25 Oct ‘So much more than the Mini’
As I wrote in my previous blog, I recently walked on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Of the 450 kms I walked on a route called the Via de la Plata, more than half were on the same paths I had walked the previous year, yet I was struck by how different my 2012 journey felt from my 2011 one.
At the time, and for some weeks after, I pondered on what it was that made the experiences so different. I came to the realisation that while my outer world was the same i.e. I was in the same physical environment, at the same time of year and walking the same distances, my inner landscape of thoughts, feelings and expectations had shifted in the past 12 months. This shift opened up the possibility of walking a familiar path in a different way, making different choices, connecting differently to my self and others, and seeing and experiencing things I had not seen and experienced the year before. It was wonderful to discover that it was not about having to ‘do’ a new path to learn and grow (which is so much of what the Camino is about), but rather being able to ‘be’ on the old path in a new way, with openness and curiosity.
As I reflected on this, it brought to mind something that is often part of everyday conversations, as well as coaching conversations particularly in the early stages of a coaching programme, where it is said: “if this about my life (job, partner, parents, body, boss etc.) was different from what it is or if I had more time, money, love etc. then my life would be different” … read: “I would be happier, more content, fulfilled, satisfied, complete”. But is this really ‘the solution’?
An example from a recent coaching process is illustrative. I worked over an eight month period with a very bright, competent, driven professional who was working 13 hours a day to attain her goal of becoming a director in her company. She believed that the achievement of her goal would bring her happiness and satisfaction. However, the reality was that her long hours of work brought her to the brink of burn out and depression and she increasingly questioned whether the enormous personal sacrifices she felt herself to be making were worth it. This was a very hard place for her to be in, not only because of the impact of her way of working on her body, but also because it potentially threatened the achievement of her goal.
‘The problem’ as she saw it, was that the environment she worked in was too demanding and pressurised and this resulted in her having no life outside of work. Having diagnosed the problem, she wanted to find a solution, because this is what we are programmed to do… fix problems as soon as we have identified them. Believing her work environment to be ‘the problem’, my client told me that the only answer was for her to leave her company and find a position at another company in which the performance expectation was not as high. She then came up with another idea – that she would seek a transfer to the company’s Cape Town office. If she moved to Cape Town, she would get herself a flat in Sea Point or Camps Bay, a Mini Cooper convertible and have nice scenic drives to work with the hood down. (Obviously she had not spent a lot of time in Cape Town, particularly in the winter when it rains!)
So for that client (and many others), the premise is: ‘if I change the external environment, my life will be better’. However, is ‘the answer’ really that simple?
Certainly, while making a change to some practical aspect of our life, like leaving a job which is not fulfilling or moving house or city or getting out of a dysfunctional relationship, can have positive consequences, the elusive search for contentment is about much more than ‘the Mini’.
My client may move to Cape Town and acquire the Mini convertible but will the way she drives her shiny new Mini be any different from how she drives in Johannesburg? Will she consciously drive slower and feel and smell the sea air but within a couple of weeks stop noticing this as she drives to work before the sun is up and home long after the sun has set? Because, simply put, we take who we are, where we go….
Therefore it’s not just about changing where we go, but beginning to shift our ‘way of being’ in the world, in other words, the way we interpret and respond to the world around us. The starting point is to understand who we are and ‘the story’ we live in. For my client, it meant recognising that ‘the story’ in which she lived was: ‘I perform, therefore I am’ and exploring how this defined who she was, how she related to others and how it determined her behaviour. Through this exploration, the client began to appreciate that while her environment was demanding, her drive to ‘get the T-shirt’ (i.e. directorship) stemmed from a need to be accepted as being good enough. Since affirmation would be granted from ‘outside’, she had to prove that she was good enough which to her, meant working ridiculously long hours, always saying ‘yes’ and never expressing her needs in a work context.
Through this conversation, my client began to appreciate that in terms of her current world, if she moved to Cape Town, it would still be the same ‘me’ driving the Mini. The work which we then embarked upon was to start exploring what ‘new story’ she could begin living into – if she was not defined by what she achieved, who could she be, what role could others play in her life and what possibilities could it open for how she responded to life? What competence would she need to build to change her habits which were part of the performance story, like saying ‘yes’ without considering whether her body could work another hour, or gobbling her lunch down in front of her computer? What new language would she need to access – the language of feelings and emotions and needs? How would her relationship with her body need to change, so that her body was more than the vehicle which transported her head?
Rushing to find solutions ‘out there’, rather than slowing down and exploring our own contribution to our state of happiness and fulfillment, will invariably mean that the only path to (greater) happiness is a new path. And if that one does not bring happiness, it is necessary to move on to the next. What if we were first to look inward with curiosity and openness? What possibilities would there be for experiencing joy and fulfillment, as I experienced on my 2012 Camino journey, through ‘being’ different on the same path rather than being the same on a different path?
So my questions to myself and to you are:
- How much today did I focus my attention on changing outside factors or rushing to find a new path?
- How much attention did I give to thinking ‘how am I in this situation’? / What am I bringing to my situation?
- If I had slowed down, what might I have noticed?
- What one thing could I do tomorrow to help me step differently onto the same path?