I was privileged enough to be sitting in a cafe near my home this morning drinking hot chocolate with a friend. The bill came in a tatty plastic folder. I did not consciously notice this, but my friend commented on the message that was being sent to us as customers in that important concluding moment of the relationship between us and the proprietors. I realised during the ensuing discussion how many of us are not consciously sensitive to the rituals between us. These rituals and the symbols we use in them result in the communication of the care or the lack of care we have towards others. I was reminded of how the unconscious or underlying positions we hold towards each other reveal themselves continuously, despite our best conscious efforts. And finally, I thought about how important it is to align the different parts of our psyche as much as we are able to, if we are to have relationships that support and enhance our mutual worth.
We suffer loss everyday. We lose our youth, our health, inexorably and we lose the people and things that we become attached to. Conceivably, this is an unbearable part of being human, and in many instances, losses are indeed experienced as unbearable. However, surprisingly, we also recover from losses, even remarkably painful ones. I have been thinking about the things that help us recover from loss.
It seems that we as humans have an inherent capacity to grieve – in other words we have inbuilt mechanisms which help us metabolise the experience of loss. Elizabeth Kubler Ross did important work in this area and her books are well worth reading if one is struggling with loss. We have emotions that help move us through difficult experiences, if we are allowed to feel them and ideally express them. Sadness (and maybe first, anger) helps us to accept the eventual separation from the people and things that we are attached to. The experience and expression of grief allows us to come to terms with the loss. However, many of us have lost our capacity to grieve, or we never developed it in the first place. Grief is messy, and in world that insists on the shiny one-sidedness of perfection as the ultimate goal, we increasingly shy away from the useful chaos and misery of grief. We have fewer and fewer rituals that evoke our deepest meaning-making capacities, and so we are losing touch with our archetypal predisposition to heal.
Another idea is that loss is never the final act of the drama. As an insightful friend recently commented, anything that had life once, eventually supports new life. In that way, we live forever. This idea is possibly not comforting in itself, but it does embed each of us firmly in the cycle of life, and this may deliver a sense of belonging that, although abstract, softens our felt isolation from a creative source.
Finally, loss keeps us humble. It forces us to re-evaluate our relationships, our lives, our choices. It reminds us of what we do value, and sometimes encourages us to newly appreciate people and things around us that had apparently lost their lustre. With the full experience of loss, we wash the dust from our eyes and our hearts, and we discover that, remarkably, they still work.
1. The unconscious is fascinating. When you start doing active deep reflection the unconscious will respond generously with dreams. I get about 5 free movies every night.
2. If you know your own stuff, you do not keep laying it on unsuspecting others, and then avoiding them, or having conflict with them.
3. If you do not actively engage with your unconscious, it eventually actively engages with you through body symptoms, unexplained moods, irrational impulses, obsessions, phobias, addictions, or just general dis-ease.
4. Old unexamined experiences and the feelings connected to them lock up energy and drain your resources, and when life does throw you a curve ball (as it does occasionally), you have fewer emotional, physical and mental resources with which to manage.
5. The more you know your depths, the more congruent you will be in the world, and the less you will encounter unpleasant surprises in yourself, or subject others to them.
6. The more you get to know your unconscious, the less lonely you are. Eventually you have a whole cast of characters inside you, each with a point of view.
7. The deeper your work on yourself, the more you access the full range of your archetypal potential and the more agile you become in occupying the different roles in your life.
8. If you do the deep work on yourself, you can break destructive ancestral patterns, and thereby free your children from the cycles of repetition.
9. As you develop and assimilate previously disallowed parts of yourself, you occasionally come into contact with the numinous or what is more commonly known as magical experiences.
10. Doing depth work can mean transformation – for the individual, the family, the group, the community, and maybe even the planet.
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.
As you may know, I spent a few years living in the small town of Prince Albert. I returned to the city for a range of logistical reasons. I have now been back almost a year and a half, and realise that I have spent much of that time in mourning. I have been grieving the loss of small town living. I kept a house in Prince Albert and have returned there for weekends and recently for a ten day visit. Every time I go there, I feel significantly happier. I attributed this to many different things and thought about it a lot. It is not that Cape Town is a bad place, it is very beautiful and I have many dear friends here. My work is here and there is a range of stimulating and exciting things to do.
I realised that living a small town like Prince Albert (I am not sure if it is the same in all small towns) gave me two things which are far harder to get in a city. It gave me a community to which I belonged (and still do judging by the response I get when I go back there), and it gave me access to the diversity in others and myself.
By “community” I mean that in Prince Albert I am surrounded by a group of people who all know each other, and who pass information around very quickly. Some people regard that as gossip and may not like it. And of course, people in Prince Albert do gossip, but mostly it is not malicious. What it does mean is that the people of the town pass information around that when you need something or are in trouble in some way, you very soon get help from a variety of quarters. Recently, one of the two town doctors’ son was severely injured in an accident. The doctor and his wife had to rush to Cape Town to spend time with their son who is now thankfully ok. They left behind their practices (his wife is a physio), their guest house, their animals and their large and wonderful vegetable garden. In their absence, everything kept going. The people of Prince Albert simply jumped in and sorted it out. The town also held several events to raise money for medical bills. This is a high profile story, but it is one of many. When my daughter was caught behind a flooding river 3 years ago for two days in the pouring rain in a tent whilst running a 40 degree temperature, many people in the town got together to ensure that she was rescued. And, on a much more mundane level, when my fridge broke last week, the guy at the hardware store just happened to know the number of the guy who fixes fridges, who popped in to look at my fridge an hour later. Because the community is well defined – there is simply miles and miles of Karoo all around – and because it is small enough, there are clear boundaries that hold the group of people together as a functioning system. There is strong identification with being a resident of Prince Albert, and there is a sense of needing to look after one another.
In terms of the second part of what Prince Albert gave me, access to diversity in myself and others, it is wonderful to be interacting with people without too much concern about whether you fit in. In Prince Albert, it does not really matter what age you are, or how much money you have, how good looking or thin you are, how big your house is, or how educated you are, when you are considering your membership of the community. Everyone belongs, simply by virtue of living there. It does not mean that everyone likes one another, or that everything is perfect, but it does mean that there is a sense of membership that transcends the superficial aspects of being human. In one day walking along the main street, I will have 10 conversations with 10 vastly different people, carrying the full diversity of our humanity. In other words, one cannot build or sustain the defensive structures known as monocultures in a small town, one cannot relegate the unpalatable and unpleasant to an area behind a real or metaphorical wall or fence, one simply has to live with the richness and difficulty of the diversity around one all the time. This does not mean that there is no prejudice – of course this is a South African town – but there is an integration of parts of humanity that would elsewhere be disavowed. Even the town drunk (and there are a few of them) attends the annual Olive Festival and is greeted by fellow townspeople.
As a result of a complex early history, my life and my work have been centered around the notion of depth work in individuals and groups. Depth work is a term that refers to a philosophy and a set of practices based on Depth Psychology, a school of psychology that essentially is concerned with the idea of the unconscious in human systems. Depth psychology tries to understand the deeper motivations behind human behaviour, and is aimed at unleashing the full potential of each of us in a variety of settings. As a way of thinking, depth psychology offers an interesting lens through which to view the world, human interactions, and the events that result from our interactions.
In this blog, I will endeavour to capture some of the insights that I have while experiencing the world through the depth work lens. Of course, my comments will be coloured by the other lenses that inform my identity too. I will describe ways of thinking that have been useful to me in better managing myself in my world, and include some of the insights that I have gained in my work, whilst respecting the confidential nature of the work that I do. If there are particular areas or issues that you would like me to comment on, please let me know, and I will see if I can find some feedback that adds value.