Both R. D. Laing and Thomas Merton were on the edge – on the boundary of the established church for Merton, and on the fringes of the psychiatric and psychoanalytic profession for Laing. Earlier writings by Merton had already caused concern in the Catholic hierarchy, and Laing’s later behaviour eventually led to his agreeing to resign from the General Medical Council.
Merton writes that Zen ‘pushes contradictions to their ultimate limit where one has to choose between madness and innocence’. In other words letting go of the contradictions of human formulations, the logical understanding and the rational thinking takes us beyond those mind patterns and into an unexplored and innocent freedom. For Merton, the trip to the East became the liminal place where he could open himself directly to the influence of others who understood this way.
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. He was often accused of glorifying mental illness – a claim he rejected.
However in The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise he does explore transcendental experiences that ‘sometimes break through in psychosis’, and writes that the ‘madman’ who in his confusion ‘muddles ego and self, inner with outer, natural and supernatural… can often be to us, even through his profound wretchedness and disintegration, the hierophant of the sacred.’ He writes of the mad person as an exile from the scene of being as we know it, but who nonetheless signals to us from a void peopled with presences and spirits that we are blind to.
One enters the other world by breaking a shell: or through a door: through a partition: the curtains part or rise: a veil is lifted. Seven veils: seven seals, seven heavens…nowhere in the Bible is there any argument about the existence of gods, demons, angels. People did not first “believe in” God: they experienced his Presence.
And here is Merton:
The real way to study Zen is to penetrate the outer shell and taste the inner kernel which cannot be defined. Then one realises in oneself the reality which is being talked about. As Eckhart says:
“…the farther you get in the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One who gathers all things up into itself, there you must stay.”