How can I help? (Speculating on the helping hand)

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Here begins a series of postings on the helping hand. This is a thought experiment within an exploration of what it is I might be doing when I help out; otherwise known as coaching, guiding, teaching, supporting, counselling, mentoring, providing ceremony and ritual, giving feedback, challenging, listening, questioning…it’s not at all easy naming what I do, you see.

I have never found it easy to name what I do in my casually titled coaching work. In describing it, I inevitably find myself investing far more time naming that which I don’t do in an attempt to get to some truly honest place, which may not actually exist. It may be that all I can do is skate around the most common definitions of help available at this time. Nevertheless, I continue to find this an odd predicament, and struggle to name well what is actually taking place in any general sense when I work with clients: Even that word is atrocious to me, client, as if the fundamental basis of a helping hand should be business like, transactional, and oh so professional. These days this predicament is ever more evident due to the burden of history, and the weight of unmasking carried out in the podcast and blog, bearing down on the myriad fantasies of miraculous practices, final cure, and promises of happy-ever-after, whether as enlightenment, awakening, or the pragmatic ideal of total autonomy, or self-realisation. These are all social games after all, mere means for naming desire.

We do, after all, inhabit a world unmasked. Solid, reliable, foundational claims have come in for a beating and have struggled to get back up. This, coupled with the Capitalist urge to consume and produce wealth, means that folks are constantly repackaging the old into ever less convincing new forms: Snake Oil 2.0….3.0…4.5, anyone? What lies underneath are, more or less, the same old desires, the same old remedies, and the same old claims about the nature of the world, our place in it, and the sorts of fixes we might apply to make our existence more comfortable, less confused, more practical and functional. It’s not that some of the above is not great, an improvement, even highly effective, but rather, that we are facing an age of a great sobering, a collective awakening if you will that is slow and rather painful, but is forcing us towards a transcendence of the myth of the individual, and a reconfiguration of our sense of self-help, self-growth and individualistic spiritual practice. The new world is one of selfhood in-tune with embodiment, in-line with social immersion, embedded in historical unfolding, and the pressing demands of a world visibly in need, and incapable of supporting our species narcissism any longer. These are all elements that are difficult to sex up, to package into saleable goods, not that many won’t try, or are not already in the process of doing so. But inherent to the need to sale, sale, sale is a large piece of the dysfunctional pie that we clearly need to unburden ourselves of, and I see my role as part of this. The ethos I have instinctively cultivated since my early twenties is fundamentally at odds with the commercialisation of a helping hand.

I clearly feel a certain ethical duty towards all this, perhaps more than I really need to, but my consciousness has never allowed me to turn what is essentially a gesture of care into an explicitly financial exchange. I have never been a good Capitalist from this point of view, and never been good at turning my talents into coin. This is not a complaint, however, I do reasonably well by many standards, but I could have become a wealthy guru by now if my character had turned out slightly differently. Perhaps my wife would be happier as a result, at least financially (just think of those Rolls Royces, country mansions, and purple silk robes)…though I can only assume that I would have fallen for pretty young disciples like most of the other gurus out there, and repeated history once again: I imagine she would have been less happy about that.

Speculative honesty aside, I coach as a side project and have wanted to keep it that way; working in teaching, translation, radio and voice-over work during my life in Italy has meant that I have been able to do so. I enjoy all of these activities and they allow me enough time to work with a small number of “clients” throughout the year without needing to “drum up (more) clients” and sale the help I would gladly give for free.

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The story unfolding here is of course nothing new. I live and breathe history and the present just as you do and I always see my own predicament as a reflection of wider stories unfolding ‘out there’ in the society I inhabit. I make choices, and other choices are made for me by circumstances, loved ones and the demands of the many roles I fill. Parts of my character and my being emerge more strongly in moments of my life, during a given day, or week or event, and consequences emerge as a result. The questions that saturate modern life and that linger from history remain and intrude on my days, my thoughts, my feelings, desires, and concerns. Life is far bigger than my own story, as it is for us all. The hero’s story resists this truism and modern day capitalism and the American century insist still that we are to all be self-realised, fully capable heroes of our own lives. Most of us with any sense and sensitivity have realised this is a rigged game (aren’t they all?) and that it really doesn’t work for everyone, and when it does work, it often comes at a heavy cost for the wider community. No, it doesn’t have to, there are exceptions, of course, but the individual, though admirable, wonderful and a necessary affront to the historical forms of selfhood that dominated prior to its rise, has to evolve for us to survive our selfish tendencies as we come to collectively face the environmental and economic challenges staring us in the face.

The individual is essential to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and much of what has made the West so great. We mustn’t abandon it, absolutely not, but our conception of it now needs to evolve towards an understanding of selfhood, of being, of consciousness, that encompasses far more. This may be a collectively painful period for many. There are inherent risks as our current climate of polarisation, tribalism, identity politics, and division highlight, but these are perhaps inevitable consequences as this process has been emerging largely unconsciously in the wider collective, and in popular culture, which forever bastardises emergence. Change carried out unaware is rarely functional after all. Change forced upon is always painful, awkward and disruptive. Does this not describe our current moment?

Therapeutic and teaching interventions have tended to exist in isolation. They are almost all discrete attempts to find the answer to how to help, how to form others, how to save them from their pain and neurosis, and make life finally bearable; just to name a few stories we have been telling ourselves for some time now. In this sense, we are back in the same game identified by Francois Laruelle, our wonderful French companion: The eternal circle of sufficiency is driven by reactivity to a pre-existing cure-all and theory of everything. Ken Wilber took his own cheap shot at such a game, inspired by Hegel no doubt; both were odd fellows. But in the desire to capture it all, we inevitably display our hubris and yet another attempt to name infinity. Isn’t this merely an attempt to capture God, once and for all? Now, that’s a losing game if ever there were one.

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(An aside) Foundations where art thou?

As momentum builds and more folks get into the cool Metamodern vibe, it has become fashionable to diss post-modernism, post-structuralism, and the lazy relativism that infiltrated popular culture as their freaky offspring. Yet, we are still struggling with the death of God and his final answers, so to think we would be done with the undermining of solid ground implicated through these latter schools of thought is rather naive to say the least. The implications of their insights remain as tangible and inevitable as ever. The instinct to fall back onto reliable foundations is very strong indeed. So strong, we are all falling for it repeatedly. And then the ground dissolves again. If you’re sharp enough, you’ll notice it and it can even turn the whole procedure into a fun game of whack’em in which you constantly catch the emergence of “Oh, now I get it….oh, no I don’t” or, “We all need to…or perhaps not.” All and always, forever and never are each and always seductive traps of grasping at final answers, foundations on which to stand, and inevitably bus stops in asserting ourselves in the face of infinite change, decay, death and birth and emergence.

Deconstructing the world is like a virus. But as with all intellectual tools, it is usually wielded in service to our games of power. I am not talking about the collective forms of manipulation, control or even paranoia towards state control. Rather, I am taking aim at our tendency to play towards our strengths and use any and all tools available to manage our existence and curate our carefully preserved sense of stability and familiarity. Spirituality is, after all, fundamentally a game of self-preservation…or didn’t you know that? Challenging this underlying and all-too human self-preservation instinct is part of what I do.

We know too much. This is our modern condition. A 21st century skill if ever there was one is to acknowledge this, recognise its consequences and accept that we need to develop new capacities as a result: To be selective but wisely so, to invest our attention, energy and time intelligently, but without merely sustaining familiar boundaries. These are just two steps that stand out as important. My own difficulty in description is itself a consequence of this condition. And rather than settle on a specific, limited set of applicable skills or potential outcomes, I find myself wrestling with this new condition itself. That is what draws me in, towards a kaleidoscope of opportunities, challenges, openings and closings. I have always been most attracted to what is taking place in the middle of it all, within the fulcrum of change where humans are struggling and excited and worried most.

The Great Feast has become a revelation in this regard. Such a simple concept, yet so profoundly important to our age, where we must all contend with the simultaneous emergence of history, the binding present, and weight of our impending future, which seems to be coming at an accelerated speed. The Great Feast is the landscape within which my coaching work unfolds. Any and all knowledge can be employed. All ideas, theories and techniques can be experimented with. Each attempt at grasping the world enhances our understanding as it makes transparent the limitations we forever face.

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In accelerated times, as new caring technology emerges, its limitations and debts to history immediately follow. To state that you are a practitioner of X is to quickly find yourself consigned to history or to be the purveyor of an imperfect set of tools. This is no bad thing. I occupy a number of roles and carry a number of certificates and documents, testament to past training, yet each has been revealed to be inadequate, limiting, and often a tool of ideological assertion or confusion. This is, however, merely a consequence of our age and the hard to accept recognition that there is no final technique, cure and infallible method. To grasp at the next big thing is a sham, as Mindfulness reminds us.

What remains in spite of history is the human: The paradoxical creature that is animal and something more. Inevitably, what I do is to attempt to respond to the animal-human in front of me and try to provide a response to the parts of that person that are most prominent within the requests for help being made. Perhaps that’s it. Yes, lots more goes on, but it starts and ends there.

What is real? This is a defining question that runs through the 1:1 work I do. How can I help is the rejoinder. We are complex ecologies that require a sophisticated ecological response, but a response that can simplify and create access to what is present and attempting to emerge. There is immense complexity woven through our being, our bodies, our emotional selves, our minds, our desires, fears, dreams and fantasies. All techniques, cures, practices and roles are designed to pick out one or a few of the fibres, roots, stems and branches of that ecological richness, and say, hey, let’s work on that, or, let’s fix that so you can get back in the game. To my ears, that sounds like a game of survival, or adaption back into systems that are designed to maintain lies, fantasies of selfhood, and warped dreams that infiltrate our minds and rob us of any possibility of bringing something new to this world.

I can’t be involved in that.

Perhaps my role is that of a gardener? Helping to tend luscious greenhouses teeming with life, hidden angles, unexpected blossoms, surprising buds, overwhelming perfume, and dark corners full of uncomfortable smells and poisonous things. A guide would be a decent definition too. But a guide to what? No single answer emerges. A guide to… A guide to being real? Hmm, pretentious. A guide to being free… From what? For how long? And then? A guide to meditation? God, how limiting. A guide to happiness… Don’t even go there.

If I must narrow it down. I hover around the role of a Bodhisattva. Not the superlative model of such a figure conjured up by traditions of Buddhism seeking to out-compete their forbears for grandeur, but the simplest definition we might produce here: A person committed to reducing unnecessary ignorance and suffering in the world whenever possible and within the means available. The definition of ignorance, and suffering, and what a reduction would look like in each are not defined by Buddhism though, as its limitations are all too apparent. The Great feast is the remedy for the unwitting production of historic forms of ignorance and it is there that evolving definitions and understanding of ignorance and suffering are being worked on with Buddhism continuing to play its part.

We know too much to merely reproduce tradition. Our current age demands we make connections, establish lines of possibility, create dialogue between different perspectives, ideas and practice traditions so that we might cease to pretend we can get the final answer to any of this. Rather, we can allow our physical ecology, with its multiple connections, emergences, and ever changing, moving elements to show us how our relationship with knowledge, experience and ideas should open in some directions, and close to others. That is to engage a complex, dense, ecological sphere in which we are fully and forever immersed. Do we view it as entrapment to be escaped, or the real world condition in which we cannot but exist? Do we seek to transcend our existence and condition or make small pockets of it comfortable enough to survive in? Or, do we become explorers that embrace the material conditions in which we are totally immersed? In that world, everything that is real, that has existed, that exists now and that is emerging is part of our inheritance and the manure for our explorations, desires and hopelessness. Can we become artists, capable of relating to ever more of it whilst committed to reducing unnecessary ignorance and suffering?

That’s the game I’m playing at present, however imperfectly. That is how I am beginning to understand it. My work is as a guide and companion through this. The coaching label is merely a reminder that I do not fill the following roles; guru, saviour, therapist, mindfulness expert, Buddhist teacher, surrogate father figure, infallible leader, all-knowing wisdom master, possessor of the final cure, holder of the final answer…There are probably more I haven’t thought of yet.

If any of this resonates with you, perhaps you are a fellow traveller, or someone whom I might be able to help embrace some of this incredible and fascinating complexity, relate to this incredible world more effectively, and handle the real conditions of your life, existence, struggles and dreams more consciously. I may be able to help you set up a practice or revisit your practice to see how it might evolve in line with where you are at and the struggles or desires you are facing. I can help with ceremony, ritual, meditation, discipline, learning and a way forward based on seeing ourselves as far richer than Buddhism envisions us. All of this is true. It’s not much of a promise. Not a particular attractive sells pitch, but right now, it’s the most honest evaluation of what I do. It’s the best I’ve got.

Click here for more information on O’Connell ‘Coaching’

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