Being and doing are not mutually exclusive

By Martin Vogel

Day's work
A day’s work is never done

This is the second in a series of posts based on a talk I gave on being versus doing in coaching. Part one of the series looked at the influences of narrative and mindfulness on how I work as a coach. This post explores the tension between being and doing.

Being versus doing is an increasingly important question for our culture. We live in an era when time is at a premium. Time is money and we’re all under pressure to give as much as we can in the time when we contract our labour to others.

This doesn’t always equate to greater efficiency. In the years since our rubbish collections were contracted out to private management, there has been a clear shift in focus from quality of service to minimising inputs (both time and people). The bin men’s job was never pleasant but now they have to do it as if competing in a macabre version of It’s a Knockout. The rubbish gets collected, but much is strewn all over the place and the bins are left lying in random places – so neighbourhoods are left, in some respects, in a worse mess than before the bin men arrive.

Because this pressure on time can lead to a poor quality of working life, we come to put much more emphasis on our getting the most from our personal lives. So even away from work we don’t escape the pressure to get things done. Films to catch, rooms to decorate, walks to be done in inspiring places – not to mention routine essentials like laundry, shopping and cooking. We really need times of stillness and quiet: opportunities to calm the agitation and connect with ourselves and how we’re feeling about what’s going on.

Coaching creates this space. So does a mindfulness practice. Both function offer havens from the melee of daily life. But the real challenge is how to take the sense of reflective being that we can cultivate in these calm spaces into our living in the busy world. We need to use these calm interstices to practice being our full selves so that we can show up fully in the rest of our lives.

This brings me back to the idea I raised in the previous post of connecting with a way of being that is beyond thinking. Thinking has its place, but it often feels part of the busy world; the world of doing. By trying to experience our embodied selves, the self beyond thinking, we can experience a bit more what it is just to be rather than to do.

When I coach, my aspiration is to help people connect with this embodied insight. I say my aspiration because we’re conditioned by our social context and all the time I have to struggle against the norm of two people meeting across a table and talking; engaging their rational, analytic minds – the minds that want to do.

I think being is largely about being more contemplative. One way to be contemplative is to try consciously to cultivate stillness.. But we can also find contemplative moments walking in nature, listening to music, engaging with art, even just waiting for the Tube. These have their counterparts in coaching. Silence is helpful. Working with art can be interesting, particularly if it’s strange, perhaps alienating contemporary art. Again, we’re in the realm of defamiliarising the known, the every day, so that we can approach it with freshness. In mindfulness, this is known as cultivating beginner’s mind: letting go of what we think we know about something and being willing to learn again.

If I’m sounding like an advocate for being, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I see no place for doing. Being and doing aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives. Although culturally we might have become excessively focussed on the domain of doing, that isn’t to say the we can shift wholesale into the domain of being. We will still inhabit the domain of doing. The question is can we inhabit the domain of doing mindfully?

The problem is that we inhabit the domain of doing on autopilot. We are what we practice, and if we spend our lives practising rushing about with an agenda to accomplish things, we soon get good at just that: box ticking, getting things done, barely stopping to think about why or what our impact is in the world. What do we cut off by inhabiting the domain of doing on autopilot?

Often we’re cutting off ourselves from connection with others and from connection with our own embodied wisdom. It’s as if our bodies are simply machines for ferrying around our doing minds. If it gets stressed, we give it an aspirin and send it on its way; we keep it topped up with fuel by grazing on sugary snacks; if it raises nagging doubts in the pit of our stomachs, we ignore them and turn back to the groupthink and corporate procedures which set out how we’re meant to behave. The body is constantly sending us signals about how it feels about how we act in the world. But we anaesthetise ourselves to the signals in the name of productivity.

How else can we explain the wholesale deception of clients by bankers manipulating markets; the failure of police and social workers to protect from child abuse gangs scores of young girls who repeatedly came to their attention; the scandal of a hospital where management put such pressure on nurses that they couldn’t find it within themselves to show compassion to patients who were dying around them?

Our lives matter. More than we perhaps allow ourselves to acknowledge sometimes. We shouldn’t waste them on autopilot but bring as much as we can of our sense of being to those times when we are doing. For me as a coach, this is why I see it as important to provide spaces in which people can cultivate moments of stillness and reflection. If they can develop the habit in coaching, perhaps they can transfer the capability so developed to their doing in the busy world.

And so, recently, I’ve been coming out as a coach with an agenda. This is not to say that I’m going to come over all directive and judgmental, ready with answers about how I think things should be. But I have to acknowledge that when I work with people, particularly in organisational contexts, I’m going to be challenging them from a certain place. I seek to foster beneficial ways of being and acting in the world. I’m not much interested in coaching if all it does is enable executives to deliver more shareholder value. I’m by no means alone in this. The financial crash encouraged some soul searching in the profession and I’ve noticed an increasing number of coaches prepared to acknowledge that our role should help make the world a better place. Shareholder value may well have its place. But business has more to contribute to society than that, and so does coaching.

More on this in the next post.

Image courtesy Katya Horner.