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R. D. Laing and the Courage to Be

Posted on 12 Jun | 1 comment
R. D. Laing and Andrew Feldmár in 1982.
R. D. Laing and Andrew Feldmár in 1982.

Years ago, R. D. Laing and I were sitting on a beach of Cortes Island, immersed in conversation, when a man approached us. He had just emerged from the sea, huffing and puffing and wet. He greeted us, and after some small talk, he commented on how hot we must be and said, “You should go in for a swim!” Laing’s face immediately clouded over, he looked the man in the eyes and bellowed, “If by the time I count to three you are not gone, I’ll bash your head in! Now f*** off!”

The man seemed confused, but departed promptly. We are so desensitized to being pressured that we are unaware when someone makes a bid to control or dominate us. We have been trained that the polite response is to overlook the violence of persuasion. We have been domesticated into obedience and submission.

Not so Laing. He once told me that the best thing a therapist can teach his patient is how to say “Get off my back!” or “Let me be!” to whomever pressures him. The best way to get this across is by modeling it, living it. The key word he reacted to was should. Pressure, when applied by one person onto another, inevitably forces the recipient to react. All authentic action from one’s creative center is suspended, until after the pressure has been dealt with. Some of us are still waiting.

If the pressure is chronic, one internalizes the million should-s, the expectations. One learns to pressure oneself, or to seek out situations and people who will continue to put pressure on one, instead of turning one’s back on just such situations. The reaction to pressure is either compliance or rebellion.

Neither is authentic. Neither compliance nor rebellion allows one’s creativity or individuality to blossom. Children who comply, who are obedient are thought to be good. Nobody understands why, as adults, these once exemplary children get depressed and find their lives empty and meaningless, waiting for death to deliver them from their chores. Those who rebel are thought to be bad. Life becomes a heavy chore for these people also, for an addiction to rebellion gets one into constant trouble, and allows one only a marginal existence. Under pressure, there is no experience of real love, only power struggle, daily war, the enslavement of one by the other.

Liberation means escaping the false, deadening dimension of compliance/rebellion. Liberation is a political, psychological moment of victory, when one dares to act from one’s authentic, creative core. This freedom is not won once and for all. We have to fight for it until we die.

And we have to fight for each other’s freedom. Providing shelter, true asylum, is a way to protect some from pressure, long enough for each to find his own core, and find the strength and courage to act from that core. Once you have caught on fire with your own life, you don’t have to fear persuasion, control, seduction, domination, penetration, engulfment, capture or absorption. It’s hard to learn under pressure.

In August 1985, on the BBC Radio 4 program, In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, Dr. Anthony Clare was interviewing R. D. Laing. Laing talked openly about his severe depressive swings and his heavy drinking. He thought it would do him a lot of good to start writing on these two topics. He expressed his fear of being overtaken by “real, Scottish, involutional melancholia.”

“What would you want someone like me to do if you became profoundly depressed?" asked Clare.

"Make sure that I hadn’t anything rational to worry about in terms of duties, obligations, commitments, etc., to free me of a sense of guilt, worthlessness, and failure. Transport my body to a home. If you had any drugs that you thought would get me into a brighter state of mind, I’d be grateful for!” was Laing’s reply.

A very depressed patient of mine who hardly ever speaks to me explained the other day that he wants to kill himself before the demons who torture him constantly take over his mind. He wrote out a quote from a novel he’s been reading: “That was what I wanted: to be taken over by something so that no one could expect me to produce a thing. A condition that made a product, a production, any productivity unimaginable. Even to myself”. I was struck by how similar this request was to Laing’s. They both ask for a guilt-free asylum where one can stop without shame, without pressure to perform.

In Angel in Armor, Ernest Becker wrote, “The Demonic is real. It is engendered by the failure of men to act. It comes into being when men fail to act individually and willfully, on the basis of their own personal, responsible powers”. My patient lost his person, his individuality. He told me all he ever was, seemed to him to be roles. He played “son,” “accountant,” “husband,” “father,” but he had forgotten, if he ever knew, who he was. No one seemed to care either as long as he performed his roles satisfactorily. His only hope remained that through suicide he could re-connect with the source of his true being, the source of his aliveness, his long-lost spirit.

One of Laing’s teachers was E. Graham Howe. Howe knew that to be depressed is to feel condemned, the guilty culprit of some unknown crime. The patient insists that God does not love him anymore. If I am “mechanized,” I must have a boss, I must be driven, I have to cut off from my living spirit. If, instead, I could live in an “organized,” organic fashion, I could remain obedient to my spirit within.

The problem of healing depression is how to regain inspiration and how to reinstate the spirit in its true supremacy. Depression is a paroxysmal attack associated with deficiency of vitality, inhibition at the highest level, and more or less complete paralysis of the will. Howe lists six major symptoms: (1) Self-centeredness, one cannot enter into anything nor give anything out; (2) Retardation, or fixation, for nothing flows, one lives in petrified eternity, or in constant frozen fear; (3) Guilt, for the depressed cannot bear to sin, he was fearfully and obsessionally good; the illness of depression is especially the lot that falls on so many “good” people; (4) Worthlessness, because one feels hopeless, empty, nothing; (5) Insomnia, like depression itself, needs to be treated by rest, with great patience on all sides, in spite of constant pleas that something must be done, the kindest condition for this insufferable complaint is that it should be suffered willingly; (6) Suicide, like all symptoms, has a protective, healing purpose: it seeks to cure by finding the source again, so that the body’s dead-weight may be cast off and the healing presence of the spirit may be re-discovered.

“I AM” is a spiritual statement of our responsibility to manifest our particular quantum of the spirit within the resistant medium of our earthly lives. It may be wrong to copy or to pretend, yet the pressures to do so are great. To free ourselves from the depressing compulsion to be GOOD, we need strength and courage to seek our TRUTH.

-- Andrew Feldmár

Today's guest contributor, Andrew Feldmár, is a psychologist in Vancouver, Canada, practicing psychotherapy for the past 44 years, author of journal articles, book reviews, and books published in Budapest, Hungary, he lectures, teaches and supervises, and will talk about LSD therapy & Perinatal Psychology at the upcoming R.D. Laing Symposium in New York City in October 2013. He received his training with R. D. Laing in London in the 1970s, and led workshops with Laing until 1989, the year of Laing’s death.

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Comments and Discussions

Andrew's words are a stirring

Andrew's words are a stirring call to action:"And we have to fight for each other’s freedom." He get's what it means to be caught in a debilitating tangle of reactive "shoulds". As my teacher Hugh Crawford use to say,"There should be no shoulds"
Andrew also illuminates,following Graham Howe,the meaning of depression. Having "been there" I can testify that each of the six listed symptoms are profoundly present in a depressed state of being.
I can only say "amen" to assuming our responsibility to breath our quantum spirit together. Let's join as conspirators in a remembrance and resurgence of Laing's spirit.

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