As psychedelic research continues its resurgence and the healing potential of psychedelic experience gains more mainstream acceptance, it is important to honor and learn from the elders in the psychedelic space. Stanislav Grof, famed transpersonal psychologist and the “godfather” of LSD, has been facilitating LSD psychotherapy sessions for over 60 years and is one of the greatest living psychedelic legends. Needless to say, we have a lot to learn from him.
Susan Heiss Logeais is the filmmaker behind the new documentary The Way of the Psychonaut that explores the life of Stan Grof and the insights that he still has to offer to the fields of psychology and psychedelic therapy. I spoke with Susan recently about how she came to connect with Stan and why we still have so much to learn from his wisdom.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Susan. I absolutely loved The Way of the Psychonaut and learned a lot from it. When did you first come across Stan Grof’s work and what drew you to it initially?
I learned about Stan’s work when I was drawn to reconnect with spiritual dimensions that I had turned away from in order to have children. It was the spring of 2013, and I kept seeing articles about renewed interest in psychedelics. LSD had opened me to a magical, expanded understanding of the world during my early twenties, and then later when I was 31, so I figured why not try it again. Except that now I was a mother, a wife, middle-aged and completely disconnected from anyone who might have access to psychedelics.
I found Stan Grof’s website when I started searching for drug trials to apply to, and that’s where I learned about holotropic breathwork – a technique he’d developed that gave people access to states similar to those experienced in psychedelic sessions. I’d had a powerful rebirthing experience during a week-long visit to Rajneeshpuram in my mid-twenties, so I signed up for a workshop at which Stan would be lecturing.
Those first experiences with breathwork weren’t as powerful as later ones, but when I heard Stan speak across a range of subjects – from quantum physics, to mythology, to tantric science, shamanic journeywork, archetypal astrology, and Eastern spiritual traditions – I saw many parallels between my 30 years of spiritual exploration and his breadth of knowledge. Telling his story would allow me to share what I had learned while also completing my understanding of the subjects he had mastered.
How did the idea of the film develop and what was it like to undergo the process of making the documentary?
As a filmmaker, I always think visually. I could see what it would look like as I sat there listening to him speak. At first I thought it would be a narrative film, but once we actually started working together it became clear that only a documentary could contain the scope of his 60-year career.
Connecting with Stan took some effort. He didn’t respond to a Facebook message I sent after his wife Christina had passed, so I ended up attending a conference in his honor in the fall of 2014. Archetypal astrologer, Matthew Steltzner deserves credit for encouraging me to attend.
During one of our first work sessions, Stan noted that 50 years had passed since he’d introduced the 4 Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM), but that schools of psychology had yet to accept them. The 4 BPMs describe the stages of birth that open us to the collective dimension, and both reflect our past journeys and influence our behavior going forward.
So it seemed that to really serve Stan’s legacy, it was important to show how he came to develop his theories, and that meant re-enacting critical moments from his life in a linear way. His 10 years of research, the 5,000 plus sessions with patients, and his own deep inner work combined with his scientific rigor provided the details we needed. I could see that if we followed that timeline, and demonstrated what he discovered, it would be much easier for people to accept the validity of his insights.
The other critical part was having my own high dose psychedelic sessions so that I would know what kind of interior experiences people had and could visually recreate them. The goal was to create visual sequences that drew viewers in, giving them an experiential as opposed to a purely theoretical understanding of Stan’s work. It was especially important to have Stan verify that my approach accurately reflected his work as well as the nature of psychedelic journeys.
Do you have any funny or surprising stories of Stan or any of the other experts you interviewed that happened when making the film?
As our work progressed, I was invited to film some gatherings organized by Stan and his wife, Brigitte. What surprised me was that the parties almost always had a theme, and that costumes were often required. Seeing Stan and Brigitte in lederhosen was just the beginning. That humor and lightness was such a wonderful contrast to the otherwise serious scientific perspective.
On a personal level, I was surprised to realize that many of the spiritual techniques I’d explored, as well as the new science that I’d studied, were introduced during Stan’s 14 years as the Esalen Institute’s Scholar-in-Residence. Before I met Stan, I had gone back to college to get my BA and argued for the world view expressed by Fritjof Capra, Amit Goswami, Ervin Laszlo, Rupert Sheldrake, and Michael Harner. So it was quite a gift to actually meet these scholars, and share their valuable contributions through the project.
What stood out about their commentary on Stan was the atmosphere of experiential learning and intellectual curiosity that he invited and nurtured. Jack Kornfield was spot on when he described Stan as a big toddler, interested in everything he encounters.
A costume party with Grof and that crowd sounds epic! I’m curious, what part of Stan Grof’s work do you think the world needs now most of all, and why?
In our relentless pursuit of economic growth and our blind embrace of a scientific reductionist worldview, we have become disenchanted and disconnected from the natural world. I know from my most difficult sessions that a profound sense of isolation and emptiness is what drives addictive behaviors and over-consumption. But that wasn’t always the case; humanity has moved away from the rituals and practices that once grounded us in a deeper reality.
Indigenous cultures rely on rites of passage as a means of working through unconscious fears and memories – and as Joseph Campbell noted, the death / rebirth monomyth he observed in cultures around the world was actually the reliving of their physical birth. Stan offers a current-day rite of passage – an inward journey to work through the layers of our personal experiences towards a connection to something greater.
Stan also witnessed that people who explored non-ordinary states of consciousness – whether through breathwork, psychedelics, or spiritual emergence – became more compassionate, tolerant, and caring for the environment. And beyond the techniques he developed, Stan provides a world view that embraces the new paradigm of science and relates the insights it offers to ancient spiritual traditions. I can’t imagine that humanity would support our destructive obsession with economic growth, and the human and environmental suffering it causes, if we fully understood quantum physics and systems theory. I doubt we would so easily turn away from the hardships of others if we believed in karma.
Finally, Stan provides a philosophical understanding of humanity in the throes of the 3rd Matrix – a life or death journey through a narrow passage. If we do the work necessary to pass through this challenge, then profound transformation is possible. I hope that is the case.
We are very grateful to Susan for taking the time to speak with us. The Way of the Psychonaut will be available to watch online on October 13th. Stay tuned the documentary’s website to stay informed or request to host a screening in your area.