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Laing's Existential-Humanistic Practice: What Was He Actually Doing? 1

Laing was one of the most celebrated clinicians of his day. At the 1985 Evolution of Psychotherapy conference (sponsored by the Erickson Institute), Laing spotted a disheveled bag lady (whom some would label psychotic) entering the lecture hall. Spontaneously, and in the middle of his talk, he walked over to the woman and began to converse with her. After some time had elapsed, and the woman’s disposition improved, Salvatore Minuchin, a celebrated clinician in his own right, stood up and declared that Laing’s contact with this woman was one of the finest examples of therapy that he had ever witnessed. Throughout Laing’s formidable career, there have been a variety of such testaments to his work. Some of these testaments came from Laing himself and others came from those who witnessed his mastery.

In this talk, I am going to address one overarching question: what was Laing actually doing in these sanctified encounters with clients — and how did he do it so quickly? I will argue that part of what Laing was doing had already been eloquently outlined by existential-humanistic writers; as Laing himself conceded. But I will also argue that Laing brought something unique to existential-humanistic practice, something that had not quite been characterized before, and that has yet to be substantively articulated. Further, I believe that this something is at the frontier, not just of existential-humanistic practice, but all practice that strives toward depth-psychological understanding. It is a seedbed for the future.

Before I begin, I want to enjoin all of you in the search for this "something" that made Laing’s practice unique. As you listen to his commentaries and my own musings, I encourage you to investigate this enigmatic question with me—for it is by no means clear or readily articulated.

Let me begin then by providing some background about Laing’s debt to existential-humanism. Next, I will elaborate on the "something" to which I earlier alluded, drawing on case illustrations from his practice.

Laing’s debt to existential-humanism is clear, it seems to me, from the outset. Beginning with The Divided Self (1960/1969) and extending throughout his entire intellectual corpus, Laing’s focus has been on 1) the whole human being as opposed to part-processes; 2) the human being in his particular world or life-context; and 3) the human being in relation to existence or creation. For me, one of the most stirring illustrations of Laing’s existential-humanistic focus is his vase/face illusion at the beginning of The Divided Self. With this illusion, Laing brilliantly elucidates the angles or stances from which two or more people can be perceived. Depending on how one views the illusion, for example, one may either perceive a vase or two opposing faces. Likewise, depending on how one views the gestalt of a human relationship, as Laing (1969) elaborates, one may see a DSM category, a neurochemistry system, an information processing machine, a cauldron of instinctual drives, or a dynamic, evolving person. Put another way, one may experience another as an object ("vase") or a subject ("face"), with all attendant implications. Let us consider these implications, for they are subtler than they at first appear. What does it really mean to take in another’s face, for two people to really "face" one another? Have you genuinely opened to another’s face of late? I have tried to do this more and more consciously since being inspired by Laing’s analogy, and I have been daunted by what I’ve discovered. Like the eyes, the face is a window on the world and perhaps being itself. It is no accident that Emmanuel Levinas (Valevicius, 1988) chose the face as his touchstone for moral decision-making, for right action. If you can fully take in another’s face, you are virtually forced to be discerning in your response to her. For me, the face not only encompasses one’s personal experience, but opens out into the vast reaches of time, space, and creation; it is the mirror to all that we absorb. For Laing, to witness another’s face and indeed being is a metaphysical exercise. (The smile, Laing (1969, p. 31 ) remarked, is more than the "contraction of the circumoral muscles.") To face another is to radically open up to possibility, as well as to dread. Further, Laing’s metaphor deftly assists us to see the interconnection between those who are so-called psychotic and those labeled normal; for if you genuinely open to the psychotic, you also open in some sense to the anxieties and possibilities in all of us, in the human condition. You open to the girl, for example, who feared that an A-Bomb was ticking inside her; or to the patient who "feels crushed…even at the exchanges of ordinary conversation" (Laing, 1960/1969, pp. 12,163). The face opens to worlds beyond worlds, layers beyond layers of history, mystery, and even cosmology. In the face, Laing intimates, one can perceive the minutest impacts of family, culture, and biology; at the same time, one can perceive the primordial forces of the universe at play—such as engulfment, impingement; chaos and obliteration.

Laing’s chief therapeutic concern it seems to me (and others at this forum) was honesty—honesty in communicating, honesty in understanding, and honesty in healing. Laing’s honesty was directly tied to his employment of phenomenology—or fidelity to experience as lived. Laing was open to and highly encouraged, maximal disclosure of experience. As he noted in one of his lectures, his aim was to help people into their existence, to help them be themselves. At the same time, Laing was not casual in his promotion of this philosophy. He stretched the limits to be sure, but his approach was highly nuanced.

Integrative Vision

Laing’s therapeutic vision was integrative. Parallel to the Eastern notion of the Great Chain of Being, Laing conceived of human experience as a series of levels or domains. Among them: the biological, cognitive, sexual, interpersonal, and spiritual. How is the past connected with a person’s current suffering, Laing (1985) would inquire: "Is it [related to] what was going on before [the person] came into the room…? Is it [related to] events that have been going on for a number of years? Does it go back to childhood? Does it go back to birth? Does it go back to conception? Does it go back to before incarnation? Does it go back to before conception and one’s last death? Does it go back to past lifetimes?"

Laing’s question then was an ultra radical one: where in this wheel of existence as he called it, is the person stuck and how could one gain access to that "stuck place." In order to stay maximally open to any experience that a person might relate to him, Laing cultivated that which he termed therapeutic suspension. By suspending both belief and disbelief—and by sustaining a disciplined naivete--Laing was able to facilitate completely unanticipated discoveries, meanings, and resources within his clients.

Conditions for Change

Presence was one of the chief means by which Laing fostered honesty (or authenticity). Ironically, however, one is hard-pressed to find the term "presence" in Laing’s lexicon—perhaps because he felt it was overused. On the other hand, he used a variety of eloquent expressions to convey the essence of presence---one of these was attunement (or "at-onement," as he put it). One of the first things Laing (1985) did when he sat before a client was to attune to (or "scan") their interrelationship. What is the feel, tone, and atmosphere of this interrelation, he would in effect ask, and how can one best address this feel, tone, and atmosphere? Further, and as suggested earlier he would inquire, how can one find the "opening," the "chink in the armor" that can access this person? Laing distinguished between intuition, which in his view sprung from the larger (transpersonal) self, and technical judgment, which emanated from one’s ego. Whereas intuition was relatively sweeping and direct, the ego, for Laing (1985) was a kind of "autohallucination," as he put it; highly limited for his purposes.

One of the keys to Laing’s cultivation of intuition was courage. In stark contrast to this courage was that which Laing (1985) termed "psychophobia"—fear of the mind. While he prided himself on lacking the former quality, however--particularly with the severely disturbed--there were humorous exceptions to this rule. For example, Laing (1985) tells the story of an Olympic weightlifter who came to see him for therapy following a fit of anger in which he had slammed his fist through a door. Laing took one look at the man and sheepishly referred him to "a good therapist down the street." On the whole, however, Laing viewed the medically distancing practices of conventional psychiatry as psychophobic in the extreme. One of the worst fears, Laing (1985) elaborated, was the fear of human beings; and few places is this fear more evident than in mental hospitals. For me, this remark echoes Laing’s commentary on the vase/face illusion. As suggested earlier, faces are terrifying reminders of our "Selves," in the larger sense, of our own awesomeness. To the extent we take our interconnectedness seriously, Laing elucidates, we cannot help but realize how vast it all is, and how untenable our petty notions of normalcy, truth, or health. Even the Great Chain of Being must be questioned intimates Laing, as it is hardly comforting—radically amazing perhaps--but not necessarily consoling.

Now I’d like to provide a couple vignettes that eloquently capture Laing’s approach. Following these descriptions, I’d like you to enjoin me in exploring the question, "what the hell is Laing doing with these clients?" Laing:

I remember one occasion with a girl of seven years old. She was brought along by her father because she had stopped talking. He brought her into my room and he left. She sat on the floor, crossed her legs, and just sat there—not particularly withdrawn but certainly not looking as though she was interested to play or to have any conversation. She sat there like a sort of miniature Buddha, and I was sitting in my chair and I couldn’t imagine how I might get to her. I asked if she’d like to talk and she had nothing to say. So I got off my chair and sat there on the floor in front of her. There was no plan that I worked out. She allowed me to touch the tip of her little finger with the tip of mine and gradually allowed me to touch the tips of [all] her fingers with the tips of mine. And I shut my eyes.

I had a flash when I did that…a pang…of anxiety that she might do something to my face. Maybe I was picking up something from the tips of her fingers, but it went away. And I allowed myself to become completely absorbed in the kinesthetic sensations at the tips of her ten fingers. And for something like forty minutes or so, nothing [happened] except a gradually developing movement/dance with the tips of her fingers…It became absolutely imperative that I not lose touch with the tips of any of her little fingers. And I imagine it began to feel as important to her as it did to me. After about forty minutes, I opened my eyes and as I opened my eyes I found her eyes opening just at the same moment, without a word having been spoken. So we withdrew our fingers from each other, and went back to my chair. I said to her, bring your dad along now if that’s all right with you, and she nodded.

He told me later [that] as he was walking along the road with her towards his car he turned to her and said, "what went on between you and Dr. Laing?" She turned to him and said, "it’s none of your business!" And these are the first words she had spoken in about two months! (Laing, 1985)

Laing (1985) goes on to describe a similar case of a 19 year-old woman in the grip of catatonia. She would drink her coffee in the morning, Laing reported, and come to a stop. She would freely walk about and freeze up. Eventually, she became so panic-stricken that she lapsed into hours of paralysis. Laing had one session with her which he described as an "interpersonal meditation." He further described the sensation of being suspended in time and space with her. Soon after that session, Laing reported, the woman did something very smart: she took a job as an artist’s model and in effect "marketed her catatonia." But beyond this cleverness, he elaborated, she was gradually able to move normally again.

Laing’s "stances": A preliminary sketch

What then, are we to make of these vignettes? First of all, they are at the very least remarkable if true. Second of all, they are rife with potential interpretations, a few of which I shall offer momentarily. Before I do this, however, I wish to be clear about one point: in no way do I intend to formalize that which is unique, spontaneous, and ineffable in Laing’s style—these are sacrosanct. That which I do seek, on the other hand, is to derive some general principles from Laing’s approach that may assist others, in their own unique contexts, to become commensurately inspired.

My reading of Laing’s healing, then, rests on the provision of three basic conditions or stances—presence, invoking the actual, and vivifying resistance (Schneider & May, 1995, Schneider, 1998). Presence refers to Laing’s capacity to hold and illuminate that which is palpably (immediately, affectively, kinesthetically, and profoundly) relevant within his clients and between himself and his clients. Invoking the actual refers to Laing’s capacity to assist his clients into that which is palpably relevant (or charged) as a conduit to their liberation. Finally, vivifying resistance pertains to Laing’s capacity to assist his clients to overcome the blocks to that which is palpably relevant.

Let me elaborate this perspective in the context of Laing’s work with the seven-year-old mute girl. This girl, it seems to me, was both terrified and eager at some level to break out of her shell. Probably owing to past trauma, her entire world was designed to constrict, petrify, and deaden; and conversely, to keep her from venturing out, taking a risk, and declaring herself. Both literally and figuratively, her world had silenced her. Laing, on the other hand, was able to provide conditions or stances through which she could come into herself, into her voice. Through presence (holding and illuminating that which was charged), Laing was able to connect with her and contain her struggle, and she, in turn, felt safer to explore herself; by invoking the actual (reaching out with his hands) he was able to invite her to embody that which was emerging (e.g., risk, courage, connection); and by vivifying or silently bringing her attention to that which blocked her emergence (e.g., fear), Laing was able to catalyze her will to overcome that blockage. Another way to frame this formulation is that Laing held up a series of mirrors to his client. The mirrors of presence and invoking the actual helped the girl to perceive that which was emerging in her (e.g., the yearning to expand, assert, and declare herself); whereas the mirror of resistance helped her to perceive (reassess, overcome) that which hindered her from emerging. Taken together, these mirrors enabled the girl to survey her "battle" (that which was emerging vs. that which was blocked), sort out the stakes in that battle, and risk the decision to overcome that battle. Her rebuke of her father in the aftermath of therapy was a natural consequence of her self-realization.

I think it is no accident that Laing (1985) looked to ancient methods of healing to describe his work—very little that is modern seems parallel. Laing, for example, equates his approach with that of ancient Greek physicians who utilized an "incubatorium" to minister to the sick. The incubatorium, according to Laing, was literally a snakepit in which the ailing were immersed. The ailing person would receive a message from the gods, so the story goes, and convey that message to an overseeing priest who would administer the treatment. Laing also equates his work with an ancient Hebrew sect called the therapeutae (from which the term therapy is derived). This sect, according to Laing, cultivated the high art of attention or presence as a healing practice.

What then are we to make of Laing’s analogies to incubatoria and therapeutae, to meditations, and suspensions of space-time? I think what we are witnessing here is a prophetic call to a future therapeutic age. In this future age, the therapy of the day will be hardly recognizable by today’s standards, yet may be a lot closer to the esoteric healing standards of ages past. I would go so far as to say that the therapy of tomorrow will be an "energetic" therapy. Instead of relying on the overt or the categorical, such a therapy will emphasize the preverbal/kinesthetic field within which the participants interact. That the "New Physics" (e.g., Rupert Sheldrake’s "morphogenetic fields" and David Bohm’s "implicate order") echoes this visionary direction is no accident. For each of these perspectives—including Laing’s--converges on mutually influencing energies, non-local resonances, and "field" harmonics (Feinstein, 1998).

One last note, for those who are skeptical of Laing’s claims—and there is reason for such skepticism--Loren Mosher, a former Laing associate, has conducted a series of investigations of Laing style sanctuaries. In his investigation of Soteria House, for example, he found that at two years, the outcomes were "in no way worse…and on many measures better than" those for a conventional psychiatric hospital (Mosher, 1997, p. 5; see also Mosher & Menn, 1978; Mosher, Vallone, & Menn, 1995). Specifically, the Soteria data revealed that patients had "fewer readmissions, less outpatient care, better jobs, left home more often, and had far less medication" than their conventional patient counterparts (Mosher, 3/7/99, personal communication). This data provides much to ponder, it seems to me, in this "decade of the brain;" and much to consider about the politics that is driving the science.

So where does this leave us a decade after Laing’s death? With a psychonaut, a pioneer, a startling new horizon.

© Kirk J. Schneider
Presented at the R.D. Laing Symposium
March 14th 1999, San Francisco, CA

Note: This talk was adapted into an article that appeared in The Psychoanalytic Review, 87, (4), August, 2000. All Rights are Reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced without the expressed permission of the author

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