Into the Heart of Darkness

(This post is something I started working on earlier in the year while I was on holiday in Melbourne, it is fitting to post it now as I am just announcing my departure from New Zealand, which is part of the topic of this post).

I haven’t posted much lately, I have been working “full on,” as they say in New Zealand, on my book. I’ll post with an update on that at a later point.  I am just getting to edit some photos from a trip to Nikau Caves back in November. It was my second time at the caves which are down near Port Waikato. It is about a 1-2 hour tour that is mostly walking, but has one place where you have to let yourself down through a keyhole and then crawl on hands and knees through a stream for a bit. I am not a fan of tight spaces, but I challenged myself a few years back to go to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, and I found to my surprise, that I actually quite like caves. It is an exhilarating adventure to enter into the darkness, to smell the damp, cool air, to get wet and grimy and then come out the other side into the light again.

Dave at Nikau Cave

Dave at Nikau Cave


The Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad. Conrad was a Polish sailor, adventurer and writer. He, himself, travelled into central Africa. The book is a story of one man, Kurtz, who years back ventured into the heart of Africa. There, something happened. You could consider it that he went “native,” but it is not fair to the place or the “natives” to blame them for the transformation. The book is also about the inner journey as much as the outer journey. You cannot really have one without the other, can you? Every outer journey is also an inner journey. Kurtz came to something dark within himself. The narrator, sent to find Kurtz represents the innocent explorer and Kurtz represents the one who has been over-powered by his own darkness.

The movie, “Apocalypse Now” is based on the Conrad’s novella, a book that is not long enough to be a novel, but too long to be a short story. In the movie, Martin Sheen’s character is the innocent sent to find Kurtz. Kurtz has created some kind of bizarre web around him. The darkness that is explored in the movie is the personal shadow that everyone has. It also represents the shadow side of the United States — a failed war that turned into an occupation that attempted to win over the “hearts and minds” of the “natives” and to build an (empire) of democracy. It is a war that led to a shift in consciousness in the American psyche. USA was not #1 and the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” started to become blurred.

While filming the movie, Martin Sheen — in reality — had a heart attack.

In Conrad’s book, there is a line:

“And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

I made a painting years ago that had that quotation written along the bottom edge. That line always struck me. It is a complex sentence. There are several key words in that sentence. It starts with “and” as if there had already been an ongoing discussion of dark places. The word “also” implies that there are other dark places. The word “has” is a pivotal word for me, it implies the possibility of change. Therefore, darkness does not seem to be unchangeable, it is not unusual and in fact, it is to be expected, perhaps all places at some point on the earth are dark. Returning to the earlier statement — all outer journeys are also inner journeys —could lead us to say that all people, at one point in their lives on earth are also a dark place, while this is incredibly serious, it is by no means unusual, nor is it a permanent state.

And This Also Has Been One of the Dark Places of the Earth

And This Also Has Been One of the Dark Places of the Earth

In my painting, which I called “And this has also been one of the dark places of the earth,” there was a sort of abstract landscape — a pool, a tree, grassy banks, browns, greens, blues — and then there was also a squiggle of colors from a squeeze tube of paint — light blue and dark purple. Much to my consternation, this always looked to me like a nun, the Virgin Mary, or some other female, Christian icon. Yet that consternation was what I loved about the painting. The painting and the quote were about dark places, but also about that operative word, “has been,” implying the hope and potential for change. The visage of this benign presence keeping watch over the dark places seemed somehow appropriate.

The brighter the light that illuminates an object, the greater the shadow that is cast. Light and dark are inseparable aspects of the same thing. Every place that is illuminated has also been a dark place. Jung wrote that everyone has a shadow. Jung didn’t believe that it was possible to “get rid” of the shadow, although by venturing into it and developing a different relationship with it could lead to transformation. We need not be speaking of anything spiritual or supernatural here, this applies on a psychological and metaphorical level, although it could be argued that these are all aspects of the same process.

I woke up this morning (January 27, 2013) gradually working out this essay in my head. At the time of writing this, I am in Melbourne, Australia. Yesterday was Australia Day. I went snorkeling at Portsea Pier on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Water has also been one of my fears in life and there is some similarity between venturing into the darkness of a cave or the fluidness of the water and similar strange creatures and features exist in both places. I saw Weedy Sea Dragons, a giant sting ray, heaps of puffer fish and many jellyfish. We went to an aboriginal art show and then we went on a night tour at Moonlit Sanctuary, a great wildlife park where we saw all sorts of interesting animals — wallabies, kangaroos, a quoll, bettongs, barking owls and a sugar glider that climbed on my hand. All this ties together, the journeys in the dark, the art work, the outer/inner journey, the strange creatures and the heart.

At the aboriginal art show, we bought a beautiful painting of the Dream Sisters, two stylized figures leaning in with heads touching and a third thing/being created from the union of the two. The woman in charge of the show told us the story of how the figures represent watchful protection. She spoke about a mandala she has that is always the first thing to go up in her home and the last thing she takes down and how that makes her feel good in some way, not that she thinks there is some supernatural force or something, she said. I thought how cool that is, I wish I had something like that, then I remembered “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” and I remembered how I had sold that painting prior to us moving to New Zealand. I remembered that with sadness, but also with the reality that you cannot have an adventure, particularly into darkness (which is where all real adventures into the unknown end up at some point) and be able to bring along everything that is a comfort to you. I also realized that we were just purchasing a painting that could serve that same purpose — in fact, the blue and purple outline of the female figure is somewhat similar to the Dream Sisters.

This morning, as I was waking up, I started to think about the move to New Zealand, wondering if that was a journey into the heart of darkness. I decided it was, particularly as I decided that all outer journeys are also inner journeys. I thought of Thoreau going to Walden and then of Thoreau leaving Walden. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” I suppose I will say something similar when I leave New Zealand.

The question, “So why did you move to New Zealand?” is one I have been repeatedly asked and have repeatedly answered. For a change. To do something new. Because the life that we had was changing so much that it seemed like a good time to change our lives. I suppose the decision to move really had something to do with life and death. The old life seemed dead and I desperately needed to pump new life into myself. I needed to move, to travel, to see the world, to remind myself that I was part of the world and had a place in the world. It was all that much more painful when I realized that moving to another country is all about not having a place in the world. It is also about questioning who you really are and about what is really you, what is a conditioned cultural response from the country one lives in and what is a spontaneous expression of oneself. I went to New Zealand to see the world, to grow and to reconnect to myself. I am now in the process of leaving New Zealand for the same reasons.

This piece I am writing is really too long for a blog post, it is more of an essay, but I am going to post it as a blog post. I guess you could say it is a bl-essay. When I thought of that I had the sense the term is fitting as the idea of the watchful figure is like having a blessing, having a reminder that the dark places are temporary but necessary on the earth. Like Dante’s quote, “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straight forward pathway had been lost.” The darkness is necessary for the transformation that comes later. Life is created in the space between the contraction and relaxation of the heart.

Some (Parting) Thoughts from the Clinical Director (26/7/13)

It is with great sadness that I am writing to tell you that I am handing in my 90 day notice for my resignation from Buchanan Rehabilitation Centre and Auckland District Health Board today. That means that my last day at Buchanan will be Thursday, October 24th, 2013.Why am I leaving? A client at BRC recently asked me if I was leaving because of something he had done. That is so not true at all, I am not leaving because of anything at all having to do with BRC or what anyone has done or hasn’t done. I am leaving because it is time for me to leave. My wife, Mary Pat and I have decided to move back to the States and we’re in the process of relocating to Seattle, a city in Washington State in the Northwest corner of the United States, not too far from Canada and the city of Vancouver. I will be taking a job at the Veterans Administration, which is a federal job working with war veterans. (It will be a bit of a full circle for me as my first job was at the Omaha VA and the University of Nebraska). I will be working in a clinic that integrates primary care and psychiatry and I’ll also do a day of telepsychiatry over the internet, connecting with patients who live in rural Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Alaska. I will also have a joint appointment with the University of Washington, so that I can teach – which is one of the things that I love the most and which I am very enthusiastic about; and I’ll also have a paid writing day each week!

Seattle with Mount Rainer looking South

Seattle with Mount Rainer looking South

What is Seattle like? It is a beautiful city set in some of the most beautiful mountains, forest and ocean in the United States. I have always been particularly fond of the Olympic National Park where I have spent many memorable camping trips. Both Mary Pat and I have family in Seattle and we also have a lot of really great friends there.

Seattle with Olympics, looking West

Seattle with Olympics, looking West

Leaving Buchanan is really difficult for me, because I love it so much. I am so grateful to have had the chance to work here, and it has been a privilege to have served as Clinical Director. I only wish I could have done more and that I could have stayed longer and sometimes I wish there were two of me so that I could both stay at BRC and go on with my new life. Why am I leaving then? Well, I said because it is time for my family to relocate back to the States. I think about a quote I have always liked by Henry David Thoreau about why he left the cabin he built on Walden Pond, where he lived for 2 years, 2 months and 2 days (I will have been at Auckland District Health Board for 3 years 3 months and 5 days – you might think I stayed a couple days too long!). Anyway, I will share a long quote from Thoreau:

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” (H.D. Thoreau, Walden)

Dave at a Replica of Thoreau's Cabin

Dave at a Replica of Thoreau’s Cabin

So, now that I am leaving, what next? Well, Adele, our manager at BRC, and I have been talking about this for months and now we will launch into action recruiting a new clinical director to take over my job. We hope that this goes smoothly and that we find someone with values that match those of Buchanan, where clients and staff continually have the opportunity to grow and learn together and to bring the best of the heart and the mind to work every day.

I will continue to keep you posted with our progress of finding a replacement and I’ll continue to write these fortnightly “Thoughts.”

I will tell you that I will be away for a few weeks during the next 90 days. I am heading to Seattle to see Mary Pat (and our cat, Sofia, who recently made the journey there) and to take care of some things with my new job. I’ll be away August 6th and I’ll return to work on August 19th. I also have had a conference proposal accepted in Brisbane for the Health of Health Professionals conference and I’ll be away from October 2nd until October 14th. Otherwise I’ll be around BRC working business as usual, although I’ll be starting to gradually say goodbye to all the wonderful clients and staff at Buchanan.

Thank you for everything,


Thoreau Quote

Thoughts From the Clinical Director: Soft Institutionalization

We all work in rehabilitation because we want to help other people, right? Giving more help is always good, right? Well, not always. I sometimes have talked about the difference between help and support. Where help is doing something for someone that they cannot do for themselves and support is creating an environment in which a person learns to help themselves – i.e. learn and grow. The challenge of rehabilitation is an act of continuous triage in which we are always adjusting our expectations of what clients can do for themselves, encouraging them to reach a little bit beyond their current ability and comfort zone. If we expect too little, they don’t grow. If we expect too much, they fail or lose hope and then we put in even more help which can maintain them in a state that requires a high level of input from staff, in other words: institutionalization.

Most of us at Buchanan understand that human beings deserve human rights and that people should be supported to live as independently as possible. But sometimes our desire to be kind by over-individualizing care or overly-lowering our expectations of what are clients can do for themselves leads to de-skilling and dependency. While most people have come to see that institutionalization is a harmful thing to the human spirit, we still inadvertently bring about dependency in our clients through a distorted form of kindness – this is what I call soft institutionalization. Growth and learning require a certain amount of destabilization and discomfort and mistake. If we try to shelter clients from destabilization, discomfort and mistake, then from our kindness we are creating soft institutionalization.

Soft institutionalization occurs as the result of a series of small things that prevent a person from taking on more responsibility. I sometimes think of this as the “negative Buchanan bubble.” This is where a client appears to be functioning well at Buchanan because of numerous small things that we do to shelter them from the reality of responsibilities that they will have in the community. This creates a kind of pseudo-independence. If we shelter clients from the consequences of their actions, we interfere with learning opportunities.

Some examples of soft institutionalization would include: providing transportation for clients instead of challenging them to take the bus, keeping them at Buchanan past the time that they are actively learning and growing, lowering our level of expectation to a person’s current level of functioning instead of always challenging them out of their comfort zone, and making exceptions to BRC/ADHB policies (what in the outside world is called reality) to promote patient comfort over adaptation. While it is true that reality in the community can be harsh, the goal of rehabilitation is to provide clients with the tools and skills to adapt as much as possible to that reality. The goal of rehabilitation is not to try to create an alternate reality that shelters clients from discomfort as that prevents learning opportunities. Everyone at BRC (staff and clients) should be on a journey of growth and learning – that is what working in rehabilitation is all about.

After my last “thoughts” column, Mars had written a nice response and she said that I could quote her statement, “good will always continue,” this was in regard to the question of when is enough, enough? The good that we do at Buchanan, in terms of compassion and inducing hope, does stay with people after they leave. I would add to this that growth will always continue. If we, as staff are continually growing, we teach by good example. If we have taught clients growth while they are at BRC, that growth will continue. If we have not modeled growth and taught growth, then we have not done any real rehabilitation work.

I know this concept of “soft institutionalization” is a difficult one and I do not feel I have totally explained myself on this topic. It is another “work in progress” in which I am still growing.


The Real Work

There is one thing in this world that you must never forget to do. If you forget everything else and not this, there’s nothing to worry about; but if you remember everything else and forget this, then you will have done nothing with your life.

It’s as if a king has sent you on a journey to do a task, and you perform a hundred other services, but not the one he sent you to do. So human beings come into this world to do particular work. That work is the purpose, and each is specific to the person.

You say, “But I spend my energies on lofty enterprises. I study jurisprudence and philosophy…and medicine and all the rest.” But consider why you do these things. They are branches of yourself…but remember the deep root of your being.


Thoughts From the Clinical Director: When is Enough Enough?

[Isn’t this interesting! For this fortnightly installment I went back to my first draft I wrote when I first thought about this project, June 11, 2012 – one year ago! It is interesting to read this now, to look back at where we were and at how much great work we have already done addressing some of these issues. For that opportunity to look back, I won’t edit this, so please bear in mind that you are reading something written one year ago. I’ve made a few small comments, in brackets, in the text, but otherwise it is what I wrote one year ago this month. Special thanks for the poem that Sue Bailey supplied when she realized that it was by the same author of the poem about the spontaneous community that sprang up around the distressed Palestinian woman in the airport lounge.]

This is the first in what I am hoping will be a series of weekly thoughts from me about our work at Buchanan. I know that we are all very busy and that we all work very hard. I know that our daily work is often so crisis-driven and that we all have so many meetings, that we don’t have the time and opportunities to sit down and really talk together about our work. I am working on creating the time and space for such important discussions through the Recovery Forum, the working groups on Substance Use (AOD) and on the Recovery Culture; and I know we really need a planning day as soon as we can get that organized – however, it just seems that this isn’t enough, what more is needed and what more can I do? Until we can have these dialogues in person, maybe sharing my thoughts with you can help you to understand what I wish for – for Buchanan. Maybe this can get us all starting to think about how we do things and what is working well and what could work better.

Please do not feel obligated to read these messages. I offer them with the hope that they will be supportive and promote dialogue; I don’t want them to be just one more thing that you have to read during the week. I am writing these messages as much for myself, in order to get some clarity, as I am for the benefit of anyone else, but I hope that you find something for yourself and our work together in them. Some of these initial messages may be a little long, but I am sure that many weeks will just have a short thought or an inspirational quote.

When is Enough, Enough?

We all go through our days trying to do the best that we can. Yet, often it seems that something more is needed. Things don’t always go smoothly, systems need to be tuned up – just as cars need routine maintenance. What we did before was good, but what needs to change as we change [our clientele changes] and as systems change around us?

Sometimes I find myself asking the question: “Am I doing enough?”  “Is there something more that I could be doing, or should I be doing things differently?”  When I answer that there is more that I could or should be doing, I push harder, I try new things, I rush to get everything done so that I can get to the real work that needs doing. Sometimes in my work, I feel like I am so busy doing things that come up all day that I never have time to get “my” work done. I recently came across this quote below that I thought summed this up and I wonder if you relate to it the same way I do.

“As work turns into an ongoing series of emergencies, our efforts to achieve our major goals give way to damage control. Time is spent in stop-gap measures: putting out fires, plugging leaks, and filling cracks. There is no possibility for creative action or for enjoying the flow of productivity because all our resources go into catching up, repairing mistakes, and adjusting plans. The cycle is self-perpetuating: We do not have the time to make a good plan because our time is taken up dealing with the flaws in the old plan; we cannot clear up our communication because we are processing emotions stirred up by previous communications,” (Tarthang Tulku, Mastering Successful Work, pages 31-32).

Can you relate to those words?

How can we change the feeling that no matter how hard we work, it seems like it is not enough? (I am assuming that you relate to at least some part of this). As individuals, we can decide that enough is enough, that we aren’t putting in any more effort because we don’t feel that we are being recognized for our efforts, or that we feel we are already putting in too much. Sometimes this is necessary as a boundary or of recognizing our human limits, but we have to be careful that it is also not a sign of burnout, hopelessness [for ourselves, our jobs, or even the clients we work with], giving up, withdrawing, going through the motions, or even quitting.

There is another way when we reach this point, and that is to re-evaluate our expectations, our systems, and where we are putting our energy. This can be an evaluation as an individual, or it can be an evaluation of the system in which we, as a group of individuals, are working. As individuals, it takes time and space in order to be able to take a deep breath, to be able to see and understand our situation clearly, and in order to make decisions to change the way we are working on a day to day basis. This may mean looking at what really matters, what is important to us in our work, and what our needs are. Tony Schwartz and colleagues, in the book The Way We Are Working Isn’t Working, write that everyone has physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs, and that contrary to the way jobs have been set up in the past, that for an individual to be the happiest and most productive, these needs actually need to be addressed at work. This doesn’t mean that work is the only place in your life that you address these needs, but that in order to not only do your job, but also to feel replenished, valued, stimulated, and rewarded in your job, that we need these elements in our work. (Perhaps in another column, I’ll go into these four needs in more depth).

As individuals working together in a system, we need to look at how the system is structured to see if it makes our work easier or more difficult. We also need to look at other people around us, our friends and colleagues, to see if we can support them in getting their work done. I know that when I feel stressed, burnt out, over-worked, the last thing I want to do is look for more work, but in the business we are in – working with people to support them in their recovery and rehabilitation – the outcome for a client depends on all staff being able to do their jobs effectively. The other really important way that we, as individuals working in a system, can greatly affect our individual work, is by stepping back and looking at the structure of the system. We as individuals may not have created the system, but how we work every day maintains the system. Systems are full of complexity, however, and changing one aspect of a system often has unforeseen consequences, but this isn’t a reason not to evaluate and change systems when necessary, it is just a challenge of working with systems. The benefit of going through the change (which is hard work, just as any kind of therapy, recovery, or rehabilitation is hard work) is that putting in more energy, doing a little more, up front leads to our work becoming easier, more rewarding, more effective, and more productive down the road. In a way, changing a system is an investment of energy in the present that pays dividends in the future.

These are some questions that I have been asking myself, in my work, and in our work together:

How can we work better as multi-disciplinary teams, in such a way that we are better supporting our clients in their journey, and that we are happier in our work with clients and with our colleagues?


How can we feel more supported and valued in our daily work?


How can we keep our eye on the big picture, on what is really important for both ourselves and the clients we work with?


How can we change the system so that it feels more like we are all pulling in the same direction?


We have choices as individuals in deciding when we enough is enough. If things feel too hard; if it seems we work and work and work, and yet, it seems to have no effect; if we start to feel like it just isn’t worth it – that enough is enough – then we make have hard choices to make: we can do less, we can go through the motions, we can even quit, and quitting can take many forms, including just doing the bare minimum and going through the motions. However, I would like to offer another choice, and that is to re-evaluate our daily work as individuals and the functioning of the system that we are maintaining every day. If we change, the system changes; if we change the way the system functions, we can change the nature of our work every day.

I invite you to re-evaluate the structure of the system where we work:

How can we bring more of our natural caring and compassion into our work?


How can we nurture and support that part a client that wants to change and grow?


How can we make our work less stressful?

How can we improve our working relationships with our colleagues?

One way of doing this is a programme called “Releasing Time to Care,” developed in the National Health Service in the UK. We will most likely be using this as a framework for change where we work [this may happen in the future, but it is a complex, lengthy process and there are no immediate plans to implement this]. I will write more about this program in the future, but my understanding of it is that it can be applied in a way that is consistent with the recovery and rehabilitation model that we use with clients. I believe that we can only create an environment supportive of recovery and rehabilitation for clients if we are able to create the same environment for ourselves. Perhaps we can use this programme, as well as any other existing programmes, or even programmes that we create that are particular for our work, to support our daily work, so that we can feel energized by our work, valued for the work we do, intellectually stimulated and engaged in our work, and to feel that our work is purposeful and has profound meaning.

[Doesn’t it seem like I should have written something about when “enough is enough” with working with clients and we decide to move them on from BRC? I thought I wrote something on that, maybe we’ll have a part II of “When is enough enough?”]


Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you hold in your hand,

what you counted on and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out of the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

Catches the thread of all sorrows

And you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye