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November 2011

Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth

As we passed a church on the way to Bournemouth Rail Station the other day I saw a fantastic advertising poster. It said: “The B.I.B.L.E – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth! What a concept, what an acronym! In today's Western society there is – despite the relentless barrage of bad news, war and mayhem – an almost wilful amnesia about the reality of death. Apparently, in Japan, if there could be said to be any good coming from the recent earthquake and tsunami, it is the report that young people are abandoning their addiction to cocoons of virtual reality and suddenly waking up to find they can help the relief effort. But more locally, listen to any personal development guru going on and talking about 'limitless, unlimited possibilities and potential' if we just change the way we think; alas, no amount of positive thinking produces 'unlimited' possibilities or averts the final destination of death.

The Bible itself may or may not be your idea of the final authority for 'Basic Instructions', but the question surely is: what are the basic instructions? How shall we live? What makes for our health, happiness and success?

So far as we are physically concerned the answer is pretty clear – clear, presumably, because physically what happens is entirely visible: if we eat too much, drink too much, fail to exercise we soon find ourselves in a state that is diseased and dis-eased. Not good.

The real challenge is finding the basic instructions that apply to the 'invisible' human world – the spiritual or what for most people might be termed the psychological. People seem to have a great deal of trouble understanding or accepting what is really causing their actions and re-actions, and basically getting them into trouble. One thing I notice time and time again is just how many people pride themselves on being rational, logical, scientific even – as if that really were the case, or as if they ever could be!

Spock is a wonderful invention of the human mind, but he's not real; humans may approximate more closely to him than to Captain Kirk, or any other member of the crew, but nobody is 'logical'. Underlying all their decisions are emotions, and complex, subconscious psychological patterns mainly learned at a very young age. To pretend otherwise is to compound the problem. The beginning of wisdom is self-awareness – all people who boast they are completely logical, therefore, are illogical and unwise.

But to return to the central theme: what then are the Basic Instructions we need to know before leaving the Earth? Here psychology can help, but why bother? Religion is much more powerful and has known the answers since the beginning of time. As Ptahhotep, about 3000 BC, said: "Follow your heart all your life, do not commit excess with respect to what has been ordained”, or "He who has a great heart has a gift from God. He who obeys his stomach obeys the enemy"; or, again, "All conduct should be so straight that you can measure it with a plumb-line."

This is what might be called 'wisdom' literature and it seems to exist in all significant traditions, and far from being outmoded and outdated its validity continues being re-affirmed by those who follow these sort of precepts. It can almost be summed up in  one brilliant phrase that says, What you sow you shall reap – the law of consequences. And how hard is it for some people to foresee those consequences on which individual and society's destiny may hang?

Let's look, then, at some of these commandments – basic instructions – in a new light, not trying to make it conventionally religious, but trying to get to the heart of what it is saying.

First, remember the Old and New Testament injunction to 'love the Lord your God'? It sounds like the standard call to worship the Big Man in the sky; but is it?

Vivekananda made this point: “That man who has no faith in himself can never have faith in God”. The truth is that God is transcendent and also immanent – 'Thou Art That', as the Hindus preach. The Christi-Judaic tradition has tended to over-emphasize the externality of God at the expense of the likeness within. Re-read St John's gospel with that thought in mind!

The image of God cannot be less than God since – holographic-ally – God cannot be diluted: the smallest fragment of God is God. Thus loving oneself is the core of self-worth, self-esteem, and is an essential aspect of our daily life. What are we doing to love our self – to build true self-worth? The consequences are profound: Nathaniel Brandon described self-esteem as the strongest force in the universe.

Second, as Christ said, “All things are possible for those who believe”. We like to talk of self-confidence – what is that? Confidence, etymologically, comes from the Latin: 'con' – with, and 'fidence' – faith. To have confidence is to have faith – a deep belief – in one self, in outcomes (optimism), and in God-the Universe-the Tao, or the Way. The stronger our faith in these three areas, the more we are conforming with the reality and nature of the universe.

Finally, in this brief overview, along with faith goes love: empathy, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, gratitude – a raft of qualities that genuinely make life worth living. As Brian Tracy once observed: all our efforts are directed towards finding love or compensating for the lack of it. If we were more aware of this fact perhaps it would inform our words and behaviors at a deeper, and profounder level.

I have only touched on this subject, and there is plenty more to say. But what are your 'basic instructions before leaving Earth'? Are you going to love the self, your self? Will you have faith in the Way? Can you love and find love? These are routes to ultimate joy. Whatever you do, don't live accidentally!

Coaching, Mentoring and Spirituality

Sometimes in mentoring and coaching the question of spirituality comes up with a client; it is not necessarily the issue they engaged you for, but the conversation spirals in that direction, and you are faced with that awkward moment of deciding whether to explore it with them or leave well alone. I think it is important not to discount it for the simple reason that our lives are holistic in nature – and furthermore it is not as if 'it' - spirituality or God - could be compartmentalised even if we wanted it to be.

Many people of course have an entirely erroneous and/or stereotyped view of spirituality and of what 'God' means; this is natural since many religions themselves generate these limited images - idols - of their faith. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: 'The Tao [the Way, the God] that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao”. In short we must be careful not to take the words, signs and symbols too literally. One classic example of creating idols in the West is imagining God as some grandfather or Father Christmas in the sky that people must somehow slavishly kowtow to. But God, if we could speak of God in human language, is both transcendent and immanent and cannot be conveyed in that way.

This is why Plato, arguably the greatest of the philosophers of the West, said that there were two clear proofs for God's existence: the first was the existence of the human soul which testified to the reality of God. The soul, the Self, is in fact God, because the 'image of God' in man is itself and necessarily God because God cannot be diluted. Or put another way, God is holographic – the smallest fragment would still be fully divine. And we know that when we contemplate our Self.

The second proof was the design of the world or the cosmos, and those who could not see its marvel were dull and stupid. We have to go to extraordinary lengths to deny the design and to flat-line the wonder - this universe for all of Dawkins' non-science and stepping outside the sphere of his own competency, never happened by accident. And that is part of what the opening of John's gospel is about: in the beginning was the Word, the logos, the meaning - and everything is infused by it; and at some deep level those who seek to deny this are denying themselves - their own deep Self is being contradicted by their ego mind.

There is a deep mystery in and to life and nobody could deny this; but people who absolutely assert there is no God, no spirituality, against the consistent and persistent testimony and evidence of the vast majority of mankind, are not being rational - they are engaging in an act of faith more irrational than that which they condemn and mock.

So, to return to the question, what do you do as a coach and mentor when this kind of issue raises its head? Firstly, you listen very carefully. This listening is not just active listening and a set of skills - like, lean forward; it is act of being. As Ptahhotep, some five thousand years ago, said, "To listen is better than anything, thus is born perfect love." And, he also added: "God loves he who listens. He hates those who do not listen." To listen is almost synonymous with to love; it is why the child turns to the mother, because she will listen; and why so many partnerships fall apart because one or both stop listening to the other. When we pray we speak to God and draw our mind and soul into a focus; when we meditate we listen ... and in the silence the possibilities take shape.

Secondly, you try to establish the direction in which it is going, what sort of God or spiritual experience do they have in mind or are alluding to, and why are they prompted now to raise this issue? Invariably, people are led in this way because of some incompleteness in their life.

Thirdly, through gentle questioning they may wish to reveal what this is and why it is important. Curiously, these kind of discussions lead to the heart of another human being, and in them humility is of the essence - both for the client who is recognising perhaps for the first time that 'you can be anything you want' is a half-truth, and for the coach because in being in that role so close to somebody, presumption is an ever present danger.

Fourthly, you reflect back to them their own answers with intonations that may enable them to see, as it were, the real implications of their state and of what they are saying. Thus, you begin leading them through a process in which they can see their Self more clearly and so begin to see possibilities and options ahead. This is very liberating; it need hardly be said, you don't beat them about the head with your religion or any religion. You enable their own Self-discovery, for in discovering the Self is a pathway to true spirituality – and a way to be free the false ego mind.