Attunement, not attainment: Aletheia and my approach to coaching
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
– Little Gidding, T. S. Eliot
My favourite film as a child was Hook starring Robin Williams. It is the story of a grown-up Peter Pan (now Peter Paning), who has become a preoccupied, workaholic lawyer, that is lured back to Neverland after his children are kidnapped by Captain Hook. Peter has become a “pasty, bloated, codfish” in the words of Hook, completely forgetting in the face of his taunts that he ever was that boy who could play and fly and fight.
After failing during the initial confrontation with Hook to get his children back, Peter is set an ultimatum that they will do battle in three days, with Tinkerbell (played by Julia Roberts) guaranteeing that she will have him ready by that time. What ensues is Peter’s struggle to get ready. A struggle reflected through a montage of futile training with the Lost Boys and small humiliations as he grasps and fails at getting in shape to battle Hook and win back his children.
The middle third of the film is his struggle to remember who he is; the truth of which is suddenly disclosed in a cave as a memory of the joy he felt during the birth of his son. It is this memory that dissolves his amnesia of the past, leading to a cascade of other memories that lead to a sudden transformation. Regaining his capacity for flight, Peter unites the Lost Boys, vanquishes Hook, and returns home with his children as a more tender, playful, and attentive father and husband.
This climactic moment of the film is preceded by his remembering of how to play, of how to connect, and of how to feel joy with The Lost Boys. This remembering begins with his attunement to the half-remembered world of Neverland that used to be his home. His ability to be able to play again, represented by a memorable feasting scene where all the food and eating is imagined, is the precursor to him being able to remember this lost part of himself.
His previous attempts at change to confront Hook, the jogging, the fight practice, the attachment to his identity as a high-powered lawyer, is a struggle that he ultimately fails at. It is not until he finally lets go of this futile attempt at forcing change and attunes in a more appropriate way to this new world, that the meaningful experience that triggers his transformation takes place.
What this story speaks to is an answering of the call. A call, half-heard beneath the noise of our day-to-day lives that invites us to un-forget who we are and what we might be. This story reflects a process of unfolding truth(s) that the ancient Greek’s referred to as Aletheia.
Over the last four-and-a-half years I have been going through a significant change. This change was catalysed by an opening experience during meditation that re-framed my entire perspective on life. This re-framing in turn commenced a period of intense learning, and more painfully, unlearning as my prior desires and preoccupations unravelled.
Over the course of this energising, unnerving, vital, anxious, and generally confusing period I wrestled with many of the poetic, philosophical and psychological views of personal change. I had a burning desire to understand the processes by which this dramatic change took place, and if there were common factors that might underly the personal change process in general.
After years of study and vacillating on these questions, grasping for some kind of answer, I came across the word Aletheia in psychiatrist and philosopher, Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. This word was like a lightning rod for me, pulling together many of the disparate threads of inquiry that were tangling up in my head.
For the first time I felt like I had some sort of framework not only for understanding the change I had gone through, but an approach for coaching and advocacy that might benefit others. Shortly after this discovery, in a moment of wonderful synchronicity, I came across Steve March’s Aletheia Advanced Coaching Program, which has formed the basis of the view and method explicated below.
Aletheia: Unconcealing truth(s)
Aletheia, was the ancient Greek word for truth, which translates as un-forgetting, un-concealing or dis-covering. It was a notion of truth that the ancient Greeks understood as a continually unfolding process of discovery rather than as something that was grasped with triumphant finality.
This notion of un-concealing clarified to me how I felt after that opening experience and how a vein of unfolding truth(s) had been concealed by the busy-ness and preoccupations of my daily life. The ‘common factors of change’ I had been studying and grasping to understand were not static events; but a subtle disposition, attunement or orientation to the world that made this discovery and resulting change possible in the first place.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who re-popularised the term Aletheia as a way of understanding truth, describes it as a disclosure available to us when we attune to our “Being-in-the-world”. Essentially this means being attuned to life as a process, as an end in itself; and not as a problem to be solved, or a destination to be reached. Heidegger’s notion of attunement speaks of a primary mood, or disposition that orients our attention. It is an affective, emotional felt sense, that guides our subsequent attention and action, and makes meaningful experiences possible. How we attune to the world reveals what we find relevant or meaningful.
Realising what is relevant: Attunement over attainment
“You can’t necessarily think your way to a better life”
To act, we need to know what is relevant. In a previous article I wrote of John Vervaeke’s concept of Relevance Realisation, and how it was crucial to any kind of coaching engagement. Understanding what is relevant, requires us to place value on certain pieces of information; a value that is determined not just by intellectual understanding, but by the affective, emotional, and imaginal aspects of our cognition.
The concept of relevance realisation speaks to the fact that you can’t necessarily think your way to a better life. In this context I use the word ‘think’ to refer to the attainment of facts, logic, and propositions, in the hope that this on its own, will yield some kind wisdom or self-transformation.
Socrates, when stating the importance of ‘knowing thyself’, meant this not only in the context of shareable knowledge (which could also mislead) but a deeper understanding of the relevant beliefs and desires that guide our action. Change begins with self-awareness, and self-awareness starts with an attunement to self that unfolds these beliefs and desires, un-concealing how we might act.
Self-Unfoldment v Self-Improvement
Our current world is one that lionises and demands self-improvement. Social media has created portals for comparison that often make us feel deficient, in turn triggering a belief that we need to attain better versions of ourselves. Whilst having a positive intention, self-improvement strategies are constantly forward looking, framed by the illusive hope that they will restore a sense of wholeness once we attain what we think will plug the gap.
Like the trap of efficiency described by Oliver Burkemann in his brilliant book Four Thousand Weeks, the hamster wheel of self-improvement can foster a feeling that life, and the people within it, are passing us by. Writer for The Atlantic, Greg Easterbrook, talks of this phenomenon in terms of ‘abundance denial’, something arising from an ancient evolutionary trait for survival that has maladapted into overwork, over-consumption, and obsessive self-improvement.
By relying solely on self-improvement, we are essentially saying that we are not enough and that we need something more to feel acceptable to ourselves and others.
What if nothing is missing?
Aletheia coaching challenges this obsession with self-improvement by asking the radical question: what if nothing is missing? What if you are completely fine as you are? How does this change how you view yourself and others?
Of course, this isn’t to say that we don’t need to build skills in certain domains where expertise is required, but it lays a foundation for this skill building that is founded on self-compassion and self-worth, not self-deficiency.
My approach to coaching emphasises the Aletheia view of self-unfoldment as opposed to self-improvement. Rather than trying to force change based on some passing idea of what we ‘should’ be, I work with clients to unfold a deeper understanding of the beliefs, principles and values that guide those desires to change in the first place.
Letting be, to break through
This self-unfoldment begins with the approach of ‘letting be’. For Peter in Hook, his ability to realise what was meaningful and relevant to him began with his attunement to the half-remembered world of Neverland; his ability to let be and the playful disposition that followed.
It was only after releasing his grasp on what he had lost (his old, rigid identity of the high-powered lawyer) that he was able to un-conceal his capacity to play and fly and fight. This allowed him to break through the framing of who he thought he was, and to triumph over Hook and rescue his children.
Aletheia Coaching starts with letting be. By letting be, the client attunes to life in such a way that they can hear the call of what is relevant and meaningful to their goals and act in a way that allows themselves and those goals to unfold. In this way it responds to what is known in Gestalt Psychology as “The Paradox of Change”, which holds that the more we grasp at change the more we remain stuck as we are.
The Paradox of Change and an introduction to Parts Work
I think most people realise that forcing change is ill-advised. If change is forced by one part of a system, that change becomes a threat to the rest of the system, which leads to resistance and maintenance of the systems status quo.
The psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, one of Freud’s early followers, was famous for asking his clients ‘what would you do if you were cured?’ They would answer and he would then say, ‘Well go and do it then.’
Ignoring the problematic use of the word ‘cure’ this story illustrates the reality that, just because we know, or think we know what we want, doesn’t mean we are able to make it happen. We might try to change and come up against a wall of internal and external resistance that keeps us stuck.
The concept of homeostasis speaks to how our bodies and minds change to keep things as they are. If a stable system, even one that appears dysfunctional to a person’s stated long-term aspirations, is threatened with change, then that system will resist to maintain its stability. This is something Freud realised early in his work, what he termed resistance, and is central to the understandings of systems theory and Gestalt Psychology.
Change, whilst exciting, also provokes fear, doubt, and inner criticism. These feelings form the resistance to change that leads to inertia, self-sabotage and stuck-ness. My approach to coaching works with these thoughts, feelings and emotions through a practice called ‘parts work’.
Let’s say I am criticised by a boss for a recently completed piece of work, and I feel that this criticism is unfair. This criticism may trigger a part of me that holds a memory of how I was unfairly treated by a parent or teacher as a child. The emotional memory of this past humiliation then leads to a reaction in the present that is disproportionate to the criticism I am hearing. Perhaps I get angry, defensive, or become withdrawn and generalise this criticism of a part of me into a criticism of me as a whole person.
My reactiveness may jeopardise my goals of being promoted or perhaps securing a large project and so sabotage the broader aspirations that were shaped during a time of more grounded-ness. In this situation, rather than creating a space between the intensity of this emotion and the reality of what is actually taking place in the present moment, a space where I can respond more appropriately; instead I react from the emotional intensity of a part’s memory.
Whether or not we use the language of parts, we all experience this at times, and when we do, it can feel as though our attention and control has been hijacked by the intensity of our feeling. We begin to feel how a part of us responds in a way that feels out of character, or that appears to be taking over; sabotaging our goals and ruining the bigger picture of who we aspire to be.
When this hijacking takes place, it can feel as though the part becomes the totality of who we are, in turn triggering other parts that then criticise this reactivity. This internal criticism can then lead to inner conflict and polarisations that lead to the feelings of inertia and stuck-ness that bring people to coaching in the first place.
My approach to coaching works with these parts through the prism of ‘letting be’ and ‘unfoldment’. By approaching parts with an empathic attunement to their positive intention, it allows the client to practice creating space between themselves and the part and to value that part just as it is. The purpose of doing this is to respond to the reality that, underneath what appears to be a dysfunctional, reactive, or unhelpful response is a positive intention of the part. This positive intention, whilst possibly misguided, is often an attempt to protect a younger, hurt part that still remembers intolerable feelings from childhood like fear and shame.
By attuning to parts, and by taking an open mind that seeks to understand their intention, a client not only separates themselves from the totality of that parts partial view of the world, but also provides a space that enables their understanding of those intentions to unfold. By becoming aware of the different parts of ourselves and attuning to them in a way that makes them feel seen, loved, and valued, we practice a form of self-leadership that reduces polarisation and feelings of fragmentation.
Bringing it all together
My approach to coaching is to enable a client to re-frame and release the blockages that keep them stuck in repeating patterns of self-sabotage.
This approach has been informed by the Aletheia Coaching method established by Steve March, along with my broader experience and education across coaching, psychology, psychotherapy and story.
My role as a developmental coach is to work with others to unfold their own innate resources and potential in response to what they feel called toward in their life.
The Aletheia Coaching method is a depth coaching technique that leverages aspects of Dick Schwartz Internal Family Systems Therapy, Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing Technique, The Diamond Approach, The Enneagram, Mindfulness practices and some ‘non-dual’ teachings and perspectives related to Zen and Vajrayana Buddhism.
Created by Steve March, it is an integrated method that looks at both the horizontal threads that bring a person to coaching (their past, present and future stories) and the vertical threads that may have led to blockages or impediments to their goals. This interview between John Vervaeke and Steve March is a fantastic introduction to Steve’s view and method.