The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire
Ferdinand Foch – 1851 – 1929
The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire
Ferdinand Foch – 1851 – 1929
A World in Turmoil
No matter what our status or position in society, the unpredictable and disruptive nature of the world we live in can throw us into some very important existential questions which go straight to the heart of our existence.
We might not necessarily articulate these questions, in fact, we might not even realise that they even exist. They may lurk silently in the background of our thinking, yet form an inaudible but prominent aspect of our ‘way of being’ in the world, impacting on our sense of meaning, and fulfilment and happiness in life.
Some of these questions may be:
Who am I really?
Am I OK as a person?
Where am I going?
What should I be doing with my life?
What is this feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction I am experiencing?
Is there a point to my existence?
Is there a purpose to life?
Am I a worthy individual?
What does it mean to connect with my soul?
How do I lead with more heart?
I’m burning out/burned out – what is wrong with me?
These questions are rarely the themes of our everyday conversations, but if, as the commentators tell us, our era is one of significant historical transition, then these may well be the key questions we frequently find ourselves living in.
As these questions are often not part of our daily conversations with others, it is easy for us to think that they are a product of our own insecurities and doubts leading us to believe we are messed up, broken or in need of fixing. This can lead to extraordinary amounts of inner turmoil and suffering.
These questions may also be triggered by an unexpected event, where the removal of something that once represented meaning, security or significance is sudden and unforeseen i.e. the death of a loved one, illness, a divorce, the loss of a job etc. What we had once considered to be important is no more and all activities, achievements and meaning we had structured around it collapses. Saint John of the Cross often referred to this time as ‘the dark night of the soul’
In Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Psychologist Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi stresses the importance of experiencing a sense of ‘inner order’ in satisfactorily engaging with the world. He refers to a lack of inner order as ‘ontological anxiety or existential dread’ which he describes as a fear that there is no meaning to life and existence is not worth going on with.
For psychiatrist R D Laing, ontological security related to one’s own being and ones place in the world which can also be regarded as self-assuredness and a deep inner confidence that we will be able to cope with whatever situation may arise. This does not mean that we won’t be thrown off balance from time to time, through unexpected events and circumstances. However from a fundamental position of ontological security, we need to be confident that we can deal with the unexpected, recover a sense of balance, learn from our experiences and productively move on. In other words we are ‘adaptively resilient.’
In philosophical coaching, I approach life’s difficult questions with an open mind, a sense of lightness, curiosity, deep significance and respect for the premise that these are not trivial or arbitrary questions. The answers may take time to unfold and even then may not be completely absolute.
This type of coaching conversation provides a platform to have a meaningful discussions about life’s core issues, to help us build a sense of ontological security while exploring the assessments, blind spots, cultural narratives, stories, structures and notions of ‘the self’ that may be keeping us stuck.
Who we think we are, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, is largely a function of what we have learned through life which creates a particular way of ‘showing up’ in the world. The coaching conversation facilitates an opportunity to go beyond this learning to explore and discover new possibilities which incorporate notions of the ‘soul’ and the ‘self’.
This may include (but is not limited to):
By its nature, this type of conversation explores aspects of the ‘self’ and what we might refer to as the ‘no self’ or ‘soul’. Although this practice is not linked to any specific ideology or religious system, the exploration could include aspects from Philosophy, Ontology, Buddhism, Yoga, Sufism, Mystical Christianity, Mythology, Archetypal Psychology, the Hermetic Sciences, Mindfulness, Metaphysics and Meditation among others.
Whilst obtaining clarity around the core ‘presenting’ issue is paramount the essence of these discussions is to explore a sense of identify which incorporates aspects of consciousness that are invisible or hidden in our logical and rational world. Although great scientific discoveries have been made in the last few hundred years which have turned traditional mainstream theories upside down, for many people, the notion of connecting to the ‘soul’ or deeper part of ourselves is deeply significant: not just in the manifestation of creative or ‘genius qualities’ but in how to live a fulfilling and rich existence in the world.
This type of coaching conversation may also involve a greater degree of two way dialogue than some other coaching conversations; however, it is not to be confused with psychological counselling. (I am not a therapist). Even though the questions may be deep and powerful, I operate from the premise that they a sign of the times we are living in and not an indication that someone needs fixing. For many people, simply having the capacity to talk freely and robustly about the things that really matter can be the biggest difference this type of conversation can make.
My own experience of ‘existential anxiety’ around the meaning of life began at the age of 12. Life perplexed me even at that tender age! I buried my questions away in an effort to appear normal, to fit in and get on with life only to find they resurfaced again at the age of 35 when I was in a high profile Leadership role in Richard Branson’s, Virgin Empire.
As a classic high achieving, results-driven agnostic, I was so obsessed with avoiding failure, being perfect and getting ahead that I pushed myself to the point of physical collapse. Stage 4 Executive Burnout is no laughing matter. Its a state of complete mental, emotional and physical exhaustion which leaves one feeling like an empty, hollow, shell. Along with the physical symptoms, which took years to address, came what I think of as a severe ‘crisis of meaning’. I began to question every aspect of my existence.
Being a complete agnostic who required scientific proof for almost everything I encountered, I didn’t have much of a ‘philosophical’ platform to work from. In an effort to make sense of my ‘meltdown’, I turned to traditional western medicine and psychotherapy. I read every book I could get my hands on and got reams of advice on how to reduce stress, think positively and refocus my energy but this didn’t solve my problems and neither did it address the persistent, nagging feeling of emptiness and loneliness inside – the sense that something incredibly important was missing.
This reluctantly took me on an unconventional 15 year ‘adventure’, which still continues today. I immersed myself in different philosophies, psychologies, theologies, spiritual practices, stories and myths, meditations, metaphysical systems, functional medicine, anthropology and organizational behavior (go figure!) in an effort to develop a way of being that left me feeling more comfortable in my own skin and more centered in the world. I describe this journey in my book ‘The Rebellion of the Soul’
Looking back, particularly in the early stages of my journey, I would have greatly benefited from having a conversation with someone who’d traveled a similar route. I didn’t need a psychologist to analyze me, or a Guru to expound wonderful philosophies. I simply needed someone to walk beside me for a while at least, while I began to make sense of the world and to respectfully challenge my beliefs at times to guide me on the journey and stop me from going completely off track.
I consider myself to be a ‘philosopher’ or ‘lover of wisdom’ (using the etymology of the word) – someone who is open to learning more about myself, the world we live in and the possibilities beyond that. This doesn’t just involve study and ‘book knowledge’, but also involves seeking practical applications that can help us travel lightly through life with a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
My wish is that Philosophical coaching will help others like me, to take their journey back to the centre of their own lives.