The primacy of experience

Some years back I wrote a paper looking at the work of the psychoanalyst R. D. Laing and seeing how it related to the insights of Thomas Merton. I looked at both men’s work on Zen – Laing practised yoga and meditation for many years, and read widely in Eastern texts. In 1971 he spent a year in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) spending months on retreat in a Buddhist monastery near Kandy, studied Sanskrit, and met holy men in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The books I focused on were Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite and Laing’s The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise because both were writing about the primacy of experience – experience that is unmediated by concepts, conjectures and stylised thought. For both authors this is about subjectivity and the experience of being a person. Laing asks, ‘Can human beings be persons today?’A question that resonates with Merton’s plea in an earlier book: ‘The person must be rescued from the individual’.

Merton thought that our rational technologically based society alienates and mystifies us and Zen is a way to break through the blinding conformism and really see. Laing writes that our alienation ‘goes to the roots’ and that we are, ‘strangers to our true selves, to one another, and to the spiritual and material world’. We are born into a world where alienation waits for us, through the ‘outrageous violence’ that human beings inflict on one another. The alienation can be set aside when we experience one another without preconceptions and expectations – we are really there for one another. Both men are writing about ‘experience with complete acceptance – that that is how it was meant to be’.

For Laing the alienation is exemplified by the treatment of the mentally ill. He writes that no age in the history of humanity, has perhaps so lost touch with natural healing processes. For Laing madness can be a breakthrough from the illusion of the egoic experience. ‘The “ego” is the instrument for living in this world but if the “ego” is broken up, or destroyed (by the insurmountable contradictions of certain life situations, by toxins, chemical changes, etc.), then the person may be exposed to other worlds’.

Even in Laing’s later years when he was discredited professionally and all over the place personally there are extraordinary accounts of his capacity to accept and connect with another’s experience. At a conference in Arizona in 1985 Laing presented a live filmed interview with a young ‘schizophrenic’ street woman whom he had found the night before. The twenty minute interview looked inconsequential on the surface, but when the woman voluntarily joined Laing on the conference platform she said she felt better and then praised Laing as someone, ‘who knows how to tap into where other people’s minds are at, not just by asking questions and trying to figure things out’. Laing approached others without preconceptions – filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, accepting the evidence in front of him – surely a Zen like frame of mind where he responded to who they were, and not how they were. Indeed Laing refers to Zen as a growing influence in psychotherapy, ‘with its emphasis on illumination achieved through the sudden and unexpected’.