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offered a respite from the stresses of the external landscapes, and have offered useful commentary on some of my more outdated coping mechanisms.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.

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.

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.

The power of stories

We are on the road to Johannesburg from Cape Town driving through the beautifully barren landscapes of the Karoo. I love road trips for many reasons, but mostly because they give perspective to a life. There have been riots in London, the gold price is soaring, the ice is melting and yet life goes on. I woke up wondering (as I do sometimes) how we can make it all better. I know that I want us to clean up pollution, but for a person struggling to feed his or her children, or someone who has even abandoned that essential task out of utter hopelessness, the accumulation of plastic in the oceans simply does not matter. We are faced with many potentially irreconcilable dilemmas everywhere.  And so I think and think and think about how to take action that breaks through intractable world problems.

My main idea this morning is that it is critical for people to tell their stories (and to be heard) as a stepping stone towards caring for themselves, their communities and their environment. And so, for today, I decided to ask people their stories when I met them. The waitress at the Wimpy told me a little of her story. She  managed to become qualified in various aspects of hospitality despite having very limited resources. Hers is a story of determination.

I have been musing about how we can tell our stories whilst using our hands and also through our handiwork – making patchwork blankets, knitting, painting, crafting of one kind or another –  in a slower, older way of living and communicating and stitching the fragments of our lives into coherent wholes. And finally, thinking about how we can pay more attention to the untold stories of our unconscious minds, releasing the demons and discovering the magic that is sometimes stored there.

Beneath, Between and Beyond

Or Beyond, Beneath and Between?

I recently saw the film about Jane Goodall (I think it is called Jane’s Story) and it tells the story of her evolution from young chimp researcher to world environmental activist (see for her work with young people worldwide). The film is understated and humble, and Goodall has a similar feel about her. I do not know much else about her and her work, but importantly, I was quietly, yet powerfully inspired. Goodall comments and seems to act on the idea of connecting human fulfilment with environmental goals, particularly working with children and youth.

I thought about my own work and its place in the world. As a result of such early Sunday morning thoughts, I finally formulated my BIG VISION, or so it seemed to me. In summary, I believe that we, as humans, need to have a three dimensional approach, including Beneath (inside us and our unconscious selves) Between (our relationships and resource sharing arrangements with others) and Beyond (the earth, the air, the oceans and the other species that live on our planet) and use all the creativity and technology at our disposal, in order to express ourselves as living beings; solve dilemmas and tensions that compromise bio- and psychodiversity; communicate virally;  and thereby take individual and collective action that is ecologically sound at the deepest level in order to ensure a thriving planet.

The process of creative work

I have finally completed a book called Beneath – Exploring the unconscious in individuals that I have been working on for five years. It has gone to the printers and will be back in 4 weeks time, ready to be sold. For five years I thought about the book, spent hours and hours working on it, researching the subject matter, writing and rewriting words and sentences. During the process, I often imagined the joy I would feel when I finally finished. I was impatient to see the complete work and anticipated a feeling of great satisfaction. The anticipation kept me going when the work was tedious, which was thankfully not often. Most of the time, I was extremely motivated. I felt that I had something to say and that it was worth saying. I worked with an extremely talented designer, Pluto Panoussis, who ensured that the book was beautiful to look at and I was delighted as I watched the final product unfold. And then we sent it to the printers.

It has been very strange since then. I unexpectedly felt completely empty. I needed to start thinking about marketing the book and telling people about it, but the more I imagined what I would say, the less I could think of anything to say. I felt as if I have nothing more to offer. That is fortunately no longer the case, I am starting to reconnect with the wellspring of ideas inside me. But, the expected euphoria of completing a creative process did not manifest as I imagined. It was more as if I was compelled to allow the flow of the work through me, and then was exhausted and depleted by the process. To me it seems as if creativity is bigger than the human being who delivers it to the world, and that in the end we are merely vehicles for the life force. In retrospect, the biggest joy was the sense of being meaningfully occupied in the creative process itself, the joy of being an instrument that is being played.

Neurosis and creativity

Someone was talking to me yesterday about creative inspiration and how it can be blocked and this person paid me an important compliment. She said that the one thing she has noticed about me is that I never seem to struggle with blocked creativity. I had never noticed this about myself, but when I thought about it, I was delighted to realise that she was right. Of course, not everything that flows from my mouth or my keyboard (as a teacher and writer my creativity spills forth through those channels) has value for others, but it nevertheless seems to keep coming in an endless stream. For that I am extremely grateful.

However, I have been thinking about why that is. Why am I so fortunate? And some of the following thoughts came to mind. I have recently stumbled in my research across the work of a man named Otto Rank. He was a close associate of Freud until he developed a ground breaking theory that challenged Freud’s thought leadership. He suggested that the trauma of birth is as (if not more) important than the Oedipal complex. I am not enough of an expert to pursue the detail of that here, but I would like to focus on one of Otto Rank’s other ideas. He proposed that neurosis (or mental dis-ease) is caused by creativity that cannot be expressed.

Now, as most of my friends know, I have some profound neurotic tendencies. I suffer from massive anxiety about many things. I will spare you the details, but these days it is a source of much humour for my family. But, I have been privileged (and stubborn enough) to spend 15 years in therapy trying to figure out why I became so anxious. This process has meant that I have more answers than I started with and my anxiety is far more manageable than it used to be and that has been very useful. However, in some ways, a much more important consequence of all those years of self-analysis is that it resulted in the lifting of the flood gates of my creativity.  

I often have as many as five epic dreams a night, and new thoughts spill forth continuously. I cannot consciously make it happen, it just happens. And I think it is because the years of therapy allowed me to build the most important friendship of my life – the friendship with the part of me that houses and drives my unconscious mind. So, when that part speaks (as it does continuously through body symptoms, dreams, wayward thoughts, slips of the tongue, strange urges and impulses) all I have to do is listen.