Tags: beneath, Depth psychology, empathy, helene smit, Prince Albert, TEDxCapeTown, unconscious, What we play is life
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.
Tags: beneath, Depth psychology, depth work, helene smit, unconscious
A review of Beneath in the Cape Times by Herman Lategan. He calls it a “brilliant book” and I didn’t even have to pay him!
Tags: Depth psychology, depth work, emotion, neurosis, therapy
I have devoted my life (consciously and unconsciously) to working at a deep level with individuals and groups. Specifically, I have tried to bring the ideas of depth psychology to the general public, through teaching and writing. I have believed, fervently, that a little bit of psychological knowledge can go a long way. For example, I nurtured the naive belief that if only people knew that they were using a defense mechanism, then they would stop doing so and relating to them would become much easier. Now, this is true, in theory, and occasionally in practice.
However, there are some significant difficulties associated with such a firmly held set of convictions. If looking at our deep self was simple, everyone would be doing it. If it was so obviously rewarding, then more therapists trained in working with unconscious processes would be wealthy. Most of them are not. As Rod Anderson (therapist of note) recently pointed out to me, Jung apparently said something to the effect that 20% of one’s work on the self can be provided by the therapist in terms of insight, the rest is endurance and action which can only be done by the individual him or herself. Also, deep work (again according to Rod), helps to unleash deep truths and can in fact call one’s entire life into question. Unleashing deep truths can be explosive, and so everything becomes disrupted when one does the deep archaeology on the self. For example, if I discovered that my career choice was based on managing a deep-seated wound, what happens to me when that wound starts healing? Becoming less neurotic can throw the cat amongst the emotional pigeons on a fairly ongoing basis.
Also, a therapeutic intervention will feel very enlightening at the start – there is a real honeymoon period. The first few insights are often quite groundbreaking. If one adds the fact that the first few conversations with a compassionate person with insight can be deeply reassuring and compelling, then the early phase of a journey inside the self can feel rather good. However, at some point, it will start feeling rather difficult, as all the old painful feelings have to be faced, and even the compassion of the therapist does not provide sufficient comfort. At that point, it is easy to become profoundly disappointed in the deep work itself, as well as in the person who may be the catalyst and / or supporter along the way.
So, I still believe that deep work provides the greatest freedom for the individual in the long run, but it takes an extraordinary capacity to delay gratification in order to walk that torturous road. And, it takes a great deal of faith in a mysterious and intangible process to keep going. I hold the faith, but it is sometimes a thankless task when trying to convert the world at large. But I have to keep holding the faith of the benefits of depth work, because how else do I justify a life time of decisions and actions?
Tags: beneath, Depth psychology, Mail and Guardian, Shaun de Waal
I was recently interviewed by Shaun de Waal of the Mail and Guardian. Herewith the link: http://mg.co.za/article/2011-09-19-shifting-the–human-focus
Tags: behaviour, beneath, Depth psychology, emotion, hippo, parenting
Anger is such a terrifying emotion. Every now and then I become aware of feeling furious about something. It may be triggered by a seemingly inconsequential event such as an interaction with a rude customer service person, or more seriously by a random act of cruelty. Those reactive flashes of engagement with the world are still manageable, although unpleasant.
Sometimes, however, the thing that happens resonates at the core level of myself, reminding of a violation that occurred before I could fend for myself. And then, with the surge of a volcanic eruption, I become subsumed by the primitive ferocity of a threatened wild animal, and I pity those who stand in my way. It is only later that I understand the dislocation in time and space, but by then the damage is done.
Tags: Depth psychology, How to train your dragon, unconscious
I liked the symbolism in the film “How to train you dragon”. The basic story line is as follows: The Vikings regard dragons as enemies, because the dragons steal their sheep. A chief’s son injures a dragon without the knowledge of the village, but over time gradually heals and befriends the creature, coming to understand that the dragons are not evil, but are simply also trying to survive. In the process, the boy becomes disabled, but survives and wins the approval of his father and the village, resulting in a transformed relationship between Vikings and dragons.
I watched this film a while ago, but I often think about its story. As I mentioned previously, I have just published a book called Beneath – Exploring the Unconscious in Individuals which describes the arduous, painstaking and epic journey of integrating our unconsciously stored experiences into our conscious minds on an ongoing basis. I am continually asked what the simple message in my book is – in other words – what enlightening but easy-to-implement wisdom will transform people’s lives if they read my book? The answer is none. There are few easy answers to life’s problems and I do not include any in my book.
In a way, my book describes how to train our dragons. Training dragons is as difficult as it sounds and it may even mean learning to live with some disability of our own. Despite that, the process of training our inner dragons is transformative and likely to be deeply fulfilling. But it does require courage, stamina and perseverance.
I think many of us live lives of quiet desperation amidst a plethora of quick fix homilies and abundant, yet simplistic self help advice which does not work for us. I think we should be allowed to appreciate exactly how hard it is to break the destructive patterns handed to us by the generations before us (and magnificently refined through our own efforts in our own lives) and then be compassionately helped to keep going even when it’s tough.
Tags: bond, child, Childrearing, Depth psychology, parent, parenting, relationship, unconscious
I am doing research for my book on the unconscious and in considering the work of John Bowlby on attachment theory, I stumbled across a perspective that has horrified me.
The research about Bowlby indicated what a breakthrough his thinking provided. He emphasised the idea that children form an important bond or attachment to their mother or primary caregiver and that a disruption of this bond, in terms of sudden and/or prolonged separation, is detrimental to the child. He also talked about the idea that the effects of disruption in this important relationship transmit themselves over generations. These are ideas that I now take for granted. One of the personal facts about Bowlby is that he grew up in an upper class British home, where he only saw his mother for an hour a day. It was apparently felt that any more time with the mother could spoil the child. So Bowlby’s history explains his work. But, somehow it woke me up to the idea that my current perceptions and assumptions about children and childrearing are very different to those which have prevailed over the ages in many cultures.
The idea that children are precious and should be protected and nurtured is a fairly new one in many cultures. In many instances, what is now seen as child abuse was standard and accepted practice. I left Bowlby behind temporarily to investigate the history of childrearing. Google it. The information is terrifying. I will spare you the details. Suffice to say that it disturbed me greatly. But also, when seen in context, extremely hopeful.
Yes, we still neglect and abuse our fellow humans, particularly our children, in a multitude of ways all over the world today. However, gradually, over the ages, parents have tried to do less harm than their own parents, and have in many instances, succeeded. Many parents who suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of their own parents, have, like Bowlby, tried to and have done better, and even more, tried to teach the world about the destructive effects of the beliefs that prevailed at the time. As a result of Bowlby’s work, hospitals reconsidered their policies regarding the access of parents to their sick children. And as a result of all the other work done by parents and practitioners over the ages, my children and I live in a far more humane society than my ancestors did.
Tags: connection, contact, Depth psychology, helene smit
I chatted to my son tonight who is now a weekly boarder at SACS and is therefore living away from home five days a week. Tonight I could hear homesickness in his voice for the first time in three weeks. I could feel the privilege and bittersweet sadness (or joy) of being able to tell him on the phone how important he is to me and to hear his voice soften with the felt connection.
Tags: Addiction, Depth psychology, Suffering, unconscious
There is a lot written about this subject, so it seems quite cheeky to imagine that I can add much. However, it is on my mind today because I have been doing some research for the layout of Beneath (the book about the individual unconscious) and looking through photographs and rereading excerpts from books that have helped me. I came across some writing on the essential aloneness of being human in a book by James Hollis called Swamplands of the Soul. Hollis puts it as follows: “The two greatest fantasies we are obliged to relinquish in the second half of life are that we are immortal exceptions to the human condition, and that out there somewhere is some “magical Other” that will rescue us from existential isolation”. If we believe Hollis and we agree with him that that we do indeed suffer from existential isolation, then of course we are going to try anything that momentarily takes us away from what is at best uncomfortable and lonely and at worst, unbearable.
And so, we will reach for any activity, thing or person that makes us feel better for a while (even though we feel worse afterwards) - any resource that provides the illusion that we are not essentially alone, and that we have some control over our existential state. We drink, we smoke, we work longer than necessary, we indulge in a surfeit of social networking or surfing the internet, we eat more than we need for healthy living, we watch TV when there are other more important things to do, we buy things we do not need, we gamble, we compulsively seek romantic or sexual partners, we exercise obsessively, we adopt dogmas and try to convince others of our “rightness”, we take prescription and non-prescription drugs, we plan, we rush and we fill our minds with worry and magical thinking. And it is hard to stop ourselves. Of course, these distractions also seem to help with the fact that in addition to our essential aloneness, we suffer a range of other assaults on our well-being – we suffer losses large and small, we struggle practically and financially, we come up against the needs of others that differ from our needs and so we have conflict, and our daily living sometimes drains us of the energy required to manage these challenges.
However, there are times where living feels ok or even really good, even without the distractions. Hollis is somewhat more optimistic a page later in his book when he says that “Nature has not brought us here unequipped for the journey”. We have the potential for a set of inner resources that can contain us while we suffer. The difficulty is that we need caregivers who can help us to develop those inner resources so that when we face our aloneness, we can feel supported from within. Scott Peck, in his well known book The Road Less Travelled, made a comment that struck me as important when I reread it some months ago. He said that one of the most important things parents can do for their children is to help them learn how to suffer. In other words, the parent must help the child to learn to bear the discomfort of life challenges, without trying to remove those challenges or protect the child from the life process. Of course, there are limits to what is appropriate at different ages, and parents cannot control everything that happens to their children, and sometimes life throws unbearable suffering at someone who is not equipped to manage it.
Fortunately, learning how to manage suffering can happen later on in life too. I am still learning how to suffer, rather than distracting myself. I am learning that the ordinary love of friends expressed in quiet companionship helps a great deal, and that, if suffering is allowed, and supported, it passes. I am learning that witnessing the cycles of life in the natural environment around me helps. Finally, it seems that spending time developing my inner resources by closely attending to the communication from my unconscious self, as cryptic as it is sometimes, helps most of all.