In Need of Deepening

By Paul Dunion | July 24, 2021


Sometimes, we settle for knowing what we experience by having an understanding of what it isn’t. So, it may be with the idea of depth. Typically, we know it isn’t about being superficial, shallow, or mundane. We use the language of depth regularly, “What she said was quite deep,” “This book is so deep that it must be read slowly,” or “The poem has some considerable depth”. We hear such utterances we likely decide that the descriptions offered are not perfunctory or routine. But what exactly is this talk of depth?

Recently, after hearing a group of practitioners decide the work of a client as “having depth,” a colleague asked, “How do you know when someone’s work has depth?” I believe my colleague did not receive a satisfactory explanation. I immediately noticed that I didn’t have one to offer him. However, it was obvious to me that psychological work described as deep was likely meaningful and favorable, as well as to deserving further elucidation.

Old Meanings

I turned to etymology for help understanding what some of the old understandings of the word depth were. Not surprisingly, meanings of the word were couched as verbs and not nouns. The word depth meant “coming from the root.” Old meanings or the word root includes “poke,” “pry” and “search.” More contemporary meaning of the word root is “beginnings and origins.”

It seems worthwhile to stay with the etymological precedent to work with verbs. Hence, let’s explore what it means to be engaged in deepening. One way to understand the idea of depth is to think of deepening as poking, prying, and searching in the direction of our roots or origin. Our beginnings may refer to the uniqueness of our own psychology, our legacies handed down from our ancestors or the ground of our common humanity.

The Many Faces of Deepening

One way to look at the faces of deepening is through the lens of what James Hollis calls the four expressions of mystery. These include the mysteries of the Self, Others, Nature, and God. Let’s explore deepening as it relates to the Self. As we examine how deepening lives, it can be helpful to remember that we are talking about a verb or a form of action. The action is galvanized by poking, prying, and searching accompanied by compassion. The inquiry into the Self is not meant to be dispassionate, but rather an opportunity to get closer to ourselves. Also, it’s useful to remember that there are many levels of deepening. What deepening reveals for one person may be only slightly interesting for another. Also, there is a myriad of levels of prying and searching. While one person may be deeply committed to living a self-examining life, another might be casually inquisitive.

The Deepening Self

One way to view the deepening Self is from three perspectives: emotions, cognition and behavior. Let’s begin with what it might mean to pry and search emotions.

Emotional Deepening — When we are praying and searching our emotions, we are emotionally deepening, which can be indicated by a series of curiosities. How do I feel? Where in my body can I feel the energy of this emotion? Is this feeling one that is familiar to me or one that I don’t easily recognize? What degree of ease do I possess in welcoming the experience of this emotion? Does this feeling evoke another feeling like fear or shame? How can I name this emotion? Am I willing to tell someone how I’m feeling? Is this emotion informing me how to think about someone or some event? Does this feeling indicate some action I need to take? What resources are available to me for strengthening my ability to pry and search my emotions?

I recall a situation where I was facilitating a group of men who were focused on emotional deepening. One man began to sob strongly. He lifted his head momentarily with tears streaming down his cheeks and said, “I don’t know why I’m crying. I’m not sad.” I waited until his breathing became more rhythmic and he was able to hold a measure of eye contact and I said, “Maybe you feel touched and moved.” He immediately began to wail exuberantly, shouting, “I’m touched and moved, I’m touched and moved!”

He was emotionally deepening as he named his emotion, he also named himself as the man touched and moved. He knew himself in a new way. He came to the realization that the origin of his tears was a joy. I could also see the light of welcome in his eyes. He liked the man who cried his joy with such passion. Upon witnessing the man’s deepening, other men realized that the root of their toneless expression of joy was a robust suppression. It seemed like everyone present was deepening in some way.

Emotional deepening is an extremely beneficial life-long endeavor. It can offer a significant understanding of how emotions impact the construction of our beliefs and values. Consequently, offering a suppleness to how we formulate and adjust our thinking. It allows us more curiosity about beliefs that might offer more fulfillment and sustainability to our lives.

The more we understand the impact our emotions have upon our behavior, the less reactionary we can be. As quick, spontaneous reactions subside, we gain give more thoughtful content to our responses. We typically can generate more options regarding how we intend to respond, making choices that will more likely support desired outcomes.

Emotional deepening affords us the opportunity to have more peace and joy, especially if we bring compassion to our prying and searching. The result is a scaffolding of acceptance supporting the architecture of our interior world. We can increasingly appreciate and care for the person we find in that inner world.

Cognitive Deepening — When we are poking and prying on our beliefs or stories, we carry about ourselves or life in general, we can say that we are cognitively deepening. Here are some of the curiosities reflecting cognitive deepening. Who am I? Where do I come from? How do I feel about the way life has treated me and what does that say about me? How do I think about my own essential worth? How do I think about the nature of love? What is my thinking about how I love? What are my thoughts about my own psycho-spiritual development? What are my beliefs about God? What are three very important values of mine? What do I believe life is asking of me?

Our beliefs, values, and thoughts are constantly placing us in some story. Cognitive deepening happens as we are able to identify the story we are currently living in and being curious about what the story may be requesting. For example, if you are in a harsh story, the story may be asking for more compassion. If you are in a demanding story, the story may be asking for more acceptance. If you are in a story that is creating separation from someone you care about, it may be asking you to go to that person and check out the soundness of your story by asking the person if your story has any merit from their perspective.

As a teenager, I lived in the story that a real athlete would not be interested in academic pursuits. So, I read only one book in high school and did as little as possible to get by and remain on the basketball team. I was recruited to play college basketball and planned for that to be my priority. Unfortunately, I flunked off of the basketball team and with the recommendation of my roommate, began studying philosophy. I registered for every philosophy course I could, never even imagining that I was being academic. Studying philosophy felt more like an advocation, I was simply doing something I really loved.

Even when I wasn’t shooting many jump-shots, I continued to identify myself as an athlete and not a student. As a senior, I recall walking out of an advanced seminar on meta-ethics and being greeted in the hall by my professor. He asked, “Do you have your applications in yet for graduate school?” His question hurled me into an identity crisis. He was certainly identifying me as a student. I did go on to study more philosophy and actually taught philosophy, which seemed to gradually allow me to accept being a student of philosophy. Maybe, as time went on, the vision of my athleticism being the bedrock of my identity seemed to gently fade into my history.

Shortly before my seventy-third birthday, I recalled the tenacity in which I clung to my athletic identity, needing that to cancel out any academic pursuits. It was a powerful story to live in for quite a while. I began thinking of my mother who left school after the eighth grade and how she never expressed any interest in my schooling or my teaching. As I recalled the story of her disinterestedness, I loosened my hold on resentment and became more curious.

Cognitive deepening occurred as I poked at this anti-academic attitude of mine. I uncovered a love story. I saw a boy sensitive to his mother possibly feeling threatened by his increased education into high school and followed by acquiring three academic degrees. I was loving my mom by downplaying my education. My cognitive deepening left me closer to myself, closer to my roots, and much more accepting of where I came from. I found a larger story for me to live in. I was slowly moving away from resentment to sympathy, gradually morphing into empathy. There was a heart-opening for the girl who only spoke French at home and attended an all-English-speaking school and the shame that likely accompanied her struggle.

Behavioral Deepening — When we poke and pry about the nature of our actions we are behaviorally deepening. It is important to note that deepening in regard to our actions may ultimately define us more than emotional and cognitive deepening. This is where the show-down occurs. This is where we are offering testimony to who we really are. The underlining question is: Are you willing to live life on life’s terms? What can make this so challenging is that life is essentially mysterious, unpredictable, and insecure. Hence, living life on life’s terms will mean taking ongoing risks, usually inspired by courage.

So, here are some questions that can guide Behavioral Deepening. What courageous action is life asking of me? What action suggests I’m living in integrity? What action suggests that I’m out of integrity? What action implies I’m living with more heart? What action do I regret? What action am I inclined to take when I’m lost? What action am I inclined to take when I need help? What actions do I take in order to maintain a viable support system? What actions do I take in order to bring beauty and order into my life?

Another key when poking and searching our behaviors is to be careful about designating an act of courage to be some extraordinary act. It doesn’t have to be about life or death or managing to save everyone in a burning building. Any behavior that feels risky will likely be accompanied by fear and will call for some measure of courage in order to manifest. We tend to act more courageously when we trust that we will be kind to ourselves if the action issues some unfavorable consequence. Being kind to ourselves means interrupting shame, ridicule, and disparaging thoughts about who we are.

I’m recalling a memorable event where behaviorally deepening became a critical undertaking in my personal life and in my professional career. An interviewing committee was in search of a new president for the college where I had been teaching for ten years. A good friend who was a member of that committee met with me and reported, “You’re going to love this candidate. She holds of vision of education which is extremely compatible with yours.” I was very glad to hear his report. After she was hired, I waited a month, allowing her to get oriented to the college, and then scheduled an appointment to meet with her.

“Come in. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” she said, warmly greeting me as I stepped into her office.

“I’ve been looking forward to this meeting also. My colleagues have informed me that we share a very compatible vision of education,” I offered, anticipating some discussion that would support how much educational philosophy we had in common.

“We probably do share a common vision. However, I want to say that I did some research about your tenure at the college, which revealed that you are likely the most creative member of the faculty. And, I’m wondering how soon I can have your resignation,” she announced, leaving me momentarily feeling complimented and then wondering where the rug I was sitting on went.

Feeling like I could not have heard what she actually meant to say, I asked her to repeat herself. She did, making exactly the same initial claim and went on to explain that the prior president must have liked me since he had me being paid out of a fund that she called “an administrative nightmare.”

She made it clear that she definitely wanted me gone. I suggested I needed a little time to review the contents of the meeting and what it meant for my life. She agreed to meet again in two weeks. My colleagues immediately were up in arms, calling for the Union to intervene right away. I remained in shock for several days and then met with my mentor, who advised me to not react in conjunction with the campaign suggested by my colleagues. I did an immense amount of searching and probing. Do I want to work under this person’s leadership? Why was the statement about my creativity and ushering me to the door so haunting and what action was it calling for? Was I supposed to do something else besides teach? How would I support my family?

My mentor insisted that the situation was very trustworthy, which initially dumbfounded me. She explained several times that when the psyche is in the presence of something that sounds unreasonable or even insane, it is being called in a big way.

I would ask over and over again, “Called to what?” And she would respond in the same way, “When did you first hear such a call, describing you as successful accompanied by a request for your departure?” I would respond by saying, “I never heard such a thing in my life,” wanting the words to indicate that they obviously suggested that something was very wrong with the new president.

My mentor was emphatic about the importance of my letting go of this new president. She would describe her as a conduit to the past and to where I needed to go next. It was extremely helpful to have someone guiding the prying and searching of my behavioral deepening. Finally, after postponing the next meeting with the new president and weeks of probing, I said, “I think it is my father. He would affirm my accomplishments in high school and then offer belittling comments about my character with many arguments ensuing. I understood that it was his way of competing with me, and I did hear over and over again, “You’re a neat kid and when are you going to get out of here?” As I grew older, the competitive energies did subside.

I knew now the real players in the story and the next best question was, “What was my father’s treatment of me asking of me years ago that I could not provide for myself then and might give myself now. My behavioral deepening was becoming revelatory as I knew I must leave the college. I informed the new president about my decision and requested that I remain in my position for one more school year, which she granted.

The Offerings of Deepening

Deepening offers us more of ourselves and more of life. With the capacity to emotionally deepen, we not only gain the experience of a fuller range of emotions, but we also acquire a resonate heart. An anesthetized numbness gradually peels away, affording us heartful accessibility guiding our engagements. Eyes of the heart shed their blurriness allowing us to witness kindness, sorrow, and joy. As we cognitively deepen, we more fully understand the story we live in, which broadens the meaning of our lives. As we search and pry, that narrative stretches its borders, enabling us to grasp the dimensions of our wounds and our gifts. These two themes inform us as to how to heal, where we belong, and where and with whom are we to serve.

Behaviorally deepening points us to the threshold where contentment and restlessness dwell. At this place, fear and courage wrestle determining who we will be. When fear overcomes courage, we retreat back to what we call “safe.” When courage prevails, we create ourselves in a new way. We give life to a longing or a dream. Awaiting some defeat or welcomed triumph, we accept life’s terms, with no guarantees.


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