Co-Presence_ The Legacy Of RD Laing Part 1.

Lori: [00:00:06] Windhorse is our innate ability to uplift ourselves in our environment by giving rise to a positive energy that is both relaxed and disciplined. Since 1981, Windhorse Community Services has integrated this understanding with modern, conventional therapies, meditation and contemplative traditions in the development of at home, whole person, mental health recovery. Windhorse Journal is dedicated to the mission of communicating decades of clinical and personal experience to professionals, educators, students and anyone seeking recovery options. Please, join the dialog! [00:00:45][39.0]

Elysa: [00:00:49] Welcome to Windhorse Journal Entry 068, Co-presence the Legacy of R.D. Laing part one. Within this discussion, moderated by Chuck Knapp, Nita Gage, Fritjof Capra, Michael Thompson and Jeffrey Fortuna, discuss the charismatic and insightful presence of R.D. Laing. They reminisce on their own relationship to R.D. Laing, as well as the wisdom and unique perspectives he brought to their lives, and their work. We hope you enjoy. [00:01:16][27.5]

Chuck: [00:01:20] Welcome everyone to the Windhorse Journal, and I’m your host, Chuck Knapp. We are very pleased and honored to be presenting today’s podcast, which will focus on the legacy of the groundbreaking 20th century psychiatrist R.D. Laing. We have four guests for this conversation, and I have to say, it’s such a pleasure to be here with you all today and to introduce you. First, we have Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., a scientist, educator, activist and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society. Nita Gage has a doctorate degree in Shamanic Psycho Spiritual Psychology, a Master’s degree in clinical psychology and is a certified addiction counselor. Nita has been an author, counselor, coach and facilitator of transformational work for over 20 years. Michael Guy Thompson, Ph.D., is a San Francisco based psychoanalyst, professor, lecturer and author. In the early 1970s, he moved to London to work with R.D. Laing, where he also trained as a psychoanalyst, and in 1980 he returned to San Francisco, where he founded the Free Association, a psychoanalytic salon devoted to integrating phenomenology and psychoanalysis. Mike is the author of more than 100 journal articles, book chapters and book reviews on phenomenology, psychoanalysis and schizophrenia, as well as five books. Jeff Fortuna, M.A received his degree in contemplative psychotherapy at Naropa University in 1980 and served on the Naropa faculty until 1989. From 1991 to the current day, he has helped to found and supported the operation and development of eight Windhorse Centers in North America and Europe. He has taught and written extensively on the Windhorse approach and is currently the director of the Windhorse Legacy Project. Again, it’s such an honor to be hosting you all today. For those in our audience who may not be aware of Laing’s work, what do you think is important for everyone to know about Laing? [00:03:32][132.6]

Michael: [00:03:35] Well, I’ll I’ll begin with the response. I think his writing is really a huge part of his reputation, his critique of psychiatry, his radical views about treatment and, of course, his charisma. But I’ll just say a few words about how I encountered laing through his fame in 1970, when I moved to California to the Bay Area and I went to college and immediately I heard everybody talking about R.D. Laing, and everyone was reading the politics of experience, which had been published a few years earlier, but really kind of hit the zeitgeist by 1970. It was essential reading right up there with the Brave New World, 1984, books by Hermann Hesse, all college students. in that era, which was still the counterculture, were reading those authors and Laing was in the forefront. So he was really an icon of the counterculture. That’s how I met him through that book. Laing once told me that the book was a bit of an homage to Freud’s civilization and its discontents and Nietzche’s book Zarathustra. It was a searing critique of contemporary culture and and how inauthentic and fake conventional culture was. So that was like, you know, music to all the students ears to have someone that radical who was also a psychiatrist. In fact, Laing was the largest selling psychiatrist in history, even outselling Freud. So his fame in 1970 was extraordinary. And of course, part of that fame was based not only on his books, which were mainly about psychotherapy and psychopathology and families, but also his work with people who were diagnosed schizophrenic. So he had established his house, called Kingsley Hall in 1965 in London. That was an experiment in alternatives to conventional psychiatric treatment. So Laing got known as an anti-psychiatrist during that period because he was scathing in his criticisms about how mental patients were typically treated. Around that time 1970, a film came out called Asylum, which was a documentary about Kingsley Hall and the houses that opened after it. And that made a lot of noise. Everybody, you know, was very interested in that movie. But the last thing I want to say about what’s known about him was his charisma. Laing was an extraordinarily attractive man. And people just fell under his spell immediately. I certainly did when I met him in Berkeley in 1972 and decided to leave graduate school to go work with him. So those in my mind are the highlights of what R.D. Laing is known for. [00:06:55][200.0]

Fritjof: [00:06:58] My story has some similarities with Michaels believe it or not. I came across R.D Laing, also because of his fame. In 1976, I taught a course at Naropa Institute about physics and eastern philosophy. Based on my book, The Dao of Physics, which had just been published the year before and while I was at Naropa, I thought I might take this opportunity not only to teach a course, but also to take some courses. And I took a course I don’t remember who taught it, but the course was about the devided self by RD Laing. And that’s when I read the divided self and came across lines solved. I met fLaing in London a year later when I was engaged in developing a systems view of health, including mental health. And I had discussions with a number of health professionals, and in the subsequent years, I saw Laing very often during about 10 or 11 years. And there we talked about all kinds of things because Laing was much more than a psychiatrist, although he always identified as a psychiatrist, but he was also a philosopher, a social critic, a poet, a jazz pianist and so on. So at that time in the 1970s, he was at the peak of his fame, as Michael said, an icon of the counterculture. And so I was part of the counterculture and was naturally drawn to him. [00:08:58][120.3]

Chuck: [00:09:02] And Fritof you, were studying broader systems used in those days and the implications of science and spirituality. [00:09:08][6.5]

Fritjof: [00:09:09] I was working on my second book, The Turning Point, where I extended the systems approach from physics to biology, medicine, psychology, economics and many other fields. And I was assembling a group of advisers in these various fields who would help me explore the paradigm shift in these various areas. And this is why I went to London to meet Laing. I had friends in London who knew him well, and that’s how I met him. [00:09:46][36.6]

Chuck: [00:09:49] So, Nita, you also knew Laing, [00:09:51][2.3]

Nita: [00:09:53] Well, like Mike, I was in college on the East Coast in America, and I was actually studying existential philosophy. I really had no interest in psychology, but I’d started reading Freud, so I had a little bit of interest. But I stumbled across his book Politics of the Family. And it was a huge kind of game changer, life altering for me that he could lay out where insanity kind of came from in family systems. And it was something that I felt that I knew about already. So it was resonant with me. I was planning to go to Europe anyway, so I contacted his organization and ended up spending three months there at the time and then spent the next decade studying with Laing and being a part of his alternative treatment of people who were diagnosed as mentally ill. I was really drawn towards, in a sense, the humanity and, Mike talked about the charisma, but that the political aspect of how we treat people that are suffering the most, and that’s what attracted me originally. And then later I got into studying the psychoanalysis with him. [00:10:53][60.7]

Chuck: [00:10:56] You, two, both had lived in his residences in London? [00:11:01][4.8]

Nita: [00:11:02] Yes. Mike and I did live their, Mike much longer. I was there for six months in a household and then for the 10 years that I was there, I was at the household, either studying or being with people, and that’s the way the houses were set up. People would come and help out. [00:11:19][17.0]

Chuck: [00:11:21] Jeff, do you want to weigh in here? [00:11:23][1.6]

Jeff: [00:11:24] Yeah. So I was also in undergraduate school in the late 60s around 1970 came across Laing’s book The Divided Self. But the psychology program I was in was nowhere near going in that direction. I was at the University of Rhode Island. Small School, small state, small mind. And that’s where I was. I was primarily interested in surfing. So that’s why I was there. So Laing’s book really didn’t land with me. I moved to Boulder in 1975 to study at Naropa and stayed essentially. So my first substantive encounter with Ronnie, (we called him Ronnie) was when he came to be a scholar in residence sponsored by Naropa University and also by a close friend and colleague of his, Richard Warner, who was this British psychiatrist who had moved to Boulder. He was a co-sponsor and it may have been his idea to invite Ronnie to come stay with us. So Ronnie came for a month in summer of 85 and a summer of 87, and I was assigned to be his primary attendant, driver, organizer, sponsor in a way. Try to keep him sober and on time. So he and I became very close, very quickly. So at that time I was, probably about thirty eight years old and he maybe sixty… something like that, maybe fifty eight. And before I knew it, he’d seemed to have adopted me as a kind of son. I had some kind of feeling about that. And he was, what I’ve experienced as extraordinarily warm and kind and interested in me and very interested in my education. And that that made a very deep impression on me, so we spent essentially the months together in summer of 85, and the summer of 87 in all the things that I was helping him do and accomplish, and presentations and seminars and consultations and spending time together, spending evenings together, hosting parties for him and with him. So we had a really wonderful, very positive experience together (I felt). And he got involved with our host communities at that time. We had started one at that time. And he was very interested in the merging of Buddhist practice and psychology with whatever work we were doing with highly disturbed people. And it was in 1985 that he came to one of our staff meetings and we practiced some meditation together and talked with him afterwards. It made a big impression on him. Of course, he was also close with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who he had worked with as a kind of neurologist consultant after Trungpa, had a serious car accident in the 70s in Scotland. I believe it was. Maybe it was England. So that was part of his draw to coming to Boulder was to spend time with who he regarded as one of his teachers Chogyam Trungpa and they were very close. And so Ronnie was witnessing the evolution we were engaged in, which was bringing in Buddhist psychology to our work with highly disturbed people and creating what we call creating sane environments. So this kind of experience, he was having seemed to lead to his drafting this paper, which he gave me a copy of in 1987, which was called the Music, Meditation and Martial Arts of Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. He gave me a copy of this paper in 1987, which I was just reading this morning, getting ready. And in there, he’s talking about this integration of Buddhist psychology in that tradition. He felt that the Buddhist tradition represented this idea he had of complete experiential freedom. And you felt that the Buddhist tradition was carrying that message and that kind of awareness. He thought that was extremely important. That made a big impression on me. So I carried that forward in my own work. [00:15:28][244.3]

Fritjof: [00:15:32] I want to talk a little bit more about how I met Ronnie when I went to London to seek him out. I wrote to him and he said he would see me and receive me. And when I arrived in London, it so happened that I went to a party. This was in 1977. I went to a party of the common friend and Ronnie was there. And I still remember distinctly that at a certain point of a lot of people standing in the living room and he sat down in the middle of the room on the floor, and he looked up from the floor to me. And he said, Now Dr. Capra, can you explain this? And he started teasing me quite mercilessly. And at another occasion when we had a proper discussion, also in front of an audience, he attacked me viciously intellectually and he said, How dare you as a physicist speak about experience and consciousness? How dare you even use these words? And so at both occasions, I was forced to defend myself. And, I did pretty well. And so I sort of had passed sort of an initiation test and we became good friends afterwards. I saw Ronnie for 11 years on person to person meetings, with our families, we did conferences together, we spoke on panels together, did seminars together. So I also spent a lot of time with him and our relationship was more than friendly. I would say it was really affectionate. And I remember when I saw him the last time I really missed him and I couldn’t get him out of my system, as Michael said. I fell under his spell like so many people did. [00:17:40][128.2]

Chuck: [00:17:43] So, Mike, you started off talking about Laing’s criticism, know scathing criticisms of both the way therapy, especially, I think, for people in extreme states was being conducted as well as society. And Jeff, you touched on spirituality and did you all know much about how he viewed spirituality as it related to society and the problems he saw there? [00:18:08][25.3]

Michael: [00:18:10] Well, I think he was a very spiritual person, but not overtly. You know, so for example, you don’t see Laing really talking about Buddhism and psychotherapy in his writings. But he was profoundly influenced by all the spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism and Christianity. He was much more overt about his relationship to Christianity and would bring that into his lectures and his talks in some context or other. He loved to talk about the Lord’s Prayer. And you know what was really interesting about Laing, as I’ve mentioned earlier, was that he wasn’t really just a psychiatrist anymore than Freud was just a neurologist. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge and certainly was the most brilliant person I have ever met in my life. The depth and breadth of his awareness, of certainly the entire history of psychiatry and philosophy and spiritual religions, he absorbed all of them, so he would very slyly bring it into his thinking and his writing. Not like, for example, Jung, you know, who was quite explicit about how he was integrating psychoanalysis and spiritual traditions. Of course, Laing was a huge critic of Jung and hated what he did with spirituality. He felt like he just made up stuff and wasn’t really bringing in the essence of what these ancient traditions, you know, really had to offer. It was all more about Jung’s ego, you know, was Laing’s view of Jung. So when it came to say preferring Freud to Jung, most people assumed Laing would have gravitated to Jung because of the spiritual connection. But he much preferred Freud and admired him. But yeah, I mean, his views about spirituality were complex and subtle, but pervasive in his entire thinking. [00:20:26][136.1]

Fritjof: [00:20:27] I believe one of our first meetings, he was attacking Jung, and he said this parochial Swiss outlook on eastern spirituality is absolutely unacceptable. I also want to add that in terms of Buddhism, I think although Laing never really talked about it. I think he demonstrated his spirituality in his interactions with his patients. And there are several videos existing where you can observe that where Ronnie just had an intense attention to the patients who in these videos were schizophrenics and was able to establish a dialog and a relationship within seconds by being completely mindful in mind and body. That’s a bodily dance, going with what he says. And at first viewing of these tapes, the conversation seems very ordinary and trivial. And yet, the way he interacted with these people was very profound. And in my view, the most powerful expression of learning spirituality was this mindfulness in the interaction with his patients. [00:21:57][90.1]

Nita: [00:21:59] I really agree with that, that that’s where you saw the loving kindness, and the Christ like approach, if you like. And also just to say that one of the things that he did for many of us was turn us on to Christian Mysticism. Early writings about that, he was very focused on that and early Jewish mysticism. So he wanted to be at the essence of the spiritual traditions which showed up in his relationships to his patients. Definitely. [00:22:27][28.2]

Michael: [00:22:28] Yeah, Mr. Eckhart, Saint John of the Cross. Dinesis, the arapicate. I mean, these are all things you know that he was turning us on to. [00:22:38][10.0]

Chuck: [00:22:40] That kind of radical compassion and presence with it, with people, completely unconventional, especially the films I’ve seen of him relative to what passes for common approaches to people with mental health challenges. It’s really impressive to see and you all got a good look at that firsthand. Given that you’ve spent so much time with them, sounds like. [00:23:04][23.3]

Fritjof: [00:23:04] Ronnie told me a story to illustrate this. When I asked him what is the essence of psychotherapy? And and he said it’s an authentic encounter between human beings. And then he said, Let me tell you a story. And he said, a patient comes to me, a man. Middle aged man. We sit down. I ask him a few questions. What’s his profession? Where’s he from? Does he have a family? And after a few minutes, he breaks down into tears and says for the first time, I’ve been treated like a human being. And then, Ronnie said, then it was the handshake, and that was it. [00:23:51][46.4]

Michael: [00:23:54] Yeah. I think what struck me about him in that regard Fritjof was most psychoanalysis and psychology looks at the family. And in some ways blames the family for the problems that we’ll circle with in our adult life. And of course, as Nita mentioned, Laing was fascinated with families and wrote two or three books on families. But his view of why people are so crazy was really more social. You know, he thought that everybody had some madness in them and that there’s some good madness, but there’s also some bad madness. And we should really be sympathetic about how other people are struggling with these dichotomies in themselves. Laing was very open about his own problems, you know, with depression, alcoholism and use of drugs. But he was totally transparent in many ways about his own psychopathology, which was really extraordinary. You know, I asked him once I said, Well, what do you think is the deal with the human condition? You know why, why are we all so crazy? And I suggested, do you think it’s just about hate? You know that humans can be so hateful? And he said, no, it’s not about hate said in the Bible. It says, you know, if you want to be with the Lord, you have to come to hate your mother and father. But he said the real problem is deception. That we are just so dishonest with each other and with ourselves and so scared of each other. I was really, really struck by that. [00:25:50][115.6]

Chuck: [00:25:52] Something is coming to mind as we talk about these, these struggles. You know what he was pointing to with all of us having a certain kind of madness can manifest very positively and negatively and Fritjof in one of the conferences you were presenting, and it was the first time I’d heard the quote; “Mystics and Schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, the Mystics know how to swim and the schizophrenics drown.” (R.D. Laing). [00:26:20][27.7]

Fritjof: [00:26:21] He said that at our very first meeting when I asked him about the relationship between Schizophrenia and Mysticism. And with this quote, he expressed the idea that it’s not the symptoms. It’s not the phenomena that define you as a mystic or a psychotic, but it’s the way you deal with them, whether you’re able to handle them or not. Right? [00:26:53][32.1]

Chuck: [00:26:54] That particular differentiation has really stuck with me a lot as I work with people and think about the vast kinds of talent that I see and so many of our clients who are struggling or drowning, and how to help them turn the lens a little bit and to start creating a functional relationship to this stuff and life. [00:27:14][20.4]

Fritjof: [00:27:16] Now we should also point out that the loving kindness that Nita mentioned that Laing exhibited with his patients. Was not the way he interacted with the world at large, because for most people to meet him or to interact with him was always a challenge. Also for us who knew him very well. But he always kept you on your toes and you never knew what might happen next, whether he might burst out in some unexpected way, and challenge you in some unexpected way. So there was always the kind of not only caution, but even fear, you know, although he could switch to the opposite and be extremely tender and gentle with you, and apparently with his patients, he was always like that. But with us, he could be very challenging. He was not always a nice person. [00:28:20][64.3]

Michael: [00:28:22] Yeah, I I can say a few words about that. When I first met Laing in Berkeley in 1972, it was the culmination of this US lecture tour. This was really the peak of Laing’s fame was that year, and I went up to him after the lecture. He had mentioned this work he was doing in London training therapists. He had these houses and somebody in the audience had said, Well, what do you have to do to apply, you know, to your institute? And he said, oh, we welcome anyone, even psychologists. So, you know, he had this sly way, you know, of putting you down all while he was inviting you in, you know, and I was just so intrigued with him. I quit graduate studies and decided to go to London immediately because I felt like, boy, this is something that may not last forever. I better jump on it now while it’s still red hot. And what really surprised me about Laing when I went to London is just what Fritjof is saying. There was something very scary about him while also being so charismatic. You know he could be kind of moody. And he was a very angry person. And that anger really came through in his public lectures, and when he was addressing people, you saw tender sides of Laing in more personal, social situations. That was usually when it was a party and he was drinking and he got into this great mood. But yes, he there was something ominous about him and everybody that worked with him, at least the men, I don’t know, Nita if he was that way with women. But if you are a guy you never knew, you know, if he was going to attack you or not. And yet we were devoted to him because we could see that underneath that, there was this extraordinary love of what he was doing and what he represented and what he was sacrificing to do this kind of work, which alienated him from the entire psychiatry profession who loathed Laing and even psychoanalysts hated him as well because they felt like he was critical of psychoanalysis along with everything else. So he really did go out of his way to invite enemies and to engage with his profession in this very adversarial fashion. But underneath that, there was a whole other side of Laing (as free of mentioned) that was just so extraordinarily tender and vulnerable. He was kind of being so heroic in a way, daring to go out there and say things that the rest of us would keep to ourselves because we didn’t want to be hated by everybody. Laing seemed indifferent to that. You know, he was on a mission. And and that’s, I think, what we admired so much about him. He kind of epitomized this authenticity that we were all searching for. [00:31:35][193.5]

Fritjof: [00:31:37] Once I was sitting in a restaurant in London with him and we discussed schizophrenia and the double bind theory. And so he explained to me that in a family situation, a person might experience the love of a parent, and at the same time, it was somehow a threat. So it was the love and the threat at the same time. And he raised his hand toward my face. And, I was not sure (this was in the restaurant) I was not sure whether he was going to hit me or whether he was going to caress me. Both would have been embarrassing in the restaurant, and he did neither. But it was absolutely within the realm of possibility for either action to happen. And with Ronnie, you know, there was no small talk. It was always very intense. [00:32:38][61.0]

Michael: [00:32:40] And that pervaded his organization, the Philadelphia Association. That’s the first thing that struck me when I went to London was that there would be these open houses, these kind of parties where the whole community was invited to participate. There’d be food and drinking, the network must have comprised close to 500 people at that time. Not all of them, of course, would show up at each of these meetings. But at these parties, the first thing that struck me about them was there was no small talk. If you talk to somebody, you’d better have something you wanted to talk about. Not just how are you doing? How’s it going? Laing engaged and none of that and the entire network kind of modeled itself on that behavior, especially in the houses that Nita and I both lived in at Portland Road for some period. It was like everything was a therapy session, and that was remarkable. [00:33:40][60.2]

Chuck: [00:33:41] From what I’ve read of Laing, I met him briefly, had some contact with him in the 80s, but from what I’ve read and from what I hear from you all, he strikes me as someone whose sensitivity was so raw and his awareness and intellect was so profound that it was probably a really difficult thing for him to manage all the kind of input and interconnections he was making at any given time. I don’t know if that resonates with you all? [00:34:07][25.6]

Nita: [00:34:09] It does resonate, I’ve been thinking the same thing, Chuck, that you’re saying that as a description of him, just as another way to talk about him was was exactly that, that he was very sensitive and very tuned in. And he’s been referred to as a shaman. And it’s a very similar kind of experience where it can be overwhelming. So there’s a lot we can say a lot about Ronnie’s personality. But the bigger picture was his amazing ability to take it all in, as Mike said, I mean, it was all the the intellectual academic, but he also took in the world and experienced it on a very deep level. And I think that’s why he could really connect to people that were in extreme states. He was in one himself that he had managed to walk between the worlds as the shamans can do and and could lead people through that. And that in itself was an incredible role model and training for anyone wanting to be a therapist. [00:35:09][59.3]

Jeff: [00:35:11] It seemed like the way this is coming up and the way you brought it up, Chuck is connected with the story about the the Mad Men is drowning and the Mystic is swimming, managing the ocean and managing the experiences and what you do with those. And so it seems like we’re suggesting that he’s going in and out of being a madman, drowning, mystic swimming, and he’s sort of re learning to swim constantly. Somehow and keeping his head above water for the most part. [00:35:40][29.0]

Michael: [00:35:41] I agree with you, Jeff, I think that kind of sensitivity that Laing had, you see and people that are diagnosed schizophrenic. And yet Laing was not schizophrenic, but he was certainly accused by a psychiatrist of being psychotic and mad. But he was certainly nothing like that. And yet he had that same sensitivity that a lot of psychotic people have, which I think was the gift that allowed him to connect with them so profoundly. [00:36:13][32.2]

Fritjof: [00:36:15] He told me another story once about an interaction with a patient. He said, When I see a person standing at the doorway, not moving, being completely paralyzed. I don’t diagnose him as a catatonic schizophrenic. I just know that that person is scared stiff. And I will try my best. To show him he doesn’t need to be scared of me. And so I said, how would you do this, Ronnie? And he said, Well, I could do a number of things. I could make myself a cup of tea. I could take a nap. And I was realizing then that he would be the only psychiatrist in the world being able genuinely to take a nap in front of somebody diagnosed schizophrenic. He had been there and back. And he just knew how to handle these situations. [00:37:23][67.5]

Elysa: [00:37:43] Thank you for listening to Windhorse Journal entry 68. We hope you tune in next month for the second half of this conversation: co-presence, the legacy of R.D. Laing Part Two. [00:37:53][10.7]

Lori: [00:38:13] Windhorse Journal is a publication of Windhorse Community Services, supporting recovery from mental health challenges at home and in the community since 1981. [00:38:13][0.0]