The return of the repressed

Freud used this phrase to describe how the past can irrupt into consciousness one way or another. It doesn’t really matter what we do to try and prevent it as it will emerge through dreams, symptoms and our responses. Sometimes one is caught unaware by the strength of a reaction and part of the work in therapy is to disentangle what belongs in the present from the there and then, and understand how the past can affect us so strongly in the present. Jung used instead the idea of the shadow and the importance of bringing what had been pushed into the dark recesses of our minds into the light of consciousness. Jung wanted the shadow to become integrated – as far as is possible.

The same thing happens to our spirituality. If it suppressed by the endless rationalisations and factual and sometimes cynical justifications that things are as they are and there’s nothing more than our human reason it has to re-merge in other sometimes distorted forms.

Someone whose thinking about the affect of our modern society on emotional well being had a big impact in the 1960s and 1970s was R. D. Laing: a bit of a hero for me. He believed in the primacy of experience – experience that is unmediated by concepts, conjectures and stylised thought…he wrote about the experience of being a person. Laing asked, ‘Can human beings be persons today?’

Laing explored the violence and damage – both intentional and unconscious – between people in all types of relationship, within families and in our social structures, and wider societies. This violence forces us to become alienated and to lose our potential to become who we really are. Instead we conform and comply to fit the demands and expectations of family and society. For many this leads to great suffering and mental breakdown. Laing understood these dynamics both from his own childhood, and the extraordinary capacity he had to understand the minds of others. He thought that the journey to recover our self is often a journey through the experience of madness into awareness and insight. He writes that no age in the history of humanity, has perhaps so lost touch with natural healing processes.

Laing’s work criticised the medical establishment. Over his career he increasingly attacked the theories and reasoning behind the system of psychiatric diagnoses, and also the treatment on offer. As his popularity grew so did the unease and criticism about his stance and practice. In his work with people Laing moved beyond the labels of madness. He went beyond the formal classification system, the earnest discussions about the use of ECT and physical restraint (I think he would have understood the now extensive use of drug treatments as another form of restraint) into a place of innocence and experience where he met the distressed person and saw and heard the abused child, or neglected baby, or over-protected infant subjected to confused parenting. Nearly forty years later all his books and perhaps especially for the interface between psychology and spirituality The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise remains a relevant and inspirational book