Field Notes

Holotropic Inner Work: Integration of Meditation and Psychotherapy with Life

March 31, 2019 - 4 Comments

The word Holotropic is borrowed from the Czechoslovakian psychiatrist and one of the founders of transpersonal psychology, Stanislav Grof (, who created it from ‘holos’(meaning, ‘whole’) and trapein (meaning, ‘turning or moving towards’). Holo+tropic together means moving or turning towards wholeness. This term is related to his view of the value of non-ordinary, and what Heesoon and I have been calling, the ‘post-egoic’ states of consciousness. Grof was one of the original researchers to work with LSD. He was fascinated with the experiences of perception and imagination under the influence of LSD. He became interested in ways of experiencing such states of consciousness without the use of medicine or sacred plants. Subsequently, he and his wife/co-researcher Christina developed holotropic breath work. Grof has stated at various times that he believes these non-ordinary states can be arrived at through various methods, including certain forms of psychotherapy, martial arts, sacred practices of all kinds, meditation, dance, and so on. My own experience with the holotropic breathing practices, albeit limited, was most uncomfortable.  These practices did not really produce for me the kind of non-ordinary states that many seem to have. Subsequently, over many years, I have found various practices including, psychotherapy, martial arts, and particularly meditation performed in certain ways, that would be conducive to the emergence of these non-ordinary consciousness states. In this Field Note I will provide a glimpse into holotropic inner work.


Now, you might well ask what is the value of these non-ordinary states? In these non-ordinary states, you’ll see, hear, and feel your more authentic self, regardless of the reality of context you happen to find yourself in. I view such experience as being emergent from the deepest, the most fundamental nature of humanity. Over many decades, I have been developing ways of integrating process-oriented psychotherapy and meditation practice. I have termed such work, ‘inner work.’


The term inner work refers to all work with both the process and the contents of consciousness that is aimed at developing consciousness/awareness, and facilitating a process of inner and relational awakeness/enlightenment. Inner work is an integrated practice that uses meditation practice and process-oriented work (based from the work of Arny and Amy Mindell, that some would see as derived from various resources related to humanistic-existential psychotherapy. The core approach involves non-judgmentally attending to your experience in the moment, whatever that experience may be. If you feel you are in touch with your experience, there is nothing for you to do other than stay with this experience consciously. If something seems to occlude this experience, this is your opportunity to work with the emergent identity and developmental issue in order to understand your own Shadow and to help the alchemy of transformation to unfold from the edge at which it has been arrested, likely for many decades.


Here is an illustration:


I (Avraham) am meditating. I am standing up. I feel like walking around. My eyes open and close. I see enough to prevent walking into anything. I am also trying to ‘sense’ the space without seeing with my eyes.  My eyes are soft; allowing impressions to come in. I am aware of my experience. I feel my legs moving, my feet on the floor. I hear traffic outside. I would best describe my state as a reverie experience; somewhat blissful and seeing and feeling everything softly. Suddenly I have a thought about a task that needs completing. I get lost in the thought and continue to go over the task, what I need to do, consequences of not doing it, and on and on. Suddenly I realize that I have gone ‘unconscious.’ This is my instant of re-awakening. I am reflecting on my experience and I become aware of an inner sub-identity. This identity I call, the worrier. My mother comes to mind. She had constant and great concerns about things not getting done, and the associated consequences. I ‘learned’ to worry about such from her modelling. I could stop here with this insight, and I decide to go farther with this.


I am now the worrier. I feel a tension in my body, particularly in the center of my chest. I also notice that my shoulders are slightly raised and my neck feels stiff. While I can see, I don’t really see as I am caught inside myself. I have no choice. I start to struggle to be free of this tension. I notice this and realize that I cannot just defeat it. I decide that to the best of my ability I will surrender to my worrying way of being. I feel helpless, isolated, and very lonely. Who will help me? Surely, my mother cannot help as she is the architect of the worrier consciousness. I need a ‘different’ mother.


Little Avi (LA): mummy I need help! I feel scared,

Mother (M): If we can just get everything done, then I can relax. Nobody ever lifts a finger around here to help. I only have one pair of hands.

LA: I don’t know how. I am just little. Show me what to do.

M: I don’t have time.

LA: Mommy, I don’t think this is so important. Please pay attention to me, then maybe we can work together. Don’t you care about me?

M: of course, I care about you.

LA: I can’t tell.

M: I’m your mother. Of course, I care about you.

LA: I need to feel it. Can’t you really pay attention. I think I am less important to you than getting this job done.

M: Oh! I see. Let me slow down. Okay, you are right. I have a very big habit of wanting to get everything done. I see that you are scared. I am forgetting my task now. The only task that really matters is attuning/attending to you.

LA: Oh! I feel a lot of strange feelings. I am not used to you paying such close attention to me and letting task go into the background. Thank you, Mommy. How can I help you?

M: you are helping me.


At this point I am finished for now with this inner dialogue. I know that I will repeat a version of this many times, as this theme is strongly embedded in my consciousness. I return to meditation with the ‘support’ of my mom and Little Avi. I have a different consciousness. I feel simultaneously at peace and excited. I am at this moment fully in the present. I am again connected with my inner self and experiencing a non-ordinary consciousness. I am moving about very freely and consciously. I do not stay still very often and yet I feel an inner stillness. I have returned to my reverie state. Meditation is an experience of aliveness. My meditation is for the moment an experience of oneness with the world.


The above dialogue represents a specific piece of work and can also be seen as a paradigm for the inner work that arises during meditation. Such dialogue gives opportunity for addressing an egoic structures that has become reified. And you probably can also see that the above piece of meditation work is very different from the many usual methods that instruct us to sit still, not to think, focus on your breathing, bringing the wandering mind back, etc. Typical responses that come out of meditators who try to follow the instructions are: “I can’t stop thinking,” “I can’t sit still,” “I find this so uncomfortable,” “I keep thinking I am doing this wrong,” “I just can’t do this,” and so on. In fact, meditation has come to be so identified with these reactions that it is practically synonymous with reactions, such as: meditation is not thinking; meditation is sitting still; meditation is focusing on the breath. As someone whom I cannot recall once said, “Meditation is not an opportunity to beat yourself up!” Basically, these characterizations show means and ends confusion. Method becomes the defining essence of something. Sitting still is a method; not thinking is a method. But what’s the goal? What are we trying to cultivate and achieve through these and other methods?


Let us now talk more comprehensively about meditation. There are many reasons people offer as for their motivation to meditate. Almost certainly there are just as many kinds of meditation as there are people doing the meditation. Having said that, still, you may ask, what makes all these varieties of meditation “meditation,” and not, something else? What makes them all some kind of meditation? In this Field Note, I (along with Heesoon who is involved in working on our meditation project) will propose and advance the notion that what makes something a meditation is a way to work with one’s consciousness towards wholeness. But how do we know we are moving towards wholeness? One telltale sign is liberation from suffering, which does not equate with indifference or lack of feeling. It is perhaps better understood as being free to feel and know what is happening and eventually learning to not be caught up in our reactions to the feelings we have about what is happening.


The ordinary mind is easily—in fact, almost constantly–afflicted with constricting, darkening, and draining effects. Or with such opposites as erratically exploding, “burning” and consuming, over controlling, etc. Ordinary mind is inclined to get into a position from whose vantage point one gains a very particular view, which means that one is not seeing the whole. As well, ordinary mind can get easily stuck in certain “channels,” and not move fluidly, flexibly, and freely. Meditation is a process of cultivating consciousness, thereby facilitating your mind to achieve capacious, clear, fluid, energized, attentive, luminous, and peaceable states of consciousness. There are many different kinds of inner work we can do, and the ‘trick’ is to be able to address one’s experience in just the right way in the given moment. This can include the somatic dimensions that work directly with body symptoms and energetics. Heesoon and I hope to do some workshops on this topic in the near future! Stay tuned!


To sum up, it doesn’t really matter what you specifically do when you meditate. Your aim is to become increasingly aware/awake, really to enter into the process of awakening, which is really a lifelong process about the learning about yourself, others, the world, and to explore whatever may be beyond these earthly realms.


…and with thanks to Heesoon for her support with this Field Note.


Carl Leggo (1953—2019).


I would like to end this Field Note with a tribute to Professor Carl Leggo who passed away on March 7, 2019. Carl was my senior supervisor (Avraham) for my doctoral work at University of British Columbia. He was also a member of a group that I was fortunate to dream up–that is, I founded–shortly after I received my doctorate in 2006. We called this group, the ePod: a pod of educators. As a group, we met regularly up to the present. Our group published two books and did numerous public and academic presentations. The other members of the group, besides myself and Heesoon, included Karen Meyer, Tony Clarke, and Marion Porath. Marion also passed away, last year. Both of Marion and Carl were very immersed in life and far too young too move out of this plane of existence.


Our group has been reduced by a third: a shocking experience and loss. The UBC academic and the personal communities of these two very fine human beings have experienced an immense loss. I have written about Marion previously. So I will focus here on Carl. He was widely known as a consummate academic, a prolific poet, and a most encouraging and warm human being. He had a great talent in working with graduate students and supervised a staggeringly large number of graduate students. He was also very dedicated to his family. My own experience was that being in his presence was a highly engaging, life-affirming, encouraging, nourishing, and very warm experience. I feel most fortunate to have known him in life! I miss him, and I know he is sorely missed by very many. I should add, however, that, although I know that he is dead, I am also keenly aware that he is not dead in my consciousness. He is vividly alive for me in my memory, and I can meet him, through my memory,and in non-ordinary consciousness, any time.


In my meditation the morning following the news of Carl’s death, he arose in my consciousness, and the following words, said in his joyful way with a Newfoundland lilt, emerged ‘from him,’ “Come on in, the water’s fine!”


  • Hamid Moreau April 1, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Thanks Avraham I always enjoy your field notes they help me reflect on my life in ways most helpful. Best to Heesoon.

    • Avraham Cohen April 1, 2019 at 7:15 pm

      best wishes Hamid, and thanks for your support!

  • Sonia April 2, 2019 at 8:42 pm

    Thank you Avraham,
    I always look forward to your notes. Sonia

    • Avraham Cohen April 3, 2019 at 4:14 pm

      Thank you Sonia. Your support is greatly appreciated.
      Best wishes, Avraham


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