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Little Red...

on Fri 30 Jan 2015

Little Red...


...and the Fear of Depth


Once upon a time I went to the Royal Festival Hall with my friend Deborah to see 'The Blue Planet' – a BBC nature documentary about sea life, usually narrated by David Attenborough, but on this occasion accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, performing the original score.

Contrary to my expectations, the film was not shown as one on-going long feature but was segmented into short little sequences and at the beginning of each the conductor gave us an introduction to the next scene. This was incredibly educational for me as I know very little about life in the oceans – but it took away some of the depth of the visual experience because each time when I had just managed to lose myself in the power of the images and the music of this vast water world it suddenly all stopped and I landed a bit ruggedly back in my seat in the concert hall...


One of the most educational moments for me was a sequence about the deep sea – which is divided into zones of which the deepest, the hadal zone, lies between 6,000–11,000 metres (20,000–36,000 ft). This zone is well below the reach of light, hence literally a deep, black world, with the most fascinating life forms still managing to exist there. It's also one of the least researched places of our universe – apparently more people have travelled to the moon than to the bottom of the hadal zone...

Speaking about this with Deborah later she told me about her time sailing across the Atlantic ocean and how on quiet days she would occasionally dare herself out of the little safe boat for a swim in the sea – a sea she knew stretched several thousand meters deep beneath her and could hold any kind of life, creatures and dangers she wouldn't be able to foresee. Deborah – normally not easily uneasy – felt quite nervous and only managed to swim for short intervals and by staying as close to the boat as possible.


That image of Deborah paddling nervously with thousands of meters of sea beneath her came back to me a few days later in a meeting with our two new deep:black colleagues, where we were exploring the deep:black way of working. It's almost too obvious to say – yet still a surprising realisation to some of our partners and participants – that a key element of our work is 'depth'. We value depth, we seek depth and we are really only interested in work where we can go a bit deeper. That's what drew our new colleagues Trupti and Polly to deep:black when we approached them to work with us on 'The Fox & the Tiger' project. As Trupti puts it: the fact that nothing is a taboo, that everything can be said and dealt with in a deep:black session is what makes our work special. And Polly added to that a story from a professional conversation in which she was asked to name her hero – being quite unfazed by hero-worshipping, the only person Polly could think of was Little Red Riding Hood: a girl who was scared of the deep woods and determined to go in anyway, in order to visit her ill grandmother.

deep:black is interested in the deep sea and the deep forest because only they can create the depth in connecting with self and others where transformation is possible. We appreciate these are scary places and we don't take fear lightly: we are not about dares and bravery contests; we would never respect a practice that recklessly exploits people's experiences or traumas for the sake of creating 'exciting' art. It's just that we believe we cannot stay in the safety of shallow waters or urban little parks with our work that's all about difficulty and conflict. We have to get out there. That is why we always put as much emphasis on the quality of the process as we do on the quality of the art it creates. And that's why creating safety is such a major part of our way of working, e.g. by working by always co-facilitating, based on a jointly designed, and held process that gradually moves a group from shallow waters into deeper sea, taking care of fears, acknowledging anxieties and being there with our sensitivity, skills and awareness. One of our participants in a project exploring the experience of mental health services recently fed back that what stood out for her was “the meaning of the name 'deep:black' because the process of the deep:black work has helped me not to feel so scared of the dark”.


Unfortunately, over the past few years I often found that partner organisations are not ready for that, want something quick and cheap and light that will inevitably be much more shallow. And much as I'm very aware of the funding constraints for organisations, that makes it more difficult to afford work that goes deeper safely, I'm very certain that this is not just about money: I do perceive an increasing fear of depth around us and a culture of trying to 'manage' every aspect of professional relationships that reduces clients to a series of service users, practitioners to replaceable automats, programmes to daunting health and safety concerns and relationships to a dangerous risk that needs to be managed: in this culture 'depth' is increasingly seen as the specialist area of (psycho)therapists.

We have been asked a few times by nervous project partners or participants “is this therapy?”

No, deep:black isn't therapy. We have no qualification and no inclination to do therapy, and we highly respect the professionals that do. Yet not only therapists can handle depth – in fact we believe that everybody has a right to embrace and celebrate their own depth in the same way we asserted everybody's right to their own conflicts in a previous blog post.

But in the same way that our work isn't about exploiting depth for the sake of 'exciting' or 'edgy' creative outputs it's also not about depth alone but depth that is creative; the two go hand in hand in, support each other and are part of our pedagogical practice that is creative and relational and hopefully at times healing.

There's a beautiful quote by William G.T. Shedd “A ship is safe in harbour, but that's not what they are built for”. I think the same goes for us, staying in the safe harbour doesn't allow us to live our lives to the fullest, and with a bit of support, the right technique and proper equipment we can all embark on enriching journeys across the deep seas or into the deep woods...



Laura Y's picture

Thanks Petra for this thoughtful post.
Gives a great insight in to both your organisation's name and your way of working.

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