Life is a roller coaster: An endlessly undulating, twisting journey of highs and lows, joy and sadness, aspiration and despair. As the Buddhists so neatly put it; suffering and happiness are part of the human condition and both are transitory: No mud, no lotus flower. Part of the journey, then, is to more fully embrace and enjoy these fluctuations and the emotional variety of ‘life’s rich tapestry.’
Observing my own responses in how I relate to the climate crisis has been fascinating in this context. On the one hand I have a stronger than ever sense of conviction – an optimistic, courageous aspiration to stand for what I believe in, to use my voice and to act from a place of personal integrity. There is a pull – with an almost shiny sort of quality to it – lifting me towards a brighter future, where heart, mind and spirit resonate with the universe.
On the other hand, I can plummet into despair. I’m to blame, along with the rest of my generation, for creating this crisis. I’m trying to contribute, but probably it’s not enough. I’m shouting as loud as I can, but I don’t feel like I’m being heard. Feelings of guilt, powerlessness, isolation and rejection surface, fuelled by frustration and self-criticism.
Vertical development theory (see my previous article) gives a useful perspective on this. It suggests that at any time an individual will be fully integrated at one particular stage of conscious development; their default or centre of gravity. They will also, however, have a higher stage “Leading Edge” of development – their highest, aspirational self, and a lower stage “Trailing Edge” – where they fall back to, particularly under stress. Transcending to the next default stage, therefore also requires work to lift both the Leading and Trailing Edges.
The Leading Edge
In coaching, work with the Leading Edge is lifting aspirations out of the day-to-day and addressing the ‘big’ questions – of purpose, personal vision and alignment with values. It’s taking a strategic perspective on a personal level. Many who seek out coaching are desperately searching for strategies to cope with the day-to-day. Finding ways to ‘thrive’ rather than ‘survive’ is part of the integration process at our default stage of development, but are coaches serving their clients, and the planet, by simply equipping them with tools to cope in a poorly functioning system? Is this really effecting change? I think not. By working with the Leading Edge of development, coaching can enable leaders to transform the system itself.
The Trailing Edge
Working with the Trailing Edge (or NOT working with it at all) is where I believe many coaches fall short. This is where coaching and psychotherapy meet. In Jungian terms we’re in shadow territory. Perhaps, we’ve been conditioned into denying that healthily functioning humans have shadows at all and that ‘negative’ emotions are an indication of mental ill health, so coaches shouldn’t go there? Perhaps coaches are afraid that working with their clients’ shadows might even expose their own? Robert Bly beautifully described the shadow as a big black bag that we drag around with us. No wonder we struggle to get to the next stage of development, weighed down as we are by an ever-growing luggage of obsolete contents. Truly effective and transformational coaching must recognise the shadow as an inevitable and healthy part of the human psyche and work to liberate and let go of what is no longer needed; In stages theory terminology to ‘include and transcend.
So, how then, shall I apply this to my own relationship to the climate crisis? At my leading edge it’s investing time and energy in nurturing and growing my vision for a better world, it’s finding and using more of my voice, it’s communicating and collaborating with others, it’s the courage to take action. At my trailing edge, it’s practicing acceptance rather than blame, compassion rather than anger, equanimity rather than ignorance. In very practical and immediate terms this means leaning into the fear of rejection when telling a client that I’m not going to travel by air to meet them. And if they do reject me, embracing the gift they’ve offered in terms of liberating some of my shadow.
If you’re interested in finding out more about embracing both the shiny and the muddy and how coaching can help you transcend to next stage leadership, I’d love to hear from you.