A Coaching Power Tool Created by Joseph Iverson
(Transformational Coach, UNITED STATES)
One of the great philosophical questions of all time is certainly “What is the meaning of life?” Viewed through the eyes of natural selection, it is a relentless competition amongst the species for access to the best food, resources, and sexual partners in which the victors gain the opportunity to transmit their genetic code onto a new generation to carry on the struggle. Over billions of years, this never-‐ending battle, and the genetic arms race that drives it, has led to the development of a creature whose brain has attained such a high level of cognitive sophistication, with traits such as language, imagination, creativity, intentionality, and judgment, that it dominates like no other species on Earth has ever before, man. One trait in particular, self-‐awareness, stands out because it is widely believed to be unique to man. This makes it the only species that is actually aware of itself and able to wonder if there is perhaps more to life than just being part of the evolution.
Self‐awareness allows us to know that we are alive but it also allows us to know that we will also inevitably die. This awareness of our certain death presents a challenge for many, even for those with a strong belief in an afterlife, because it creates an anxiety at an existential level. While anxiety is of course a completely normal feeling and part of being human, our brain has developed an ability to deal with our existential anxiety by managing the level of awareness and acceptance we have of it. This awareness control is very aptly described in a book by Irvin Yalom called Staring at the Sun in which he likens our inability to hold a sustained thought about our death like our inability to stare at the sun – fleeting because we are compelled to turn away. Without this moderation of our awareness of our own death, the fear, even terror, of our reality might paralyze us to such an extent that we might not propagate the species or work hard to compete for resources to best develop the children who are destined to replace us as natural selection requires.
Paradoxically, the more in which we can face up to the reality of our demise (anyone of us could die tomorrow!) the more we are also able to live a life that is happy and meaningful! Existentialist philosophers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Husserl and writers and thinkers like Kafka, Heidegger, and Sartre, and Camus promoted the radical notion that our existential anxiety should be considered a blessing and a motivation rather than a curse to be ignored. If we all eventually die, this creates the possibility that our existence might actually be completely and totally meaningless! If we all die at the end, what is point of doing anything? While a meaningless existence might sounds ridiculous even frightening, it does highlight someone amazing: meaning is actually something that each of us gives to our own lives rather than finds out in the world, and existential anxiety therefore also provides us with the opportunity to live a life of absolute freedom!
Many people have dismissed existentialists as atheists and morose because they seem to have an “unhealthy focus on death.” Interestingly, it is a little known fact that not all existentialists were atheists, and some were even considered religiously devout. Regardless, the broad dismissal of the utility of existential anxiety has also prevented many from seeing it as the massive, life‐changing blessing in disguise it actually is!
So how does a meaningless existence that eventually ends in certain death not only become a blessing but also enable us to be free? It is because freedom allows us to be authentic and unburdened by externally imposed or derived senses of purpose, and instead be motivated by whatever is internally meaningful to each of us. Living a life of genuine authenticity allows us to have the life that we want by emphasizing that we should be grateful that we have a life and not just that we are in one!
Within our Western, technocratic lifestyle, thought is praised above all. We are often encouraged to discount, or even completely reject, our emotions and feelings because they can be seen as enabling weakness and vulnerability. Denying one’s humanity, and our unique capability to put significance and meaning onto that which we do, debases existence and is disempowering because it robs us of richness of the potential nature has given us which add depth to our experiences through meaning. Without meaning, our life is reduced to merely carrying out the purpose nature intended for us and simply adopting what society or other external sources have told us are the right ways to live, or even the most boring yet, just “trying to be happy! “ Our individualistic society not only promotes an existence which goes against the intrinsic connectedness of people, it is also a losing battle to think one can live a life disconnected from one’s inner reality and rely on logic and external measures, like wealth or success, for determining a life well-lived. The emphasis seems therefore on the individual rather than life itself.
People often become discouraged early in their lives, viewing adversity and setbacks as something to be avoided rather than seen as inherent to living and actually a source of tremendous information and value. Blaming too much on god, fate, culture, or one parent’s or even having a heavy sense of personal responsibility ignores the interplay of a person’s potential participation in the wide ranging possibilities and givens of existence
It is possible to become too sensible and do too much sober balancing and weighing. (Van Deurzen, 2009).
A Difference Between Meaning And Purpose
The words meaning and purpose are often used interchangeably when people are asked to describe what it is that motivates them and what they use as guiding principles to make, or not make, the choices they do about their lives. Because life is all about the meaning we give to things, living a life based on this is therefore incredibly empowering. If one doesn’t embrace life’s meaninglessness to put their full attention own their own individual meaning‐making, people often instead describe themselves in terms of purpose which is disempowering because it places a narrow emphasis on doing and accomplishing rather than on wider‐ranging notions of being and living! It is not about just being happy but experiencing all of what life offers and not avoiding unpleasant challenges or setbacks but instead embracing as a natural part of life that provide wisdom in our pursuit of what is meaningful.
Why do people give up on what is meaningful to them?
Jean‐Paul Sartre said that our instinctual refusal to fully acknowledge our inevitable end demonstrates that self‐deception is OK. In fact, we go through life using self-deception to “pretend to be something we are not” as well as “pretend to be something we are not that we actually are. This is true in-authenticity which Sartre called “bad faith.” The paradoxes and dilemmas that make up human existence can be trying and result in a failure to develop the resilience to stand up to reality of life. Burned by life’s challenges, or disappointment with their shortcomings, people often react to saying they “just want to be happy” not realizing that happiness is “not a state of bliss.” Often, people chase “happiness” by impersonating or pursuing ideas which they are then surprised by when they do not work out because only through achievement of goals (e.g. purpose) can we relax and feel good about ourselves.
Life is more than just trying to be happy As coaches, we will encounter clients who over the course of our relationship will find the courage to face the reality of their choices and compromises and develop a profound crisis of meaning (Van Deurzen, 2009). Therefore, purpose can belie an abandonment of personal meaning and often this abandonment comes in an attempt to “be happy” and avoid experiencing negative feelings and experiences. Happiness is not just a simple sensation but rather a state of mind, people should “do happy” and be open to the world and what inspires them. Living an authentic life is empowering – one where we go after what we want, can bounce back from adversity, and be grateful for difficulty and challenge. If one’s purpose is to be happy, then happiness is just a required reward to feel contented and not the opportunity to engage with life in a personal way. In the novel The Interpretation of Murder, the author captures this distinction between happiness and meaning:
The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man needs only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning – the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life – a man must reinhabit his past, however dark and life for the future, however uncertain (Rubenfeld, 2006, 5 (3rd ed – p.150)
Yalom posits there are two types of meaning, cosmic meaning, which is being part of some grand, universal design or order, and terrestrial meaning which encapsulates an individual’s own sense of purpose. While some people take comfort in a cosmic order within which their terrestrial meaning fits, for those who do not have sufficient terrestrial meaning, let alone any cosmic meaning, there is no simple way to come up with a secular purpose to their life. Yalom explores altruism, dedication to a cause, creativity, hedonism, and self‐actualisation as possible avenues for meaning making but he makes a distinction between those activities that are concerned with the self and those that transcend one’s self‐interest.
Human beings should begin with themselves, they should not end with themselves” self-actualisation, with its focus on self‐expression, actually “thwarts genuine meaning” and human beings rely on self‐preoccupation if they have missed the meaning that life has for them (Yalom, 1980).
The power of self-transcendence is particularly evident in interpersonal relationships where greater satisfaction is achieved through one’s caring for someone else.
Don’t be different! However, the societies we all live in set standards that encourage and discourage certain types of behavior. The modern, Western lifestyle places an emphasis on working hard to move up in a career, being busy, buying a home, acquisition of wealth, fiscal prudence, and sensible retirement planning as examples. While everyone needs to be able to take care of themselves and their families, societal pressure to conform can encourage one to abandon values that had meaning to them in the past and take an extremely pragmatic view on life that leaves little room of individual spirituality and inspires reluctance to change and uncertainty. This one‐size‐fits‐all approach to life can seem like our purpose as human beings but can also fall short of providing any personal meaning and encourage us to abandoned activities that seem risky, difficult, or make us stand out (Van Deurzen, 2009). This fear causes people to cling to what they already know rather face uncertainty and feel enabled to take the chances and risks needed to pursue a life based on what they truly want.
If we embrace our mortality head-on, then we can feel emboldened to make different choices and do them sooner rather than later! Before the industrial revolution, people were too focused on survival to ponder their own existence yet they were more integrated with nature and other people than we are today because they spent their time mostly working the land and being a part of the “circle of life”. Today people work in offices doing jobs that provide little worthwhile transcendental value, and have more free time with which to ponder their existence, so much so as to perhaps
make one aware of the fact that there is nothing one wants to do (Yalom, 1980).
In reaction to this, people may embark on crusades, jumping from one cause to the next to stave off meaninglessness, collapse into nihilism, discredit the meaning that others find in their lives, or indulge in some compulsive activity that consumes all of their energy thereby distracting them completely. As human beings instinctively try to make patterns out of randomness, the human drive to search for meaning is biological in nature, this making human beings “meaning-making machines” (Yalom, 1980).
So if creating meaning is built into our genes and is the key to confronting the certainty of death, then delineating and highlighting the subtleties between meaning and purpose could be considered one of the most crucial decisions a person makes during their lifetime!
Keys points for the coach:
- Regardless of one’s personal beliefs in an afterlife, there is no reason that each and every one of should an any way squander the gift of our time on Earth that we have been so lucky to have been given.
- Designing our lives with the end in mind need only seem morose to those who lack the courage to face, and indeed embrace, one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature. Disentangling, and not necessarily discounting, an individual’s own personal cosmic meaning from their terrestrial meaning is a fundamental imperative.
- Because meaninglessness equates to freedom, then we as coaches have a responsibility to encourage authenticity in our clients.
- It is important that coaches are aware that human beings are by nature risk-averse and actually are poor estimators of their how they might feel in the future as compared to the now which means they often perceive challenges and the unknown as harder then they actually are.
- The coaching process can itself also provoke a crisis of meaning if it causes a person to have a realization that they have been living their life in some restrictive way that has inhibited their own self-transcendence.
- It is important to be aware that people often find purpose or meaning in the desire to “have mattered,” which while might provide an opportunity or the self‐transcendence that helps people derive meaning in an attempt to transcend death by leaving something behind, a totem that persist after a person dies.
Some basic questions a coach might ask to determine a person’s meaning might include:
- What were your dreams and aspirations you had when growing up?
- Are you fulfilling those at this time in your life? If not, why did you abandon them?
- What attributes or successes do you feel you have at your disposal?
- What do you lack/what do you think you need in order to pursue your life of meaning?
- What do you perceive to be the barriers in your pursuit of what is meaningful to you?
- Have you been able to reality check any of these barriers?
- What support do you have (personal, financial, etc.)?
- If you had to die with $0 to your name, what might you do differently?
- What sacrifices are you willing to make now to achieve a more meaningful life?
- Write a meaning statement that is as simple as possible.
The following questions have been taken from the book Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy In Practice (Van Deurzen, 2012). What they are from a book about psychotherapy, I believe they can also be really useful as part of a meaning discovery exercise with coaching clients.
What kind of emotional response is most familiar to you?
- Are there certain types of responses that are harder or easier for you?
- Why do you feel this is?
- How do you deal with difficult emotions?
- DO you have ways of maximizing favourite feelings?
What are your typical experiences of pleasure, happiness and joy?
- Can you think of a time when you were particularly happy?
- What was the loss that ended that period?
- Do you allow yourself to aspire to that which might make you feel like this again?
- How and when do you bring about such emotions for others?
What are you typical experiences of jealousy, anger, and fear?
- Do you recognize and try to prevent the threats that bring such emotions?
- Do you act on these emotions or suppress them?
- Do you condemn yourself when you feel or express negative feelings?
- How can you use such feelings in a positive way?
How and when have you felt loss, deprivation, disappointment and sadness?
- Has fate treated you kindly or have you suffered much in life so far?
- What have you learnt from these experiences of loss?
- How might you deal with the next disappointment or loss accordingly?
- Is life without losses as much of a learning experience?
What sets off our desires, envies and aspirations?
- Do you tend to imitate others in the way your desire and aspire?
- Can you think of an example of an aspiration lifting you up from depression?
- How do you deal with other people’s envy of you?
- What is the role of desire in your life and how might you want to change this?
What is the object of most of your hope, love, and joy?
- What has been the object of your love longest?
- How do you show and express that love?
- What is the most joyful in experiencing this love?
- How do you respond to other people’s love, care, hope, and joy?
Van Deurzen, E. Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness (London: Sage, 2009)
Van Deurzen, E. Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy, 3rd Ed. (London: Sage, 2012)
Yalom, I. Existential Psychotherapy (New York: BasicBooks, 1980)