'Is he still alive?" people keep asking. Yes he is, very much so, and is as challenging as ever. Visionary, revolutionary and preparing to take leave of his "carcass" for a far better place, 84-year-old psychiatrist Ivor Browne believes that global societal collapse is imminent.
He's been right before. In the 1970s and 80s, Browne predicted the collapse of trust in the Catholic Church. Decades ago he warned that the Americanisation of Ireland would lead to ghettoisation and the breakdown of local communities and Irish identity. He has long forecast our current economic and psychological malaise, which he thinks was created by our failure to liberate ourselves from a dependency culture instilled by the British, continued by the Catholic Church, then the EU and now a flawed global economy, one which we are sacrificing our wellbeing to prop up.
“We are not living in a healthy society. We’re living in a society that is systematically driving people mad. It’s a society that needs to be fixed,” he says.
We are, he thinks, enduring a new kind of famine – one of food for the soul.
Let's start gently, though, with a bee that is trapped on the dishwashing brush in Browne's kitchen sink, in the beautiful Ranelagh home that his wife "Juno", feminist June Levine, left behind when she died in 2008. He lifts the bee carefully onto his hand, then steps through the open kitchen door to release it onto to a cascade of pink roses. "I love that bee as much as I love any of my clients and my friends," he says.
The disappearance of bees signifies all that we are doing wrong, he believes. “We’ve pushed nature too hard and she – Gaia as some call her – is preparing, as weather events since 2000 have shown, to readjust herself.” He talks about a major ecological collapse and famine, “killing two-thirds of the world’s population”.
“I feel sorry for today’s children but this will be a good thing for the planet, and ultimately for humanity,” he says.
He predicts that the survivors will build small eco-communities, with people of all ages interacting, growing their own food, experiencing the best of primitive living, while also being connected with other communities via the web, developing science and the arts anew. Ireland as an island, with a small population and art in its genes, could be at an advantage, he thinks.
"It's been a good thing, this horrible recession following from our enthusiasm for the material. People are relating to each other a bit more. I think there's more optimism now. When the Celtic Tiger was functioning, people didn't seem at all happy."
People stressed by unemployment and mortgages they can’t pay aren’t happy either, I point out. “Yes, but underlying it is this question: what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? People are looking in other directions than the material.”
Disenchantment with religion has left us with a “false, nihilistic” approach that must be challenged. Believing that “spirituality begins where religion ends”, he sees hope in the fact that more people are now practising meditation and seeking alternative ways of living.
Browne meditates on love twice a day, to “clean” his heart of the misery and trauma he absorbs from clients and to open himself to love, which – using Jesus and Buddha as examples – he sees as “ the answer to everything”. His mantra is: “I’m sorry; forgive me; I love you; thank-you.”
He thinks it’s working. “At my age, you’d think I’d be a lonely old codger with perhaps two or three relatives who see him as a burden: instead I am surrounded by women who love me,” he says.
“If you try to relate in a loving way you find that people respond. When you give as much love as you can, you get it back 100-fold. I get this constant stream of love and care and compassion. I am surrounded by people who are full of love.”
Since 1978, long before it was a trend, Browne has meditated and practised what is now known as “mindfulness” (ironic, says Browne, since the centre is in the heart not the mind).
He has spent time with spiritual leaders in the Himalayas and India and feels the spiritual world almost close enough to touch. "Juno," he says indicating the garden around us, "is right beside us on a parallel spiritual plane."
Still wearing his wedding ring, Browne says he does his best to keep the house and garden as Juno would have liked it. He has just finished loading a skip with garden overgrowth and is on his way to buy a new shed. “I trimmed that this morning,” he says, pointing proudly to a neat hedge.
As the bee gets its bearings among the flourishing blooms, Browne struggles to convey ideas beyond words without being unintelligibly abstract: “Juno always said I give terrible interviews.”
And an interview always brings a new flood of people seeking his help, particularly because he is opposed, with rare exceptions, to the use of drugs to treat mental illness. “The system is worse now: instead of being contained by walls, people are contained by drugs,” he says.
Described by Fintan O'Toole, in the foreword to Browne's new book of essays, as "one of Ireland's great liberators", Browne is a creative, intuitive thinker who has attracted the friendships of writers and artists, many of whom have consulted him. He has strong friendships with Sebastian Barry, Paul Durcan and playwright Tom Murphy who in his play The Gigli Concert, Browne recalls, unconsciously modelled the character JPW King (a quack self-help therapist) on Browne. This followed several therapy sessions to help Murphy cope with depression.
As psychiatrist to The Dubliners, Browne "dried out" Ronnie Drew. He helped Colm Tóibín unleash "unexperienced" pain over his father's death when he was 12. Tóibín has written of screaming with grief he hadn't known he was suppressing, while lying on a mattress. As Browne describes in an essay in his book, he believes that the body holds onto trauma, causing psychological distress.
His patients testify to the effect his compassion has on them. Browne was one of the first, in Ireland, to follow the idea that for psychotherapy to be fruitful it can't be something that is done to the client, instead it is built on a mutual relationship of trust and regard. One young client, Ruth O'Doherty, wrote in The Irish Times last year that she stopped self-harming simply because Browne "asked me to".
Earlier this month, actor Fionnula Flanagan, a close friend whose picture is on Browne's desk at home, launched The Writings of Ivor Browne, a doorstop-sized collection of 42 essays, research papers, articles and talks from 1957 to the present. The pieces touch on everything from Browne's early LSD experimentation to Northern Ireland as a "dysfunctional family"; from the experience of "Suffering and the Growth of Love" to letters he has written to The Irish Times on ECT and the State's medicalised approach to the mentally ill.
At the launch, Flanagan credited Browne's "wacky" (his words) upbringing, quoting from the preface to Music and Madness, published in 2008. Born in the front bedroom of 1 Sandycove Avenue East, Dublin, Ivor was christened William Ivory, the name of one of the most detested men in south Co Wexford.
Ivory was a Cromwellian soldier who was given the lands of the aristocractic “Gentleman Brownes” as they were known, at Mulrankin, confiscated after Cromwell crushed the rebellion of 1649.
As if naming his son for this hate figure in order to upset the Catholic Brownes wasn’t enough for him, Browne’s father regularly said, in his son’s hearing, “I’m afraid Ivor was a mistake. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to educate him.”
Years later, Browne learned that his parents, determined to have only two children, practised a form of birth control in which his mother kept the bedroom door locked. Browne, the third child, was conceived when his father crawled in through the window.
Small wonder Browne grew up not knowing who he was or where he belonged, a confusion made worse by his Catholic father's defection to the Church of Ireland on his marriage to Browne's mother, as he rebelled in "twisted" fashion against his nationalistic Catholic family, replete with priests, bishops and rebels.
Today Browne is grateful to his father for giving him an appreciation of literature, music, history and philosophy (his spirituality came from his mother). Recently, Browne even "tasted" summers with his father on the family's small Wexford plot, when "one of the women who loves me" gave Browne a gift of Duke of York potatoes, which she had grown specially when she heard that he missed this childhood flavour. Browne cooked them in the way his father used to, with peas and scallions.
The young Browne had dyslexia and was academically weak but he was a talented jazz musician who "sneaked in" to the Royal College of Surgeons to please his father. There he failed to impress Prof Leonard Abrahamson of the Richmond Hospital, who told him: "You're only fit to be an obstetrician or a psychiatrist."
Tuberculosis half-way through medical school put an end to his trumpet-blowing and he became a psychiatrist in an era when one in 100 Irish people had been committed to an asylum, usually because they were inconvenient to their families or the church.
Early on Browne began to reject mainstream views of psychiatry, with its drugs, ECT and crammed wards lacking dignity. He realised that if people diagnosed with psychiatric illness were to change for the better, they would have to bring about that change in themselves, with all the effort, suffering and pain involved. When he became professor of psychiatry at UCD, he had an “intuitive sense of an alternative view”, but no scientific foundation on which to base it. He had only a dawning awareness of the social and personal factors underlying most forms of emotional disturbance, an insight he developed while doing a fellowship at Harvard, where he began to see the importance of self-management in the maintenance of health.
He developed the conviction that when given the right support and circumstances, people can heal themselves mentally and spiritually. “The future of mental health must lie in the empowerment of the person,” he says.
No wonder so many young people are mentally unwell, when they are disempowered by the education system, Browne says, citing the rising suicide rate. “They tend to be very successful young people who commit suicide. Young people are told to work hard and do the Leaving Cert, but they are not fools. They know they will not necessarily have a job after academic success because selfish capitalism has collapsed the system.”
He shows me, on YouTube, a clever animation of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) explaining how our education system is killing creativity and divergent thinking, because it is based on 18th century values and systems bent on providing conformist workers (see it on iti.ms/1aIaNH3).
Browne’s constant theme is that every failing of Western society stems from the intellectual scientific model – “from the head” – and the belief that we are no more than our DNA. Darwin gets the blame too: “Nature thrives with cooperation, not with survival of the fittest,” he says.
Our medicine is disease-based when it should be immunity-boosting. We put hospital consultants at the top of the health pyramid when it should be GPs at the top. We design cities that fulfil our material wants but fail our basic needs for community and belonging, and our cash-starved mental-health system masks symptoms with drugs, rather than empowering individuals. These are all pieces of a puzzle that fit together to create, if Browne had his way, an eco-utopia.
But he insists he’s not interested in his ego, reputation or influence. “It really doesn’t mean anything. [By publishing] I’m getting rid of the dross so that I can tune in to the true centre of the body: the heart. To do that you have to clear out the garbage.”
His garbage is our gold.
The Writings of Ivor Browne: Steps along the road, the evolution of a slow learner is published by Cork University Press.