe how memory itself works.
COEX systems are individual memories from different periods of life that form clusters around a common theme. The deepest layers of such memories are core events that often took place in very early childhood. Similar experiences in later periods build layer upon layer on the original (core) event/memory. A typical COEX constellation may contain experiences of emotional deprivation or rejection that repeat throughout the individual’s life. There is a powerful emotional charge attached to such strings of memories, an activation of one memory seems to trigger a chain reaction and the activation of the whole COEX. A personality can contain an indeterminate number of such systems, which may condense either pleasant or unpleasant emotional experiences. Here is an example of a core experience:
… Richard suddenly regressed deeply into infancy and experienced himself as a one-year old baby swaddled in a blanket and lying on the grass by a field, while adults were harvesting grain. He saw a cow approaching him, graze in the immediate proximity of his head, and then lick his face several times with her huge, rough tongue. During the reliving of this episode, the head of the cow seemed gigantic and almost filled the session room. Richard found himself gazing helplessly into the monstrous salivating mouth of the cow and felt her saliva flowing all over his face. After having relived the happy ending of this situation … Richard felt enormous relief and a surge of vitality and activity. …
Marc Chagall, I and the Village
The basic COEX theme of this experience was being helpless and at a mercy of a destructive external force. Prior to his LSD sessions Richard had suffered from severe depression, anxiety and various psychosomatic symptoms. He had been unable to form a long-lasting relationship. After reliving the COEX experiences in an LSD session, his symptoms disappeared and he appeared to be healed.
The onset of COEX activation during an LSD session is heralded by a vision that subjects compare to a flood or a whirlpool. They get surrounded by a motley of seemingly random “amorphous mixture fragments of human or animal bodies, portions of a landscape, pieces of furniture” that in fact are sensory fragments of the COEX experience. While reading this I immediately thought of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which shows the trauma of war and civilians suffering as a result of an air attack. In a great BBC series called Power of Art, which I cannot recommend enough, Simon Schama says this about Guernica:
Instead of a laboured literal commentary on German warplanes, Basque civilians and incendiary bombs, Picasso connects with our worst nightmares. He’s saying here’s where the world’s horror comes from; the dark pit of our psyche.
Like Proust’s madeleine, a seemingly trivial object can transport s back into the heart of a memory. Another indication of an emerging COEX is an incessant repetition of the same words and sentences. I could not help but thinking how dismembered our memories are, how fragmented. Re-membering and reliving seem to be reintroducing wholeness back. All the lost memory fragments have to be mined and excavated and thanks to such archeology of memories our souls can find peace again
I was fascinated to read the accounts of early childhood memories full of astonishing details and accompanied by detailed realistic representations of the setting and the events that occurred. What that shows is that in the deep recesses of our memory everything is stored and our conscious lives, our actions and reactions, are rounded, shaped and guided by a multitude of unconscious memories. The researchers were also astonished by these findings and therefore they tried to verify the authenticity of the relived memories, which is described here:
Dana … relived in one of her LSD sessions a traumatic episode from infancy that she tentatively located at the end of her first year of life. She described in great detail the interior of the room where this event happened to the point of being able to draw the elaborate pattern of embroidery on the bedspread and tablecloth. Dana’s mother was independently asked to give her description of the room in question. When confronted with the material from the patient, she was absolutely astonished by the accuracy of the account concerning the traumatic event as well as its physical setting.
But what does reliving a traumatic event under LSD really mean? It means assuming the roles of all participants in the COEX event. For example, if a subject was a victim of an assault he or she must relive both the role of the victim and that of the aggressor. For a disturbing moment a victim has to identify with an aggressor. Only by experiencing the event from all the possible perspectives can our soul make peace with it.