The Perinatal Matrix

The tides of separation and reunion repeat on all levels, individual and collective, and in many dimensions of life, taking us back again and again to wholeness, not as a circling back but as a spiraling, each reunion at a higher level of wisdom, consciousness, complexity, and integration. The last section described the mythological template for this process, but perhaps the most intuitive model for the dynamics of separation and reunion is the process of birth. In the same way we are born physically as individuals, so also are we being born collectively by our Mother Earth, and spiritually into a new concept of who we are.

Stanislov Grof has developed a powerful and detailed model of the psychodynamics of birth, which he divides into four “perinatal” stages: uterine bliss, confinement, struggle, and emergence into the light.[3] Since birth is the archetype of the process of separation and individuation, it is useful to apply Grof’s model metaphorically to our present condition.

The first stage of the birth process covers the months before the fetus has begun to push up against the limits of the uterus. She lives in a warm, rhythmic, rocking environment where her needs are automatically met, effortlessly. All she does is exist and grow, physically and mentally. The psychological state corresponding to Stage One is one of complete security, complacency, and a feeling of no limits. The world offers endless room for growth.

In the mythic realm, Stage One is represented by the Garden of Eden, where every need is effortlessly met, and in the Golden Age of ancient legend, when people still lived in the bosom of Nature and knew not struggle and strife. “The earth herself, without compulsion, untouched by hoe or plowshare, of herself gave all things needful.”[4] In terms of humanity and the earth, Stage One was the hunter-gatherer stage. Although life had its occasional tragedies and pain (just as the fetus is sometimes subject to disturbances in the womb) the overall environment was bounteous and nurturing. We were few and the world large. We had not yet begun to test the limits of the environment, or to see the world as limited. This attitude, that there is unlimited room to grow, can be found in the Biblical injunction, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Out of habit and inertia, this attitude is still with us today even though it is driving us toward catastrophe.

As a natural consequence of growth, the uterus eventually becomes confining. The fetus loses her freedom of movement as a once-blissful universe turns against her. Because the cervix is still closed, there is literally no way out of this increasingly uncomfortable predicament. When the contractions start, universal, all-encompassing pressure bears down on the fetus from every direction. Stage Two thus corresponds to psychological states of despair, depression, and hopelessness.

In Stage Two, the Eden of the uterus has become a Hell. Just as there is no way out for the fetus, Hell is a place beyond hope of redemption. The basic condition of the universe is that of hopeless suffering. In the language of mystics, this state is known as the Dark Night of the Soul, the feeling of utter abandonment by God. Spirituality seems a cruel joke, faith a delusion. It is the cardboard world. Its meaninglessness is transparent. Existentialism is closely linked to Stage Two of the birth process, in which there is literally No Exit. We are just machines made from meat, and nothing matters and nothing ever could matter.

For several millennia now, the human race has been immersed in the ever-deepening misery of Stage Two. One by one, we have bumped up against the physical and social limits of growth. No longer can we continue to grow as we have for the last ten thousand years; no longer can we continue to expropriate more and more of the environment. Our problem-solving efforts only generate more problems, because they are based on extending our control over the environment, bringing more and more of it into the human realm. They are an attempt at continued growth within the same womb. Any solution which boils down to, “Let’s bring more of the universe under human direction” will inevitably exacerbate our condition, bringing us closer to the limits of what the environment can provide. We cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. At the end of Stage Two, the direction of transformation can no longer be a continuation of the growth in the womb, but must become rather a journey into a new world.

The last century, encompassing two world wars, genocide after genocide, and the accelerating deterioration of the living planet, has finally rendered utterly transparent the illusion that control over nature—and its apotheosis in the Machine—could ever fulfill its Utopian promise. It laid bare the bankruptcy of our solutions, and hence our helplessness to improve what we, seeing no alternative, called the “human condition”. We were stuck, trapped. The machines our servants had enslaved us; the womb turned poisonous. And we thought it just to be the nature of things, so unable were we to conceive an alternative technology or a kind of growth that was not more taking. Meanwhile, our scientific ideology exacerbated those feelings of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and abandonment by putting us in a mechanistic, spiritless universe of impersonal forces and generic masses. We were left alone in a dead, pitiless universe, doomed by nature and human nature to struggle pointlessly for survival in a world rendered ever more horrible by our efforts.

Although we might try to soldier on, the once-bountiful world-womb can no longer sustain the growth of fetal humanity. The effort to squeeze just a few more years out of what remains of the Mother’s resources—natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital—will only poison the womb still further. Yet the exhaustion of these resources for growth does not alter our fetal civilization’s built-in imperative to grow. Hence the inevitability of its demise, or its transformation.

It is very simple. A fetus grows; the womb is finite. The limits of growth trigger a birth crisis. Unbearable though it is, Stage Two is a necessary part of any birth process. If the status quo ded not become intolerable, there would be nothing to impel change—birth into a new state of being—and we would turn away uncomprehending from the light when it finally presented itself. That is what happens in Stage Three—a way out is finally glimpsed. This way out is not some technological fix that makes the womb inhabitable just a little while longer, much less a technotopian fantasy in which the womb magically becomes infinitely large. That would be a recipe for stagnation and stillbirth. In Stage Three, the enormous pressures on the fetus are revealed to have a purpose, a direction as the cervix opens and a light shines through, promising a new world.

The physical distress of the fetus is even greater now than it was in Stage Two. She is subject to titanic pressures that slowly propel her through the birth canal, a life and death struggle occupying the whole of her being. At this point there is no going back to the womb of the familiar, for that womb is a hell now, and besides, the pressures of birth are too great to resist. While physically more difficult, psychologically a Stage Three state is easier to bear, for the light ahead gives hope and direction. For the human species, it represents our growing knowledge that another way of living is possible. We can see a glimpse of it already, the light at the end of the tunnel—the new modes of technology, money, medicine, education, and so forth I have described.

At this point it may seem that we are resisting the birth process, trying to climb back into the womb, maintaining the delusion of endless linear growth even as it crushes us. This is not unusual in a Stage Three dynamic. Say we enter a new job or relationship, grow within it, then eventually bump up against its limits. The job or relationship becomes increasingly intolerable, but we bear with it, seeing no alternative and hardly daring to believe that the good womb has reached a limit. Then a new possibility presents itself, a new career, a new or transformed relationship, but we may shy away from it in fear, preferring the womb of the familiar even as it grows increasingly intolerable. We crawl back in, but the next contraction is even stronger. Some people go back and forth until their status quo becomes truly intolerable. The early contractions are the gentlest. The first might be a glimpse of an opportunity. Eventually the womb of the old situation becomes a living hell and it is impossible to go back. Forces beyond our conscious control take over, and we are born into a new world.

Collectively, we humans have experienced only the beginnings of the birth pangs that will propel us into the new world we have glimpsed. We are still able to resist, still able to deceive ourselves into thinking that we can expropriate from nature endlessly, that nature has infinite wealth for our taking and infinite capacity for our waste. This illusion is disintegrating rapidly, and the disintegration will accelerate dramatically in our lifetimes. The crises rapidly converging on our species are nothing less than the uterine contractions that will propel us into a new way of being.

We humans have been moving out of Stage Two into Stage Three for nearly a century now. In some areas this transition is more advanced than others. For example while it is true that we are destroying the environment at an accelerating pace, no longer do we ignore it or unquestioningly assume it is part of the inescapable order of things. On a general level, we know what the problem is and we know what we must do about it. To actually implement that knowledge is the archetypal Stage Three struggle. Solutions such as full-cost accounting, zero-waste manufacturing, community currencies, renewable energy, holistic medicine, and so forth are known—many forces are in denial, but the general solutions are known to us. To many fighting for these causes, the situation looks hopeless. What will spur us to actually implement these necessary solutions? Mother Nature and Mother Culture are having terrible birth pangs now. The contractions take the form of natural disasters, economic crises, famines, epidemics, and soon, environmental catastrophe. It is likely that we will keep trying to return to the womb of unlimited growth until our limits become starkly obvious; it may indeed take a wholesale environmental collapse before we change ourselves.

On the mythological level, Stage Three corresponds to religious archetypes of Armageddon, the final battle between Good and Evil, or Ragnarok, the battle between the gods and the giants in Norse mythology. At Ragnarok, all the worthy warriors who died in battle fight on the side of the gods. This myth refers to the common struggle that we all experience. It means that our personal battles have universal significance. The collective transformation of our species can only be the sum of billions of individual transformations, each driven by the intersection of generalized crises with our individual lives. No longer will we be able to hide from them, no longer will they be something that happens somewhere else, to someone else. In one form or another, they will affect us all personally. Because we are not discrete individuals but exist in relationship to the rest of humanity and the rest of nature, it is impossible to enjoy lasting health amidst an ailing society and a poisoned planet. It is impossible; it is a contradiction in terms.

In Stage Four of birth, the baby is born into a new and unimagined world, where he becomes an anatomically distinct individual. In any kind of birth process, the entity being born cannot imagine what lies beyond the mother’s body. In the case of humanity as well, the new society we are being born into is probably beyond imagining. I suspect my halting attempts to describe an Age of Reunion fall woefully short of its true magnificence. Whatever form collective humanity and individual life will take, one thing is certain: it will not be a final triumph or mastery over nature. We will be no more independent of nature than an infant, having outgrown the umbilical connection, is independent of her mother.

Birth is a journey that starts with blissful oneness, proceeds through an increasingly unbearable confinement, climaxes in a heroic struggle, and ends with a return to the one, but at a new level of being. In human birth this is the breast, the reuniting with the mother in a new, more highly individuated way. Once upon a time we were enwombed in nature, without the possibility of even an illusory separation. In the Age of Reunion that will follow the present birthing, we will gaze upon Mother Nature’s face with the adoring eyes of an infant.

Archeologists and historians are fond of infantile metaphors to describe prehistoric or ancient society: “The cradle of civilization.” Perhaps these metaphors are misleading. Even now, humanity is not yet in its infancy. An incredible journey awaits us.

We humans, and even the planet herself, are undergoing a birthing—to what state we can only speculate. We have passed through the long gestation of the hunter-gatherer, we have grown up against the limits of our environment until we could grow no more, and now the labor is beginning that will likely stretch our capacities to the limit. Some environmentalists, especially those with the most comprehensive knowledge, despair that it is already too late to save our planet—irreversible processes already in motion assure our destruction. But perhaps these conditions are what it will take to turn the long-gathering capabilities of science and technology to their true purpose: the restoration and furtherance of nature’s patterns, and the creation of new forms of beauty. Perhaps the impending catastrophe will demand that every facet of our civilization’s scientific and technological achievement be turned toward the planet’s healing, galvanizing humankind and drawing us together in a way similar to but far, far more powerful than the space race of the 1960s and the last century’s wars against cancer, poverty, drugs, and each other ever have. Perhaps nothing less than an all-out struggle will secure the survival of our species; perhaps only in such a struggle can we rise to our potential and our purpose. In healing the ruination of nature, goodness, beauty, and life, we will transcend who we were and be born into something else.


[3] Grof, Stanislov, Realms of the Unconscious, Viking, `1975. Reprinted by Condor Books, 1995.


[4] Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.89