Richard Chadek | Richard Chadek
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Author:Richard Chadek

Attention, Meaning and Love

I find myself very interested in the meditation practices of my clients. Joseph Campbell once said that everyone has a meditation practice, that we’re all meditating all the time, but it simply goes unrecognized. For many of us, the undeclared meditation is about where the money’s coming from or where the money’s going.  In this sense, we’re often simply unaware of where our attention lies.

It seems, then, an interesting question to ask: what is the center of attention in one’s life?

In different eras of life and in different circumstances we give our attention to different things, yet we also have enduring habits of attention—like what’s safe, what’s beautiful, what’s a threat. And if you didn’t already know about this meditative practice you have, noticing what you’re noticing may open this habit to the possibility of attending to something else.

A number of years ago a close friend of mine took his own life. Over the next 12 or so months my brother died of lung cancer, then my sister from a cancer of unknown origin and shortly after that came my mother’s death. It may not surprise you that for many months afterwards my attention centered on my grief. But it also centered on my own mortality.

This in itself may not have been a bad thing, but from time to time my attention would collapse around some physical symptom and I’d go on to make a meaning from it: that pain meant cancer of this organ, this meant cancer of that, and—my god—what’s going on with that prostate? At the time, I would no more have said my attention was on my own death, than that the center of meaning for me was avoiding it.

And yet.

Even though this question of where our attention lies may remain unexplored in our daily lives, “what’s the center of meaning in my life?” is even more elusive. We generally don’t even ask that question and often our culture doesn’t seem to support this kind of reflection.

Since the birth of modern science 500 years ago, ‘how does it work’ has come to completely dominate ‘what does it mean.’ So if you feel a little lost answering this question, you have a lot of company.

In my own life, meaning is inversely related to the gap between what I ‘know’ and how I act. The bigger the gap, seemingly, the less meaning there is. What I do know is this: I want to be in the experience of love. I’m not talking about “in love” but that other thing: love itself. Feeling that someone else’s happiness or well-being is more important, in a significant way, than my own; feeling heart-broken open.

It’s not hard to discern this. When I’m not actually experiencing that kind of love, I’m acting from something else, like fear, or anger or stinginess. I either feel love or I don’t. What’s more, it’s a choice–a really simple choice–which I fail at pretty consistently. But that’s not the point. The point is that this is the most meaningful thing for me, and the only way I’m going to experience this is by making it the center of my attention.

I find this increasingly informs my coaching.  While I’m helping a client wrestle with something around which they feel stuck, I keep asking myself: what’s in the way of feeling love with this person? Now, their limitations or distortions may not be particularly loveable. I’m talking about experiencing what I’ve come to call essence.  What is it, in me, that’s in the way of my experiencing that?

And what’s in the way of my clients’ loving in their own lives? What’s in the way of this person experiencing love? Not just in a relationship, but in their work and in the world. Remarkably, I find when we can shift what’s in the way of our loving, other problems begin to resolve themselves.

It would be terrific if a client showed up asking me to help them deepen their loving. I suspect that isn’t likely, because we tend to focus on the symptom of ‘other problems’, but it’s implicit in the work I do. Because that’s the center of meaning for me.

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Developmental Coaching


Just what is Developmental Coaching? Well, we might begin to see what it is by way of understanding what it isn’t. In conventional coaching, we hire someone to help us refine what we’re doing and hold us accountable in order to get what we want. When we hire a consultant, we find someone who has experience with our problem—sales or management or health for example—and they show us how to engage with the best practices of our field. Teaching happens whenever someone with a lot of information gives it to us—ideally in a way we’re able to absorb–after which it’s up to us to find our way to using it. And when we hire a therapist, we’re asking someone to help us explore something we’ve avoided feeling or find intolerable and if the therapy is successful we reintegrate a part of ourselves that we’ve either split off or repressed.

In developmental coaching, some or all of these things may take place, but the fundamental intervention is aimed at a transformation of the client. We find ourselves alive in the kind of world that continuously transforms itself from simple elements into rocks and roses and giraffes and the laughter of children. Everything from the big bang to this moment is a story of transformation. And what we all know about this kind of thing—whether it’s the transformation of a super nova, or the Declaration of Independence, or the birthing of the cell phone industry—is that, in transformation, new structures emerge and old ones fall away.

In this kind of world, the problems we encounter—from building a business to being unhappy in a marriage—are not usually the symptoms of things gone wrong. These problems are really this world’s way of insisting that we discover the barriers, in us, to being fully alive. The inspiration that’s emerging insists we discard the out-moded structure.  But the trouble is we often don’t recognize just which structure that is.

My wife tells the story of Carl Whittaker, who’s often referred to as the father of couples’ therapy, being asked by an attendee at one of his trainings how many times he’d been married. The therapist paused, looked up as if engaged in a mental inventory, and as he turned to his wife in the front row for confirmation said “Well, I think I’m on my fourth.” He left a little space for the audience to gasp—was he really confessing to multiple failed marriages? —before he continued “I’ve been fortunate that all of these marriages have been to the same woman.”

Whittaker had been fortunate to recognize it was the structure of the earlier marriage which had to fall away, not the marriage itself.

There’s always tension between the inspiration of the new and the structure we already know. My dog Noah can’t do this, but we human beings have a way of identifying ourselves with what we do. That’s one of the structures we use. Some time ago I’d completely identified with being a manager of construction and even though I could feel all the juicy sweetness of my life slowly draining away, I was unable to let go of it for years. It didn’t seem possible to give up all I’d have to give up–the sense of being in control of things, the recognition, and the money–for something more congruent to emerge. So I held on, and right about then the movement of my life just stopped.

Eventually, we come to the question: How do I become what my life is asking me to become—not what I want of it, but what it wants of me? We have so little experience with this question that at first it’s confounding. Especially when we feel that there’s a lot at risk. How do we move through that stuckness, that confusion and fear? How do we discover the real potential of this human life?

In order to be receptive to that, we have to find a way to shift what we’re able to feel, what we’re able to see and what we’re able to know. In that construction management identity, all I could feel was my fear of feeling how afraid I was of my own fear. I couldn’t see the process I was in, I just thought I was screwed, with no way out. I didn’t know what was possible; I didn’t know about letting go; I didn’t understand surrender.

My work is not so much about changing a client’s circumstances—although that may happen—or even changing what they do—although that may happen. It’s about helping the client transform in a way that makes it possible for them to feel differently, see differently, know differently. And certainly not every client needs developmental coaching. Sometimes all we need is a good consultant. But when you’ve done what you already know to do, and the movement of life is still arrested, this form of coaching opens a huge array of new possibilities.

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Developmental Pressure and Surrender

Surrender, Annunciation

Mary Surrendering to the Devine


No matter what we look at, from a human being, to an organization, a country, the planet or even the universe, things arise, seemingly from nothing, they move toward the complete expression of their unique potential, and then they fall back into peace. So everything’s always in movement from nothing to completion, and then whatever the energy was that started the movement returns to stillness.

The unique potential of anything is always a mystery. We can never know what it is until it’s been expressed, but we often know when we’re aligned with it because we feel a greater flow of energy, the sense that we’re ‘where we belong’ despite the difficulties and even the quality of joy.

Simpler animals don’t have a problem with this, but we have the capacity to choose what we want to express or become. And we usually choose what we prefer, which often has to do with pleasure or pain. I don’t think the choice for pleasure is necessarily a problem, but when we choose to avoid discomfort we’re almost always in trouble.

There’s an innate intelligence in life, an ability to adapt in ways that ensure survival. That’s why we don’t put our hand on a hot stove more than once. It’s why we have fear and anger and desire.

But by the time life develops conscious self-awareness, the capacity to prefer one kind of experience over another acquires real muscle. We recognize what feels painful or humiliating or ‘makes me afraid’ and usually we seek to avoid those experiences. This is hard wired.

And yet, what is it we feel whenever we grow or reach for anything new—like taking a new job, falling in love, or, say, speaking in public about what really matters? Among other things, we feel fear, pain and even humiliation. And if we say ‘no’ to experiences that result in our feeling those things, we stop whatever Life wants to be expressed through us.

Now, Life doesn’t really care about our feeling these things, it just wants to flourish, to grow and become ‘more’. And because the movement of growth in life always includes some degree of fear and pain and sorrow, we experience Life wanting what it wants as a kind of pressure, what I call developmental pressure. Turning away from this pressure is one of the most potent forces in the way of whatever’s trying to emerge, both through us and our culture.

This would be a force even if we had the most loving parents or grew up in communities that actually looked after our well-being and stood by our side as we faced into the great mysteries of adolescence, adulthood and death.

And what’s more, when we turn away from developmental pressure, because we want to avoid these feelings, the most important thing to us—the organizing principal of our lives if you will—becomes what we don’t want. If we don’t want to experience waking up with fear in the gut at 3:00 in the morning—if avoiding that is the most important thing to us—we’re not going to commit to standing up in public and speaking that which really matters. And we’ll end up taking a pass on developing that capacity.

But if we commit to discovering what Life wants from us, then that 3:00 AM fear is something to simply find a way to be with. We’ll find a way to ‘surrender’ our hope to avoid the kind of pain we might face for the sake of what lies on the other side of that experience.

Turning away from whatever experience we don’t want is what ‘stuck’ is all about: it doesn’t happen to us, it’s something we actually have to do. Whatever the reason, if we intend to avoid those discomforts we’ll say ‘no’ to the movement of Life through us and instead of having a possibility in our future, we’ll be condemned to repeat the past. And the past, then, becomes our destiny.

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