Eighty years ago, Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank theorized that when we are born, we experience a “birth trauma” that affects us for the rest of our lives. More recently, psychiatrist Stanislav Grof has created a model for understanding in greater depth the kinds of effects that birth can have upon our later lives. He writes that there are four distinct stages of birth, or what he calls Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM) that give rise to different kinds of traumas (as well as positive experiences), and that have different types of effects upon our future development.
Basic Perinatal Matrix I (BPM I)represents that point in the birth process when labor has not yet started and we are still fully inside of the mother’s uterus. This can be a “good womb” or “bad womb” situation (or a combination of both), depending upon the circumstances. Stress hormones from our mothers might create anxiety in utero and/or nurturing hormones could create pleasant feelings. The surrealist artist Salvador Dali wrote in his autobiography that his own bad womb experience (his parents were in despair over the death of his brother at the time) haunted him for the rest of his life.
Basic Perinatal Matrix II (BPM II) is that point in the birth when labor has started and we are being pushed up against the cervix by the mother’s contractions but the cervix has not yet begun to dilate or open. This can be a very scary experience, and people in later life who were traumatized at this point in their birth may feel claustrophobia, existential angst, depression, feelings of terror, or other negative consequences. Edgar Allen Poe may have been a BPM II baby as evidenced by his short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” where a character finds himself in a prison where walls are closing in on him and the only way out is down a bottomless pit.
Basic Perinatal Matrix III (BPM III) is when the cervix has opened and we start to move out (or push out) through the birth canal. This can be both thrilling and also violent or dangerous (for example, the umbilical cord might strangle the fetus at this point). People who get fixated at this point in their births may grow up to become thrill-seekers, but also potentially dangerous individuals. Adolf Hitler may have been a BPM III baby with his violent policies and his fixation on strangulation (he often had his enemies strangled).
The final stage of birth, Basic Perinatal Matrix IV (BPM IV) is when we have left the womb and are now outside in the world. This stage may be associated in later life with feelings of expansion (possibly even agoraphobia), feelings of rebirth (perhaps associated with religious experiences), and also feelings of separation and loneliness. People who have undergone dramatic religious conversions, such as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal or the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, may have re-experienced this stage of birth during their spiritual transformations in adulthood.
Grof originally discovered the presence of these four basic perinatal matrices when using psychedelic (LSD) therapy with patients suffering from mental disorders in Europe and the United States (he was the Chief of Psychiatric Research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s). He is currently using a method he developed called Holotropic Breathwork that both reveals and heals the traumas associated with these basic perinatal matrices (as well as experiences associated with other stages of development such as early childhood). To find out more about Grof’s birth model, or other aspects of his important work, see the following resources:
For more information about the stages of life in different cultures and traditions, see Thomas Armstrong , The Human Odyssey: Navigating the 12 Stages of Life (to order from Amazon, click here)