By David Gosselin
They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.
Knots – R.D. Laing (Psychiatrist and Tavistock Insitute resident)
In the 1950s and 60s, R.D. Laing, Gregory Bateson, and several other Tavistock and MK-Ultra-linked researchers took a keen interest in the study of schizophrenia. One of the key concepts that emerged was the idea of “double binds,” coined by Gregory Bateson in 1956. Bateson posited that schizophrenics exhibited signs of inner division and splintered personalities due to certain “communication dilemmas” they had experienced within dysfunctional family systems. These individuals, usually from early childhood, repeatedly found themselves in situations where they were confronted with mutually contradictory expectations about their thought and behavior, both of which they had to adhere to simultaneously.
For example, if a child was expected to be a “perfect boy” or “perfect girl” and meet the expectations of an emotionally unstable or “needy” parent, meeting these needs meant the child had to suppress his or her own feelings of sadness, joy, or helplessness as a means of regulating the outside world i.e., the family. On the other hand, were the child to express their authentic feelings or “tell the truth,” since perfect boys and girls never lie and always “tell the truth,” they would be punished, deemed selfish and ungrateful “bad girls” or “bad boys” who didn’t appreciate all the things their parents did for them. In a word: these scenarios involved keeping the outside voices happy by silencing the inner voice or upsetting the outside voices and being true to the inner voice.
These basic communication dilemmas created what Bateson termed “binds” or what Laing called “knots,” inescapable predicaments in which there was “no way to win.” Moreover, because leaving a family was not and never could be an option for a helpless child, a dissociation occurred, leading to what R.D. Laing famously described as the “Divided Self.”
Laing famously captured these predicaments in his Knots, a book where he explored the many “games” individuals encountered within various relationships, including with themselves, their “self,” others, and the family. These divided selves could hold mutually contradictory ideas, and even contain markedly different personalities, each of which ultimately belonged to one and the same person. Depending on the situation, the individual would access different parts of themselves and simultaneously shut off others.
Alas, is this perhaps why Tavistock and related MK-Ultra networks across the web of Anglo-American “Five Eyes” took such interest in studying what Laing and researchers at the Rand Corporation called “games”? When observing the countless “double binds” and “illusions of choice” churned out by our Western Narrative Matrix, leading people to box their identities and thinking within the narrow confines of Left vs. Right politics, “vaxxed” and “unvaxxed,” Capitalism or Communism, one can’t help but feel as though much of what we see and hear is a “game” not unlike the ones studied by Laing and company in Palo Alto, California.
And this is where our story of “games” begins.
The Divided Self
In The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, Laing described the problem of the schizoid personality and schizophrenic experience. The schizoid personality was either trapped watching their inner world from the outside or watching the outside world from the prison of their inner world. In a word: they were estranged from their own self, exiled from home in their own body. However, Laing didn’t only look at the question of schizophrenia in the usual clinical sense, but also in a broader phenomenological and existential sense: the schizoid individual was not able to “experience” his or her own “experience” of “experiencing” either his or another’s “experience.”
Later, in The Politics of Experience, Laing reflected on the more general idea of existential madness permeating our society:
“If we can begin to understand sanity and madness in existential social terms, we shall be more able to see clearly the extent to which we all confront common problems and share common dilemmas.” (Laing, 108)
Laing rightly observed that many “normal” and “everyday” families engaged in very irregular and “crazy-making” behaviors, but for him the schizoid personality was believed to be on the extreme end of a much broader spectrum, the schizoid being an individual whose identity and primordial self had been completely dissociated due to the various unbreakable “binds” and “dilemmas” that characterized their daily life.
So, he observed that even people who were healthy and normal could experience disassociated states under extreme stress. In The Divided Self, Laing writes:
“It is well known that temporary states of dissociation of the self from the body occur in normal people. In general, one can say that it is a response that appears to be available to most people who find themselves enclosed within a threatening experience from which there is no physical escape. Prisoners in concentration camps tried to feel that way, for the camp offered no possible way out either spatially or at the end of a period of time. The only way out was by a psychical withdrawal ‘into’ one’s self and ‘out of the body. This dissociation is characteristically associated with such thoughts as ‘This is like a dream’, ‘This seems unreal’, ‘I can’t believe this is true’, ‘Nothing seemed to be touching me’, ‘I cannot take it in’, ‘This is not happening to me’, i.e. with feelings of estrangement and derealization. The body may go on acting in an outwardly normal way, but inwardly it is felt to be acting on its own, automatically.” (Laing, 78)
This became the standpoint by which to analyze the overall family and societal systems which appeared to induce many to alienate their own self in order to become “well-adjusted” members of society. Laing observed that much of our experience is structured in such a way that many lose the ability to explore the deeper nature of their authentic self. Interestingly, he observed that fantasy was “the first kind of meaningful experience that children are taught to sever themselves from early on.” There were also dreams, imagination, and many other aspects of one’s “subjective” inner world. Alas, from an early age we learned very much about “the world” outside us, but very little about how to navigate the inner world within ourselves, or the self.
Most famous for his book The Divided Self, The Politics of the Family, and The Politics of Experience, Laing also examined these unique predicaments in Knots, a book exploring the many “binds” individuals could encounter within various family situations, including relationships with others, one’s “self,” “false selves,” the family, and society in general. Ultimately, Laing, like other tavistockians, recognized that these general “group dynamics” within the dysfunctional family system could ultimately be modelled and extended to society generally, albeit with certain adaptations for scope and scale.
And this is where our story of “games” takes a turn.
Let’s Play a Game
In the 1960s, Laing had the idea of applying “Game Theory,” championed by the Rand Corporation as the military strategy for winning the Cold War game of nuclear chicken with the Soviet Union. He had been introduced to the theory at the Mental Research Institute in Palo, Alto, California—the same institute that was the stomping ground for none other than Bateson, Huxley and a whole crew of social engineers and “researchers” of MK-Ultra notoriety. He observed that much psychiatry and the mores of society in general seemed geared towards creating “well-adjusted” individuals, each operating based on a set of learned behaviors unconsciously modelled after their early exposure to life within the dysfunctional family.
So, Laing studied the various communication dilemmas and incongruent thought patterns and behaviors that ostensibly “normal” families used as a means of covertly meeting their own needs and interests. Notable was the proclivity for playing a host of “games,” each member having its own set of rules and patterns to play by. However, these were not “normal” games. There existed two sets of rules: one was explicit, the other was not i.e. there was a “quiet part.”
Before proceeding, we should consider: what is a tribe, whether political, social, or cultural, if not a special kind of extended or artificial family within which one’s broader identity and “ego” are wound up? It is a well-known fact that from an early age, children learn to see themselves either in reflected glory or disgraced shadows. So, when faced with some cognitive dissonance, or abuse (whether emotional, physical, or psychological), the child is faced with a bind: recognize that they are powerless and have no ability to resolve the situation, and must therefore learn “to cope,” or try to defend one’s self and then experience the threat and feeling of alienation or exile from the tribe, in this case the dysfunctional family. In either case, one loses.
Usually communicated covertly in the form of “shaming” or threats of “punishment,” given the child is unable to face the unmanageable reality of there being something deeply wrong with the family or tribe itself, the child resorts to “make-believe,” that is, rather than accepting that there is something wrong with the family, they come to believe that there must be something wrong with them. A world of “make-believe” emerges, serving as a means of convincing oneself that things are “normal” and that “this is the way things are.” We learn what to see and what not to see.
From a phenomenological and existential standpoint, Laing rightly observed that many everyday families engaged in very irregular and “crazy-making” behaviors, but his ensuing observations and solutions only led to a more intricately woven web of madness—one which still entraps many individuals who aspire towards a transcendence of society’s madness.
From Insane Normality to Creative Madness?
Thus I would wish to emphasize that our “normal” “adjusted” state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us our too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities.
Keying off Freud, in the preface to the Pelican edition of The Divided Self,Laing wrote that:
“Our civilization represses not only “the instincts,” not only sexuality, but any form of transcendence. Among one dimensional men, it is not surprising that someone with an insistent experience of other dimensions, that he cannot entirely forget or deny, will run the risk of either being destroyed by others, or of betraying what he knows.” (Laing, 11).
So, Laing said that psychiatry should be on “the side of transcendence, of genuine freedom, and of true human growth.” Like Freud and others, he observed that there was much darkness to unearth beneath the veil of supposedly “normal” families, all of it stifling the natural growth of “human potentialities”:
“The greatest psychopathologist has been Freud. Freud was a hero. He descended to the ‘Underworld’ and met there stark terrors. He carried with him his theory as a Medusa’s head which turned these terrors to stone. We who follow Freud have the benefit of the knowledge he brought back with him and conveyed to us. He survived. We must see if we now can survive without using a theory that is in some measure an instrument of defence.”
When Dante descended into the underworld, he was not alone. He was guided by the poet Virgil, a bridge to the wisdom of the classical world. He also had a second guide, a voice of love and reason belonging to the higher spheres, embodied in Beatrice. Whether ontologically or metaphorically, there was no such thing for Dante as the existence of the Inferno— “the underworld”—without the existence of Paradiso, nor the mediating climb of Purgatorio. The “underworld” was ultimately only understood as the logical extension of what happens when we do lose sight of the higher spheres. Knowledge of one without the other, however, was not really knowledge, only “experience.”
Alas, Laing, like Freud, descended into the underworld, but with none of the classical wisdom or appreciation for an innate creative spark of love that guided and informed the poet Dante, and all true philosophers and saints. Psychiatrists like Laing, Freud and many others concerned themselves with modelling and analyzing the psychoanalytic mechanics and psychodynamics of our existential experience of reality, its subterranean recesses and “underworld,” but they also got lost in doing so. In the case of Laing, whether after a psilocybin or LSD trip where one too many series of false connections were made or through some vein attempt to find oneself by “losing oneself,” from a higher epistemological standpoint, Laing seemed to have lost sight of a simple truth: one can only learn so much about health from studying sickness. Said otherwise, Beauty is much more than the absence of deformity and proportion; Good is much more than the absence of bad or evil, and Freedom is much more than the absence of oppression.
The idea of breaking free from the strictures of an overly compartmentalized identity, an oppressive world, or of no longer being the slave of arbitrary law and customs is not a new one. In pre-classical Greek times, Dionysian rituals and later bacchanals typified the misguided attempt to “transcend” the world, that is, to “lose oneself” and no longer feel bound by the limitations of the material world. This was done largely through frenzied hypnotic dance and song, and substances.
Fast forward to our own times and we find parallels with the modern drug culture. This is especially the case with LSD and “psychedelics,” heralded as the mind-altering trip to hyperspace that can “free” us from the prison of our limited experience and make us the more creative and insightful individuals that we always wanted to be. One need only eat a particular species of mushroom or consume a “magical” substance, suddenly the ego dissolves, we splinter into pieces— “losing ourselves”—old bonds are undone; finally, the pieces are reassembled and lead us to a truer self.That many of the new “connections” respecting the real world might not actually be true, no matter how true they feel, won’t matter, since we can always just take another trip and try it all over again.
Laing concludes chapter 6 of The Politics of Experience with the following reflection:
“From the alienated starting point of our pseudo-sanity, everything is equivocal. Our sanity is not “true” sanity. Their madness is not “true” madness. The madness of our patients is an artifact of the destruction wreaked on them by us and by them on themselves. Let no one suppose that we meet “true” madness any more than that we are truly sane. The madness that we encounter in “patients” is a gross travesty, a mockery, a grotesque caricature of what the natural healing of that estranged integration we call sanity might be. True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that false self competently 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 reestablishment of a new kind of ego-functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer.” (Laing, 101)
Alas, whether through the Dionysian mysteries of old or psychedelic trips of late, these various attempts at transcendence through “liberation” of one’s inhibitions are a quintessential example of what Plato called “imitations.” Imitations of freedom by “losing oneself” or imitations of the “mystical” by mimicking what feels like freedom and transcendence. However, both remain classic examples of an epistemological and philosophical bind—one that no number of substances, distractions, or “magic” can resolve. However convincing the ensuing illusion of freedom, as we will see, these “imitations” are not “the real thing.”
Unfortunately, once broken through to the other side, Laing came to associate creativity and new forms of thought and action with the irrational and esoteric “mysteries,” harkening back to the paganism of pre-classical Greece.
I wish to relate the transcendental experiences that sometimes break through in psychosis to those experiences of the divine that are the living fount of all religion.
The longing associated with the idea of transcending our world, whether we think of it as a “vale of tears” or “mortal coil” has been expressed by poets, theologians, and philosophers throughout history in poetry and song, treatise and dialogue, speech and sermon. It is the desire to access that part of us which has something perennial, transcendent, and which exists above and beyond the flurry of ephemeral ebbs and flows. Shelley described it as the “desire of the moth for the star,” C.S. Lewis called it sehnsucht, the sage and poet Rumi described it as a returning to one’s “native home.”
How a Beethoven, Einstein, Keats or the others never needed an LSD trip to “find themselves” or develop the kind of creative and moral Promethean identity that allowed them to access “the real thing” escaped Laing and his disciples, as it did the initiates of Dionysian mysteries of old, as it still does so many of us.
But the exceptional and difficult cases like Beethoven, Keats, or Einstein, which might be cast aside by the average psychoanalyst, clinician, ideologue or populist, are the true teaching moments. That these individuals were able to transcend their own mortalities and the preconceived notions that bound their spheres of thought and experience was lost on the spawn of tavistock in much the same way today’s LSD and “flow state” enthusiasts commit the same epistemological blunder, each in their own original way arriving at the same essential fallacy.
Based on the modeling of “madness” vs. “well-adjusted” normality, transcendence and creativity were treated as closer to the irrational, sensual passion and esoteric. Lacking the moral fortitude and true foresight of the Promethean, as has happened many times before, the pendulum swung from the suffocating strictures of the traditional Apollonian to the irrational frenzy of the Dionysian.
So, Laing wrote:
“But since society, without knowing it, is starving for the inner, the demands on people to evoke its presence in a “safe” way, in a way that need not be taken seriously, is tremendous — while the ambivalence is equally intense. Small wonder that the list of artists in, say, the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked on these reefs is so long — Holderlin, John Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, Strindberg, Munch, Bartok, Schumann, Buchner, Ezra Pound…(Ib., 116.)
Laing committed an epistemological fallacy in his own somewhat original way, and in some sense useful manner. However, even in his time, other psychoanalysts on the side of genuine transcendence, health, and creative freedom already pointed to a much healthier approach, namely, by identifying and removing the various neurosis which were developed to protect ourselves when we could not and thus inhibited the free interplay of the creative faculties and insight into the nature of the creative mind and spirit—our deeper self.
Introducing Lawrence Kubie
In his book Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process, Dr. Lawrence Kubie describes an important aspect of this healing through the function of “free association” and the myriad qualitative transformations in outlook, feeling, and being that individuals can experience when they learn to properly master what he calls the preconscious processes.
Dr. Kubie writes:
“Free associations have a general significance beyond their exploratory importance in psychanalytic technique. It is through free association that the mind shakes itself out of its ruts, or if you prefer Max Muller’s figure shakes itself apart and together again, finding its way off the beaten path, stumbling onto new connections. It is through free association that the mind moves without conscious, deliberate bias or preconception from thought to thought, from idea to idea, from feeling to feeling.” (Kubie, 53.)
Kubie elaborates how free associations, properly understood, are how man creates, “whether an artist, scientist, lawyer, businessman, analyst, or analysand.” Kubie then elucidates knowledge of a matter that has ever eluded the compulsive Kantian or modern contemporary and theorist, but which was understood and demonstrated by the greatest classical artists throughout the ages, namely, the relationship between art and science, artistic insight and scientific epiphany:
“There is an important analogy between the creative process in the sciences and the arts and the processes of free association: an analogy which is so close as to be almost an identity. This arises from the fact that it is impossible to produce free associations, to be freely imaginative, to be freely creative if at the same time and in the very moment of “freedom” one attempts to maintain a watchful, critical scrutiny of what one is producing. The person who is producing free associations with least internal friction and interference is unable subsequently to retrace the path of his associations, unable usually to remember many of the items or their sequence. (This is analogous to the difficulty one has in recalling a list of nonsense syllables, which, rearranged to form words and sentences, would be easily remembered as a single unit.) Therefore, any retrospective inspection of free associations must depend upon a detached observer who notes and records their sequence, or upon some automatic recording device. Similarly, the creative scientist or the creative artist, writer, or musician, has been to set down his productions, put them aside, and let time elapse, before he will be able to turn back to them with objective scrutiny”, with lessened identification and less personalized defense of them, than is possible at the moment of creating or immediately thereafter.” (Id., 54-55.)
Kubie describes how the same free associative processes have much value in both psychoanalytic-therapeutic processes and artistic or scientific ones:
“This conflicting confluence of forceful influences occurs under two circumstances: (a) It is used deliberately and for therapeutic purposes in analysis to expose the distorting influence of unconscious processes. (b) It occurs in spontaneous or induced state of partial dissociation, as in falling asleep or waking, in hypnagogic reveries, under hypnosis or drugs, in states of abstraction or trance, or in those states of extreme concentration of attention which approach the process of hypnotic induction, and in which much scientific and artistic, literary, or musical creativity occurs.” (Id., 58.)
Yet, contrary to the perceived and popular notion of “freeing ourselves,” whether in lifestyle, taste, philosophy, or outlook, Kubie points to the artful and at the same time scientific approach necessary to harness, guide, and master these preconscious processes:
“I have said that free associations are the most natural and spontaneous creative process of which the mind is capable. Yet it would be quite fallacious to conclude from this that they are also the easiest. There are individuals for whom the process is impossible, except where they are entirely off guard, as when dozing, falling asleep, waking, under drugs, or delirious. These are individuals for whom this mental leap-in-the-dark is so fraught with guilt or terror that they can no more allow their thoughts to roam freely than they could run down a flight of stairs with closed eyes. Such individuals have to stretch out their mental toes to feel carefully for each next step before they can trust themselves to express a next word. Logical and chronological sequences are the hand-rail to which they always cling. For some people this is true even when they are alone. For others it is true only when in the presence of other human beings. Still others are hampered in this way when in the presence of certain people, but not of others. Actually for everyone, although in varying degrees, free associations carry implications of guilt or anger.” (Id., 58.)
Mastering these processes allows us to make a host of new “connections” in a manner where we learn to consciously master the creative interplay between various parts of our mind, rather than relying on “magic.” Without conscious appreciation or mindfulness about the nature of the creative process, one may often be left with pseudo-creative novelty, neurotic art, or simply incomplete or confused art due to its remaining caught in the preconscious realm, without the conscious philosophical and spiritual faculties necessary to impart to this preconscious work a lasting or timeless form, as all great art has.
To the degree the preconscious or conscious aspects of the creative process are hindered or incomplete, the other side must suffer. We will therefore lack the creative freedom of an authentic self. If connection from the preconscious towards the conscious is confused, the art will lack the refinement which only a conscious mind can affect; if the reverse is the case, the art will likely be stilted, formulaic, lacking in the originality and creativity springing from preconscious thought, given the mind is not given the sufficient freedom to wander and creatively play between worlds. The reason why the former fallacy is more prevalent in “liberal” thinkers and the latter more obvious in “conservative” thinkers becomes increasingly clear.
So, madness was for Laing seen as something that more closely modelled creative epiphany, given the more obvious limitations of the “well-adjusted” individual, the “one dimensional man” of Marcuse, or in modern parlance, the “normie.” While this madness allowed one to depart from certain pre-established and preconceived notions that others felt tied down to i.e., finding one’s self by losing oneself, everything concerning our deeper understanding of creative insight, epiphany and true transcendence depends on our ability to unwind the seemingly intricate loops and splices of this Laingian “knot.”
Kubie understood the paradox:
“Consequently, creativity itself depends upon the process of free association, which makes possible preconscious analogic processes, yet at the same time exposes them to deformation under the influence of concurrent unconscious processes. This inescapable paradox lies close to the heart of our problem. Free associations are essential to creativity; because they free the sensitive, fluid, and plastic preconscious system from the rigidity imposed at the conscious end of the symbolic spectrum. Yet at the same time they expose it to the distortions and also to the rigidity imposed by the unconscious system.” (Id., 57.)
To face the madness, we require some higher ground by which to transcend it. Freud, Laing, and others believed we had to move past the creation of “pseudo-realities” and “pseudo-subjects,” including the many coping mechanisms individuals used as a means of operating in “the real world” from early on, but in modelling the endless mechanics of everyday dysfunctional systems, they also lost sight of the simple truth that no amount of modelling can ever arrive at.
Now, it’s time to break the binds.
From “Double Binds” to “Double Loops”: Crossing the Threshold of the Self
Most of us have at some time in our lives found ourselves stuck in some kind of “knot” or situation where there appeared to be “no way to win.” In more instances than should be the norm, our lives became entangled in these “knots” and “binds without knowing that we were playing a “game.” The “self” became organized around these perceived psycho-spiritual paradoxes, bounding our sphere of thought and action according to a set of fixed “rules.”
However, much of these “rules” were not consciously followed but learned as a series of “felt thoughts” or cognitive dissonances. Though it is normal to instill healthy felt thoughts in children about what behaviors they should feel good about and which ones they should feel bad about, given children only learn by felt thoughts until they develop the capacity to use their higher faculties of reason, the problem is that just as easily as good “felt thoughts” can be instilled, so too can bad ones, leading to practices and behaviors that lead to self-destruction, as Laing so often observed in patients struggling with “knots.”
While Laing studied many “knots” and “binds,” some of his solutions were in many ways just as sick. However, instead of the “double bind” pioneered by the likes of a Bateson or Laing, some clinicians have proffered the idea of a “double loop.” Let us take an example from Laing’s Knots and then consider the difference between the nature of “double binds” and “double loops”:
My mother loves me.
I feel good.
I feel good because she loves me.
I am good because I feel good.
I feel good because I am good.
My mother loves me because I am good.
My mother does not love me.
I feel bad.
I feel bad because she does not love me.
I am bad because I feel bad.
I feel bad because I am bad.
I am bad because she does not love me.
She does not love me because I am bad.
The “bind” involves a felt thought tied to an image. If that felt thought and image cannot be readapted and changed to something more adaptive, one will always follow the other, creating an eternal feedback loop. The “double loop” involves an individual doing what would in therapeutic work generally be called “grief work.” The individual allows himself or herself to sit in the pain, to feel the whole of the experience that they’d been pushing down or trying to avoid in order to regulate their affect. Instead, they allow themselves to go through the entire process and make it to the other side. Said otherwise, they don’t play the “game,” instead they sit through the pain.
Of importance is that a qualified and competent therapist or guide is there to affirm the person in that state of grief, which involves a re-integration of the lost parts of one’s self. This is also the moment when new healthier and adaptive thoughts can be introduced, ones that reflect a higher truth about one’s self and the world. On a higher spiritual level, it involves the truth washing in over us or the light breaking in, with a rediscovery of that sacred spark, an image of God—a glimpse or a glimmer—of the “real thing.” For, in that moment we are seen and see.
So, once Dante had emerged from the underworld and beheld scene after scene of madness, sin after sin, he saw in many of these souls a bit of himself. In seeing the same weaknesses within himself and at the same time allowing himself to hear a higher calling or inner voice, he became capable of slowly and lovingly removing all the imperfections or obstacles that stood in the way of his divine self. Ascending the mount of Purgatorio, he found the climb became easier and easier. Finally, he rose through the spheres of Paradiso, becoming lighter and lighter and lighter as the truth became clearer and clearer and clearer.
In the “double loop” moment we are seen as whole, with the many broken off parts reintegrated into their coherent whole and everything slowly falling into place. In a limited but powerful form the process metaphorically mirrors the broader idea of being seen not only by others, but by God himself, that is, pure Being unencumbered by the contradictions and illusions that characterize our world i.e., absolute Truth and clarity—the truly transcendent—of which mortals can only attain a glimpse, whether through song, poetry, prayer and meditation, or acts of charity.
When properly achieved, the “double loop” offers us a said glimpse of being seen—the “real thing.” So, it’s no surprise that when the poet Dante rose to the summit of Paradiso and gazed into the bright light until he could look no more, what he saw in that final vision was not some Zeusian deity or bearded old man, but as the poet recounts, he saw an image of his own face, “a human face.”
The poet was finally seen.
A heavy drinker and depressive himself, Laing never appeared to escape the underworld he descended into. With fame and fortune and all the freedom necessary to achieve “transcendence,” Laing was a surprisingly unhappy soul and self. Neglectful towards his own family, sadly, Laing’s oldest child, Fiona, spent years in mental institutions, also treated for schizophrenia. His oldest son from his second marriage, Adam, committed suicide after a break-up with his long-term girlfriend. Having lost access to the real thing inside himself, having become alienated from the deeper creative spark which lies at the heart of every great discovery, conversion, or great art, Laing lost the ability to see it within himself and others.
When we have access to genuine knowledge of it within ourselves, we become capable of seeing and reaching it in others; when we don’t, some of us become exceptionally good modelers, like Laing and his heroes. Through bad epistemologies and in certain cases, arguably a dash of evil, false notions of spiritual transcendence were proffered, “ecologies of mind” and transcendent “ecstasy,” essentially harkening back to pre-classical paganism, the “losing oneself” in a ritualistic hypnotism of dance and song, and substances.
One does not get “lost” when listening to the late quartets of Beethoven or passions of Bach, when reading the sonnets of Shakespeare or degrees of prayer of St. Theresa, one “gets found.” One does not get lost when hearing the Sermon on the Mount or reading the letters of St. Paul the Apostle, one gets found. We discover something that had been there all along, reflected at one time “through a glass darkly,” and then finally, “face to face.”
Unlike the best of Western classical culture and its Judeo-Christian traditions, these new forms of “transcendence” were offered, at least ostensibly, in an attempt to cast off the rightfully decried Apollonian chains of a “well-adjusted” society held together by certain rarefied religious customs and traditions, which had admittedly been drained of much of their vitality and spiritual depth within an increasingly affluent modern West. For, while many new great things like industrial agriculture and technological revolutions allowed humanity to rightfully uplift and raise masses out of the poverty and oppression presided over by a once untouchable class of “gods,” this genuine and necessary progress was not without a response by the would-be “gods.” A new kind of “brave new world” emerged, one rife with all the distractions, drugs, and “entertainment” that could be used to divert and distract people from the “real thing.”
So, transcendence and authentic self-actualization were in the hands of modern social engineers presented in the form of clever imitations—some even with a luciferean bent i.e. “the worship of the self.” These were presented over the discovery and development of a whole divine self, an imago viva dei, itself the intimation of a universal Self—God—such that we know even the most authentic, creative, and loving human individual to be only an image or glimpse of the “real thing.”
No More Games
Laing spent much of his time modelling the “games” played within dysfunctional families. In particular, he paid special attention to those played within the kinds of family systems which gave rise to schizoid personality types. So, Laing, a good modeler, achieved positive effects in treating some of his schizophrenic patients because he acted in such a way that they felt seen.
However, what Laing lost sight of within himself, or others, is a simple truth, one which no amount of modelling, existential phenomenology and mechanics can ever arrive at. For, one cannot model the soul or the mind, but we can begin to acquaint ourselves with the mysteries of our own deeper self and soul and mind by developing the practices and engaging in original creative work or charity, under the condition that we never lose sight of the guiding light for such work, that is, never lose sight of the higher spheres from which such inspiration or creative insight descends. The “underworld” can ultimately only be understood as the logical extension of what happens when we do lose sight of these said higher spheres. Or, as Augustine put it, evil has no ontological existence.
Individuals with epistemologically and spiritually impoverished maps of reality will often be compelled to deduce what their experience of the world offers them as reality, no matter how twisted or divorced it might be from the simple Truth and eternal laws—laws which the innate creative spark found within each sovereign individual makes us uniquely capable of discovering. That most people around us may not be able to hear a sacred whispering within themselves, or simply have it drowned out by a “brave new world” or trauma or other forms of brainwashing does not in any way erase the existence of this sacred whispering—not if we listen. The best a “brave new world” can do is try to drown it out, but it can never be erased.
Alas, individuals like Laing, Freud, and others were psychiatrists who had descended into the Inferno without a guide or the classical wisdom necessary to carry them to the higher spheres. As a result, some of the theories they brought back were mad or madder than what they themselves saw within the underworld they had so diligently studied.
Having spent so much of his time in the existential mire of modelling the myriad dysfunctional and twisted games observed in dysfunctional families, Laing had forgotten how to distinguish between imitations of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty and “the real thing.” Laing in many ways became the very alienated and disassociated individual he spent much of his life studying. Like many before him who descended without a guide, gazing into the abyss, the abyss gazed back.
Winning the Game
They say we’re only as sick as our secrets.
As long as we allowed ourselves to be fooled by imitations, having spent much time fighting monsters or breaking out of one illusion only to fall into the next, the game always won.
To survive, we attached ourselves to false ideas of love, truth and humanity. We believed that it was the only way to survive, to “stay in the game.” Having felt perhaps never truly seen, we lost sight of our own deeper self, or as in too many cases, never realized that there was something more already there—a sacred spark. Perhaps we lost sight of it because we were from an early age only taught to view our experience and thoughts in the light of others’ expectations, distortions, or false prescriptions, whether imparted to us by parents, institutions, or the very magicians themselves.
Rather than remaining the disenchanted players of a rigged game or escaping into the fantasy of games which only we could control, we one day realized that the only way to win the game was to stop playing the game.
We decided to play no more games.
Laing, R.D. Knots. Pantheon Books, 1970.
Laing, R.D. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Madness. Penguin Books, 1960.
Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Penguin Books,1967.
Kubie, Lawrence S. Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process. The Noonday Press, 1963.
 Kubie, Lawrence S. (M.D.),. Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process, p. 53. The Noonday Press (1963).
David Gosselin is a poet, researcher, and editor based in Montreal. He writes on Substack at Age of Muses.