Using the Model of Perinatal Matrices in Psychotherapy
By Ted Riskin

Published in The Inner Door Vol. 12 No. 3 (August 2000)

In psychology, as in life, there is an abundance of models to use in classifying people and experiences. Some examples are the psychiatric diagnoses of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the character structures of Reich and Lowen (schizoid, oral, psychopathic, masochistic, and rigid), the various systems of personality typing such as Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram, Freud's stages of psychosexual development, Erickson's eight stages of the life cycle, and so on. Whether there is any truth to these models is hard to say; perhaps they are all examples of the human tendency to impose order on chaos, just as we see constellations in the randomness of the night sky. A better gauge of a model's value is its usefulness.

I have been finding Stanislav Grof's model of perinatal matrices useful with some of my therapy clients. Briefly, this model divides the birth process into four stages, or Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM I, II, III and IV). The First Matrix (BPM I) is the intrauterine existence, which in its uncomplicated aspects is characterized by only positive feelings of floating, warmth, connectedness, and having all needs met. The Second Matrix (BPM II) begins when the chemistry in the womb changes and strong contractions push against the fetus and interrupt its nourishment. This matrix includes feelings of intense fear, powerlessness, victimization, and often guilt. Because the cervix is not yet dilated, there is no way out, adding a sense of hopelessness. Once the cervix dilates enough to allow movement through the birth canal, the Third Matrix elements of struggle, aggression, giving and receiving pain, and sexual charge begin. Finally, the birth is completed successfully, and (we hope) the infant reconnects with the mother, leading to a state (the Fourth Matrix or BPM IV) that is positive like BPM I, but qualitatively different.

One goal of psychotherapy is to change dysfunctional thoughts and beliefs, as well as the resulting dysfunctional behavior. Dysfunctional thoughts arise when an internal feeling leads someone to decide something incorrect about the environment or the self. Exploring the past provides benefits when the client becomes clear that a recurring feeling is actually an unresolved feeling from the past that is getting triggered. This understanding provides the potential to reinterpret the feeling this way rather than using it to determine what is true about reality, thereby fixing the dysfunctional thought. Of course, there is no substitute for working through resistance to the feeling and being willing to explore it, embrace it, and contain it; cognitively connecting it to the past is just one piece of the puzzle.

The experience of Second Matrix is obviously stressful and very difficult to integrate. As in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the overwhelming emotion here, combined with the powerful arousal, will likely cause the feeling state to be locked in the nervous system. Because the fetus' experience is limited to its current plight and the memory of the First Matrix, because it does not perceive the cervix as a door with a lock but rather as no opening at all, and because it has not yet read Grof's books, it has only one hope -- return to the first matrix. This reality becomes part of the feeling state (or to use Grof's term - COEX), so that when the feeling is replayed throughout the person's later life, it seems evident that the only available strategy is to move backwards into the First Matrix.

One of the more difficult therapeutic problems, and one that is riddled with dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors, is the vicious cycle of depression. Convinced that effort is useless by the pervasive feelings of hopelessness, the client is not motivated to make necessary life changes. Sometimes the only thing he holds onto is a fantasy of having all his needs met through no effort of his own. In order to help clients dispute the cognition that effort is fruitless, I have been using the perinatal model to introduce the possibility that the belief comes from some other source than reality. Though it does seem to help them understand the need to reorient their agenda to move forward, I do not know yet whether it creates any clinical improvement.

In a session with a client who presented with Bulimia, she talked about a bad month of bingeing with food, alcohol, and sex. She was able to see these behaviors as a natural attempt to return to the feeling of no boundaries associated with the First Matrix state. Perhaps saturating the body with food, especially the typical binge choices of carbohydrates and fats, approximates the feeling of receiving abundant nourishment through the placenta. Sex could be an attempt to reproduce the connection with the mother. And alcohol creates a state where problems disappear as if they never existed (First Matrix), rather than having to work through them (Third Matrix) to conclusion (Fourth Matrix). When people use 12-Step programs to address these types of addiction problems, they will often continue the attempt to regress by focusing on the transcendent spiritual component, resisting the practical work necessary to change their life circumstances.

A client came for his third session, and after a bit of silence, said, "I don't have anything to talk about." This makes me feel that the person wants to be saved or fixed by the therapist, without wanting to take responsibility for doing the work, an attitude that he confirmed verbally. In discussing the perinatal model, he could see how his life reflected Second Matrix themes: the hopelessness and powerlessness felt in his panic attacks, his craving for fatty foods (possibly a longing for the First Matrix feeling of satiation), and the sense of victimization reflected in his belief that "everyone else gets away with stuff, but I always get caught." Looking at his career dilemma, he was able to clearly and vividly envision himself doing the work he loved, but he could not imagine himself going through the schooling necessary to reach that goal. Using the Grof perinatal model, we established his task as redirecting his focus to possibilities of moving forward and developing the willingness to struggle symbolized by the Third Matrix.

A client's low self-esteem and tendency to criticize herself harshly were clearly aggravated by her mother's judgmental comments. Even though she knew she should not stand for this treatment, she was unable to take a stand, or even ask her mother to stop making such comments. Using the birth model, what is missing is the ability to access the energy of Third Matrix, where she would fight for her needs regardless of the pain it might cause her mother.

As another example, a client stated, "I wish that I could be oblivious to the fact that everything sucks." Rather than work to move forward and discover what is positive about his life and the world, he would rather regress to the First Matrix state of blissful ignorance. Or, consider the person who was reading a book about how to meet people and got so angry she threw it across the room. She told me, "Why should you have to work to meet someone? It should just happen!" Or, someone else who was studying for an exam that would open up wonderful career opportunities, but was experiencing intense anxiety as if the exam was a uterus closing in on her.

In an EMDR session in which she was addressing some binge eating, a client who complained of an intense loneliness used the phrase "sliding back." We developed this into an image of climbing a cliff, where the effort seemed endless. The bingeing was her protest against this hopeless effort, sliding back to the bottom of the cliff, where at least she could rest. In this image, the First Matrix is the bottom of the cliff, where no effort is required and at least she's safe, while the Fourth Matrix represents the top of the cliff, where she has lost enough weight and finds a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, from her Second Matrix experience, she could not see the top, so sliding back to the bottom was irresistible. Recognizing this dynamic allowed us to install an image of her looking around and finding companionship and connection from other people climbing the cliff next to her. Shifting from a goal-oriented stance (the "I have to get out of here" feeling from birth) where the goal seemed unreachable, she was able to tap into a process-oriented perspective where needs could be met while life continued; indeed, she started to comment about some of the relationships she already had that were fulfilling.

Other examples present themselves in Holotropic Breathwork workshops. One participant, who had been in a deep depression for several months, particularly missed her former psychic ability, a characteristic of a BPM I-like lack of boundaries. In her life, when she began to contact her deep anger, she reverted to choices such as moving to an idyllic location or getting a job in the New Age field. Another participant had a feeling that I was not going to check in with her before her breathing session. Instead of asking me to come over, which would be a Fourth Matrix way to obtain connection, she became very upset with me when her First Matrix need for connection with no effort was not met. Over several years, we have seen some participants reduce their need for the facilitators' attention (First Matrix) and replace it with a willingness to initiate contact with their sitters or other participants (Fourth Matrix).

On the transpersonal level, the Second Matrix corresponds to hell, or the fall from grace. Again, the overwhelming desire is to regain the heavenly state. The possibility of working through the hellish experience is further obscured by the timelessness of the experience, as eternity is an inherent characteristic of hell. Sometimes just explaining this COEX in a therapy session can help the observing ego realize that the depressive hopelessness is an overlay of the second matrix, allowing the cognition "I'll never feel better" to be successfully disputed.

The birth model correlates well with some other approaches. In The Inner Door, 11(1)8, February 2000, Jim Compton-Schmidt relates it to the grief process model of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the process of recovery from chemical dependency. In her book, The Hero Within, Carol Pearson describes psychological development as a progression through six archetypes, which in their themes and energies correspond to the perinatal matrices as follows: Innocent (First Matrix), Orphan and Martyr (Second Matrix), Wanderer and Warrior (Third Matrix), and Magician (Fourth Matrix). And of course, there is the "Hero's Journey," identified as a cross-cultural myth by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and exemplified in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic The Hobbit (subtitled There and Back Again). Starting from a very comfortable and well-stocked hole in a hill, accessed by a long tunnel (First Matrix), which is then imposed upon by 13 dwarves against his wishes (Second Matrix), Bilbo Baggins survives many dark and perilous adventures (Third Matrix) before returning home, having gained honor, wealth, and a sense of self (Fourth Matrix).

Ken Wilber describes the "Pre/Trans Fallacy," essentially a confusion between two types of nonpersonal consciousness. The prepersonal is irrational, an infantile state of fusion, lacking awareness, and precedes the self-conscious individual ego in development. The transpersonal is numinous, divine, superconscious, spiritual, and represents growth beyond the individual ego. Because both are non-personal, they are often confused in the same way that First Matrix bliss is confused with Fourth Matrix spirituality. Similarly, in Eva Pierrakos's Pathwork, the Guide discusses issues of unity and duality, and the meaning of evil. From this perspective, the First Matrix would represent a dualistic perspective where evil is banished and only good experienced. The Second Matrix would be the experience of being victimized by evil. In the Third Matrix, one would either fight evil or identify with it. And in the Fourth Matrix, there is only good, but unlike the First Matrix good, it combines both dualistic poles and transcends them both.

For the final words on this idea, let's turn to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This article originally appeared in The Inner Door Vol. 12 No. 3 (August 2000), published by the Association for Holotropic Breathwork International.

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