The Journey into the Unconscious — Part 2, R.D. Laing

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This is part of a series inspired by Carl Jung’s ‘Confrontation with the Unconscious’. It follows on from , and where I examined this inner journey in detail. Here I’ll discuss the relevance of the ideas of the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing.

He is best known for his ideas on schizophrenia, as expounded in The Divided Self, and Sanity, Madness and the Family. He was a controversial figure, whose ideas were frequently rejected by the psychiatric community, although he became a cult figure with the general public. His ideas extended beyond the field of psychiatry, becoming an examination of the human condition, and a general critique of modern society. As I noted at the end of part 1, he was very interested in Jung’s inner journey, and wrote an unpublished paper about it.

His most important book on this theme is The Politics of Experience¹, which I will focus on here. Although elsewhere he tends to use the language of psychiatry, in this book he frequently expresses himself in the language of spiritual traditions, most clearly here: “Most people most of the time experience themselves and others in one or other way that I shall call egoic… they experience the world and themselves in terms of a consistent identity… shared with other members of their society… it gives us a sense of ontological security… although we know its apparent absolute validity as an illusion. In fact all religious and all existential philosophies have agreed that such egoic experience is a preliminary illusion, a veil, a film of maya — a dream to Heraclitus, and to Lao-Tzu, the fundamental illusion of all Buddhism, a state of sleep, of death, of socially accepted madness, a womb state to which one has to die, from which one has to be born” (p113, his italics).

He therefore believes that:

  • “the ordinary person is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be” (p22, his italics)
  • “our capacity to think, except in the service of what we are dangerously deluded in supposing is our self-interest, and in conformity with common sense, is pitifully limited: our capacity even to see, hear, touch, taste and smell is so shrouded in veils of mystification that an intensive discipline of un-learning is necessary for anyone (his italics) before one can begin to experience the world afresh, with innocence, truth and love” (p23). This sounds like a person before and after spiritual awakening.
  • “the ‘normally’ alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane. Other forms of alienation that are out of step with the prevailing state of alienation are those that are labelled by the ‘normal’ majority as bad or mad. The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind, is the condition of the normal man” (p24).

What Jung had done was to stop resisting the fantasies emerging from the unconscious. Obviously impressed by such an undertaking, Laing says: “Not all psychologists know of phantasy as a modality of experience, and the, as it were, contrapuntal interweaving of the different experiential modes. Many who are aware of phantasy believe that phantasy is the farthest that experience goes under ‘normal’ circumstances. Beyond that are simply ‘pathological’ zones of hallucinations, phantasmagoric mirages, delusions. This state of affairs represents an almost unbelievable devastation of our experience” (p23).

He then has a section entitled ‘Phantasy as a mode of experience’. This is again obviously relevant to Jung’s descent into the Underworld. He says that the modality of phantasy has its own validity, its own rationality… Phantasy as encountered in many people today is split off from what the person regards as his mature, sane, rational, adult experience. We do not then see phantasy in its true function but experienced merely as an intrusion, sabotaging infantile nuisance… Phantasy is a particular way of relating to the world… (it) is always experiential, and meaningful” (p26–7).

Here he describes a world similar to the one that Jung encountered:

  • “The ‘ego’ is the instrument for living in this world. If the ‘ego’ is broken up… then the person may be exposed to other worlds, ‘real’ in different ways from the more familiar territory of dreams, imagination, perception or phantasy” (p114)
  • “The very ontological foundations are shaken… There are no supports… This void may not be empty. It may be peopled by visions and voices, ghosts, strange shapes and apparitions” (p109). As we know from The Red Book, this is precisely what Jung encountered.

With regard to this inner journey, having noted that “being and nonbeing is the central theme of all philosophy, East and West”, he says that “we are afraid to approach the fathomless and bottomless groundlessness of everything” (p33), that “the creative breath ‘comes from a zone where man cannot descend, even if Virgil were to lead him, for Virgil would not go down there’. (He is quoting The Journals of Jean Cocteau, obviously referring to Dante’s Divine Comedy.) This zone, the zone of no-thing, of the silence of silences, is the source. We forget that we are all there all the time” (p38).

Jung chose consciously to confront the unconscious, and had the strength of ego to withstand and assimilate what he found there — even though some critics have described this period as schizophrenia. Laing, on the other hand, was having to deal with patients who had already been overwhelmed by these contents, and had therefore lost their way. What needs to be done in those circumstances?

He believes that schizophrenia is not an illness to be treated, merely “a label that some people pin on other people under certain social circumstances”. It is also “a natural way of healing our own appalling state of alienation called normality”. He therefore believes that conventional ‘treatments’, which have the aim of returning the patient to ‘normality’, may interfere with and stop this natural process, which should be allowed to take its course. He says that schizophrenia means, etymologically, a broken soul or heart, and that “even broken hearts have been known to mend, if we have the heart to let them”. Unfortunately, however, while in some cases there is a spontaneous remission, some people do not return from this inner journey.

On that theme he quotes the famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson: “It would appear that once precipitated into psychosis the patient has a course to run. He is, as it were, embarked upon a voyage of discovery which is only completed by his return to the normal world, to which he comes back with insights different from those of the inhabitants who never embarked on such a voyage. Once begun, a schizophrenic episode would appear to have as definite a course as an initiation ceremonya death and rebirth… Spontaneous remission is no problem. This is only the final and natural outcome of the total process. What needs to be explained is the failure of many who embark upon this voyage to return from it” (p97).

On that theme, Laing says that “the person who has entered this inner realm (if only he is allowed to experience this) will find himself going, or being conducted… on a journey” (p104). This is “a very ancient quest with its pitfalls and dangers” (p112). Here he seems to be referring to the descent into the Underworld in ancient hero-myths, and possibly shamanism.

He clearly believes that ‘madness’ can be healing because it can precipitate spiritual experiences:

  • He relates “the transcendental experiences that sometimes break through in psychosis, to those experiences of the divine that are the living fount of all religion” (p108)
  • “When a person goes mad, a profound transposition of his position in relation to all domains of being occurs. His centre of experience moves from ego to Selfonly the eternal matters… He muddles ego with self, inner with outer, natural and supernatural. Nevertheless, he can often be to us… the hierophant of the sacred…” (p109)
  • “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death” (p110)
  • “The experience that a person may be absorbed in while to others he appears simply ill-mad, may be for him 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… The light that illumines the madman is an unearthly light… He may be irradiated by light from other worlds. It may burn him out” (p113–4).

Since this inner journey of ‘madness’ can be a transformative religious and healing experience, there is clearly a desperate need for guides who can lead people into the Underworld and back. Laing says: “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” (p103).

Jung, of course, became such a guide. As I noted in part 1, his friend and translator R. F. C. Hull said that “his achievement lay in hammering that material into a system of psychotherapy that worked”.

In conclusion, one might think that this quote comes from Jung, but it is actually Laing describing the schizophrenic experience: “True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self completely 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 re-establishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer” (p119). Amen to that!

R. D. Laing

I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click and ). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile.

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Footnotes:

1. in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise, Penguin, 1967

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