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What is Sanity? What is Madness?

Big Sur, California Background and Overview R. D. Laing wore many robes in his career, including psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, social critic, author, poet, mystic, and at the peak of his fame in the 1970s he was the most widely-read psychiatrist in the world. Arguably the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud, Laing’s meteoric rise in the 1960s was the result of his rare ability to make complex ideas accessible with such best-selling classics as THE DIVIDED SELF (1960), SANITY, MADNESS AND FAMILY (1964), THE POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE (1967), KNOTS (1970), and many others. Laing’s impassioned plea for a more humane treatment for those in society who are most vulnerable catapulted him into the vanguard of intellectual and cultural debate about the nature of sanity and madness, and inspired a generation of psychology students, intellectuals, and artists to turn this disarming Scotsman into a social icon. Laing’s extraordinary influence was based almost entirely on his devastating critique of

R. D. LAING IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY conventional psychiatric practices, which he believed were often more deadly than the disease they presumed to treat. The, perhaps reluctant, father of antipsychiatry, Laing developed a daring alternative to conventional psychiatric treatment in 1965 at Kingsley Hall, the therapy center in London where he conceived the notion of a community where therapists and patients alike could live without clearly defined roles. This controversial treatment regimen proved so successful that it continues to operate nearly fifty years later and is currently funded by the London Local Council to provide relief for those suffering from extreme states, usually without medication. Kingsley Hall also inspired numerous residential treatment communities in North America that helped foster a seachange in contemporary attitudes about the involuntary incarceration of the mentally ill. This past October, 2013, a group of Laing’s former students and colleagues convened a weekend symposium at Wagner College in New York to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death and to assess Laing’s legacy and continuing relevance to contemporary thought and clinical practice (see the conference’s website at Titled R. D. Laing in the Twenty-First Century, this weekend symposium was attended by scholars, students, psychoanalysts, and others from all over the world to celebrate Laing’s legacy and continuing influence on contemporary alternatives to psychiatric practices. Michael Guy Thompson, the principal organizer of this meeting, wanted to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of Laing’s death with a symposium composed of those still living individuals who worked with Laing intimately. There had never been a conference of this nature mounted before. Invited speakers included the physicist, Fritjof Capra; the psychiatrist, Peter Breggin; the psychoanalyst, Michael Guy Thompson; the British academic, Andrew Pickering; the Australian philosopher, Douglas Kirsner, and many others. Topics addressed included Laing’s relationship with antipsychiatry, spirituality, LSD therapy, existential psychology, postmodernism, the nature of experience, psychotic process, the family, and many others. All of the presentations given were either scholarly papers intended to assess Laing’s legacy, or more personal, experiential conversations in which the presenters shared intimate details of what it was like to work with Laing and know him. (All of the presentations were video taped and available for purchase, and a book of all the papers presented is forthcoming. A documentary was also made of the conference proceedings by the filmmaker, Peter Brensinger, which should be completed in the not too distant future.) The symposium was an unmitigated success and resulted in the decision to mount another one, this time on the West Coast. Because most of the papers presented at the Wagner conference were of a scholarly nature it was decided that the next event should be expanded from two days to five in order to provide the opportunity to demonstrate the experiential aspects of Laing’s legacy. In addition to paper and panel presentations exploring the nature of sanity and madness and what they mean outside a medicalized context, we also intend to feature experiential ‘birthing’ workshops, as well as personal testimonies from individuals who either lived in one of Laing’s houses, were in treatment with him, or trained with Laing as a therapist. The Esalen meeting will be smaller and more intimate than the Wagner conference in keeping with the Esalen ethos, and will be more conversational in spirit, with significant free time each day to enjoy the Esalen ambience.




  Brief Synopsis of Our Workshop

We believe that Esalen is the perfect setting for the next R. D. Laing Symposium and Workshop. Esalen’s relationship with Laing is of historic importance due to Laing’s visits there from the mid1960s toward the end of the 1980s. In 1968 Richard Price and Michael Murphy convened a summer-long series of symposia under the title, The Value of Psychotic Experience, that was designed to explore the meaning of sanity and madness, altered states of consciousness, and humane alternatives to conventional psychiatric treatment of those suffering from extreme states. Participants included Laing, Aldous Huxley, Gregory Bateson, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, John Perry, Stan Grof, Julian Silverman, Alan Watts and many others who shared their respective experiences and thoughts about psychotic states and altered states of consciousness. It was on this occasion that Laing first shared his ground-breaking work at Kingsley Hall in London. Laing’s experiences at Kingsley Hall helped inspire Julian Silverman to initiate the Agnews Project in San Jose, out of which evolved Loren Mosher’s project at Soteria House that was explicitly modeled on Kingsley Hall. A few years later John Perry and Howard Levine initiated a similar project, Diabasis, in San Francisco. Esalen’s role in bringing all of these extraordinary thinkers together for the first time was instrumental in creating opportunities for alternative treatment modalities to flourish all over America for a period of some twenty years before the backlash against the counterculture sadly brought these experiments to an end. The theme for our Laing Esalen Symposium Workshop was one of Laing’s favorite subjects: “What is Sanity? What is Madness?” We see this workshop as an opportunity to revisit the 1968 Esalen summer-long symposium in order to assess the current state of alternative to psychiatric practices and to further explore amongst ourselves who is sane, if anyone, and who is crazy, if anyone, and what do these distinctions really mean outside of a medicalized psychodiagnostic context?



We want to explore and debate a series of relevant questions, including: 1) if we encounter someone who appears to be crazy and suffering beyond his or her ability to cope, how can we help that person become less crazed, but in a manner that doesn’t violate one’s fundamental right of possession of one’s body and mind? 2) Are each of us, perhaps, a bit crazy, and to the degree that we are, how have we managed to contain or channel our craziness into acceptable, perhaps productive, even creative endeavors? 3) How can we work together to create places of sanctuary, like Kingsley Hall, Soteria House, or Diabasis, for those in society who are no longer able to hold it together, and who need the time and the help to pull it together? 4) How might revisioning conventional notions about sanity and madness help our society to better grasp this ongoing tragedy and inspire more support, both private and public, to alleviate this problem? Like the Wagner College symposium, our week-long Esalen Symposium Workshop will feature teachers who worked personally with Laing and who are currently involved with furthering his legacy. Invited speakers include some who presented at the Wagner College Symposium, such as Fritjof Capra, Andrew Pickering, Steven Gans, Betty Cannon, Peter Mezan, Edie Irwin, Douglas Kirsner, Michael Guy Thompson, and new speakers, including Michael Cornwall, Nita Gage, Matthew Morrissey, Stephen Ticktin, Tom Bartlett, Douglas Gill, Bill Stranger, Rita Gayford, Haya Oakley, and others, all of whom worked personally with Laing or were profoundly influenced by his work. We will also feature a number of speakers who never met Laing but share similar interests and goals and are actively involved in the Alternative to Psychiatry movement that has been proliferating all over America in recent years. Our principal mission is to provide a forum where we are able to come together and share our views about what it means to be sane, and how to best facilitate its presence in our lives without trespassing on ourselves or each other. Kingsley Hall, Soteria House, and Diabasis were famous for providing alternatives to medicating and incarcerating those who were diagnosed as schizophrenic or psychotic. Today, there is no facility in the United States that features such a simple, common sense alternative. We want to determine why this is so, despite the obvious need for such places. Some of us are actively exploring setting up such places on the East Coast and in the Bay Area, and we see this workshop as a gathering place for those who support this endeavor and wish to join forces with us. We hope to bring the fruit of Laing’s work forward at a time when many are looking for alternatives to treating mental illness by conventional, oftentimes cruel, methods. Join us in this groundbreaking event and share your experiences with us.

We plan to accommodate fifty or more participants in this week-long event. Esalen will offer CEU’s to all eligible participants.




Michael Guy Thompson, PhD Nita Gage, MA Steven Gans, PhD

Other members of our Planning Committee: Michael Cornwall Matthew Morrissey Betty Cannon Susan Budnick Steve Sorkin William Stranger



  The following is a partial list of our Esalen presenters:

Betty Cannon, PhD, has worked with individuals, couples, and groups in Boulder, Colorado, for over 30 years. She is president of the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute, which trains mental health professionals in Applied Existential Psychotherapy (AEP), which integrates the insights of contemporary existential and psychodynamic approaches with Gestalt and other experiential therapies. Dr. Cannon holds doctorates in both literature and psychology, and is Professor Emerita at the Colorado School of Mines and Adjunct Professor at Naropa University. She is the author of many articles, chapters as well as an internationally recognized book on existential therapy, Sartre and Psychoanalysis. She lives in Boulder, CO. Fritjof Capra, PhD, is a physicist and systems theorist, a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, CA, and on the faculty of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Capra is the author of several international bestsellers, including The Tao of Physics (1975), The Web of Life (1996), The Hidden Connections (2002), and The Science of Leonardo (2007). He is currently working on a multidisciplinary textbook, The Systems View of Life, coauthored with Pier Luigi Luisi, to be published by Cambridge University Press. He lives in Berkeley, CA. Nita Gage, DSPS, trained with R.D. Laing and his associates at the Philadelphia Association from 1974-1980. She left London and returned to America in 1980 and pursued post- graduate education in psychology and psycho spiritual studies. Nita trained and studied with shamanic teachers and specializes in integrative psycho spiritual healing. Nita is co-founder of the NeuroImaginal™ Institute,; Director of Healer Within Retreats, She is the author of The Women in Storage Club, How to Reimagine Your Life, a book that addresses self-awareness and resiliency through NeuroImaginal


R. D. LAING IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY practices, and currently lives in Marin County, CA. Steven Gans, PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the American Public University and is in private psychotherapy practice at the Center for Relational Psychotherapy in Phoenix, AZ. He worked closely with Laing for many years at the Philadelphia Association and taught in the psychotherapy training program. Dr. Gans is the co-author, with Leon Redler, of Just Listening: Ethics and Therapy (2001). He is co-organizer, with Michael Guy Thompson and Miles Groth, of the R. D. Laing in the Twenty-First Century Symposium. He lives in Scottsdale, AZ. Edie Irwin, is co-editor of Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s Taming the Tiger (Rider) and is the author of Healing Relaxation (Rider); both are available online. Edie studied with R. D. Laing in India and London in the 1970s and since 1980 has worked under the guidance of Akong Tulku Rinpoche. She is currently a member of the Tara Rokpa Therapy Training faculty and practices psychotherapy in Edinburgh, Scotland. Peter Mezan, PhD, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. He was educated at Harvard College, Harvard Medical School, Christ’s College, Cambridge, and the City University of New York. While at Harvard he worked with inner city adolescent gangs under the supervision of Erik Erikson. In London, where he lived for many years, he became close to Laing and his circle and, as a free-lance journalist, introduced Laing to the American public in cover articles in major American magazines as well as contributions to several books. He has given numerous papers at psychoanalytic conferences around the world on the psychoanalysis of couples and is currently collaborating on a book on that subject. He lives in Katonah, NY. Andrew Pickering, PhD, is an internationally renowned leader in the field of science and technology studies. He as for many years Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is now Professor of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Exeter in England. He has held fellowships at MIT, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Princeton University, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and, most recently, Institutes for Advanced Study at the Universities of Durham and Konstanz. He is the author of numerous books, the most recent which is The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (2010), which includes a chapter on Gregory Bateson and R. D. Laing, which reviews the antipsychiatry movement and the 1960s counterculture. He lives in Great Britain. Michael Guy Thompson, PhD, received his psychoanalytic training from R. D. Laing, with whom he was in supervision, and Hugh Crawford at the Philadelphia Association in London, and served as the organization’s administrator from 1973 to 1980. He is currently Personal and Supervising Analyst and Faculty Member, Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California, San Francisco, and Adjunct Professor at the California School of Professional Psychology and the California Institute of Integral Studies, both in San Francisco. He is the author of more than 100 journal articles, book chapters, and reviews, as well as three books, The Death of Desire: A Study in Psychopathology (1985), The Truth About Freud’s Technique: The Encounter with the Real (1994), and The Ethic of Honesty: The Fundamental Rule of Psychoanalysis (2004). He is currently working on a biography of Laing, titled The Road Less Taken: R. D. Laing’s Quest for Authenticity. Dr. Thompson lives in Berkeley, CA. ( June 6, 2014



We will be adding more invited speakers in the weeks to come as well as numerous panels devoted to a variety of issues that concern contemporary responses to madness, including Kingsley Hall, Soteria and Diabasis, and other houses that have recently flourished in various parts of Europe and the US, as well as some that are on the drawing board and in various stages of development. Information about registration, schedule of events, and comprehensive list of participants will be forthcoming, including an updated R. D. Laing Symposium website that should be operational soon.

The Pacific Ocean from the Esalen Dining Hall and Terrace

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Esalen at sunset overlooking the Pacific Ocean

Meditation Room

Walking down to the world famous hot tubs perched over the Pacific!


Esalen announcement  
Esalen announcement