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Author:Richard Chadek

Superpowers

Every client I work with comes to me because they want change: something they want to experience is missing, or something they don’t want to experience keeps happening.  Everybody wants change.  Even those of us who want things to stay just as they are, are looking for it: we want change itself to change.

The cliché that change is the only constant thing in life aligns with something science tells us: Life isn’t a thing; it’s a process in which only the pattern endures while none of the energy or matter that constitutes it does.  Not one atom in my body now will be present in a year’s time, even though I hope to be.  The pattern I call me may remain, but none of the stuff in me will.

Life is organized to conserve just one thing: the pattern of being alive.  You could think of this as Life’s superpower.  The survival of trilobites or dinosaurs or even humans is not required.  By insisting upon conserving living, but not the form of the being that lives, enormously complex ecosystems now fill our planet.  Said another way, if you keep one thing from changing, a space of possibilities opens in which everything else can—and will—change.  This is evolution: not a history of all that’s changed through time but instead the story of what’s been conserved.

If every thing is free to change—provided it’s not being conserved—a fascinating and useful question presents itself:  What are my clients conserving, consciously or not, that results in the experiences they complain about?

If these clients were fish, or squirrels or even lions on the savannah, we wouldn’t be asking this question.  If they were squirrels or fish, they wouldn’t be complaining that there’s too much or not enough change.  They’d just go about doing what Life has them do.

But this isn’t so with my clients, nor is it with most of us.  Although the choice to conserve just one thing generally operates at a level beneath awareness, with the self-conscious-ness of humans, we can deploy it to avoid experiences.  Like pain.  And when we do that, it serves in a way that ‘protects us’ from change.  Any change.  And then we suffer.

Consider, for example, that most of us are either committed to an intimate relationship, or we’re looking for one.  And the criteria many of us have for this kind of thing is that we should feel, well, good when we’re in one.  Maybe that means having enough sex.  But not too much.  Or feeling like we’re being deeply seen and appreciated.  But not those parts of us we don’t want to look at.  Or perhaps it has to do with finding someone we can actually depend upon.  But not to the point of feeling helpless and afraid should they leave us or die.  We want to be safe, but not to the point of suffocation, and we want to belong, although we don’t want to give up our freedom. 

I think you catch the drift here: maybe trying to feel good isn’t as good as it seems.  Maybe feeling good is too small a thing to conserve or has consequences that put something even more important at risk.  Maybe that truly important thing requires us to tolerate being afraid or vulnerable.

Many years ago, my wife and I were in therapy, trying to lessen a deep unhappiness in our marriage.  As was often the case, it was Dianne who alternately pushed and dragged me toward what was necessary for our marriage, and she was despairing of the effort.  I didn’t understand, really, what surrendering to this process meant but I was afraid it meant exposing some part of me I wasn’t sure I could endure revealing.  I knew I was about to either lose my marriage or confront some humiliation I couldn’t name but that I feared like death.  For weeks, this dilemma snapped me awake at 2:00 AM, roiling with anxiety.

I remained locked in the grip of these two nightmare outcomes until one sweat-drenched night I understood that the only way I was going to avoid the poles of my dilemma was to take my own life.  In the shock of that realization, as clearly as if I’d said the words aloud, I knew I would not kill myself.  And since I would not serve my own dying, the way opened for me to enter, with as much dignity as I could muster, what I had to enter to conserve my marriage.

This is what we all know about intimate relationships: they have a way of concentrating our attention on the ways in which we aren’t yet mature.  It can serve neither Life nor our own lives to conserve these immaturities.  Yet when we seek to avoid fear, shame, anger or sorrow we do exactly that. 

Among other things, maturity requires us to endure experiences we do not want for the sake of aligning what we do with how we feel and what we believe.  The evidence of maturity is the willingness to be with whatever experience our living asks of us.

The real challenges in our relationships don’t point toward exchanging the partner we have for another, although that may be necessary.  Instead, these challenges point at capacities that are latent in us.  Ones we haven’t developed, either because we haven’t yet needed them or because the injuries or traumas we’ve suffered haven’t healed. 

The coaching topic doesn’t have to be an intimate relationship in order to develop our maturity, despite how efficient they are at pointing out our limitations.  The topic might involve a lack of success, or an excess of success that is exhausting us.  It might be that our notion of success, or how we are in relationship, no longer conserves what we know is true and meaningful.

But whatever the topic, when someone looks for help from this kind of coaching, a question ripe to be wondered about is this: What one thing matters so much that I’d allow everything else to be open to change? 

As a developmental process, there are two distinct steps involved.  First is discovering what hasn’t been visible before, what wants to be conserved.  Then, often for the first time, we can choose what’s to be done.  It often takes some time to live into this question, and still more to bow down to its answer.

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On Belay

When I started my coaching career—all those years B.C. (Before Covid)—I was heady with the possibilities that naturally arise after rigorous training in one’s field of passion.  My clients, I imagined, would be folks stuck in their work or struggling with intimacy or trust; people who’d used psychotherapy, not just to feel better, but also for the sake of understanding themselves, and who continued to feel the pull of something below ‘see’ level.

Seeing the world through a developmental lens, I understood suffering as the consequence of blocked or impaired growth and I believed my greatest service lay in helping remove whatever blocked the natural movement of life from fundament to significance.

It’s approaching 20 years since those days, and while I still see the world through that developmental lens, a different cohort of clients has found its way to my door.  These folks experience life as profoundly ephemeral.  For them, something fundamental, which they’d always counted on to be solid, is now up for grabs and the river of their life is moving, somewhere, that isn’t really of their choosing.  And while this can happen at any point in life, it usually isn’t until after middle-age, when significant losses have really started to accumulate.

That’s not to say life isn’t still busy or vital, but they’ve lived long enough to experience the moving horizon of life, carried inside themselves, become fixed.  No longer does the horizon stay the same respectful distance from them as life unfolds.  No, as they move through life, the edge of all known things gets closer and closer.  And beyond that edge?  Well, there be dragons.

Maybe their children now have children, and they wonder: what’s to become of them in the world being left them?  Or perhaps they never had children, and they wonder: what’s to become of me as I journey further and further into alone?

Perhaps life for them has already been a series of sacrifices and now they struggle with yet still more surrender.  Perhaps they’ve recently lost parents or a spouse.  Or there’s been an unrelenting series of these losses.  Maybe they themselves have been given a diagnosis that completely changes what they think about living.

They may not have language for this.  They talk about being resigned or say they’re angry, but what they feel is that it’s just too hard surrendering to all they face.  The taste of ‘giving up’ is bitter.  But it may be that what they face isn’t about how to give up as much as it’s about how to bow down.

I’ve always been fascinated with language and that what we say actually shapes the world we experience.  Everything we do involves language which we use to either open up or prevent what’s possible.  With many clients, it can be useful to explore what declarations do or don’t show up for them.  Like whether and how they say No or Yes, especially in circumstances where the opposite seems to be expected of them.

But with the folks I have in mind, this won’t be deep enough for what’s on the line.  We’re living in a time of real confusion between what we say is true, what we say is real and what falls into the category of personal experience.  In these times, our experience, or what we fear experiencing, has become interchangeable with the True and the Real.  We can see this in the rise of the conspiracies that abound and the common insistence on fidelity to a worldview rather than fidelity to the world.

The clients I’m speaking of have become desperate for reality.  They badly want truth.  But here’s a problem: if we look at the etymology of truth, we quickly discover that it started as a verb.  It was more like “truing” a thing, like making something straight.  And then it became a thing a person did for their community.  Someone of real standing—typically an elder—would attest that this is the way things are and their standing in the community became collateral, something they put at risk should the stand they took prove devious.  But we don’t live in an era that holds elders in much regard, so that kind of truing is lost to us.

The etymology of words, the history of their meaning, isn’t merely academic.  The current meaning of a word is like the last 5 feet of a climbing rope.  We absolutely need to hold onto the current meaning, but when we’re using words to belay us in this life, we need to trust the whole 150 feet of rope.

For the clients I’m speaking of, I suspect that even more than truing, what they seek is belief.  And here we need to turn again to etymology.  Belief comes from the joining of the words be and lief.  When be was used as a prefix it meant something like ‘intensify whatever word comes next’—like becalm or benumb or bewilder.  And the word it was joined to in this case came from one which had to do with love.  That gives us belief as an intensification of love.  Can you feel the difference between this understanding of the word and its shabby offspring of today?  And can you imagine how holding the word in this way might hold us?

With this understanding, our desperation might be resolved through our loving.  What is it that we’re loving?  Not just what are we holding onto, but truly loving?  What might it look like to intensify that loving to the point of actually bowing down to it?  There’s a surrender we have a chance of saying yes to.

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The First Law

If we look in a certain way, we see that everything in our universe is about one of two things: either movement—which is energy, change, information—or stillness—which has to do with awareness, capacity, or space.  I like to think the work I do is mostly about restoring movement.

Without exception, every initial interview I’ve ever had with a client has been devoted to metaphorically walking around with them, the two of us looking at what’s not moving.  But it isn’t stillness we’re seeing, it’s this very different thing, called ‘stuck’.

The 17th century mathematician Isaac Newton’s First Law was that a body in motion stays in motion unless some force acts on it.  Now, apart from the apple that’s said to have landed on him, Newton wasn’t focusing on living things.  But his first law actually fits the living quite well. Life is, after all, about movement.  So we could say, as a very good first approximation, that if something in life isn’t moving, there’s a force being applied to stop it. 

And we can take it as given that whatever the force is stopping the movement in our lives, we’re the ones applying it.  Which makes my job kind of simple, even if it isn’t very easy.  All I need to do is understand the process through which my clients are applying this stopping force and, after helping them see it, work with them to integrate a process that supports movement.

A few years ago, a friend and I gave a talk in which we intended to explore what’s actually trying to emerge from all the chaos and suffering in the world around us.  But what we ended up talking about that night was how compelling it is for us to turn away from whatever it is we don’t want to feel. 

For example, we may not always say what we really want, even to ourselves, because we don’t want to feel what it’s like if we don’t get it.  Or we fear losing relationships we sense might not be able to tolerate who we really are.  Or who we might become.  And all of us fight with our partners—generally because something they do makes us feel like we did as children.  And if we don’t read that story on climate change, it’s likely because we don’t want to feel overwhelmed, helpless and afraid.

As it turns out, we all turn away for a couple of reasons: either as a way to avoid the pain and discomfort that comes with change, or to protect ourselves from the effects of a past injury.

Turning away from what we’re unwilling—or unable—to feel is the force we apply which stops the movement of our living.  This impulse is so strong, and it happens so quickly, that we generally aren’t even aware we’ve done it.

There’s also a big difference between, let’s say, that thrill of fear which happens as we’re about to do something risky for the first time and the feeling that comes up when we’re panicked.  With this kind of fear, our concern is about whether we can actually do this new thing.  That’s about growth, about being called by life to something bigger.  But with panic, we actually lose access to what we’re already capable of doing.  And that has more to do with a trauma we’re still trying to escape.

The difference between what growth and trauma feel like is important because the problems of growth can often be worked through with the mind and an understanding of what’s going on.  But trauma operates at the level of survival and requires attention to our emotions and our bodies.

Regardless of whether our reaction is to the painful pressure of growth or the limitations of a past trauma, when that reaction is below our “see” level, it seems like it happens to us rather than being something we do.  And it compounds the illusion that there’s nothing, evidently, we can do.

But as Moshe Feldenkrais has said, when we know what we’re doing, we can do what we want.

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