We all go astray
Introductory Comments on
What’s in a word?
I want to comment on the title of our panel, “Taking Recovery
Seriously”, by taking, and inviting you to take
, the word ‘recovery’ seriously
question it thoughtfully.
What are we really talking about when we speak about ‘recovery’ in the
context of ‘madness’? In a loose, imprecise way, we’re meaning a
return to a prior level of relative well being, or to a less disturbed
and/or disturbing way of being, that had been disrupted. We speak of
what had disrupted our earlier condition as a breakdown, illness,
psychosis, existential or spiritual crisis or have other ways of
naming, understanding or framing the origins and nature of the
distress. We might even be ‘recovering’ from treatment
troubles, as well as from ways we’ve been treated, or mistreated, by
any others in relation to us.
When framing the return (if it is one) as ‘recovery’, what is inside
and what’s left outside the ‘frame’? Is that framing (‘recovery’)
adequately respecting and doing justice to the multiple contexts in
which these phenomena come to be and unfold? I think not.
Do we ever get back to the pre-existing (i.e., pre-morbid,
pre-distress, pre-disrupted) state or situation? Can we get back to
quite where we were or who we were, as though we’d had a fixed identity
and place that, post-distress, we were taking up once again? I
Were not the seeds of the later disturbance present in what we, perhaps
naively, self-deceptively and/or mistakenly, considered the earlier
state of ‘well being’? I think they were. And, if so, wouldn’t
‘recovering’ that leave us again vulnerable to further and perhaps
unnecessary distress and disruption of our lives? I think that it
I therefore question the usefulness and validity of word ‘recovery.’
We can benefit from being more thoughtful about this widely used,
‘common sense’ and well-intentioned, but I think misleading, term. Many
funded projects are based on ‘recovery’. That’s a practical, but only a
, obstacle to
reconsidering our use of the word and finding better ways of saying
what we mean that are more in accord with how things really are.
we have the potential
to learn from deep
disruptions of our lives, the potential to wise up, mature, open heart
and mind and deepen our ways of being ourselves, with others, given
good enough conditions for that to occur. But that’s saying more than
the word recovery
Perhaps paradoxically, given all of the above, I suggest, in the text
that follows, that most of us (humankind, beyond any Us and Them) may
need to ‘recover’ use of, but really un-cover,
to and connect
with, an inherent potential for well-being which we seem out of touch
with (to a greater or lesser degree). Releasing such potential would
benefit us individually as well as help us all better understand and
responsibly respond to each other and to the prevailing madness of the
Our shared world is in many ways dysfunctional
That’s evident to almost all of us as we watch (in October of 2008, as
I prepare to submit this paper), the effects of the breakdown and near
(metaphorical) ‘meltdown’ of an irresponsible world financial system
and the potentially more profound and devastating, actual meltdown of
our glaciers or icecaps, a function of our unwise, short-sighted and
irresponsible care-taking of our planet earth. In this shared world we
find ourselves in, or may come to find ourselves in, the thoughtfulness, uncovering
alluded to offer us sound and radical
We All Go Astray
I want to ‘perform
composition’ consisting of a ‘Prelude’ and 4 ‘Movements,’ as my way of
addressing the matter of madness, civilisation and social justice,
while taking ‘recovery’ seriously.
|O Freunde, nicht diese
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere
anstimmen, und freudenvollere!
|Oh friends, not these
Let us raise our voices in more
pleasing and more joyful sounds!
Let’s hear Beethoven’s introduction [1
] to Schiller’s
Ode to Joy as a
to various allusions
to voice, vocation and callings.
My involvement with the Philadelphia
at Kingsley Hall (a place where Ghandi had
once stayed), in London, in 1965. My informal apprenticeship with
R D Laing, based at Kingsley Hall and at Ronnie’s consulting rooms at
Wimpole St., was primarily concerned with inquiring into ways of
radically understanding and responding to ‘madness’.
The prevailing understandings, approaches and practices of the
medical-psychiatric establishment of the day (and context of my prior
psychiatric training in the USA) seemed unthoughtful, harmful in
diverse ways (including but not limited to the harmful ‘side effects’
of treatment), and ignorant and/or disrespectful of the complexity and
singularity of the life situations of the patients it attended to.
Could a phenomenological approach, bracketing preconceptions about
‘mental illness’, free of reductive, objectifying psychiatric
thinking and rejecting psychiatric treatments seeking to control
experience and behaviour, also encourage the opening up and
healing of hearts and minds and invite each person to find his or her
own voice, joyfully if and when possible?
For some of us, whether designated ‘mad’ or not, the journey of finding
one’s own voice
, and vocation
, and becoming aware of the
constrictions of heart and mind, and possibilities for release, can be
a long and difficult one, as it certainly has been for me.
What might be the best ways and means of opening our hearts and minds?
Looking back then, from now, there were basic first principles
informed what made the PA network a good one for me to be involved
with, even if I could barely realize them at the time.
Ronnie Laing kept returning, and re-turning
others, to these as best he could. I would now
articulate these as including:
Being mindful, with a relaxed vigilance and aspiring to embody that
Putting ourselves in question
Releasing or letting go of what we’ve realised as unnecessary physical,
mental or emotional tensions
Finding the skilful means for putting all these in to practice
And perhaps first and foremost among the first principles, and arguably
both the easiest and most difficult to embody, taking to heart St.
Augustine’s advice: Love . . . and
do as you will
‘Beethoven’s last musical
One day, listening to BBC Radio 3 in London, I heard of a brief letter
that Beethoven wrote to Karl Holz (a trusted friend and 2nd violinist
in the quartet that played Beethoven’s late quartets) in December,
1826. He closed his letter with a four-measure, two-part canon
accompanied by the text: "Wir irren alle samt nur jeder irret anderst"
which BBC presenter translated as: “We all go astray, but each in our
Whatever Beethoven may have had in mind, I am going to take the liberty
of making use of that sentence in my own way, even while acknowledging
I might be going astray from his understanding and/or meaning.
“We all go astray . . .”
all go astray
? Or do just some of us
Many of our culture’s predominant institutions and laws are founded, at
least in part, on the notion that it’s
just some of us
that go astray, whether because of bad genes,
bad morals, bad company or other varieties of bad luck.
Some of us indeed do get stunted, stuck, wounded, wound up and twisted
along the way of life and suffer, and/or are seen to be suffering, more
than others. Features of their suffering include:
Ways of not being ourselves
Ways of not being at home in our own bodies, our breathing and bodies
Distracted, me-centred, often divided selves precluding us from
sensitive sensing of the world, including our own hearts and minds,
preventing us from embodying a sense of wonder and enjoyment.
These features, aren’t well or widely recognised or understood, nor are
profound and radical means of responding responsibly and effectively
But it seems to me that those features are common to us all
, to a greater or
lesser extent, and that we all do go
If that is so, what is it we go astray from?
It seems to me, at least in some lucid moments, that we are astray from
living in accord with a way of being ourselves, a way whereby all
aspects of who we are…of body, breath, mind, energy, spirit . . . are
Most of us, most of the time, are not living that harmony.
Most of us are astray in a way that can do with some re-turning . . .
back to basics.
But to speak of how we ‘are’ is already misleading. A major feature of
our being astray, or of our errant ways, is that we don’t realise, live
and embody the fact that we inter-are
and are inter-dependent
Awakening and tuning in to inter-being [2
enhanced, as are ways of
love, joy and realisation of sublime possibilities, when the me-centred
‘I’ recedes, moves well away from centre court.
Such possibilities aren’t really, and really aren’t, ‘my’
‘I’ can’t do anything to ‘get’ that way, or get on the way. ‘I’ have
to, or the ‘I’ has to, get out of the way.
How we live with
or hinders our finding our way. How we are with each other, how we
course and inter-course is, of course, of fundamental importance.
, isn’t it? Yet
live in and with
the presence of awareness
that fact. That’s obvious too, isn’t it?
There is continuity and connection between our breathing, body, mind,
energy, spirit . . . and how we relate to one another . . . and the
health of the body politic.
Most of us would agree that the body politic seems to be in fairly poor
health, when we consider all concerned. All concerned are not
really well considered.
How bad do things have to get before each of us is ready and able to
take responsibility for what is often done in our name and/or with our
there a radical
possibility of something
other? What might be a way,
or ways, that might enhance our sense of inter-being, might enhance our
common sense . . . or, should we say, the possibility of a most
uncommon common sense?
For some Christian, Sufi and other religious mystics, and others
embodying teachings of Yoga, Zen, Dzogchen . . . the way is one
whereby one is neither merged nor fused, yet also not separate from all
and everything, . . . not fused, not apart . . . not one, not two . . .
Speaking of this is, of course, already problematic. It’s beyond our
usual notion of experience, which involves a subject of experiencing,
and object of experience and an act of experiencing. That doesn’t,
however, mean that it’s nonsense. It may point to a singular, precious,
and freely accessible gift of non-duality
or non-dual ‘experience’.
So . . . is that what we go astray from, or stray from a realisation of
what is actually the case, from an embodied knowing of who and how we
Then, The Open Door
Then, at the time of the beginning, the Philadelphia Association had in
it’s literature a motto. After noting the derivation of the name for
the Association from philia
there translated (from the Greek) as “brotherly or sisterly love”,
there was a quotation from the Book of Revelations (3:8, Authorized
King James Version)
“ . . . Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man
can shut it . . . ”
(I cite this and later passages from the New Testament in a
What is the ‘open door’ referred to? What is it’s relevance to madness
How can we create open doors, in practice, such that the opening might
especially present itself to and invite vulnerable others who have had
doors shut in their faces or been otherwise defaced? How can we nourish
and cultivate a spirit and practice so as to show an open door and
welcome people who are so lost, confused and/or terrified that they
can’t tell an open door from one that is shut, or see an open door
right before them, or see it but may be unable to make the move to
cross the threshold? These are questions that need to be renewed in
every fresh encounter with suffering others.
, let’s consider another
New Testament text, First Corinthians, Chapter 13,12-13 (Authorized King James Version
where the time of 'Then' is yet to come.
. For now we see through a
glass, darkly; but then face to face
now I know in part; but then
shall I know even as also I am known. 13
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of
these [is] charity.” (King James translation)
Heinz Cassirer, a man Ronnie held in high regard, translates the
passage as follows [3
12. At present our sight of things is one through a mirror which throws
them into bewildering confusion
but there will be a time when we shall see them face to face. At
present my knowledge is one yielding but partial glimpses, but there
will be a time when I shall know completely, even as God, from the
first, completely knew me. 13. Meanwhile, faith, hope and love endure,
these three; but the greatest of them all is love. (Cassirer, Heinz,
1989. God's New Covenant: A New Testament Translation. Grand Rapids:
Levinas and the Face of the
For the late and great philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), my
relation with the ‘face’ (or call) of the Other calls me to profound
responsibility for her (or him), calls me to ethical relatedness. The
Other is singular and the alterity, or radical otherness, of the Other
is precisely what I can never appropriate or make mine. (It is this
singularity, alterity and call that the capital O is meant to indicate.)
His works are difficult and complex and but deserve and reward serious
readers. His work calls to be included in any discussion of madness,
civilisation and social justice
Might some forms of madness (individual and/or collective) be
understood, in an ethical (rather than a legal) way as involving
diminished responsibility, perhaps understanding the roots of madness
in part through considering the genealogy of responsible responding and
relatedness, or lack
in the genealogy of the madness considered?
For Levinas, my very subjectivity is a function of my being subjected
to the obligation to respond to face of the Other, respond with
something like a ‘Here I am, here for you’. ‘I’ am she or he who
responds to the Other’s calling me and calling on me. I am who I am in
for the Other. In this matter, as Levinas
ethics as first philosophy, I am irreplaceable. Nobody else can relieve
me of my responsibility.
He wrote of the trace of God, or goodness, in the face of the Other. We
can be moved by the Other, moved to open our hearts and minds, moved to
goodness, moved to respond in responsibility.
Responsibility for the Other can be thought of as a centrifugal force,
from me outward, in contrast to our ego-centric, centripetal
The Other, by calling on me, and subjecting me to the obligation to
respond, gives me an opportunity to get out of my egocentric prison.
That’s quite a good
When there is just the Other, I am ethically obliged to her. But as
soon as there is a third, as there always is (my and the Other’s other
others, even if no 3rd is present), politics and the scales of justice
come into play.
The extension of the ethical relation to and within a wider social and
political context can provide a sound basis for the possibility
justice, of justice that may come to
Time and turnings
The accounts and passages above point to a spirit which some of us may
have encountered, at least in passing . . . unless, of course, it might
have passed us by, gone right past us . . .
’ can also refer to
what is yet to come:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face
At present our sight of things is one through a mirror which throws
them into bewildering confusion, but there will be a time when we shall
see them face to face.
When will that time be?
Surely it’s got to do with how we live together and treat one another
and the possibility, in a time which may come, of something, yet no
‘thing,’ taking us by surprise, transforming how we are.
When egoic ‘I’ gets out of the way; when I am he or she who is the one
responding to being called, perhaps even prior to hearing a call; when
between us we find ourselves in our inviting and opening that
possibility, that’s probably on the way to seeing face to face in a
time that may come to be.
Losing and Finding,
Questioning and Putting Ourselves in Question
A while ago, I saw the Polish Song of the Goat theatre company [5
perform fragments of The Epic of Gilgamesh. They were performing a
complex weaving in and out of stories, of narrators, of narratives;
telling, with passion and grace, about and birth and death; about the
agonies and ecstasies, conflicts and bonds, of gods, men and women,
animals and spirits.
They were performing a text on a time of creation, of one of the
ancient stories of how we came to be and of the complex fabric of our
lives. They were telling us how it was and how it is, calling on us to
remember and questioning who and how we are.
They reminded me how the threads of the complex and delicate fabric of
lives, or the stories we tell ourselves or are told are our stories,
can come undone, how we sometimes lose
, or the threads
how the texts of lives may be disrupted.
We (individually and together) can even lose
the plot. While such
experiences can be disrupting and disturbing, they just might open up
an opportunity to find ourselves, perhaps even finding ourselves
liberated from destructive and painful repetitions of the plot, a plot
that may never even have been one’s own plot.
There are perhaps modes of telling that help us listen
and hear our
stories in ways that help us remember and that may help re-member
Most of us can use re-minding
reminding, for example, of how short,
how impermanent this life journey is; how we get in the way of letting
others be, with love; how when we can’t love, we might nevertheless try
to avoid doing harm; and how we need to learn to distinguish care-fully
between loving and harmful acts.
We need to understand the experience and diverse needs of others whose
lives have been disrupted if we aspire to help them discover the roots,
the radical origins, of their distress that may, in turn, point toward
a more sound way of being who they are.
can we co-create,
invite and/or allow such spaces, and optimal
conditions (whatever they might be, in each singular case) for people
to unwind, begin to get their bearings, and become more aware of the
pleasures as well as problematics of their being-in-the world-with
Who of us can claim to know
and on what grounds
know, how to
live even our own lives wisely, compassionately, opening and
flourishing in our being with others in the world?
Who of us can openly and wholeheartedly, respond to another (who
might be a friend, partner, family member, neighbour, stranger, patient
or client) who is terrified, confused, fragmented, without a sense of
his or her articulation with others, lost in psychic and social space?
How can we come to know and embody
the skilful means needed for the
radical understanding of and responsible responding to another is
These are matters that I think we all need to keep inquiring into,
deeply and critically, for the sake of all concerned.
Given that we all go astray, each in our own way, clearly when we go
astray, we need to find our own way, find our own way of way-ing in
relation to others, in our own way, in our own time.
Just as our way of going astray is singular, so our way of finding our
way needs to be singular.
I think it’s helpful for each of us to think about how one would like
to be treated, or would like someone we care about to be treated, in
the event of severe breakdown, some kind of crisis in ones being,
whether or not there’s reason to think that a biochemical imbalance or
disorder is a primary or contributing factor. Obviously that will
vary greatly for each person and situation, but what would each of us
like to find in an ambiance where we or others sought asylum, refuge
relief from suffering and access to encouragement, guidance, formal
therapies or other kinds of help we might need?
Considering my lessons from the past, learned though decades of
experience relevant to these matters, I’ll outline below what I take to
be key points along the way to keep in mind.
What follows is not intended as a comprehensive list. One does, of
course, need to respond to each person and situation in a singular
manner. But if these points were taken to heart by a responsible group
of people offering asylum and a helping hand to others, others who are
finding their very being in the world with others very difficult, when
others may be finding being with them difficult as well, the chances
for salutary outcomes would be increased and enhanced.
• An authentic welcome
to the household, with clarity
about the hopefully thoughtful and minimum requirements for the safety
and well-being of all concerned
for the Other
] : Inviting and allowing each person
to find her or his way, unconstrained by cultural, institutional or
familial imposed schedules regarding when and how and with whom (given
mutual consent) one eats, sleeps, gets up, eliminates, goes in or out,
and so on
how 'bodymind' can unfold
and open when
relatively free of outside pressure to conform and becoming aware of
the constraints we impose on ourselves and have habitually maintained.
Clearly there may be times when any of us might be need less freedom
and more containment. But that should, to whatever extent possible, be
arrived at by mutual understanding and consent, with clarity as to the
purpose and time frame of any limiting of someone’s free choices and
clarity regarding what’s at stake and for whose benefit someone’s
choices may be limited
more aware of body, speech and mind
starting with basic mindfulness of breathing, noticing patterns
of disturbed breathing, learning to let ourselves ‘be breathed’ and
whatever thoughts and
feelings are arising (as in basic eastern meditation practices)
from all the ways we get twisted,
physically, mentally, emotionally; unwinding from being wound up and/or
Through mindfulness of body and mind,
learning to release unnecessary tensions, holdings on, contractions,
constrictions, at all levels
to one’s sense
as unwinding and releasing
open the way for feeling more, seeing more, perceiving more, and in
more open, relaxed and likely less distorted ways
-- Beginning to enjoy what one may perhaps
only now be beginning to feel as one’s own life space, less obscured
and constricted and dampened by previous defensive comportments and
and being with
-- Being able to take one’s
time, in one’s time, in time shared with another and others, to dwell,
linger, wander, wonder, form diverse kinds of relationships with
others, including Eros [7
], Philia, Agape, different
kinds of loving
oneself and others
-- Beginning to have a
sense of who one is, how one is, and, from that previously obscured
place, meet others.i.e, meet the Other (the singular, Levinasian Other
who calls on us) and the others previously seen very partially and in
distorted ways . . . and finding ways of respecting the needs others
also have to find their way, without impinging on their way
Responding to the face of the other . . . .and open to the call of the
Moving toward responsibility . . . responsible for the Other and others
And toward a justice to come . . .
The houses back Then, in the early days of the PA, were embedded in a
cultivation and enjoyment of the arts (music,
painting, literature, and lots of in-house theatre!) and learning about
and practicing diverse ‘body/mind/spirit’ disciplines (e.g., yoga,
mediation, martial arts) as well as the psychotherapeutic arts (and
their intellectual foundations as well as questioning
those foundations), were all on our way. Indeed, they were the way
the PA. But we were only at the beginning
of a long learning curve.
It seemed to me that the first principles (I spoke of in my ‘Prelude’)
and some of these points lost their place of (uncontested
) priority in
the PA as it became more of a psychotherapy training and professional
organisation, more institutionalised and more involve d with
bureaucratic and administrative compromises.
As psychotherapy and psychotherapists came to play a larger part in the
PA’s houses, those houses also became less
in acute and severe distress.
Ways and means offering help to people, more at the heart of the PA in
our earlier years, such as arts referred to above, featured less, or
not at all, as psychoanalytic psychotherapy and meetings convened by
psychotherapists became the primary and privileged way of helping
A sense of a collective aspiration to cultivate relationships and
activities that could enhance the possibilities of people going beyond
provisional limitations and flourishing, shared (more or less) by many
of the people back ‘Then,’ diminished with moves toward
I think what was lost was a passion to inquire into the roots of
suffering and the possibilities for radical and profound healing or
prevention of unnecessary suffering. Intimately related to that, the
other side of the coin, as it were, was a passion
find authentic ways
to celebrate, in a non-sectarian way, what’s been called the ‘sacrament
of the present moment
], in our shared life
space and life time.
The chances of ‘celebrating the sacrament of the present moment,’
flourishing and going beyond current limits are diminished by having to
fit in with requirements of registration and funding bodies, with their
various codes and rules. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult and
certainly a real challenge
Yet celebrating the sacrament of the present moment, flourishing and
going beyond current limits ought to be our priority, as they
constitute perhaps the greatest gifts we can give each other and
ourselves, Now . . . and Then, in the time ‘to come’, and to those yet
They offers us a sound basis for embodied, wise, compassionate and
responsible thought and practice as we attend and respond
to the vital matters of madness, civilisation and social justice
that call on us.
1] Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No.9, Op.125
"Choral", 4th movement, Baritone Recitative, from introductory words to
Schiller’s Ode written by Beethoven, translation via Classical Music
2] A term I learned from by Thich Nhat Hahn’s talks
and writings. See www.plumvillage.org
3] Cassirer, Heinz, 1989. God's New Covenant: A New
Testament Translation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
4] See E.Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, Duquesne Univ.
Press,1985; L Redler, “Open, Empty and Other”, Contemporary
Buddhism, Vol. 1, No. 1, London, 2000; Gans and Redler, “Just
Listening”, Xlibris, USA, 2001
6] R D Laing, http://laingsociety.org/biblio/audio.colloquies.htm
1987, interview with Dr. D Kelly, London
7] From the Greek for erotic love, brotherly/sisterly
love and love as compassion or charity
8] A term R D Laing called to my attention about 30
years ago. He found it in the writings of Jean Pierre de Caussade, in
letters of instruction to the Nuns of the Visitation at Nancy, where he
was spiritual director from 1733-1740. I found this detail via
Leon Redler qualified in Medicine in New York (1962) and left a
psychiatric residency there when invited to work with Maxwell Jones and
R D Laing in the UK.
He was apprenticed to Laing for many years, re-searching the sources of
our suffering and the possibilities of profound, ethical and effective
responding to our distress. He remains in London, practicing
psychotherapy and teaching. Published work includes Just Listening:
Ethics and Therapy, co-authored with philosopher/therapist Dr. Steven
Gans, in 2001.