R. D. Laing wore many robes in his career, including psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, social critic, author, poet, and mystic, and at the peak of his fame and popularity 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), and Knots (1970). Laing’s impassioned plea for a more humane treatment of 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 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 psychiatric treatment 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 was so successful that it continues to operate nearly fifty years later and is even funded by the Local Council in London. Kingsley Hall also inspired numerous residential treatment communities in North America that eventually led to a sea-change in contemporary attitudes about the involuntary incarceration of the mentally ill.

In 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 2013.rdlaingsymposium.com). 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.