R. D. Laing: Of Scientism, Spirit, Madness, and the Healing Genius of Relationship

R. D. Laing’s disciples are mounting a determined effort to reintroduce his ideas to our culture. I delivered the first part of this paper at their second R. D. Laing in the 21st Century Symposium, held at the Esalen Institute in August, 2016. Mad To Be Normal, a movie about Laing’s life and work starring David Tennant, has just been released.

by William Stranger image

We live in a secular world. To adapt to this world the child abdicates its ecstasy. (“L’enfant abdique son exstase”: Mallarmé.) Having lost our experience of the spirit, we are expected to have faith. But this faith comes to be a belief in a reality which is not evident.

There is a prophecy in Amos that a time will come when there will be a famine in the land, “not a famine for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” That time has now come to pass. It is the present age.

From the alienated starting point of our pseudo-sanity, everything is equivocal. Our sanity is not “true” sanity. Their madness is not “true” madness. The madness of our patients is an artifact of the destruction wreaked on them by us and by them on themselves. Let no one suppose that we meet “true” madness any more than that we are truly sane. The madness that we encounter in “patients” is a gross travesty, a mockery, a grotesque caricature of what the natural healing of that estranged integration we call sanity might be. True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality; the emergence of the “inner” archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual reestablishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer.1

I came to R.D. Laing through his prophetic masterpiece, The Politics of Experience, published in 1967, the reading of which was a transformational moment for many of my generation. We immediately recognized him to be one the uniquely sane voices in that apocalyptically-minded prelude to what is now threatening to actually become global apocalypse. Laing’s seminal, elegant demolition of metapsychology, which he replaced with a social phenomenology that distilled a generation of European existential and critical thought into a clear and truly human “science” of persons-in-relation, was and remains one of that era’s virtuoso acts of critical intelligence. It bestowed an intellectual liberation one could not go back on.

Laing began that demolition six years earlier with the publication of The Divided Self and Self and Others—beautifully written, brilliantly argued companion texts that did much to establish phenomenological psychology in the profession’s mainstream. Both have well withstood the test of time. In those three books Laing showed us that we cannot truly engage the issues of love and ultimate meaning that are so central to our lives if we surrender psychology to mechanistic scientism’s manner of understanding and otherwise fail to critically reevaluate the misleading presumptions incarnate in the discipline’s inherited technical language. In the field of psychology there surely never has been a better torchbearer for the corrective intelligence that the existential orientation brings to standard psychological theories of “causation.” His words in that regard bear repeating at length:

Under the heading of “defense mechanisms,” psychoanalysis describes a number of ways in which a person becomes alienated from himself. For example, repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection. These “mechanisms” are often described in psychoanalytic terms themselves as “unconscious,” that is, the person himself appears to be unaware that he is doing this to himself.

Even when a person develops sufficient insight to see that “splitting,” for example, is going on, he usually experiences this splitting as indeed a mechanism, an impersonal process, so to speak, which has taken over and which he can observe but cannot control or stop.

There is thus some phenomenological validity in referring to such “defenses” by the term “mechanism,” But we must not stop there. They have this mechanical quality because the person as he experiences himself is dissociated from them. He appears to himself and to others to suffer from them. They seem to be processes he undergoes, and as such he experiences himself as a patient, with a particular psychopathology.

But this is so only from the perspective of his own alienated experience. As he becomes de-alienated he is able first of all to become aware of them, if he has not already done so, and then to take the second, even more crucial, step of progressively realizing that these are things he does or has done to himself. Process becomes converted back to praxis, the patient becomes an agent.2


Laing was a fierce critic of the reductive scientism that rules the world to this day.3 A medical doctor, and thus himself a man of science, he kept up with significant developments and was in no way discounting the legitimacy or value of the scientific enterprise itself. Rather, in the great tradition of the English Romantic critique (“We murder to dissect,” wrote Wordsworth), he challenged scientism’s perversion or misapplication of a universal human method of free inquiry that is otherwise essential to our civilization. As Laing put it, “Natural scientism is the error of turning persons into things by a process of reification that is not itself part of true natural scientific method.”4 In an interview published in The Laughing Man magazine, in 1984, he was quite blunt about the effects of this error, “Even the worst black magic cannot vie with the destructive capacity of science. Its very method is to destroy what it looks at in order to discover its elements.”5

It is important to appreciate that Laing was not just offering a limited, merely academic course correction to the “natural attitude” (Husserl) of ego over against world that holds the default position of knowledge in our day. Rather, he is evaluating familiar resources and revisiting familiar territory more deeply and truly than our usual egoity finds comfortable. Consider this extraordinary but, when one thinks about it, perfectly obvious statement about the significance of the work of Sigmund Freud: “The relevance of Freud to our time is largely his insight and, to a very considerable extent, his demonstration that the ordinary person is a shriveled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be.”6 After following that statement with the the declaration that “an intensive discipline of unlearning is necessary for anyone before one can begin to experience the world afresh, with innocence, truth, and love,” Laing raises the stakes considerably in a passage that has strong echoes of the influential fifth century C.E. Christian mystic Dionysius the (Pseudo) Aeropagite:

And immediate experience of, in contrast to belief or faith in, a spiritual realm of demons, spirits, Powers, Dominions, Principalities, Seraphim and Cherubim, the Light, is even more remote. As domains of experience become more alien to us, we need greater and greater open-mindedness even to conceive of their existence.7

What made Laing’s critique of scientism in The Politics of Experience so extraordinary, then, was his clear advocacy of the realms of experience it excludes. That an ordained psychiatrist should then go on to write of the verity of paranormal phenomena, the existence of discarnate spirits, the transcendence of egoity, and even of the reality of God’s gracious Presence did much to pry open a door which millions have since walked through.

[N]owhere in the Bible is there any argument about the existence of gods, demons, angels. People did not first believe in God: they experienced His presence, as was true of other spiritual agencies. The question was not whether God existed, but whether this particular God was the greatest god of all, or the only God; and what was the relation of the various spiritual agencies to each other. Today, there is a public debate, not as to the trustworthiness of God, the particular place in the spiritual hierarchy of different spirits, etc., but whether God or such spirits even exist or ever have existed.8

I do not know how any reasonable person could regard the above as merely metaphorical. Similarly, it would be hard to explain away the profundity of this striking challenge to all ego-based psychologies and philosophies:

[A]ll religious and all existential philosophies have agreed that . . . egoic experience is a preliminary illusion, a veil, a film of maya—a dream to Heraclitus, and to Lao Tzu, the fundamental illusion of all Buddhism, a state of sleep, of death, of socially accepted madness, a womb state to which one has to die, from which one has to be born.9

In 1972 Laing wrote a brief but laudatory preface to Only Two Can Play This Game, a book by the genius mathematician, fellow M.D., and polymath G. Spencer Brown (published under the pseudonym “James Keys”), who he had recently trained in psychotherapy. Spencer Brown is world-famous for his treatise on mathematical logic, Laws of Form, which demonstrated the paradoxical basis of mind (and that mind itself is always a praxis, not a mere mirror of presumed to be “external” or “objective” realities). Most basically, Only Two Can Play This Game is a thoroughgoing critique of the premises and effects of the scientific materialist worldview that dominate contemporary Western culture—a view that Spencer Brown argues is rooted in a profoundly anti-female bias.

All man’s philosophy is a rationalization of his inner experience—or lack of it. And a lack of inner experience of the archetypal woman is expressed in a very obvious manner, by academic materialism, or its modern offshoot, logical positivism.

Some logical positivists would not call themselves materialists, but they still share the same attitude. They maintain that what is real is only what can be described when you look outwards, when you look at tables and chairs and suchlike. What you see when you look inwards, the archetypal pattern, the divine love, the sense of how it all fits together, this they say is unreal and ought to be ignored. At the same time they manage somehow to suggest that it is dangerous and ought to be done away with.

To the logical positivist, the events of our lives are nothing more than chance unfoldings in a meaningless universe, love almost entirely a matter of negotiated exchange, and happiness never more than a temporary achievement. Priding himself on his skeptical reserve, the logical positivist is always prey to a cynicism that masks an underlying despair. Later in his book, Spencer Brown identifies the source of this distorted view:

What we have alienated in ourselves is in fact what it is possible to know in respect of the complete and universal totality of being and non-being. Why do simple discoveries of the obvious take so long? Not because man is incapable of seeing them, but because he is neurotically prevented from seeing them by his own self-imposed alienation from what he knows what must be so.10

In both his critique of scientism and his advocacy of the spiritual, Laing himself was clearly drawing from a wealth of personal experience, from the terrible to the sublime. Perhaps the essence of his genius was his extraordinary capacity to sympathetically identify with others. I recall reading an account of how early in his career he trained himself to achieve deep empathy with people by following someone down the street and progressively taking on his or her characteristics until the gestalt of that person’s personality became obvious (all the while reserving a thin avenue of escape back to his own relative sanity). This is the kind of training a Stanislavski would have required of actors. It is not something we expect from a psychiatrist. As Stanislavski well knew, there sometimes was a profound psychic, perhaps even spiritual, component to this manner of being with others.

In that regard, the social anthropologist Francis Huxley, a strong, free-spirited friend of Laing, told a revealing story. Huxley considered him not quite a shaman in fact but nonetheless a shamanically empathetic personality who was perhaps somewhat overmatched by the demands of his vocation. He relates one occasion that

concerned one of the first, most chronic inhabitants of a P.A. [Philadelphia Association] household, David by name, who had just returned from hospital in a high state of mania. Laing gave him what I once heard him call his undivided attention . . . He did this silently and without looking at him, so well that David soon fell silent. Laing then told the others present what he had done, whereupon David took flight again. Laing once more set himself to attend, again David fell silent. What he had done, he later told me, was to take David’s frenzy and contain it in himself. But the effect on him was so great that, when he left soon after to drive himself home, he collapsed in the car from the strain. David, meanwhile, was back in high speed mania.1w

Perhaps we know too much about Laing’s faults as husband, father, and friend to idealize his human qualities. But we should not deny that the man was almost preternaturally gifted in his ability to connect with people on multiple levels. Stories of this are legion. Laing’s account in the “Confirmation and Disconfirmation” chapter of Self and Others about apologizing to a female schizophrenic patient who, after ten minutes of motionless silence between them in a therapy session, noticed the moment his mind began to wander and said, “Oh please don’t go so far away from me,” is certainly a case in point. As Laing noted, most analysts would have been tempted to analyze the patient’s request rather than confirm the validity of her perception.

Another striking vignette is included in a recently published anthology of essays on Laing:

I remember one occasion with a girl of seven years old. She was brought along by her father because she had stopped talking. He brought her into my room and he left. She sat on the floor, crossed her legs, and just sat there—not particularly withdrawn but certainly not looking as though she was interested to play or to have any conversation. She sat there like a sort of miniature Buddha, and I was sitting in my chair and I couldn’t imagine how I might get to her. I asked if she’d like to talk and she had nothing to say. So I got off my chair and sat there on the floor in front of her. There was no plan that I worked out. She allowed me to touch the tip of her little finger with the tip of mine and gradually allowed me to touch the tips of [all] her fingers with the tips of mine. And I shut my eyes.

I had a flash when I did that . . . a pang . . . of anxiety that she might do something to my face. Maybe I was picking up something from the tips of her fingers, but it went away. And I allowed myself to become completely absorbed in the kinesthetic sensations at the tips of her fingers. And for something like forty minutes or so, nothing [happened] except a gradually developing movement/dance with the tips of her fingers. . . . It became absolutely imperative that I not lose touch with the tips of any of her little fingers. And I imagine it began to feel as important to her as it did to me. After about forty minutes, I opened my eyes and as I opened my eyes I found her opening just at the same moment, without a word having been spoken. So we withdrew our fingers from each other, and went back to my chair. I said to her, bring your dad along now if that’s all right with you, and she nodded.

He told me later [that] as he was walking along the road with her towards the car he turned to her and said, “[W]hat went on between you and Dr. Laing?” She turned to him and said, “[I]t’s none of your business!” And these are the first words she had spoken in about two months!13

Two of the sixties’ psychedelic grandees, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert), testified to the spiritual reach of Laing’s sensitivity and intelligence. Timothy Leary’s story was about his and Laing’s first meeting, which took place at the Millbrook estate in New York where Leary was residing. Beginning their encounter straightaway with the offering, “I know an interesting game. Would you like to play?,” Laing immediately engaged him in a non-verbal, upper body, dance of entrainment that catapulted both into an ecstatic state of consciousness. (In 1969, at a Grateful Dead concert in Minneapolis, I witnessed—and even briefly participated in—a very similar interaction between two people standing some distance apart.)

Ram Dass, the American spiritual seeker who spent decades as the counter-culture’s favorite spiritual cheerleader, had this story:

I went over to England once, and Tim (Leary) told me to look up Ronnie, and we meet about five minutes in a pub, and Ronnie said we ought to take acid, LSD, together. I said sure, so we made an appointment, and a few days later we met, and we said whose LSD shall we use, and he said, well, his was legal, so we decided to use his. He was so far out. I mean, the minute we took LSD he took off his clothes and started to do yoga. This was three or four years ago, and I had never seen anything like this. I mean, I was ready to turn on Miles Davis and lie down and, you know, have a groovy session with this high head. He did this yoga, so I watched for a while—like I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ll watch, I’m cool . . . super-cool. Then he came over to me and he looked at me in a very protective way. And I felt that look eliciting in me all the childlike needs to be protected.

And I felt my face changing and my whole orientation going into that. We stood in that for a second, and then I saw his face melt and he became this fantastic, delicate child that needed to be protected. And I felt my face changing and my whole orientation giving into that. And what we did in the next five or six hours, completely silently we lived out . . . each of these symbiotic roles: lovers, friends, enemies, father- child, teacher-student . . . and every one you could think of. And we reversed them. And some of them stuck us because they were so scary—to accept being lovers? To accept being enemies? To really hate? But we had to accept that one too before we could get on with it.14

Ram Dass wemt on to say that once everything had been shown and released, both men found themselves gazing into a radiant field of light into which their visages had all but dissolved. This was, he said, the moment when he first realized humankind’s inherent divinity.

Obviously few psychiatrists (or, for that matter, few actors) were as capable of venturing to and perhaps over the edge as Laing. Anyone who has ever walked to the precipice of a psychedelic or a psychotic shattering knows that only one who has been there could have written these words about the psychotic experience:

[T]he very ontological foundations are shaken. The being of phenomena shifts and the phenomena of being may no longer present itself to us as before. There are no supports, nothing to cling to, except perhaps some fragments from the wreck, a few memories, names, sounds, one or two objects, that retain a link with a world long lost. This void may not be empty. It may be peopled by visions and voices, strange shapes and apparitions. No one who has not experienced how insubstantial the pageant of external reality can be, how it may fade, can fully realize the sublime and grotesque presences that can replace it, or exist alongside it.15

It should be obvious, then, that Laing approached the great human encounter that we call psychotherapy with a breadth of perspective—that is, a true availability to the full dimensionality of their experience and the influences that shaped them—that breaks the boundaries erected by the standard consensus. He told a1985 conference on the evolution of psychotherapy that he took the long view when working up a client’s case history:

Is it [related to] what was going on before [the person] came into the room . . . ? Is it [related to] events that have been going on for a number of years? Does it go back to childhood? Does it go back to birth? Does it go back to conception? Does it go back to before incarnation? Does it go back to before conception and one’s last death? Does it go back to past lifetimes?16


R. D. Laing was not a spiritual teacher per se, but his work should be understood as a resolute insistence that the reductionism that would separate the human psyche from its interpersonal expressions, social nexus, spiritual content, and transcendental or gnostic primacy is absolutely false. He was both prophet and priest of our liberation from all forms of alienation— whether disavowed games of social entrapment (for which he appropriated Marx’s term “mystification”), suppressive political programs, the scientific materialist reductionism that yet dominates official society, the anti-spiritual bromides of conventional religion, and of course the fearful egoic willfulness that is pretty much everyone’s constant mistake. That is why his function in this world was and remains hugely prophetic. Prophetic teachings expose error at its roots, summon us to a higher vision, and advise us that the journey forward, although costly, is absolutely worth the trouble.

That prophetic role is epitomized by Laing’s unabashed, unequivocal advocacy of our indelibly spiritual nature. I see no reason to hedge this dimension of his work. That it was dear to his heart is plainly evident in his own books, in the culture he and others developed in the Philadelphia Association households in London, in his friendships with spiritual teachers such as Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche, in his own informal conversations, and in his travel to and lengthy meditation retreat in India. One has only to read two books Laing warmly recommended—Mircea Eliade’s The Two and the One, which pays homage to the global tradition of the divine light, and Ian Dallas’s The Book of Strangers, which paints a portrait of a traditional sacred culture so ecstatic and profound that our entire civilization’s preoccupations are rendered absurd by comparison—to appreciate the absolute importance to him of embracing an authentically spiritual alternative to the scientistic heresy.

Moreover, Laing made it crystal clear that psychologists who are unaware of, resistant to, or otherwise in denial of the primacy of the spiritual dimension of existence suffer a grave limitation in their capacity to serve patients: As he put it in The Politics of Experience, “As it is, the secular psychotherapist is often in the role of the blind leading the half-blind.”17 In this Laing echoed the strong, clear declaration by his older friend, sometime advocate, and pioneering fellow psychiatrist E. Graham Howe that “any psychological system must be unsatisfactory and misleading, both in theory and practice, until it does admit our essentially spiritual nature.”18

However, although Laing cited the great Advaitan Sage Sri Sankara’s Brahma Sutra and spent weeks meditating with a high yogi in remote part of India, he was principally a man of the West. In The Politics of Experience his invocation of the divine employs classic Christian spiritual terminology (and Laing was in all things a classic thinker), albeit without sectarian implications:

The outer divorced from an illumination from the inner is in a state of darkness. We are in an age of darkness. The stage of outer darkness is a state of sin—i.e., alienation or estrangement from the inner light. Certain actions led to greater estrangement, certain others help one not to be so far removed. The former used to be called sinful.19

He offered his strongest, most unguarded spiritual views in The Laughing Man interview.20 After proclaiming that “human life is only dust and ashes without love,” Laing goes on to say:

The first English Translation of what is now called “the holy ghost” was by John Wycliffe, who translated it as “our healthy spirit.” That is the manifestation of Divinity within and through our own nature. All our natures, with this healthy spirit, are sparks of light in the same fire. That immediately unites us. That companionability in the light of our healthy spirit—which is light and love and the way and truth and life—is what I have become less embarrassed about affirming in the last thirty years or so.

A little later on in the same interview he speaks as majestically as any Christian mystic, although his words here could easily be translated into the language of Hindu, Buddhist, or Sufi spirituality:

Laing: I believe that the material world is contained within the world of the Spirit, which has final, triumphal mastery of the situation at all times. I don’t think anything happens to materials except what Spirit allows.

Interviewer: What, then, do you feel is the highest potential of Man?

Laing: The highest human potential is to glorify the Spirit, for the Spirit to manifest itself through us. I think that comes by the grace of the Spirit. The very cooperation of Man with God is God-given. The end of life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The token of that perfect accomplishment is beatitude.

Finally, a bit further on in the interview, in answer to a question about spiritual surrender, he offers this unreserved recommendation:

Laing: If one is surrendered completely to God, then one has no fear of death, no fear of what anyone can throw at one, and that is tantamount to peace. Again, in the English translation of the Greek New Testament we find, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In the original it reads “Blessed are the spiritual beggars,” those who are completely empty-handed. That emptiness is synonymous with surrender. In surrender, you lose everything. If one is surrendered to God, one cannot find any consolation or satisfaction in anything else but God. That brings complete peace, compete emptiness, and total service. All these words—peace, love, blessedness, fearlessness—are simply different aspects of the same diamond.”


Returning to The Politics of Experience, then, we can appreciate Laing’s forthright advocacy of a genuinely spiritual pathway for those undergoing “the schizophrenic experience.” Before exploring that, however, let us dismiss once and for all the persistent claims that he valorized psychosis as the royal route to spiritual awakening. Laing did nothing of the kind, as his repeated caveats to the contrary in that book amply prove.

People who may be “out of formation” with the norm may or may not be on a spiritual journey. His point is simply that our socially defined “normality,” which by his lights means to be dissociated from the spiritual intuition that makes mortal existence not only bearable but worthwhile, provides no baseline standard of sanity.

There is no need to idealize someone just because he is labeled “out of formation.” Nor is there any need to persuade the person who is “out of formation” that cure consists in getting back into formation.”21

More to the point perhaps:

Certain transcendental experiences seem to me to be the wellspring of all religions. Some psychotic people have transcendental experiences. Often, (to the best of their recollection) they have never had such experiences before, and frequently they will never have them again. I am not saying, however, that psychotic experience necessarily contains this element more manifestly than experience.22

In sum:

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.23

Fritjof Capra reports that Laing once told him, “Mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, but the mystics swim whereas the schizophrenics drown.” Indeed, given our wasteland civilization’s denial of the reality (much less the primacy) of our spiritual nature, and therefore the rarity of effective acculturation to the divine, how could a significant number of us, especially the more sensitive, not go under?

One thing should be clear: affixing the technical medical diagnosis of “schizophrenia” onto a human being is about as good a way as any to heighten whatever forces within him or her that are adding to his continued self-entrapment. In some cultures, such as we find in India today, where the psychiatric establishment is more reticent about medicalizing emotional disturbances, there is a far higher rate of what we might call “cure” than we find in American psychiatry. Having a little honest wit seems to help. The anthopologist Tanya Luhrmann reports:

Indian families also don’t treat people with schizophrenia as if they have a soul-destroying illness. . . .. Many of the doctors didn’t mention a diagnosis. Many of the families didn’t ask. There was a good deal of deception—wives grinding medication into the flour for the daily chapattis they made for their husbands, doctors explaining to patients that they were completely well but should take strengthening pills to protect themselves from the ravages of their youth. As a result, none of the patients thought of themselves as having a career-ending illness, and every one of them expected to get better. And at least compared to patients in the West, they generally did.24

A fellow who read The Druid of Harley Street, an anthology of the writings of E. Graham Howe that I edited several years ago, wrote me that he became Howe’s patient after being treated by a psychiatrist who told him that he was “a schizophrenic.” When he told Howe of his previous therapist’s diagnosis, Howe thundered, “Better he should have beaten with you with a stick. It would have done less harm.”

This is not to deny that some forms of psychosis have an organic basis, or that manic-depressive and schizophrenic syndromes are typically accompanied by distinctive biological footprints. It is possible to understand the biological (neuroanatomical and neurochemical) dimension of these disorders, however, without falling into a false causal reductionism. The psychiatrist John C. Cuttings’ philosophically sophisticated evaluations over the past three decades of an enormous body of neuropsychological research have indeed convincingly demonstrated that people exhibiting chronic schizophrenic and depresssive patterns of experience and behavior exhibit distinctive and very different neurological patterns, although this does not mean that they are necessarily genetically caused.25 Likewise, the psychiatrist John E. Nelson, in his important book Healing the Split, presents much of the more convincing neurochemical research on these disorders within a developmental schema that includes a robust consideration of their psychic and spiritual dimensions.26 Given what we are learning about “brain plasticity,” there is no reason to believe that these phenomena are irreversible. Moreover, as we will see when we consider the work of Leon Hammer below, there are forms of traditional but nonetheless fully scientific diagnosis and understanding that place Western medical research in a much more expanded context than it presumes to allow us. That being said, it seems to me that all who would treat people in extreme states owe it to both themselves and their patients to get a good grasp of the neurobiological and neurophenomenological material gathered and presented by Cutting and Nelson, and also by another psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, in his landmark work The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

So, what about this matter of swimming versus sinking? Laing advised us that “Experience may be judged as invalidly mad or as validly mystical. The distinction is not easy.” How do we know the likelihood of each outcome? That is, how do we determine if an individual passing through some form of psychosis, or, put perhaps less prejudicially, an “extreme state,” is moving deeper into egoic entrapment, dysfunction, and bondage or through a process that, no matter how disorienting and difficult, is progressing towards psycho-spiritual healing and even liberation? This surely has a great deal to do with the kind of help one receives.

When we are talking about spiritual profoundity, that help might well first appear as a radical dislocation of one’s ordinary state. Take the example of the late Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. In his youth he was a a well-adjusted (in the words of his biographer C. B. Purdom “high-spirited, eager, and friendly”), intellectually capable, artistically oriented, and even athletic natural leader who showed no signs of either emotional or spiritual turmoil

. . . until the May morning in 1913 that he happened across Hazrqat Babajan, a very old Muslim woman saint, sitting under a neem tree in Poona, India. Spontaneously moved to embrace her, from that moment on Meher Baba cared for nothing other than spiritual life. Every evening thereafter he returned to her and simply sat in complete silence until, on a January
evening in 1914, she told him, “This child of mine will after some years create a great sensation in the world and do immense good to humanity.“ After returning home that night, Meher Baba began experiencing electric (kundalini) shocks and passed into profound states of spiritual absorption that for the next ten months rendered him all but unaware of the world.

His own early spiritual adventure would almost surely have won him the diagnosis of “schizophrenic” in the America of his day—with that designation’s attendant dangers of incarceration, insulin shock therapy, and even lobotomy. However, some who find themselves launched upon an apparently psychotic episode are literally blessed to find themselves sustained and guided by the Greater Reality. Meher Baba eventually emerged as as a transmitting spiritual master who made service to people in extreme mental states a feature of his ministry, expecially in India, where he set up several ashrams exclusively for masts (pronounced “musts”). He famously never spoke after his thirty-first year, communicating with others by writing on a small slate that he always had with him.

Meher Baba eventually asked his devotee William Donkin, a British- educated doctor who lived with him in India, to write an account of his spiritual work with the masts. The resulting book, The Wayfarers: Meher Baba with The God-Intoxicated, is a fascinating portrait of a great Adepts’s service to an intriguing and unusual assortment of human beings. Fortunately, the spiritual master himself contributed a very illuminating forward to Donkin’s history. Here I quote Meher Baba at length:

Masts are totally different from ordinary mad persons. Although to the casual observer they might seem to be like each other, they are utterly dissimilar in their intrinsic nature and significance. Though both are far from perfection, and need correctives or healing, there is a vast difference in the nature of their inner mental states, and in the spiritual value of the results that are achieved by the application of correctives. These important differences need to be understood carefully.

In feeble-minded or mad persons, aberrations from the average pattern of responses and actions are the results of their mental incapacity to adhere to the ordinary ways of the world. Through inherent psychic weakness, their directive effort has come to an impasse, or has fizzled out. The cases of break down of the mind in ordinary madness are as often due to aimlessness in life, as they are due to insufficiency, or to the inadequacy of the available “will-power“ or mental strength. There are usually many other contributory factors in such cases. Persons who find shelter in mental hospitals are generally those who have been subjected to unusual mental shock or strain. They lose their balance of mind due either to insufficient mental development or to the operation of physiological or psychic forces of disruption. Though these physiological or psychological forces that have caused mental disruption are irresistible, they are of the ordinary kind. In ordinary madness, the collapse of the normal functioning of the mind has come about by unmaneageable conflicts or disintegrating factors; and the best that can be hoped for by removing the causes of disturbance, is the restoration of the previous state of normality of the mind.

But the case of masts is altogether different in origin, as well as in potentiality. There is no doubt that masts often exhibit an incapacity to deal with the ordinary situations of life; and they are, in this respect, comparable to those who are deranged in mind. But the departure of masts from normal behaviour and responses is not due to lack of sufficient mental development, nor is it due to any chaotic forces of disruption; it is due to a suspension of interest in the ordinary pursuits of life, and to an absorption in the spiritual realities encountered on the path towards Truth-realization.

Like cases of ordinary mental derangement, the cases of many masts may show signs of mental conflict, when considered from the purely theoretical point of view. However, from the point of view of their intrinsic nature, the two cases of mental conflict are poles apart. Ordinary mental derangement is due to an acute and insoluble conflict between incompatible sanskaric [inherited or karmic] inclinations in connection with the world. But the unusual psychic states of the divine madness of masts are due to the dispersion of sanskaric inclinations by the powerful urge to realize the God state.

In the divine madness of masts, the advancing urge to realize the Highest brings about a complete shattering of the mental structure, and all its normal tendencies and capacities. This condition of the mind ultimately leads to a total inhibition of the mind, which is the gate way to the unmani [transcendent or unitive] state. The successful termination of the steady impulsion to Truth initiates the mast into the supra-mental state of integral understanding and direct realization of the Supreme Self. But this drive for the Truth, in its process, entails far-reaching ravages of the psychic field. It inolves a complete break- up and a reconstitution of the mental structure, and of existing tendencies. There is no wonder that the inevitable, intermediate mental states are, in their expression, found to be as much removed from average states as are the abnormal states of mad persons.

Confusion between the abnormal and the supernormal states of consciousness arises due to mixing up two ways of interpreting and measuring madness and its degrees. According to one way of interpretation, madness is a deviation from the average mode of consciousness and behaviour; and its degree is to be measured by the amount of its departure from the average pattern. But according to another way of interpretation, madness is the incapacity of consciousness to understand or express truth; and its degree is to be measured by the extent to which it deviates from truth. If these two distinct standards are mixed up with each other and applied simultaneously, they inevitably lead to a confusion between the abnormal mad states the supernormal mast states.

When the mast states are measured by the standard of the average pattern of responses and actions, they will inevitably be interpreted as having an even greater degree of madness than ordinary madness. But if we change the standard, they will be interpreted differently. When the mast states are measured by the standard of realization and expression of truth, they will inevitably be interpreted as having increasing degrees of sanity. When viewed in the light of the Truth, the average pattern of responses and behaviour, which is the most common standard for measuring degrees of madness, would itself appear as a veritable form of madness; and ordinary forms of madness, which have failed to reach even the average pattern, would present themselves as deeper levels of madness. However, all these different phases of unfolding human consciousness are better understood when they are viewed in their continuity, and in relation to the ultimate objective of realizing and expressing the Truth. When viewed in this way, ordinary madness is seen to be the most dim reflection of the Truth, and the average mode of consciousness, and the mast states, are both seen to be increasing degrees of sanity and approximations to the Truth that becomes completely manifest in its unqualified reality and fullness only when the domain of the mind is crossed.27

If we follow Laing’s recommendation (“[I]t describes a Path that is actually there. . . ”) and take the time to read The Book of Strangers, we will get a vivid picture of just such a mast in action. Although it is a parable set in the not-too-far-distant future, the authenticity of author Ian Dallas’s portrait of Sufi sacred culture is undeniable. In the following passage the story’s protagonist, who is experiencing the painful doubts and yearnings of his own dawning spiritual quest, has just entered an ancient Middle Eastern university town whose three hundred and sixty-five mosques about to issue the sunset calls to prayer:

As I climbed down the step back into the city, a man younger than myself, with a flowing white robe that billowed as he moved, came toward me. Although he was climbing the steps, he gave no indication of effort and seemed to float upward. He was bareheaded, and his black curling hair was cut close to his head. He held something in his right hand—held it out almost as if he were offering it to some invisible companion He was beautiful, and vibrations of some enraptured joy came from him in waves. He was oblivious to me as he came up the hill, just as he was unaware of the steps he climbed, yet unerringly he ascended, his glowing eyes staring up ahead.

The first thought that flashed into my mind was that he was stoned. The vibrations, the slight tremor of absence at the center of his being suggested it. But as he approached I changed my mind, deciding that he was not high, but mad. The word “catatonic” came to me as I caught the glazed, empty face, but as he passed me and the radiant energy flowed over me with all the immediacy of rain, I knew he was not mad. I saw what he held in his hands and I heard his deep, urgent voice. He held a necklace of wooden beads. He moved them through his hand, flicking the index finger, and with each bead he exclaimed, “Allah. Allah. Allah. Allah. Allah . . .”

Hurrying to a mosque to pray, our protagonist (who is never named) meets a wizened old Sufi who instructs him in prayer.

Impulsively and gratefully, I grasped his hand. He patted me on the arm like a child. After a while, I told him about the mad boy I had seen on the hill. He nodded as I spoke and shut his eyes. “Majdhub. Not mad, for he is lost. He is’—he laughed—“drunk. Drunk with love. Bathed in wine. Crystallized in honey. Majdhub.” He repeated the word with a certain satisfaction and gaiety that intrigued me. “What a little thing our love is! Can we even call it love? Not very far—hmm?—we will embark on the ocean. Aren’t you afraid. No? Ah! But you must be.28

Although our enraptured Madjhub was an unproblematic—indeed, an inspiring—figure valued in a traditional sacred culture, people of the modern West, and increasingly the world over, have practically no cultural context for hosting such a person. Therefore, it is imperative that we have the benefit of psychologists who—even if not deeply attuned to the living psyche and, most especially, to genuinely spiritual states of mind—are at least open to the verity of these dimensions of experience. Lacking that sympathy and sensitivity, they will feel obliged to interpret such experiences as a little more than a perplexing manifestation of neurotic conflicts or psychotic refusals of relationship. And of course such experiences brings their own tests and trials. These require capable guidance. In that regard, Roberto Assagioli was a true psychiatric pioneer:

The opening of the channel between the conscious and the superconscious levels, between the “I” and the Self, and the flood of light, energy, and joy which follows, often produce a wonderful release. The preceding conflicts and sufferings, with the psychological and physical symptoms which they generated, vanish sometimes with amazing suddenness, thus confirming the fact that they were not due to any physical cause but where the direct outcome of the inner strife. In such cases the spiritual awakening amounts to a real resolution.
But in other cases, not infrequent, the personality is unable to rightly assimilate the inflow of light and energy. This happens, for instance, when the intellect is not well coordinated and developed; when the emotions and the imagination are uncontrolled; when the nervous system is too sensitive; or when the inrush of spiritual energy is overwhelming in its suddenness and intensity.

An inability of the mind to stand the illumination, or a tendency to self-centeredness or conceit, may cause the experience to be wrongly interpreted, and there results, so to speak, a “confusion of levels .” The distinction between absolute and relative truths, between the Self and the “I” is blurred, and the inflowing spiritual energies may have the unfortunate effect of feeding and inflating the personal ego.29

As Laing noted in The Politics of Experience, “The distinction [between ‘invalidly mad’ or ‘validly mystical’] is not easy.” With Assagioli (and, I might add, E. Graham Howe), Laing would remind both patient and therapist to be on guard against the inveterate tendency of individuals manifesting extreme states to conflate the personal ego with the Transpersonal Self. He advises us, “The madman is confused. He muddles ego with self, inner with outer, natural with supernatural.” Once the therapist has concluded that his or her patient is indeed, at least to some significant degree, accessing transpersonal or spiritual dimensions of their being, he now has the task of helping him navigate often difficult and occasionally even very dark passages. Here again Assagioli offers sage advice:

Most spiritual experiences contain a combination in various proportions of permanent changes, temporary changes, the recognition of obstacles that need to be overcome, and the lived realization of what it is like to exist at this higher level of integration. It is this awareness that then becomes an ideal model, a luminous beacon toward which one can navitage and which one can eventually achieve by his own means.

But experiencing the withdrawal of the transpersonal energies and the loss of one’s exalted state of being is necessarily painful, and is apt in some cases to produce strong reactions and serious troubles. The personality reawakens and asserts itself with renewed force. All the rocks and rubbish, which had been covered and concealed at high tide, emerge again. Sometimes it happens that lower propensities and drives, hitherto lying dormant in the unconscious, are vitalized by the inflow of higher energies, or bitterly rebel agains the new aspirations and purposes that are constituting a challenge and a theat to their uncontrolled expression. The person, whose moral conscience has now become more refined and exacting, whose thirst for perfection has become more intense, judges with greater severity and condemns his personality with a new vehemence; he is apt to harbor the mistaken belief of having fallen lower than he was before.

At times the reaction of the personality becomes intensified to the extent of causing the individual to actually deny the value and even the reality of his recent experience. Doubts and criticism enter his mind, and he is tempted to regard the whole thing as an illusion, a fantasy, or an emotional intoxication. He becomes bitter and sarcastic, ridicules himself and others, and even turns his back on his higher ideals and aspirations. Yet, try as he may, he cannot return to his old state; he has seen the vision, and its beauty and power to attract remain with him in spite of his efforts to suppress it. He cannot accept everyday life as before, or be satisfied with it. A “divine homesickness” haunts him and leaves him no peace. In extreme cases, the reaction can be so intense as to become pathological, producing a state of depression and even despair, with suicidal impulses. This state bears a close resemblance to psychotic depression—once called “melancholia”—characterized by an acute sense of unworthiness, a systematic self-depreciation and self-accusation, which may become so vivid as to produce the delusion that one is in hell, irretrievably damned. There is also an acute and painful sense of intellectual incompetence; a paralysis of the will power accompanied by indecision and inabilty to act. But in the case of those who have had an inner awakening or a measure of spiritual realization, the disturbances should not be considered as a mere pathological condition; they have different, far deeper causes. 30

Our need to find a ready and reliable means of distinguishing between truly constructive and destructive passages through apparent madness requires us to engage what I believe to be one of the most fateful conversations of our time—the nature of the psycho-physical anatomy of human beings and it tells us about human development.


Like his friend and sometime advocate E. Graham Howe, who always considered his vocation that of “medical psychologist,” Laing was unwilling to divorce our psychological understanding of human emotional states from a deep consideration of their physiological manifestations.

I didn’t believe and I still don’t believe there’s any what you call psychiatry or study of mental suffering this is properly divorced from taking into account a person’s whole being in the world which is one’s physical body as well, not in the split way as practised in medicine which is a double split, which reflects the schizophrenia that they describe in patients. There is the split between me and you and there’s the split between your mind and your body, a double schizoid split which I saw reflected in medical theory projected onto people who, when I ment them, fully engaged me immediately, however crazy they were supposed to be.31

Laing’s felt that our purportedly separate and discrete bodies are not as separate and discrete as the science of his day believed. His medical intuition told him that we directly, even deeply, interact with and affect one another at the level of our neurology. He would have liked, he told Mullan, “to see how our brainwaves vary with what were were talking about”32:

I thought there ought to be a branch of neurology which was equivalent to the neurophysiology of the nervous system, and I was convinced that the neurophysiology of one person’s nervous system was related to the neurophysiology of someone else’s nervous system. They were not completely isolated, nonconnected things. They were related to one another, there was an interplay between your physiology and my physiology.33

Although he tried to keep up with neuroscience, however, Laing simply didn’t have the time: “I never did proceed in that field, of course; I couldn’t do everything. But I wanted to.”34 Nevertheless, when he joined the Tavistock Clinic he was still “imagining a career in medicine in relationship to neuropsychiatry and the phenomenology of the world that we present ourselves to and which we live in as mediated through our central nervous system.”35

Laing’s psycho-physical sensitivities were always acute. In his maturity as a psychiatrist he was quite candid about the profound impact the “double schizoid split” he described above has upon our manifest existence. In The Politics of Experience he gave us what is perhaps the most cogent phenomenological depiction of the psycho-physical complexion of our unregenerated humanity ever written by a psychiatrist:

When our personal worlds are rediscovered and allowed to reconstitute themselves, we first discover a shambles. Bodies half- dead; genitals dissociated from heart; heart severed from head; head dissociated from genitals. Without inner unity, with just enough sense of continuity to clutch at identity—the current idolatry. Torn—body, mind and spirit—by inner contradictions, pulled in different directions. Man cut off from his own mind, cut off equally from his own body—a half-crazed creature in a mad world.36

Psychoanalysis occasionally elicits this kind of deep polemical expression from its most committed and profound thinkers, whether artist, analyst, or academic. D. H. Lawrence, Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm are certainly enduring cases in point. Even so, the profession is rarely kind to its own prophets. There is no better proof of this than the example of Reich himself, who famously was made to pay a terrible price for daring to challenge the psychiatric orthodoxies of his day. Pointing out that “Reich’s proposals as to the social influences on the functions of the sympathetic, parasympathetic and central nervous systems, and on our biochemistry, are testable, but are never tested,” Laing was obviously deeply supportive of his description of psychological health as the capacity for “a free flow of bioelectric energy” that mobilizes “the imprisoned serpent power,” thus allowing “a serpentine undulation of the whole body” in orgasm. In the same article Laing speaks appreciatively about Reich’s theory “of a type of biological and cosmic energy, and the investigation of its particular energy field.” 37

Reich’s concept of “orgone energy” restores to our discourse the discarded, much maligned vitalistic element in science that animates the core of all traditional medical systems, East and West alike, along with functional psycho-physical esoterism of the spiritual cultures within which they arose. It is significant that Laing drew together our central and autonomic nervous systems and the functional blockage of bioelectric and orgone energy. This gives structure, process, and substance to what is meant when Laing otherwise speaks of us as “body, mind, spirit.” For most of human history these were accounted for in terms of our “esoteric anatomy,” a designation given us by Adi Da Samraj.

“Esoteric anatomy” is a good way of designating the apparent structures and processes that connect, regulate, and balance our physical body, the envelope of vital energy that pervades and surrounds it, our verbal or lower mind and will, our deeper or higher psyche (including our creative imagination, discriminative intelligence, and higher will), and the transcendent intuition that penetrates the root fiction of egoity itself. The best known and most widely employed esoteric schema—which I have just employed here—is the system of concentric gross, subtle, and causal bodies or “sheaths” bequeathed to us by the Indian Tantra. It is also elaborated in terms of the chakras or nerve plexes of consciousness and energy and the channels or circuitry that connect them. As his advocacy of Wilhelm Reich suggests, these were by no means as alien to Laing as one might have supposed.

Five years before writing The Politics of Experience, Laing contributed a foreward to E. Graham Howe’s book Cure or Heal?, who he celebrated there as “a master psychologist” and whose many books he praised for having “exhibited spiritual authority anchored to flesh and blood reality” (and who, by the way, he elsewhere described elsewhere as “a significant figure” in “the world of gurus and spiritual maturity” who was “absolutely and totally supportive of me having such a mixture of exasperated contempt for the world of psychiatry and psychoanalsysis”).38 In Cure or Heal? Howe correlates aspects of the chakra system of Indian Tantric esotericism with Western neuroanatomy. In his foreward Laing notes:

Chakra for instance, those corporeal centres of energy known to the Hindus for thousands of years, are now being discovered by psychosomatic medicine. Howe has been using Chakra psychology for years, and perhaps knows more about this field than anyone in this country, if not in the West. This book contains in straightforward and reliable terms an account of the Chakra, in a way that suddenly lifts them out of the region of obscure scholarship and makes them immediately relevant to the practicing doctor and patient. What we have here is not a synthesis of different schools, but an original expression in the modern idiom of that which all schools seek to express in more or less rigid and desiccated ways. But here the expression is supple and fresh.”39

For our purposes here, the simplest and most useful way to envision our esoteric anatomy is to distinguish between the earth-bound, vital, instinctive, emotionally reactive, and verbal-mental preoccupations of the lower or “gross” life of the first three chakras situated below the heart (sometimes referred to as the “horizontal” dimension because of their association with the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious preoccupations of our natural, ordinary waking life), and the spacious or open, emotionally attuned, psychically sensitive, creatively imaginative, intelligent, intuitive, and spiritually oriented interests of the four chakras that constitute our high or “subtle,” being at and above the heart (referred to as the “vertical”dimension because it relates to the higher psychic, superconscious, and deeply intuitive functions that are associated with the states of dreaming, deep sleep, and Transcendental Realization Itself). Earth and sky, chthonic and supernal, body and mind, sense and spirit, life and light, instinct and intuition, left- brain and right-brain, descending and ascending—these are just some of the commonly paired opposites through which this polarity is expressed. Chinese medicine likewise pairs the “body-essence” with the “spirit-soul,” Max Scheler contrasts drank and geist, Jung refers to the “somatic-unconscious” and the “psychic-unconscious,” Roberto Assagioli and Sri Aurobindo speak of the “subconscious” and the “superconsciouss,” and Adi Da Samraj describes the lower and upper “coils,” one descending, the other ascending from the heart.

From this perspective, we can readily see that the conventionally mad people described by Meher Baba are essentially locked into the concerns of the lower coil or ordinary bodily waking life, but in a profoundly failed or maladapative manner. Likewise the masts he so lovingly served, who no doubt also suffer from all kinds of reactions to ordinary life, are primarily preoccupied with the psychic and sometimes authentically spiritual phenomena of the upper coil or vertical dimension, also in a maladaptive manner (albeit to a profoundly different effect).

In any case, joining the two coils together (literally in the middle of body) is what almost all spiritual traditions hold to be the true center of human consciousness—the “heart” of which I have been speaking. Thus conceived, our heart is not merely the pump that oxygenates and circulates our blood. It is also the locus of our feeling, psychically or imaginally sensitive, and spiritually conscious being—that is, of our truly intelligent awareness. As such, the heart is the place from and by which the movements above and below, subtle and gross, vertical and horizontal, are brought into balance and integrated. By such means, the great universals of Consciousness and Life are thereby set free to pervade, nurture, organize, and transform the entire body-mind. Adi Da Samraj summarized the matter this way:

The heart is extended above and below. Only the heart itself stands unmediated in the Place of Truth. If the dimension of the whole body above and below do not bow to the heart’s Place, then the heart becomes contracted and secluded in the ego-sense, the disposition of the separate soul. In that case, all worlds become delusion, and even simple things a torment. All that arises becomes a dream of ego, or independent consciousness.40

Howe introduced R. D. Laing to perhaps the most famous esoteric designation of this heart center—as the anahata or “heart” chakra of Hindu Tantra. In the Mad To Be Normal interviews Laing offers this interesting report:

Howe cultivated a particular form of meditation directly on the heart Chakra and he convened a group of a few people that he knew who meditated with him for about 40 minutes a week. He invited me to join and I did. We never talked about it; at the time we simply convened together at 14 Wimpole Street and sat down in chairs and proceeded to meditate in whatever way we imagined we were meditating, on the heart Chakra. There were about eight of us. I can’t remember who the others were and I don’t think we ever met personally.41

Remarkably, the great esoteric spiritual schools and the traditional medical systems they spawned fully place the heart’s spiritual function at the core of both their meditative, yogic, and devotional practices and their medical diagnostic and treatment systems. Anyone who seriously studies the world’s traditional medical systems (traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, Siddha, Tibetan and other indigenous medicines, homeopathy, naturopathy, shamanism, and all kinds of somatic approaches) soon realizes that they are fundamentally participatory, psycho-physical sciences rooted in the understanding that human beings are systems of living energy, or life-force, whose ultimate source and governance is a heart-based spirit-consciousness. In their more developed forms, these systems are as rigorously empirical and theoretically coherent as any Western science. But since they are psycho- physical sciences, they operate prior to or on the inside, as it were, of the body-mind split, providing extraordinarily detailed functional portraits of our interlocking physical, emotional, mental, psychic, and spiritual patterning. This close connection between traditional spirituality and traditional medicine explains why from time immemorial, in both the East and the West, so many holy men and women have also been talented physicians and healers. They are the foundations of human culture, if that culture is to have any hope of knowing the Great Uniity.

Of course merely to direct ones attention to a subtle energy complex—whether the heart complex or anything else—is of negligible value. Moreover, to deliberately stimulate the higher or vertical energy centers above the heart, especially via the famous kundalini energy, without suitable preparation and guidance can be quite destructive. It took the Indian social scientist Gopi Krishna, for example, over a dozen years to realize human normalcy after his own premature kundalini awakening. That is why every significant spiritual tradition requires intensive preliminary disciplines to purify, ground, and morally transform individuals before allowing any engagement with advanced esoteric practices. Adi Da Samraj reminds us that other Adepts have warned disciples against naively engaging kundalini energies:

. . . I am reminded of something Shirdi Sai Baba [a great early twentieth century Hindu Adept] apparently said to somebody one time, cautioning him against indulging in certain kinds of psychic intensity and admonishing him to be very careful in “waking up the snakes.” In other words, it has by no means been universally recommended that one get into this kundalini business and ascending Yoga and psychism and subtle experiences and so forth. It is even a kind of fad that has developed in the Western world, with its limited experience of esoteric matters. And in the Western world particularly, it has developed quite recently.

[T]he most fundamental function of the brain is to act as a barrier to what is previous to, or outside, the gross mechanism. The brain is there so you will not think the deeper being. It is there to lock you out from it. Now, why? Not because some evil has overcome you, but because it is not good for you to become involved as an ego in the great range of all possibilities. To do so would be binding.

You are born in physical form for a unique purpose, which is to be purified. You are not born as a human being merely to be a human being, merely to be this physical person and get fulfilled. You are born to create a circumstance of conscious awareness in which the karmic is beyond your awareness, prior to your awareness, so that you can be purified, so that you can be concentrated in the physical and do sadhana [spiritual practice] there, which in effect will release you from the unconscious and the tendencies hidden there. Fundamentally you are already in a circumstance that is the appropriate one for sadhana. It is not that you must first enlarge your mind and your sphere of experience into the subtle play.42

Meeting the demands and challenges of ordinary physical life, however, is precisely what Meher Baba’s masts refuse to do. It is a very telling failure, and helps explain why they required years of the great Adept’s personal attention and care just to achieve a basic, working equanimity. Even if the masts were more Godwardly oriented than most everyone else, they were nonetheless greatly disturbed. In fact, most spiritual traditions agree that it is inauspicious, if not outright dangerous, to attempt to independently engage our subtle or vertical yogic and mystical potentials without first bringing our vital-physical, emotional, and discursive mental life into balance. (Although, under skilled guidance, such explorations might serve a valuable initiatory function.) At the same time, the traditions also maintain that it is not possible to achieve a truly stable personal equanimity and good order without benefit of the nurturing heart- feeling and governing intelligence that is the spirit’s special gift. Left to itself the gross or lower life is incoherent, a function of the momentary and always conflicting impulses of the uninstructed vital being.

In every serious spiritual tradition, therefore, beginning aspirants are required to submit their ordinary functional life to purifying, enlivening, habit-transforming self-discipline, while also beginning to listen to and otherwise study the sacred teachings and engage the foundation practices of concentration, meditation, devotion, spiritual reception, and so forth. Such practical discipline almost always takes place within the setting of a gathering of similarly dedicated aspirants and entails obligations of personal accountability and compassionate service to others that frustrate our habitual self-enclosure and foster our empathic, moral awakening. These hard trials of discipline, which often entail a kind of fiery, multi-leveled purification, are compensated by increased personal wellbeing and the spiritual quickening so often spontaneously generated in the good company of more mature practitioners. The cultural implications of this for the psychotherapeutic treatment of people in extreme states remains to be explored.

Granted these caveats against prematurely catalyzing kundalini energies, it also must be said that contemporary Westernized humankind’s intense prejudice against engaging the vertical dimension of experience— most especially experience above and beyond the brain—is the dominant fault binding our entire civilization to its exclusive and ultimately self- destructive concentration in the earthly, horizontal dimension of experience and life. This tendency is amply on display via our current intense love- affair with neurobiological psychology. Although the interpersonal neurobiology developed by Daniel Siegel, Allan Schore, and others undoubtedly reveals important correlations between neurophysiological function and behavior, the disposition and manner in which it is currently practiced excludes forms of causation and modes of understanding that exceed the brain and body complex known to Western science. In so doing, it fails to take advantage of the subtlety and explanatory reach available through more traditional systems of diagnosis and practice. It is unfortunate Laing did not have the opportunity to develop a more inclusive science of “interpersonal-phenomenological neurophysiology,” to use the term coined by his student Steven Gans.

Be that as it may, since Laing opened his own unique passageway between psychology and spirituality back in the 1960s, there have been surprisingly few serious attempts within psychiatry, psychology, and psychoanalysis to explore those possibilities. To this day relatively few psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, or psychotherapists have even attempted to develop theories of psychosis (or, again, less prejudicially, “extreme states”) that are at ease with the psychic, paranormal, esoteric spiritual and mystical phenomenology that so often accompany them. Recent works by Paris Williams, a clinical psychologist, and Edward Podvoll and John E. Nelson, both psychiatrists, are attempts to explain the various ways in which experiences of the “transliminal” (Williams) or “Ground” (Nelson) that is our spiritual and non-dual nature can figure in both the genesis and the healing of psychosis.


Psychotherapy can be understood as a king of moral ascesis, or creative ethical ordeal, that restores our capacity for human relatedness under the testing circumstances of ordinary life. The discipline has profited greatly by following the myriad threads that lead to and emanate from that core defining critical purpose. But the time is long past when psychotherapy, and perhaps even psychoanalysis, can appropriately be conducted without fully integrating life itself (which, in the words of Owen Barfield, “is not an abstraction, but a factually antecedent unity”) into the process of personal insight.43 In other words, we must fully admit the energetic dimensions of vitality, feeling, and spirit into both the diagnosis and treatment of emotional conflicts. There is nothing in existential philosophy that forbids us to acknowledge the role of the élan vital in psychological growth. To the contrary, Paul Tillich, a Protestant existential theologian whose The Courage to Be Laing admired, explains that a robust vitality is essential if we are to truly integrate, rather than avoid, the “Fear and anxiety [that] must be considered as expressions of what one could call: ’self-affirmation on its guard’:

Courage, in this view, is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives anticipated by fear, for the sake of a fuller positivity. . . The right courage therefore must, like the right fear, be understood as the expression of perfect vitality. The courage to be is a function of vitality. Diminishing vitality consequently entails diminishing courage. To strengthen vitality means to strengthen the courage to be. Neurotic individuals and neurotic periods are lacking in vitality.44

I believe psychotherapists who wish to most effectively serve their clients’ emotional healing and moral awakening must ultimately combine the practical, moral and ethical, esoteric spiritual, and wisdom practices of the great religious and spiritual traditions and the great energy healing modalities evolved in both traditional and modern cultures45 with existential and other dynamic forms of psychotherapy.46 One of the true pioneers of this evolving synthesis is the William Alanson White Institute-trained psychiatrist Leon Hammer. His breakthrough book Dragon Rise, Red Bird Flies: Psychology and Chinese Medicine could be read with profit by any psychotherapist.47 In that book Hammer flatly asserts that “We can and must consider the entire range of behavior, personality, and intention as a province of energetics.”48 He goes on to note that concepts of the ‘spirit’ (Shen), which is centered in the heart, are so central to TCM’s diagnosis and treatment system that some two fifths of all acupuncture points are associated with the reinvigoration of the Shen in the heart center.

In Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies, Leon Hammer ably demonstrates how his own effectiveness as a psychotherapist greatly improved when he began to employ Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), one of our planet’s great energy medical systems, in his psychotherapeutic work (in his case, via acupuncture treatments). Remarkably, Hammer found that openly sharing his TCM diagnosis with patients provided them with a a functionally useful and often profoundly illuminating portrait of themselves—one that could not easily be discounted as reflecting the therapist’s personal prejudices. Indeed, Hammer reports that only once in all his years of practice did a patient claim to be offended or otherwise adversely affected by his sharing of such information—testimony to the underlying psychological resilience of we human beings.

Hammer wrote that “Acupuncture clearly demonstrated its ability to shorten the period of time required for significant [psychological] change to occur, and to engender major alterations in patterns of behavior and thought well beyond what the other modalities of treatment could contribute.”49 Even more impressive, however, is that his acupuncture treatments served the development of his patients’ self-awareness. Therefore, both dimensions of his work—the psychotherapy and the acupuncture diagnosis and treatment, then—should be kept in mind while reading my final lengthy quotation, here from Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies:

The accepted goal of therapy to achieve a change in character, in the ways in which a person characteristically avoids living life, was more readily achieved with the introduction of the needles. The depressed person who avoids both joy and responsibility for negative feelings; the obsessional person who avoids feeling by means of rigidity and orderliness; the oral person who avoids standing on the earth with his own two feet by demanding to be held and nourished; the schizoid person who avoids feeling through detachment; the schizophrenic person who avoids terror through fragmentation; or the paranoid person who avoids the unknown through projection: all of these desperate, maladaptive restitutive maneuvers represent the best that a person could do at the time, and with what was available, to stay in contact while staying intact. And any such individuals might be helped toward a constructive restitution by the needles.

Perhaps the most important consequences of the introduction of acupuncture into my practice was the flowering of awareness in my patients and my own appreciation of its significance to growth and development. People became aware of the tensions in their body, and how they were creating them through thought and action; of their resistance to feeling good and how they made themselves feel bad. Their sensitivity to food, sound, air, and emotional ambiance made them more alive and better able to care for themselves and self-heal. There were abreactions and cathartic events. Repressed emotions, thoughts, memories, dreams, images, and dissociated material (including that of childhood, the birth experience, and even perhaps old incarnations) came into awareness.

With even momentary relief of tension, anxiety, depression, and pain there came, often for the first time, the knowledge that it was possible to be free of the commonplace and accepted misery. Hope of renewal, accompanied by fear of the unknown, emerged from the shadow of the past. Perhaps most remarkable to me were changes in body awareness, balance, centering, groundedness, esteem, and even amazing changes in physiognomy. Psycho-physiological conditions were profound affected. My first patient, a Frenchwoman who had had acupuncture in France, not only recovered quickly from a manic- depressive illness, but also, within a matter of months, from a lifelong asthamatic and allergic condition. I recall one patient saying to me, “now that you have relieved my physical pain I must face my mental pain.”

Patients have reported feeling more alive and balanced, with an increase in energy to cope with problems of survival, communication, relating, working, and other stresses. Ego functions often improved, accompanied by expression of overall satisfaction with life. Even spiritual growth has been included by some as one of the benefits of acupuncture in this setting. Strangely, acupuncture has seemed to have the most dramatic results with people who showed the strongest denial mechanisms, the least insight, acute debilitating emotional states such as panic, drug, and alcohol dependent conditions, and the most severe psychiatric disorders. Even the draining, “toxic” personality became more nurturing.50

The last two sentences in the above quotation merit special attention. Earlier in the book Hammer informed us:

I discovered in my practice that psychotics who had nothing to lose, frequently became “well” faster and more completely than neurotics, for whom change was a threat to the known and proven misery-ridden roads to power. Paradoxically, “failure” was a great opportunity and “success” an obstacle to growth. I learned that the availability of dissociated material made change possible, provided that one could construct a “new life experience” with that material, significantly different from the original. I realized that transference was simply the opportunity for that experience and that “resistance” was restitutive behavior, to be noted and respected as an attempt at survival—an attempt, to be sure, that had later become fixed and, therefore, a handicap. All “restitutive behavior” was, however, an attempt to maintain contact, while staying intact. I came to feel that the resolution of this polarization of energies was the main issue in therapy and life, rather than the psychoanalytic preoccupation with “resistance, ” which is the real resistance to growth, perpetrated by the therapy.51

It is wonderful to see that in recent years two of the foremost contemporary systematizers of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Giovanni Maciocia and Bob Flaws, have each produced a very substantial and comprehensive textbook on the use of TCM in the treatment of emotional and mental disorders.52 Although I am not competant to evaulate those two particular books, I do know that their other clinical writings are of the highest order. Neither Tibetan nor Ayurvedic medicine has yet produced equivalent textbooks—works that identify specific treatment protocols for the classic syndromes of Western psychology (depressive, schizoid, hysteric, etc.). However, there are worthy introductions to the topic in each of them.
Terry Clifford, a psychiatric nurse who traveled to Tibet, Nepal, and Northern India to study how Tibetan medicine treats psychiatric disorders, gave us a good introduction in her excellent Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry. And David Frawley, the West’s leading Vedic scholar and ayurvedic doctor, introduced the topic from Indian medicine’s point of view in his Ayurveda and the Mind.53


R. D. Laing defined psychotherapy as “an obstinate attempt of two people to recover the wholeness of being human through the relationship between them.” Although there there is little in his writings that address the energetic dimension of human relationships, we have already seen he was sensitive to his patients on that level. But his valued friend E. Graham Howe foregrounded this issue in Cure or Heal?. In a section headed “Relationship Is the Source of Life and Energy, and of the Renewal of Personal Being,” which I included in The Druid of Harley Street, Howe offers a dynamic definition of the word “relationship” that integrates the critical dimension of our polarized energetics with the process of insight that all psychotherapies promote. Howe’s concept of relationship, therefore, helps us integrate both the horizontal/interpersonal and the vertical/transpersonal and energetic dimensions that are key to our understanding of both ordinary human maturity and the ordeals of madness:

Relationship is the experience of polarity between self and other. It is the cause of what flows, or happens, or eventuates, between us. I am over here. You are over there. But what is between us? A certain experience happens, and certain force flows, and expresses the truth, even miraculously, certainly non-conceptually, of our relationship. Whatever we may have thought or hoped or feared, if we are able to appreciate this new event in spite of our hopes and fears, we find that it is something quite different, new, true-in-itself, now for a moment, and personally—mine, and yours.

What is between us, what is the medium of our mysterious communication? What flows. The creative medium through which life flows, the truly creative medium, is “water.” But the inverted commas must serve to indicate that this mysterious bridge, or medium, is only “analogous” to water. As Jung might say, this is “archetypal” water. But these are only words, and to appreciate the reality of this medium it is necessary to experience it.

Let it be enough then for the time being to state that life needs apartness, separation, division and polarity, in order that energy may flow, experience may be realized and growth may happen. To close the vital gap, for the sake of comfort or security, is to find neither life nor death, but only depression and inertia. Apartness from the object of desire is the means of our life and renewal, and satisfaction is most salutary when soonest dissatisfied. The heart of life is like the wound of Amfortas, in the story of Parsifal. It is at its strongest when broken, provided that it claims no need for being mended.54

Relationship, then, is the dynamic paradox wherein static oppositions and rigidities are loosened, and Heaven and earth, the unmanifest and the manifest, consciousness and life-energy are brought into rhythmic balance. Relationship is the primary functional meaning of all apparent things and processes. Relationship is how we experience our all-inclusive interconnectedness. Relationship is how we are sustained, how we are grown, how we are healed.

The reconciliation of the opposites is of course another definition of the task of psychotherapy. R. D. Laing clearly intended to highlight the profound cultural problematique created by our now all but frozen opposition between life and Spirit when he placed this epigram from the great fifteenth century doctor Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici at the head of The Politics of Experience:

. . . that great and true Amphibian whose nature is disposed to live, not only like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds;

Laing did not elect to include the sentence that followed:

for though there be but one to sense, there are two to reason, the one visible, the other invisible.55

I believe that that full statement presents the intense dichotomy that defined Laing’s life and continues to challenge those who would advocate a spiritual path in our secular age. Francis Huxley described an occasion in which Laing arrived at a weekly Philadelphia Society society meeting confessing “he felt like exploding and breaking furniture.” “With tears streaming down his cheeks,” Huxley continued, he “told of the conflict raging between his two hemispheres. ‘I feel both of them’ he said, ‘they alternate, I’ve seen them in detail in myself.’”56 In this Laing was also bodying forth the dilemma that pervades modern existential philosophy. Lewis Thompson, to my mind the twentieth century’s greatest aphorist, captured it brilliantly:

The profound modern Western romanticism, the agonistic tension in Luther, Pascal, Beethoven, Dostoievski, Nietzsche, Kierkegaaard, is from the sense of eternity as the polar opposite of time, the Divine opposite of the human—the blind, violent attempt to conjugate them together. . . Spiritual ignorance would take heaven by violence for it does not know that there is only ‘heaven’.57

Although he leaned East with both sympathy and intuition, Laing was nevertheless principally a man of the West. He may have engaged with both Sankara and the Buddha, but he was more at home with the likes of Kierkegaard, Buber, and the atheist Sartre. His genius was in the interpersonal realm. Of course he was deeply polarized to the spiritual dimension, both by personal preference and because of the needs of his clients. But Laing never came to rest in the divine and ultimately it functioned as a sometimes tangibly but only temporarily known reality. He was not a spiritual Realizer.

Indeed, Laing’s own version of the indelible conflict Lewis Thompson rightly claimed was suffered by nearly all existential philosophers—no doubt each in his own way—is well on display in this striking, and, yes, prophetic, statement in The Politics of Experience, which all but defines the heroic mood of that book:

The fountain has not played itself out, the Flame still shines, the River still flows, the Spring still bubbles forth, the Light has not faded. But between us and It, there is a veil which is more like fifty feet of solid concrete.Deus absconditus. Or we have absconded.

Already everything in our time is directed to categorizing and segregating this reality from objective facts. This is precisely the concrete wall. Intellectually, motionally, interpersonally, organizationally, intuitively, theoretically, we have to blast our way through the solid wall, even if at the risk of chaos, madness and death. For from this side of the wall, this is the risk. There are no assurances, no guarantees.58

Those who knew him celebrate Laing as a great explorer and healer of the human psyche. While he may not be formally acknowledged as the artist, philosopher, and prophet he also surely was, these too were aspects of his being. Laing’s own confessions appearing in this article belie historian of psychoanalysis Daniel Burston’s claim that “despite his varied reputation as a militant atheist and electric mystic, the sad and simple truth is that Laing spent most of his adult life as a reluctant and often anguished agnostic who longed for the consolations of faith and a personal relationship with God.”59 Even so, there can be no doubt that he was an intensely divided man who struggled to integrate his own sometimes extreme opposites. His struggles with depression and alcohol and his all too frequent boorish behavior provide more than enough evidence of this.

R. D. Laing is perhaps best remembered as a truly great alienist—a doctor and guide to unmoored souls who otherwise could find no one they could trust and nowhere safe to go. His legendary ability to befriend deeply troubled people and thereafter help unravel their skeins of self- and other- entangled misperception, false presumption, deception, and bondage—a compassionate genius memorialized in the vignette-dialogues that make up his book Knots—cannot be denied. We do the world a service by continuing to preserve his many lessons, all the better to keep watch over the existential flame he so courageously tended.




1 R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York, 1967), p. 101.
2 Ibid., pp 17-18.
3To appreciate how deeply Laing got under the skin of the more forward thinking of his
fellow professionals, consider these sentences from Jungian psychotherapist Ann Belford Ulanov’s 2001 book Finding Space: Winnicott, God, and Psychic Reality: “Cut loose from the transcendent, we fear a world in which anything can happen as Nietzsche predicted, or in which the dreadful has already happened, as Heidegger pronounced. In such a milieu, we grieve at the truth of Mallarmé’s words, “L’enfant abdique son éxstase.” Laing is credited here.
4 In point of fact, such free inquiry is precisely what people engaged in intensive spiritual discipline are themselves doing—experimental science. That the experimenter is also the subject under study simply required the development of investigative procedures (generally called “hermeneutics“ these days) appropriate to the so-called object of study. Fortunately, the tradition of this kind of participatory science goes back several thousands years.
5 “Sparks of Light: An Interview with R.D. Laing,” The Laughing Man, 5, 2 (Clearlake,
CA, 1984), p. 19.
6 Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 10.
7 Ibid., p. 11.
8 Ibid., p. 98.
9 Ibid., p. 96.
10 James Keys, Only Two Can Play This Game (Cambridge, 1971), p. 26.
11 Ibid., p. 16 (my emphasis).
12 Salman Raschid (ed), R D Laing: Contemporary Perspectives (London, 2005), p. 195. 13 M. Guy Thompson (ed.), The Legacy of R.D. Laing (New York, 2015), pp. 118-119. 14 Peter Mezan, “After Freud and Jung, Now Comes R.D. Laing,” Esquire (January, 1972), p. 160.
15 Laing, The Politics of Experience, pp. 92-93.
16 R. D. Laing, Theoretical and Practical Aspects of Psychotherapy [Casette recording no. L330-WIA]. (Phoenix, AZ, 1985), available from the Milton H. Erickson Foundation, Inc., 3y06 N. 24th St., Phoenix, AZ 85016-6500.
17 Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 100.
18 E. Graham Howe, The Druid of Harley Street: The Spiritual Psychology of E. Graham Howe (Berkeley, 2012), p. 539.
19 Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 99.
20 The three following indent quotes are from The Laughing Man, pp. 19-21.
21 Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 82.
22 Ibid., p. 95.
23 Ibid., p. 93.
24 Tanya Luhrman, “Beyond the Brain,“ The Wilson Quarterly, (Summer 2012)
25 John Cutting, A Critique of Psychopathology (Berlin, 2012), see esp. Chapter V.
26 John E. Nelson, Healing the Split: Integrating Spirit Into Our Understanding of the Mentally Ill (Albany, NY, 1994), see esp. Chapter V.
27 William Donkin, The Wayfarers: Meher Baba with The God-intoxicated [Meher Baba, Foreward], (San Francisco, 1948), pp. 3-5.
28 Ian Dallas, The Book of Strangers (New York, 1972), pp. 74-76.
29 Stanslav and Christina Grof (eds.), Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis (New York, 1989), p. 34-35.
30 Ibid., pp. 39-40.
31 Bob Mullan, Mad to Be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing (London, 1996), p. 116.
32 See the research conducted by the Heartmath Institute
33 Ibid., p. 113.
34 Ibid., p. 135.
35 Ibid., p. 144
36 Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 33.
37 R. D. Laing, “Liberation by Orgasm”, New Society (March 28, 1968).
38 Mullan, Mad to Be Normal, p. 234.
39 E. Graham Howe, Cure or Heal?: A Study of Therapeutic Experience [Foreward by
R.D. Laing], (London, 1965), pp. 9-10.
40 Adi Da Samraj [Bubba Free John], The Paradox of Instruction, 2nd ed. (San Francisco, 1977), p. 69.
41 Mullan, Mad To Be Normal, pp. 233-234
42 Adi Da Samraj, Crazy Wisdom, 7, 4 & 5, pp. 27, 31.
43 Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (London, 1971), p. 42.
44 Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be [New Haven, CT, 2000), pp. 78-79.
45 Especially, but not exclusively, the great Oriental systems. There is no reason to limit our resort to the traditional medical cultures such as Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese
Medicine. The Jungian psychiatrist Edward Whitmont has shown that Western homeopathy can be an equally powerful adjunct to psychotherapy. And I suspect Stanislav Grof’s holotrophic breathing, for example, is a valuable new approach. 46 Bringing this about is an evolutionary necessity that Eastern medical practitioners—coming as they do from anti-individualist, emotionally reticent
cultures—have always been reluctant to engage. This explains why the first modern textbooks on utilizing traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of psychological disorders have all been written by Westerners.
47 Hammer also wrote traditional Chinese medicine’s most highly regarded—even in China!—textbook on pulse diagnosis.
48 Leon Hammer, Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies (Barrytown, NY, 1990), p. xxiii.
49 Hammer, Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies, p. 18.
50 Ibid., pp. 18-19.
51 Ibid., p. xix.
52 Giovanni Maciocia, The Psyche in Chinese Medicine: Treatment of Emotional and mental Disharmonies with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs (London, 2009) and Bob
Flaws and James Lake, Chinese Medical Psychiatry (Boulder, CO, 2010)
53 Terry Clifford, Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry: The Diamond Healing (New York, 1990) and Ayurveda and the Mind: The Healing of Consciousness (Twin Lakes, WI. 1996(.
54 E. Graham Howe, The Druid of Harley Street, pp. 99-100.
55 Sir Thomas Browne, Religion Medici, Sect. 34.
56 Salman Raschid (ed), R D Laing: Contemporary Perspectives, p. 196.
57 Lewis Thompson, Fathomless Heart: The Spiritual and Philosophical Reflections of an English Poet-Sage (Berkeley, 2011) p. 77.
58 Laing, The Politics of Experience, p. 100.
59 Salman Raschid (ed), R D Laing: Contemporary Perspectives, p. 183.

Copyright (c) 2016 William Stranger





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