Eternity in the Palm of my Hand: A Psychedelic Initiation with RD Laing

With so much discussion about research into the use of psilocybin and micro-dosing as a panacea for endogenous depressions, I am surprised how rarely either RD Laing or Timothy Leary’s names appear in the literature. One of the transformative experiences of my life occurred when Laing initiated me into the mysteries of lysergic acid diethylamide.  

It was the summer of 1971. A group of us were staying in the country and our guests were Ronnie Laing, his wife Jutta and their son Adam. We had become close friends after I worked as his personal assistant during the preparations and execution of the Dialectics of Liberation in July 1967.  Our children had known each other since birth. Ronnie never travelled without his clavichord. We shared communal meals, after which Ronnie would play and Jutta sang. Ronnie spent much of his time immersed in reading, he travelled everywhere with, what amounted to, a portable library. Ronnie also travelled with LSD, which hitherto during the times I spent in Ronnie’s company I felt too nervous to experience. I had the intuition that, should I ever find the courage,  I did not want my first experience to be in an urban setting. 

I did not take acid as a therapeutic experiment; Ronnie was not there as my therapist. I took it rather as an attempted act of liberation from the panic attacks that were a feature of my life.  I was aware that if my trip turned out to be traumatic, I was not a patient and Ronnie would not feel any responsibility to midwife me in the way the psychologists, involved in the documentary film experiments with psilocybins at Imperial College, are pledged to do. I don’t think the concept of a psychedelic doula would have met with his approval.

Waking through bucolic countryside, I decided, if I was ever going to find courage, the circumstances were propitious. Lured by sounds of the clavichord and apprehension, I went upstairs to Ronnie’s improvised music room. He broke the seal of a fragile ampoule. I tasted the nectar. Ronnie chuckled, ‘You have taken to it like a duck to water.’ Unlike a duck, I regret that I only ventured onto the water once. Ronnie reached over and gestured greedily for the broken shards cradled in my palm.  An image of his tongue, reptilian, caressing the shards for traces of fluid. Ronnie grew bigger. I grew smaller and smaller. The clavichord turned into a coffin, but I was not afraid because Ronnie continued to be absorbed in his book. No curiosity, no questions; silent communion. The furniture grew Titan proportions and I realised that as adults we take our spatial dimensions for granted. How different the proportions of domestic objects must seem to small children. I thought I might be turning into Alice in Wonderland.

I crawled under the table reflecting how different the world must look and feel to children. I thought about when toddlers put their hands up to their eyes, how they really do believe they are invisible. Now I was invisible.  

I went downstairs and observed my daughter. I knew that she was my daughter, but if the Pied Piper had led her away, I should have waved goodbye and returned to my meditation. I walked straight through myself, out of my maternal status and anxious attachment to my daughter. Due to my own ravages of attachment history, I had not been able to separate from my daughter during these earliest years of motherhood. High on acid, it was the only period in my history of motherhood when I have stopped worrying about maternal responsibilities. 

I left the house and went into the woods. The vibrancy of nature and entry into a lost domain of unknown consciousness has never, unlike dream experiences, dimmed. I experienced moments of rapturous unification with nature. Every leaf, fern and petal seemed like a microcosm of the world. Stones turned into palimpsests of the universe. A palette of unimagined gems and tourmalines emerged that have eluded me ever since. As I sat into dusk one Blakean thought filled immensity and then I heard my name being called. The children were hungry. 

After the effects of the drug left my body, I became frustrated and haunted by a memory of another plane of reality but one from which I was banished. I couldn’t conceive that the acid experience had not transformed me, that I was not now visibly marked by a hallucinogenic identity. I had not been Ronnie’s experiment. He had demanded nothing of me beyond the courage to be. He was too wise to intrude into my rhapsody.

I discovered there is a world elsewhere where briefly I held ‘Eternity in the palm of my hand.’ (William Blake) It was my first intimation, (I was in my mid-twenties) that it is at our peril if we privilege ‘domestic’ reality above the symbolic life of dream and metaphor. Years later, this realisation was to become the cruciform of my subsequent psychotherapeutic perspective as a psychotherapist.

(Photo credited to John Haynes 1972)

Hilary Mantel and Jane Haynes in conversation Autumn 2009 (left) & BBC - Podcasts - Start the Week with Andrew Marr (right)



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