Crisis and Emergency: Spiritual Emergence? Transpersonal Coaching for complex times
What has your journey been through the pandemic?
When not distracting myself with work or Netflix series, I have spent time noticing the roller coaster of my emotions – and everyone else’s – and reflecting on what this time could mean for us all.
Since March last year our ideas of normality have been turned upside down and through this turbulence we’ve had to confront fear and personal and collective loss. For most of us loss and death on this huge and widespread scale is new, and it is shocking.
As habits and assumptions we took for granted have been disrupted, torn from the everyday fabric of social relations, we are forced to confront our own fragility and the urgent precarity of our global home. The pandemic has broken open other fears, lurking in the wings, around climate, biodiversity loss, social injustice and division. It has shaken up our sense of who we are and what it means to live and work in the world. But that’s what crises are meant to do!
The Chinese character for crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity. Crisis requires the ability to be at the same time alert to danger and curious and open to opportunity – to hold both narrow and wide focus. If we don’t hold both crises have the power to paralyse us and may leave us with the scars of trauma. But this is a skill that requires practice, and support. So the question I am holding is this: can coaching help us address urgent present needs while at the same time support changes in our mindset and behaviours to transform potentially traumatising events into new narratives that help us to live in the world in better ways?
Coaching in the workplace has come a long way from its early instrumental role as an individual performance enhancer.
Coaching approaches that support development and challenge assumptions are now widely available and appreciated by teams and leaders. But coaching as a profession has reached a critical fork in the road: do we keep building up a clever toolkit and lend ourselves to high performers for that extra edge or can coaching live up to its potential and put itself in service of greater challenges. Of course it doesn’t have to be either/or. But the pandemic has massively accelerated and amplified the need for our profession to address these questions.
Businesses are now being evaluated for their impact on society, and for their capacity to “enhance collaboration, and build trust, credibility, and consistency through their actions”. They are urged to embrace purpose, potential and perspective to perform as a “social enterprise at work” (Deloitte 2018). The ESG (environment, social and governance) agenda has replaced the easily-ignored add-on of CSR (corporate social responsibility), bringing the need for purpose into the heart of the boardroom. Likewise individuals are asking themselves: what is my purpose – as a leader and as a citizen? Questions like “why am I here?” “What gives my life meaning?” And “how can I use this time of disruption to plan a better journey?” are being asked everywhere. Is coaching ready to meet this shift in orientation?
I think coaches have long been ready to step up to this more existential and service-oriented work because by nature coaches tend to care – about people and the world we live in. Coaches are now being called to support their clients, not just to make better decisions under pressure, but to use this time to transform their lives, to follow their dreams and discover what is theirs to offer.
To remain relevant therefore coaching must be more than a clever toolkit.If we are to help others find their path then we coaches first need to know our own values, our foundations and the beliefs we hold about the world and what we’re here for. My own roots lie in transpersonal psychology. Back in the early 2000s John Whitmore and I (supported by Diana Whitmore) created the Transpersonal Coaching model based on our long practice in psychosynthesis. Psychosynthesis is a complete ontology – a world view – developed by Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist, who was initially a follower of Freud but broke from psychoanalysis for its distaste for the spiritual and scant attention to the highest and best in human beings.
Defined as “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos” (Walsh & Vaughan 1993) the transpersonal includes the collective and the universal and goes beyond the psychological to include the spiritual – that which fires and sustains our spirit.
Drawing on wisdom traditions from East and West, on art, poetry, science and literature Assagioli sought to create a psychology to help those “who refuse to submit passively to the play of psychological forces which are going on within them”. He saw the individual as interdependent, “an element or cell of a human group…the entire human family”. This shift to a focus on the individual’s contribution to the whole aligns with the emphasis we’re now seeing on team and systemic coaching: a focus on what a leader needs to learn or change in themselves to empower and enable others. This shift from a ‘me first’ mindset is critical if we are to collaborate in addressing global challenges.
Starting in the 1930s and drawing from his own transformational experiences of imprisonment by the Fascists, from his clinical work and not least from the tragic death of his son from TB, Assagioli systematically created a series of practical working models and tools to help people lead freer lives. These lend themselves perfectly to coaching. Among them is the concept of ‘sub-personalities’ and dis-identification (to work with identity as both multiple and unified); the two dimensions of growth and the two life crises we encounter; creative ways of working with pain, crisis and failure (enjoining the imagination and our ‘higher self’ to attune us to emergence) – and at our core the twin energies of Will and Love (of assertion and being, action and receiving). But importantly these models are based within a coherent and ethical model of the psyche – a model of the self that is interdependent with the collective and the universal. This speaks to what I call ‘secular spirituality’ (Einzig 2017) – the ability to hold oneself within a bigger picture, to serve a purpose beyond self, and the capacity for awe, not-knowing and the mysterious. Framework and tools together provide a solid and supportive platform for coaches as they partner with leaders in this challenging work.
Maslow was also drawn to the transpersonal. In later years he went beyond self-actualisation – the pinnacle of his famous Hierarchy of Needs – to study what he called transcenders who are “much more consciously and deliberately motivated” driven by such values as truth, goodness, beauty. They take a more holistic view, transcending the “zero-sum of win-lose gamesmanship”.
Assagioli saw psychosynthesis as making “a valuable contribution to the spiritual, psychological and external integration of humanity. Such integration is its urgent need…[to] counteract the dangers at present menacing it, and to help usher in…a new way of living”. Writing in the context of World War 2, his words feel as relevant today as then.
If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that the world – and we as part of it – is far more complex, far more interconnected, and far more fragile, than we cared to believe.
It is a humbling experience and a wake-up call. The message is loud and clear: we need to reassess how we work and live together in an interdependent world. The transpersonal proposes a view of existence rooted in a positive, ethical worldview that can sustain and enable both coachee and coach to engage with the complex problems faced by leaders and followers alike and to take right action in the world. Like now.
This is what the crisis is urging us: feel the danger and be curious about the opportunity. Working holistically and systemically, transpersonal coaching holds the paradox and the potential of crisis, enabling leaders to meet current pain with compassion, honesty and courage while also holding the space for emergence: for the new and the beautiful to grow from the very furnace of chaos.
Crisis demands this of us. The transpersonal helps us connect to the best in ourselves. As we train the will of our best selves we are more likely to enact change for pro-social, beyond-self goals. Now more than ever we need to create new narratives – to learn from our past, bringing this into our present to enable us to envision and enact new futures.
Blog by Hetty Einzig, Keynote Speaker at the Wales Coaching Conference (day 3). Hetty brings 25 years of psychology and executive coaching experience to global leadership development. A best-selling author, her career has spanned the arts, journalism, media, health and policy development in the private, public and voluntary sectors.
At the Wales Coaching Conference in March 2021 we will be exploring how coaching can help us plan for a new, exciting, and prosperous future. To find out more about Coaching and Mentoring at USW, click here
Deloitte (2018) Deloitte Insights (2018) Global Human Capital Trends. The Rise of the Social Enterprise. https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2018/introduction.html
Einzig H (2017) The Future of Coaching: vision, leadership and responsibility in a transforming world. Routledge
Hardy, J (1987) A Psychology with a Soul: Psychosynthesis in evolutionary context. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
Walsh, R. & Vaughan, F. "On transpersonal definitions". Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 25 (2) 125-182, 1993
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