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Richard Tarnas and Stanislav Grof

By Astrology, CIIS, LSD Psychotherapy, Richard Tarnas, Stanislav Grof

Richard Tarnas

The philosopher Richard Tarnas is noted for an unorthodox approach. After graduating from Harvard, Tarnas opted to become Director of Programs at the Esalen Institute (California) for a decade. In that capacity he was closely associated with Dr. Stanislav Grof, an Esalen resident (from 1973) whose “cartography of the psyche” became fluently accepted in alternativist circles, though dismissed by the academic world in general.

The doctoral thesis of Tarnas elevated LSD psychotherapy, the speciality of Grof, whose extensive programme in this subject is elsewhere contested. The thesis was entitled LSD psychotherapy, theoretical implications for the study of psychology (1976). The mood of minority academic support for LSD “psychotherapy” was nevertheless very influential in America.

Stanislav Grof

During the 1970s, Tarnas was already a supporter of Grof. He gained repute as a vindicator of the controversial LSD psychotherapy. Perinatal theory was glorified as a testimony to spiritual transcendence. A resulting lore asserted that controlled users of LSD were advanced mystics. Their minds controlled by a powerful psychoactive chemical, they were the liberated drugs lobby, their tunnel vision camouflaged as cosmic profundity. The rash endorsement was also explicated in terms of “archetypal astrology,” a resort of Tarnas claiming to correlate the perinatal matrices of Grof transpersonal theory with an “archetypal” version of planetary influences. The planets Neptune, Saturn, Pluto, and Uranus were here major players. Esalen transpersonalism, dominated by Grof, favoured such innovations impossible to prove.

Tarnas became a professor of philosophy and psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. His version of those two subjects became influential in his widely read book The Passion of the Western Mind (1991). This offered a version of Western thought spanning from the classical Greek era to the modern and “postmodern” phases. Grof theory is elevated in the epilogue (Philosophy, Richard Tarnas, and Postmodernism).

Two subsequent books of Tarnas demonstrated his strong orientation in astrology. His Cosmos and Psyche (2006) is a sustained account of astrological complexities. A basic contention of Tarnas is that planetary configurations influence patterns in human events. Astrology does have adherents, and also many critics.

The Tarnas version of astrology exerted a strong influence on the Grof camp. The reciprocal interplay is a notable feature of the Integral Studies scenario. Well prior to publication of Cosmos and Psyche, Dr. Grof celebrated the convergence in such words as:

An important factor in the selection process might be the relationship between karmic patterns and the time and place of a particular incarnation with its specific astrological correlates. This notion is in general agreement with the observations from psychedelic sessions, holotropic breathwork, and spontaneous episodes of psychospiritual crises. They show that in all these situations the content and timing of holotropic states are closely correlated with planetary transits. (Grof 2000:242) 

A critical citizen stance in relation to holotropic matters can be found at Grof Therapy and MAPS. See also Contesting Grof Transpersonal Training. See also Castro 1996, chapter six, on Holotropic Breathwork commerce at the Findhorn Foundation. Grof Transpersonal Training Inc. was an enterprise charging high prices for the Grof trademark therapy Holotropic Breathwork. This novelty, administering hyperventilation, caused stress and dysfunction amongst a number of subscribers at the Findhorn Foundation. Edinburgh University complained at the clinical dangers represented by Holotropic Breathwork. The Scottish Charities Office recommended suspension of the controversial therapy. The afflicting “planetary transits” were not beneficial to sufferers. Cf. Grof 1988; Grof 2010.

The psychiatrist Franz Vollenweider, of Zurich University, investigated psychedelics and became a critic of Grof. 

Vollenweider, who has heard Grof lecture and has read his books, said that Grof struck him as someone “trapped within his own metaphysical system.” Vollenweider added that Grof’s decades-old research on the therapeutic potential of LSD was not carried out in the careful, controlled fashion that is necessary to demonstrate genuine benefits. (Horgan 2003:168)

Reports of fantastic American psychedelic visions have been critically received. One interpretation reflected that the average American is exposed, via a surfeit of newspapers, magazines, and television, “to enormous amounts of  exoteric and esoteric information.” This input conceivably emerges in LSD trips. The mythological, theological, and other dimensions of that process “may constitute subliminal triumphs of  Time, Life, Newsweek” (Horgan 2003:168).

The transcript of a radio interview with Richard Tarnas is of interest. There is reference to the ecological situation, along with the observation: “We cannot continue to live according to the same assumptions with which we have lived blithely for the past several hundred years.” The basic contention here is surely correct, a complication being that affluent America is boosting climate change and reaping both drought and floods. Even the wealthy high caste Californian drugs lobby will not survive unimpaired. 

Tarnas refers in his interview to the well known theme: “Modern science has essentially voided the cosmos of all intrinsic meaning and purpose.” He adds: “It is only, I think, through going through a profound inner transformation, and also an intellectual transformation, that one can see beyond that crisis.” There are so many people who claim transformation that the issue becomes one of authentic transformation. Indeed, this situation necessitates the urgent remedy of a basic sanity avoiding all claim to transformation of any kind.

There is further talk, in the Scott London-Richard Tarnas interview, of paradigm shift (a subject which has acquired varying preferential interpretations). Tarnas also refers to Grof’s theme of “the death-rebirth process,” meaning ego death and spiritual rebirth. That theme, based upon LSD experiences, is regarded as very misleading by some analysts of mystical literature. LSD experiences in “psychotherapy” were given an elevated mystical significance by Grof, who profited from the capitalist exercise in perinatal novelism. The scope for disagreement is extensive (Shepherd 1995:61-84; idem 2005:6-24, 142-148). See also David Lorimer and New World Values.

The Grof-derived viewpoint of Tarnas extends to pop music. The statement appears: “I feel that Madonna’s combination of these very different [‘perinatal’] impulses is reflective of the fact that our whole civilisation is going through the birth process, this initiatory transformation.” Critics urge that no transformation is in process. The world is in such a distressed state that different criteria are necessary. Vast numbers of humans will die in the climate change tragedy accelerated and maintained by America and China, the two leading carbon emitters. The supposed initiatory transformation of pop stars will not prevent the submergence of helpless island populations, and also many major coastal cities throughout the world indoctrinated with affluent creeds like capitalism, communism, and LSD psychotherapy. 

Some of the Tarnas references to Greek philosophy are in question. For instance, he says in the same interview: “I love Plato and I’m as much of a Platonist as anybody I know. But Plato’s Republic would only be truly utopian and livable if it could have the Rolling Stones in it!” The contemporary music utopia reflects American Republican commerce, a means through which entertainers earn fantastic dollar sums in the showbiz maintained by environmental death throes of capitalism. 

What is “utopian and livable” varies markedly according to temperament and appetite. A well known account of Rolling Stones anomalies, in the 1970s, describes a preoccupation with cocaine and heroin. The author, a close attendant of Keith Richards, relates how his girlfriend died after a bad reaction to the heroin substitute methadone. When the attendant tired of this confused lifestyle, he went into rehabilitation. He again encountered Richards in a hotel room at New York. The celebrity did not wish Sanchez to author a book about the past. Richards threatened Sanchez with a gun. There was no shooting, only the book that subsequently materialised. See Tony Sanchez, Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (1979; repr. 2010). Cf. Keith Richards, Life (2010).

Grofian confusions about death and rebirth are pervasive in “new spirituality,” also being associated with the controversial California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).  Tarnas discloses that he and Grof were teaching the same CIIS course in philosophy and religion at San Francisco. “It’s a great program where we offer doctorates and masters degrees.”

Some citizens do not believe in any necessity to obtain “integral studies” doctorates for the purpose of duly analysing the context of theories and statements.


Castro, Stephen J., Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation (Forres: New Media, 1996).

Grof, Stanislav, The Adventure of Self-Discovery (State University of New York Press, 1988).

——–Psychology of the Future (State University of New York Press, 2000).

——–Holotropic Breathwork: A New Approach to Self-Exploration and Therapy (State University of New York Press, 2010).

Horgan, John, Rational Mysticism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).

——–Pointed Observations: Critical Reflections of a Citizen Philosopher on Contemporary Pseudomysticism, Alternative Therapy, David Hume, Spinoza, and other subjects (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).

Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (1991; Pimlico, 1996).

——–Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (Viking Penguin, 2006).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
April 27th 2011, later modified

ENTRY no. 39

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Integral Studies

By Aurobindo Ghose, CIIS, Therapy and Transformation

The subject of integral studies is associated with the Indian mystic Aurobindo Ghose, though substantially developed and elaborated by American enthusiasts. The idea of integralism originated in Aurobindo’s theme of “Integral Yoga,” favoured at Esalen. The concept was subsequently adopted, with various innovations, by exponents of transpersonal psychology.

Haridas Chaudhuri (1913-1975), a Bengali disciple of Aurobindo, became active and influential in America. He helped to establish the American Academy of Asian Studies, an alternative enterprise whose students included the two subsequent co-founders of the Esalen Institute (namely Michael Murphy and Richard Price).

In later years, Chaudhuri created the California Institute of Asian Studies, still strongly linked to Aurobindo teaching. After his death, in 1980 the name of that organisation was changed to the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). This alteration is stated to signify the emerging globalism of outlook and a more extensive East-West synthesis. CIIS is a private institution in San Francisco.

CIIS advertises academic programmes, also dispensing degrees that include the PhD and MA. This mandate is regarded with acute reserve by many conventional university academics. There are also public CIIS programmes featuring a wide array of “workshops,” the activities including Yoga, “self-discovery,” “healing,” and numerous permutations. Alternative therapy here encompasses Integral Counselling. An ubiqitous theme is transformation.

Despite the promotionalism, strong criticisms have been lodged. Sceptics say that the “new age healing” orientation of CIIS is demonstrated by emphases on transformation, transpersonal psychology, psychotherapy, and innumerable related “workshop” creations associated with “new spirituality.” A formerly online Open Letter made the accusation: “It appears that at CIIS, faculty simply put on academic rank and titles similar to kindergartners donning academic regalia, with no need for actual promotion processes or scholarly achievement.”

CIIS is well known for “certificate programs in Psychedelic Research and Human Sexuality.” These are two of the most confusing subjects in contemporary jargon. The therapy-oriented nature of CIIS courses is one of the features visible in numerous online service reviews. While some of these reviews are positive, many express a negative judgment from firsthand experience. CIIS is notoriously expensive, charging over 10,000 dollars per semester. Critics describe many of the students as wealthy hobbyists not needing to graduate for a career. “Extremist ideologies” are part of a “diploma mill,” creating misinformation and miseducation. The administration is described as “dysfunctional and disorganised.” Overbearing tutors apply “therapy” evoking unpleasant trauma.  Some of the tutors are described as teaching psychedelics. Many students have sued CIIS professors. A review, dating to 2017, complains: “My daughter experienced rampant sexual harassment by a professor.”

A basic theme emerging is that CIIS represents “experiential classes” instead of academic learning. Much the same perspective applies to the Findhorn Foundation and other “transformation” venues. An ex-subscriber review of CIIS, dating to 2021, urges: “Avoid this institution at all costs. It is a miserable experience to matriculate, and an absolute nightmare to deal with the administration and the financial office.”

Probably the two most famous names to date on the CIIS faculty are Stanislav Grof and Richard Tarnas. Dr. Grof is known for his controversial holotropic theories and “cartography of the human psyche,” based upon his activities in LSD psychotherapy (Grof 2000). These interests extended into blatantly commercial operations via Grof Transpersonal Training Incorporated (Grof Therapy and MAPS). Profits do not prove accuracy.

Professor Tarnas, a Grof supporter, is another psychedelic theorist. His book on philosophy, The Passion of the Western Mind, includes a defence of Grof therapy. The eccentric dimensions of this vaunted “perinatal” theory have misled numerous psychedelic victims, who suffer, for instance, “the physical catharsis involved in reliving the birth trauma” (Tarnas 1996:427). Cf. Philosophy, Richard Tarnas, and Postmodernism.

The content of an East-West synthesis is in question. In some respects at least, CIIS has adopted the commercial Esalen model of “transformation.” That model misses out too much of the Western heritage, also bypassing Eastern philosophy to a very substantial extent. An online statement of CIIS referred to 25 academic programmes that “train healers and thought-leaders.” Popular workshop slogans are in evidence. “You are naturally already who you are.” 

I have been asked what my own position is with regard to integral studies, in view of my citizen project of private research at Cambridge University Library (CUL) commencing in 1981. I will accordingly make some observations here.

My concept of intercultural and interdisciplinary study does not extend to “workshops” and therapy, which have been known to create serious confusion in the public mind, also amongst academics. Psychedelics are a major distraction which ruined education in many instances. My citizen version of anthropography, in the preliminary presentation Meaning in Anthropos (1991), adhered to annotation procedures of research and commentary. I do not claim any “integral vision,” currently a very popular interest needing correction.

I am allergic to buzz words like transformation. “Inner exploration” can too easily become a narcissistic “workshop” playground for predators and victims. Such labels were incessant catchphrases at the Findhorn Foundation during the 1990s. As a neighbouring outsider to that organisation (living in Forres, Scotland), I had the long-term opportunity to observe how the Foundation therapists and “focalisers” maintained the stigma and suppression of my mother. See Kate Thomas and the Findhorn Foundation. The elite (and supposedly transformed) Foundation leaders entertained presumptions to numerous abilities, such as holistic expertise, counselling, conflict resolution, love in action, unconditional love, the alchemy of peace, feminism and rights for contemporary women, sex therapy, attunement, empowerment, forgiveness, and the game of transformation. All this merely comprised the facade for commercial roles and delusions of grandeur.

Purported and lavishly advertised Integralism can very easily become Exclusivism, incapable of registering criticism for reasons that are extremely dubious.

Aurobindo can be absolved of any responsibility for the transmission of American counselling and transformation pretensions to Britain. Even during the 1980s, there was very little of his teaching visible in the entrepreneurial industry catering for a new age clientele. Integral Yoga was of limited usage for any commercial operation. However, Aurobindo themes for long remained a preferred jargon in some transpersonal circles. A complication is evident.  “He made an unfortunate prediction in The Life Divine about ‘a race of gnostic spiritual beings’ ” (Aurobindo and Esalen). The prediction confused Esalen “new spirituality.” Many new age supermen made their appearance in California and elsewhere. These inflated entities were supposedly transformed and frequently mercenary. “The ideal should be one of remaining ordinary and more diligent in scruple”  (Shepherd 2004:159).

One of the Esalen founders (Richard Price) discovered that the permissive ashram of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was far more ominous than he had been led to believe. This was in the late 1970s, when Esalen had become the breeding ground for so many fads and crazes. NeoReichian therapies could cause physical injuries, even while the deceptive presiding message was one of liberation and transformation. “Price himself is said to have suffered a broken arm while being locked up for an hour in a room with eight people armed with wooden weapons; even Esalen could become rational under severe stress” (Shepherd 2004:60).

The shocks and drawbacks could not prevent the integralist (and transpersonalist) Ken Wilber from eulogising the American gurus Adi Da Samraj and Andrew Cohen, entities who were viewed by critics as predatory (Perennial Philosophy). Wilber’s version of integral studies has come under fire from various critics and discontented former enthusiasts. Wilber claimed a virtual “integral omniscience” via his Quadrant Theory, while ignoring much professional research. Some relevant arguments are discussed at Ken Wilber and Integralism. Wilber commenced the Integral Institute, often regarded as a rival to CIIS (Wilber 2007).

My own format in Pointed Observations (2005) was substantially critical of the alternative trends represented by Jung, Grof, Wilber, Esalen, the Findhorn Foundation, and others. Some readers noticed that I preferred David Hume, Spinoza, and the vintage Club of Rome ecology to the contested trends. For many years I had been resistant to the sceptical philosophy of Hume (and still am in many basic respects). However, Hume was rational by comparison with problems of pseudo-transformation.


Grof, Stanislav, The Adventure of self-Discovery: Dimensions of Consciousness and New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Inner Exploration (State University of New York Press, 1988).

——–Psychology of the Future (State University of New York Press, 2000).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an Interdisciplinary Science of Culture (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1991).

——–Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004).

——–Pointed Observations: Critical Reflections of a Citizen Philosopher on Contemporary Pseudomysticism, Alternative Therapy, David Hume, Spinoza, and other subjects (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005). 

Tarnas, Richard,  The Passion of the Western Mind (1991; Pimlico, 1996).

——–Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (Viking Penguin, 2006).

Wilber, Ken, The Eye of the Spirit: An Integral Vision  for a World Gone Slightly Mad (Boston: Shambhala, 1997).

——–Integral Psychology (Boston: Shambhala, 2000).

——–Integral Spirituality (Boston: Integral, 2007). 


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
September 9th 2010, modified 2018, 2021

ENTRY no. 31

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.