Every now and then someone passes a nugget on to me that supports the theories that I have spent my whole life working on. Recently, a friend suggested that I would like this TED talk. It talks about something which intuitively makes sense, but which I have not scientifically studied myself. It talk about how adverse childhood experiences (abbreviated to the word ACE) affect our health in the long term.
In this great TED talk, Guy Winch discusses why emotional hygiene (care) is as important as brushing our teeth.
For those of you with slow internet – here is the transcript of the talk.
I certainly don’t understand the science behind all of this, but I like the implication that epigenetics may explain how the psychodynamics are carried through the generations.
I have not blogged for a year – for technical, emotional and practical reasons. New technological help has kick started my writing urge again. As I begin this new year – my fiftieth year of life – and I am moved by personal and world events, I find myself musing about the following:
The whole scale of human joy and suffering, and how we move along it in slow increments in some cases, or leaps and bounds in others. And how we keep looking for a grand plan, or at least some order, in that emerging dance…
How firmly we defend against evidence that sometimes it is all terribly random, and therefore, apparently unjust…
How hard we work to find justice and meaning in the experiences that we encounter in ourselves and others, and how we elevate our explanations to the status of sacred rules and injunctions….
How outraged we are when those injunctions fail, or are dismissed or challenged or even ridiculed by others….
And notwithstanding my belief that things like good boundaries, resilience, self awareness and conflict resolution skills matter a great deal in managing the vicissitudes of life, how I, increasingly, return to the one idea that, in the final analysis, only the giving and receiving of love (or compassion, if you prefer) makes it all bearable.
2014. That date is a detail from the science fiction stories of my childhood. And here it is, and here I am at the age of 48. I have spent most of my life working with the idea of how we as humans can nurture each other, and help each other become more able to both give and receive nurturing. These days that extends to wondering how we can achieve more nurturing for all the other living things on the planet. This photo was a surprise – I took it in a hurry (as wild vervet monkeys are quick and difficult to photograph) and was not really able to see what I was taking a picture of, other than an adult monkey. It was only when I downloaded the picture onto a large screen that I saw the suckling big-eyed baby. May 2014 be full of such surprises.
Offered by Helene Smit of Feather Learning (Pty) Ltd, in association with the Depth Leadership Trust:
I am delighted to announce the establishment of The Depth Leadership Trust. The Trust will operate with Prince Albert as its base. The overall objective of the Depth Leadership Trust is to increase the national awareness, knowledge and application of Depth Psychology principles.
The following two quotes summarise why depth psychology is important:
“The world today hangs by a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man.” CG Jung
“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.” Guy Claxton, The Wayward Mind
The detailed objectives of the Depth Leadership Trust are as follows:
- To develop awareness and understanding amongst the general population of the ideas behind depth psychology and how these ideas can be helpful in everyday living
- To conduct research into the discipline of depth psychology and its application to ordinary living, leadership and citizenship
- To develop and execute initiatives that aim to ensure the application of depth psychology in ordinary living, leadership and citizenship. In other words: to design and offer projects, interventions and activities that facilitate and enhance the integration of both the individual and collective human psyche (particularly through the expression of the unconscious mind)
- To specifically develop the knowledge and practice of depth leadership (leadership which incorporates the general principles of depth psychology) in organisations and communities
- To develop the awareness and understanding amongst the general public of the interconnectedness of all life forms, and our human role in healthy ecosystems and to support initiatives, interventions and projects that build healthy, integrated ecosystems
- To support individuals, groups, projects, and organisations that work to further any of the above objectives
Amongst others, the Trust will engage in the following main activities in order to achieve the above objectives:
- Intellectual and practical support for initiatives aligned with the Trust’s objectives
- The establishment of a physical centre in Prince Albert which has an extensive library, a meeting / class room, a reading room, and a reflection room with a sandtray and a variety of art and musical resources.
Depth Psychology Principles
Depth psychology is an evolving field which has as much disagreement within its ranks as it has agreement about general principles. The following principles are, broadly speaking, held to be true by most theorists in the field:
- Human beings have a “psyche” which carries the whole of mental life. It is the faculty for thought, feeling, memory, and imagination. The psyche is not just a combination of the body and the spirit, it has a life and language of its own.
- In addition to carrying all of our human potential, the psyche processes, records and stores all of our life experience. Using our earlier experiences, the psyche develops a subjective logical framework for perceiving and further processing ongoing experience.
- The psyche divides itself into a conscious and an unconscious part in order to manage internal conflict. Life experiences often expose us to ambivalence and irreconcilable conflicts that our psyches have to manage somehow. In order to do this, simply speaking, our psyche keeps one part (or parts) of complex experience in the conscious mind and buries the other, more “dangerous” part (or parts) in the unconscious mind.
- The unconscious mind is multi-layered in itself. Closer to the surface one will find individual personal experience and potential that for a range of reasons cannot be brought into consciousness, and the deeper bedrock of the unconscious mind contains shared collective archetypal forces that affect all human beings.
- The contents of the unconscious mind continue to influence behaviour, even though such contents are buried away from conscious control.
- Both the divisions in the psyche (caused by internal conflicts) and the deep archetypal drivers contribute to continual dynamic processes in the psyche. These alternate between developmental, integrative processes and defensive processes. Some theorists argue that the psyche is continually striving for greater integration.
- The psyche uses the language of imagery and symbolism to express itself. This language allows the simultaneous communication of multiple layers of meaning.
- Human experience becomes more meaningful when the psyche’s personal aspect encounters the deeper, archetypal or “transpersonal” aspect. A depth approach tries to make the connection between the different levels.
- Symptoms are messages from the psyche. Personal problems, blockages and symptoms, as well as interpersonal problems and conflicts can be viewed as a form of communication from the psyche about its developmental process. These can be resolved by interpreting the symbolism inherent in the difficulty and thereby finding the deeper archetypal meaning that is being communicated. Simply “silencing” the symptoms will mean that the inherent problem is not resolved and will almost certainly manifest in a different way.
- We are not separate from the people around us, our psyches are inextricably linked to one another. At the simplest level, when two people come together, they form a third “psyche” between them which has a life of its own. This applies to all interactions with others – there is always the creation of a collective psyche which is more than the sum of the individual psyches. The collective psyche will express itself in terms of psychodynamic patterns. In order to change the systems around us, we need to understand the psychodynamics of those systems and always work towards systemic psychic health.
- As a result of the psychic interactions between us, there is no such thing as purely objective research or action when it comes to the psyche. We have to take into account the influence of our unconscious minds on our conscious observations and thoughts. Any past experience that in any way resonates with current experiences will influence the way we perceive the current experience.
- Our psyches are inextricably linked to all the life forms around us. Our inner landscape will to some extent be a reflection of our outer landscape, so we are only really as well as our environment is. This implies that there is a human imperative to live responsibly on the planet and to care for our ecosystems.
- Like all disciplines, the original thinkers in the discipline of depth psychology operated and were to some extent limited by the culture from which they came. As such, some of the original theories were founded on biases and stereotypes that are no longer appropriate. Modern day depth psychology challenges stereotypes that lead to discrimination on demographic bases, and helps us to always consider the psyche in its entire context.
- In order to move to greater system’s health, whether it be the individual, the group or the ecosystem, a depth approach suggests that the voices, opinions, and experiences that are repressed, marginalised, silenced or simply ignored, are attended to and considered in the system decision-making processes.
I have been busy for the last 3 months with something I have not done before. Here are the results:
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.