The Ten Day Voyage

From The Politics of Experience by R.D. Laing

JESSE WATKINS is now a well-known sculptor. I am glad to know him as a friend.

He was born 31 December 1899. Went to sea in 1916 on a tramp steamer during World War I. His first trip was to North Russia. In the same year he was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. In 1932 he served in a square-rigged sailing ship.

He ended the Second World War (during which he served in the Royal Navy) as a Commander and Commodore of coastal convoys. During his career at sea he encountered shipwreck, mutiny and murder.

He has drawn and painted since early youth and con­stantly did so at sea. While ashore for brief periods he attended sporadically life classes at Goldsmiths’ College and Chelsea Art School. He has also written and had published short stories of the sea.

Twenty-seven years ago Watkins went through a ‘psychotic episode’ that lasted ten days. I tape-recorded a discussion with him about it in 1964 and with his permission extracts are presented here.

The material speaks for itself. It is an account of his voyage into in inner space and time. Its general features are not unusual, but it is unusual to have such a lucid account of them. Although the events are twenty-seven years old, they are vivid in his mind and constitute one of the most significant experiences of his life.


The preliminaries 

Before his Voyage began, Jesse had ‘moved into an entirely new environment’. He had been working seven days a week, until late at night. He felt physically, emotionally, spiritually at a ‘low ebb’. Since it is the voyage itself that we are concerned with here, we shall not go into the antecedent circumstances in more detail. Then he was bitten by a dog, and the wound did not heal. He went to hospital where he was given a general anaes­thetic for the first time in his life and had the wound dressed.

He returned home by bus and sat down in a chair. His son aged seven came into the room and Jesse saw him in a new and strange way, somehow unremoved from himself.

Then it began.

The voyage 

…. suddenly I looked at the clock and the wireless was on and then the music was playing -um – oh, popular sort of bit of music. It was based on the rhythm of a tram. Taa-ta-ta-taa-taa – something like Ravel’s repetitive tune. And then when that happened I suddenly felt as if time was going back. I felt this time going back, I had this extraordinary feeling of – er – that was the greatest feeling I had at that moment was of time going backwards. …

‘I even felt it so strongly I looked at the clock and in some way I felt that the clock was reinforcing my own opinion of time going back although I couldn’t see the hands moving —I felt alarmed because I suddenly felt as if I was moving somewhere on a kind of conveyor belt – and unable to do anything about it, as if I was slipping along and sliding down a – shute as it were and – er -unable to stop myself. And -um – this gave me a rather panicky feeling – –I remember going into the other room in order to see where I was, to look at my own face, and there were no mirrors in that room. I went into the other room, and I looked into the mirror at myself, and I looked in a way strange, I seemed as though I were looking at someone who – someone who was familiar but – er -very strange and different from myself – as I felt – – and then I had extraordinary feelings that I was quite capable of doing anything with myself, that I had a feeling of being in control of – of all my faculties, body and everything else, – – and I started rambling on.’

One sees the old and familiar in a new and strange way. Often as though for the first time. One’s old moorings are lost. One goes back in time. One is embarked on the oldest voyage in the world.

‘My wife became very -um – worried. She came in and told me to sit down and lie down in bed and be-cause she was alarmed she got hold of the man next door to come m. He was a civil servant and he was also a bit alarmed and he calmed me down, and I was rambling on to him, and the doctor came up – um – and I was talking of a lot of these feelings I had in my mind about time going back. Of course, to me they sounded perfectly rational, I was going back and thinking that I was going back into sort of previous existences, but only vaguely. And they obviously looked at me as if I were mad, I could feel – I could see the look in their faces and I felt it was not much good talking to them because they obviously thought that I was quite round the bend, as I might have been. And – um – then the next thing was that an ambulance came and I was taken off.

He was taken to an observation ward.

‘I was put into bed and -um – – well, I remember that night it was an appalling sort of experience because I had the – had the feeling that -um – that I was then – that I had died. And I felt that other people were in beds around me, and I thought they were all other people that had died – and they were there – just waiting to pass on to the next department…’

He had not died physically, but his ‘ego’ had died. Along with this ego-loss, this death, came feelings of the enhanced significance and relevance of everything.

Loss of ego may be confused with physical death. Projected images of one’s own mind may be- experienced as persecutors. One’s own ego-less mind may be confused with one’s ego. And so on. Under such circumstances a person may panic, become paranoid, with ideas of refer­ence and influence, become inflated with ideas of grand­eur, etc.

Some confusion of this kind need not be alarming. But who can say that he is entirely unafraid to die, or, if he searches his heart even further, that he feels entitled to die?

…          then I started going into this – – real feeling of regression in time. I had quite extraordinary feelings of-living, not only living, but – er – feeling and – er – experi­encing everything relating to something I felt that was – well, something like animal life and so on. At one time I actually seemed to be wandering in a kind of landscape with – um – desert landscape – as if I were an animal, rather – rather a large animal. It sounds absurd to say so but I felt as if I were a kind of rhinoceros or something like that and emitting sounds like a rhinoceros and being at the same time afraid and at the same time being ag­gressive and on guard. And then -um – going back to further periods of regression and even sort of when I was just struggling like something that had no brain at all and as if I were just struggling for my own existence against other things which were opposing me. And -um – then at times I felt as if I were like a baby – I could even – I – I could even hear myself cry like a child. …

‘All these feelings were very acute and -um – real and, and at the same time I was – I had – I was aware of them, you know, 1’ve got the memory of them still. I was aware of these things happening to me – in some vague sort of way, I was a sort of observer of myself but yet experiencing it. I had all kinds of feelings of – this sounds, because it’s nearly thirty years since I experienced it, it sounds a bit disjointed because I’ve got to drag it out of my memory but 1 want to be particular that I’m only telling exactly what happened to me and not embellishing it with any sort of imagination or anything like that. Um – I found that 1 had periods when I came right out of this state, that I’d been sort of moving into, and then comparatively lucid states I had, but I was reading – I read newspapers, because they gave me newspapers and things to read, but I couldn’t read them because everything that I read had a large number of associations with it. I mean I’d just read a headline and the headline of this item of news would have – have quite sort of – very much wider associations in my mind. It seemed to start off everything I read and everything that sort of caught my attention seemed to start off everything I read and everything that sort of caught my attention seemed to start off, bang-bang-bang, like that with an enormous number of associations moving off into things so that it became so difficult for me to deal with that I couldn’t read. Everything seemed to have a much greater – very much greater significance than normally. I had a letter from my wife. I remember the letter she wrote to me and she said, “The sun is shining here” – and – er – “It’s a nice day.” This is one of the phrases in the letter. There were a number of other phrases and I can’t remember all of them and I can’t re­member all of the phrases in the letter which evoked responses in me, but I remember this one. She said “The sun is shining here.” And I felt that if it were – that this was a letter from her, she was in a quite different world. She was in a world that I could never inhabit any more, -and this gave me feelings of alarm and I felt somehow that I was – I’d gone off into a world that I could never move out of.’

Although out of the safe harbour of one’s own identity anchored in this time and this place, the traveller may still be clearly aware of this time and place as well. 

‘You know, I was perfectly well aware of myself and aware of the surroundings.’

Jesse felt he had enhanced powers of control over his body and could affect others.

…. when I went to the hospital, because of this feeling, this intense feeling of being able to -um – govern myself, my body and so on, I said to the nurse who wanted to bandage my finger up: “You needn’t bother about that.” I took the thing off and I said: “That’ll be all right to-morrow if you don’t deal with it at all and just leave it.” And I remember I had this terrific feeling that I could do this and – this was – this was a nasty cut right down my finger. I wouldn’t allow them to put anything on it and they said, oh well, it’s not bleeding and they’d leave it, and the next day it was perfectly healed up, and because – it sort of – I put a sort of intense – er – attention on it in order to make it do that. I found that I – I tested myself with the man opposite me in this ward who was very noisy at’ times, he used to get out of his bed, he’d been having a number of nasty abdominal operations and I suppose it had affected him and probably had caused his breakdown. But he used to get up out of bed and swear and shout and so on, and I felt a bit alarmed about him and I felt very compassionate towards him, and I used to sit in my bed and make him lie down by sort of looking at him and thinking about it, and he used to lie down. And to try to see whether this – this was a -just an accident, I had tried it also with another patient at the same time and I found that he – that I could make him lie down.’

I would not too readily discount these possibilities.

‘I felt that I had sort of – um – tapped powers that I in some vague way I had felt I had, or everybody had, al­though at that time I’d been a sailor most of my life, I had not – I had read quite a bit when I’d been at sea but I hadn’t read any esoteric literature then nor had I since, I hadn’t read anything to do with, er – with – ideas of trans­mog-migration of souls or whatever you call it, trans­mog – transmig – reincarnation. But I had a feeling at times of an enormous journey in front, quite, – er – a fantastic journey, and it seemed that I had got an under­standing of things which I’d been trying to understand for a long time, problems of good and evil and so on, and that I had solved it in as much that I had come to the conclusion, with all the feelings that I had at the time, that I was more – more than I had always imagined myself, not just existing now, but I had existed since the very begin­ning – er – in a kind of – from the lowest form of life to the present time, and that that was the sum of my real experiences, and that what I was doing was experiencing them again. And that then, occasionally, I had this sort of vista ahead of me as though I was looking down -looking to an enormous – or rather all the – not looking so much as just feeling – ahead of me was lying the most horrific journey, the only way I can describe it is a journey – a journey to – um – to the final sort of business of – um – being aware of all – everything, and that – and the – and I felt this so strongly, it was such a horrifying experience to suddenly feel that, that I immediately shut myself off from it because I couldn’t contemplate it’ because it sort of shivered me up. I – it drove me into a State of fear, so much – I was unable to take it.’

‘Of the task that was still ahead?’

‘Yes, the that was the enormity of it, that I – that there was no way of avoiding this – facing up to what 1 – the journey I had to do. I had, I suppose because of having been brought up in the religious atmosphere, I had – my mother’s religious, not in the church sort of way but religious in a – in a real sort of way, tried to teach us something about religion and – er – the sort of attitude to life. …’

He had a ‘particularly acute feeling’ that things were divided into three levels: an antechamber level, a central world, and a higher world. Most people were waiting in the antechamber to get into the next department, which was what he had now entered:

… they were sort of awakening. I was also aware of a – um – a higher sphere, as it were. I mean, I’m rather chary of using some of these phrases because they’re used so many times – you know, people talk about spheres and all that sort of thing, but – er – the only thing

that I felt – and when I’m describing these things I’m describing more feelings – er – a deeper experience than just looking at the thing … an awareness of -um – of another sphere, another layer of existence lying above the – not only the antechamber but the present – lying above the two of them, a sort of three-layered -um – exis­tence….’

‘What was the lowest one?’

‘The lowest one was just a kind of waiting – like a waiting room.’

This was linked to the experience of time.

‘I wasn’t just living on the – the moving moment, the present, but I was moving and living in a – in another time dimension added to the time situation in which I am now. … The point I want to make is that I hadn’t got any ideology. The only ideological part of what I told you was the part where I went through the Stations of the Cross, because there I was sort of joining it up with an ideology at that time. I have often thought about what I went through then. I tried to make some sort of – um – sense out of it because I feel that it was not senseless – although I suppose to others about me I was – er – mad in as much as I was not living in this present time, and if I was not living in this present time I was therefore incapable of coping with it properly. But I had this feeling all the time of – er – moving back – even backwards and forwards in time, that I was not just living in the present moment. And I could much more easily go back than I could go for­ward because the forward movement was a bit too much for me to take.’

Such an experience can be extremely confusing and may end disastrously. There are no guarantees. Jesse experienced three planes of reality instead of the usual one. Apart from going through the Stations of the Cross he did not link up with any ideology. He had no map.

But he trusted his experience of having entered into a State of more, not less, reality, of hyper-sanity, not sub-sanity. To others, these two possibilities may be no more distinguishable from each other than chalk from cheese. He had to be careful.

‘I had feelings of – er – of gods, not only God but gods as it were, of beings which are far above us capable of -er – dealing with the situation that I was incapable of dealing with, that were in charge and were running things and – um – at the end of it, everybody had to take on the job at the top. And it was this business that made it such a devastating thing to contemplate, that at some period in the existence of – er – of oneself one had to take on this job, even for only a momentary period, because you had arrived then at awareness of everything. What was beyond that I don’t know. At the time I felt that -um -that God himself was a madman… because he’s got this enormous load of having to be aware and governing and running things – um – and that all of us had to come up and finally get to the point where we had to experience that ourselves…. I know that sounds completely crazy to you but that’s what I sort of felt at the time.’

‘You mean a “madman” in the sense that people in the state that you were in are taken to be mad?’

‘Yes, that’s what I meant, that he was – er – he was mad. Everything below him or everything below that got to the point where he got – er – had to treat him like that because he was the one that was taking it all at that moment – and that the – er – the journey is there and every single one of us has got to go through it, and – um – everything – you can’t dodge it. … the purpose of every-thing and the whole of existence is – er – to equip you to take another step, and another step, and another step, and so on.

Jesse felt that this experience was a stage that everyone would have to go through one way or another in order to reach a higher stage of evolution.

…. it’s an experience that -um – we have at some stage to go through, but that was only one – and that -many more – a fantastic number of -um – things have got to impinge upon us until we gradually build ourselves up into an acceptance of reality, and a greater and greater acceptance of reality and what really exists – and that any dodging of it could only – delays the time and it’s just as if you were going to sea in a boat that was not really capable of dealing with the storms that can rise.’

Eventually he felt he couldn’t ‘take’ any more. He decided to come back.

‘The nurse told me that sometimes I kept them awake at night by talking. And they – they put me into a padded cell and I said, “Well, don’t put me in here,” I said, you know, I said, “I can’t bear it.” But they said, “But you -we’ve got to try to do it because you make such a noise you know – talking.” So they put me into this place and I said, “Well, leave the door open”, so they left the door open, and I remember going through that night strug­gling with – with something that wanted to – some sort of – curiosity or willingness to open myself to -um – experiencing – this, and the panic and the insufficiency of spirit that would enable me to experience it. And during that time I went through – I went through the Stations of the Cross, although I’d never been what you might call a really religious person – I’m not now – and I went through all that sort of – those sort of feelings. Well the – all this experience became – went on for quite a time and I began to – they kept on giving me sedatives to make me sleep, and I – one morning I decided that I was not going to take any more sedatives, and that I had got to stop this busi­ness going on because I couldn’t cope with it any more.


The return 

‘I sat on the bed, and I thought, well, somewhere or other I’ve got to sort of join up with my present – er – self, very strongly. So I sat on the bed, I clenched my hands together tightly. And the nurse had just been along and said to me, “Well, I want you to take this”, and I said, “I’m not taking any more because I should – the more I take of that the less capable I am of doing anything now – I mean – as I said, I shall go under.” And so I sat on the bed and I held my hands together, and as – I suppose in a clumsy way of linking myself up with my present self, I kept on saying my own name over and over again and all of a sudden, just like that – I suddenly realised that it was all over. All the experiences were finished, and it was a dramatic – a dramatic ending to it all. And there was a doctor there who had been a naval – a rear admiral sur­geon – surgeon rear admiral, and he and I had become friendly because we talked about the sea from time to time. And this nurse came along and said, “You haven’t drunk that”, and I said, “I told you I’m not drinking it”, and he said, “Well, I’ll have to go and get the doctor”, and I said, “Well, you get the doctor.” Then the doctor came along and I said, “I don’t want any more of that sedative,” I said, “I’m quite capable of – of running things normally now,” 1 said, “I’m all right.” And he looked at me and he looked at my eyes and he said, “Oh,” he said, “I can see that.” And he laughed, and that’s what happened, and from that moment I had – never had any more of these feelings. …’


Jesse came through it.

‘But at times it was so – um – devastating, and it taxed my spirit to the limit, that I’d be afraid of entering it again. …

‘I was.. . suddenly confronted with something so much greater than oneself, with so many more experiences, with so much awareness, so much that you couldn’t take it. It’s as if something soft were dropped into a bag of nails….

‘I didn’t have the capacity for experiencing it. I ex­perienced it for a moment or two but it was like a sudden blast of light, wind, or whatever you like to put it as, against you so that you feel that you’re too naked and alone to be able to withstand it, you’re not strong enough. It’s like a child or an animal suddenly confronted – or being aware of – an adult’s experiences for him, for in­stance. The grown-up person has experienced a lot in their life time, they’ve built up gradually their capacity for experiencing life and looking at things – and – er -understanding them, even experiencing them for all kinds of reasons, for aesthetic reasons, for artistic reasons, for religious reasons, for all kinds of reasons we experience things, which for – if a child or an animal, say, were suddenly confronted with these things they couldn’t take it because they’re not strong enough, they haven’t got the equipment to do it. And I was facing things then that I just hadn’t got the equipment to deal with. I was too soft, I was too vulnerable.’

A person in this state may be ‘difficult’ for others, especially when the whole experience is being conducted in the quite bizarrely incongruous context of mental hospitals as they are at present. The true physician-priest would enable people to have such experiences before they are driven to extremities. Does one have to be dying of malnutrition before one is allowed a meal? Jesse Watkins was, however, luckier than many patients would now be, in that he appears to have been sedated comparatively lightly, and was not given any ‘treatment’ in the forms of electro shocks, deep-freezing, etc.

Instead, he was simply put in a padded cell if he was too much for the others.

If Jesse had had to cope with ‘modern’ forms of psy­chiatric ‘treatment’ as well, it would probably have been too much for him.

‘…I would have to-I felt as if I would give in and that I wouldn’t want to be aware of anything at all and I’d just sort of coil up and – um – stop existing as it were. I felt that I couldn’t take any more because I’d been through such – been through such an awful lot, and I suppose there comes a point where a person can only take so much and then they give up because they just can’t take it any more. And if I couldn’t have taken it any more I should have – I don’t know what might have happened -perhaps a feeling of sudden cessation and everything, and if – if they had done that to me I don’t know what I would have been able to – how I would have been able to cope with it, not being shut in that room and – er – of course the room itself, I mean, with the brown, padded walls and floor and all that. …’

I asked him what principles he felt should underlie the care provided during such a voyage.

‘…you are like a vessel in a storm. It puts out a sheet anchor which helps the boat to weather the storm because it keeps its head to the wind, but it also gives it a feeling of comfort – er – to those aboard the boat, to think they’ve got a sheet anchor that’s not attached to the bottom but it’s a part of the sea, that – er – enables them to survive, and then as long as they think they’re going to survive as a boat then they can go through experiencing the storm. Gradually they begin to – they feel quite happy with it even though the sheet anchor might have broken adrift and so on. I feel that if ever a person were to – ever to experience that sort of thing, he’s got to have – well, one hand for himself, as it were, and one hand for the ex­perience. He’s not going to be able to – I think, if he’s going to survive – to get away from his present level where he is .. . because of all that has gone before, and there’s gradually been a building up of – er – the necessary equipment to deal with the present situation for himself. And that he’s not equipped for anything more than that, not very much. Some people are equipped more for it and some are less – but he’s got to have some way, some sort of sheet anchor which is holding on to the present -and to himself as he is – to be able to experience even a little bit of what he’s got to experience.’

‘So there should be other people who sort of look after you. …

‘Other people who you trust and who know that you are to be looked after, that they won’t let you go adrift and sink. It’s – um – just a question of – you see I feel that – that this business of experiencing is a matter of one’s building up one’s own spirit. Because I remember -to take a normal analogy – of when I went to sea first I was a little boy of sixteen, and we went up to the north of Russia, and we experienced some quite extraordinary storms when the sea was washing over the ship and the ship was rolling terrifically, and there was no food, and I had never experienced anything like this in my life before. Because I’d never even been to a boarding school, I’d been at home, I’d been to a day school and never been far away from my mother. And the sudden impact of this rough and terrific fear-invoking life was a bit more than I could take at the time – and – but then, gradually, as I went into it more, then I first of all started sort of – by being – or pretending to be brave. Then I gradually be­gan to stand up to it, and the thing that gave me comfort sometimes was the fact that other people were taking it, they were living in this – er – environment and they ap­peared to be quite all right. They gave me no sympathy, you had no sympathy from anybody, and you were left on your own – er – resources to stand up to it. And I stood up to it and then, of course, looking back over the years I can remember sometimes when I had been quite afraid of very big storms at sea – um – but I thought – I often thought when I’d been through these storms I was equipped to deal with them then from experience – but I often thought back to those times when I was a little boy, when I first went to sea, the first week, – because during the first week I was at sea, we went through quite an extraordinary gale, wind, when the galley was washed out, there was no food, and everything was wet, and the ship was rolling about and we were in danger of being shipwrecked and so on – er – I was stricken with fear simply because 1 hadn’t got the equipment to deal with it. And that’s I suppose the nearest I can take in analogy of how I felt then, was – er – this suddenly faced with this -enormity of knowing. …

… .1 think that – er – ten days and what I went through

then, it certainly pushed me on quite a bit. And I re­member when I came out of hospital, I was there for about three months altogether, when I came out I sud­denly felt that everything was so much more real that it -than it had been before. The grass was greener, the sun was shining brighter, and people were more alive, I could see them clearer. I could see the bad things and the good things and all that. I was much more aware.’

There is a great deal that urgently needs to be written about this and similar experiences. But I am going to confine myself to a few matters of fundamental orien­tation.

We can no longer assume that such a voyage is an illness that has to be treated. Yet the padded cell is now outdated by the ‘improved’ methods of treatment now in use.

If we can demystify ourselves, we see ‘treatment’ (electro-shocks, tranquillisers, deep-freezing – sometimes even psychoanalysis) as ways of stopping this sequence from occurring.

Can we not see that this voyage is not what we need to be cured of but that it is itself a natural way of healing our own appalling state of alienation called normality?

In other times people intentionally embarked upon this voyage.

Or if they found themselves already embarked, willy-nilly, they gave thanks, as for a special grace.

Today, some people still set out. But perhaps the majority find themselves forced out of the ‘normal’ world by being placed in an untenable position in it. They have

no orientation* in the geography of inner space and time, and are likely to get lost very quickly without a guide.

* Orientation means to know where the orient is. For inner space to know the east, the origin or source of our experience.

In Chapter 5 I listed different features of such a journey. They seem to fit Jesse Watkins’ experience quite well. (When Jesse gave me this account, we had not had any prior discussions on this subject, and he had not read anything I had written.) But this is still only a tentative approximation.* Jung broke the ground here, but few have followed him.

One would hope that society will set up places whose express purpose would be to help people through the stormy passages of such a voyage. A considerable part of this book has been devoted to showing why this is un­likely.

In this particular type of journey, the direction we have to take is back and in, because it was way back that we started to go down and out. They will say we are regressed and withdrawn and out of contact with them. True enough, we have a long, long way to go back to contact the reality we have all long lost contact with. And because they are humane, and concerned, and even love us, and are very frightened, they will try to cure us. They may succeed. But there is still hope that they will fail.

* For a beautifully lucid, autobiographical description of a psychotic episode that lasted six months, and whose healing func­tion is clear, see Barbara O’Brien, Operators and Things (London: Elek Books Id, 1958).

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