R. D. Laing
The illumination grew brighter and brighter, the roaring
louder, I experienced a rocking sensation and then felt
myself slipping out of my body, entirely enveloped in awas now all consciousness, without any outline, without any idea of corporeal appendage, without any feeling or
halo of light . . I felt the point of consciousness that was
myself growing wider, surrounded by waves of light . . . I
sensation coming from the senses, immersed in a sea of
light . . . I was no longer myself, or to be more accurate,
no longer as I knew my self to be, a small point of awareness confined in a body, but instead was a vast circle of
consciousness in which the body was but a point, bathed
in light and in a state of exaltation and happiness impossible to describe.
Meditation experience described by Gope Krishna,
Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man
The idea that psychoses are mental diseases that can be adequately
understood in medical terms and should be treated by biological
means, although widespread and highly influential, is not unanimously accepted. Many clinicians and theoreticians have offered important explanations of the psychotic process that are purely
psychological in nature and have developed non-medical treatment
Others have suggested that the dominant role played by the medical model in the approach to psychoses cannot be scientifically justified, since no specific biological causes have been found for the
majority of the conditions psychiatrists are treating. The current situation thus does not reflect the "state of the art," but a variety of factors
of a historical, political, legal, and economic nature. Thomas Szasz,
one of the most outspoken representatives of this view, has gone so far
as to speak and write about the "myth of mental illness."
In his unique approach to psychosis, the Scottish psychiatrist
R. D. Laing combines a penetrating critique of Western society with
an innovative psychological understanding and treatment of this condition. Probably the most radical and controversial figure in the field
of psychiatry, he is the author of a series of books that challenge the
very roots of modern psychiatric thinking. Laing is usually seen as a
representative of "antipsychiatry," a movement initiated by the South
African physician and psychotherapist David Cooper, although he
himself re fuses that label.
According to Laing, psychoses cannot be understood in terms of
abnormal biological processes inside the human body, but are products
of disturbed patterns of human communication. They reflect problems
in important relationships with individuals, small groups such as the
family, and society as a whole.
Laing's ideas represent a radical and revolutionary departure
from mainstream thinking. The "sane" are not really sane, and the
psychotics are not as mad as they appear to be. Modern society is
founded on denial of the self and of experience; it is dangerously
insane, and the psychotics, finding its values and norms unbearable,
are not able to adjust to them:
Psychotics are individuals whose total life experience is divided,
because they have an unsatisfactory connection with the world and
human society, as well as a disruptive relation with the self. Their
withdrawal into the world of fantasies provided by their unconscious
is an escape from the feality they find unacceptable. This results in an
incomplete existence characterized by fear, despair, aloneness, and a
sense of isolation.
Such people feel unreal and disconnected from the common-sense
world, as well as from their bodies — to such an extent that their
identity and autonomy are always in question. Their fear of losing
themselves is so consuming and overwhelming that it results in preoccupation with self-preservation rather than self-satisfaction. Laing
calls this "ontological insecurity."
According to Laing, psychiatrists do not pay proper attention to
the inner experiences of psychotics, because they see them as pathological and incomprehensible. However, careful observation and study
show that these experiences have profound meaning and that the psychotic process can be healing. Laing believes that psychotics have in
many respects more to teach psychiatrists than psychiatrists do their
patients. The "psychiatric ceremony" of examination, diagnosis, and
treatment invalidates the clients as human beings and interferes with
the healing potential of their process.
Laing's strategy of psychotherapy replacing biological treatment
emphasizes the importance of human interaction and relationship,
both on a one-to-one basis and on the larger scale of an entire
therapeutic team. The experiences emerging from the unconscious are
seen as valid, important, and meaningful. Accepting and respecting
them facilitates communication and is conducive to healing. According
to Laing, special places should be provided where people receive the
support and sympathetic understanding that facilitate the healing
R. D. Laing was born in 1927 in Glasgow, Scotland, and was
educated at the University of Glasgow, where he received his medical
degree. His introduction into the world of mental patients occurred
when he served for two years as a psychiatrist in the British army.
From 1956 to 1962, he conducted clinical research at the Tavistock
Institute of Human Relations in London.
Between 1962 and 1965, he was director of the Langham Clinic in
London; it was at this time that he founded the Kingsley Hall Clinic,
where he conducted a unique experiment in the treatment of psychotic
patients without suppressive medication. He continued these activities
based on his therapeutic philosophy in the Philadelphia Association, an
organization dedicated to the problems of psychosis and focusing on
therapy, as well as to the education of professionals and the public by
lectures and publications. It deserves special note that in 1973, Laing
spent a year in Ceylon studying Theravada Buddhism and Vipassana
meditation. In the last decade, his professional time has been divided
between writing, private practice, consulting work, and lecturing.
Laing is the author of many articles in professional journals and
of the books The Divided Self, The Self and Others, The Politics of
Experience, The Bird of Paradise, Reason and Violence, Knots, The
Facts of Life, The Voice of Experience, The Politics of the Family,
Do You Love Me?, Sanity, Madness and the Family, and the autobiographical Wisdom, Madness, and Folly.
In the following paper, Laing goes beyond acknowledging the
psychological importance of the unconscious content of psychotic experiences. He explicitly recognizes and emphasizes the value of the transcendental aspect of such experiences and the utmost importance of the
spiritual dimension in human life. His discussion of the historical importance of visionary experiences and of the urgent need to draw a
clear distinction between pathology and mysticism is of great relevance
for the problem of spiritual emergency.
We must remember that we are living in an age in which the ground is shifting and the foundations are shaking. I cannot answer for other times and places. Perhaps it has always been so. We know it is true today.
In these circumstances, we have all reason to be insecure. When the ultimate basis of our world is in question, we run to different
holes in the ground; we scurry into roles, statuses, identities, inter-personal relations. We attempt to live in castles that can only be it
the air, because there is no firm ground in the social cosmos on which to build. Priest and physician are both witness to this state of affairs
. Each sometimes sees the same fragment of the whole situation differently; often our concern is with different presentations of the original catastrophe.
In this paper I wish to relate the transcendental experiences that
sometimes break through in psychosis to those experiences of the
divine that are the Living Fount of all religion.
Elsewhere I have outlined the way in which some psychiatrists
are beginning to dissolve their clinical-medical categories of understanding madness. I believe that if we can begin to understand sanity
and madness in existential social terms, we, as priests and physicians,
will be enabled to see more clearly the extent to which we confront
common problems and share common dilemmas.
The main clinical terms for madness, where no organic lesion
has so far been found, are schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, and involutional depression. From a social point of view, they
characterize different forms of behavior, regarded in our society as
deviant. People behave in such ways because their experience of
themselves is different. It is on the existential meaning of such unusual experience that I wish to focus.
Experience is mad when it steps beyond the horizons of our
common, that is, our communal sense.
What regions of experience does this lead to? It entails a loss of
the usual foundations of the "sense" of the world that we share with
one another. Old purposes no longer seem viable. Old meanings are
senseless; the distinctions between imagination, dream, external perceptions often seem no longer to apply in the old way. External
events may seem magically conjured up. Dreams may seem direct
communications from others: imagination may seem to be objective
But most radically of all, the Very ontological foundations are
shaken. The being of phenomena shifts, and the phenomenon of
being may no longer present itself to us as before. The person is
plunged into a void of nonbeing in which he founders. 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, ghosts, 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
When a person goes mad, a profound transposition of his position in relation to all domains of being occurs. His center of experience moves from ego to Self. Mundane time becomes merely
anecdotal, only the Eternal matters. The madman is, however, confused. He muddles ego with self, inner with outer, natural and supernatural. Nevertheless, he often can be to us, even through his
profound wretchedness and disintegration, the hierophant of the sacred. An exile from the scene of being as we know it, he is an alien, a
stranger, signaling to us from the void in which he is foundering.
This void may be peopled by presences that we do not even dream of.
They used to be called demons and spirits, that were known and
named. He has lost his sense of self, his feelings, his place in the
world as we know it. He tells us he is dead. But we are distracted
from our cozy security by this mad ghost that haunts us with his
visions and voices that seem so senseless and of which we feel impelled to rid him, cleanse him, cure him.
Madness need not be all breakdown. It is also breakthrough. It is
potentially liberation and renewal, as well as enslavement and existential death.
There are now a growing number of accounts by people who
have been through the experience of madness. (See, for example, the
anthology The Inner World of Mental Illness: A Series of First-Person
Accounts of What It Was Like, ed. Bert Kaplan [New York: Harper
and Row, 1964].) I want to quote at some length from one of the
earlier contemporary accounts, as recorded by Karl Jaspers in his
General Psychopathology (Manchester University Press, 1962):
I believe I caused the illness myself. In my attempt to penetrate
the other world I met its natural guardians, the embodiment of my
own weaknesses and faults. I first thought these demons were lowly
, inhabitants of the other world who could play me like a ball because I
went into these regions unprepared and lost my way. Later I thought
they were split-off parts of my own mind (passions) which existed
near me in free space and thrived on my feelings. I believed everyone
else had these too but did not perceive them, thanks to the protective
and successful deceit of the feeling of personal existence. I thought the
latter was an artifact of memory, thought-complexes, etc., a doll that
was nice enough to look at from outside but nothing real inside it.
In my case the personal self had grown porous because of my
dimmed consciousness. Through it I wanted to bring myself closer to
the higher sources of life. I should have prepared myself for this over a
long period by invoking in me a higher, impersonal self, since "nectar"
is not for mortal lips. It acted destructively on the animal-human self,
split it up into its parts. These gradually disintegrated, the doll was
really broken and the body damaged. I had forced untimely access
to the "source of life," the curse of the "gods" descended on me. I
recognized too late that murky elements had taken a hand. I got to
know them after they had already too much power. There was no way
back. I now had the world of spirits I had wanted to see. The demons
came up from the abyss, as guardian Cerberi, denying admission to
the unauthorized. I decided to take up the life-and-death struggle.
This meant for me in the end a decision to die, since I had to put aside
everything that maintained the enemy, but this was also everything
that maintained life. I wanted to enter death without going mad and
stood before the Sphinx: either thou into the abyss or I!
Then came illumination. I fasted and so penetrated into the true
nature of my seducers. They were pimps and deceivers of my dear
personal self which seemed as much a thing of naught as they. A larger
and more comprehensive self emerged and I could abandon the previous personality with its entire entourage. I saw this earlier personality could never enter transcendental realms. I felt as a result a terrible
pain, like an annihilating blow, but I was rescued, the demons
shriveled, vanished, and perished. A new life began for me and from
now on I felt different from other people. A self that consisted of
conventional lies, shams, self-deceptions, memory-images, a self just
like that of other people, grew in me again but behind and above it
stood a greater and more comprehensive self which impressed me with
something of what is eternal, unchanging, immortal, and inviolable
and which ever since that time has been my protector and refuge. I
believe it would be good for many if they were acquainted with such a
higher self and that there are people who have attained this goal in fact
by kinder means.
Jaspers comments: "Such self-interpretations are obviously made
under the influence of delusion-like tendencies and deep psychic
forces. They originate from profound experiences and the wealth of
such schizophrenic experience calls on the observer as well as on the
reflective patient not to take all this merely as a chaotic jumble of
contents. Mind and spirit are present in the morbid psychic life as
well as in the healthy. But interpretations of this sort must be divested of any causal importance. All the/can do is to throw light on
content and bring it into some sort of context."
I would rather say that this patient has described with a lucidity
I could not improve upon, a Quest, with its pitfalls and dangers,
which he eventually appears to have transcended. Even Jaspers still
speaks of this experience as morbid, and discounts the patient's own
construction. Both the experience and construction seem to me valid
in their own terms.
I should make it clear that I am speaking of certain transcendental experiences that seem to me to be the original 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 sane experience.
The person who is transported into such domains is likely to act
curiously. In other places, I have described in some detail the circumstances that seem to occasion this transportation, at least in certain
instances, and the gross mystification that the language and thinking
of the medical clinic perpetrates when it is brought to bear on the
phenomena of madness, both as a social fact and as an existential experience.
The schizophrenic may indeed be mad. He is mad. He is not ill.
I have been told by people who have been through the mad
experience how what was then revealed to them was veritable manna
from Heaven. The person's whole life may be changed, but it is
difficult not to doubt the validity of such vision. Also, not everyone
comes back to us again.
Are these experiences simply the effulgence of a pathological
process, or of a particular alienation? I do not think they are.
When all has been said against the different schools of psychoanalysis and depth psychology, one of their great merits is that
they recognize explicitly the crucial relevance of each person's experience to his or her outward behavior, especially the so-called
There is a view, still current, that there is some correlation
between being sane and being unconscious, or at least not too conscious of the "unconscious," and that some forms of psychosis are
the behavioral disruption caused by being overwhelmed by the
What both Freud and Jung called "the unconscious" is simply
what we, in our historically conditioned estrangement, are unconscious of. It is not necessarily or essentially unconscious.
I am not merely spinning senseless paradoxes when I say that
we, the sane ones, are out of our minds. The mind is what the ego is
unconscious of. We are unconscious of our minds. Our minds are not
unconscious. Our minds are conscious of us. Ask yourself who and
what it is that dreams our dreams. Our unconscious minds? The
Dreamer who dreams our dreams knows far more of us than we
know of it. It is only from a remarkable position of alienation that
the source of life, the Fountain of Life, is experienced as the It. The
mind of which we are unaware is aware of us. It is we who are out of
our minds. We need not be unaware of the inner world.
We do not realize its existence most of the time.
But many people enter it — unfortunately without guides, confusing outer with inner realities, and inner with outer — and generally
lose their capacity to function competently in ordinary relations.
This need not be so. The process of entering into the other world
from this world, and returning to this world from the other world, is
as "natural" as death and childbirth or being born. But in our present
world, that is both so terrified and so unconscious of the other
world, it is not surprising that, when "reality," the fabric of this
world, bursts, and a person enters the other world, he is completely
lost and terrified, and meets only incomprehension in others.
In certain cases, a man blind from birth may have an operation
performed which gives him his sight. The result: frequently misery,
confusion, disorientation. The light that illumines the madman is an
unearthly light, but I do not believe it is a projection, an emanation
from his mundane ego. He is irradiated by a light that is more than
he. It may burn him out.
This "other" world is not essentially a battlefield wherein psychological forces, derived or diverted, displaced or sublimated from
their original object-cathexes, are engaged in an illusionary fight —
although such forces may obscure these realities, just as they may
obscure so-called external realities. When Ivan, in The Brothers
Karamazov, says, "If God does not exist, everything is permissible,"
he is not saying: "If my superego, in projected form, can be abolished, I can do anything with a good conscience." He is saying:
"If there is only my conscience, then there is no ultimate validity for
The proper task of the physician (psychotherapist, analyst)
should be, in select instances, to educt the person from this world
and induct him to the other. To guide him in it: and to lead him
One enters the other world by breaking a shell: or through a
door: through a partition: the curtains part or rise: a veil is lifted. It
is not the same as a dream. It is "real" in a different way from dream,
imagination, perception, or fantasy. Seven veils: seven seals, seven
The "ego" is the instrument for living in this world. If "the ego"
is broken up, or destroyed (by the insurmountable contradictions of
certain life situations, by toxins, chemical changes, etc.), then the
person may be exposed to this other world.
The world that one enters, one's capacity to experience it, seems
to be partly conditional on the state of one's "ego."
Our time has been distinguished, more than by anything else, by
a mastery, a control, of the external world, and by an almost total
forgetfulness of the internal world. If one estimates human evolution
from the point of view of knowledge of the external world, then we
are in many respects progressing.
If our estimate is from the point of view of the internal world,
and of oneness of internal and external, then the judgment must be
Phenomenologically the terms "internal" and "external" have
little validity. But in this whole realm one is reduced to mere verbal
expedients — words are simply the finger pointing to the moon. One
of the difficulties of talking in the present day of these matters is that
the very existence of inner realities is now called into question.
By "inner" I mean all those realities that have usually no "external," "objective" presence — the realities of imagination, dreams, fantasies, trances, the realities of contemplative and meditative states:
realities that modern man, for the most part, has not the slightest
direct awareness of.
Nowhere in the Bible, for example, 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
Sanity today appears to rest very largely on a capacity to adapt
to the external world — the interpersonal world, and the realm of
As this external human world is almost completely and totally
estranged from the inner, any personal direct awareness of the inner
world already entails grave risks.
But since society, without knowing it, is starving for the inner,
the demands on people to evoke its presence in a "safe" way, in a way
that need not be taken seriously, is tremendous — while the ambivalence is equally intense. Small wonder that the list of artists in,
say, the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked on these reefs is
so long — Holderlin, John Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche,
Antonin Artaud, Strindberg, Munch, Bartok, Schumann, Buchner,
Those who survived have had exceptional Qualities — a capacity
for secrecy, slyness, cunning — a thoroughly realistic appraisal of the
risks they run, not only from the spiritual realms that they frequent,
but from the hatred of their fellows for anyone engaged in this
Let us cure them. The poet who mistakes a real woman for his
Muse and acts accordingly . . . The young man who sets off in a
yacht in search of God.
The outer divorced from any illumination from the inner is in a
state of darkness. We are in an age of darkness. The state of outer
darkness is a state of sin — i.e., alienation or estrangement from the
Inner Light. Certain actions lead to greater estrangement; certain
others help one not to be so far removed. The former are bad; the
latter are good.
The ways of losing one's way are legion. Madness is certainly
not the least unambiguous. The counter-madness of Kraepelinian psychiatry is the exact counterpart of "official" psychosis. Literally, and
absolutely seriously, it is as mad, if by madness we mean any radical
estrangement from the subjective or objective truth. Remember
Kierkegaard's objective madness.
As we experience the world, so we act. We conduct ourselves in
the light of our view of what is the case and what is not the case.
That is, each person is a more or less naive ontologist. Each person
has views of what is, and what is not.
There is no doubt, it seems to me, that there have been profound
changes in the experience of man in the last thousand years. In some
ways this is more evident than changes in the patterns of his behavior.
There is everything to suggest that man experienced God. Faith was
never a matter of believing He existed, but of trusting in the Presence
that was experienced and known to exist as a self-validating datum. It
seems likely that far more people in our time neither experience the Presence of God, nor the Presence of His absence, but the absence of
We require a history of phenomena — not simply more phenomena of history.
As it is, the secular psychotherapist is often in the role of the
blind leading the half-blind.
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, emotionally, 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
Many people are prepared to have faith in the sense of scientifically indefensible belief in an untested hypothesis. Few have trust
enough to test it. Many people make-believe what they experience.
Few are made to believe by their experience. Paul of Tarsus was
picked up by the scruff of the neck, thrown to the ground, and
blinded for three days. This direct experience was self-validating.
We live in a secular world. To adapt to this world the child
abdicates its ecstacy. (L'enfant abdique son extase. — Mallarme.) 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 there will be a time 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 any more "true" madness 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.
Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crises
Edited by Stanislav Grof, M.D. and Christina Grof