Stanislav Grof's Perinatal Matrixes of the Unconscious and Women's Medicine

Adapted excerpt from "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos"

Nelson Soucasaux

Nelson Drawing 1999

Among the several kinds of archetypes related to the female genitals, the modern concept of perinatal matrixes of the unconscious acquires fundamental importance. Stanislav Grof, one of the most important psychical researchers of our times, identified in the unconscious of men and women a very typical group of experiential patterns which he named "perinatal matrixes".* These psychical contents are related to the phases of childbirth and other archetypal subjects, as well as to transpersonal aspects of existence. They would be a kind of "memories" linked to the final moments of intrauterine life and the passage through the birth canal, and seem to be not only personal but also part of the collective unconscious.

The process of birth of the human being is deeply traumatic, not only for the mother but also for the child, since in it both inflict great physical suffering upon each other. Concerning these perinatal matrixes of the unconscious, Grof observes that, even if the total spectrum of the experience that occur at this level cannot be reduced to a revival of biological birth, the birth trauma seems to represent an important core of the process.* Anyway, what matters the most here is that these psychical contents are clearly associated to some of the first human experiences related to the female genitals - the place where all of us, men and women, were conceived and generated.

The possibility that some negative uterine archetypes may originate in these perinatal matrixes described by Grof also acquires special relevance in Women's Medicine. Nevertheless, considering that this subject concerns mostly modern psychical research, the study of the perinatal matrixes of the unconscious by far transcends the boundaries of Gynecology and Obstetrics. In this way, only the topics directly related to Women's Medicine will be briefly discussed here.

According to Grof, the perinatal matrixes of the unconscious exhibit a clear correspondence to the clinical stages of parturition.* So, let us speak a little on some of these correlations.

The first stage of parturition corresponds to the period in which, under the effect of the uterine contractions, cervical dilation takes place. Nevertheless, while the dilation of the uterine cervix does not complete, not allowing the propulsion of the child and actual birth, the effect of the strong myometrial contractions in a still "closed" uterus may give rise to feelings like a "suffering without resolution", a severe "imprisonment in pain." As to the perinatal matrix related to this phase of childbirth, Grof observes that, symbolically, it comprehends a feeling of "no way-out or hell". * Here I would like to remark that this experiential pattern concerns not only the child but also the mother.

The second stage of parturition begins when the uterine cervix is completely dilated and, consequently, the uterine contractions cause the propulsion of the child through the birth canal. In this phase, voluntary contractions of the woman's abdominal muscles add to the uterine ones. The "no way-out" stage finishes and the one of the "titanic fight" starts ( Grof ).* At the same time, as the child goes through the narrow pelvic canal under the strength of the powerful uterine contractions, his/her passage traumatizes the mother's tissues, which are violently stretched and squeezed against the lower part of the pelvic bones.

The third stage of parturition corresponds to the actual childbirth. At this moment and at the expense of enormous distention and dilation of the perineal muscles and the vaginal entrance, the child is finally expelled from the maternal body.

Grof observes that the perinatal matrix corresponding to the second stage of childbirth comprehends experiential patterns typical of a "death-rebirth struggle" and may also include sadomasochist components. About the latter, he comments that they reflect a combination of the aggression imposed upon the child by the female genitals and his/her responsive biological rage regarding suffocation, pain and anxiety.* As already said, throughout the final stages of parturition mother and child inflict on each other intense suffering. The mutual violence and pain reaches its peak along the second and third stages of labour, but normally all of this is followed by a great relief and relaxation as soon as childbirth is finished.

Grof also mentions the existence of a sexual component in the perinatal matrix corresponding to the propulsion of the child through the birth canal.* If this is true, this matrix may contain elements typical of sexual violence by including a combination of fear, struggle, aggression, trauma, pain and sadomasochist feelings. It is also pertinent here to mention Masters and Johnson's observation that, during the second stage of parturition, some women report sensations roughly similar to those of the initial phase of orgasm.**

The fact that childbirth takes place in traumatic and bloody circumstances may also give rise to negative associations between the female genitals and blood. In this way, here we have one more element that can contribute to the elaboration of the negative menstrual myths and other pathological ways of experiencing menstruation.

This subject of the perinatal matrixes of the unconscious and its relationship with the traumatic aspects of parturition lead us once again to the extremely complex problems of pregnancy. In my book "Novas Perspectivas em Ginecologia" ("New Perspectives in Gynecology"), the emphasis I made on the "aggressive" and traumatic aspects of pregnancy and parturition for women annoyed many people who are still conditioned to the "naive" romantic view of motherhood - unfortunately, an ancient and deep-rooted view of women's nature still present in our culture.

In my aforementioned book, I pointed out the great sacrifices imposed by gestation and childbirth upon the female body by causing in it not only enormous physiological overload but also intense distortions and stretching of tissues that not always return entirely to normal during and after puerperium. Some of the several sequelae often left in the woman's body by pregnancy and parturition were duly emphasized by me. Therefore, my analysis was made focusing my attention on women. Now, based on Stanislav Grof's work we can see how much specifically parturition is also traumatic for the child.

Pregnancy and parturition are physiological events with frequent pathological consequences. During pregnancy, the processes resulting from the embryonic development cause a series of "physiological aggressions" in the woman's body. At the moment of parturition, the "aggressions" between mother and child become reciprocal. Although the uterine contractions are not under voluntary control, I have already observed that the very potent myometrial contractions of labour can be regarded as the way through which women, after nine months of passive submission to the evolution of pregnancy, "actively" participate in childbirth, putting an end to the long and strenuous period of gestation. However, besides traumatizing even more the mother, the entire process of parturition also traumatizes the child. In this way, we can see that the "physiological/pathological" processes of gestation and childbirth are always very, very problematic. For more details on the problems of pregnancy for women, as well as those regarding the possibility of becoming pregnant, see my article "The Possibility of Becoming Pregnant and its Implications for Women". See also "Undesired Pregnancies and Women's Right to Abortion".

* Grof, Stanislav -"Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy" - State University of New York, Albany, 1985.

** Masters, William; Johnson, Virginia - "Human Sexual Response" - Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1966.

Nelson Soucasaux is a gynecologist dedicated to Clinical, Preventive and Psychosomatic Gynecology. Graduated in 1974 by Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, he is the author of several articles published in medical journals and of the books "Novas Perspectivas em Ginecologia" ("New Perspectives in Gynecology") and "Os Órgãos Sexuais Femininos: Forma, Função, Símbolo e Arquétipo" ("The Female Sexual Organs: Shape, Function, Symbol and Archetype"), published by Imago Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 1990, 1993.

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