Eczema as Koan Part 2: The Descent Into Hell

This is part two of my account of how I came to experience full healing from a very severe experience of eczema lasting several years. Part one is here and part three is here.


Escalator to HellHaving ‘turned the corner’ as it were, (in terms of hope for the future if not in an actual improvement in my health),  although I didn’t know for sure then if it was a genuine ‘touching rock bottom’, or merely one more step on the way down, I began to search for something which might genuinely make a difference to my health. I had the deep suspicion that the cause of the eczema was not merely physical, and that as I had already completely changed my diet, was taking much more exercise than before (including playing squash, swimming (although not in the sea – way too painful!) and doing Chi Gong) and was still suffering a great deal, I felt that there must be a way of liberating the subconscious energy which I felt must be at the root of the skin condition.

I was doing a lot of research online at the time, and buying a lot of books in the hope that somewhere I would find the key information that would make all the difference. I had always been interested in the work of Stanislav Grof, the Czech psychologist who has laid out in various books the results of his research into altered states of consciousness and near death experiences. A book I particularly had found useful was one he had co-written with his wife Christina, ‘The Stormy Search For The Self’, and I remembered that in this there had been a description of a therapy they had devised together called Holotropic Breathwork. So I searched online to see if there was anywhere near me that facilitated this kind of therapy – expecting, I have to be honest, that there wouldn’t be.

What I didn’t realise is that one of the main centres for the training of Holotropic Breathwork (HB) is fairly near me, so there were a couple of centres offering it not too far away. I immediately, and with a fair amount of trepidation, knowing that this would probably not be an easy thing to go through, contacted them and, once they had satisfied themselves that I met the mental and physical health criteria necessary, arranged to go to a one-day HB workshop they were holding at the end of the month in Barcelona.

I am not going to go into the full story of what HB is, (other than to say it involves rapid breathing until one enters a kind of trance), or what happened at this workshop, but suffice it to say, it was extremely intense, and the latter part of it involved reliving my own birth, both from my own perspective as a tiny baby, but also from my mother’s perspective (even more strange, although it felt perfectly natural at the time).

Christina and Stanislav Grof

Christina and Stanislav Grof, creators of Holotropic Breathwork

After this first session I felt like an enormous weight had lifted, and to my immense delight, the eczema actually improved massively. As you may know if you have ever suffered from it, the good thing about eczema is that it can heal extremely quickly – you can be a red-raw mess one day, and a couple of days later it can be well on the way to being completely better. However the opposite is also true, and even more so – you can be fine in the morning but by the evening look like a bad sunburn case and be feeling absolutely terrible.

So after this first HB workshop I went on holiday to Mallorca for a few days, and I was overjoyed that the eczema was almost completely better after a couple of days there. It was then that I more or less knew that I was going to be able to heal (at least to a great extent) from this extremely debilitating illness.

Once I came back, the eczema also came back, and with a vengeance, but having been eczema-free without drugs for the first time since the ‘healing crisis’ started, I felt much better than before, despite the state of my skin, knowing that there might be a way out of this situation.

I continued to research online and in books and started to believe there was something to the ‘leaky gut’ theory of eczema – basically, and not to put too fine a point on it, we are ‘full of crap’ and this undigested waste is leaking out through the damaged walls of our gut, into our bloodstream, and causing our immune system to react against the ‘pollution’ in our blood.

Around this time I read the excellent article on autoimmune diseases by Charles Eisenstein (this was in fact my introduction to his work, and subsequently he has gone on to be one of my favourite writers).

An excerpt:

“Humanity’s adversarial relationship to nature shows up on the inside as the War Against the Self. Autoimmunity is only one aspect of this war, which is primarily psychological. Self-hatred, self-judgement, and self-rejection are the psychological correlates of somatic autoimmunity.”

This was pretty much how I felt in a nutshell. It can also be summed up in the words of the poet A.E. Housman, quoted by the great Alan Watts: “alone and afraid in a world I never made.”

We feel alienated from life itself, from nature… indeed we do not realise that ‘human nature’ and ‘nature’ are one and the same. We have been kicked out of Eden and are now ‘skeletons fighting for power’, as Osho put it. The immune system is fighting the body itself, as if we have become our own ‘Other’. We are clinging on tightly inside, clinging on to our own shit (literally and figuratively – as we cling to past resentments and self-hatred), taking sides in a war against ourselves, a futile war (as are all wars) which we can never ever win.

This is of course all related to the concept of the self as separate, a kind of lonely robot conditioned by society to repress all true feelings in the name of ‘competitive advantage’ and ‘fitting in’ – of course only a ‘square’ can fit in, amongst the other ‘squares’; or as Josesph Campbell called them, ‘stuffed shirts’ – people who kill their true selves in order to cling on to their position in society. One represses one’s true desires and true feelings and is duly compensated by society. We are told in school, ‘sit up straight’, ‘concentrate’, ‘don’t look out of the window’, ‘behave’ – and slightly more subtle versions of this mindset often permeate the jobs we have to do as adults. Only a very narrow amount of our total energy is required for society’s purposes, and the rest of it must go… where? That is our problem. Well this was now my problem, lying on the mat and going through Hell.

Here is an excerpt from a journal entry I made after my second session of Holotropic Breathwork describing the visionary experiences I went through during the therapy:

“]The convulsions]… then gradually merged into the experience of being burnt- at first it was just a powerful feeling of my body burning but then an image formed in my mind of me lying on the ground burning and a circle of people around me watching me burning and not doing anything to help me, in fact seeming to take a demonic pleasure in seeing me suffer. Overall the energy seemed to have an infernal or satanic quality to it. Gradually I realised I had the option to become the fire itself that was burning me and I briefly experienced being a pure flame, my arms describing the movement of the fire.

I then became a shaman or sorcerer, capturing the flame and throwing it away, like Thor casting thunderbolts, but was unable to achieve any real release in this and reverted to being the victim lying on the ground burning, filled with a feeling of abandonment and resentment at the people who could help me and yet didn’t. I also had the persistent feeling that the session had stopped and everyone was just standing around where I lay on the mattress and was staring and laughing at me. Of course I knew that in fact nothing of the kind was occurring but I had to keep reminding myself that this could not be the case.

This part of the session seemed to be related to me having to choose between becoming the pure flame and taking on the qualities and powers of fire itself or holding on to the resentment I felt towards the people who were burning me. Although I realised that to become the fire was the real victory, I just could not let go of the hatred and isolation I felt within my human form and was not willing to let that go and just become the impersonal fire. It felt like that was letting them get away with it, somehow a forgiveness they did not deserve. Of course my conscious mind realised that this was an error and probably the reason why the original experience (whatever it was) did not complete fully.”

I had many experiences which could be literally be described as ‘hellish’, in this session and the subsequent two or three. Strangely the day after this particular session I met the six year old child of one of my fellow ‘breathers’ and he commented (in Catalan and merely as a comment in passing, without fear) that I was a demon and made the sign of horns on his head!

Stan Grof’s writings about Holotropic Breathwork therapy (e.g. include a kind of ‘map’ of the part of the subconscious related to biological birth which he calls the ‘Perinatal Matrices’. These are basically archetypal states in which the child being born can find themselves and which they often have to relive years later during the therapy itself before they can finally find healing. After these very fiery or hellish sessions I read his description of the Second Matrix and it certainly struck a chord with me:

PerinatalMatrix II. (Antagonism with Mother)
This matrix is related to the first clinical stage of delivery, when the child is exposed to uterine contractions in a closed system. As far as the phenomenology of this matrix is concerned, it can be experienced on the biological level, or in the form of its psychological and spiritual counterpart, the No-Exit situation or Hell. The colors of the visions are usually dark and ominous; the subject feels encaged and trapped in a biological and/or metaphysical sense. He experiences indescribable suffering and cannot see the way out of this situation, neither in time, nor in space. The whole world is seen as an apocalyptic place, full of wars, epidemics and horrors, and human life appears as totally meaningless and absurd.”

My theory, and it is only that, is that I had a great deal of ‘firey’ energy locked in my subconscious – repressed sexuality, unresolved anger, unused power – and in the process of releasing it I had to literally travel into Hell itself (which is nothing more or less than this unacknowledged energy stored in the body/mind) and learn to liberate it and use it for the good of the Whole. During my reliving of my own birth, at times I seemed to be in a massive underground cavern with hellfire all around and an incredibly dark and evil energy permeating everything.

I speculate that it is possible to have a ‘bad birth’ which actually colours the perception of the world from the very day one is born. The reason why this happens to some people and not others may be simply biological, it may have to do with the mother’s feelings relating to the birth itself, or it may indeed be, as Grof himself suggests, that there is a karmic element to all of this; that as the soul is about to incarnate onto the Earth plane, the karmic forces gather from what might be called ‘past lives’ (although I think that is probably a simplification of what the actual process is, we can use that term for now), and gather around the incarnating soul, creating these hellish or ‘stuck’ experiences. All I know for sure is that my birth took 48 hours and was extremely difficult both for me and for my mother.

So how does the leaky gut theory fit in with all of this psychological stuff? My idea is that, as I said, due to all our repressed ‘uptight’ emotion, we are ‘hanging on to a lot of shit’ internally. This is both a metaphor and a literal reality – the squeamish can look away now – I often found that after I experienced an energy release via Holotropic Breathwork, a similar digestive letting go was not far away. Then the eczema would briefly worsen for a couple of days as all the toxins were ‘stirred up’, but subsequent to that I would feel much better both emotionally and physically.

So if the leaky gut theory is true, this chronic internal holding on would mean that there were a lot of toxins which should have been expelled by the digestion entering the bloodstream, against which the immune system was forced to fight, and this reaction is the cause of the eczema. So we see how releasing the emotions via a deep therapy like Holotropic Breathwork allows us to also release the toxins more quickly, plus with the correct diet and an abstinence from harmful and imbalancing medications the walls of the gut are eventually healed and the immune reaction subsides along with the eczema.

I assume that some people are more predisposed to hanging on to emotions in the stomach area (normally said to be the area of relationship) and thus experience diseases like eczema or IBS, whereas others might hold on in the head region and maybe experience cluster headaches or migraines, and still others might hold on in the heart area and experience cardiac problems. I am sure that there is a great confluence of different causes – genetic, dietary, hereditary, emotional, psychological and spiritual – which means that one person becomes ill in a particular way, whilst someone else has a different reaction. The important thing is to somehow make the ‘dark’ subconscious energy conscious in whatever way we can, while simultaneously striving to optimise our physical conditions and circumstances.

In my case I had just gone through a traumatic breakup with someone I had assumed to be ‘the love of my life’, so having problems in the stomach area was probably to be expected.

Stan Grof's Drawing of a Phoenix

Stan Grof’s Drawing of a Phoenix

I had to go through another three very heavy and unpleasant HB sessions before I finally experienced some sort of breakthrough (although there were pleasant moments as well in all the sessions). Here is an excerpt from my account of the third session:

“I was identifying with Christ on the cross, bleeding, with many open wounds, and the blood running over everything. But there was no redeeming quality to the blood, it was just blood and if anything symbolised Christ’s feeling forsaken by God on the cross. After a while of this, I saw a transcendent bird made of light taking off behind the cross. I had experienced a reaction on seeing Stan Grof’s drawing of a phoenix rising from the flames and this may well have influenced this small vision.

I kept on breathing but could not break through the feeling of futility. I summoned all my determination, concentrating on the feeling of wanting to be healthy and free of eczema as hard as I could. This made me scream some more but it was like screaming into a void.”

Again the Christian symbolism, which surprised me as I have always been much more interested in Eastern religions than Christianity, but it seems on entering the subconscious in order to do this healing work, one also enters a ‘mythic’ dimension (which I had seemed to be entering spontaneously once the ‘healing crisis’ had started, as I mentioned in part one). In this dimension it becomes evident that all myths and religions represent deep truths and this is why they have persisted throughout human history. I also experienced myself as Prometheus and Icarus from the Greek myths in one session, and had many moments where I seemed to be involved with indigenous shamanism as well. All of this was a complete surprise to me and involved no effort whatsoever on my part other than that required to enter the ‘trance’ or ‘Holotropic’ state in the first place.

I include this material to make the point that I had to go deeply into my subconscious (what indigenous people might call the ‘Underworld’) to be able to release the energy which was apparently causing the eczema. When I told people (fairly cautiously, it has to be said) about this, their reactions were mixed. Some flat-out thought I was delusional, some were interested, and others were convinced that I was going to be healed of the eczema eventually. No matter what anyone thought though, I knew I had to keep going, even when the ‘No Exit’ sign loomed large over my whole life, and the light at the end of the tunnel, if there even was one, appeared to be nothing other than a train approaching at high speed.


I was intending to make this post in two parts but it has turned out that two is not enough… so stay tuned for part three!

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