by Treasa O’Driscoll
I remember Ross’s first question in a private consultation: “Why are you here?”
“I am here because I can no longer cope with my husband’s paranoia.”
“You cannot cope with your paranoia,” he responded.
“You misunderstand me, Dr. Laing. I am speaking about my husband’s paranoia.”
“Your husband is your mirror,” he gently replied.
I shrieked in horror at such a suggestion. I was unaware that the numbness I experienced in my body was due to the grip that fear had on me at a cellular level – that the emotional disturbance now daily claiming my attention was an outward manifestation of deep-seated fears. Confronting the reality of my husband’s deteriorating mental illness would entail coming to terms with unexamined assumptions and facing the autonomous force of fear itself.
I took refuge in the Toronto Institute of Self Healing, one of the first people in a stream of hopefuls, representative of every social stream, ethnic background, age and profession beating a path to the oasis of compassion that, to this day, continues to form around the work of Dr. Ross Laing and his colleague Dermot Grove-White.
Dermot was a family friend and a professed admirer of my husband’s indefatigable efforts to open up the consciousness of North America to a Celtic continuum, a revival he had effected, in part, through a series of lively festivals of art and scholarship at the University of Toronto. Dermot witnessed the recurring manic episodes that had led to my husband’s periodic suspension from university teaching and the chaos wrought on our family life. Concern for my well being prompted him to invite me to the Institute’s opening ceremony one sunny October morning in 1988. Subsequent to that exchange, quoted above, I joined Dr. Laing’s core group and was in the first wave of an experiment in which ‘Self Healing’ meant “becoming the true self.”
The only curriculum offered at this academy was life itself. Our homework entailed a willingness to deal with issues that arose on the home front and report on them to the group. I had to overcome my aversion to airing intimate details of my dramatic home life before any gathering. This reluctance was overcome, however, upon discovering I could speak freely in this group without fear of reprisal or judgment. Only by acknowledging my frustration and fear and by allowing the unshed tears of years to freely flow was I able to eventually find the courage to leave Bob for my own sake.
Ross, noticing I could hardly utter a sentence without mentioning my husband’s name, asked me to count the number of times I did this over the course of the day. I was to continue to report on this until I had entirely broken the habit.
Habits do not evaporate of themselves. Yet we can outwit them if we adopt the right strategy and channel the energy thereby released into more positive actions. After two years of attendance at the Institute, I succeeded in breaking free from my preoccupation with my husband’s behaviour, which had remained unaltered over this period. I alone had changed. The guilt that had dogged me for so long was defined by Laing as “The impulse to change being turned back against oneself.” That idea helped free me of the guilt.
I began to remove myself from the situation, relocating to Vancouver with my two youngest children. I now had a new and practical goal: to maintain an open heart, regardless of circumstances. And a new resolution: to never again devote myself to helping a person who had not specifically asked for help.
The emphasis in this group work at the Institute was not so much on what we would talk about, but rather on how we spoke to one another. Laing operated on the premise that 94 percent of communication can be gleaned from the tone of our voices. When we really listen, he said, we become aware that most people speak out of a tone of desperation, due to the fact they were never truly loved for their own sakes. I was often stopped in mid-sentence: “Are you aware of your tone?”
In listening to others, we were encouraged to hear what was going on behind the words, then to respond accordingly. This established a feeling of greater connection. We learned to question one another without resorting to accusations and to never open with “You should...” or “You always...” or “You did not...” We agreed to be very direct with our judgments during group sessions, yet to speak only in a positive vein about one another in absence.
When criticism was levelled in its proper context and resolved there and then, it curbed the human tendency towards back-biting. Our decision not to speak about anything that transpired in the circle beyond the circle ensured the integrity of this enterprise.
Often, I recited poetry in the course of our sessions, sometimes spontaneously at moments when we were at a loss for words. Once it was this poem by Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing:
“There is something I don’t know
That I am supposed to know,
I don’t know what it is I don’t know,
And yet am supposed to know,
And I feel I look stupid
If I seem both not to know it
And not know what it is I don’t know.
Therefore I pretend I know it…”
Rudolf Steiner, whose writings I keenly study, observed that we not only perceive very little about other people, but that we colour what we do perceive, transforming it in accordance with our own preferences and prejudices and then enter into dialogue with this inaccurate image of the other person.
For me, what happened at the Institute constituted the only show in town during those years. I could observe and participate in the unfolding drama of my hugely extended “family” life. I witnessed scenes of conflict, but saw them move towards resolution as a colourful cast of characters from every walk of life played their extemporaneous roles. The habit of creating scapegoats, a symptom of hidden guilt and fear in any tightly knit group, was laid to rest as family units were restored to the vibration of love that bound them together in the first place.
Laing expressed his wish to “clear the world of gossip.” This particularly impressed me. As G.K. Chesterton said, “The Irish are a fair people. They never speak well of one another!”
Nobody’s problem exists in a vacuum. Family members of attendees sometimes flew in from far-flung places when a moment of reconciliation was at hand. Such joyful reunions confirmed the power of love.
I enjoyed hearing Ross interact with new arrivals. One day, a young couple presented their story. They were in love and had decided to live together, except there was a snag – the young man already had a wife. What should they do? Ross’s first question was to the girl. “Have you spoken to your sister?” “I don’t have a sister,” came her reply. He repeated the question until she realized that the “sister” he alluded to was the woman whose husband she loved.
Other statements Ross Laing uttered in passing remain firmly etched in memory still: “Healing is perfectly natural. The only reason we don’t know about this is that we work against it twenty-four hours of the day. You don’t have to do anything except breathe with the diaphragm and be willing to experience the fullness of feeling.” “You must demonstrate your ability to keep your word, no matter what.” “Unconditional love is the practice of unconditionally living on the creative edge.”
In the safety of this haven, I became aware of the fundamental shift in behaviour and attitude that was required of me …if I wanted to live a truly healthy life.
From Celtic Woman, a Memoir of Life’s Poetic Journey by Treasa O’Driscoll. (www.bluebutterflybooks.ca) Treasa O’Driscoll lived in BC for six years and actively initiated Celtic consciousness here through music and publications.
Book signing/reading in Vancouver: Treasa gives a reading & signs copies of Celtic Woman, October 21, 6.30-8.30PM, Banyen Books, 3608 West 4th Ave., 604-732-7912. For her other appearances in BC, visit www.bluebutterflybooks.ca