TEDxCapeTown – What I was planning to say

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.

Custodians of the planet

I do not believe that we can completely avoid some suffering as part of living, but I do think, though, that we can harness the miracles of being human better than we are doing at present. The very fact that we can think critically about ourselves should impel us to pursue a path that keeps in mind the greatest good for all life forms.

As do many others, I feel moved to catalyse social change if I can. One of the thoughts shared by Matthew Fox at a leadership conference I am attending, is that the human species is the only one (as far as we know) that can choose whether it will become extinct or not. This is an incredible thought, even though it may simply be hubris. If true, it does mean that we ought to be fascinated by how we can express the deepest creativity of our species. Imagine if the human story unfolded in such a way that we were primarily careful custodians of the planet and all its other species, rather than agents of mass destruction.

Layers of discontent

All the things that happen to us produce an emotional response. Thankfully, emotions move through us if they are allowed to be expressed.  If emotions cannot be expressed they are stored in the psyche. The long term implications of these simple and obvious facts are critical to human stability.

To elaborate, if we lose someone we love then we become sad, if we are allowed to mourn, then the sadness eventually passes. If someone hurts us, we become angry, and if we are allowed to protest against the violation (hopefully appropriately and in a way that our protest is heard and respected) then the anger dissipates. The exact type and intensity of emotional response to given events will vary depending on different personalities and their psychological history, but emotional responses cannot be avoided.

If (for whatever reason) the normal function of emotional response and subsequent expression is inhibited, unprocessed emotions will lay themselves down in the psychic bedrock in layers upon layers upon layers, all filled with potential energy. And one day, when it gets hot enough, they will blow through a crack into consciousness. This eruption almost always wreaks havoc and is usually a great surprise to everyone.

So, it follows that we should think twice before we tell ourselves and others (especially our children) that we must “get over it”; that things are “not so bad”; that we must “stop crying”; that we must put “a lid on it”; that we should stop “throwing a tantrum”. We need to stop preventing emotional expression either through unspoken disapproval, or explicit prohibition. Little meltdowns every now and then are preferable to a major eruption that destroys everything in its path. And interestingly, the more we are allowed to have our true emotions and are supported through their expression early on, the better we become at managing them constructively later in life.

Prince Albert as a transition town

“A clean town that works for everyone”

On the 10th February, 22 people held a meeting in the small town of Prince Albert in the Great Karoo to discuss the possibility of the town becoming a “transition town”. As a result of the meeting, the group agreed that they would communicate the ideas to everyone else in Prince Albert and see who else is interested in getting involved.

The worldwide “transition town” movement is a response to two of the large challenges that humans face and that will significantly change the way we live in the future:

  • The first is climate change. We know that the earth’s climate is changing rapidly, although we do not know for sure how it will affect us.
  • Secondly, we know that the earth is going to run out of abundant fuel quite soon and that we need to change our reliance on oil and oil-based products.

The “transition town” movement was started by a man called Rob Hopkins and some of his students in the town of Kinsale in Ireland who were concerned about these challenges. They developed a plan which set out how Kinsale could make the transition from a high energy consumption town to a low energy one. In 2005, the town council adopted this plan unanimously. Hopkins himself later became a leader in a transition initiative in Totnes, a town in England, which became the world’s first Transition Town. Each individual transition initiative has its own objectives with a range of practical projects.

The objectives of a “transition town” are as follows:

  • Becoming more resilient to environmental and other changes, by building self-reliance in areas such as food, energy, health care, jobs and economics. For example, growing our own food, instead of waiting for it to be trucked in.
  • Reducing reliance on energy and food sources that are running out.
  • Developing a functional, healthy, local community that works together and cares for our people and our environment, so that we can all thrive.
  • Reducing our negative impact on the environment – reducing and recycling waste, reducing our carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, protecting the remaining biodiversity, mainly using renewable resources and restoring damaged ecosystems where possible.

There are many current activities underway in Prince Albert that already work towards these objectives. As a result of further efforts after the meeting, the recycling project in the town has been resurrected. As a community, the town would develop many more creative activities.

In considering why Prince Albert would be suitable to become a transition town, the following factors are important:

  • We are a small community with a clear identity
  • We are far away from urban centres
  • We have fertile soil and enough water (if it is managed carefully) to grow our own food
  • We are more dependent on the outside world than we need to be
  • We have abundant renewable energy sources (sun and wind)
  • We have many passionate people doing positive work to improve the town

In considering how the Prince Albert community could benefit from becoming a transition town, the following ideas are important:

  • Our increased self-sufficiency would improve quality of life for everyone
  • We would gain new skills and knowledge by linking in to the worldwide Transition Network and all their information and resources
  • We would become less vulnerable to external changes, including climate change
  • It could provide another reason for tourists to visit us
  • It could build our pride as people of the town
  • It could unite us as a community if we share a vision for the town

This is just a beginning. Our next steps include building awareness and gathering together interested parties. In the first meeting, we agreed on a “work-in-progress” vision for the town based on a vision that had been developed through an extensive public participation process in 2002. This vision was “a town that works for everyone, excluding no-one”. We thought that this could be adapted to “a clean town that works for everyone” to include the environmental component. We will keep having conversations in order to ensure an inclusive process. And for those who are interested outside of our little town, we will keep you posted.

The problem with deep work

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?

Vision for 2012: Depth Leadership

About 7 years ago I had a dream that felt significant, although I did not understand its significance at the time. I dreamt that scientists in South America had discovered a flower that had never been seen before, a flower that had a self-organising principle that was entirely new. I could see the flower in the dream, but not clearly.

A year or two later, I travelled to South America for the first time on my way to Antarctica. I was travelling alone and when I landed in Buenos Aires, the taxi driver suggested that he drives me around the city to see some of the attractions. He asked me whether I had seen “the flower”. Of course I had not. He drove me to a huge metal flower standing in a pool of water.  Architect Eduardo Catalano had made it as a gift to the city. Catalano named it the Floralis Genérica, which means a flower that represents all the flowers in the world. The sculpture has petals that open and close depending on the time of day and the wind conditions. Apparently Catalano said something to the effect that the flower is a synthesis of all flowers and is a hope that is reborn every day (the quote in Wikipedia is not completely clear).

I did not know what to make of all of this at the time. I went on to Antarctica and had a wonderful time. I eventually wrote my book Beneath – Exploring the Unconscious in Individuals and it was published in 2011. Last year I also completed a rewrite of my first published book The Depth Facilitator’s Handbook from the perspective of leadership, and so named (a little obviously) Depth Leadership. I have not taken Depth Leadership to publication because it has not felt ready. In the last quarter of 2011, I started formulating a vision which I called Beneath, Between and Beyond.

This morning some pieces in my mind finally connected with one another. The new self-organising principle that I have been looking for has been right under my nose. In summary, I realised that I believe that I, and anyone that has an impact on the world, have a moral duty to pursue an approach that I call “depth leadership”. Broadly speaking this means that we actively work “beneath” (with our unconscious selves), “between” (with our communities) and “beyond” (with the natural environment), always considering our impact on the delicate balances in these complex systems, and thereby taking care to ensure that they thrive. We have to keep our attention on all three simultaneously and do whatever it takes to resolve the tensions and dilemmas between them. Anything less will be shortsighted. That is what I will be working towards in all my endeavours in 2012.