An encounter with the spirit

By Martin Vogel

Portrait of the soul

This is the first in a series of posts which has grown out of a talk I gave at the weekend. I was invited by a spiritual group, the Brahma Kumaris, to participate in a panel of coaches presenting to the BKs’ Spirit of Coaching programme. This didn’t seem an obvious platform for an atheist like me. But, as the theme of the afternoon was being versus doing and because I try to reach out wherever people find resonance in what I’m doing, I accepted the invitation. And what an interesting journey it turned out to be.

The BKs’ programme is premised on exploring the connections between spiritual practice and coaching development. They’ve created a space in which people of diverse backgrounds – spiritual, professional, non-professional, multicultural – can come together to learn about different approaches to supporting the soul. Not only did I have delightful encounters with people engaging deeply with what it is to be in the world and make it better, but the invitation to discuss my own orientation to the question To be or not to be? provided a space for me to push at the boundaries of what I consider myself to be trying to do when I coach. In particular, it clarified my thinking about how my coaching is informed by mindfulness. This is not something I write about much. I regard mindfulness meditation as a personal practice and I am by no means a coach who is proffering mindfulness as part of a toolkit of techniques for how I work with my clients. But over the years mindfulness has come to define my deeper orientation as a coach. It feels valuable to explore this here, not least so that prospective clients may get some sense of what it may feel like to work with me. But also as a contribution to the profession.

To say that I’m reticent about talking about spirituality would be an understatement. For me, the word is associated, too closely for comfort, with religion from which – having grown up in a family with both Catholic and Jewish heritage – I dissociated myself at an early age. More fundamentally, I studied sociology at university and my intellectual formation ever since has been firmly rooted in materialism. By this, I don’t mean a love of shiny gadgets that makes me cue outside the Apple store at unfeasibly early hours (though I am not unfamiliar with materialistic cravings). Materialism means that I seek to understand how we are in terms of our being part of the material world. Metaphysical terms like spirit, soul and God do not have an explanatory place in this outlook. While I recognise that some of us may yearn for a spiritual side to life, I try to understand this with reference to our materiality: our thoughts, ideas and feelings are generated by the biochemical and neurological processes of our body and in response to stimuli which arise from the physical world of which we are part.

I bring to matters spiritual a scepticism carefully cultivated through a career comprising journalism and corporate strategy. These are rational and analytic disciplines which do not concern themselves much with metaphysical considerations. I carried this mindset into my development as a coach. But as my professional development progressed (or as I developed as a human while attending to my professional development) I have become much more open to less rational aspects of life.

I trained initially as an internal leadership coach in the BBC where I received a sheep dip in the GROW model. So I began with a pragmatic orientation to goals and solutions. As I grew more confident, I began adopting a more emergent model – focussing on my clients’ values and purpose in life, and the context in which they live as the ground for coaching. This is much more about where the client is than what goals they want to pursue. Gradually this has given way to something that is much more about my disposition as a coach. More than working to predefined outcomes, I tend to focus predominantly on my presence for the client, trying to hold a process that serves them, and trusting that their motivation for coaching will yield something interesting and valuable. Two key influences have informed this journey: narrative and mindfulness.

I’ve been interested in the place of narrative in coaching for as long as I’ve been practising. I noticed an affinity straight away with the story-making that I pursued in journalism. So I did my masters research on coaches who work with narrative and much of my professional development continues to be around this area. Here are some of the ideas I draw on.

  • Narrative is how we make sense of the world. We explain things through telling stories. I see coaching as a means of defamiliarising ourselves with the stories through which we construe our reality. We can change perspective by telling a different story, viewing a story from the perspective of a different character or being imaginative about the possible directions which our story might take. There are lots of ways of doing this. Role play is a good one. I sometimes like to work with art or journalling to shift people’s perception. Where possible, I would prefer to facilitate experiential rather than analytical learning.
  • It’s good to hold stories lightly. Much of the time we try to define ourselves by disavowing aspects of our experience, so that we can construe some logically consistent sense of self. This is what I was doing when I referred earlier to my experience of religion. Through coaching, we can come to realise how the whole of our experience shapes us. While I might wish to dissociate my identity from aspects of my religious inheritance, I can’t deny that my cultural background shapes me. Through exploring our disavowed identities, we can reintegrate forgotten narratives into our sense of self and find space for contradiction. Rather than, “No ,I’m not that but this,” it can be, “Yes, I’m this and this. And I carry my cultural baggage in these ways.”
  • Context is material. A story is never the same twice, because it is always influenced by the context of its telling. The way the audience responds matters, as does the experience the narrator brings to relating the story. This matters a lot in coaching. The questions I ask and how I ask them influence the story that can show up. The story a client tells is not equivalent to the events outside coaching to which it refers, it is analogous. This means, in a sense, that storyteller and audience are co-narrators; in life and in coaching. We enlist people in our narratives, offering them gambits about who we are, and they may run with the gambit or reject it. So when I’m working, I try to be very careful to advocate for the client’s story to be told – and to minimise my attachment to the story I may want to emerge. If a client takes away from coaching an intention, am I sure that that reflects the client’s agenda and not mine?

How I draw on mindfulness is closely related to these ideas about narrative. Mindfulness too invites us to hold our stories lightly and to call into question our sense of a consistent sense of self. Like coaching, it defamiliarises the familiar and encourages us to honour our whole experience. Mindfulness used to be something that was separate from my practice as a coach. But increasingly the two converged. I now see it very much as the foundation of my coaching practice.

Most importantly, it’s the base on which I am able to focus on being fully present for the client. This is not to say that I always succeed in being fully present for my client. But, in so far as I’m able to bring non-judgmental attention to my clients as I sit with them, this arises from the qualities I try to cultivate in my mindfulness practice. Cultivating the foundational attitudes of mindfulness – such as non-striving, acceptance and letting go – helps me to switch off the mind’s chatter in coaching which would have me thinking about my next clever question instead of paying attention to the client.

Another valuable quality that mindfulness brings is to remind me to turn my attention to the embodied mind. As I’ve suggested, by inclination I’m a rational, analytical person – very much in the head. It’s easy for my coaching to operate at this level. Through mindfulness, I remember that it’s not just about the brain, the rational, conscious mind. In fact, I experience that this apparently rational, consistent mind is something of an illusion – when I try to notice my thoughts, I realise they flit from place to place, unbidden. Mindfulness is about accessing insight beyond thinking. I aspire to this both for me and my client.

Mindfulness helps us to experience the wisdom of the whole body – our feelings, sensations, gut instincts, aches and pains. I don’t think I’m alone in my default being to ignore this and to operate on an autopilot of purposeful (or perhaps not so purposeful) thought. This way of being is pervasive in our culture. We use expressions like “I changed my mind” to claim authorship of our actions even when they’re driven by barely conscious processes of the body.

Mindfulness is often framed as being about observation, cultivating awareness. But for me it’s also about simply cultivating commitment to the practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose secular model of mindfulness I follow, talks about developing muscle for when we need it – weaving one’s parachute. You don’t begin weaving your parachute when you’re about to jump out of a plane. This has led many people to construe mindfulness as having an instrumental purpose beyond itself – relieving stress, being more productive at work, mindful parenting, even mindful coaching. I try not to get too attached to these instrumental applications of mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be an end in itself not a means to another end. Approached in this way, I find it encourages a disposition just to be in the world. But more than that, to be awake. When I become awake to the mindlessness of rationality, I begin to contemplate how things might be otherwise: more connected to our sense of self as humans, rather than automatons in a big machine; as people with motivations, values and ethics. The simple, but not easy, task of concentrating our awareness on just being rather than busily doing opens up a possibility of having a very different impact in the world. This is what I’ll explore in the next post.

Image, ‘Without a Face, a portrait of the soul’, courtesy Sgt Pablo Piedra, US Army.