Magdalenian Grottes, Kalahari San People, and a Contemporary Integrative Psychiatric Approach

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was….
Time isn't holding us, time isn't after us
Time isn't holding us, time doesn't hold you back …
Letting the days go by, letting the days go by… once in a lifetime, lyrics by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, TALKING HEADS, Remain in the Light 2003

"Lascaux, I want to go to the caves of the Dordogne,” replied my wife, Janice Teece PhD, on where she wished to celebrate her acceptance in the SF Jung institute’s analyst training program. Little did we know how magnificent the cuisine was in the Perigord [the Dordogne region]! The food was a revelation. It has, unfortunately, made all other ‘foodie’ outings pale by comparison to my gustatory memory of Perigordian farm fresh cuisine with truffles, foie-gras, cassoulet, canard, and walnut oil. (See the film and book about Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch, the first woman chef to the French Presidents. [1])

The Magdalenian grottes [caves] were beyond magnificent and have been tied, curiously, to a report which I recently published. [2]. The original caves at Lascaux, with their rare and beautiful wall paintings, are currently closed in an effort to control the microbial and fungal growths brought in by visitors. Its replica [Lascaux II] is exact, and breathtaking. We also visited Font de Gaume, which is the only cave still open which a few visitors a day may enter, and La Grotte du Sorcier, which lived up to its name: it was spooky and magical, even without us having to enter a deep cave, due to an intense cacophony of animal calls, strange thwacking sounds, fierce gusts and gun shot reports which created an intimidating atmosphere.

The current hypothesis about the rock art of Lascaux was proposed by David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes, following their work with similar art of the San people of Southern Africa: this type of art is spiritual in nature relating to visions induced by ritualistic hyperventilation and trance-dancing. These trance visions appear to be a function of the human brain and so are independent of geographical location. The same overlapping geometric patterns and images of animals and man/animal creatures are found in the Magdalenian grottes in the Dordogne as in the caves of the Kalahari. Nigel Spivey, a professor of classic art and archeology at the University of Cambridge, has further postulated in his series, How Art Made the World [4], that dot and lattice patterns overlapping the representational images of animals are very similar to hallucinations provoked by sensory-deprivation or trance work. He further postulates that the connections between culturally important animals and these hallucinations led to the invention of image-making, or the art of drawing.

This led me back to my recently article published in the MAPS special bulletin on Psychedelics in Psychology and Psychiatry, Spring 2013.[2] Stanislav Grof, the LSD pioneer /Czech psychoanalyst, developed a music therapy assisted by enhanced breathing [hyperventilation] to reproduce the psychedelic experiences induced by LSD and other entheogen psychedelics after these drugs became Schedule I. He termed the experience induced by this combination of music and pneumocatharsis, Holotropic Breathwork [HB]. I had trained with Stan in the mid-eighties, and have used his technique [HB] with my inpatients since 1986. In 1989, the elderly chairman of the psychiatric department at St Anthony’s Medical Center, which had over 450 psychiatric beds, expressed his skepticism about the value of the loud music and dramatic emotional release which occurred during the HB inpatient sessions. He requested that the hospital administration closely evaluate my patients regarding their HB experience at exit interviews. It transpired that the hospital administration was impressed by the exit reports. The patients had reported HB as their best therapeutic experience. The hospital then bought a more powerful music system for the HB sessions and assigned four music therapists to assist me in facilitating larger groups of 20 patients every week. This was a progressive psychiatric facility with multiple dedicated treatment units for Stress [depression], Anxiety/Panic, OCD, Sexual Trauma, Chemical Dependency, Dual Diagnosis, Child and Adolescent issues.

Subsequently, every week over a 12 year period, Holotropic Breathwork groups were oversubscribed, filling with twenty patients each week. It appears to have been well tolerated and well received. There were no untoward reactions and no subsequent reports of adverse reactions following the sessions. The patients routinely drew after the sessions as part of the Grof format. These drawings help the participants to document, share, and integrate their spontaneous internal experiences. Interestingly, they were often of animals, spiritual beings, and geometric patterns. This occurred spontaneously in a group of patients with little to no previous experience of meditative/ trance states. In 482 consecutive patients, 82% reported such experiences. 16% reported biographical material, and 2% reported no experience. The ‘no experience’ group may or may not have entered into trance during the HB; meditative states of ‘consciousness without thought’, also known in yoga as turiya, or in mindfulness practice as “the space between thoughts”, occur routinely within HB. Regrettably, in the short 2 hour hospital HB format, there was not enough time during the short sharing period to inquire whether this type of experience did indeed occur.

Eventually more than 11,000 inpatients participated in the Holotropic Breathwork experience. The medical center became openly supportive of this approach; their Hyland Center Training Institute sponsored HB daylong workshops for the therapist community.

In the Dordogne, it struck me that this approach to emotional release and to the numinous has been part of human culture since the Magdalenian era. Later I learned that the San people of the Kalahari have been engaged in hyperventilation and trance-dance and making similar rock art for at least the last 70,000 years, if not longer! I don’t believe Dr. Grof knew this in the 1970’s when he developed the Holotropic Breathwork approach. It appears to have unfolded from his work in psychedelic therapy. What is it that the French say…plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!


1. Les saveurs du Palais, a film by Christian Vincent, with Catherine Frot. Based on the true life experiences of Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch. She is noted in the book, Walnut Wine and Truffle Groves: Culinary Adventures in the Dordogne by Lovato, Schmalhorst, Lesko. 2010 Running Press

2. A Clinical Report of Holotropic Breathwork in 11,000 Psychiatric Inpatients in a Community Hospital Setting, Eyerman. http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v23n1/v23n1_p24-27.pdf

3. The Shamans of Prehistory, by Clottes, Lewis-Williams, 1998 Abrams Press

4. How Art Made the World, http://www.pbs.org/howartmadetheworld/ 2006 BBC Documentary

REPRINT from the NCPS July August Newsletter