R.D. Laing, ‘The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise’, 1967
In thinking and reflecting on human transformation and the healing work of psychotherapy (in the broadest terms), at least as I have come to know it over the past fourteen years or so, there is no question more pressing or more pertinent than this one, posed rhetorically in the Summer of Love, by the freshly lysergised anti-psychiatric prophet and ontologically unstable heretic, RD Laing.
I have had much cause to consider this fault-line of late, making changes in my own approach to therapeutic practice and the working arrangements that give form to that endeavour*; also in the avid micro-challenges of fathering a rapidly evolving being-of-his-own; or in contemplating the ravening forces of fear and desire as they perplex human activity, collective and individual, seemingly compelling an ever more desperate using up of the World, the Soul, the very Being of being human itself. The multi-fractal mirror of the ten thousand things throws up some alarming shadow play, to be sure – from the internecine divide-and-rule at play in mainstream therapies and the endless debates around their regulation (think of Laing on the early Behaviourist project, speaking of the guys who put the B in CBT – he noted, presciently, that such an approach is “a technique of non-meeting, of manipulation and control” whilst going on to argue, profoundly by today’s standards, that psychotherapy, if it is to mean anything “must remain an obstinate attempt of two people to recover he wholeness of being human through the relationship between them”), to the almost complete and exponential loss of arctic sea ice, or the collapsing arc of the narrative of endless and universal human progress. The snapshot of the moment reveals a collective humanity hunched over in the foetal position, whether through the pathos of its fearful regression, the rising nausea of complicity and shame, or perhaps a recently delivered sharp kick to the groin, otherwise known as hard resource limits.
These are times beyond interesting, perhaps better approached in the manner of Jean Cocteau, who wrote:
“the creative breath comes from a zone of man where man cannot descend, even if Virgil himself were to lead him, for Virgil would not go down there”
He is right about creativity, I attest, that crucible of irrational urgency contradistinct from what Laing named “the hell of frenetic passivity”. We have no idea where comes that animating breath, we respond and create because we must, because not to do so becomes impossible. Laing again:
“From the point of view of a man alienated from his source creation arises from despair and ends in failure. But such a man has not trodden the path to the end of time, to the end of space, the end of darkness and the end of light. He does not know that where it all ends, there it all begins.”
Apart from anything else this is a deft and sanguine response to the suicidal impulse. But it points further, over here, with no Virgil holding our hand, beyond and behind the rational light of Science (and its corpulent stepchild, Scientism) in between turns in the oldest game of all, where Heidegger noticed that ‘The Dreadful has already happened’, here, where we are on our own with what is, is the unrespected grace that deigns to destroy our normality, annihilating, be it only for a second, our piece of the lie. Here in the Zen-time of All-space, where Bankei’s(1) black Tuberculotic phlegm still slowly dribbles down the wall, ‘all things are resolved in the Unborn’. All is very well. We see with all three eyes, in shocking superchromonic precision, that all we took to be data before was merely ‘capta’ (a ‘toxic mimic’ of data, in the ‘language older than words’ as Derrick Jensen shows us) – it told us nothing of nature, but everything about our own processes as performed upon nature – revealing the Maya of our veiled seeing, the ‘protection racket’ of the alienated self, the fundamental repression of Eros – the insight goes by many names. So we come to see how it is true that we are all ‘murderers and prostitutes’ (Laing), and yet who is this ‘I’ or ‘We’ that appears to perceive the insight at all? It can’t be found, but it is profoundly there nonetheless. Are persons possible?
Back in the illusory play of solid appearances known as ‘normal life’, Laing’s operative conclusion for Psychology (and the therapeutics she nurtures) was this:
“The true field of Psychology is ‘inter-experience’ “
Or put another way
“Personal relationship is not only transactional, it is transexperiential and herein is its specific human quality”
Or more poetically
“We are not able even to think adequately about behaviour that is at the annihilating edge.
But what we think is less than what we know:
What we know is less than what we love:
What we love is so much less that what there is.
And to that precise extent we are so much less than what we are”.
These are a lot of words, to which I will add a few more, before silence prevails – silence from which all sound arises, hence the hallmark of the creative in-between. It will come as no surprise to you to state the obvious, we face a crisis, I in my own life and work, you in yours, all of us together in this matrix of light and protein, this amazing balance of life-supporting gases, liquids and solids, energised in loving electro-bio-chemical form. As with all crises, there appears to be a blank and bold choice between polarities – live or die, extinction or prosperity. But this is not true, or is true only within very narrow terms. Roberto Assagioli, founder of Psychosynthesis, in the tradition of Keyserling(2), speaks of polarities or opposites as ‘tensions’ and, critically, goes beyond the Jungian conception of duality as ‘horizontal’ to the’vertical’ axis, the ‘dimension of intensity’. Pursuing his realisation towards a method useful to Psychology, Assagioli sketched a threefold process for ‘resolving polar tensions’ – namely:
i. Fusion of the two poles, involving the neutralization of their charges of energy
ii. Creation of a new being, a new reality
iii. Adjustment of the (originally) opposite poles (by an intermediary centre or principle higher than both)
To flesh this out, one feels the polarities as they exist initially, then evokes a ’middle way’, a point between wherein the amplitude of felt oscillation flattens out. Next emerges a form to that midpoint, a new expression or synthesis, and finally, from this establishing synthetic principle a regulation flows back into the dynamic of the original polarity. Hence, optimism polarises pessimism and is mediated by, on the horizontal axis, practical realism, but on the vertical plane, a sense of enhanced vision of reality, for example. Assagioli represented these triads in diagrams using triangle forms, the opposing polarities in the two bottom corners split by the horizontal midpoint, the point of the triangle representing the higher synthetic element. He gave many examples, such as the polarity of excitement versus depression, horizontally mediated by apathy (or calmness) and synthesised via Serenity. He wrote extensively of the need for individual work, for the shaping of the synthesis to the person, the embedding of resistance and the clear identification of this process as genuinely transformative not an agency of suppression/repression or denial. His is an experiential insight, available to felt experience – and, going back to Laing again for a moment “my psyche is my experience, my experience is my psyche”.
Imagine the moment around 3.9 billion years ago, the Earth’s rich movement toward life is producing complex chemical development but is slowing down, threatening the abundant population of prokaryotic cells (bacteria, algae etc) that derived life-energy by consuming the chemical compounds. A major polarity crisis manifested – threatening an extinction level die-off of these (and all subsequent) forms. Yet, from the Unborn, the Unmanifest, the Creative place – whatever we call it, what actually arose was a defining paradigmatic shift the nature of which effects life as we know it to this moment – you and me very much included. Instead of carrying on with business as usual, or dying off, a few prokaryotes somehow evolved the capacity to capture photons from the abundant sunlight and to metabolise them into food (glucose)(3). Photosynthesis was born. Life continued and diversified unimaginably, and plant life gave rise to an atmosphere populated with enough oxygen to support animal respiration and, eventually, human bodies and their strange little minds. A crisis became a supremely creative junction, a truly incredible leap in life’s capacity for life. And the photosynthesis process gave rise to chlorophyll – the greening of the Earth. Apparently, this fluid derived from seawater, just as our own blood did, indeed just one ion’s difference (from magnesium to iron) separates the chlorophyll in your favourite tree or houseplant from the blood in your very own veins. We really are that close, life is that intimate.
All of which, to me at least, points at the need to remember what the poet David Whyte calls ‘the Conversation’(4), to rejoin with our presence the ongoing flow of awareness. The writer and teacher Stephen Jenksinosn refers to the same conversation with explicit reference to death and dying when he notes ‘good conversation can change a lot of things. Like valleys full of reasons to live, good conversations between people can give you your life. Like all things worth the trouble, good conversations are part intuition part labour; the lion’s share perspiration, the grace note inspiration. In that way they have a proper architecture.’(5) How interesting that all these conversations tend towards the Earth, the land herself. Underneath the artefacts of human culture and even the human contact of relationship, so central and beautiful, there is yet further to deepen. Language brings us metaphors of place, the soil, that individual tree, the connecting tissue of heart to rock to wing, red blood to green chlorophyll. And how much grief have we then to taste, orphaned as we are from our own rootedness, split off from our true indigenous inheritance, divorced by ‘progress’ and our millennial collusions in the traumatic processes of history. In the last analysis, it is loss of our relationship to, our conversation with our land that completes our multi-layered alienation. For example, after contact with white Europeans, native peoples throughout the Americas felt this cycle at first hand – the loss of sovereignty, religion, trade leverage, distinct identity and finally, the land itself – resistance, be it Tecumseh and Prophetstown, Pontiac, King Philip or Pine Ridge (and many celebrated others), inevitably leads back to grieving for the lost land:
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it. It was not hard to see that the white people coveted every inch of land on which we lived. Greed. Humans wanted the last bit of ground which supported Indian feet. It was land – it has ever been land – for which the White man oppresses the Indian and to gain possession of which he commits any crime. Treaties that have been made are vain attempts to save a little of the fatherland, treaties holy to us by the smoke of the pipe – but nothing is holy to the white man. Little by little, with greed and cruelty unsurpassed by the animal, he has taken all. The loaf is gone and now the white man wants the crumbs.” –Luther Standing Bear(6)
Whatever we call it – photosynthesis, psychosynthesis, the primal wound of loss of relationship to place, the return of the repressed – there is a quality indigenous to life that is properly wild and mysterious, like the deep eels of the Sargasso Sea or the untamed whirlpool at the cataract of your dreaming. With that in mind, against the postmodern maelstrom of flattened awareness, our fractured senses of place, in consideration of our many offences against the Lares and Penates of our being, and with the momentary collapse of our alienation into the direct apprehension of single beingness, let us ask again, are persons possible? I conclude that they must be, just as life presents them, as we are, already impossible. The last words go with the ecological writer and educator K Lauren de Boer, enraptured by an autumn leaf:
Echoing Walt Whitman, the American Blake
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”
1 Bankei was a Japanese Rinzai Zen master 1622-1693, who famously attained the awakened state when near death through the TB that was symptomatic of his ascetic striving. According to Adyashanti, Bankei’s exemplar teaching around the Unborn arose out of the exhaustion of his own driven and striving nature. He concluded that “By detaching from those illusions and fixations, neither trying to prevent them nor trying to encourage further thought [...] they will certainly stop of themselves.”
2 Hermann Graf Keyserling, 1880-1946, aristocratic German philosopher of Spirit and founder of the School of Wisdom, he counted CG Jung, Rabindranath Tagore and Herman Hesse, as well as Assagioli, among his friends and supporters
3 Photosynthesis is represented by the generic equation water + carbon dioxide + energy from the sun = glucose + oxygen or H2O + CO2 + energy = C6H12O6 + O2. Chlorophyll appears in a variety of forms, for example, C55H72O5N4Mg whereas blood can be represented generically as C738H1166N812O203S2Fe. Donald Culross Peattie, botanist and author of Flowering Earth, noted in comparing chlorophyll with blood that ‘The one significant difference in the two structural formulas is this: that the hub of every hemoglobin molecule is one atom of iron, while in chlorophyll it is one atom of magnesium. Just as chlorophyll is green because magnesium absorbs all but the green light spectrum, blood is red because iron absorbs all but the red. Chlorophyll is green blood. It is designed to capture light; blood is designed to capture oxygen.’
Astronomer and mathematician Fred Hoyle conjectured that chlorophyll was likely to be an interstellar molecule, pointing out the similarities of its light absorbing properties to interstellar dust.
4 As, for example in his 2003 poem ‘Everything is Waiting for You’ – a hymn to the oneness of the ten thousand things:
Everything is Waiting for You
Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone.
As if life were a progressive and cunning crime with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions.
To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings.
Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array; the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice
You must note the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things to come, the doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you, and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation.
The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink,
the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last.
All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you
David Whyte, Many Rivers Press
5 Stephen Jenkinson, from ‘How it could all be’, part of his Orphan Wisdom teachings; see also the documentary film ‘Griefwalker’, an exploration beyond the ‘death trade’ towards a new culture of intimacy with our mortal edge
6 Luther Standing Bear 1868-1939, (AKA Ota Kte “Plenty Kill” ) Oglala Lakota Chief notable in American history as one of the first Native American authors, educators, philosophers and actors of the 20th century