Shamanism, Healing and R. D. Laing

Francis Huxley

Times do change. Fancy being asked to speak on the subject of shamanism, healing and R. D. Laing – of Laing, who was not a shaman but a psychiatrist, and here, under the auspices of what he took to be the House of Rimmon, the temple of anti-psychiatry, where he figured as the antipsychiatrist in person. I might not have so readily agreed to had not Laing once told me that, when invited to meet the Pope, he refused because, he said, he’d never live it down if he did – but now that he’d missed the chance, he hardly knew how to live that down either.

I am, as our chairman has told you, a social anthropologist, and before I met Laing I had the chance to live with a Brazilian tribe and learn about shamans and cannibalism, amongst other things; to have worked in an overcrowded Canadian mental hospital; to have taken an ethnopsychiatric look at vaudoun in Haiti, to have been intimate with a Brazilian practitioner who, though he came out of a possession cult, was shamanising as a solo act, etcetera etcetera etcetera, as Laing was wont to say.

Such are my credentials for speaking as I do, as they were for Laing when he invited me to join the Philadelphia Association. They also give me reason to ask why shamanism should be relevant when speaking of Laing, sexy word though it is these days. For Laing was not a shaman. It wasn’t his style – he didn’t beat drums, shake rattles, brandish crystals, blow tobacco smoke on his clients and make a show of sucking out the nasties. He didn’t invoke his guiding spirit with songs and then fall into eptileptoid fits; nor did he eat burning coals, slit his .belly open, ventriloquise, get into sorcery or divination. He prescribed no remedies, did no conjuring tricks, did not hurl magic darts on the sly.

Nor was he a possession priest, of a cult such as vaudoun, candomble, makumba, umbanda, or spiritismo These are Haitian and Brazilian forms of African possession cults, and their initiates go all the way from being conventionally normal to unconventionally abnormal, sometimes with a vengeance. I found much of interest in these cults, such as their method of diagnosing an illness in terms of their client’s daimon, his native character, rather than in those typifying the disorder per se. They do this by discerning which of a pantheon of loa, of gods and spirits, is the ruling spirit of their clients, and by initiating them into the mysteries of possession by that particular loa, manage to expel those others that have arbitrarily installed themselves in their clients’ psychic economy and so take over the direction of their lives.

The effectiveness of this highly ritualised approach may be gauged by what happened when a Haitian troupe put on vaudoun ceremonies in France some forty years ago. Quite a few spectators were then possessed by the relevant loa of the ritual moment even though the audience was entirely unfamiliar with such goings-on. (Maya Deren, in The Divine Horsemen, reported a more complex experience of this kind that happened to herself.) A sociologist who had witnessed the affair discovered that those possessed had all been under some form of therapeutic treatment, and that after their possession they felt so much saner that, for a year, none of them had found cause to return to medical forms of relief.

But Laing was not a possession priest any more than he was a shaman. Could you call him a nabi? Nabi is the Hebrew word the Bible translates as prophet (which Laing certainly was, in his own way) – those who speak vehemently in God’s name, calling for repentance, admonishing the ungodly, and being consulted by kings about politics. They also heal: Elisha, for example, cured Naaman the Syrian of leprosy, who then declared he now believed there was no God except that of Israel, and asked forgiveness if he had to accompany his king into the House of Rimmon and there bow. (Go in peace, Elisha told him.). Nabis of this kind are now defunct in Israel, though according to Margaret Field, in Search for Security, they flourish in Ghana as possession priests, diviners, magicians, healers and exorcists.

But are such latter-day nabis nabis proper? For that matter, what distinguishes them from shamans? Mircea Eliade, when discussing shamanism, defined that vocation as the ability to keep self-witness when taken by a fit of inspiration, and set it apart from possession cults in which self-witness is lost. There are so many exceptions to this rule in both camps, however, as to make it nugatory. Even in the heartland of shamanism proper, most shamans are possessed by their spirits – mounted by them, Haitians would say – before being able to ride them: while in vaudoun the final stage of initiation, which authorises a servitor to set up a temple and control its activities, is known as la prise des yeux the taking hold of the eyes. This is a state in which, for all the nearly intolerable turmoil occasioned by a full inspirational upsurge*, the privileged victims are able to retain self-witness. Such being the case, it is best to recast the question in terms of the inspirational fit and the different theatres of action in which it displays itself, the difficulty of retaining self-witness being the same whatever the style adopted.

[* This upsurge affects the inner ear and hence the postural reflexes it coordinates. The sense of balance being the first to go, it is soon followed by failure to control the movements of the limbs, also those of the eyes, which then roll upwards; meanwhile, notable changes occur in breathing and heart-beat. Following this large-scale dissociation, the loa responsible for the upsurge can then invest the locus of self-witness with their own characteristics.]

There is yet one mark by which a nabi proper may be distinguished from one half-made or merely pretending, as there is with a shaman or a possession priest, this being what, in the Bible, is called the discernment of spirits – an instant recognition of what afflicts a client, together with the ability to get to the heart of the matter on the spur of the moment. True, the gift is not restricted to them, as I hardly need remind you: I have known a doctor who could diagnose at twenty paces, as well as a philosopher, a painter, a novelist, a psychotherapist or two of various persuasions, a garage mechanic, a priest and of course Laing himself, who could do as much. All the same, it is an arduous task to perfect this gift, for though it is native to us all it is commonly repressed – with some reason, for it goes to that place where the sense of one’s self is permeated by the sense of others, often to one’s confusion.

What then is the nature of self-witness? I take it that Coleridge was speaking to this point when he said that the organs of spiritual sense were consubstantial with their objects – a profound remark from a man who evidently knew as much by direct experience. And so was it with Coventry Patmore when he declared love to be

“that marvelous state in which each of two persons in distinct bodies perceives sensibly all that the other feels in regard to him or herself, although their feelings are of the most opposite characteristics. “

One cannot say as much, unfortunately, for Levy-Bruhl, whose writings on mystical participation suffer accordingly or, for that matter, for modern physicists who hold, without even appealing to Heisenberg, that if two particles are identical in their behaviour, they may safely be counted as one.

As much to the point is the sense of being what one perceives during nightmares. I mention nightmare for its close association with possession states, as the literature on the subject makes clear, while folklore records the saving grace of such an experience by advising the sufferer to take a nightmare by its toe, when it will transform into a voluptuous moment. This, along with what Coleridge and Patmore have declared, tells us that the two-fold sense of consubtantial mutuality is also the breeding ground of personifications, and raises the problem of how to deal with them when they get out of hand.

Here then is what I take to be the actual subject I have been asked to speak upon today, a subject who natural focus is an I-Thou moment – this being when two-fold sense meets two-fold sense – whose energetics are well characterised in Jacob Boehme’s words “the being of beings is a wrestling power”.

Every shaman I have met, and every member of a possession cult, would agree that such is the case: as of course Laing would have, along with many another whatever their vocation. For shamanism is a vocation – the utmost of vocations – in that its practitioners are called to it. much as they might wish to avoid that laborious, painful and alienating destiny. How should it not be, when they first hear its voice in a nightmare, into which they again fall should they cease to shamanise, as happened to Jonah – Jonah the scapegoat? Or, if you prefer, the wounded healer.

I take it meanwhile that the awakening of the two-fold sense to its own existence is part and parcel of initiation in general, an event that is usually staged at puberty as a horror story accompanied by painful moments of every kind, with a view to awaken the young to their place in the scheme of things. However, quite a number of people wake up to this their self-witness at a much earlier age – Eileen Garret, who had once been Conan Doyle’s trance-medium, told me that she woken up in this fashion when, at the age of four, she was harshly reprimanded by her parents for telling them of an event she thought natural but which they regarded as supernaturally disrespectful even to mention. Mid-life crises may also provide the occasion for such awakenings

What has been called the shamanic illness usually strikes around puberty, but by no means always, and takes much the same form whatever the diagnosis according to Western custom. Epilepsy was, for a time, a favourite diagnosis, soon to be followed by arctic hysteria, which under other names was recognised by tribal peoples whose women-folk were especially prone to it – brought on by those long sunless winters, and blizzards in which, the Inuit say, one can hear the spirits of the dead howling their recriminations. Knut Rasmussen, that best of past ethnographers, tells of how they countered this dismal affect when he and a party of Inuit were caught in just such a blizzard After slogging through it for terrible hours, they found shelter in the ruins of a summer dwelling. Rasmussen collapsed behind a wall, but not so his companions – to his amazed vexation, they set about making themselves snug, they talked, they laughed, they sang – “How can you be singing after all we’ve gone through?” he at last inquired. “Ah,” said one of them,” if we weren’t happy, we would die.” This was also Laing’s view: he not only extolled the virtues of conviviality but made a point of setting it in motion by getting people to sing Noel Coward songs, or Victorian ones such as “O for the wings of a dove” or ‘The Lost Chord’, while accompanying them on the piano – though I admit .there were other times when he was in such an unconvivial mood, his companions were afflicted with hesitation and gloom. He rather enjoyed such moments, I suspect, for the insights they gave him into what happens to a group when deprived of an agenda – a practice in which W. R. Bion excelled by remaining steadfastly unconvivial whatever the mood of his group.

Then there’s tropical hysteria – that is, latah – for which quite another explanation must be found; there’s the effects of traumatic shock, as when an Inuit had his kayak overturned by an enraged walrus, that tusked him through the lungs – his companions saw him to the shore of ice, built him an igloo and left him there for days without dressing his wounds, lighting an oil-lamp or providing him with food, and that’s how he became an angekok, a shaman. And then there are shamans that have been diagnosed as schizothymic, schizophrenic, idiopathic-paranoiac, etcetera etcetera, who have recovered some if not all of their senses by undergoing the classical shamanic experience of being dismembered, tormented, and remade with iron bones or rock-crystals stolen from the sky, with one, two, even seven bones left over which represent new and special powers – powers which, alas, have to be paid for indirectly with the life of one of the shaman’s immediate family. (Such things happen closer to home: see Laing’s writings on the family.)

Having now sketched this outline of what it is to be a shaman I may now bring in R. D. Laing on his own count. For though he was a psychiatrist and not a shaman, I must now so far contradict myself as to hold that he yet had a shamanic temperament. I don’t suppose this to be all that different from the creative temperament whether it be artistic or scientific – a notable instance of this last being Testa, the ipsissimus of electricity – or psychologic, as exemplified by C. G. Jung in self, both of whom have left accounts of their awakening to its existence. I don’t know when Laing woke up in like vein – fairly early I suppose, I never heard ¬though I do know under whose patronage he may be said to have done so, for he told me. He had just come back from lona, and paid me an unexpected visit. I gave him a drink: he stood with an elbow on the mantel-piece and after a companionable silence told me he was, as it were, a reincarnation of St Odran, whose legend he started to tell me. He did so with such stumbles and rollings-up of the eyes, I thought to save him the trouble of switching on his memory by looking into the top of his head – “But I’ve just come across the story myself,” I broke in, found the book – Ten Thousand Saints, a study of Irish and European origins by Hubert Butler – turned to the page, and read the précis of the legend aloud:

St Odran was a famous saint of lona. It is said that St Columba, finding that demons were infesting a site [where he wished to build a chapel – St Odran’s chapel, it is now called], discovered that only by burying a holy man alive could they be exorcised. St Odran volunteered but after three days Columba decided to dig him up again for news of Heaven. St Odran, on being uncovered, instead of giving suitable information said, “There is no wonder in Death, and Hell is not as it is reported” Thereupon Columba cried out furiously: “Earth, earth upon the mouth of Odran that he may blab no more!” And he was covered up again.

Laing heard me out with an approving smile, which I thought friendly of him, and then said that Odran must have been a priest of the Irish goddess before his conversion to Christianity. by which he had hoped to escape her attentions. (She is the Morrigan, mother of all, demons included, and the vengeant queen of love in death). There was no need for me to do more than smile in my turn, though not without a sigh.

Earth, earth, upon the mouth of Laing that he should blab no more about there being no wonder in psychiatry, and that schizophrenia is not as it is reported. But I only learnt the context of this revelation at his funeral, when the Reverend Donald Macdonald mounted the pulpit to give the oration. He told of Laing’s visit to lona, their meeting, their hot tempered quarrelling over religious matters, and the fight they got into before Laing submitted himself to the authority of the Church of Scotland – in proof of which he took a blood-stained prayer-book from his pocket, and held it above his head. The gesture was as eloquent as the words the Duke of dark corners spoke to the miserable Claudio in Measure for Measure.

Be absolute for death – death or life

Shall thereby be the sweeter

– words I am sure Laing would have approved of when he came to require this unconditionality of himself. He was then trusting his inspiration without second thought, as he had not quite been doing when it had been his wont to say “I don’t even trust my own judgment unless I have to”.

The being of beings is indeed a wrestling power, and in meeting it Laing had the advantage of being something of a Glaswegian brawler. How he liked fighting and putting himself to physical test, if it was only playing rugby when he was young – this in spite of all his piano teacher said against it, for sure enough someone stepped on his hand and broke some bones – not ruinously (for he was as deft in playing night-club music as that of Bach, where I most admired his talent) but enough to scotch any idea that he could make a career of it.

Instead he took to psychiatry as a profession, and as his shamanic temperament no doubt played a part in this choice, a brief word about its nature is due. He had no quarrel with his father, who was a professional singer, but with his mother, he once told me. Was she perhaps, he wondered, Jewish – that would explain why, when he was a child, she kept his cup, saucer, plate and cutlery apart, with repeated injunctions to his father not to touch. (But touch he would on occasion, with a mocking smile.) She also insisted on giving him his bath till he was of an age to lock the door against her, and for all her hammerings, kicks and screams of rage, she had to own defeat. Much later he heard from someone in the family that she had made a doll in his name and was sticking pins in it. On his next visit he asked her about that. A short silence, and then “We don’t talk about such things”, she replied.

And there was that further time, quite early on, when his father gave her a present on her birthday. Never before had he known his father to give her anything on any occasion, but there it was – a small box neatly wrapped, tied with a ribbon. She looked at it for a while, then slowly unknotted the ribbon, unwrapped the paper, took the lid off, removed a layer of cotton wool, and what should she see but the clippings of ten finger-nails and ten toe-nails in orderly array. Not a word said she, not a glance she gave to her husband, but rose from her chair and left the room, leaving an ominous silence behind her.

I heard this story years after I had ventured to give him a Christmas present. He showed me into his study, which I hadn’t seen before, and was much impressed by the dark green of its walls in whose shade the most lonely could feel at home with the Alone, even in company. Laing unwrapped the small bronze Buddha hand that I had brought – he was then practising meditation – and when it lay open to his gaze I became acutely aware of the pugnacious wings of his nose and the scorn-lines that ran down from them. Then, after a moment’s thought, he got up from his chair, opened a cupboard, reached in and came out with a sword stick, which he negligently handed to me.

It was a dreadful object, ugly, heavy, and unwieldy both as a stick and a sword; the handle was perfunctory, and the wood of the scabbard¬-stick worm-holed to breaking point. A real old-time blackguard’s weapon it was, and I could just see him as a young man buying it in a Glasgow junk shop and keeping it until the telling moment arrived to rid himself of it at another’s expense. As I accepted this dubious comment on myself, delivered as it was in the confines of his dark green room, I began to wonder what he thought I had thought I was doing in giving him a present.

He told me as much twenty years later, when I came with another gift for his last child, then just born. Again he bridled with distaste, remembering how our mutual friend Joan Westcott, an anthropologist who for a time had been his secretary, had once given him a crucifix made of rifle bullets with a tin Jesus soldered to it, First World War vintage. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the object, for it was on his mantelpiece for years, but that Joan, noticing his discomfort, lectured him on the anthropology of the gift, of how it created a web of social relationships by putting the recipient under an obligation to give something back. “An obligation'” he repeated with horror.

To give is indeed a two-faced operation, for the same word does duty, in its various cognates, for giving, having, receiving and taking; while in German, das Gift means poison. It may rightly stand, therefore, as epitomising the double bind, such as makes a divided self of its victim. Laing got the term from Gregory Bateson, who had arrived at it after lengthily wrestling with a ceremony of role reversal, Naven by name, practised by a tribe in New Guinea: a knotty problem involving several forms of two-fold sense. Meanwhile Laing got the idea of a knot from a Sufi poem, and his book of Knots shows him at his minimalist best, though it does not include the most heart-rending of these sickest of jokes. This, which in his later years I often heard him repeat with heroic despair, represents – so Jutta Laing has told me – an interchange he had with his mother at an early age. It goes like this ¬

Do you love me?


Do you believe me?


How can you love me if you believe me?

I am sorry to say that The Lies of Love, his last book, is still unpublished, for those who have read it tell me they were much engaged by its disturbing reports of similar interchanges. Laing indeed detested lies above all things, and would go out of his way to demolish liars. Nor did he ever forget his bafflement when a couple came to see him with such contradictory and yet persuasive stories that he was unable to determine which of the two was lying about what, such a mare’s nest had they made for themselves to lie in together.

There were also times when Laing found himself in yet deeper and darker waters, which involved not just double binds – spells, an anthropologist might well call them – but curses. One instance, of which he published a brief account, had to do with a woman who cursed her son to the seventh generation so successfully that four generations later his sole descendant realised he would also be the last. He had made every effort to free himself from his fate but, he said, it was like one of those Russian dolls that had smaller ones inside, all of which he could deal with, but the innermost – entirely beyond appeal – was the mother still mouthing her implacable curse.

I have known of curses being removed by vaudouists, as long as the curser was still alive, but not when the curse had renewed itself over successive generations. A Tibetan exorcist might, from the little I know of such practitioners, have done better, though the wrestling power involved is beyond my comprehension, and by all accounts takes so much out of an exorcist that such men usually die in their thirties. Laing’s nearest approach to such a feat that I know of concerned one of the first, most chronic inhabitants of a P.A, household, David by name, who had just returned from hospital in a high state of mania. Laing gave him what I once heard him call his undivided attention (“No thanks” was Andrew Feldmar’s response when offered it, ha ha, as a birthday present). He did this silently and without looking at him, so well that David soon fell silent; Laing then told the others present what he had done, whereupon David took flight again. Laing once more set himself to attend, again David fell silent. What he had done, he later told me, was to take David’s frenzy and contain it in himself. But the effect on him was so great that, when he left soon after to drive himself home, he collapsed in the car from the strain. David, meanwhile, was back in high-speed mania.

This same David spoke a rapid and advanced form of schizophrenese which, exhausting though it was to attend to, Laing said he sometimes could understand, much as shamans know the language of the birds. Less sophisticated cases gave him no trouble, nor did the wooden dumbness so often met with in divided selves under interrogation. In Haiti, as I have recounted in The Invisibles, this affliction is held to be the work of a loa called Great Tree, and is dealt with by the usual method of ritual’ incubation. Laing needed much less time, as witness a video made during his appearance at a Milton Erickson conference, he having offered to have a normal conversation, in public, with anyone diagnosed as schizophrenic, deemed intractable, and not under medication. Introduced to a homeless woman who fitted this bill, he so engaged her attention that after an hour she agreed to continue the conversation before a large audience, which she did with aplomb. Laing said that he had no technique in achieving this result: it was, he insisted, the result of empathy in the service of copresence – the state of mind I have already alluded to by way of my quotations from Coleridge and Coventry Patmore.

But an ability to empathise can be perilous. I met him one morning looking ghastly – ghastly was a word frequently on his lips at the time and yes, he said, that’s how it was with him, he’d woken up from a dream in which he’d been a rat in a Hong Kong sewer. He was in much the same state at one of the weekly P.A. meetings, which I will give a brief account of, if only in order to give you an idea “of what I mean by a shamanic temperament. Instead of getting on with the agenda, Laing asked if we would help him, for he was in a peculiar state: he felt like exploding and breaking the furniture. As it was, he was filled with this dire impulse down to his feet, which he wiggled for the next hour to free them from cramp.

Knowing something of that state, I offered to give his feet a massage by way of emergency treatment, which he indignantly refused – just as well, he might have kicked my teeth in had I tried. Hugh Crawford then offered to put him through a formal inquisition, which Laing accepted by sliding off his chair onto the floor. First question: What brought it on? Laing replied that he’d just returned from Rome (this was the time when he’d refused to meet the Pope) and he and an Israeli doctor who like himself had a consuming interest in (here his voice faltered) fetuses, were sharing a bottle in a hotel bar. The doctor remarked: “Look at that woman, she’s a coca-cola woman”. Laing looked up, took her in at a glance and went off to vomit.

“Why”, he asked of no one in particular, “do! take all this in? It lodges in my throat like a vampire.” He was, he said, exsanguinated by it all, it must be because his umbilical cord had been cut as soon as he was born, much too early, his mother having already dissociated herself from his existence.

“That’s a condensation,” Crawford said. Laing ignored him, and with tears streaming down his cheeks told of the conflict raging between his two hemispheres. “I feel both of them,” he said, “they alternate, I’ve seen them in detail in myself.” A heterodyne effect, Crawford remarked. Yes, but what was it about? Laing gave the answer: it had to do with an incorrigible evil in himself, that waited on the incorrigible necessities of life in general.

“Regard the condensation” Crawford continued. Laing obliged, adding that he could go on like this for months, he knew it all. Crawford persisted until, grateful though I was to have heard what Laing confided to us while under this interrogation, I lost patience and attacked Crawford ad rem. Leaving the fetal issue to look after itself, I asked if he didn’t recognise a mild case of shamanic disorder when he saw it – the moment when the gear-box is seized up, and one can’t shift either up or down – or know how to restimulate the works without further recourse to analytic procedure?

Crawford feigned not to understand – “You speak air,” he told me. Laing broke in: “I breathe with my brain,” he said, “I learnt to do that in order not to die during an asthma attack.” * Crawford: “That’s a metaphor. You breathe with your lungs.” This scientistic remark infuriated me: I got on his case Once more, and so we slanged each other for a time. Energised by this brawl, Laing soon joined in to slang Crawford on his own terms. He was now back in his chair with his gear-box unjammed, his hemispheres having found a common axis with his witness and spinning like a top. But what was his incorrigible evil, then asked Leon Redler. “Callousness”, he replied, after a brief pause, and enlarged on that topic for a while. He was himself again.

[* One of Laing’s party pieces was a choke-by-choke rendition of this nightmarish malady, from which St Odran preserve us. Since Laing was sometimes accused of being schizophrenic, it is of interest that Dr Humphry Osmond, coiner of the word psychedelic, long ago observed that asthmatics find their breathing restored should they develop symptoms of schizophrenia, though when relieved of those symptoms they revert to the asthmatic mode. What is known of the physiology here involved suggests that those who wrestle with these and other double binds can indeed save their day by learning to breathe with their brains, a meditative practice of long standing.]

Yes, Laing could be callous, and often was. It was, at best, part of his armementarium against coca-cola women and the like; at worst, brutal – but then, we all have our little problems, do we not, complete with their own thick skins. Better to return to this account of a mild shamanic disorder by saying how much my contribution owed to that Brazilian I spoke of earlier, whose ability to shift gear caught my attention when I first met him. This was just before one of his shamanic performances, when he was so self-absorbed I thought him autistic – an opinion that what he later told me of his childhood did something to confirm, as did his successful treatment of autistic children. (Here then may be another diagnostic category by which to understand the shamanic crisis.) But he had discovered how to move in and out of this self-preoccupation: he went into first gear, if somewhat reluctantly, when I introduced myself to him, then into second when an attractive woman joined in, and into third when it was time for him to start his act. Then the spirit of the late emperor Nero (one of many that attended him) came into him and up he rose, like a spring, his face transformed, to work the audience and attend to his victim-patient – and he had a fourth gear ready for those moments when, having gone as far as he knew by himself, Messalina would animate his place of self-witness at his expense, to do the necessary in a flash. But the great difference between him and Laing was that J never saw Laing lose self-witness let alone indulge in such histrionics, even though he did acknowledge that some of his best moments were inspired by a clearheaded Kali-esque furor. But that was later, when he had abandoned the Philadelphia Association.

I have so far spoken but indirectly of shamanic healing. This is a subject difficult to do justice to in a few words, since it deals with spells, curses, breaches of tabu, underhand intentions, social dysfunction, soul-loss and other anthropological commonplaces, many of which have escaped psychiatric attention. The methods used to free the victim of such complaints are much the same the world over: shamans must establish a reflexive world animated by personifications of the forces active in this one, and employ their empathic sense to discern which personifications of spirit are involved in a particular disorder. This done, various arts of conjuration are employed to so fascinate the attention that the patient is freed from self-preoccupation and can re-establish normal relations with the world at large. The methods are not always gentle, and some shamans are notable for their intimate knowledge of sado-masochistic necessities.

Practices of this kind, along with religions, can be distinguished according to whether they follow the affirmative or the negative way, and traditional shamanism largely favours the affirmative one. Laing’s method, as practised in the households of the Philadelphia Association, favoured the negative way, as befitted his minimalist and existential bent. His guiding line was the Hippocratic oath with its major injunction, to do no harm to those who consult you, to which he added his own gloss, that a human being should be treated as a human being and not suffer the consequences of being pathologised whatever the problem. Hence his refusal to set up a conventional regimen by which sufferers can be restrained and manipulated, and his horror of the unconvivial nature of psychiatric wards – a horror so large that, as I have mentioned, he constantly extolled conviviality as the eminent need for those in mental shipwreck.

His view of the households set up by the Philadelphia Association was that they provided asylum, and asylums was often his name for them. They had no resident therapists, the task of running a household being taken up by the residents themselves, who sometimes included apprentices; there was no prescription of drugs, and if someone should’ freak out, the residents were expected to form a safety-net on their own, and call on other households to help if necessary, with those who had oversight of these concerns also lending a hand.

There were no rules, in the formal sense of the word: the asylum was °also a crucible in which, Laing used to say, rough edges were smoothed out little by little. An odd kind of crucible, I once remarked, with no cross marked on its bottom – at which pedantry he pshawed in reproof.. No cross and no apparent limits either. Instead he appealed to the Golden Rule, to do nothing to others you would not like done to yourself, along with two others I once heard him appeal to, to make up for the lack of formal limits. One went:

What is not forbidden is allowed

What is not allowed is forbidden

whose rigour was mercifully put into question by the second rule: It’s all up for grabs.

These rules generally kept things in order, and it was in this inchoate theatre, with no director, no script, no prompter, no stage props or effects, no drums or rattles, no invocations, prayers, chants, no mind altering brews, that the Laingian mode of spontaneous self-becoming could achieve the same general effects that are produced by shamanic initiation – of regression into nightmare, of its incubation, with a frenzy or two before the novice comes back into his senses – or hers, of course ¬with reintegrated faculties. The particular effects, however, were different, for no shamans were produced by this set-up. That was not the aim of the venture, which was to allow a mental disorder to be fully experienced as it ran its course, this being enough to ensure its happy outcome – no policing required. He was not interested in curing a disorder, I once heard him say, but in ,healing those distressed by disorder: in other words, he gave them their natural due, the chance to wise up to themselves by themselves.

I have but some further stories to tell you, to show him in action. The first concerns myself when I had a painful choice to make and could not see my way. I telephoned him one evening, asking for his help. All right, he said wearily, come over, and soon I was in that dark green room of his, telling him all about it.. He bore with me patiently for quite a while, then got up and began walking to and fro in front of the curtains, back stooped, gesturing with his hands, eyes staring at nothing, silently jawing away non-stop. Alarmed by this parody of myself, my mind then cleared and I burst out laughing; whereupon he sat at his piano, opened a book of Noel Coward’s songs, and so we passed the rest of a now convivial evening. I reminded him of the occasion years later, and he said – a little reproachfully I thought – that there were times he wished someone had done as much for him.

Next, that unusual occasion in which I first saw him publicly engage in his speciality, which he later called psychic aikido. In contrast to usual shamanic and vaudouistic practice, in which the practioner uses his left hand alternately with his right – the right for white magic, in aid of a client, the left for black, to deal with the client’s enemies – psychic aikido takes the client as his own worst enemy and launches the telling blow – by which hand makes no odds – at the solar plexus of the situation. In this case, however, Laing was dealing, not with a client, but with an established member of his own profession. This was Carl Rogers, who had invited Laing to put on a double act in London. Laing had accepted and in return had offered Rogers his hospitality for the duration. He had meanwhile summoned the members and associates of the P.A. on the evening of his guest’s arrival – who had come, I was surprised to find, with his own band. As surprising was the silence that reigned over the room when I entered it, which continued until Rogers took it as his duty ¬Laing showing no such willingness – to introduce himself and his doings, after which his followers did likewise. There was another silence which, thinking that Laing needed a Mutt to his Jeff. I broke by following suit, to be followed in turn by the others of Laing’s equipe. Silence once more, long but not too long. And then Laing launched his opening gambit: ‘I see that we can work together, but I don’t think we can ever be friends.’

Gasps. Rogers paled beneath his tan, and sat speechless. Not so his band, who were loud in outrage. When the clamour uneasily subsided Laing proposed that, the meeting being over, we should all adjourn to the Chinese restaurant around the corner. He was there first, and seeing him installed with two others at a corner table already supplied with bottles, I took a seat elsewhere. Rogers came in next, and took the chair next to me (“Serve you right for acting the gentleman,” Laing sneered afterwards). We engaged in small talk and he was recovering his spirits when, as we were eating our noodles, two drunken Scotsmen lurched through the door. Laing shouted a welcome to them in broad Glaswegian, adding: “If you want to see a pairson, he’s sitting over there -” stabbing a finger in Rogers’ direction.

Another hubbub arose, and the restaurant soon emptied,. On my more leisurely return to Laing’s house, I saw Rogers and his folk in anxious discussion on the other side of the street. Leaving them to it, I found Laing and some others at the window, looking down upon the scene with the relish St Augustine described as one of the chief pleasures of the blessed, namely, to observe the torments of the damned – a passage Laing had by heart. However, when he judged that enough was enough, he supposed he should go over and rescue Rogers from himself, which he did.

Next morning, the double act did very well. Laing was impeccable when introducing Rogers as the founder of non-directive, client-centered therapy, and in asking many an interesting question – for instance, ‘How was it, do you think, that your psychology caught on so quickly in the United States?’ to which Rogers replied, I thought without guile: ‘I suppose I came along at the right time as a kind of a person or something.’

You may wonder what all this was about. If so, you should read the account of Martin Buber’s public I-Thou encounter with Rogers, in Buber’s The Knowledge of Man. Buber talked of such things as ‘imagining the real’, which Rogers failed to appreciate, and of a therapeutic dialogue being bounded by tragedy because of which “Humanity, human will, human understanding, are not everything. There is some reality confronting us. We cannot forget it for a moment”. Rogers agreed that “there is an objective situation there, one that could be measured”, which will give you some idea of the difference between the two men. Buber’s final comment (with which Laing would have concurred) was that Rogers’ concept of persons was little better than one of individuals, and that he was against individuals and for persons On the other hand he later said that he had never before attempted an I-Thou encounter in public, and found it to be not as impossible as he had supposed.

If only it had been Laing talking with Buber – Laing, for whom such public encounters came to be meat and drink! He would have known just how it was with Buber when he smashed a bible on the table, crying “What is the use of a book like that to us now?’ – the time being the Nazi era, the event a rabbinical convention. And Buber would have appreciated Laing’s remark that there were many people who, though worthy, he could not educate even if he wished to, because they did not entertain him.

I would be going beyond my assignment were I to speak of Laing’s activities as a master of psychic aikido at the time he was preaching unconditional love, and being so unconditional in his treatment of others that, though they were at first appalled, they were soon effusive in their gratitude. Long before, I had occasion to bring up this unconditionality of his with Peter Mezan, and found myself saying that Laing was impossible; to which he replied “Obstinately impossible” and then retailed me this anecdote, whose tragic condensation brings me to a close. That morning he had paid Laing a visit, and found him entertaining a tall, thin Spaniard who, dressed in black complete with cape and a slouch hat, was armed with an invitation to visit Madrid. There Laing would be given the keys of the city and meet the King. “You are as god to us,” said he. “No-one has read your books, but we all want to meet you. We think of you as Jesus Christ, because you attempted the impossible and failed.”

I don’t know how Laing dealt with this challenge to his honour. What would you say, were you Odran redivivus and your works available, to an admirer who excused his failure to do the possible by making you that gift of gifts, a crown of thorns?