I’ve recently started blogging as a way of getting some ideas out, and hopefully getting a debate going. I’m new to this way of doing things and realise that my intention may not line up with the usual approach to blogging, because I’m seeking to develop a line of thought over a long series of blogs rather than each blog being about its own separate subject.
The image I have is of a jigsaw, with each blog being a piece of the picture. I realise, however, that it is my jigsaw and my picture, and I’ve not communicated this to you. A bit like sending people bits of a picture without telling them the bits are part of a bigger picture, and they have no idea what the picture looks like anyway.
So my overall interest, the big picture, in these blogs is to lay out an existential approach to coaching (which will also be relevant to other disciples, like mentoring, therapy), which is rooted in the philosophy of Heidegger. As I write I realise I’m not just ‘laying out’ the ideas but also working them through in the very act of writing – so to get a response and a dialogue/conversation going would be really good.
The blogs so far have focused on Heidegger’s notion of ‘being-in-the-world’ as this is a vital starting point for then addressing what it means to ‘take a stand on your being’. At the heart of exploring being-in-the-world you’ll find throughout the blogs the repeated challenge to the usual western, Cartesian, starting point of a separation between mind and body/world, a challenge which is fundamental to the Heideggerian approach.
With each blog I’m seeking to make the link, find the relevance, to coaching. The direction of travel is to move soon to the more explicit existential themes, and the context of the always present tension between being-in-the-world and going along with what ‘one’ normally does in the culture, and ‘taking a stand’ on what really matters. I think this tension is at the heart of coaching.
So to the blog .......................
What do we mean by 'World'?
The Cartesian picture of mind as an entity in the head but separate from the body and world sets up binary oppositions that constitute the familiar common-sense of the western world: subject-object; subjective-objective; mind-body; mental-physical; individual-environment. In previous blogs we’ve seen that the nature of mind has been further defined in terms of thinking (cognition, reason), and that mind at its best is a state of pure thinking uncontaminated by the body, (for example, by emotion), or society (such as preconceived beliefs and assumptions).
In previous blogs I’ve written about some of the effects of this cleavage of the world into two separate and radically different realms. One effect has been to identify mind, in the form of thinking, as the prime mover, i.e. it is beliefs, assumptions (or other equivalents) that are the source of human action. A second effect has been to create the endlessly problematic question of how to understand the relationship between the two realms; for example, how to bridge the chasm between subject and object? In truth, the chasm is unbridgeable in any rigorous sense because it is built into the original Cartesian picture of mind-body. The questioning won’t go away because the picture constantly generates difficulties that won’t go away.
Here is the difficulty I want to address, and it is a difficulty that I find at the heart of my practice as a coach (and before that as a psychotherapist). As a therapist or coach attending to the ‘psychological dimension’ (which means in effect the mind, the subjective), how do I adequately understand and take into account the world (context; situation; environment, culture) when working with my client? This may seem like a silly question because clearly we do take it into account, using words like system, field or culture to do this. But as I use these words I notice a fussiness enter my understanding. What do these words mean? And perhaps more importantly, how do they genuinely inform my work with clients. The two realms are (apparently) brought together by words like ‘and’ or ‘in’, for example, the person in the system. But it seems to me that such words simply bridge the chasm, give the appearance of bringing together the two realms but, in reality, covering it over.
Of course, systematic attempts are made to address both realms, particularly when both seem so obviously important, as when working with clients in organisations. But I usually find that these attempts to address the issues break down in terms of favouring one side or other of the divide. For example the notion of ‘organisation in mind’ has been developed from those working with a more psychological background such as the Tavistock:
“'Organisation-in-the-mind' is about what is happening inside my own head - it is my reality - and has to be distinguished from any other reality 'out there'. It is the idea of the organisation which, through experiencing and imagining, forms in my inner psychic space and which then influences how I interact with my environment”. Jean E. Neuman (Ed.) (1997) Organisation - in - the - Mind. In "Developing Organisational Consultancy Routledge (paper available online).
This paper is published via the Grubb Institute and shows all the hallmarks of the divide outlined above: inside my own head Vs ‘out there’; inner psychic space Vs environment.
As a practitioner, whose background has always been working with the psychological, subjective, mind side of the chasm, I’m left mostly unknowing about how to genuinely take into account the ‘world’ (e.g. the organisation as something more than something happening in my own head). And I think that practitioners whose background is mostly focused on the ‘world’ side of the chasm face the equivalent difficulties. They are likely to be steeped in notions of ‘objectivity’, in diagnosing what’s wrong in the world and strategies for fixing it. The won’t step over the line into the ‘psychological’, particularly the line of attending to their own ‘mind’. Some people I’ve worked with as a coach and coach trainer can become very alarmed if I invite exploration of, for example, their emotional involvement in situations. “Is this coaching or therapy?” is a frequent refrain. From this perspective, the psychological, the ‘mind’ is separate, distinct territory which requires specialist who know what they are doing; who have professional qualifications and experience that equips them to diagnose and work in this special and potentially dangerous terrain. And of course, there are jealously guarded professional boundaries that reinforce the message.
What would it be like to set aside this Cartesian picture? Not to have the mind as a distinct realm separate from body/world? This won’t be easy to do because the Cartesian picture is so embedded in our culture, but let’s have a go.
Setting aside the Cartesian Picture
A first step would be to cease separating mind from body and have a picture of us as ‘embodied’ such that everything about us involves our whole body. From this perspective thinking does not arise from the self-contained entity ‘the mind’, but from our whole being as we are involved in the world. Likewise for our feelings and our actions. Happily, some of the terminology that has become somewhat commonplace makes this shift more understandable. We talk about ‘ingrained patterns of behaviour’ and such expressions catch the sense that an important part of how we are in the world is to be understood in terms of habitual ways of relating. Such patterns are, in the main, not the product of deliberate thought but better understood as tacit, skilled, habitual ways of dealing with the world which mostly don’t involve thinking. In fact, as Gallwey pointed out, thinking can get in the way. Such ingrained patterns are whole body, embodied patterns, and working with such patterns is likewise working with the whole body: raising awareness of that tacit knowing and that ‘felt sense’ that grasps how the person is in the world.
There is something interesting and important to notice here – as we pay close attention to the embodied the ‘world’ comes into view. As we’ve explored in previous blogs (e.g. Being in the World 1: Gendlin and Focusing), because we are always involved in the world, our bodies know the world, know our way around in it, have a felt sense of it, and thereby know what’s happening in situations, but knows all this at the tacit, implicit level.
So here is the extraordinary thing – as we attend more closely to ourselves – we encounter the world we are in.
It seems to me this is the basis for the ‘Coaching Constellations’ approach, whereby our tacit, embodied understanding – felt sense – enables us to map out the world in which we live and the dramas and conflicts we are living. Encountering the world is also a feature of what is often seen as the quintessentially inner focus of empathy. As I empathise with someone, ‘stand in their shoes’, what do we find? We find the world they are standing in – the situations, the people, the life events they are involved with.
If we now switch view and set aside the Cartesian picture in relation to ‘world’ then we can view world not as something set apart from ourselves, but something we are involved in. We can get a sense of what this means through expressions like ‘the world of business’, ‘the world of football’, the world of ‘finance’. Each of these worlds – and the list could be endless – indicates worlds of peoples’ concerns, ambitions, skill-sets, identities, successes, failures, sources of pride and shame. The blog entitled ‘Being-in-the-World: After that nothing happened’ explores precisely this involved sense of world, the world of the Crow Indians.
The word we often use that is closest to this sense of world is culture and we immediately see that there is no separation here between the person and culture. I find out who I am, at the deepest level, in the world – what it means to be a man, to be heterosexual, white, British, a coach, a parent and so forth. As with the Crow Indians, what I’m thinking, the beliefs through which I make sense of my existence, are cultural, rooted in the language in which I think and speak, and the social roles and activities I engage in. In most of my everyday activities, rather than acting upon my own private individual decisions, and to use Heidegger’s apt expression, I “do what one” does, abiding by the conventions that structure the minutia of expected behaviour.
So here is the other extraordinary thing – as we attend more closely to the world – we encounter ourselves in it.
For example, as I attend to what is expected at a wedding ceremony or funeral I find my own demeanour, my own thinking, feeling, behaviour and dress (even if it is to rebel against the convention).
In writing all this I find myself thinking about an interesting and evocative expression Heidegger has in relation to moods. He says that moods:
“comes neither from ‘outside’ nor from ‘inside’, but arise out of being-in-the-world, as a way of being as such”.
I find myself applying this expression to what I’ve written here, the sense of the unity of ourselves and our world, such that we cannot say any aspect of it (thinking, feeling, identity, ambitions) originates from, or are located, in just one place (like mind, body or world), rather they arise from our way of being in our world, and as we attend to one aspect its relations with all else come into view.
So if I return to my original difficulty and concern, i.e. how do I adequately understand and take into account the world I think my answer is something like this.:
‘World’ is understood not as a ‘reality out there’ separate from us, but rather in terms of ‘the world of ….’ education, politics, NHS, family, army, organisation etc. etc. That is, as a world of involvement, where what happens matters to me, where I find out who I am and what is expected of me (and therefore expect of myself), where I find meaning and purpose, ambitions and plans, disappointments and successes, pride and shame.
As I work with clients no matter where we start, whatever our focus, both aspects, what we usually think of as ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ co-exist. The gestalt notions of figure and ground are spot on here. Whatever is figural is the focus of attention, but whatever that is only is what it is because it is configured by the ground. If thinking, feeling, mood is figural than they are what they are in relation to the ground of the situation in which they arise. If the situation then comes figural, the thinking, feeling and mood shifts into the ground.
I think all this helps make sense of some of Merleau-Ponty’s enigmatic quotes:
“The body is our general medium for having a world.”
“The world is... the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not inhabit only the inner man (sic), or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.”
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior