This is the second in an explorative series on Coaching, Mentoring, Buddhism and the practising life. It represents my attempt to examine and define the work I do whilst picking up on bigger themes regarding teaching, teachers and students, practice, waking up, moving on from Buddhism, change, and so on. It has a speculative element to it but is ultimately my attempt to make transparent the issues that lie within. Because these themes and topics are so rich, I inevitably skip some areas that are fundamentally important. If you spot any glaring omissions, make a comment and if I can, I shall write a response or include it in a future post.
Coaching, Mentoring & Buddhism
Having recently recorded two more episodes looking at the dysfunctional nature of the Guru model and collective forms of identity more broadly within cults and New Religious Movements, I thought it might be useful to reflect on the role of Coaching and Mentoring in the contemporary teaching of, and hands on approaches to, meditation, contemplation, spiritual practice, and development. Yes, I know, I’m using that word spiritual again. No, I’m not sure what to replace it with. The reason for reflecting out loud on the coaching role is that it provides a fairly reliable antidote to the top-down, all-knowing archetype of the Guru figure. It also presents us with a core solution to the often dysfunctional search for a replacement father or mother figure so present in dynamics between gurus, spiritual leaders, Buddhist teachers, and their adepts; namely, personal responsibility and self-directed change. The purpose here is to look at how alternative roles may serve in approaching the umbrella concepts of growth, change, development, waking up, gaining realisation, deepening practice, maturing, learning, gaining freedom, or the more explicitly Buddhist goals of reducing ignorance and suffering. It seems pretty clear that the old roles of teacher and student in practice traditions from Buddhism to Hinduism and so on may not always be the most suitable for bringing folks to the promises made within those traditions, or to the Great Feast, where the wealth of human culture may provide the materials for revitalising the world of practice, and liberating the potential of the practising life.
I trained as a Life Coach when it started to become popular in the 1990s, along with NLP, Hypnotherapy, and general coaching for personal and professional development. I had already trained as a Person Centred Counsellor within the Rogerian School of Psychotherapy, but although I found the whole approach to be rather beautiful in many ways, it was clearly highly limited, limiting, and rather passive. To be fair, I was too young to be trying to counsel others, I was in my very early twenties after all, but the simple observation I made at the time was confirmed in the world of coaching; change makes change, which is to say, if you want your life to change, you actually need to do more than just talk about it whilst getting in touch with your feelings in front of a sympathetic listener. There are definitely moments where what we most need is unconditional acceptance, and to be heard, and to feel ourselves to have been heard, but these are insufficient methods for bringing about most forms of change. Counselling is a good basis, a good start, a good default setting to return to, but most folks would like to get on with their lives and improve matters at some point and that is where coaching comes in.
Since most folks reading this are connected to Buddhism to some degree, I will say two words on how Coaching and Mentoring are different to teaching Buddhism 1:1 and how we might apply coaching or mentoring dynamics to working with Buddhist materials. I am going to start by suggesting that Buddhism is a label for a variety of traditions that are ideological in nature: They come with set ideas about who you are, what you must be, and not be, what the goals are, and where you should eventually end up (or never, ever get to). Yes, you can use coaching as the basis for instructing people in such ideological practice, but, as with all mainstream religions, there is always a sense of imposition, accompanied by unquestioned assumptions, and that odour of sufficiency; Buddhism has got the goods, this is the final stop in your search, and you need look no further. Now, genuine coaching will inevitably involve ideological expressions taking place, but if it’s done well, it prioritises starting wherever the person is at and seeks to address where they wish to go, rather than impose prescriptive aims, outcomes, and visions of desirable selfhood. Coaching seeks to reduce ideological capture, and, in my case, take it as an essential part of the material that needs working on if the coaching is geared towards notions of spirituality, holistic growth, and, excuse me for sounding dramatic, evolutionary change and learning.
Then there is mentoring. As with Coaching, there are a variety of ways of conceiving of and defining mentoring, but one practical way to distinguish it from Coaching is as a process that seeks to understand what is emerging from the person at a given time, and what would be wise to respond to. Where coaching is more goal orientated, mentoring may be far less concerned with getting anywhere in particular, it may even involve giving up on goal setting all together for a while. The way I generally distinguish between the two is to say that coaching is short-term and based on clear goals, whereas mentoring is open ended, and allows for a slower, maturational process to take place, which is facilitated, rather than overtly led. It may take forever to achieve something, or that imagined ending may never be fully accomplished. This may sound odd to our wonderful go-getting, high-achievers, but it can also be an essential antidote to the individualistic, pragmatic model of selfhood that has been so dominant in modern American myths and to which the rest of the world has, to some degree, succumb. Mentoring is far less predictable then, but it can also be far more profound and meaningful. To be fair to those more experienced and less captured Buddhist teachers, Mentoring is where the best may find themselves operating in their one to one engagement with students.
In my Coaching practice, I have an approach that mixes together Counselling, Coaching and Mentoring. Depending on what a person brings to our sessions, I may lean more heavily towards one relationship dynamic or the other, but typically, once I get to know the person a little better through evaluative tasks and dialogue, each model works best at different stages in the relationship and in different moments of challenge or opportunity. Fundamentally, however, we eventually uncover the tangible humanity that permits all of this play to occur. You see, dehumanisation continues to play a central role in the inculcation of folks into the ideals of Buddhism, or spirituality, and the never ending pursuit of self-perfection and self-realisation, or enlightenment. This may appear as a paradox initially, Coaching after all does start from the assumption that there is somewhere to go and that effective change can be instigated. Because so many traditions implicitly hold that they are correct, already done, or forever in decline from a once perfect past, the human inevitably finds their own voice, own questioning, desires and fears modulated and even dismissed or explained away by the tradition’s rhetoric and apparent authority. We end up filled by the teacher’s or the tradition’s images of selfhood and path, and its desires, and unless we are particularly confident, curious and forthright, it is unlikely that the weight and power of the tradition or teacher will not subvert our own sense of direction or questioning. Many of the ex-Buddhists I have worked with over the years speak of this process, of being unwittingly formed anew, and often finding that the new form has robbed them of something very important which they must now reclaim.
Why go with coaching?
The dilemmas we all face in the 21st century are a result of the inheritance of models of teacher, student, leader, follower, guru, disciple, and many more. These roles are steeped in histories of power, subordination, autonomy, collectivism, individualism, imaginary and real goals, ideas and their capacity to capture and motivate and terrify. We have, in many ways, undermined pretty much all of our traditional roles at this stage, but without creating sufficiently robust alternatives: There is a set of long conversations right there to be had, but let’s stay with coaching, for now. A focus on practical steps, clearly defined goals, and the change that can lead to the realisation of those goals is perhaps the best we can do at present in terms of resisting top-down power relations and the plentiful opportunities for dysfunction that have an awful tendency to seep into religious relational dynamics between teachers and followers. The questions that can reorientate us to different kinds of relational dynamics should ideally centre on competence and agreements, and be cased within transparency and personal responsibility. Personal change will forever be dysfunctional if we place its ownership in the hands of another; it will be forever dysfunctional if we are incapable of bearing the burdens that come with enacting genuine, lasting change. Coaching starts from these assumptions and it works well for those who are willing to be adults in their relationship with the coach.
Coaching starts from the questions that a person brings to the relationship. The Coach helps out by being actively involved in the construction of a functional way forwards. Within the project of personal growth, development, maturation, and change, the potential paths are innumerous. If we apply a coaching approach to Buddhism, then all kinds of opportunities open up, especially if we keep in play the notion of a reduction in ideological capture throughout. If this concept is kept as a constant companion, then part of the necessary conditions for avoiding becoming a mere Buddhist subject are present. Coaching would ask, rather than tell, lay out an alternative vision or way forwards, rather than force you into a universal, ideological model. Instead of instructing you in the one true way, coaching asks, “What is your experience so far?” “Where are you stuck?” “How are you looking to move forwards?” “What are you willing to do to head there?” “Are you willing to try this for a period?”
Coaching constantly seeks to open the way, work with what is real, rather than merely imagined, try out alternatives, and challenge beliefs and limitations whilst recognising potential and opportunity. Most of what is learnt in coaching is taken away afterwards as recyclable tools, as it is also rooted in the development of real-world skills and models (yes, that’s all plural) for understanding self and the world. The goal of a coach is to make themselves unnecessary as proof that the client has found the resources, autonomy and fortitude to carry on autonomously. There is clearly an element of selflessness in all of this that works to the benefit of the coached.
Coaching meets Mentoring
Without commitment, the resistance that is part and parcel of human nature can seep in all too quickly. There is no true one-size-fits-all, but we obviously need an approach which is sufficiently reliable that we can recognise and commit to for a period. Change takes effort, time and commitment. It also involves you stepping outside of the familiar and the comfortable, and most folks are highly resistant to change, and incredibly skilled at manifesting this resistance. This means that coaching can be confrontational, challenging and concerned with motivating and providing means and methods for going beyond such resistance. This creates an interesting paradox: people must ultimately self-direct their change, yet they may need someone to provide them with a metaphorical kick up the ass to make it happen. This is why adult agreements and transparency are key. In my more generous moments, I judge much of the dysfunctional behaviour we hear about from gurus and spiritual leaders as an attempt and ultimate failure to perform this duty. It’s just that the ideology they are caught in is so strong, their role so powerful, and their capture by their own beliefs so encompassing that such positive intentions become warped by the dysfunction of the hierarchy at play. This is why the observation of the insipid roles of decision, sufficiency, and enchantment in Buddhism and other ideological forms is so important to an analysis of capture. These forms of ideology are ultimately the keys that allow for abuse, for power trips, for the collective cultivation of ignorance and delusion of the sort we see in the actions of Sogyal, The NKT, Reggie Ray, and others.
Change work can lead to greater insight regarding the human condition, which when met viscerally can be shocking, a richer sense of compassion towards our own difficulties and humanity, a greater appreciation of the short duration of a human life. Within the context of coaching within the realm of the spiritual, such insights can suddenly become more tangible, more human and more real than when they are overly burdened with the weight of a tradition’s interpretation or subsuming of such human reality to the ideological force of their traditional authority. Discovering the reality and depth of human fragility, the incredible, tangible clarity and acuity of perception, can wake a person up out of practice and religion as performance. In my experience, this is the key line that separates a practising life from a performative life. In my experience, many western traditions and teachers lack the capacity to distinguish between the two, and the worst of them are all about collective hallucination and theatrics. This observation and insight through experience can shift people towards a different kind of desire: To develop a practising life that is real and thoroughly human, and as a consequence unpredictable and with few guarantees. In the manner in which I work, this is often where coaching moves into mentoring.
Mentoring slows everything down. It poses different types of questions, such as “What is it all for?” “What are you striving for?” “What does that allow you to avoid or to run from?” “What are you most scared of and what would happen if you touched that fear within you?” “What have you always secretly desired?” “How does meaninglessness work its way within you?” “What would it mean for you to be free and what is the real-world implication of your current models of freedom?” “How do you experience the world when you’re not pretending or performing for imagined voyeurs?” “How comfortably do you sit with power…and powerlessness?”
These are the sorts of questions that can be powerful in a Mentoring dynamic that is approaching the existential realities of a spiritual life, a practising life, an awakening life, a life committed to coming to terms with human suffering and ignorance. It’s not for everyone, of course, and neither should it be, but these arenas of human exploration and questioning and experiencing need to be available to those who are driven towards them without the weight of tradition or the egocentric narcissism of gurus muddying the way ahead with false promises and utopian fantasies. The constant resurrection of our shared humanity is the basis for a functional mentoring relationship.
I personally do this work because it is calling, both to me and to many of those who get in touch, and that then end up exploring the terrain of an unpredictable, deeply meaningful, practising life. Feel free to get in touch for an initial session. I offer sliding scale for payment so economic success is not the determiner of whether you can do this kind of work, or not. The first session is open and you do not have to sign up for anything. If you do decide to move forwards, I ask that folks commit to a cycle of four sessions so that we can make a substantial go of it. Folks then decide if they wish to continue, or not. Feel free to email me with questions;