Windhorse Journal Transcription: Co-Presence- The Legacy of RD Laing – Part 2

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 dialogue!

Elysa/ intro [00:00:50] Welcome to the Windhorse Journal entry sixty nine, this podcast is part two of Co-presence the legacy of R.D. Laing. Within this discussion, a group of distinguished guests including Nita Gage, Michael Thompson, Fritof Capra and Jeffrey Fortuna continue their reflections on the many lessons they learned from R.D. Laing, and how they continue to carry these into their lives and work. Happy listening.

Chuck Knapp [00:01:24] So Mike, Nita and Fritof, you all have been organizing a yearly conference since 2014 titled Laing In the 21st Century. I’ve attended four of these and they’ve all been absolutely completely brilliant gatherings, starting with the setting of Esalen and including a highly varied, very powerful program that has always brought together mind, heart and spirit. I have to say it’s a family, I felt like I found way into a family that I didn’t know existed until 2015, when I first attended. So, would you please tell us more about these conferences, how they came into being and what the ongoing vision is?

Michael [00:02:07] Well, maybe I’ll start. I think we all have quite a lot to say about that Chuck, but I guess I was the one who got the ball rolling on the 25th anniversary of Laing’s death was approaching in 2013. And so a former colleague of Nita and I in London, Steve Ganz, who’s an American living in Arizona, got to talking and thought we should do something to commemorate this event and have a conference, and invite all the people that we knew who were Americans, mostly that had worked with Laing, either in London or knew him on his visits to the US. And we had a, you know, a long list of people and of course, that included Fridtjof and Anita. And we all met in New York in 2013 for the first R.D. Laing in the twenty first century conference. And it was almost like a reunion. There were people there that I hadn’t seen in 20 years or more. And it was it just kind of spontaneously captured. You know, that feeling of what had it been like to be in London and a lot of the people that came to the conference had never met Laing. They knew the name. Some of them were younger students, and they were very intrigued, you know, with what they had run into. They didn’t know what to expect, It turned into something of a love fest. And we thought of it as just a one time thing. But it was such a moving experience that we agreed that we should continue these meetings on an annual basis. And instead of going to New York, (we went to New York mainly to make it easier for people in Europe and Britain to come). We thought we should do it in California. What better venue than Esalen Institute, which was not only close by, to those of us who lived in the Bay Area, but also a place that Laing had visited a number of times, always talked about Esalen and his experiences there. So in 2015, we had our first Esalen symposium, and that’s of course the one that you were invited to come to Chuck. And  the idea was to capture this feeling of what it was like to be in London with Laing studying ideas. There was something unique about it in academia, psycho educ. institutes. It’s all about teaching you, you know what people know. And what was so fascinating about laing. You know, philosophically, he was a skeptic, and skeptics are really good at asking questions, not necessarily knowing what the answers are. And so there’s a kind of openness to it. You know, you pose questions. We were each invited to form our own opinions and somebody would start the thing going by giving a talk. But the quality of the talk itself, and especially the discussion that would follow was very open ended. Nobody was the authority on any of these issues. We wanted to present and ponder. So, every year we decided to adopt a theme that would be close to Laing’s heart, such as sanity and madness. What is therapy? What is love? What is authenticity? You know, this kind of thing. These were all themes that pervaded a lot of his books and a lot of his teaching. And and over time, this these annual meetings at Esalen have generated a kind of community. And it’s been fascinating to us to see the new people, you know, that turn up each year out of curiosity. Or maybe, you know, they’d read Laing in their youth or something, and others are just curious about the theme, maybe. But it’s been an opportunity to make sure that his legacy doesn’t just disappear, which was one of the things that Nita and I were very concerned about. You know, if somebody doesn’t step up and do something, he’s just going to vanish. And and of course, especially the idea of setting up a house came out of those meetings.

Fritof [00:06:50] I should add that this open ended ness, this characteristic of our symposium at Esalen is very much in the “Laingian” spirit and is present in the very way Ronnie used to speak when he gave a talk. And you can see this and hear this in films that exist. He will start somewhere, maybe with the story of a patient. And then he would sort of spin it on and on, and it took on this sort of spellbinding characteristic, you know, before you knew it, he would quote church fathers and, you know, move on to Buddhism and to some social issues. It just went on and on and was very open ended and without any punctuation, so to speak. His talks were never structured. They were always going on and on. And and I would say from my perspective they showed the systemic interconnectedness of all these phenomena. And that’s what we’re trying to reproduce at our symposia.

Nita [00:08:09] Yeah. I wanted to go back to the New York conference and I had the same experience arriving there and seeing people I hadn’t seen in years and I really had forgotten about in a sense. And also, that’s where I first met Fritof. Even though we traveled, our orbits didn’t connect in London, so even with him, it was like meeting a long lost cousin. Like, this is somebody who really knew Ronnie and loved him in the same way. One of the things I think is really important about what we do at Esalen and what was evident in New York was how much we were all longing for that connection again and for community. And really, that’s what Ronnie was about, it was not just one household or training program or the academics, but the community aspect. And that feels like what we were able to create it Esalen year after year. I mean, that’s what you said, Chuck. You feel like you come home and you didn’t even know you had this family. And I hear that from so many people. I mean, I certainly experienced it and that too kind of bifurcation with Ronnie was highly, rigorously intellectual, rigorously. I mean, the the academic learning. The reading was rigorous the whole time in England, and at the same time there was this powerful, spontaneous, unplanned community that created itself. And I do think, we’ve been able to do that at Esalen. It fascinates me and of course, a lot of us to stay connected outside of Esalen. And there’s, you know, we do some Zoom and we’ve done some in-person salons too. So community is really critical. And the way you weave together community with conversation, the talks and then the questions and answers and then experiences together and diving deeply into our hearts and really connecting from a very vulnerable place is all part of that. What manages to happen in one week.

Jeffrey [00:10:05] So interesting that you’re you know, I mean, I’ve only been hearing about the conferences really from you Chuck, and also Jack, our colleague who’s gone with you and just glimpses of the beauty and the magic of that. And so now I’d like to come along.

Michael [00:10:22] Right. That’s wonderful. Well, you know, the last thing we wanted to do at Esalen was a typical conference. You know, where people go and read papers and almost no discussion whatsoever. It’s all about putting something out there to publish. We wanted something that was a little bit more Laingian. A little bit more personable, personal. Some of us do, you know, read a paper, but we do it in a very conversational style. Other people choose to just talk on the cusp, you know, like Lainge was so famous for doing. So I didn’t want it to be a head trip. And yet it is about ideas. And that’s a unique workshop. There’s no other workshop like that at Esalen.

Chuck [00:11:13] Let me let me reflect a little bit about my experience of going there. I mean, I can say a lot because they have varied so much from the first one to the last, which was because of COVID held via Zoom. Like this, but the intellectual, the brightness of the intellect that shows up in it usually the first day other than the greeting the night before the first day, that’s a real pop open, you know, to hear and to to interact with. And then that develops a little bit more in the second day and then the third day Nita, you’ve been bringing people really into their body and opening the space up through breathwork, which is a very interesting alternation and progression of experience. And then to the last day has kind of it feels like the two come together in a, you know, in a different, I don’t know, a whole different experience. It’s as you’re talking about the experience of this and the individual portions, but then the gestault of the whole thing. And I think part of what I resonated with was creating an environment that invites one’s health and sanity and creativity and connectedness. It’s really brilliant. I could say a little bit more, but I’m kind of curious from a vision standpoint, did you think of the effect that this might have on various people across the country and actually on different continents in terms of the support for their own projects to do to bring a real fresh look at how to be of of help to people who are struggling with extreme states? Did you anticipate that that would have such an effect on people I think that we’re doing their own projects and involved that didn’t know Laing before?

Nita [00:13:05] That was certainly a hope. I mean, it was one of the intentions was to like, Mike said, he and I had this recognition, especially in New York, and we’d talk about Ronnie all the time. But, you know, in New York, when we really felt it, (the importance) that the really big importance of holding space for people to know this is alive and real. And we figured there were a lot of people out there doing some of their own projects like Islands. And so, yeah, there was that intention. It’s far exceeded our expectations of how many people have shown up from around the world who have said, Oh my God, this really holds me and my work and look how similar our work is. And yet it’s really different. I mean, we didn’t expect that so many people from what was the survivors community and hearing voices. We weren’t targeting anyone in particular. We figured psychotherapy is just a job, but we have been. I mean, I certainly have been thrilled by people that have have lived experience, people who are just in academia and so forth have all felt this connection and camaraderie and felt supported by the Esalen workshop. And they tell us they go out there and the rest of their year is emboldened and they’re brought some kind of aliveness. Yeah, it’s been really heartwarming. And and while the house has not taken off it, you know, it’s really that’s it. At our heart, too is having a household. We sometimes just look at each other and say, Well, maybe the house hasn’t happened, but the community has. And that’s powerful and really gratifying for me. It’s why I keep doing it.

Michael [00:14:47] Well, I just want to add something needed about what you’re saying about the community part of it. And somehow, it really does mirror the kind of people that came to London to work with Laing and may be choosing Esalen has something to do with it. Most people who come are therapists who feel very alienated from their practices or feel that they have no community in their practice because they’re not working inside the box. But there’s a considerable number of people who come who are not therapists, who are just, you know, adventurers, curiosity seekers, you know, wedded to ideas. And that was true in London as well. And it’s essential to have that mix. You know, you don’t really want just a group of shrinks, you know, then before you know it, you have a conference where you’re just talking about treating people. Focus is always on learning more about the human condition. And in our own personal struggle, in living a more fulfilling life. And that’s in a way what’s therapeutic to us, not following some theory of techniques.

Fritof [00:16:04] I should perhaps mention that Esalen is connected with many pioneers and in many fields like, you know, Fritz Perls and Stan Grof and many others, among them Gregory Bateson. He spent the last two years of his life at Esalen. Bateson (most people will know) was a famous cyberneticist and systems thinker who made contributions to many fields, including psychiatry and psychology. And when Bateson died in 1980, the Esalen Institute wanted to honor him by a series of Bateson seminars. And I suggested to them they should invite Laing to give the first seminar, which they did. So, Ronnie went to Esalen and talked about Bateson whom he admired greatly. And so there’s this Esalen – Bateson line connection also with Esalen.

Michael [00:17:16] Yeah, I have a touching story about Laing and Bateson in London when when we were all still there, Bateson visited in the late 70s, he had been diagnosed with cancer and decided not to treat it. He felt that if it was his time to go, it was his time to go. And somehow, by some sort of magic, the cancer went into remission. So Laing invited him to come to London and we staged a public lecture. You know, Bateson was also an anthropologist and famous for his work with dolphins, and there was even a movie made about about that. So he gives this, you know, public lecture and Laing, he’s staying with Laing. And Laing’s wanting to go to the, you know, to the lecture hall and to look at all the mic’s and how it’s all going to work. You know, he was very obsessive (Laing) about performance and being really prepared for this and making sure nothing goes wrong. And he so he was telling Bateson, and, you know, I happened to be there. You know, we should truck along to the lecture hall and, you know, do this and that and Bateson just said, Oh, come on Ronnie, things, we’ll take care of themselves. I don’t need to do that. I mean, he was like the opposite of Laing in that sense. He was just so cool and calm and never seemed to ever get upset about anything. And it was very touching to see them together, Laing loved Bateson. And I think he thought of him as a father figure. He did die, I think a year or so later after that visit.

Chuck [00:19:05] So, Nita, you mentioned earlier about the Gnosis House for the Gnosis project, and that was part of the original intention of creating this gathering. And you, on one hand, have this really interesting, tremendously valuable offering of the evolving conference community. And at the same time, you all had to have a vision of creating a house based on Laings’ therapeutic principles, which you all are an embodiment of at this point and to be in the Bay Area and I’d love to hear you say whatever you have to say about how that project is going at this point.

Nita [00:19:57] I’m going to talk about it for a few minutes, and then I’m going to turn it over to Mike, who I think can really talk more in-depth about the project. It’s true, though, that that was our original idea with Esalen was going to be kind of a support to being able to both find people who wanted to do that kind of work that was done by Laing in these households that take people out of mental hospitals and live with them, just live with them in households. And some people that lived there were diagnosed with something or rather. There were others of us that were living there that might consider ourselves students of something. Some People were just living there because they wanted to live in community. We want to create that. We knew it would be very different to create something like that in California in this day and age as opposed to the 70s in London. We knew that, but we were hopeful that we would attract people to the workshop that would want to create the house with us and that we would attract people who wanted to fund it as well. And we certainly attracted people, a lot of graduate students that Mike have already been teaching who were very interested in the project. So, we just started meeting and working on creating this household, maybe starting with one. And we did get a lot of people who are interested and we even got people that were interested in some help with the funding. We got people that were interested in helping provide a house, but it hasn’t quite come together and we certainly haven’t lost the dream. And yet with the outcome, as I said, it’s this incredible community. So I’m going to turn over to you, Mike, to talk more about Gnosis and the structure that we do have.

Michael [00:21:37] OK, Nita, I’ll just give a brief history of how this concept evolved, Nita and I both lived at this house in London called Portland Road. I lived there for about four years. It was run not by Laing, but a close Scottish colleague of his, Hugh Crawford. By the time that we showed up in London after Kingsley Hall, Laing pulled back from direct involvement with the houses and felt that his, you know, students or colleagues should take this step and open up houses of their own. And at one time, there were actually eight different houses operating simultaneously. Portland Road was one of them, and we were both very attracted to Hugh Crawford and and his approach to this, which is the model that I think went one step further than Kingsley Hall. And so the idea of Gnosis was to recreate some sort of household along similar lines, even with how it was funded. Now, when Nita and I came back from London in 1980, we did set up a house in Marin County called Shadows. We met a psychologist there who was very interested in Laing and who’d been working with schizophrenia for many years. And we set this place up. It was not exactly the same as the houses that we had in London. We were adapting it to the American model, you know, which is that you have to charge a lot of money. You know that you’re not going to get funded. It has to be self-sustaining. And and that was a very inspiring experience. But I think after about 10 years of this, we were a little burned out and it needed to take a step back and decided, you know, sometime in the future, we should revisit this because the political currents in the early 80s were totally opposed to things like Kingsley Hall, hippies, communes. And politically, the mental health establishment thought we were being criminal for not using drugs, which we did not with the people that were living there. That, by the way, is something that may not have come up so far. But there was no medication whatsoever used in any of the houses in London. So it thrives on the selection process. You, have to take in people that really want to be part of a community. Now some people that get diagnosed, schizophrenic or bipolar or whatever want to be in a community, and some of them do not. Some of them want to be in psychotherapy, and some of them do not. So we had to screen people to make sure that they were the right fit and they would come to a house. Everybody would meet them, everyone had to sign on to them, joining the community. If one person objected, they couldn’t come in. So you really had the unadulterated support of every single person there who is inviting you into their home, and that’s what we wanted to recreate in the Bay Area. And the reason we called it Gnosis was goes back to Laing. You know, one of the things that of course we were taught in London was the Gnostics and the Gnosticism and that tradition. So we were we were trying to find some word that might be catchy to use for it. And so we decided on Gnosis Retreat Center and we called it retreat rather than treatment center. So, there was definitely a spiritual edge underpinning the whole concept. We did not want to be funded by the state or the county or an IMH because by experience, we know they pull the rug out from under you just as you’re getting going. So we wanted to recreate that self-sustaining model. And that’s what we thought Esalen would help us with that we would draw people, you know, who were really turned on to this idea and whether they were a therapist or not might want to help us. And in fact, next last year, we felt like we were really finally set to take off. Someone approached us in L.A. who set up all kinds of funding or fundraising events, and we were all primed to go and then COVID hit us in March and everything came to a grinding halt. Even had we had the money by then, we didn’t think this was a good time to start a community of this nature. So right now it’s on hold and we’re just waiting for the COVID thing to get under control and then we’ll pick it up again. And hopefully sometime later this year or next, we’ll be able to resume our efforts to get this thing going.

Chuck [00:27:07] Well, it’s a terrific vision, and a necessary, I think, kind of place in our world to to create. And so hopefully once COVID has passed you’ll be able to move this forward and anybody who’s interested, anybody in our audience who’s interested in offering some kind of support to this, I hope they get in touch.

Michael [00:27:34] Yes, actually if they do want to get in touch, we would love to hear from them. We do have a website for Gnosis. It’s called Gnosis Retreat Center.

Chuck [00:27:48] Thank you. So, between Laing’s influences on you having become an embodied experience yourselves in terms of how you came to spend so much time with him and to have really taken this in. Plus you in the last few years, you were doing talkbacks at a film presentation of the film “Mad to be Normal.” So you got a lot of exposure to people in the audience and their questions and impressions of what they were seeing in the film. And then you all got a chance to talk more about that. I guess I’d love to hear what you all would say about your sense of the continued relevance of Laings legacy.

Fritof [00:28:38] Well, maybe we should start with his views of mental illness because that was at the very center, Nita or Mike, maybe you could talk about that first?

Michael [00:28:51] Well, I mean, I think the striking thing about Laing and his perspective and why it’s so difficult to translate that into the current mental health paradigm is is that psychotherapy is really still very much wedded to the medical model, which is that you’re suffering from some kind of illness. And our culture, not just American culture, it’s true all over the world, although Americans really seem to be the most wedded to this notion. You know, even marijuana, became a medical treatment, which is how it kind of slipped in through the back door before it became legalized. We love to be diagnosed and treated for something and then be shed of it. Well, Laing certainly did not embrace that model, and to some degree, he was indebted to Freud. Although Freud, was responsible for a lot of these psychopathilogical categories. They’re really more metaphorical than they are literal. And what really impressed me about Lange was that he rejects the whole concept of mental illness. That yes, there’s people being crazy and irrational and and we all try to be sane and have good judgments in our behavior. And every human being struggles with this dichotomy within ourselves, as we were talking about a little earlier. So it was so refreshing and so radical to think that, no, we don’t go into therapy because we’re sick. We go into therapy to get to know ourselves and to try to get a handle on what it is that we’re not doing right to make our lives better. You know, really taking ownership and not blaming our suffering on some biological condition or what somebody has done to us. And that, to me, is what is so radical about Laings approach to both psychotherapy as well as Kingsley Hall and the community houses. That’s very difficult to sell to the prevailing mental health industry, which, as you guys know well at Windhorse, is wedded to quick treatments, in and out, the cheapest possible method available that is the quickest to get rid of this pesky, issue of somebody causing some trouble in society. And so the challenge, of course, that we all share is how do we take such an expensive proposition? Because we’re talking about taking our time to really be with people over the long haul. How do we make that happen? It’s certainly one of the things that I most admire about your work at Windhorse, how successful you’ve been in bringing this model to really a large number of people. And that’s kind of, in some ways, what’s inspired us to continue to get this thing going.

Nita [00:32:20] Thank you, Mike. And to speak to that relevancy issue at what’s going through my mind, is something Ronnie talked about a lot was alienation and the alienation we have from each other, certainly, but also from ourselves. So alienation is a theme that is at the heart of what people are calling mental illness. And as Mike’s saying,  Laing rejected the whole concept of mental illness and mental health. I certainly do. But he did not reject the concept of suffering, and he did not think people just should get on with it at all. But he really brought a compassionate view, to alienation. And I think looking at the last year in our lives worldwide with COVID and the political climate, that alienation is kind of at a frenzied peak. And yet, what I’m finding is how the silver lining to that is that people are so desperate for connection that we find connection as we’re doing today on Zoom. I have been so touched by the profound connection people are finding in some projects and workshops I’m leading. But the hunger for connection, this is part of Laing’s relevancy today and part of that connection is going to come from stopping “othering” people, the mentally ill versus the sane. I mean, you know, we all kind of know those concepts are outdated, but we still tend to do it. So his relevancy is: stop othering, we’re all in this together, alienation is the problem, and this is what’s up on the planet. And so in some ways, I’d have to also say he was quite a visionary. I mean, he was so ahead of his time in naming these things before anybody else was. Now we’re all suffering from it in a global way. So I think we can really look to Laings’ writings to deal with what’s going on in the world today and to come to terms with what we all need. And that is connection with ourselves and with others. So I think his writings are entirely relevant today.

Fritof [00:34:25] A comment from the perspective of science. One of the most exciting developments in science recently has been a theory of nonlinear systems known as Complexity Theory. And one of the most important discoveries of Complexity Theory has been the phenomenon of emergence. What it says is that nonlinear systems like living systems maintain themselves in a state of balance for a long time. But every now and then, such a system may encounter a disturbance leading to a state of imbalance. And once this state imbalance is reached, the system may either break down, or it may break through to a new type of order, a new type of structure or behavior. This is generally known now as the phenomenon of emergence because of the spontaneous emergence of novelty that occurs, and it has been recognized as the central dynamics of development, learning and evolution. So this is a huge scientific discovery, and to my knowledge, the first person who articulated this idea of breakthrough rather than break down was R.D Laing many years before Complexity Theory. So, I want to acknowledge this as one of his major scientific insights. I’m also thinking of Laings idea that schizophrenia may often be a sane response to an insane society. And I can imagine Ronnie giving a lecture today to illustrate this with what we have experienced in the US in the last four years, where a significant portion of society subscribe to total alternate reality for whatever purposeses of, you know, economic gain or holding on to power. A behavior that that many psychiatrists would say are the the picture book of psychotic behavior, which has been widely distributed in society. Even before that, the denyers of climate change of the same category of an insane social behavior in a situation where we had this tremendous wildfires in California, unprecedented hurricanes, inundations all over the world, the melting of the Arctic and all these phenomena of the climate crisis, which were totally ignored by the majority of political and corporate leaders in a totally psychotic way. So, so there again, I think Lainge’s ideas are extremely relevant.

Michael [00:37:52] Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that Fritod, I was just thinking of that. That was one of his most pet comments is the society is quite mad for the most part, and it’s a kind of madness that nobody acknowledges or recognizes. And you’re absolutely right, that’s a perfect example of how many people in this country appear to be just completely out of touch with reality. And that’s kind of a metaphor for the struggle that we have all of us, you know, with coming up with alternative way of helping people who are most desperate in our society. For the most part, our society is indifferent to those plights. Self-absorbed, I guess the word selfish really comes to mind. And you have to juxtapose that with the extraordinary selflessness and generosity that’s inspired Kingsley Hall. Nobody was charged any money to go there. It was people who gave their hearts and souls to that work. That’s so un-American. But it’s also so un-global right now, you know? So yes, I think his message, as Nita says, was way ahead of its time. And it’s very disturbing when you look at that piece of it.

Jeffrey [00:39:35] Thank you, Mike, for that, thank all of you. Thank all of you for keeping Ronnie’s mind and energy alive. And I think, Chuck, in our own way in the Windhorse Community keeping a lot of Ronnie was clearly ahead of his time. And what Firtof was saying about this intense mindfulness of being in the presence of another person, I mean, in some ways that’s become the cornerstone of our whole approach to our communities and our work internationally. So we’re trying to keep a kind of a very simple idea and in some ways, a very simple experience alive that way or keep coming back to it as a touchstone.  When I was with Ronnie, he was (at that time,) he was calling this co-presence or the practice of co-presence. And I thought that was the most beautiful, in a sense phrase or a hyphenated phrase, I think I’d ever heard. And so it stayed with us and it’s part of our psychotherapy training and it’s part of our basic attendance training that we do as staff is trying to bring this, in and keep that very simple, very intense focus on being present. As a ground with people, thank him for that.

Chuck [00:40:53] Thank you all so much for being here today and sharing all of this. It’s interesting to end on that note. But co-presence and the point of alienation on such a global level and the madness it feels like is so global at this point. And there’s the big systems need to figure out how to work with alienation. But I think one person, one relationship at a time in our networks or relationships to bring that kind of co-presence and kindness for each other and curiosity about each other’s worlds, as opposed to othering that that seems to be so reflexive on so many levels. So may this conversation today help that move forward as much as possible.

Michael [00:41:37] And I just want to say thank you, Chuck and Jeff, so much for giving us this opportunity. It has been such a pleasure to have this conversation with you.

Nita [00:41:49] Really a pleasure to meet you, Jeff. And Chuck, it’s always a delight to see you, and it’s a delight to be with Mike and Fritof in this way, in this heartfelt way, talking about what we all so passionate about. So thank you.