Giving and Taking

People at Psychosynthesis Coaching symposium held Nov 14th 2018 in London. All ages, a range of expressions from enthusiasm to humour.

By Peter Stewart:

The first Annual Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching symposium was held at the National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO) near King’s Cross in London on 14thNovember.

I wrote the article below after the event, and the symposium organisers kindly featured it on the Symposium website, which also has a wealth of information about the event as well as related photos and videos. Please click on the link below to access the Symposium website:

Tong-len means ‘giving and taking’ in Tibetan.  Keith Hackwood led a Tonglen meditation as part of a plenary session on Selfcare for Coaches Using Mindfulness, immediately after lunch at the first Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching symposium on 14thNovember. “A difficult slot to fill”, he noted. There were around 60 people in the room, from the Institute of Psychosynthesis, Psychosynthesis Trust, various psyschotherapy and coaching associations, and from Psychosynthesis organisations from as far afield as Norway and Italy.

Lunch had been replete with conversation and ideas. I felt a buzz of excitement in the room as we settled down, shaking out the tension from arms and legs. For some reason, I could smell orange blossom.

Tong-len is a meditation practice from Tibetan Buddhism that uses breathing to explore feelings of altruism and compassion. The in-breath connects you with suffering – your own, others – and the outbreath with compassion for the world. Keith explained the concept, touched on the paradox of effortless effort in practicing meditation, and quoted a poem by Antonio Machado, translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly. The rest of the session was experiential, reconnecting with our feelings, letting them go, reconnecting with thoughts, letting the mind go still. I felt shocks of anxiety at the start, but after a while that gave way to a feeling of tidal movement, an ebb and flow, the traffic noise outside and the cry of seagulls.

The mix of experiential and conceptual was a strong point of the whole day, which was superbly organised by Rachel Houghton, Paul Elliot and Aubyn Howard of Psychosynthesis Coaching Limited (PCL).

Roger Evans, director of the Institute of Psychosynthesis, introduced the Symposium in the morning with a paradox:

Seeing with the heart = seeing and working with the will.

Roger explained something called the Six Session Model and the use of Trifocal Vision in coaching. Many of those attending, including myself, were familiar with these models from the Certificate course in Psychosynthesis Leadership Coaching organised by PCL and run at the Institute, and Roger brought them alive with what I felt was a unique and passionate engagement with each individual in the room.

Roger’s talk on psycho-spiritual coaching gave a flavour of why psychosynthesis works at such a deep level, by focusing on meaning rather than just performance. I was moved by Roger’s commitment and passion, and the tribute he paid to his family. Then there was a brief moment when I felt that the world stopped turning. Roger asked the question: “What do you feel when you open your heart to another?” Various words were shot out from the audience – I seem to remember joy, openness, waiting, loneliness, but when someone responded “pain” it felt like an arrow had hit its target.

After Roger’s plenary session, we split into two workshops. In the morning, Keith Silvester and Heather Wignall from the Psychosynthesis Trust talked about coaching in a VUCA world, while Ruth Rochelle gave a workshop on systemic coaching and constellations. The same pattern was followed in the afternoon. After Keith Hackwood’s plenary, Harriett Hanmer and Laira Gold gave a talk with the title The Body Speaks while Aubyn Howard explored the theme of Developmental Thinking for Coaching.

The workshops sharpened my awareness of the paradox at the heart of coaching. I felt this most explicitly during Ruth Rochelle’s exploration of constellations, which used Post-it notes as the main prop. Ruth’s workshop comprised two constellations: the first revolved around depicting ’where I live‘ on the Post-it, and exploring how place and movement can affect the felt experience of that; the second involved representing three phases of your life on Post-its, and then exploring the feelings associated with these with the help of a coach.

While the experiential nature of the workshop was very powerful, space felt rather tight in the room, with more than 30 people in a circle of chairs, so I did not slip easily into this, feeling bombarded by others. I noticed my body getting slightly hot and then my mind rushing to compensate. As I settled down I was able to get a sense of being back in the moment, but I kept on trying to make mental sense of what was going on around me as people milled around the room without any words. My mind grabbed at thought as a way of filling these gaps. But as the workshop evolved, I felt more tuned into myself and somehow that left me feeling more in sync with other people.

The paradox of meaning that struck me then, and throughout the day, was the notion that you can be most deeply in touch with your Self when the self dissolves; that you can experience the Self of others most profoundly when you are most in touch with your own Self.

Somatic coaching is increasingly being used as a pathway to deeper levels of self-awareness and of experiencing others. Later in the day, a workshop on equine-guided learning introduced the statistic that only 7% of personal communication is through spoken words, while 38% is dependent on voice and tone, and 55% on body language.

From the feedback after the constellations workshop, people had experienced a huge range of emotions through the constellation, but at a much deeper level than the cognitive-rational. And the workshop resonated with many in terms of how they could use their experience with their own coaching clients.

Moved to tears by horses

From Ruth’s workshop I got a sense of the power of using the entirety of Self in coaching, and how constellations could be used to explore the Self at a deeper level. This theme was picked up in the afternoon in Harriet Hanmer and Laira Gold’s workshop The Body Speaks (they will be holding a day for practitioners of Equine-Guided Learning on 16 March 2019).

Harriet and Laira work with horses to help senior executives explore systemic interactions in their organisations. Many managers are simply unaware of these. I found myself strangely amused by the idea of company directors milling around in the mud at Manor Farm House in Colston Basset in Welly Boots, where Harriet and Laira work, exploring the Mind-Body split. But I was moved when I saw a photo of the sympathetic body language between one horse and the MD of a company, and we learned that he had been moved to tears by the human-horse interaction.     

Harriet introduced the theory of the ’triune‘ brain, with its human (neocortex), mammalian (limbic system) and reptilian layers, which although nowadays under scrutiny from neuroscientists, provides a framework for moving beyond the conscious ’thinking‘ part of our brains and into the less charted realms of the limbic system and more primitive sub-conscious layers.

After the talk I spoke with Laira about whether equine-guided learning could be used in schools. I had watched a documentary about a ’failing‘ school (Ofsted’s word, not mine) and I was struck by how discipline in schools focusses primarily on verbal affirmations by young teenagers. I felt from the documentary that their body often contradicted their words and, although I don’t know horses, I occasionally had felt a similar kind of resentment and dissonance when walking with donkeys.

I can imagine many other uses for equine work. “The world needs this,” Harriet and Laira affirmed.

Are we in the soup?

One of the last slides in Harriet and Laira’s deck asked the question: “Are we in the soup?” I use this question as a segway to mention the two workshops I was unable to attend.

Keith Silvester from the Psychosynthesis Trust talked in the morning on Coaching in a VUCA world, with Heather Wignall. I felt there was synchronicity in the fact that Keith’s talk coincided with the day a Brexit agreement was finally thrashed out by the May government and the European Union.

VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Keith and Heather suggested that the four aspects of VUCA map on to psychological themes that are taught in psychosynthesis and other therapeutic models. From the programme notes, these are: lack of object constancy, which maps from Volatility; existential survival anxiety (from Uncertainty); systems thinking and mind development (from Complexity); and relative meaning and interpretation (from Ambiguity).

In a session that provided impressive thought leadership, Heather and Keith also talked about VUCA in relation to ‘adaptive leadership’ (as developed by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, through a book of that name). As one workshop participant observed: “The VUCA model …links to a really useful leadership model [adaptive leadership] and the workshop included a practical tool to use in coaching related to this” which a number of participants said would be useful in their current coaching work. As noted by Heather and Keith: “Adaptive leadership is specifically designed to support personal and organisational leadership” in a VUCA context.

The VUCA theme linked naturally to the evolutionary perspectives discussed in Aubyn Howard’s session in the afternoon on the current crisis in leadership. Aubyn introduced Frederic Laloux’s evolutionary paradigm, familiar from the book Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness. Laloux’s book is premised on the idea that corporate culture has evolved from highly hierarchical top-down structures to more ethically-driven self-governing and self-regulating structures build around committed teams; in the book’s colour scheme, from red to teal organisations.

Those attending the workshop split into groups and discussed how coaches could support leaders to make a developmental shift in their consciousness. This is what Aubyn calls ‘The Big Question’. He challenged: “How can we as coaches nurture, activate and encourage the evolutionary paradigm in emergent leaders in organisations and society?”

But back to my earlier question: are we in the soup? My impression from those I spoke to after they attended both the VUCA and developmental sessions is that the answer is a resounding yes. The world is in a mess.

But at least psychosynthesis offers hope that we can find a way out of the crisis we are in. The day ended with a brief discussion on neuroscience, and we were lucky to have an expert in the field in the audience.

Aubyn talked about neuro-plasticity, the idea that the brain is an adaptive organ that can evolve and develop over the course of an individual lifetime.

Roberto Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, set great store by the exercise of Will in the emergence of Self. I found it mind-blowing that neuroscience is discovering mechanisms by which consciousness can evolve over the space of a lifetime, as a result of individual purpose and the pursuit of meaning, rather than passively as a series of random mutations. It seemed like a powerful link to Assagioli’s heritage and teaching.

As Aubyn said at the start of the Symposium: “The whole world of psychosynthesis is rejuvenating. It feels like it’s flourishing and it’s in touch with the zeitgeist”.

I look forward to next year’s Symposium and the opportunity to take these conversations into yet newer realms!

Peter Stewart

Blue Monday and the Wolf Moon

Blue Monday is apparently the day that most people feel is the most depressing of the year. This year, it fell on the day after the Super Blood Wolf Moon.

I don’t know who decides the date of Blue Monday, nor whether the choice is governed by genuine statistical analysis. Perhaps it’s just a marketing exercise intended to rattle the weary masses from their winter torpor and out onto the streets for January sales and a spot of lunchtime retail therapy. Most years, it falls in the third week of January, which actually makes a sort of sense: people have been with their friends and families over Christmas and New year, they get back to work for a few weeks, renewed and refreshed. Then just as the novelty is wearing off and the weather is getting bleaker, the feeling of drudgery sets in and Blue Monday strikes.

This year it struck on 21st January — the day after the moon passed through the shadow of the earth, causing a total lunar eclipse. I was struck by the odd alignment of the two events, the Wolf moon and Blue Monday. Super Blood Wolf Moon is definitely a headline writer’s dream, it sounds like the climax of a pagan festival. You can imagine Palaeolithic peoples thirty thousand years ago looking up at the same full moon, looming nearer than they had ever seen it, almost so you could reach out and touch it. As it gradually turned red, what would they have felt? Awe, fear, wonder, regret, perhaps a mixture of conflicting emotions all bundled together. Although we are finding out more about the astronomical knowledge of prehistoric peoples, the chances are that most people would not have known it was coming. Most likely the memory of it would haunt them for weeks after.

Nowadays, scientists can predict such events with great precision. The only random element is the weather, and whether the moon will be visible or skulking behind clouds. I must admit that despite my enthusiasm to see it, I overslept; but my wife set her own alarm clock for 4 am and took some beautiful photos of the reddening orb. The next day, I watched a profusion of photos on Instagram and social media. I felt a dim sense of the great astronomical cycles that shape the seasons and the phases of the moon, but the nearest I got to the superstitious awe felt by my ancestors was when we joked about whether it was a good or bad omen for Brexit.

I’m thinking about that moon today.

I had meant to buy doughnuts for the office on Blue Monday, but for some reason I forgot. Maybe that’s just as well. Many of my friends and work colleagues have been celebrating Dry (or damp) January, cutting back on drinking alcohol, going Vegan or vegetarian, and brandishing Fitbits and various iPhone Apps for fitter healthier lifestyles.

I got into the office later than usual, because I had an early meeting at the solicitors, and caught a train that got me in to work at around 11 am. As usual, deadlines loomed, so I immediately got to work, briefly explaining that my usual open-door policy in the office would be suspended because I had too much to get done. I waded through emails, rattled out one or two replies to our Moscow office, cranked out a draft feature article for the weekly newsletter, and then nipped out around 2 pm for the usual pre-fabricated meal, nowadays packaged in biodegradable paper rather than PET and polyethylene-based plastics. I had two meetings that afternoon, and I would head back home around 5.30 as usual.

Despite the ominous Blue Monday headlines in the newspapers, everyone seemed happy enough in our office.

As usual, people had their heads down; most were tapping on keyboards, or browsing the Internet for information; a few had spreadsheets open, looking for trends in the data they were studying for clues about the market; the sales team were hitting the button on their emails and having the odd disappointing chat with a person who by and large did not want to speak with them. There wasn’t that much discussion or banter. It was a good, productive group of people who would turn in good enough results over the year.

Business as usual.

But statistically, I knew, someone in the office was suffering. For Blue Monday, my daughter had put on a drama project in Birmingham called Out of the Blue. This was part of her theatre studies course at the university.

She had created a poster with the title of the piece in colourful looping letters – red, yellow, pink, black, blue — behind which lurked a white and grey script of pain and suffering: bipolar, crazy, bored, psycho, flaky, down, messy, tired, different, depressed…

Although the stigma of mental illness is less than it has been, it still exists. Naturally I felt proud of my daughter for tackling such a difficult topic for her drama degree. Although we did not talk about it in detail, I felt that she had chosen an interesting set of words to open up the topic, from clinical diagnostic words such as “bipolar” to dismissive words like “pyscho” and “flaky” to everyday feelings of being “bored” and “down”.

Some of those adjectives will apply to people who I’m working alongside, but almost certainly they will not admit their feelings to anyone they are working with. Even when they are unable to cope, they will most likely “throw a sickie” and come up with the excuse of ‘flu or stomach upset to get a respite. This is often because employees feel that their manager will not be understanding, but even with an enlightened employer, they may soldier on in pain rather than admit their condition or talk  to colleagues to find an acceptable modus operandi.

One of the problems about mental illness is the terminology that is used to describe it. Mental and emotional states are complex, personal and changing, and the diagnostic labels applied to them can be felt as reductive and judgemental, whether they come from someone who is medically-qualified or from a friend or work colleague.

Many years ago, I suffered a bout of what I think of now as acute mental suffering.  The triggers were multiple, and complex; I was going through a creative crisis, a close relative had tried to end their life and a long-term relationship had ended. Later on, abut slightly different circumstances, I wrote a book called Out of the Blue. I tried to to capture the sense of loss, and the way that mental turmoil can swoop unexpectedly, much as the Blood Red Wolf Moon would have done in prehistoric times, before we had devised the technology to predict it.

Although I took time off work, I am reluctant to use terms like “stress”, “depression” or “nervous breakdown” to describe my experience, because it did not feel like I was going through a mental “illness” as such. In many ways, I was feeling things more intensely but also more truthfully than usual. At the same time, I definitely needed some time out from the demands of work to get through this.

 Nowadays, I feel it was a learning experience that has allowed me to to understand that any kind of “mental illness” is a deeply personal experience, and even one that may actually be rather difficult to empathise with. This is not meant to be unsympathetic. Empathy is extremely important in both coaching and counselling. But inaccurate empathy can feel like stereotyping. I am not a particularly private person, and I tend to be very open about my experiences, good and bad.

Many times after I had my bout of suffering, I felt horribly labelled when someone came up to me and volunteered too readily: “Oh don’t worry, I know exactly what it’s like”. This might be followed by the statement: “I’ve been there myself” but as often as not, I would be told: “My friend had exactly the same thing”.

Howling wolf

The media has got much better at disseminating relevant statistics: one in four people will have a mental illness at some time in their life, for example.  According to the website mixed anxiety and  depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain; 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime, and 7.8% of people meet the criteria for diagnosis.

But we are a society that finds the third person more comfortable than the first person.

I don’t feel it was particularly helpful to look at myself and my experience of mental anguish as a statistic in this way. It feels as lacking in meaning as a “diagnosis”.

I felt like I had got in touch with a deep well of darkness in myself, and that I was connected with the kind of inarticulate experience that prehistoric man or woman might have felt when they looked at a Super Blood Wolf Moon. Of course, I cannot know what he or she felt; just as someone who tells me their friend has had the “same thing” as me has no way of knowing if that’s actually the case.

In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes the extreme winter depression experienced by polar Eskimos, known as perlerorneq – which Lopez cites an anthropologist translating as “the weight of life”. Lopez describes vividly how this feeling of being sick of life manifests itself in moments of mad irresponsible and even self-harming behaviour, which is followed by a deeply compassionate response from the family of the sufferer.

I was very touched reading that account. There are many times I have felt like being able to unleash the howling wolf within. A society where that is meant by compassion rather than embarrassed looks and a turning down of the eyes seems to me to be one that is rather sane.  I am not particularly advocating perlerorneq as a modus operandi for office communication, but I do feel we should do what we can to make it a more compassionate and inclusive place in which people can be themselves more fully.

Welcoming in 2019 with mixed feelings


Many of my friends on Facebook, and many coaches whom I follow on Twitter, have described their  New Year celebrations and expansive plans for 2019. For myself, this New Year has been more than usually underwhelming.

I often say inwardly that I would prefer to spend New Year’s Eve reading a book at home, rather  than heading out into the cold to spend a few hours with friends at their home, partying, or down an ill-lit pub or club, downing Prosecco and champagne and other variants of bubbly. Invariably I get into the spirit of things, drink too much of the largely indistinguishable alcohols on offer, and wake up feeling the pain of hangover and the happiness of renewal of another New Year.

This year, and as I have done in almost all previous years, I ignored the urge to stay at home. I ventured out into the cold and down the quiet streets of my home town, ending up at the local Con Club. Unlike in all previous years, however, I really do wish I had just had a quiet evening in and read a book.

It’s not that the evening was an unmitigated disaster. Certainly not a car crash.

Apart from a half-hour argument about politics with a close friend, triggered by my anti-Brexit T-shirt, that lasted between 11.15 pm and around 11.45 (as far as I recall, from looking repeatedly at the clock) it was mostly quite pleasant. The conversation was lively, for the most part, and the refugees from another party towards midnight suggested we had not chosen the worst option in terms of the entertainment and company. The hugs and kisses at New Year were as happy and sincere as ever.

But definitely this year it did not go with the usual zing. My heart felt as if it were in another place from the crowded room, which smelt of spilt beer, and reverberated with the noise of the  post- middle-aged rock band. The argument before midnight racketed around in my head after the bells had tolled like a deaf bat, leaving a bad aftertaste. I felt a gaping distance behind every burst of laughter.

When I got home, finally, I felt that everything was tainted, even my closest friendships. I remembered my mother, who died exactly two years earlier, and I felt emotional that my kids were now grown up and had (effectively) flown the parental nest.

The lengthening shadows of Brexit swept me into a deepening gloom that has not yet shifted.


Why do I tell you this? I’m sorry if this is not an upbeat New Year message. Nor do I have any terrific new insights to draw from my somewhat sub-optimal experience, beyond that life does not always go with a bang.

Of course, I hope that 2019 will be a wonderful year for myself, my family and every single one of my friends. I hope it will be wonderful for you too. And I still hope that Brexit will not happen. But the reality is that it is more likely to be a mixed bag, and that Brexit is more likely to happen than not. As my late father said, we’ll just  have to find some way to “muddle through”.

At least this New Year has not kicked-off with  unrealistic expectations. I often feel we are fed a diet of saccharin self-satisfaction through social media, a distorting mirror in which the reflection is always more perfect than the reality.

Recipes for the good life abound. Bob Dylan once said, “Everybody wants you to be just like them”. Whether it’s the peremptory injunctions for self-improvement on Twitter or book-length manuals for higher levels of performance and achievement; whether it’s picture perfect Selfie images on Instagram or lengthy descriptions of the family achievements over the last year on Facebook; TV-ready Ted talks or the video of New Year fireworks in Thailand on Youtube — the message from Social Media can be relentless: Someone has it better than you.

I hope that my rather downbeat New Year narrative will, at least, help to stem this relentless tide of false expectation and inflated comparison. At a deeper level, I hope also that those who read it will realise that it’s perfectly okay to have ups and downs.

I believe that coaching can help us learn from these highs and lows, to achieve deeper levels of self-awareness and inner contentment. I believe it can help us to exercise the will to achieve our deepest goals, but also deepen self-acceptance so that we do not have to listen to the constant noise of self-comparison.

In that spirit*  I would like to leave you with the following thoughts:

Real life is often less than perfect, even at New Year, with all its hilarity and hope. The hand we are dealt contains spades as well as hearts, clubs as well as diamonds. Our moods are often positive, but sometimes not.  We make mistakes, so do our friends; we have regrets, so do they. The year ahead will have highs but also lows. Some will be our fault, others will be down to events beyond our control.

We will achieve some of our cherished hopes through character, attitude, hard work, spirit and good luck; but sometimes we will fail. We will overcome some fears, but not all. Hopefully we will feel happy, joyous, warm, excited, loving, loved; but we will also go through periods where we are sad, frustrated, impatient, angry, maybe even despairing at times. Hopefully, our friends, family, loved ones will give us comfort and support; but it is not unlikely that on some days, we will have to hold ourselves.

Whatever 2019 holds for you, my best wishes and warm regards.  

Final thought:

* I hope those who read this post will do so in the spirit in which it is intended, and not regard it as negative or depressing. Feel free to comment and I will certainly reply. Look after yourselves in the year ahead. Please do seek  help if you feel hopeless or unable to cope.