5.5 Anti-Psychiatry, Laing and the Mystical Approach

The widespread interest in psychic and mystical interpretations of mental phenomena, which was apparent around the turn of the twentieth century, later faded into indifference. In fact, the realisation that a spiritual/mystical emergency could be mistaken for mental illness didn’t properly surface until the 1960s. This realisation was largely born out of the spirit of anti-establishment protest that characterised the era. The wide-ranging rebellion against conventional psychiatric models utilised ‘key ideas of the time, combining Sartre, Jung and Gregory Bateson into a perfect model of Rousseallian humanism for the counter-culture of the 1960s’.[33]

The unifying principle of what became known as the anti-psychiatry movement was the view that psychiatric practice was a form of social control. However, although there was agreement on the need to curb this aspect of psychiatry, there were still a number of diverse positions taken within the antipsychiatry movement on the interpretation of schizophrenic symptoms. The mystical interpretation was only one of these positions.

The two leading polemicists associated with the anti-psychiatry movement were themselves both psychiatrists: Ronald D. Laing in the UK and Thomas Szasz in the US. A mystical interpretation of schizophrenic symptoms, in so much as it confirms the reality of abnormal mental experience, is anathema to Thomas Szasz’s point of view. Szasz’s view of the symptoms is that they are manufactured. His theory will be closely examined in Chapter 7. R. D. Laing, on the other hand, became the godfather and chief advocate for misunderstood mystics:

Certain transcendental experiences seem to me to be the original well-spring 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.[34]

Laing was deeply influenced by something Gregory Bateson wrote in what Laing described as a ‘brilliant introduction to a nineteenth-century autobiographical account of schizophrenia’.[35] Bateson likened a person experiencing schizophrenic symptoms to an explorer ‘embarked on 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’.[36]

Laing’s own favoured metaphor begins with a dichotomy which he sees as having given rise in the human condition to ‘the split of our experience into what seems to be two worlds, inner and outer’. The outer world is the world of normal experience whereas the inner world is the venue for the unusual experiences encountered by schizophrenics and mystics. To Laing any separation of these two worlds is artificial and ‘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 giving birth or being born.’[37]

Taking up Bateson’s motif of a journey to describe the mystical/schizophrenic experience, Laing himself speculated that:

The journey is experienced as going further ‘in’, as going back through one’s personal life, in and back and through and beyond into the experience of all mankind, of the primal man, of Adam and perhaps even further into the being of animals, vegetables and minerals.

In this journey there are many occasions to lose one’s way, for confusion, partial failure, even final shipwreck: many terrors, spirits, demons to be encountered, that may or may not be overcome.

We do not regard it as pathologically deviant to explore a jungle, or to climb Mount Everest … We are far more out of touch with even the nearest approaches of the infinite reaches of inner space than we now are with the reaches of outer space. We respect the voyager, the explorer, the climber, the space man. It makes far more sense to me as a valid project—indeed as a desperately urgently required project of our time, to explore the inner space and time of consciousness. Perhaps this is one of the few things that still make sense in our historical context. We are so out of touch with this realm that many people can now argue seriously that it does not exist. It is very small wonder that it is perilous indeed to explore such a lost realm.[38]

Speaking about people who have inadvertently lost themselves in this mystical realm, and been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Laing says: ‘This is where the person sitting in a chair labelled catatonic has often gone. He is not at all here: he is all there. He is frequently very mistaken about what he is experiencing, and probably does not want to experience it … There are very few of us who know the territory in which he is lost, who know how to reach him, and how to find the way back.’[39]

Laing was very concerned with the approach of normal psychiatric practice, which he called ‘a degradation ceremonial’. He believed that a new approach, an ‘initiation ceremonial’, should be developed for ‘those who are about to go into a schizophrenic breakdown’. Laing argued that psychiatrists and psychiatric treatment should be replaced by guides who have themselves been on the inner journey: ‘Psychiatrically, this would appear as ex-patients helping future patients to go mad.’[40]

Laing likened people returning from these inner experiences to lost explorers of the Renaissance who eventually found their way home. He argued they deserved no less respect than was accorded to these explorers. But there is also a pessimistic streak behind some of Laing’s thinking, and he implied a belief in a forthcoming apocalypse, with schizophrenic experience playing some kind of preparatory role for post-apocalyptic renewal: ‘If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness … They will see that what we call ‘schizophrenia’ was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds.’[41]

Laing was scathing in his criticism of psychiatric practice when it is informed by a belief in a biological cause for schizophrenia:

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 totality of what is the case.[42]

Laing himself was not very popular amongst his psychiatric peers, and most of his following came from the anti-establishment new left of politics: ‘We may see the growth of his ideas as a progressive and serial challenging of the whole catalogue of schizoid "symptoms" that is customarily presented in psychiatric textbooks.’[43]

Laing not only viewed his schizophrenic patients as mystical voyagers, but was, himself, personally engaged in mystical pursuit. Appended to the Penguin edition of his 1967 book, The Politics of Experience, was a short autobiographical fragment entitled The Bird of Paradise. This piece was written in the first person and described an inner journey. Commentators have speculated that it may have been either an experimental attempt to describe the schizophrenic experience of one of his patients or, alternatively, it could have been an account of a brief psychotic experience that Laing had actually undergone himself.

In 1971 Laing surprised both his psychiatric colleagues and his new left followers by withdrawing from psychiatric practice and departing for Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka he set about devoting himself entirely to the mystical pursuit of Buddhist meditation. An academic from the Anthropology Department of Syracuse University, who encountered him there towards the end of 1971, wrote that Laing,

has virtually broken his bridges with things British and psychiatrical. He is not only doing Theravada Buddhist meditation there—he does it seventeen hours a day, for the past five months. He spent six weeks in a training monastery in Kandubodda, in central Ceylon, and the senior monk there told me that Laing has been doing better, much better, than long-time meditation experts, Singhalese Buddhist as well as foreign.[44]

But Laing was back on the lecture circuit in the United States and Europe in less than a year. In his meditations he had been visited by a vision of a new solution to the problem of the human condition. Adults, he claimed, are haunted throughout their lives by fragmented memories of their own conception, fetal life and birth experiences. He preached a new panacea in the therapeutic ‘rebirthing experience’. Of his own birth he said:

I can remember it happening to me as a body blow, a searing pain, a complete total organismic reflex … which took my breath away before I got my breath, and produced a triple red light … quite suddenly the only status quo I knew was, within seconds—the time it took for the scissors and clamp to sever that connection—abruptly ended … being born was an experience I certainly wouldn’t like to repeat.[45]

Psychiatric theories are subject to changing fashions in social thought, and Laing’s approaches to psychiatric issues have now become decidedly unfashionable. One observer of psychiatric trends, writing in the mid-1990s, had difficulty in understanding why anybody had taken Laing seriously in the first place:

But how, how could intelligent and literate college students, professors, and physicians take such nonsense seriously? It had to be the times. Large public mental hospitals were an abomination. Vietnamese were being bombed into smithereens to ‘free’ them from oppression. Heads of government lied to their peoples cavalierly. Reason had not worked in an age of unreason; perhaps mysticism, raw emotion, transcendental experiences, primal screams, or rebirthing would.[46]

It is true that some of Laing's hyperbole looks very dated now. But this doesn't necessarily reflect adversely on the argument that spiritual/mystical emergency can be mistaken for mental disease. Like all psychiatrists Laing was trained in medicine. He had no substantial training in the history of ideas, comparative religion, anthropology, the philosophy of mysticism, or even the school of hard knocks. Any of these might have better prepared him than  medical psychiatry to understand and describe the meaning of mystical experience when it is mistaken for mental disease.

These deficiencies in training seem to have prevented Laing from making sound rational arguments out of his intuitive insights that could stand the test of time. Even his year of Buddhist training in Sri Lanka seems to have failed quite completely, if it can be judged by the absurd, literal interpretation of the mystical rebirth metaphor that he emerged with. But unlike many psychiatrists dealing with schizophrenics, Laing did have a conscience. And his conscience told him something was seriously wrong with the way that many schizophrenics are treated by psychiatrists.

Laing's difficulties in articulating the meaning of mystical experience is fairly typical of psychiatrists who attempt to do so, though some are more successful than others. The more successful ones often practice under the banner of 'Jungian'. This is somewhat ironic because Jung himself had doubtful notions about the nature of the mystical  problem in schizophrenia.


[33] Carole Angier, ‘R. D. Laing: a divided self’, p. 46.

[34] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p. 112.

[35] Ibid., p. 97.

[36] Gregory Bateson, ed., Perceval’s Narrative. A Patient’s Account of his Psychosis, p. xiii.

[37] Laing, op. cit., p. 103.

[38] Ibid., pp. 104–5.

[39] Ibid., p. 105.

[40] Ibid., p. 106

[41] Ibid., p. 107.

[42] Ibid., p. 117.

[43] Peter Sedgwick, ‘R. D. Laing: self, symptom and society’, p. 41.

[44] Ageha Bharati, ‘Letter to Peter Sedgwick’, November, 1971, reproduced in, in Robert Boyers and Robert Orrill, eds., Laing and Anti-Psychiatry, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972, ibid., p. 46.

[45] Leon Eisenberg, ‘R. D. Laing: a biography, p. 939.

[46] Ibid.