Four landscapes in the pandemic

The current world crisis is taxing all our resources. And it seems that we are trying to navigate our way through a range of complex responses. It occurred to me that, amongst others, there are four intertwined landscapes capturing our attention:

The global human landscape

The global natural landscape

Our personal material landscape

Our personal psychological landscape

Our current travels in the human and material worlds may feel bleak. The global human landscape is in unchartered territory which is frightening not least because it is unfamiliar and currently so uncertain. The global natural landscape seems to be doing better. There are many joyous, if not always true, anecdotes of wildlife returning to places that they have been banished from by human occupation, and we know that our human footprint is reduced for the moment.

For many, the personal material landscape is in crisis. Many people have, for the moment, lost their ways of making a living. The way we live our everyday lives has been radically altered. And although many of us are adapting quickly and changing our behaviour, we may be reeling emotionally.

We may be feeling frightened, angry, abandoned, envious of others who are better off, resentful and even persecuted by the virus and the relentless media. Others may be more philosophical, or even floating around in blissful denial.

However, whatever is going on consciously, there is a fourth landscape that we can attend to. This landscape lives in our internal and less conscious world, where our creative wellspring resides and our deepest and longest term experiences are held. That world is brought to our attention through our dreams while we are asleep, through our body impulses and symptoms, and through the spontaneous images, songs, sounds, symbols and feelings that arrive unbidden in our minds. I have noticed that my dreams in the last couple of weeks have mostly offered a respite from the stresses of the external landscapes, and have offered useful commentary on some of my more outdated coping mechanisms.

This last landscape is the most important. It is here that the psyche offers the essential antidotes to despair and fear. It is worth paying attention to our everyday journey through the realms of the unconscious. For ways of starting see Depth Work During the Pandemic.

Depth work during the pandemic

Right now, many of us may feel that we are living in a terrifying reality, beyond that of our wildest nightmares. We do not know how it will unfold, and the sense-making process may be a roller-coaster of extreme emotions. One of the many challenges is how to relate best to ourselves during this time.

Depth work is the work of attending to our unconscious processes, establishing a connection with the full intelligence of our whole selves. Our psychological experiences extend beyond that which we are conscious of, and often lie beneath the surface, beyond our everyday awareness. Depth work gives us access to greater wisdom, to the endless wellspring of creativity resident in our unconscious minds, to fantastical worlds, to irreverent humour, to a poetic world of symbols and unusual connections, and of course, sometimes, to our darkest fears. Personally, I have always found depth work to be life-giving in the end, despite any harrowing detours along the way.

Depth work helps because unconscious processes are often concerned with the alternative viewpoints of a situation or experience, working with different time horizons, and concerned about deeper layers of well-being than our common daily preoccupations. Very often our hearts weep, while our souls applaud.

Some steps to get started with depth work:

  1. Be receptive to the idea that there is a great deal more to your experience than you current awareness of it.
  2. Notice the signals that may be spontaneously popping into awareness in your body and your mind.
  3. Notice your dreams, or if you do not think you dream, consciously start trying to remember if you do (we all dream).
  4. Notice body sensations and symptoms, and try to unfold and follow their emerging trajectory – what is trying to happen?
  5. Notice which symbols (words, people, items, artifacts, ideas, feelings, places, pieces of art or music) catch your attention repeatedly and or movingly, and work out what feelings are associated with those symbols.
  6. Build a mental or physical dictionary of the most important symbols in your life.
  7. Find some way of remembering, understanding and documenting your own life story, listing key moments, events, people and places that affected you deeply.
  8. Connect the symbols in your life with the key elements in your life story – which fit together?
  9. Notice whether there are gaps in your emotional responses to things: experiences cause emotions in predictable ways. For example: loss causes sadness, threat causes fear, intrusion causes anger, kindness causes warmth. The full rainbow of human emotions have a purpose, each emotion helps us to metabolise a life experience. Which emotions may you have avoided or missed that could help you to make sense of and integrate a life experience?
  10. Notice if any of the signals or symbols from your internal or external world bring you closer to some new or different emotions, and pay attention to them, seeing if you can allow yourself to turn up the volume on those emotions.
  11. Identify companions who you can connect with while you explore new depths – a friend or family member that listens and doesn’t advise, or if need be, a professional who is trained to accompany you through depth work.

Online Depth Work

I am trying to see if it is possible to help people do depth work online in this uncertain time. If you would be interested in joining an online depth group, or would like some online depth support, contact me on

Warm regards
Hélène Smit

Depth Insights – Executive Team Building

Experience has taught me the following important things about using depth facilitation to building teams at the executive level:

The stakes are high

Executive team members have a lot to lose, ranging from losing a well-paid position, to losing the respect of their colleagues, to losing face in front of a leader. As the facilitator, I need to be aware of the risks they face, and not be driven primarily by my own need to perform, or achieve a certain outcome.

Members carry a large burden of responsibility

Members of executive teams carry significant organisational responsibilities, and so much of their available energy (“headspace”) is already allocated. They may not be receptive to the onerous nature of depth engagements with their fellow executive team members. They will need some convincing about the benefits of devoting emotional energy to deeper conversations with the team, and so the process of building their trust in me as a facilitator is critical. As the facilitator, I need to exercise the metaskill or attitude of being of service to the group, and avoid being critical of their reticence.

Vulnerability is necessary to improve the group dynamics

The dynamics, or more particularly, the psychodynamics of organisational teams can either obstruct or enable their effectiveness. However, psychodynamics only improve when the team members become aware of them, and are able to consider and discuss their own contribution to dysfunctional patterns of engagement. This necessitates individual vulnerability. People can only become vulnerable if they feel emotionally supported and safe. As the facilitator, my role is to create a holding environment of emotional support, never rushing or judging, but rather nudging and encouraging the group to have the deeper and more difficult conversations.

But, the power dynamics can block authenticity

And of course, for executives to be vulnerable, they need to not only feel safe with the facilitator, but also with their fellow team members, as the political stakes are likely to be high. If the power dynamics are unbalanced, or not all the participants are in good faith, then it could be harmful to encourage vulnerability. If there is great resistance to having more authentic and vulnerable conversations, it may be that it is genuinely too risky to open up. Having detailed interviews with team members before the team session may help the facilitator to identify potentially dangerous power dynamics. If these exist, the best course of action is to avoid individual exposure, and settle for a safe, although sadly not transformative, outcome for the session.

Don’t unmask team members

Depth work should always be voluntary. We have masks for good reasons, and those masks are often essential for survival. Whatever the reason for the mask, it is never my job as the facilitator to unmask an individual. Rather, what’s required is the delicate task of gently making someone aware of the nature and impact of their dysfunctional behaviour. The facilitator needs to remember that often destructive behaviours were learnt in an environment where they seemed to be the only functional response. As children, we learn what to do to survive best, and sometimes later, our strategies are inappropriate in a healthier environment. The real work is to help someone feel sufficiently supported and understood so that they will risk showing what lies underneath their defenses.

The leader sets the level of depth

Finally, the leader’s willingness and ability to do depth work sets the example for the rest of the team. If the leader is unable or unwilling to show vulnerability, the rest of the team will likely follow suit. This means that it is necessary for the facilitator to build a good relationship with the leader before the session, and ensure that the leader is fully informed about the requirements of successful depth work. The leader needs some warning about the possible pitfalls of deeper conversations, and needs to know that the facilitator will be equally supportive and neutral to everyone in the team.

Key depth work steps

Principle 1 – Observing

Depth work is based on the idea that there are important thoughts and feelings and events that we are not aware of, as they lie below the surface of immediate consciousness. We need to find ways to pay attention to these thoughts, feelings and events in order to be healthier, more creative, and more ethical.

Principle 2 – Decoding

Depth work means decoding messages from under the surface and this means making sense of poetic and symbolic language. Under the surface communication may take the form of mental images and sounds,
dreams, physical sensations, body symptoms, hunches, or failures to follow through with our intentions. In each case, we need to figure out the meaning of the message that is trying to come through.

Principle 3 – Hearing

In order to become healthier, more creative and more ethical, we need to be able to hear and register messages from under the surface, even though that process may be uncomfortable, surprising, disruptive, or even painful.

Principle 4 – Integrating

Once we are able to hear the message from the deep, then the new information must be considered in the context of our prior, more conscious position or approach. It is likely that the new information may be opposing or indeed the polar opposite of that we which we were consciously thinking or feeling. The opposing positions need to be maintained and thought about, until a “third” way or position emerges, which it will, if we are patient. The “third” way is a creative integration of the different options we face.

Principle 5 – Acting

Depth work is only complete when we alter our behaviour to reflect the new insight or position. This may mean a new communication, or starting a new behaviour and stopping an old behaviour. Depth work drives our psychological development and well-being, and this implies acting differently.

Architeuthis – a patchwork story

The part of this blog called Architeuthis tells one of my stories – possibly even my main story – but it is a story with no clear beginning, middle and end. These writings stem from recovered fragments that were scattered and buried beneath the rubble of a series of psychic disasters, blended with the theory that supported the detective process, and the sense made of each clue.

I am using the name Architeuthis, because on the day I acknowledged that the most significant yet unthinkable event in my life had in fact occurred, I had a very important dream about a giant squid, the details which I will tell in a later post. The name Architeuthis is the name for a giant squid. But the name Architeuthis also has a different meaning. It is a composite of two words: arche, a Greek word which means “origin” or “element” and Teuthis, which means squid, but is also the name of a mythological general who quarrelled with Agamemnon and in revenge stabbed Athena in the thigh. She, in turn, punished him by appearing to him in a dream after which he developed a wasting disease and the people of his town suffered from famine.  And therefore Architeuthis is also the primary wound.

However, this is not a story of revenge. It is a story of consequences, both intended and untended. And I will tell it in a series of fragments, as it unfolded.

Love in the time of drought 2

Gannavlakte 28th March 2018

Windpump repair. Amidst the huge silence of the vlaktes, and the simplicity of meeting basic needs for water, and warmth, and keeping food cool, I walked around my internal landscape unfettered. There are some dark shadows and unopened doors.  One specific door that needs to open. My mind still cannot enter that room, although my body has not escaped it.


The relationship between adverse childhood experiences and our health

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. a

nigerian girl