Egotistical self-sabotage: not great enough to be humble

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Whatever virtue you obtain, give it to others.
But then, of course, that legitimate concern shows up, manifesting itself in the inner voice that whispers “Are you sure you feel ready enough, good enough, competent enough to contribute something to the world?”
You and I have been there before.
Recently, I was reading an ancient text that focuses on the spirit of generosity. One of the key insights I got was summarized on my journal with the following words: “Whatever virtue you obtain, give it to others”. The text inspires you to take whatever form is needed to be at service to all, with all of your energies (breath, skills, presence, knowledge). And yet again, creeping in under the skin, self doubt came to visit my thoughts just on time to sabotage that spirit of generosity, suggesting that I may not know enough, be ready enough, be enough in order to give something useful to others.
Maybe to get past this catch 22 I need to cultivate a deep level of trust, at least in two ways. For one thing, the trust that in order to serve all sentient beings whatever I have to offer is useful; and that whatever effort I make to be of help will somehow someway have a chance to be useful and will have an impact.
After much thought over this, a counter-intuitive conclusion came to surface. This feels true to me, and I share it to check if and how could resonate with your own thought-processes.
EgotSelfSabotagephoto-1448550603489-a7e43b0da4d2What stands in the way to me cultivating this trust is the self-centered egotism, in both ways. It takes me egotism to shy away from my brilliance because the chronic insecurity that makes me back off from giving away my gifts is nothing but a narcissistic need for constant confirmations. On the other hand, believing that whatever practices are cultivated, or deeds performed, run the risk of not being effective to benefit all sentient beings has a double edge to it. While it may signal a healthy dose of skepticism, going all the way down the rabbit hole with such an assumption betrays an egocentric need to control, as if my self needs the gratification of truly knowing that my actions have been effective, that yes I do exist, and I am collecting evidence that my passing on this Earth is leaving a mark on the walls of history — this way I allow myself to forget that I am mortal, that every change is by nature transient, and in the longest run nothing will remain.
It bears repeating for it is a bit counter-intuitive. After some soul searching I have come to conclude that for me it takes me a heck of a lot of egocentrism to think of myself as “not good enough” and belittle myself with similar deceptive stories. And in the same guise, it does take a lot of hubris to convince myself that my actions are being insignificant — I picture an entity up above, an all-knowing force in the universe who is aware of the innumerable ways in which we impact others and knows the inner laws of causality far away in time and space, who looks down on my narrow-minded assumptions of powerlessness and smiles away: “Who the f* are you to judge you are not making an impact?”
I have lost the source of the original story, but it went like this: a powerful woman in Southern Asia in a position of political leadership had a diplomatic guest from abroad over to visit. Such guest introduced herself with an incredibly humble attitude, to which her host cut her short: “Don’t be too humble. You are not that great”.
May I remember that at all times, walking with grace the tightrope between conviction, humbleness, and guarding myself from the egocentric shadow of humility.
Does this story resonate in any way with yours? I would love to hear your stories.

Mindfulness in times of war. The School of Youth for Social Service

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This is a story about courage, mindfulness, selflessness in the face of war. May it serve as an inspiration and reminder for the incredible potential of the human heart to selflessly give in the face of adversities.

During recent travels, I scheduled to stay for a few days in Saigon, Vietnam, around New Year’s. By the virtue of following the work of the Plum Village and its founder Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn, I came in touch with stories about his peace work during the Vietnam War. Upon an email sent to the Plum Village to know if there were any activists from that time who were still living in Saigon, they kindly put me in touch with some of the heroes that had practiced non-violent activism based in mindfulness precepts of their Zen master. This below is an account of a meeting I had where I interviewed six of these men over many cups of tea in early January in a neighborhood north-west of Saigon.
The School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) was an initiative started in the mid-sixties to apply the practice of Engaged Buddhism to alleviate the suffering that came with the war. After the French war, Vietnam was struck by poverty. In 1964 the SYSS was beginning to be built with an intention to support people in the countryside, but by the time the school was established one year later, a second war was erupting with the U.S. escalation of violence, and the school shifted its main focus to provide relief to people most affected by the conflict.

Between 1964 and 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh and some of the prospect students built the premises of the school by themselves. The buildings consisted of a central pagoda and a dormitory, plus a farming land where to plant cabbage and mushroom while learning about agricultural practices. By the time the school launched its first installment of a two-year learning program, it could only take in two hundred participants out of the three hundred who wanted to join. A majority of these students were lay practitioners who followed the teachings of Engaged Buddhism, while a few others were monks and nuns. The gentlemen I had the luck to talk to (one monastic and five lay people) are all grads from that first iteration, class of 65-67.

Their curriculum was built around four pillars:

1 Education: SYSS students learned how to organize free classes for people in need, and how to help children both read and write, and to score well in tests to increase their chances in getting accepted to government schools.

2 Household economics: students had an up-to-date understanding of farming, breeding animals, and overall methods to help peasants to improve their livelihood.

3 Living: based on Buddhist teachings, the students practiced basic foundations for a happy life and rightful living. This was instrumental to have inner peace while carrying on their own works and lives, and also helped people who were suffering in improving their spiritual lives.

4 Health and medicine: students were equipped knowledge about vaccination, hygiene, how to build toilets, etc.

An integral part of the school was the practice camp, which was a time of application of the SYSS curriculum by students who went into rural areas that were in need.

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The school and its social workers faced multiple challenges from the very beginning. They took a strong, unconditionally pacifist stance, which meant they would not take side in the conflict, and held true to the precept to never retaliate if harm was inflicted upon them. This made them be seen with suspicion by many, and the school suffered many attacks. As of today, it has never been known who attacked them, as perpetrators acted in incognito and covering their faces. All students ran great risks, no matter if they were monastic or lay people, working in Saigon or in the countryside by rural villages. Soon after they begun their activities they got attacked a first time. In 1965 a mine into the SYSS school left 2 people injured; a few months later an attack by mine into the female dormitory killed 2 teachers and injured 16 others social workers. In 1967, at a practice camp, 8 people went missing and nothing has ever been known about them since. That same year, 5 social workers were kidnapped and got shot by the Saigon River. 4 died under the shots and only one of them survived, who recalled they got asked if they were indeed SYSS students, which they didn’t negate, and the kidnappers said they did not want to kill them but had received orders from above to do so. As our conversation unfolded, I asked a few questions.

Q: What made you want to join the SYSS?
A: A few shared that Thay’s invite to action made them feel called to participate. One told me he was moved to alleviate conditions of poverty in the villages. It was a vicious cycle they intended to break: the poor could not afford to study, which meant no education, which kept them in poverty, eventually illnesses, and even more poverty. To break the cycle you first need knowledge, which compelled SYSS to teach household economics, how to build houses, how to dig wells, and so on.

Q: Weren’t you afraid, with all the risks involved?
A: Many times, one of them recounts, we social workers felt afraid, and with good reason: our fellow workers were getting kidnapped, hurt, killed, but we kept moving. But we always believed we were doing the right thing.

They recollect a story of how the social workers rebuilt over and over again the village of Trà Lộc, that was bombed and rebuilt four times. You can hear the story from the words of master Nhat Hanh here.

Q: How did you keep your hope alive?
A: All of them agree in pointing to Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual leadership as a key factor in keeping their hope alive. We have learned to be very respectful towards our master Thay -one of them fondly recollects. Because of him, we have grown love and nurtured the good inside each of us. Another one shares that they learned from Thay to cultivate hope and belief inside of us, because when we have that, we can still believe in the capacity of everyone to create happiness. One of the men at our table (a monastic who lives in the same pagoda where the SYSS was once located) told me he kept his hope alive because since the age of 15 he received a lot of wisdom from master Thay, and respected a person that had created something that affirmed the value of life. The fourteen mindfulness trainings taught the social workers to understand and love, and to help by freely giving all the energies of body and mind. The youth followed the ideas of practicing a Buddha mind, unconditional loving, and attaining peace and happiness in the present moment while wishing it to everyone else. All of these ideas made them fearless. One of them tells me Vietnamese saying to illustrate the point: “When you do the right thing, life or death don’t matter. When you do the wrong thing, death matters a lot, because you feel that you haven’t finished your work.”

I explained how inspiring their stories were, and how relevant their wisdom seemed to the challenges we are facing today. Whether it is wars, environmental destruction, or injustices, a lot of people are working with passion to make the world a better place and at times are struggling with despair, anger, grief.

Q: What can today’s movements learn from you?
A: One of the alumni pointed to the importance of the five essential mindfulness trainings, as he suggested that if everyone practiced them, there would be no more wars. The trainings are: 1) show respect for the living 2) true happiness 3) true love 4) loving speech and deep listening 5) nourishing and healing. Another shared that in his view the youth of today is very intelligent and very good at science, so they understand what is going in the world. We need to build on that scientific knowledge, and add the wisdom that our happiness is interdependent. We hope that young people today could see that your happiness is my happiness, and also that creating happiness for others will make the giver happy, too, because we become happier from giving than from receiving.

It was late afternoon when we eventually went to the nearby pagoda where the SYSS was originally erected. My hosts showed me around the temple, the gravestones of some of the students who had died under the attacks, and recounted the story of self-immolation of sister Nhat Chi Mai, who in the morning of May 16, 1967 lit herself on fire in front of the pagoda as an act of political protest against the Vietnam War.

Leaving the pagoda and waving goodbye to my hosts, I left with a sense of profound admiration and humbleness towards the incredible work that these heroes have performed during times of profound suffering. It has been especially humbling to witness their peace, and the way in which they recounted stories of suffering, including of when their fellow students have been attacked, without resentment towards the perpetrators of such violence. They have practiced staying mindful, compassionate, and forgiving in the face of great adversities, while selflessly helping others to relieve their sufferings. While today’s world is quite different than in the 60’s, some questions seem timeless: how to stay present in times of war, how to cultivate inner peace when so many voices encourage us to hate, how to give without falling into despair. Elders like them have so much wisdom to share.

If you want to know more: 
Chan Khong, Sister. (2007). Learning True Love. Berkeley: Parallax Press
Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken about the SYSS in many videos including this one and this one. 
A beautiful graphic novel that covers the peace activism work during that time https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-secret-of-the-5-powers/id621548560 

Coaching sessions offered Dec 14-23

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For the following two weeks, I am offering some coaching which can help you make progress on goals that are meaningful to you. Interested?

I offer coaching of two kinds.

ICF-inspired Coaching (of the more ‘traditional’ type): I offer coaching inspired by the International Coach Federation ways of work, to help you make progress on any area where you wish to make progress.

Sharper clarity on your purpose: This would be especially relevant if you are in a time of transition and want to get a sharper clarity on what to do next with your professional life.

On both of these I have a few years of practice, and use a variety of tools to help you think in creative ways and make progress and unlock your potential.

I will make 16 time slots available over the next two weeks (Dec 14-18 and 21-23). A session lasts for 90 minutes.

The cost structure is divided into three brackets:

1) I love the idea, but my income does not.
You are a fresh grad, a young social entrepreneur, a passionate student, a freelancer with bright ideas but without a stable income at the moment… I want to make it possible for you to benefit from it. The cost would be 5 USD or up (you decide) to donate to a charity of my choice.

2) Entry-level salary at my work.
If you are at an entry level position in your organization (25-28K USD / year or less) the fee would be 60 USD.

3) It’s okay, I can afford this.
If you have a senior level position in your organization (or your own enterprise) the fee would be 90 USD.

If you are interested in booking a session, email me at valente.desk@gmail.com suggest two dates and times, and please indicate your timezone.

Look forward to be working with you!

Do we compete for the creative powers of the world? (that is: democratizing consciousness and why you should care)

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::Do we compete for the creative energies of re-imagining the world?::

The world is in dire need of a new imagination. Literally, we need to see things anew and re-imagine everything, because now more than any other time in recent history do we need to come up with solutions to some of our pressing problems that require leaps of creativity, boldness, and imagine-ation. This creativity though is hampered by some of the very structural causes of the problems we need to solve. Our institutions, structures, and social norms work on our cognition of our surrounding reality in such way that the world shows up as ‘finished’ to us: best we can do is to adapt and navigate our systems – much rarer are messages that ask us to truly re-think the pillars of our societal structures. By definition, though, the world is not completely ‘finished’ as there is also a part that is ‘unfinished’: there is an aspect of the world which is not given and that must be actualized by the individual free-willed initiative. Like a skilled poet who left his best artwork missing a final line -not that she overlook the finale, rather she is inviting you to co-create the end with your own creativity. Put it another way, we can consider the realms of freedom as outlined in these two territories. Everything which seems ‘finished’ can be seen as the realm of the constraints that we must deal with and creatively adapt to; this territory of the ‘finished’ in a dialectic dance outlines the rest that is out of it, which is the territory of the ‘unfinished’. Like an ever-changing shore line, the finished world draws the boundary of the unfinished: everything beyond that line is what is open for our creative power of imagination. The boundaries of our constraints delineate where our freedom begins. In this space of freedom comes the power of our consciousness to bring about genuine creativity into the world, to create things anew, to challenge the old structures by creating new ones or by assigning new meanings to the preformed, culturally given meanings we were taught. (I borrow this idea of finished vs unfinished from a beautiful book called The Metamorphosis of the Given).

::My thesis::
In this piece I argue that if any type of hegemony is creating divisions on the fundamental equality and oneness of the people of the world then this perception also influences the perceived access to the creative powers to re-imagine the world in novel ways, bringing into existence realities that were never seen before.

To explain this, let me go farther back. For the last few thousands of years as humankind we have been widely distributed into very diverse societies, tribes, ways to organize our lives as collectives of people, and most often different groups have been in competition over political, military, and economic supremacy. We have seen throughout history how when a group dominates over another a type of cultural hegemony takes place.

Fast forward until some two centuries ago. Marx and Engels in The Capital postulate that a minority of people was oppressing a majority by possession of capital and profiting over the hard work of the “proletariat” (the working class). By the virtue of these imbalances, a very unequal and unjust societal system was in place and class warfare was all about re-balancing that and achieving a supremacy of the working class via radical redistribution of wealth.
The current economic systems appears to be built in such a way that allows only to a limited number of people to have a greater freedom to pursue their passions, aspirations, and to use their most creative energies. Imagine for a moment to plot Maslow’s pyramid of human needs on a chart and to write beside the different levels of such a pyramid what would be the corresponding jobs linked to such satisfaction of needs in the global economy. What jobs satisfy the needs at each of the levels? Now I wish to invite you to accept two ideas as working premises for this argument:
1) The economic system is shifting and more and more people in ‘privileged’ economies are using the freedom to pursue jobs and careers that satisfy their deepest aspirations and unlock their creativity;
2) The current economic system is built in a way that allows only to certain people such freedom to unlock their creative energies. A lot of others are either dealing with more pressing needs or forced to contribute to the world economy’s equivalent of the Maslow pyramid by necessity, forced by economic structures that shape the world today.
A person’s creative work is still relying on a ton of less exciting jobs which lay out the structural conditions upon which that one job was made possible.

Now, whether it was distribution of wealth, military oppression, or market forces creating divisions between nations or within societies, my argument is that these hegemonies have also affected the redistribution of the creative energies to redesign the world. When you look at any type of cultural supremacy, it is first and foremost a domination of the imagination, of language, of cultural identity, which affects both the perception of the ‘given’ and the feeling of entitlement for bringing about the ‘not given’ into the world. I have recently visited a few countries in Africa and was quite amazed at how much the education system in countries like Zimbabwe and Uganda is still shaped by the British blueprint. There are systems that culturally shape us which can give a biased perception of who we are as a people and may re-define our history (think about how many movies people the world over watch every day and get shaped in their worldview by how Hollywood sees the world). Historical footprints are another example that comes in handy. Some nations are still constructing their identity as a young independent country and thus need to find their rightful place in the world, also in terms of what unique gifts they can bring. But when the people of a nation have been oppressed for years, or centuries, this history affects their self-perception when we come together to re-imagine our common destiny as a human species. If people have been serving a king for centuries, have not possessed their own land, and have been told to shut up for too long, they have learned a different narrative about a man’s life purpose, what is happiness, what can a man contribute to change his society. It is likely that such a legacy of being dominated has shaped a worldview influenced by fatalism and historic determinism (narratives such as: ‘things are never going to change’, ‘society changes by forces beyond my control’, etc.)
And by analogy you could extend this reasoning to a large number of situations. Countries, ethnic groups, have been competing for power and maybe this has affected the creative powers as well.
It has long been held -and more philosophy is shifting towards this tenet- that our consciousness creates reality. (Building on this book by the late Willis Harman, I outline some examples of such a shift in thinking). After studying the human brain for decades, Nobel laureate Roger Sperry argued that one of the fundamental flaws in our scientific thinking was the dismissal of consciousness as a causal reality. In its easiest expressions, we can see how thought generates action, how a vision, a dream, an aspiration takes place in the world of our imagination before being manifested in the external reality. I believe that this has always been true, but it is only recently that we are becoming aware of the processes by which we make our imagination and our consciousness work to create our reality.
If (better say when) humankind wakes up to this realization, a few exciting things will happen -and some of them are surfacing already now in the global dialogue.
– People who have been oppressed by a perception of unfair treatments will realize their immense power. Whether it is market injustice, unfair wealth distribution, oppression from a totalitarian regime, people will realize that any of such systems, even the most despicable and unbearable ones, are resting upon a sense of legitimacy given by the oppressed. This legitimacy is resting in a thought, and consciousness can change thought at thought-speed. One day a million people wake up and say “we don’t agree to be oppressed anymore”. The source of revolutions resides in the human mind for it is just a thought – and regimes have understood that and try and control that thought more than anything else.
– The source of authority will progressively shift from external to internal. Obedience will carry a newer meaning as obedience to inner truth much more than obedience to any external authority.

To wrap it up, if it is indeed true that we might be competing for these creative powers, it is important for me to open up that conversation. If we are indeed shifting towards the realization that our consciousness creates reality, then this may be an incredibly important factor that can empower people in shaping their destiny -as individuals, and as collectives. I deeply care about these creative forces to shape the world being democratized as much as possible. Would this enlightenment be only a matter for a handful of white men who could take a year off, travel to India, go to spiritual retreats, and the like? While a lot of people are still working from a worldview that doesn’t allow them to recognize that they have the power to change their life conditions for the better? It is a bleak scenario in which this disparity would only create another form of supremacy, equally detestable.
It is my wish that these creative powers, that this awareness and recognition of our most precious sources of creativity, be democratized and made accessible to all, for the benefit of a real re-distribution of our true wealth which begins from a democracy of access to our consciousness and its powers.

A coaching journey to explore your purpose in the world

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Where does your deep gladness meet your skills, so that you can more fully contribute to a better world? What is your ‘calling’, or life purpose? And what processes could help you find out?

These questions have been present in my mind for many years in my personal and professional life. Also, I have been hearing them quite a lot from many friends and colleagues working in societal change in fields such as sustainability and social entrepreneurship. As a way to address this perceived need in the world, a structured coaching journey has come into being, initiated by myself and a few participants who were willing to explore these questions.

Over the last years I have been privileged to be working with an incredible team in the field of leadership development of tomorrow’s sustainability leaders at MSLS (master in strategic leadership towards sustainability), and personal and professional experiences with leadership journeys and coaching relationships have coalesced around one coherent flow. This blog post outlines the philosophy, theoretical frames, and flow of a coaching journey that I have developed and run at MSLS over the last two years as an optional part of the learners’ leadership curriculum. I owe immense thanks to mentors from whom I learned so much and took inspiration – the full list of acknowledgements for ideas will be at the end of the blog post.

Before diving in, it is worth sharing a few key facts to get the overall idea of what it is in short.

Coaching journey in 200 words: What, who, when, where.
The coaching journey is a voluntary, part-time, 3 and a half months long journey that runs in the spring for the MSLS students in Karlskrona, Sweden, during their thesis time, from late February to early June. Participants willing to join have been invited to embark on a journey to sharpen their clarity on their vocation in their professional (and personal) life, after a short open-day session that outlines what it is. We define vocation as the ‘sweet spot’ that lies at the intersection of two elements: it is where you deep gladness meets your contribution to the world, and we set out to explore both elements and this unifying point using a structured process of reflections through readings, assignments, and live coaching sessions. Each year, three clusters were formed: the 2013 edition (the first) counted 18 participants from 11 countries, while the 2014 edition had 14 participants from 9 countries. Compared to the class size, that roughly equaled a third of the class choosing to attend. I have developed and had the privilege to run the journey as a coach and am in a process of scaling up, open to see what evolves next from it! (More at the end of the post).
Philosophy
So what is it, really? And what key ideas are holding it together? There is an underlying philosophy and some key assumptions upon which the coaching journey is based.
One is the assumption that many young adults in this post-modern world are exposed to an overwhelming flow of information capturing our attention, and stimulating our imagination and dreams. Many options in life seem attractive, seducing, and our energy could potentially go in so many different directions. I go with the assumption that clarity of intention is a catalyst for directing our ‘potential unspent energy’ and for effective, passionate, intentional work.

The journey is designed for people who are passionate about making a contribution to the world (MSLS students self-select as such category, in my experience) and who wish to sustain that passion while doing work that deeply fulfills their individual joy and happiness and honoring their unique gifts. We are born with unique gifts and talents, but many of our current structures and institutions ask us to merely “fit in” and be good citizens, students, family members. Whilst the socialized identity is a key building block and plays an essential role to make our social contracts continue, there is much more potential to get acquainted to our inner voice, towards a more self-authored life in which the individual can experience processes to discover more of her uniqueness in a safe container.
A safe container for truly ‘seeing’ the other person
In pedagogy and leadership development literature there is a lot of talk, and with good reason, about the importance of the safety of learning containers, hence there is an intention to create preconditions for such safety through sharing the learning objectives, the journey flow, and by setting up a space where we invite all participants within their clusters to deeply listen to one another, to commit to their own development as much as they commit to their peers’, and to authentically “see” the other person in their unique potential for life. This gift of seeing each other in generative ways is based on the Zulu word ‘Sawubona’, which means “we see you”, and implies that my past, my present self and my future potential for life see all of you (a plural you), comprised of your own past, your present self, and your highest potential for life.
Though being highly individual by definition, the journey relies heavily on this collective element of being part of a peer cluster whereby the participant effectively goes through the entire process along with an entire group, performing assignments together, debriefing, and peer coaching others as well. Necessity turned into a great unexpected gift, during the process of self-discovery an individual gains deeper insights from a constellation of people who offer their insights and can illuminate many blind spots and question assumptions, in a way that not even a seasoned coach could easily do.

Theoretical frames.
To cite an old adage: All theories are wrong, some theories are useful. Quite a few theoretical backgrounds are informing this structured coaching process and help to provide readings, insights into assignments, and inform my approach to coaching.
First, we state clearly from the beginning that this is a coaching journey and differs in a few ways from therapy. I am assisted by standard definitions about coaching from the ICF (International Coach Federation), their core practices and code of ethics, which recommend types of listening, rules for setting the client/coach relation in the right tone, and offer models for goal-setting and vision building with the client. The ICF’s definitions also inform a key distinction between coaching and therapy, in that therapy is mostly focused on past events and aim to make sense of them in light of a client’s present situation, while coaching focuses on future goals and aspirations, and looks at present conditions (and a bit of past, too) in order to explore predicaments, roadblocks and resources to develop towards one’s goals.
Some neuroscience –not just because it sounds fancy, it is actually great stuff
At the foundation of this coaching approach positive psychology and neuroplasticity come to help providing strong and evidence based theories. Positive psychology is a necessary foundation especially informing the ideas of love for self, some science behind happiness, and Csikszentmihalyi‘s idea of flow, namely a state of bliss in which we are immersed when we are completely focused on an enjoyable and challenging task. It helps especially in uncovering the “deep gladness” part of the vocation. (And the copy-paste is vital to get his name right).
Neuroplasticity is a recent science backed by encouraging and strong evidence, positing that the brain can change itself and that an individual’s conscious direction of attention is the fundamental starting point to decide, moment by moment, where to focus our thoughts, and this holds the potential to either “give in” old neural circuits or to create new ones –nothing bad with walking down an old path per se, but the creation of new habits to a large extent necessitates the abandonment of old ones that are not serving us anymore. (I particularly liked this book). An important insight that this discipline is bringing is the primacy of focus, around which two assignments and some reading materials are based. The aim is to get to experience how our conscious attention is a causal factor in our inner world and dynamically impacting the world around us. If we were to believe in a deterministic approach (my thoughts are just a by-product of some weird brain chemistry) we could not honestly believe in any true goals setting, nor in any substantial change of old habits towards new ones.
Kegan is the manbut I mean, really
Broadly speaking, Neo-Piagetian psychological approaches are informing the coaching journey in at least two ways (though I must admit I am not an expert since this field is so vast). For one thing, the constructive development background applied to education suggests that adults create their own meanings, which points to the importance of letting people attribute their significance to events, draw their conclusions, and probe into their thinking processes with open ended questions as much as possible without leading or constraining into one direction over another; additionally, Kegan’s approach to adult development states that successive stages of psychological maturity happen when we are able to objectively analyze things that were previously taken for granted (the subject-object dynamic). In extreme summary, Kegan states that usually we cannot objectively see some of the thoughts and feelings that we are passively giving in to, as if it was an autopilot never questioned; when we start making these mental events part of our object of observation, we can progressively take ownership over them and make them become “object” (as opposed to being subject-to and passively written-by them).
Though it may sound very abstract and theoretical, in essence embracing the Neo-Piagetian approaches (Kegan et al) has very profound implications: believing that the meaning-making starts from the individual and cannot be forced upon others gives suggestions for how to ask powerful questions (very much in line with good coaching standards) by which a coach challenges assumptions and worldviews without providing an answer of their own. It may sound easy to agree with in principle, and it presents a beautiful challenge to do it moment by moment in coaching practices.
Theory U as a frame of reference
Last but equally important, we use Otto Scharmer’s Theory U as an overall architecture holding together and pacing the assignments: it gives us a sense of overall continuity and direction of the journey, informing both coach and participants about potential pitfalls along the path, and as a system of road signs to frame assignments and resources. Theory U has been developed by Otto Scharmer over more than 15 years as a process to design and facilitate deep transformations at all levels (individual, organizational, societal). We are more intentionally borrowing from Theory U three fundamental stages (or movements) of any process of transformation, which have been termed ‘sensing’, ‘presencing’ and ‘prototyping’. Sensing explores the current and past reality, Presencing aims to accesses the vocation itself through a deep connection, and Prototyping turns the vocation into actionable points, goals, and deadlines.
If this may sound like a lot of theories, beware that most of them are working in the background as frames that inform my work as a coach. Some theories are very lightly touched upon: Kegan’s developmental psychology is mostly informing my work without being shared with participants; others are more intentionally shared, such as Theory U which is very often mentioned to give a sense of where in the journey we are at.

Flow of the coaching journey, and pedagogical approach
You might want to get to know how it looks like in practice. As we started going through the three stages of the U journey, this section will explain with a bit more detail what happens through these various stages – also, I will share a bit of the pedagogical approach used as I learned a few things by walking through it. To start off this collective journey takes a certain initiation, a beginning which marks the importance of individual and collective intention before jumping on board together. At the very beginning, we start with an initial assessment (one-to-one session with just coach and participant) of personal aspirations and expectations from both ends. I found it extremely important as a way to clarify what type of commitment it takes and to envision best and less-than-optimal scenarios for this coaching journey. Only after that, the participants are asked to “find their groups” and we kick off with a session that intentionally aims at building the container with some preconditions for trust in their peers. The Sensing stage our coaching journey is focused on exploring without judgment our current predicament, our usual patterns, our personal history. Here readings on neuropsychology, happiness, and on the power of our attention come in to give theoretical background and potentially provoke some thoughts. I try to use tools for ‘objectifying’ some of the current trends and habits, so that they can be critically analyzed and to an extent authored more intentionally. The Presencing stage is dedicated to find that place of deep connection to our highest self and sharpen our clarity on what is our vocation in life. We explore deep gladness and contribution to the work through two separate assignments, and the vocation (which has been conceptualized as the sweet spot in between the two) is explored through an assignment of its own. Here the pedagogical approach is to truly get people out of their minds and into their bodies and hearts as much as possible, while still “using” the mind as an analytical instrument to make sense of the assignments afterwards. Behind this lies an important assumption, namely that the bottom of the U is best accessed through experiential means such as movement, emotion, and kinesthetic events – and mind will help to give words to the vocation only after our experiential events have happened, as a journaling tool. Once our vocation has come into form, Prototyping consists of first crystallizing such shape and then translating the dream of living our aspirational vocation into an action plan and measurable, achievable goals. Here we need to move up from a space of deep connection into a space of measurable goals and deadlines. I use various canvasses to first sharpen the vocation, and then to help draw and scribble brainstormed goals before prioritizing a handful of final goals which will constitute a learning commitment from all coaching journey participants. Sensing was beheld primarily by eyes and mind (exploring, observing); presencing was primarily experienced by the whole body (heart included); prototyping is mostly in the hands through brainstormed goals and priorities that will become an agreement to be shared with fellow participants of the peer cluster. During the last two weeks, in fact, we focus on closing the journey by sharing agreements on measurable short term goals that aim at providing an occasion for early action and for creating first successes. Our coaching container is then closed by agreements on how to keep in touch with one another and hold each other accountable on our progress – I found that such agreements worked well to create an impulse for circles of peer mentoring and peer support, which can be of fundamental value to keep nurturing our journey going forward.

Gratitude note
My immense thanks to mentors from whom I have extensively drawn inspirations –some of them I have met in person, some of them are in the academic world of book I have read. Here below the people I have met to whom I owe such thanks.
Regina Rowland, who coached me over the period of a few months and inspired me to start this coaching journey as an offer to the world, based on many of her ideas and approaches;
Orland Bishop and his work at the ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation, from whom I learned the more pronounced spiritual component of the journey which stays in the background as my own frame of reference;
Ada auf de Strasse, from whom I learned about coaching approach and practices of the ICF approach: immensely helpful and practical!;
My current and previous coaching journey participants –we would have never learned this much hadn’t we been learning it together! It is always an honor to be serving your paths.
All mentors who have taught me so much about asking powerful questions, deeply inquiring into my own explorations, and all the leadership journeys I have experienced over the last few years: Warrior of the Heart with Toke Moeller, The Journey at Embercombe, the Art of Hosting community of practitioners, the Leadership Thread at MSLS and all my precious colleagues there. I realize the list could go on forever so I’ll just stop it here.
What next?
After two iterations of this coaching journey, it feels timely enough to share some of these ideas and theoretical approaches, for the sake of making this process visible to all those who could be potentially interested: you may be working in transformative education, in coaching, mentoring, or offering spaces for young adults (or any age, really) to explore more intentionally their passion in life. I personally feel that I have learned a lot (and still learning!) through this process. For example, one of the most fundamental things I have learned is the importance of personal grounding in practices of deep work, to keep myself (as a coach) in a constant work of monitoring, to keep my inner space ‘clean’ and under rigorous, compassionate, and loving scrutiny. There is a spiritual depth that you as a coach reaches (or are pushed to reach) when you hold a space for development for other human beings. It feels like everything is amplified and mirrored back, because you are asked to keep such a quality of attention and an inner clarity which will point to any blind spot in you. In this type of work the inner needs to support the outer, which is really fascinating and highly enriching.
If that sounds daunting, even worse is to consider that you as a coach will never be ‘ready enough’ to carry on such profound personal work, but experience taught me a fundamental lesson: as long as you commit to profound work, you can feel (and you are) ready to do the work. [Plus, the scale of the challenges in the world now calls not for perfect work, rather for our meaningful work period. Let’s get over this idea of needing more time and more clarity to start our meaningful work – we won’t get either of the two].
On that note, at this particular stage of the journey, the conditions seem ready enough for this coaching journey to evolve into its next stage of development.
I am sensing into what such next stage could be, and wish to stay very open to many possible options. For one thing, I feel energy about letting it go wherever it needs to go, be it by sharing as much as possible, be it training the trainers and building up competence. Another part of me wonders how this educational journey could be further expanded into existing or new programs as a part of a broader educational journey of transformative education –that is: which other programs other than MSLS could benefit from it? As I write this, a first prototype is being explored through a contract that I got with a program of social entrepreneurship to replicate a mini-version of the journey for their participants, which is quite exciting. Another version of this option of replicating the coaching journey would be to co-design new version of it, open to new streams of ideas, as part of a design of a school of transformational education. Feel free to take inspiration, and to get in touch if this in any way made sense and evoked ideas and possible dreams to apply it in a real-life scenario that would positively contribute.
What’s in it for you?
So a final appeal to all of you: Feel free to take as much as you want from these ideas and experiences, and get in touch if you are curious and want to bring some of this into form for an educational institution where this could add value to the participants’ personal journeys. It is really a type of work that is still forming and I am looking forward to explore possibilities of scaling it up if there is a perceived need in the world.

A bow to you all, and a final reminder: I have so much enthusiasm around this coaching journey because I work from the assumption that when people are more aligned with their own purpose they could be more effective at catalyzing such energy into the world – given they have an ember into their hearts itching for serving the greater good of humanity. This is something that we cannot know in advance and it is always a blind –how to make sure that our efforts to bring about transformational change (in this case from a very personal level) will be put at good use for the most universal aims of serving humanity and the planet? We never know, but we can cultivate preconditions to invite the right people and cultivate immense trust that such clarity will be seen as a service to humanity rather than an individual privilege. It is my belief and hope.
For the benefit of being more effective at serving the whole humankind in generative ways –
Marco

Diagram of my vocation on a Prezi presentation

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What’s your vocation?
If you had absolute clarity of purpose and no restrictions, what would you do with your life? What would fully ignite your passion? And what are the gifts you have that contribute to alleviating the world’s hungers?

These may sound as quite compelling questions to you. But it is likely that you have been asked these question only rarely, if at all. Plus, chances are even if you did get one of such questions asked (I wish you to have that question asked), you may be in a process of needing more clarity.

I have been lucky enough to work with a one-to-one coach, specifically on the question of what my life vocation is, and the process has been an incredible ride so far. I have put together a Prezi to summarize the current main outcomes. I hope you may get something out of it for you personally. I am currently working on creating the “flow” of a process to potentially help others to go through such journeys themselves.

Speaking and practicing the truth on behalf of the whole

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Speaking our truth on behalf of the system we intend to serve. Bridging the individual needs of authenticity and being mindfully present (being fully ourselves) as a pre-condition to all the other practices. What do I (we) need to practice to show up in the world in a way that makes us “warriors” that serve our hearts and serve the world?  Reflections from a leadership journey in Zagreb, Warrior of the Heart training, May 25-27, 2012.

::Before Arriving::
The desire to be part of a “Warrior of the Heart” training had been in my mind for a long while. I named 2012 the year of personal transformations, so I committed to go on journey of deep exploration and conducive to bring up authentic conversations for self- and collective discovery.

::Arriving::
How beautiful to be in a place that serves the purpose of being mindful, detached from the whirl of events happening out there, and at the same time deeply connected to one another. The place where we all arrived on Friday afternoon is a lovely monastery with rose gardens and a passage through the lawns, secular trees and a path that brings to a small pond populated by restless frogs (really, they were  taking night shifts). The welcoming circle brought us all together in the same place and the opening circle spoke of courage in showing up in the world like a warrior –but in a sense that serves the world and uses wholeheartedness as spirit of service as their primal sword.
I arrived to the training with a great sense of trust in the trainers (I know Toke since 2010; I have met Martin last December) and this makes me realize how important trust has become for me in every training. More in general, today I don’t go to any training unless I either know personally the trainers or I got word from my close community of peer learners about the quality of their work and that can be relevant for me. This  helped me because the WOH training is a bit unusual in its concept for me: some of the Aikido concepts that we practiced seemed to me a bit on a meta-level kind of training, which is something I am not entirely used to. It is my trust in the trainers and the fact that I can make the teachings relevant in my daily life that helps me to embrace the learning with curiosity and openness.

::Saturday afternoon, Flow Game::
I really like the concept and the design of the Flow Game (more at this link). Everyone placed at the center a very personal question which, through this dialogic card game, was explored through conversations with peers. My question was “What is my deep gladness, that serves both myself and the world?” Most of the learning I got from the game is very personal but what I think I can share is some of the patterns that emerged through our dialogues with my fellow players at the table.
We have been talking in a circle addressing questions around what nourishes us and motivators in life. It is amazing to notice, as a meta-pattern, how often meaningful relationships came up as important to crate motivation and pre-conditions to happiness.

::Sunday, Open Space::
On Sunday we moved into Open Space. I called the question “How to combine the Social Engineer and the Poet in me”. I felt gratitude towards the conveners who initially helped me with the clarification question “which of the two do I need to work on more?”, for I don’t have a clear answer on that yet.
My question, reframed, to me means: How to be most impactful in the world doing something I am passionate about that at the same time creates a potentially big (and good) difference in the world? A crucial learning for me was the confirmation that the two (the inspired and the skillful, the grounded and the intellectual) don’t need to be seen as separated. Perhaps it all starts with the quality of one’s inner condition. (Scharmer got it right when he quoted “The success of an intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervener”?) A participant told me the story of a man in a circle who challenged the negative energy that was present in that moment in the circle. This wise man, speaking from a place of courage and authenticity, named the negative energy in a way that let the system see itself in a new, unpredicted way.
This brought me to a deeper reflection about presence, social / emotional intelligence, and courage. When being in a place where meaningful conversations are called forth, it is everyone’s responsibility to speak their truth and operate from a place of authenticity; even if that might compromise a desired sense of wholeness and unity, for there is no unity without truth. Such truth, from a bigger system perspective, may help the system see itself, which to me is related to the question about how to create conditions conducive to a positive impact in a system.

Find out more:
Warrior of the Heart in Zagreb
Art of Hosting events.