I had precautionary tests this week for a potentially life-threatening condition. Thankfully, the results turned out to be OK but it’s experiences like this that often bring existential issues into sharp relief. Existential coaching focuses on helping a person explore his or her own sense of ‘being in the world’, that strange psychic awareness that we are in the world before what we are in the world. At times, such awareness can feel mysterious, unfathomable, disorientating and anxiety-provoking. It’s like one of those moments when, as a child, I gazed up into the night sky, saw the stars and the enormity of space, imagined space and time going on forever and felt dizzy and perplexed by it. It can also raise deep questions to the surface such as, ‘Who am I?’ and 'Why am I here?’
According to existentialist thought, our essence as a person isn’t fixed but we become who we are through the choices we make. Our choices are influenced by factors such as the assumptions, beliefs, judgements, hopes and fears etc. we hold about ourselves, the same we hold about others and how we experience and act in our relationships with others, in our everyday circumstances and in the decisions we face and make. Existentialist writers sometimes refer to this as our ‘stance in the world’, that is, how we perceive, position ourselves and act in our everyday lives. Our stance both reflects something of our sense of and our way of being in the world and shapes who we are and become in the world. I can share a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon.
When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I took her to a theme park that had a very high and steep ‘death slide’. I was surprised and impressed to see her quietly but resolutely psyche herself up to leap down its harrowing slope. When she finally did do it, I asked her how she managed to bring herself to push herself off its terrifying edge. She responded in a way that humbled and amazed me: ‘Firstly, when you told me it would be OK, I trusted you that it would be OK, even though it looked so scary. Secondly, when I write about what we did today in my diary tonight, I want to be able to write that I went on the slide even though I was afraid of it, not that I didn’t go on the slide because I was afraid of it. That’s the kind of person I want to be.’ I felt awe-struck and speechless.
Curiously, we are often unaware of making choices, or deny to ourselves that we are making choices in order to avoid the responsibility that choice implies, and unaware of the underlying metaphysical world view we hold that both influences and is influenced by our choices. It’s as if we can live at a superficial level, sometimes choose to live at that level as a form of self defence or life-coping mechanism. The problem is that if we only live at that level, we may fail to be who we can become in the world; deny ourselves and others a deeper and more fulfilling life experience; struggle with contact in intimate relationships; expend our time, energy and resources on distractions that aim to suppress or avoid facing the discomfort and anxiety that existential issues can evoke.
One of the goals of existential coaching is therefore to raise world view and choice into awareness in order enable clients to live more authentic lives. It’s about enabling clients to acknowledge and deal with underlying anxiety, tensions and conflicts that could be experienced symptomatically in psychological, emotional, physical or relational difficulties or in problematic patterns of behaviour. Duerzen summarises this approach in Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy (2011) as, ‘to help people to get better at facing up to difficulties with courage instead of running away from them’. It necessarily involves a willingness to explore issues beneath the surface, a willingness to face anxiety and a willingness to explore alternative ways of being and acting in the world.
This reminds me of a volunteer assignment I did with a Christian social worker and psychologist in Germany not long after the Berlin wall came down and East and West were reunified. We were working in a social work project with young people, often from fairly poor and dysfunctional family backgrounds, who were being seduced by the far right to join new neo-Nazi groups. The groups provided these young people with a much-needed sense of identity, belonging and purpose in the world. As part of his practice, the social worker would touch sensitively on spiritual issues and questions where it seemed appropriate. A secular humanistic colleague challenged him vehemently on this, insisting that social workers should never stray into the spirituality arena.
The social worker empathised with his colleague’s concerns about professional ethics and the risks of pressurising and indoctrinating vulnerable young people. At the same time, he believed that true spirituality speaks to life’s deepest questions, experiences and actions. The social worker responded, ‘These young people often talk in therapy about their deepest fears, about life and death, issues that are very real for them. It’s often such fears that lead them to seek a sense of identity, security and purpose in these sinister groups. We cannot afford to separate our thinking or our practice into neat, distinct, spheres of influence. The matters we and they are dealing with bring profound psychosocial, existential and spiritual issues face to face in the room.’ I agree.
So what could existential coaching look like in practice? Firstly, the coach will invite the client to share their story, particularly focusing on issues that led them to work with a coach in the first place. The coach’s role at this stage is primarily to listen and, over time, to reflect back any beliefs and values that surface implicitly or explicitly in the client’s account, particularly in terms of how the client perceives themselves, others, issues and their situation. In this sense, the coach is acting as a sounding board and a mirror, enabling the client to grow in awareness of his or own world view. The coach will go on to focus on specific tensions that may emerge, e.g. between the client’s underlying beliefs and values and the stances or actions they are choosing in practice.
The intention here is to surface the client’s underlying personal and cultural metaphysic rather than simply his or her way of perceiving and responding to an immediate issue. This approach is based on a belief that the client’s general world view or stance-in-the-world will influence e.g. what issues the client perceives as significant; how they perceive, experience and evaluate them; what their subjective needs and aspirations are; what approaches and actions they will consider valid or appropriate; what actions they will be prepared to commit to and sustain etc. This approach also enables the client to explore any tensions within their world view, between that world view and those of others in their situation and between their world view and their actions.
The problem with the language of ‘world view’ in describing such an approach is that that it sounds too conscious, too cognitive, too coherent. The focus of existential coaching is profoundly subjective and phenomenological, that is, how the client actually experiences and responds to his or her being-in-the-world at the deepest psychological levels. In that sense, it’s as much about how a person feels, the questions they struggle with and what they sense intuitively as what they may think or believe rationally. Again, there are important links for me with a spiritual dimension. As I faced my own health-related tests this week, for instance, I experienced my faith in God as something more like a subconscious, mysterious, inner ‘knowing’ than a rational assent to a set of beliefs.
As the coaching conversation progresses, the coach may help the client identify choices he or she is making (including by default), potential choices he or she could take in the future and how to integrate the client’s choices with his or her chosen being and stance in the world in order to live a more authentic and thereby less conflicted life. At one level, this enables the client to become more aware of and honest about their decisions and actions and to act with a greater sense of freedom and responsibility. At another level, it opens up more opportunities for the future than the client may have perceived previously. It can feel very liberating and energising to discover fresh ways of perceiving and acting in situations that have previously felt stuck or entrapping.
Sample coaching methods could involve helping the client reframe experiences as choices or to change their language from passive to active voice. For example, ‘I have to write this report for my boss by Friday’ or ‘This report needs to be written by Friday’ sound and feel less empowering than, ‘I will choose to write this report for my boss by Friday’. It enables the client to take ownership of their choices and to weigh up alternative courses of action. After all, if it’s a choice, I can choose differently, although I will need to weigh up the relative pros and cons of different choices. My best choices are congruent with my underlying beliefs and values, e.g. in this case, respect for authority, the sense of a job well done or a desire to keep my job so I can pay my bills.
The coach is likely to help the client connect their choices with their underlying world view. One way to approach this is to use the ‘7 whys’ technique whereby each time the client explains why they are choosing a certain course of action, the coach responds with, ‘…and why is that important to you?’ until the client’s deepest values, aspirations and anxieties surface. I will end this piece by posing some brief existential questions for personal reflection: Who am I? What personal stance do I want to take in the world? How do I handle contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox? What is most important to me? What is God or this situation calling for from me? How consistent are my choices with my values? How well do my actions reflect the person I aspire to be?
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
Critical reflexivity…hmm…what’s that? Sounds complicated. I was re-reading one of my favourite books, An Invitation to Social Construction (2009) by Kenneth Gergen this morning which introduces this concept with the following explanation:
‘Critical reflectivity is the attempt to place one’s premises into question, to suspend the ‘obvious’, to listen to alternative framings of reality and to grapple with the comparative outcomes of multiple standpoints…this means an unrelenting concern with the blinding potential of the ‘taken for granted’…we must be prepared to doubt everything we have accepted as real, true, right, necessary or essential’.
I find this interesting, stimulating and exciting. It’s about journeying into not-knowing, entertaining the possibility that there could be very different ways of perceiving, framing and experiencing issues or phenomena. It’s about a radical openness to fresh possibilities, new horizons, hitherto unimaginable ideas. It’s a recognition that all assumptions and preconceptions about reality could be limiting or flawed.
I’ve found this critical reflexivity principle invaluable in my coaching and OD practice. How often people and organisations get stuck, trapped, by fixed ways of seeing and approaching things. The same cultural influences that provide stability can blind us to alternative possibilities. The gift of the coach or consultant is to loosen the ground, release energy and insight, create fresh options for being and action.
It certainly resonates with my reading of the gospels. Jesus Christ had a way of confronting the worldviews, traditions and apparent ‘common sense’ outlook of those he encountered in such a way that often evoked confusion, anger or frustration. It’s as if he could perceive things others couldn’t see. He had a way of reframing things that it left people feeling disorientated. He operated in a very different paradigm.
This is one point at which spirituality meets philosophy and psychology. I too get easily trapped in my own constructs so I pray to God to open my eyes, to reveal new insights and unrecognised opportunities. Jesus’ words speak to me with renewed impact. He came ‘to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set captives free.’ It’s about fresh awareness, deep liberation and a renewed life.
People sometimes become stuck and struggle to find ways forward in their work and relationships because of how they perceive and respond to people and situations. I ran a workshop recently to help managers develop insights and skills in cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC). CBC is based on cognitive behavioural psychology. It is interested in how a person’s thinking influences his or her feelings and behaviour. It aims to improve a person’s effectiveness by reducing stress and opening fresh possibilities for the future.
Cognitive refers to mental processes: what we are thinking and what we believe.
Behaviour refers to what we do: how we act in relationships and other situations.
Coaching refers to helping a person enhance their life quality and effectiveness.
CBC aims to help a person surface, examine and challenge limiting or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs. It is not just about positive thinking but more about reality-orientation. It focuses on what’s happening ‘here and now’ and on helping the person approach the future differently. A CB coach invites a person to talk about an issue, a challenge or something they are experiencing. Often, it is something that is causing the person frustration or stress. Sometimes, however, it could be simply that a person feels limited by a way of working or is struggling to find a way forward.
In order for the person to be honest, the coach needs to demonstrate genuine interest and trustworthiness. The person needs to feel free to be open, without being judged, and to know the coach has the person’s best interests at heart. Listening and confidentiality are very important. If the person is feeling anxious, stressed or highly emotionally-charged, it’s unlikely that he or she will feel able to engage in a conversation about thinking patterns without calming down first. Creating the right cathartic space, perhaps over a coffee, can help the person relax and engage.
A CB coach will allow a person to introduce an issue or situation he or she is dealing with and listen out for indicators of ‘cognitive distortions’, that is, ways in which the person is thinking about the issue or situation that are out of synch with reality or proving counterproductive. Common examples include polarising issues into extremes; over-generalising from specific experiences and ignoring all evidence to the contrary; predicting the future and excluding all alternative possibilities; assuming what other people are thinking or feeling; anticipating the worst possible outcomes.
The coach will draw attention to these thinking patterns, invite the person to examine them, and offer supportive challenges that help the person think in new ways (e.g. ‘what assumptions are you making?’, ‘how far is what you’re thinking supported by the facts?’, ‘what are you not noticing?’). Finally, the coach will help the person plan a way forward to deal with the issue or situation differently. This could involve e.g. conversation, vividly imagining new scenarios or role playing to practise and reinforce new ways of thinking and behaving.
I took part in an ‘immunity to change’ coaching psychology workshop this week. Based on work by Kegan and others, we looked at how and why personal and organisational change can be so difficult to achieve and sustain. The notion of immunity is taken from the physiological system where the immune system serves to protect and preserve. The psychological parallel could be regarded as an anxiety management system, designed to protect us from feelings of insecurity and threat.
The psychological immune system provides relief from anxiety. It enables us to function in the world, to maintain a degree of psychological health. The problem is that we can become locked in defended patterns of belief and behaviour, often out of conscious awareness, that prevent us facing fresh challenges and growing in resilience by surfacing, confronting and working through our deepest fears. It’s as if we become subject to our beliefs and assumptions, rather than choosing them.
In the workshop, we worked through a 4-step process known as creating an X-ray or immunity map. Draw 4 columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, write down the ‘one big thing’ about yourself that, if you could change and achieve it, would make a significant positive difference in your life and work. You may want to take feedback from others too. For example, what do key colleagues believe would make the biggest positive difference to your performance at work?
In the second column, write down what you do (or, conversely, don’t do) that works against you fulfilling that goal. In other words, how do you actually behave in practice that’s different to the ‘one big thing’ that you want to characterise your behaviour in the future? Try to be very specific. ‘I do X’ or ‘I avoid doing Y’ rather than describing feelings or states of mind. You may want to ask others for feedback too on what they observe you doing or not doing, e.g. in the workplace.
In the third column, start first by vividly imagining yourself behaving in real situations in the opposite way to how you described yourself behaving in the second column. Try focusing on those behaviours and situations that could feel most scary, threatening or dangerous. Allow yourself to really feel the feelings, to feel the deep discomfort, anxiety or pain that such behaviours and situations evoke for you. You may find this best to do with a coach who can provide appropriate support.
In the fourth column, reflect and write down the core beliefs and deep assumptions you are carrying that lead to the feelings you are experiencing. These are often assumptions drawn from childhood experiences, e.g. ‘I must do everything perfectly if I am to be loved and accepted by others.’ Such assumptions are often unspoken, subconscious beliefs that guide our thinking, feeling and behaviour. Again, it can be useful to work with a coach to help you tease out such beliefs.
This 4-step process is designed to surface underlying beliefs and assumptions that have such a powerful influence that they hold our current behaviours in place. They are the subconscious anchors that can hold us back from changing. By surfacing and ‘objectifying’ our beliefs, we have opportunity to weigh them up, examine and challenge their validity. How true are they? What evidence supports them? How well do they serve us? What alternatives could be more realistic and releasing?
We closed this activity by setting up four chairs in the room, each representing one stage of the process. The person acting as ‘client’ would sit in one seat at a time while the coach coached them through that stage of the process. On completing one stage, the client would move to the next seat. We also experimented with physicality too, inviting the client to act out their goal at the first stage and their feelings at the third stage. The impact was dynamic, vivid and visual.
According to the theory underpinning this approach, change efforts fail if they address profound issues at a surface, technical or behavioural level without attending to underlying psychological dynamics too. Deeply held beliefs and assumptions act like an elastic band, pulling the person back to where they started once the pressure to change is released. If the person or group is enabled to explore their personal and wider cultural beliefs, genuine transformation becomes possible.
He's a philosopher, psychologist, social worker and friend. On this occasion, Rudi as mentor posed a question to me. 'What does it mean to a tree to die?' It was summer in South Germany and I was about to go for a walk in the nearby woods. Rudi is a deep thinker, a profoundly spiritual man who poses socratic questions as a way of provoking insight, so I took his question seriously.
As I walked through the trees, I thought about consciousness and meaning. The trees don't possess consciousness, therefore it makes no sense to ask what it means to a tree to live, or die. So I returned and reported back to him. He was gardening and looked up at me, trowel in hand. 'Did you find the answer?' I replied confidently, 'Yes, the answer is nothing.'
I could see by the look on his face, in his eyes, that I was missing something. He responded simply, 'Are you sure?' I returned to the woods a second time and thought further. What was it I was missing? Perhaps he thought I was being too certain, too confident in how I replied. I returned and tried to sound more open minded, more tentative. 'Probably nothing?' He gave me that same look.
Now I felt confused, frustrated. I walked back up the hill into the woodland and this time tried to imagine, see and perceive through fresh eyes. In doing so, I somehow became aware of how limited my awareness, knowledge, thinking and experience is and returned feeling humbled. I spoke more thoughtfully this time. 'I don't know.' Rudi smiled at me. 'Now you have found the beginning of wisdom.'
We make so many assumptions about life, reality, truth, God, ourselves, others etc, arrogant assumptions based on limited perspective, understanding and experience. A tree does't have consciousness in the way we understand it, it doesn't cry out when chopped down, it doesn't act in the same way as we might and so we conclude it doesn't experience living or dying in a way that is meaningful for it.
How can we really know that? How can we really know how a tree experiences 'being in the world'? What if a tree has a form of awareness that is alien and unknown to us? It's not just about trees, it's about holding our presuppositions, ideas and constructs lightly. It's about delving deeply into our not-knowing. It's about rediscovering wonder, curiosity, possibility, imagination.
At this point, Rudi introduced me to Plato's Cave. 'In this story, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.' (Wiki)
This conversation, encounter, experience has always stayed with me. I can still see Rudi kneeling in his garden with trowel in hand, posing his questions patiently and with conviction, provoking insight. He prompted a seeking, a journey akin to the agnostic's quest in Mark Vernon's After Atheism.
It reminded me that things are now always as they seem, that reality and truth can be so much more intriguing, complex, fascinating and bewildering than we tend to assume, that God does reveal and touch us but that we should beware of imposing our human constructs and limitations onto him, that to approach life with open mind and heart can be a truly enriching adventure.
Does God exist? Does it matter anyway? This is a question philosophers, theologians and ordinary people have been grappling with for centuries. For some, the notion of ‘God’ feels abstract, archaic or loaded with cultural or political baggage. For others, it simply feels irrelevant, something that only seems to have meaning or significance for those of a religious disposition.
Existentialists take the question seriously, after all, they’re concerned with answering questions such as, who am I, why am I here, what is the purpose of life? Many are atheist and draw bleak conclusions. We’re here purely by chance, a cosmic accident. One day our solar system will die, we will die with it and there will be nobody to remember or care that we even existed.
I believe this is an honest appraisal of life without God. It leads to some startling conclusions. If there is no God, there is no absolute truth, no absolute right or wrong, no absolute meaning to anything. The only meaning is that which we make for ourselves. We create values and worthy causes or bury ourselves in everyday activity to avoid facing the inevitable angst.
I find it difficult to get away from this conclusion, if I hold the view that God doesn’t exist. I can of course do things that feel meaningful, I can do things that others find meaningful too, e.g. I can use my talents to contribute to the wider family, society or world. These things feel culturally important, intuitively right, personally fulfilling, the best way to build a happy world.
The underlying problem persists however, as if nagging in the background of our consciousness. It surfaces occasionally, e.g. with the birth of a new baby, mid-life crisis, the death of a close one, poverty or war. What does all this mean? Why are things as they are? Is there anything more to life than this? I too will face death - what would make my short life worthwhile?
Existentialists pose a stark challenge. Life is meaningless. Our efforts to avoid this reality are defensive, delusional and futile. There is no ultimate point to anything. We can face this reality or deny it. Either way, the facts remain the same. Nevertheless, we can still make choices. We can choose to be, do and become our best, to fulfil our human potential.
This all presupposes, of course, that God does not exist. If God does exist, a very different picture emerges, depending of course on our concept of ‘God’. I experience God first and foremost as an intuitive phenomenon, a deep sense of knowing, an awareness of an inner presence that transcends my own self. My Christian beliefs help me make sense of this existential experience.
If God exists, if the God of Christian theology is the God who is, I exist because he exists. He created me which gives me a profound sense of identity: I am first and foremost a child of God. He created me with an eternal purpose in mind: my life is first and foremost an opportunity to fulfil his designs, plans and intentions in, for and through me.
This paradigm, this way of living in the world, presents fresh challenges. How to exercise faith in an invisible yet somehow discernable God, how to live an authentic life based on his call whist distracted by my own preoccupations, how to live with suffering and injustice with a new vision of what could be, how to work with others to achieve meaningful transformation.
Nevertheless, this belief presents a radical alternative to the atheist existentialist view. It fills bleak darkness with blazing light, hopeless meaninglessness with hope-filled meaning in everything. It isn’t wishful thinking, an attempt to avoid existential nihilism. It’s a profound revelation of truth and reality, a relationship that calls me beyond myself into amazing possibility.
I have a dream, a crazy drama played out in the subconscious which seems to make sense at the time but leaves me with a strange feeling, a feeling of loss, even as the images fade away. The drama was based loosely on something I had experienced a long time ago, virtually forgotten about, and yet reappeared with fresh dynamism and vividness. What’s that all about?
Some dream therapists try to analyse the images, at least the dreamer’s recollection of them, to explore and interpret what they could represent in the real world. It’s a tricky business, especially as it’s often hard to retain a clear memory of them. It assumes a symbolic significance to the dream and the images within it, a rare opportunity to explore the hidden unconscious.
I’m not sure. It strikes me that one significant aspect is the feeling, what a person experiences emotionally in the dream. Is it possible that the feeling points to something the dreamer is experiencing in the conscious present but that lies out of awareness? What is the loss I’m experiencing now, the loss that lies unacknowledged or that I’m not paying attention to?
I’m really interested in this idea of representation. The dream example suggests that something we experience at face value within the dream could represent and reveal something else in reality. It’s a sign that points beyond itself. I think it could the same in waking experiences too. The challenging part is knowing how to distinguish representation from reality.
So we meet this person. We talk, laugh, do stuff together. The person starts to feel like a friend, a lover, whatever he or she means to us. And we wonder what this person, this experience, this relationship, represents for us. Is it really the person per se, or something he or she evokes – an idea, an aspiration, an unfulfilled dream, a substitute for something we're missing elsewhere?
I don’t know, perhaps it’s both. I can enjoy the new person, relationship, encounter, experience and I can inquire of myself what it may point to in other aspects of my life that lie unacknowledged or that I need to pay attention to. At times it can serve as a wake-up call, an opportunity for raised awareness, a chance to step back from the normal to examine things in a fresh light.
It's about discernment. We risk projecting our hopes and expectations onto another, creating of them what we subconsciously need and yearn for rather than seeing them for who they really are. We risk projecting the same onto new experiences, a new job, a new home that prevent us experiencing them afresh for what they really are and for the potential they may hold.
The opportunity is then to ask the right questions of myself, of new relationships, situations and experiences. ‘What is this person, this situation, this experience to me? Why this, why now? What feelings does it evoke for me? What does that mean, point to? What am I at risk of projecting onto another? What am I not noticing or paying attention to in other aspects of my life?’
And I think about my belief in God, my relationship with him. I think about the language he uses to communicate, a human language. I think about the many different analogies he uses to reveal himself. I’m aware of how I can confuse the representation with the reality, to naiively assume that God is confined to the limits of my own language, knowledge, experience and imagination.
So, the challenge lies here. It’s about distinguishing the signpost, the symbol from the actual. It's about recognising that new encounters, relationships and experiences can carry meaning for us at multiple levels. It’s about trying our best to face reality with eyes wide open, open to see ourselves, people and situations, even God for who and what they truly are and can be.
I watched Inception late last night and woke thinking about the power of imagination. This hi-tech film plays dramatically with the idea of manipulating dreams. Dreams are one way of experiencing our image-ination at work, quite literally by experiencing images that appear, within the dream, as reality. Ordinarily on waking, we feel able to differentiate what we perceive and experience as ‘actual reality’ from what we perceive and experience within a dream state as ‘apparent reality’.
I want to propose however that our perception and experience of reality while we are awake are, similarly, mediated by imagination. I want to challenge the notion of our ability to perceive and experience ‘actual reality’, as if we are in some objective sense able to perceive and experience reality as it is, reality per se. I want to suggest that our imagination acts as the interface between our selves and reality, that is, we perceive and experience reality as filtered and projected by our imagination.
The distinction between dream state and wake state may not be as clear and definitive as we normally assume. What does it really mean to be awake? Does awake mean to be fully conscious, to be fully aware of what is happening in and around us, to be able to take deliberate decisions and actions? This begs further questions that are difficult to answer. For example, what does it really mean to be conscious? What does it really mean to be fully aware? How do we know what’s really driving our decisions?
An example. I once had a dream in which I discovered my brother was having an affair with my girlfriend. It was a powerful and painful emotional experience and, even when I woke and realised it was only a dream, it still affected how I felt about and behaved towards my brother the next day. It’s possible that what we experience in dreams, in this case emotional insecurity, could reveal something of what we are experiencing in the current awake state, yet which lies out of our consciousness.
The notion that we are not conscious of some aspects of what we are experiencing challenges the notion of awake-ness as ‘fully aware’. If we think about our ordinary day-to-day experience, we can see how we are only ever selectively aware. For example, as you read this blog entry, notice how you have tuned out of other things happening within and around you, e.g. things you were thinking about previously, how you are sitting, your breathing, sounds outside of the room.
This ability to selectively perceive, to filter out stimuli that would otherwise be distracting or in totality overwhelming, is the same ability that enables us to focus, to concentrate. What we choose to focus or concentrate on links to interesting questions of motivation. In the present moment, what is motivating me to focus on A rather than B or C, why am I more interested in X rather than Y or Z? We’re sometimes aware of what is motivating us, sometimes we simply don’t know.
According to psychodynamic theory, we can be motivated to move towards or away from experiences by unconscious or subconscious forces that lie outside of our awareness. Sometimes it may be an intuitive gut instinct, a learned response that we somehow experience physiologically yet find it difficult to understand, rationalise or explain. I believe sometimes it could be a spiritual intuition, a knowing from outside ourselves that feels mysterious yet compelling, a revelation from God.
The psychodynamic tradition proposes that our subconscious memory draws connections between what we experience in the now and what we have experienced in the past. We perceive and experience each new person, relationship, situation etc. through the filter of what we have experienced previously and what meaning we have derived from or attributed to it. We encounter objective reality subjectively, that is, we never really perceive or experience people and things fully for what they are but always, to some degree, as distorted by what we project onto them.
This is a great example of the power of imagination. Picture for a moment holding a projector on your shoulder each time you meet a new person. The encounter evokes subconscious memories and emotions within that you automatically project, like an image, onto that person. What you then experience of the person is a product of the actual person, the actual encounter, combined with metaphorical ‘images’ and feelings you project onto them, resulting from previous encounters with other people.
By way of illustration, I once met a co-leader of a study group for the first time. I found myself relating to him warmly, confidently and humorously, and, after a while, noticed that he looked a bit bemused by this. I realised on reflection that there was something about how he looked, talked and behaved that reminded me of a very close friend. It was as if I had projected an ‘image’ of my friend onto this stranger and then, subconsciously, perceived and related to him as if he was that friend.
Social constructionist theory proposes that what we notice, how we perceive the world (e.g. how we categorise things), what images we hold of it, what sense we make of ‘reality’ and the meanings we attribute to it are created through interactions with others. In other words, our perception and experience of reality are socially and culturally constructed. We use language to reveal our maps (or images) of the world within and around us and, in doing so, shape and reinforce those things with others.
In this tradition, to be aware means to be conscious, as far as it is possible, of the various influences that shape our beliefs, our assumptions, our worldview and to be open to other possibilities, other ways of perceiving and experiencing reality. According to this tradition, reality is perception; that is, our experience of reality is inescapably governed by what we imagine it to be, how we have learned to perceive and experience it, how we shape it by the way we think and talk about it.
The psychodynamic and social constructionist traditions combined lead to a conclusion that human perception and experience of ‘actual reality’ is mediated by memory, imagination and interactions with others. We never fully experience reality in an objective sense, for what it is, but as a curious mix of what’s in here, what’s out there and what value and meaning we superimpose onto it. At best we perceive reality in terms that the New Testament describes as, ‘a poor reflection’.
This is consistent, I think, with Kant’s (paraphrased) reflections on spirituality: ‘God reveals himself objectively but we experience him subjectively’. It’s as if God reaches into our human constructs, shaping, challenging and reframing them to reveal a glimpse of himself in terms we can grasp. Our images of God are nevertheless created and constrained by the limits of human language, culture, experience and imagination.
In light of this, we do well to approach God and all aspects of reality and truth with humility and an openness to fresh challenge and possibility.
'We don’t see things as they are, but rather as we are.’ (Anais Nin)
I’m fascinated by how we construct reality. We interpret experiences then filter and form our perceptions of future experiences based on those interpretations. This is meaning-making in action. It’s a social as well as personal process; our meanings are shaped by others as well as ourselves.
The challenge lies in distinguishing between subjective and objective reality. If I imagine my subjective constructs are a true and accurate perception of reality as is, a whole and definitive view of who I am, who you are and how things are, I risk closed-mindedness and all kinds of delusions.
This calls for openness, humility and an ongoing willingness to challenge my own beliefs and perspectives and to invite challenge from others. (At one level, this blog itself represents such an invitation; an open space to share and receive insights and ideas between people).
How I perceive reality, what sense I make of it, what beliefs I form about it, what conclusions I draw don’t only shape my thinking. They also influence how I feel and how I behave, how I approach new situations and other people, what decisions I make about how to live my own life, how I influence other people.
‘The key determining factors in how we feel from moment to moment are the pictures we make in our imagination and the way we talk to ourselves in our head. We refer to these images and sounds as internal representations, and they are just that – representations of reality, not reality itself.
‘Your internal representations of reality are unique to you – your own personal way of perceiving the world. They are your own map of the world but, as with any map, they are incomplete and filled with generalisations, deletions and distortions.
‘This is the reason why two people can witness the exact same event and yet experience it completely differently. In the words of the father of modern linguistics, Count Alfred Korzybski, ‘the map is not the territory’. (Paul McKenna)
I feel challenged, released and inspired by this viewpoint as a Christian. I hold certain beliefs with deep conviction and yet if I superimpose my own constructs onto God, I risk creating an image of God, a fixed view of him, constrained by the limits of my own experience, interpretation and imagination.
It applies to my relationships with other people too. If I superimpose my own assumptions and perspectives, like a person holding a projector that projects images onto the other, I will never meet the other person for who they truly are or recognise and release them to be all they are and can be.