61. IBP: Dr Michelle Haslam & her psychological report on the controversial New Kadampa Tradition

Dalai Lama

(The Dalai Lama is pointing at you NKT!)

This is our fourth foray into the land of Buddhism, Cults and Cult-like behaviours across mainstream Buddhist groups. Let’s be honest, this topic is always perversely interesting. If you missed out on our past episodes covering these topics, there are links and short intros below to those past episodes, which were a lot of fun to record with old co-host Stuart Baldwin.

For our latest journey, we interview Dr Michelle Haslam, PhD, a clinical psychologist who ran afoul of the machinations of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and has since written a psychological report on their tactics and set up a resource site filled with testimonies from ex-followers along with articles to warn the general public about their oft dysfunctional behaviour. She shares some of the horrendous tactics employed against her after leaving the group and discusses some of her psychological analysis of the NKT, their practices and group dynamics.

Michelle has had a dreadful website put together by a phantom psychologist (a hungry ghost perhaps?), who doesn’t actually appear to exist in the real world. This was done immediately after she published her report on the NKT. It’s defamatory and quite sad and makes awful claims about her. Be your own judge of it should you stumble on it. She is also currently working in an undisclosed location despite mentioning that she has worked  in safeguarding in the interview previously.

The introduction for this episode involves an added presentation on cults that ties together the multiple themes from our last episodes on the topic and concludes our forays into cult-land. If you have heard it all before, you can skip it by jumping to the interview proper at 37.10.

Note: Those who critique the New Kadampa Tradition often end up being trolled, attacked, and threatened by folks who hide their identities and usually claim to not be any part of the NKT. It is obviously difficult to prove that they are, so I am putting this here as a potential warning so that you dear listener can make up our own mind about who is to blame if this podcast should come under attack. Trolling is highly likely in either case.

Here are the links to Michelle’s sites and other resources, which are all highly recommended;


Our past episodes on cults;

04. IBP: cults, cultish shennanigans & Buddhist groups


In this first episode on cults, Stuart & I discuss Buddhist cults and cultish behaviour across Buddhist groups. We look at how cultish behaviours manifest in even innocuous Buddhist groups. We discuss the wider implications of the tradeoff between belonging and autonomy, and the three core theories that explain why people get involved in cultish groups in the first place. We also look at the difference between cults and new religious movements and the difficulty in the academic world of naming the former. To avoid such a trap, we focus on cultish behaviours and ask to what degree each of the organisations we discuss exhibits them. We invite listeners to consider to what degree their own Buddhist group may exhibit such behaviours and why they are present. We cover the NKT, Rigpa, Shambhala, Michael Roach and Maitreya Ron Spenser.

05. IBP: Tenzin Peljor on leaving a Buddhist cult


In this episode, we interview the wonderfully insightful Tenzin Peljor, an ordained German Buddhist monk. Tenzin is no ordinary monk, however, he is a crusader for clarity and right information, particularly in the world of Tibetan Buddhism, where he is committed to shining a light on untruth. He runs two English language sites which provide a wealth of information and resources including interviews with noted Buddhist Studies academics, and exposes of cultish behaviour. He is also one of the best informed individuals regarding the New Kadampa Tradition and as an ex-member himself writes with great clarity in order to dispel the myths propagated by that group. Here he tells the story of his involvement with the NKT and what it was that drove him to leave. We also discuss aspects of a monk’s life and explore important texts that help with leaving behind western romanticism of Tibet.

27. IBP: Why not join a cult? Stuart & Matthew go deep into cult-land.


Why wouldn’t you want to join a cult? That’s a question Stuart and I get round to addressing in this episode of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. We also find time to cover Alison Mack and life after Smallville in a sex cult, the enigmatic guru Miranda, the latest mew age Maitreya to turn up, and a number of other cults we missed out on the first time round. Stuart brings his new found insights into super-powered hypno-wonder, and I reveal my disappointing IQ as we skirt around topical issues such as…IQ and the Alt-Right, existential crises and why being in a cult can actually be fun. We get in some conspiracy theories, give a mention to Michelle Pfeiffer, and even manage to spend a few words on Buddhism in the process.







Being Buddhist & some thoughts on identity


The truth is that I must call myself Buddhist for it would be dishonest to do otherwise. I don’t take this word as a label or a badge that I show off proudly; I equally feel no shame in stating that I am such. I imagine that some of you might though and those that have thought about it seriously have elaborate stories for why. I could pretend I am nothing and leave it to others to decide for me what I am or not. Or I could insist on ever better definitions that fit with whatever idea is dominant in my mind, and obsess over them each year in the vain search for the perfect capture, the true me. That’s a popular game at the moment, isn’t it? Really though, it comes down to questions of identity, and truth, which are two concepts continuously under siege in our current age. In modern society, we are asked, after all, to identify with emergent dominant titles, and then posture up and display our credentials to an approving clan: I am a … (fill in the blank), therefore I am absolutely not a … (fill in the blank). Identity politics has made this all worse of course and some have rightly made the connection between its seeping influence across society, and a perennial form of adolescence, and collective narcissism; each of these latter two being wholly concerned with itself, its image, its vision of the world, its pain, and the dramatization of each.

The division between what is real and what is imagined has always been a contentious issue for our species and this divide continues unabated. The Left and the Right in their ideological capture are currently thrashing about with their ideational toys trying to make reality fit their warped visions of the world; each utterly convinced of their truth and the need for the world to adapt to its demands. The performative nature of identity means that games of identity at all levels have become far more contentious, forever problematised, increasingly theatrical, and even violent. You don’t need me to list the growing cases of stupid humans doing stupid things in the name of stupid ideologies, and to repeat how such stupidity has crossed all political divides. One may reflect on where it’s taking us all and my two cents at this point is that it will likely continue to be towards a set of destinations unpredicted by those most vocally caught up in the fervour. Self-obsession and foresight rarely go together after all.

Some of us rightly assume that giving up on the whole game of identity is the quickest way out of the identity trap and a means for escape from the madness made most evident on Twitter and Youtube. Just ignore it they say. But, this is a sort of cop out if we’re honest, and it’s an attempt at transcendence which ultimately fails. The return of an obsession with identity is, if anything, a reminder of the cyclical nature of history and a consequence of our collective struggle with the ongoing process of shuffling into a new century, and the necessary and inevitable challenges of a species in struggle with itself, and its surroundings. It is right that we imagine ourselves anew in cycles of social upheaval and change; it is not great that we continue to blindly do so whilst ignoring history, yet again, but that is clearly asking too much of our imperfect species right now.

After an increasingly therapeutic century, it was perhaps inevitable that we would struggle with the lingering centre of our identity; the question of who we are and what we should be. Coupled with the elaborately constructed individualisation of the last century, we inevitably get an over-focus on ourselves; an idea of ourselves as the locus of meaning, of responsibility, of pleasure, of identity, which is to say a self with an acute case of Narcissus syndrome. From reality TV shows to Youtube ‘stars’ do we not live in the age of peak, unwarranted narcissism? Identity politics is too often not a balance to this excess, a reassertion of us, of community and togetherness, but an elaborate collective manifestation of the same set of dysfunctional urges. It is not just look at me, it’s now look at us, keep looking, keep us in your gaze (for we might disappear if you look away). Don’t look at them, don’t maintain their existence; if you ignore them, they will vanish.  Attention at its most extreme has become a new mythological power; hunted for far and wide, accumulated and guarded jealously. The one dark ring to rule them all…

It is no surprise that our younger members of society would unconsciously plough their natural maturational urges into what makes most sense to them at the time in which they are born and grow, and in a way that will mark them apart from their dysfunctional and forever disappointing forebears. It’s a shame that they have been handed such a mixed bag of tools and that most of these tools were not fully formed and are actually  inadequate for facing the really big challenges of our time. Challenges that have far less to do with identity and far more to do with transcending not only our race, gender, sexual preference and linguistic obsessions, but with maintaining the planet as an inhabitable host for our whole species and its other living beings, which are so desperate for our attention, care, and love. Challenges that concern the elaboration of an economic system fit for purpose in a very different world, necessarily accompanied by a salvageable form of democracy that is robust enough to withstand the rise of China and the inevitable risks to human freedoms that will increase as times get tougher.

If we stop for a moment, and pay attention, it’s hard not to recognise that we need our greatest minds and talents focussing on far less parochial issues than our current political climate is captured by, though there are glimpses of some change taking place. The next generation, in its reaction against its elders, may end up being one of dedicated pragmatists and realists after this brief utopian woke moment. Though, and this may surprise you if you are caught in our moment, I very much hope they don’t reject the justice and equality obsessions of their older siblings, but merely temper them within a truly global view of activism beyond identities to a reformed global togetherness that is inclusive of the birds and the bees, the trees and rivers, and the older generations, which although forever disappointing to younger generations, cannot be left behind in our global battle with global challenges.




Why state all this? Especially as I have not pondered for so long on the connection between these thoughts on our identitarian age and my odd need to state that I am a Buddhist in this post. Like many, I have felt cautious about claiming a Buddhist identity and for good reason. The statement here though is not really a claim about identity but simply an honest observation of what I am after a series of conversations in recent months demanded I be more explicit with my commitments and claims. As I stated in the Political Turn, I am not a possessor of truth or knowledge, but a participant in these two. I feel no need to own what emerges as an apparent truthful observation that I possess over here, inside, somewhere, someplace. After having made some headway with Buddhist practices over the last decades, I could hardly tell you who or what it is that would possess such knowledge anyway, and where this knowledge would be held. Evidence merely states that I am Buddhist.

I love Buddhism. Really, I adore it. And since going “post-traditional” and dancing in the stark, naked embrace of non-buddhism, I have learnt to love it more. Its grace as an immense field of human practice is so evident. The struggling, striving wonders of men and women attempting to grapple, reason with, and develop practices for coming to terms with, understanding, and ultimately striving to transcend our shared human suffering is a joyful, historical, and thoroughly human event. Even as the excesses of those desires that have emerged in different historical phases and shaped the traditions that follow become clear, discovering Buddhisms’ flaws actually makes its many manifestations far more attractive to me, even as I find so much of it superfluous within this emerging, liberated relationship with its ideas, ideals, and practices.

In more colourful terms, Buddhism to me has become a beast that now knows how to inhabit the space of my home without tearing up the cushions, shitting in the corner, and attacking visitors. It’s been tamed. Not turned into a passive, obedient pet, struggling with its own desire, but rather a wild thing that knows how to respectfully engage with its environment, and leave space for others to live and act differently. It now knows how to play with the other kids without being a prick. The identity is not important, the reality is.

Identity politics, so often being performative, is all about status in a voyeuristic age. Whereas westerners may have once felt special or different in stating “I am a Buddhist”, later stages in Western Buddhism’s development saw practitioners finding the whole show and tell game rather superficial, vain and, in more conscious moments, rather irrelevant to the core concern that captured and maintained the attention of longer-term practitioners; namely, that of the ego, of the self, of the soul, of a fixed, permanent ‘I’ at the core of our being. There is a clear contradiction in claiming an identity whilst working on identity after all.

I am Buddhist, fundamentally, because I am consciously committed to reducing suffering and ignorance, and I recognise the undisputable value of phenomenological, contemplative practice in working towards such an open ended aim, and the essential utility of many Buddhist principles. What’s more, the commitment to reducing these two is a pervasive compulsion that comes naturally to me, and as a desire that drives me instinctively, capturing my deepest concerns. It is also the safest, most reliable ethical means I know of for avoiding my worst instincts and keeping me honest: How am I contributing to suffering and ignorance here and how can I reduce doing so, or stop entirely? This is not a calculating plan, it’s not performative, not designed to boost my social credentials or make me appear as a ‘good’ person, especially because those are things I am actually naturally bad at.

This compulsion is informed by Buddhism but also my own involvement with various forms of the therapeutic enterprise, by having taught a variety of ages for over fifteen years, of looking at the world, of being a parent, a husband, a friend, and a person, like you, that sees how difficult life can be, how suffering is so often hidden in the margins of social interactions, behind the posturing and presentations, identities and roles. Buddhism is one of our greatest collective efforts at answering the question, ‘What is to be done about all the suffering?’ It has a fundamental role at the Great feast for this reason.

At its best, Buddhism is wholly concerned with the aim of tackling individual and collective ignorance and pain and that never-ending dissatisfaction we all try to ignore (choose your favourite translation of dukkha). That is the potential within its ideological apparatus. It can be reset towards such goals, recalibrated so that it is not a mere ideological machine capturing subjects and reforming them in performative acts of sufficient Buddhism. It can be more than the mere reiteration of tradition for tradition’s sake. Those of you that recognise the capture are usually the first to dismiss the title of Buddhist, but if you are like me in your concerns, then you kind of are Buddhist: That’s at least what my friends would say.

Like the distinction between practice and performance made in the last post, the distinction between Buddhism as capture and Buddhism as liberating force is not so easily identified and rarely recognised by its own practitioners and teachers. My commitment to reducing the I and the S also involves making the ideological, performative nature of contemporary western Buddhism evident, and speaking to it, so that its inherited limitations may not be an obstacle to the great potential within Buddhism to enact itself. For those currently thinking deeply about post-colonialism and whiteness, and western ideological hegemony, this is not me reiterating another manifestation of the ‘West knows best’ and ‘let’s drop all that backwards superstition of those dark folk who corrupted the pure teachings or original secular-scientific-humanist message of old prince Siddhartha’. Such value laden comparisons are uninteresting to me. Recognising how our current age and knowledge must be integrated into how we imagine Buddhism anew is. It is also a non-negotiable inevitability. This is not about better than, purer than, truer than, that last one a game many traditions continue to play anyway (and to their own disadvantage in my humble opinion), but rather the desire to keep returning all practice materials to the Great Feast – a truly democratic space where all of history can have a place in a fair fight. Traditions are welcome to continue as they will, but their contribution at the Feast ceases once they fail to innovate or give birth to revitalised manifestations of their most important insights and practices: There is no resisting change after all.

To me, the personal and the Buddhist are too close to be separated so I am happy to accept the title of Buddhist. I just demand that the kind of Buddhist I am be seated wholeheartedly at the Great Feast where definitions of suffering have come on since Siddharta and Tsongkhapa and our other wonderful forebears in the struggle for greater knowledge and practices. At the Feast, I am sat among great women and men from all over the globe from great varieties of human traditions, experiments, and striving, and there are many answers to what is ignorance, to what is suffering, and to what we should do about each that transcend the limits of Buddhist thought. There at the Feast I am a better Buddhist; no, not better necessarily than other Buddhists. This is not a damn competition! Rather, what is obvious is that we know more than we ever did. This means that we have more resources for both understanding the qualities and range of ignorance and suffering, and far more resources for tackling both in their multiple manifestations. It is also means we all have a duty to do our part to ensure that this knowledge and these practices do not remain as mere materials for the elites, for the privileged, for the few, or that they remain in the hands of those who are drunk on ideology and are likely to give rise to yet new forms of ignorance and suffering. The Great Feast is where we can all get better at the real projects contained in the greatest moments of our human species.

I personally happen to be most interested in those moments where we tried to figure out how to help those caught in the confines of pain and ignorance to see that there are so often ways out of both. For this reason, I am clearly Buddhist.




Mentoring & Coaching along the Practising Life


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;



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

noun_helping hand_1951291.png

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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60. IBP: Brooke Lavelle & Zach Walsh on the Great Transition

Brooke and Zack

In a time of environmental meltdown, political and economic crisis, what should we do? What role can practice play? How are we to envision our place in the world, as protagonists in the destruction of our home, and mere bit part players in global conflict? Can we make a difference, or should we retreat to our personal spaces and meditate and be done with it?

This new episode of the podcast explores such big themes and the work of Brooke D. Lavelle and Zachary Walsh, our two guests, as we take a look at the bifurcated road ahead of us; a Great Transition, or a Great Collapse await. While many of us may like to see life continue on as usual, I think most folks are starting to realise that business as usual is killing us slowly. It is time to make change move in a direction that sees us and the many species surviving this century, but practice remains, as Sloterdjik would remind us, and the big picture is always grounded in the lives of practitioners in this conversation.

We discuss such uncomfortable topics as love, care, practice and transformation. We touch on environmentalism, activisms, but also the underlying themes challenging these worlds of work at present and the need to both practice and think and imagine the world differently.

Zachary Walsh
Brooke D. Lavelle
Responding with Love to a Civilisation in Crisis: article for Open Democracy

Enjoy! And come along to The Great Feast…


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