TEDxCapeTown – What I was planning to say

July 23, 2012 at 8:47 am | Posted in Musings, News | 3 Comments
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Carl Jung said that “The world today hangs by a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man.”

The psyche is more than our conscious thoughts, our plans, our decisions, and our feelings. It is our entire mental and psychological life. It is the medium through which we play our lives. I have been fascinated with the idea of the psyche for a long time. Particularly, I have been interested in what happens to the parts of ourselves that we cannot readily express for some reason or another.

My early life is in some ways best captured by this picture, and the only piece of art, incidentally, that I have ever done. As a young child, I suffered from psychological and physical injury that could not be spoken about, and as a result, many of my experiences ended up deep in my psyche, far from consciousness.

More than 40 years later, my life road has brought me here (not only onto this stage) but also into the privilege of a varied and interesting creative life. My life is not always been easy, or simple, or joyful. There are difficult times, as for all of us. But I am no longer in the corner of that room (as in the picture). I would like to share with you what helped me change my life so fundamentally and for the better.

The first important factor is that I was lucky enough to be born into a family of white entrepreneurs, in a country that at that time ensured privilege for white people. As a result, I have been lucky enough to have access to resources, in a way that many people in South Africa then didn’t and still don’t.

The second factor is that I was forced through sheer inner discomfort to embark on an exploration of my own psyche at quite a young age. By the time I had reached my early twenties, I realised that I was not ok and that if I continued as I was, my life would become increasingly problematic. I was extremely anxious, unstable and I suffered from a range of physical and mental symptoms. A friend suggested that I go to therapy and I was desperate enough to try it. In my first few sessions it became clear that I had very little memory before the age of 14. This realisation started a lifelong interest, and possibly even obsession, trying to understand how the mind and memory function in relation to each other.

I am of course not alone in my fascination with what lies beneath the surface of my own mind. Throughout history people have thought about it, and have tried to explain the inner processes of their minds.

St Augustine confessed in 397 AD that:

“Memory is a vast, immeasurable sanctuary. Who can plumb its depths? And yet it is a faculty of my soul. Although it is part of my nature, I cannot totally grasp all that I am. This means, then, that the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But where is that part of it which it does not itself contain? I am lost in wonder when I consider this problem. It bewilders me. Men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves.

Shakespeare’s Achilles in Troilus and Cressida Act III, Scene 3 said:

“My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr’d; and I myself see not the bottom of it”

As I continued to work with a therapist over time, I discovered that whole parts of myself that had been missing were coming back into memory. It was not lost. It had simply been locked up for a time. This was incredible to me. I had discovered access to my own unconscious mind.he idea of the unconscious mind has been around in the world for a long time.

In the Western world it was finally effectively developed and marketed by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800’s in Vienna. Freud and the colleagues that followed him actively researched and developed our understanding about the part of the mind that lives beneath the surface of consciousness.

Thinkers such as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, Melanie Klein and others disagreed vigorously, but together they produced a set of theories that can be thought of as “Depth Psychology”. These theories consider how and why human experiences are buried in the unconscious mind, what the mechanisms are, and how we can reverse the processes that lead to us burying parts of ourselves. They help us understand that the human psyche will do anything to survive, even bury large parts of our experiences and our potential in the basements of our minds. It appears that any part of our potential humanity that is not allowed in early life, will be stored for when it is safer to develop it.

The depth psychologists were responsible for the development of what we think of as talk therapy – the idea that we can heal the human mind by bringing unconscious material into consciousness through exploring our feelings, thoughts, imagination and of course, our dreams.

To get back to my own story, for the next 20 years, I made it my life’s work to understand the human psyche, starting with my own. I buried many of my feelings (especially my vulnerable feelings) deep inside me. I was a “tough cookie”.

But underneath, I was very afraid and very sad. I learnt that getting to know my own psyche, especially those parts that were buried, is a rocky road, and required a great deal courage and persistence to keep going.  The psyche resists allowing buried material to come to the surface, because those memories were buried for good reason. Allowing myself to re-experience what was buried felt very threatening because it involved remembering great pain and suffering. It also felt dangerous, because as a child, those experiences had been taboo to speak about. My psyche needed a great deal of convincing that it was safe to speak now. Fortunately I was in qualified and safe hands, which afforded me a gradual development of trust.

I became interested in trying to understand psychic mechanisms from a more academic perspective. The more I learnt, the more I realised that getting to know the parts of myself that I had given up made a huge difference to how I worked and loved.  I ended up teaching ideas about the psyche to MBA students and other leaders for the past 18 years, and all the time learning more about how it all works. During this time, I eventually had my own children, and thankfully, I think that their lives have been less subject to the patterns of the past than mine was.

I eventually spent five years writing a book (called Beneath – Exploring the Unconscious in Individuals) that explains the mechanisms of the unconscious mind to people without a psychological background because I wanted to share these ideas in a way that was accessible to people without a psychological background. Once during a workshop, one of my participants called me aside and said that these ideas were making him think about the way he treats his 4 year old daughter. He admitted that he hits her when she is naughty, but he has noticed that she is becoming more violent, and he is wondering whether she is learning violence from him. His insight was so brave that I almost could not speak. I asked him what he thought and he went further and made the connection with his own childhood where he had lost his father at a very young age and was often very sad and desperate. I wanted to write a book that could help more people make that kind of connection.

If we understood  that human behaviour is fundamentally logical, not the overt and obvious logic that we may all relate to, but the deep and private logic that is built up from the way we experience our lives. What we do is hardly ever random, it may surprise us, but it is not really unpredictable. For example, have you ever really wondered why you like certain foods or flowers, or why you find women (or men) dressed in yellow wildly attractive? Have you ever wondered about the simple everyday choices that organise your life?

There is a lovely story about the philosopher Descartes that realised six months before he died that he had a special fondness for cross-eyed people. Apparently as a child he had had a cross-eyed friend, and in his realisation stated that: “whenever I looked at cross-eyed persons, I felt more inclined to love them than to love others.”

Our logical nature extends to the way we experience emotions. For example, if someone injures us, we suffer pain and we can naturally express that through crying. If we are imposed upon, we get angry. If we are loved, we feel happy. Emotions flow through us if they are allowed to be expressed. Negative emotions can heal if we are allowed to express them. We have the power to forgive those who injure us, if our pain is heard and acknowledged. However, if our suffering is denied, ignored, or minimised, it becomes buried and stuck inside us, where it causes great discomfort and then we become destructive. We can recover from difficult or harsh experiences, if we are allowed to feel our suffering and be heard.

The problem is that, in many ways, we organise our worlds so that suffering is buried. Many of us have not been able to or allowed to express our suffering and so we have to keep it buried. We anaesthetise ourselves through working too hard, abusing alcohol and drugs, shopping, watching TV, and being aggressive with one another. We avoid our suffering and the painful confrontation required for it. And so we are doomed to repeat the patterns of wounding that we suffered. We unconsciously treat our partners, our friends, our colleagues and our children in the same destructive way that we were treated. Only greater self-awareness changes this.

I was recently at a large leadership conference near this beautiful lake in Sweden where 300 people from more than 50 countries joined together to talk about how on earth we can all live together. There were many smart people there sharing their ideas about making the world a better place. However, as I listened I felt increasingly unwell. For some reason I was struggling to breathe and felt I was suffocating. I did not understand it at the time, but a few days after the conference I had the following dream:

I dreamt that I was in a small town. In the dream, I am walking along a road and I see something protruding from the soil next to the road. On closer examination I realise that is a finger, a child’s finger. I realise with shock that there is a child buried in the soil on the side of the road. It becomes clear that on the previous night 300 children of the poor people of the town were buried alive by the rich people of the town and that they suffocated in the process. Of course, the parents of the children are devastated beyond recovery.

As I continue walking I notice that in the graves from where the children were dug up, are already used by the rich people in the town to plant trees to beautify the wealthy part of town. I walk up to the poor part of town which is on a hill and I realise that the houses are simple, but that there are already many trees. The dream ends here. It was an extremely disturbing dream. As I reflected about it the next morning I kept returning to the image of the child’s finger pointing up to the sky and tried to make sense of it. I realised that a finger in the air refers to someone trying to get a turn to speak. And just as we bury the suffering children inside us in our unconscious minds, so we silence and ignore the voices of the suffering children around us in the world. My dream was a reaction to the conference where in my unconscious I felt that although good, sophisticated ideas where being expressed, the voice of the many was not present.

This is Henry. He is a little boy from my home town. I do not know Henry’s full story yet, but I often see him hanging around outside the local supermarket asking for money or food when he should be in school. I can see that Henry is suffering. He has a steady gaze, but he never smiles. His clothing is not warm enough in winter. He is obviously neglected.  And yet, Henry does not have the power, the ability or the capacity to be articulate enough to speak about his suffering. And so, his situation is unlikely to change. Because if we cannot speak about our suffering and ensure that someone listens, then nothing can change.

Guy Claxton in his wonderful book, The Wayward Mind says:

 “Whether a culture’s ‘folk psychology’, as it is called, incorporates an image of the unconscious, and what kind of image it is, makes a real difference to how life is lived.”

But another possibility also exists: if we can confront, bear, express and understand our own suffering from our past, then maybe we are more able to listen to the unspoken suffering of someone like Henry. And if we can hear his story, we can no longer ignore it. And when we no can no longer ignore it, we may choose to live differently, so that Henry can also live differently. It is only when we know the depths of our own pain and suffering, that we can identify with Henry’s suffering.

It is not enough to have clever ideas and share them at places like this TEDx conference or any other public forum. We need to do more. We need to confront our own unacknowledged suffering, so that we can bear facing the suffering of others.

If we identify with Henry as a person, we empathise with his hunger, his loneliness and his desperation. Empathy motivates us to get involved, to become activists, to challenge the status quo. Empathy stops us from taking our privilege for granted, and inspires us to use our privilege more responsibly. Empathy counteracts fear and greed and builds connection and community.  Sufficient empathy helps us to become citizens and leaders that works beneath (with ourselves,) between (with others) and beyond (taking care of our environment) to ensure a thriving planet.

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3 Comments »

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  1. Great post, I hope there’s enough empathy to go around for the Henrys of this world.

  2. Hello again Helene. Nice work that you have done! Sorry I missed the event. I also miss my copy of Beneath, as I left it with mutual CT friend. Thanks for sharing you life and learnings with us as you have!
    P.S. Just curious: In the dream, were the children removed from the graves before the trees were planted in them? The children, the trees, and the graves seem “fluid” here, not literally consistent–which you know is not uncommon or ultimately “inconsistent” at all in dreams!

    • Hi Trevor

      It was all very fluid – it is certain that the children are being sacrificed for the self-image of the rich. They trick themselves into believing that they are “green” and socially responsible, but at the cost of silencing the true suffering of the children.


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