The Power Within, Becoming, Being, and the Holotropic Paradigm
Written by Tav Sparks
Moving Towards Wholeness
Review by Gunnel Minett
The ‘power within’ referred to in the title of this book is a phenomenon triggered by a breathing technique known as Holotropic Breathwork. The word Holotropic comes from the Greek word hólos, meaning whole, and tropic, meaning turning or changing, i.e. moving toward wholeness. The basic idea of this technique is that, with the aid of carefully selected music and breathing in the company of a helper (the common name for the trained breathwork practitioner), a person will get in touch with their inner healer. This refers to a natural tendency we all have to be able to self-adjust and heal psychological wounds. Sparks writes: “Here is the holotropic perspective: Under the infallible guidance of our inner healing capacity, we are able, through powerful methods, to heal our personally circumscribed state of consciousness, what we call the individual self.” (p110)
As an overview of Holotropic Breathwork this book does a good job. From a rather mystical standpoint, it explains both how the technique works and also how it ties in with the more spiritual approach to the human psyche represented by Eastern traditions. The book gives an account of how Stanislav Grof, the originator, came to develop the technique from his pioneering work using LSD in psychotherapy. Grof would take his clients through LSD sessions and as a result of this he came to realise the transpersonal aspects of this kind of therapy. The result of his research is a cartography of the psyche based on what Grof named a COEX system of pre- and perinatal related matrices.
When the use of LSD later became restricted, Grof continued his work by developing a breathing technique that mimicked the observations he had made in the LSD sessions. His conclusion was that it was possible to recreate the same kind of psycho-therapeutical settings that lay behind the transpersonal experiences in LSD-induced therapy. The author, Tav Sparks, who has worked very closely with Grof for many years, refers back to Grof’s theories and work throughout the book. Consequently, the book is also a history of the development of Holotropic Breathwork.
The downside of the book is that it takes a rather polemic approach to other types of psychiatry and psychotherapy, which Sparks regards as too one-dimensional: he writes, for example; “For the last century and more, modern psychiatric approaches espouse the strategy, either unconsciously or consciously, of practitioners and researchers to assign a diagnosis of pathology, or wrongness, to a substantial portion of human thought processes or behaviours existing “outside the norm,” or even some of those considered inherently socially unacceptable.” (p 48)
Although much can be criticized in an over-diagnosing pathology approach, what he is describing may be more of an American phenomenon than a global approach to dealing with psychological problems. Health care in America is based on insurance. Therefore there has always been a need to label psychological problems in a similar way to illnesses. No label, no insurance cover! In the rest of the world, in particular where health care is covered by taxes, the situation is different. Here much has changed, especially in recent decades. In particular psychotherapy, based on Evolutionary Psychology takes a much more open-minded approach to psychological problems based on a wellness-oriented approach.
But as we all know health care is an area that is stretched to its limits in many parts of the world. And treating psychological problems is usually not a quick fix. It may take years of psychotherapy to help a person regain their inner balance. This is often too costly to be covered by national health programmes. So given that patients with physical problems often only get around 10 minutes of a doctor’s time, drug treatments are often the only alternatives for both physical and psychological problems.
The concept of an ‘inner healer’, presented in the book, is in itself a very interesting concept that deserves thorough investigation and research. Properly understood, it may entail a complete turn-around as to how modern medicine works.This is why it is so important for alternative therapies to be accepted as proper alternatives by the national health providers. But as always, when it comes to activities funded by tax payers (or insurance companies), the demand for evidence is essential. This is something that alternative therapies have to accept. But with health care providers struggling to meet the needs around the world, the finding of alternatives needs urgent attention.
Unfortunately this book does not offer many explanations that would satisfy mainstream health care. The claim that transpersonal therapies, such as Holotropic Breathwork, help to evoke ‘the inner healer’ needs considerable substantiation. This is not always easy to do within conventional Western science, which is still very attached to trials with blind and double-blind testing, etc.. But there are ways of dealing with this problem. For instance, there are theories of consciousness* and the human psyche** that can be transferred to the transpersonal techniques and therefore offer explanations.
Testing exactly which element/s in a breathwork session are the best triggers of the ‘inner healer’ would also help. This can be done simply by changing the various parameters for the breathing session. Another very simple solution would be to provide definitions of words such as ‘consciousness’ and ‘healing’, for example in the following statements from Sparks: “consciousness itself is the healing power”. (p 274) These are very ambiguous words, capable of an enormous number of interpretations which have provoked extensive fields of debate and research. Additionally, providing some form of statistics as to the success rate of Holotropic Breathwork would be useful in bringing the technique into mainstream therapy.
One fairly well recognised and accepted aspect of the human psyche is the need we all share to be part of a bigger group. To be seen and heard by others is one of our most basic needs (in many ways as important as nourishment for our survival). Perhaps it’s simply the full attention of another person in Holotropic Breathwork that makes us feel in touch with our inner healer. Establishing this would be a big step forward. Not to mention that it may also help to fine-tune and improve the Holotropic technique as such.
Sparks states that: “It seems to be challenging for many of us people-helpers to accept the psycho-spiritual truth that clients know better than we do about what is good for them.”(p 140). This statement needs further explanation in order not to come across as very one-sided. Sparks draws parallels with the 12-step program regarding the role of the breathwork helper. However, 12-steppers clearly profile themselves as operating within a peer-to-peer self-help group. Holotropic Breathwork, does not have such a clear peer-help profile. On the contrary, Sparks describes it as a form of psychotherapy. So people who consult a breathwork practitioner are probably looking for a professional therapist. And anyone offering some form of therapy, needs to take responsibility for being seen as a therapist or authority figure even if this is against their principles.
In addition, if people always knew what was best for them, as Sparks claim, the world would not look the way it does. It may ultimately be true that (at some level) nobody does anything if they don’t believe it’s good for them. But, also at that level, one has to accept that everything, including the most destructive behaviours, can be seen as ‘being good for them’ even when the ‘logic’ is completely twisted for whatever unfortunate reasons. (Ignoring this opens the door to the whole ‘good/evil, original sin’ worldview.) Recognising this makes this kind of argument meaningless, unless it is fully explained (which this book does not). So here too, a middle way with a more balanced approach would have been beneficial.
From personal experience I also question claims such as: “Healing seems to occur through an inherent “cooperation” between the inner healing source and consciousness itself”. (p 37) In my view it is not always enough to create an environment where a person opens up to their inner resources. Nor is it always enough to “consciously relive” past experiences. It may be sufficient, of course, in individual cases. But then again, these kind of experiences can occur spontaneously without any specific setting or assistance. In order for ‘healing’ to take place, I would argue, a person needs to be helped to an adequate understanding of their trauma in order for ‘healing’ to take place. (Understanding in this context includes both mental and emotional understanding).
Additionally, Sparks stresses throughout the book that this kind of healing support can’t be taught. However, a proper understanding of the human psyche can be taught. Unfortunately, Sparks uses his position mainly to criticize other forms of psychotherapy. But psychotherapy is not always about telling the client what they need or labelling them, as Sparks claims. Many modern techniques are based on providing an overall understanding of the human psyche, for their clients, in order to help them understand why they may be having psychological problems. This kind of knowledge can often be another way of acquiring the kind of ‘inner power’ that Sparks talks about.
This is an important distinction to make. It is important because it means that the assistant, ‘helper’ or breathwork practitioner needs to have sufficient knowledge and experience of psychotherapy to be able to help the client to such increased understanding. Sparks’ book relies mainly on a spiritual solution: “However, it is imperative that support people in a holotropic milieu must also commit to systematic daily psycho-spiritual work.” (p 127). Although I can agree with the principle in itself, but not without clearer definitions as to what progress in the “daily psycho-spiritual work” involves. In any system of criteria designed to qualify people as ‘helpers’ it will always be difficult to safeguard against malpractice.
This is a problem of introspection versus inter-subjectivity and it needs to be solved if techniques such as Holotropic Breathwork are to be available as a valuable contribution to mainstream therapies. If not the risk of it becoming guru-teaching is simply too high.
In particular in transpersonal techniques such as breathwork (of various kinds) there are too many examples of practitioners who have not understood the concept “systematic daily psycho-spiritual work”. Instead they rely too much on their technique and do not realise that they lack sufficient knowledge of ‘general psychotherapy’ to be able to offer enough support. This is an important point for all breathwork techniques which practitioners need to take seriously. You could say that the power of their techniques needs to be taken more seriously and treated with the utmost respect. In particular if they want to promote a paradigm shift, as Sparks describes.
Having said this, the book is suitable for anyone interested in a new approach to psychotherapy. Hopefully there will soon be a follow up of this book that will offer a deeper understanding of what exactly the technique constitutes, and in what way this requires a ‘Holotropic Paradigm Shift’, as the author claims.
* See for instance Varela & Hayward, 2001: Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind, and Whitehead, 1978 : Process and Reality,
** See for instance Sue Gebhart, 2014, Why Love Matters, and Nessa Carely, 2012, The Epigenetics Revolution
Muswell Hill Press, London, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1908995209