Doom, Gloom and the Birth Process
By Sheldon Shalley
Recently as I sat with a group of friends, listening to them provide their assessment of the current political, healthcare and world situation, I was struck by how the language of hopelessness, doom, gloom, pending disaster and a slide into socialism permeated the discussion. While one brave soul pointed out that we were all on Social Security and Medicare, noting its “socialistic undertone”, and how it was working fine for him, the general tone of the discussion was “things are bad and just going to get worse”—doom, gloom and pending disaster or destruction.
As I listened I was reminded of how the language and images they were using to describe the current situation were very similar to the language and images that Stan Grof uses to describe one of the four stages or perinatal matrices of the physical birth process.
Over the past 40 years, psychiatrist and researcher, Stanislav Grof, has studied non-ordinary states of consciousness and the intra-uterine dimensions to identify what he theorizes as four stages or perinatal matrices (BPM) of the physical birth process. He describes them as follows:
BPM I: Unity with the mother
The biological basis of this stage is the experience of the original symbiotic unity of the fetus with the maternal organism. During episodes of undisturbed life in the womb, the conditions of the child can be close to ideal. However, a variety of forces of physical, chemical, biological and psychological nature can seriously interfere with this state. The undisturbed intra-uterine state can be accompanied by other experiences that share with it a lack of boundaries and obstructions such as consciousness of the Ocean, an aquatic life form such as a whale, fish, jellyfish, etc., or interstellar space. Nature at its best.
The archetypal images from the collective unconscious associated with this stage can be the heavens or paradises of different cultures, cosmic union or mystical union. The disturbances of intra-uterine life in this stage are associated with images and experiences of underwater dangers, polluted streams, contaminated or inhospitable nature, and insidious demons. The mystical dissolution of boundaries is replaced by a psychotic distortion with paranoid undertones
BPM II: Opposition to the mother
This stage has its biological basis in the very onset of biological delivery and its first clinical stage. Here the original equilibrium of the intra-uterine existence is disturbed, first by alarming signals and then by muscular contractions. When this state fully develops the fetus is periodically constructed by uterine spams, the cervix is closed and the way out is not yet available.
Imagery of this stage is the experience of engulfment, overwhelming feelings of increasing anxiety and awareness of imminent vital threat. The source of this danger cannot be clearly identified, and the subject has the tendency to interpret the world in paranoid terms. Very characteristic of this stage is the experience of a three dimensional spiral, funnel or whirlpool, sucking the subject relentlessly towards its center. An equivalent of this annihilating maelstrom is the experience of being swallowed by a terrifying monster, such as a giant dragon, a python, crocodile or whale. Equally frequent are experiences of attack by a monstrous octopus or spider.
Archetypal imagery is the beginning of the hero’s journey, the fall of the angels, and paradise lost. Images of being stuck in prison or concentration camps or even hell are common. Common feelings are agonizing metaphysical loneliness, helplessness, inferiority, despair and guilt.
BMP III: Cooperation with the mother
Matrix III has its biological basis in the second stage of delivery. The uterine contractions continue and in fact increase but now the cervix is dilated, allowing a light to appear and a way out, allowing the child through.
The imagery associated with this stage can be titanic fights, sadomasochistic experiences, intense sexual arousal, demonic and scatological images and encounter with fire. In short the scene is a death-rebirth struggle. Characteristic symbolic themes are raging elements of nature such as volcanoes, electrical storms, earthquakes, tidal waves and tornadoes, violent scenes of war, of revolutions and high powered technology such as atomic bombs and rockets.
Related archetypal themes are images of the Last Judgment, superheroes and their deeds, and mythological battles. Other mythological symbolism is that of sacrifice and glorification of sacrifice. A classic symbol of the transition from BPM III and to BPM IV is the bird Pheonix, whose old form dies in the fire and a new form rises from the ashes and soars toward the sun.
BMP IV: Separation from the mother
The fourth stage relates to the actual birth of the child. Imagery following the actual birth can be death-rebirth experiences. The transition from BPM III to BPM IV involves a sense of annihilation on all imaginable levels—physical destruction, emotional debacle, intellectual defeat, ultimate moral failure, and absolute damnation of transcendental proportions—ego death. The experience of total annihilation is immediately followed by visions of blind white or golden light of supernatural radiance and beauty. The death process is in fact the same, but in reverse order.
The archetypal images associated with this stage are rainbows, peacocks, nature re-awakening in Spring, spiritual liberation, redemption and salvation, a flood of positive emotions toward oneself, other people and existence in general.
Grof’s research and my own work with clients indicate that people often repeat the memory of these stages in their lives as they go through traumatic events or when life thrusts on them situations that demand change, a kind of death-rebirth process. It also seems to me that when a society or the collective consciousness is undergoing a change or evolution, people will experiences such feelings and images breaking forth from the collective unconscious and will tend to interpret or describe the situation according to that particular stage.
So while I can honor my friend’s description of this cultural birthing process as perfectly accurate for BMP II (trapped, helpless despair with no apparent hope or way out), I choose to hold the space for the appearance of stages III and IV when the cervix opens, the light appears and the Great Earth-Mother’s contractions push us onward through the birth canal until suddenly we are thrust into the Light of a New Day.