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On this day, exactly a year ago, at an amazingly inspirational transpersonal coach training workshop run by Sir John Whitmore, I visioned my life a year on.  I had a very clear image in my mind – which emerged somewhat messier, due to my lack of drawing skills – of a huge heart, with wings attached, while firmly grounded with little comical cartoon feet.  Behind my winged & feeted heart was a huge globe: the whole Earth, no less!

As we did this exercise in pairs, my partner – a friend and fellow coach – commented: I see you’ve placed yourself bigger than the Globe!  And while that wasn’t necessarily my intention – being present in the world with my whole heart, mind, body (and wings!), while engaging in my true life’s purpose, was.

At the time I hadn’t yet decided that I was going to try and make my living by coaching alone: I was still looking for other organisational posts, and very much wobbling in my intent to become self-employed.  But that image – that metaphor – of me being in the world, coaching, stayed with me.  Inspired by my partner from the workshop, I took a picture of it on my phone, which has been with me ever since.

Six months later – again pretty much to the day – my website was nearing completion: with much better design, I hasten to add, owing to the grace and talent of a great web designer; I had become self-employed; and I had started to make a living by coaching alone.  I had joined coaching associations, met wonderfully inspiring people, attended training events and continued my coaching professional development.

Now, a year later, I see how far I’ve come…  I’ve become accredited with the biggest international coach federation; I’ve written my first article for a coaching magazine; ran my first session as a presenter at a coaching event; became the web editor for the UK branch of ICF.  And I’m still earning money by coaching, and I still feel – as I said at that workshop a year ago – that the Universe sings when I coach.

Have things turned out as I expected?  I’m not entirely sure…

I don’t think I had a very detailed plan of how I wanted things to turn out: and I’m sure if you ask me, I can certainly be much more ambitious and successful than I already am, but on the whole that picture stands true: I am a coach, with a big heart, outstretched wings and comical feet.  And the world is behind me…

One of the things I often help coaching clients with is – becoming more of who they are.  In Gestalt psychology, this is called the Paradox of Change: true change is only possible when you become who you truly are.  It’s a paradox because we spend so much of our lives – often starting in childhood, or if we’re lucky, in adolescence – trying to become someone else: someone who appears to be better, nicer, richer, cuter or more successful than ourselves.  And of course it’s doomed to fail, as well as lead to a life of unhappiness and ‘chasing one’s own tail’ or living vicariously through others, and never measuring up. 

What often happens in so-called ‘mid-life’ (and these days ‘mid-life crises’ happen to people from their mid-20s to mid-60s) is that a person gets exhausted by trying to be someone else and decides to be who they truly can be, the best and most fabulous version of themselves.  It is often then that they come to coaching, and it is those kinds of clients that I truly enjoy working with.

What prompted me to think about this today was a fascinating exhibition at the Tate Britain called Turner and the Masters, which exhibits Turner’s paintings alongside other masters – like Claude Lorraine, Rembrandt and Poussin – who he was ‘inspired by’ (to use polite language) or ‘tried to copy’ (to be more precise).  Now, I have always thought of Turner as one of those artists who had a unique and recognisible ‘voice’ (albeit in the medium of painting) which was ahead of its time!  So it shocked me to see how many iterations – many of them unsuccessful – he went through, before becoming what we now know as JMW Turner.  The number of – frankly not very good – paintings that he made while trying to compare himself with others, astounded me!  As did his tenacity in following someone else’s style before settling on his own.

I don’t suppose they had coaches in Turner’s time – and even if they had, who knows if one could’ve helped him – but what inspiration to see that even the greatest artists struggled with ‘becoming themselves’!

As an executive coach, one of the most common fears I hear in my clients – especially senior managers – is the fear of being found out.  The underlying dread that – no matter how successful in the external world, and by the standards of that world – one day someone will come, tap us on the shoulder and say that our time has come, it’s all been a mistake, and we are actually not who we pretend to be, with all our skills, experience and expertise.

Perhaps surprisingly to non-coaches, it’s a relatively easy fear to dismantle, as it’s almost invariably based on untrue perceptions, often drawn from early childhood or adolescence, or an early critical voice whom we’ve somehow internalized.  And once that becomes clear to the client, the true process of replacing that misplaced fear – often called a ‘limiting assumption’ – and the true healing process can begin.  All good coaches are well versed with dealing with it, and there are indeed many good techniques and ‘toolkits’ to unearth the limiting assumption, and then go about dismantling it and replacing it with a more positive, useful and true observation.

But observing it in others, and occasionally in myself too, made me think about the true origin of the fear: and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s based on something else too.  On the often true perception that one is in the wrong job: a job that brings external rewards, but offers relatively little in the way of connecting to one’s true purpose.  A job – or a position – that has been the result of many years of effort, of climbing the career ladder, with relatively little thought of how that relates to one’s deepest desires and natural strengths.  A job, and a position, that is based on being better than the others, while at the same time measuring oneself by those others’ standards.

So what I try to do now with clients who fear ‘being found out’ is also to find out who it is that they really are, who they are when they are in the state of ‘flow’ (in Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of the term), who they are when they’re not worried about being the best.  Because when we are in true flow, when we are being the best at who we truly are, when we’re connecting to our inner purpose and confidently exhibiting it in the external world, there are no fears.  There is no competition with others, or worry that somebody else will be better than us, or will ‘find us out’: there is only peace and utter certainty that we are on the right path, the only path available to ourselves.

Out of the many good things about digital communication and social networks – such as giving voice to the dispossed (if they are at least possessed of access to a network) – it strikes me that one thing is still missing: the power of silence.  Silence not as emptiness, or the absence of thought/action/voice, but silence as an acknowledgement of moment shared, thought understood, the grace of being at ease with someone without speaking…

All that the digital networks have to show for silence is either a literal absence, or the pat and overused ’emoticons’ that simplify variations of human expressions to a caricature.  When we’re talking in the digital world, unless someone’s talking back at us, we don’t know who’s listening… and how’s listening…  We have no way of knowing whether we’ve touched another soul, or caused them to think the unthinkable, explore the hitherto unexplored, or even just nod in agreement.

In that way, for all their democratic potential, digital social networks have more in common with traditional one-way broadcasting than with face-to-face human interaction.  And it’s no wonder then that in order to be heard, or connected, we have to shout increasingly louder in the digital world: often making caricatures of ourselves, in order to resemble easily identifiable emoticons – today I’m sad, happy, excited, in love…  reducing ourselves, and our complex emotions, to a single sign.

One of the greatest joys of coaching for me is the opportunity to bear witness to another person’s ‘a-ha!’ moment, the privilege of witnessing the birth of a new insight, way of being and looking at the world.  And all it takes on the part of the coach is the ability to sit still, patient and non-judgemental, while the alchemy happens.  Yes, all the coaching questions, and the feedback on things heard, mulled over and considered, still bear importance, but it’s that moment of stillness and complete acceptance of another person’s journey, that really makes a difference.

And it struck me how rarely we – coaches or not – employ that ability in everyday life, with friends, lovers and strangers.  How often we rush to assert ourselves, or make often pointless asides, therefore stopping the birth of new thought before it has a chance to hatch.  So I’ve started doing more of the ‘witnessing’ in my daily life, even with strangers – on the bus, or in the queue, or the usual hurried daily interactions.  And amazing things have happened – a sudden smile, a feeling of lives acknowledged and connections made, even for a fleeting moment.  I’m hoping that the habit – once learnt – can never be unlearnt, and that all of us who felt truly ‘witnessed’ by another person will never forget the feeling and settle for anything less.

A few weeks ago, I was waiting in the reception of a large consultancy, together with a few other people…  We were sharing our space in that typical big-city way, where the done thing is to avoid eye contact, and stare pointedly at a newspaper or one of the free magazines on offer, while waiting for our respective meeting partners to come and sign us in.

It was a rainy Friday morning, and all of us were, I guess, also going through the encroaching end to our working weeks, and looking forward to the weekend. 

At one point, the kindly receptionist broke the spell by offering us all a Kit-kat, from the pyramid of chocolate treats that she was artfully arranging in front of her.  The usual conversation followed: oh I couldn’t possibly, it’s far too early for chocolate, are you really sure… but the offer of sharing of food broke the spell, and suddenly created a community. 

We all started chatting – around our love of Kit-kats or otherwise – and it turned out that a new temp that was starting that morning had a passionate love of food and cooking, which she inherited from her grandmother; the rather forlorn-looking pinstripe-suit man (there for an interview?) turned out to be a part-time cook in an old people’s home; while I reminisced how both of my grandmothers used baking to express love, and how certain smells still take me straight back to childhood!

And it reminded me of the simplicity of connecting over a shared love of food: something so simple as sharing a chocolate bar caused a true connection of human spirit, and we were suddenly – and briefly – all witnessing each other’s life journeys. 

A similar thing recently happened at the networking club I belong to: one of the receptionists was leaving, and instead – or rather, in addition to – traditional leaving drinks, she cooked us all a big ‘meze-type’ meal from her home country.  It was the first time in about 4 months that I’d been going to that club that people actually chatted to strangers over shared plates, rather than just coming in for their meetings, or staring intently at their laptops.

Once again, I’m reminded of the beauty of real-time, real-life, sense-filled connection, which at the moment can’t seem to be replicated in the digital world.  For all the shared jokes and video clips – and yes, some of them involving food – computer-based social connection still seems to be missing the simplicity, smells and tastes of the shared food experience.

… or the importance of being pleasantly surprised!

Since Apple introduced the ingenious Shuffle button, enabling mp3 players to mix up tracks from your downloaded choice of music, rather than following an obvious pattern such as listening to the whole album, or many songs by the same artist, or the same genre, my experience of listening to music has been revolutionized.  I love hitting that double-loop button and waiting to hear what comes next… so a yoga chant may be followed by a movement from a piano concerto, followed by Rufus Wainwright, followed by Muse, followed by Ute Lemper (it works best if you have eclectic tastes)!

I then started thinking how I could put my life on shuffle: open myself up to new experiences – or new combinations of experiences that I’ve previously enjoyed – without knowing where the journey will take me next.  Or how or when it will end… (the equivallent of pressing the Stop or Pause button)

It was easier – and with more delightful consequences – than I could’ve imagined.  All it requires is an openness to experience, a full presence in the moment, and the ability to observe what – and who – is around me…

The only difficult thing about Life on shuffle (unlike the iPod shuffle) is choosing which random experience, thought or person to go with… but that only serves to refine my decision-making capabilities, knowing what – and who – is worth abandoning the previous ‘download’ for!