Coelho’s true path to wisdom

PauloCoelhoThe Pilgrimage

Finding Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, in the local Oxfam shop, I bought it thinking I had already read it. I hadn’t. It’s marvelous; and packed full of wisdom that makes this a reference book to keep on your shelf.

True path to wisdom

One of the nuggets I thought would come up again is the advice Coelho is given by his guide who was called Petrus in the book.

“The true path to wisdom can be identified by three things,” said Petrus. “First, it must involve agape, and I’ll tell you more about this later; second, it has to have practical application in your life.  Otherwise, wisdom becomes a useless thing and deteriorates like a sword that is never used. “

“And finally, it has to be a path that can be followed by anyone.  Like the road you are walking now, the Road to Santiago.”

Writing to remember

I don’t have a good verbal memory so I like to write about things and link them to similar ideas.  That way, I’ll be able to recall the idea whenever I want to.  My method satisfies step 2, I suppose!  Blogging is practical.

Blogging also helps with step 3.  Anyone with a computer and internet connection and some literacy or a camera can blog.  About half the world, I suppose.  It’s not a protected activity, anyway.

But agape?  I write for a better understanding.  Yes, that is agape.  And I write to share. Not always well, but I try to be intelligible.

I worry though that I will reduce the ideas of Paolo Coelho to something prosaic and unworthy.  For what it is worth, these are two ideas from other domains that I immediately wanted to compare with Paolo Coelho’s ideas about the path to wisdom.

Happiness and chaos/complexity theory

Losada modeled happiness in a butterfly shaped space.   Contrary to views presented in the popular press, happiness isn’t  a consistently cheery mood.  It is appropriate reaction to events. We feel sad at sad times and happy at happy times but get stuck nowhere.

Ratio of positive to negative events

Losada uses three variables to model the space.  The ratio of positive to negative in our environment must range from 3:1 to 11:1.  3:1 is a lot.  For every jarring event, we need three good ones to recover.  5:1 is optimal.  Sometimes we struggle to maintain that ratio and the struggle captures our focus.  In these distressing times, we tend to exaggerate the bad by excluding what is good.  The good gets buried and we are in danger of slipping so far down the ratio we might never recover our composure.  Simply, we have to make a special effort to celebrate what is good in the situation to compensate our tendency to repeat the bad over and over again like a broken gramophone, presumably in the fear that if we don’t, it will bite us.  I take that to be agape.  The search for the good.

Other vs self

The second variable that Losada used was discussion of the outside world.  When we balance discussion of the world outside our immediate circle and the needs of our circle almost our mood swings throughout the spectrum.  We are less likely to see everything as all good or all bad.

To give you an example, I sometimes cheer myself up with an elaborate day dream of what I am going to do.  When I go out into the world, I am living my dream.  But people around me don’t see me that way.  It’s like meeting a bucket of cold water!  My immediate reaction is to feel small.  A better reaction is to build up the dream to include them too.  When my dream is not situated in the harsh realities of the world, other people will stop me, and more importantly my own sense of shock will stop myself.  And then I am unhappy because nothing works!!

Inquiry vs Advocacy

The third variable that Losada used is a balance of inquiry and advocacy.  At first sight, this is not the same as the criteria of universality, inclusion and humility that Coelho espouses, but when I put it like that, you possibly see the similarity.

Any way, I was struck by the similarity of ideas coming from different traditions and had to stop to test how far the ideas ran in parallel.

Social media

The second notion that struck me is that social media is successful because it also follows these principles.

Social media is a courteous world.   Sure it has its spammers and robots and flamers but the general ethos is to be helpful.    We simply get more done by celebrating what we can do together.

Social media is a practical world.  I watch my rankings not out of vanity, though of course there is an element of vanity too.  I watch my ranking and Google Analytics to help me find people who share my interests.   “5 best way” articles are very popular and that is partly a search for practicality ~ but they belong in the point below.  I write on blogs because they keep me grounded in reality (or at least more so than if I didn’t).

Social media is an inclusive world.  Through teaching, I know that a major difference between Gen Y and earlier generations is that digital natives test information in their own lives and absorb it or not when they find it useful.  When we can communicate useful  (not popular)  information, we see the response.  Of course, popular also wins.   Of course, tawdry also wins.  Not everything useful is deep or good.

I know we can take the analogy too far and the poetic description is far better than the stilted prose of a former academic.  I just wanted to test whether the three criteria ~ agape, practicality and openness ~ worked in other areas of my life.

Do they work for you?

Courage and mindfulness

Fragilite by alibaba0 via FlickrToday, Paolo Coelho, as ever, said something both wise and challenging.

“Creativity is a courageous act.  Avoid opinions.”

It was certainly challenging to me.  I use this blog as a filing cabinet to keep my notes as I think out the connections between the things I am reading, thinking and doing.

It is a rag bag, yet it has worked out well. A few loyal readers make it sociable too.

But I’ve begun to tire of having opinions partly because I live and work in worlds where opinions are ten a penny (and that is saying something as it is very difficult to buy any thing in UK for less than very many pennies).  Like a toddler grabbing at an animal, we voice our opinions for the pleasure of feeling powerful and with reckless disregard of any damage we might do to anyone else or ourselves.

Courage comes from anticipating consequences.  Courage comes from understanding that to do right we might also do wrong, at least in some parts of our lives and the lives of others.  Courage comes from seeing through whatever we start and working through what we start to its natural end.  And sometimes courage leads us not to start at all, not out of cowardice, but because it is clear our act is just a worthless opinion and as self-indulgent as  a a small child handling an animal roughly.

It’s perhaps a feature of ‘mindfulness’ to be aware of the impact we have on the world and to act connectedly, and sometimes not to act because we realize our act is disconnected and minimally noise and potentially destructive.

Mindfulness and courage.  Do they go together?

Time to bring your life alive?

Will you die from an overdose of satisfaction?

The delightful Paolo Coelho quotes Salvador Dali in his blog today.  I deduce that Dali is an artist.  But you and I are probably more interested in his attitude to life.

“The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant. At the age of six years I wanted to be a chef. At the age of seven I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambitions have continued to grow at the same rate ever since. Every morning when I awake, the greatest of joys is mine: that of being Salvador Dali. There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”

Do your ambitions continue to grow?  Do you like being you?

I am pretty sure you do.  I’ve never met anyone whose eyes don’t light up when we acknowledge their existence.

But so many of us are trying to be someone whom we are not.  We are exhausted by our constant pretending.

It’s so much easier to look at each day and marvel at the moments when we were just doing what brings us alive.  We can put aside the long commutes and grubby trains.  We can put aside the dentist’s chair.   As we pick our way through the rubbish tip of western life much as a small child does on the rubbish dumps of third world cities, we can still find time to celebrate not only what fascinates us but that we are fascinated at all.

Can we celebrate being us and not airbrush ourselves out of the picture leaving only the rubbish dump for the world to see?  Hey this is us. Why should we bring our lives down to the tip around us?  I nearly said, “sorry not me”.  But I am not even going to give that possibility that much airtime.  I’m too busy.

Put rubbish in the rubbish bin where it belongs

I say to university students, “when something is rubbish, pick it up and put it in the rubbish bin where it belongs.  And move along.”  They are always so relieved. They think they are obliged to honor rubbish.  They aren’t.  They just have to bin it.  With gusto and applomb.

They are too busy and too interesting to waste time on refuse.  That belongs on the dump.

Have your ambitions being growing at the same rate – chef at 6, Napolean at 7?  If not, then it is time to bring your life alive!

Paolo Coelho on happiness and two challenges for psychologists

Psychologists need poetry

I have one piece of advice for anyone who aspires to be a psychologist.  Read poetry.  Read good novels.

Your College or Department will jump your through a  lot of pseud-scientific hoops.  Jump through them but for a different reason to the one they give.  Jump through them because they will teach you how to ‘fail informatively’.  Yes. Fail informatively.

In the future, you will be able to handle unfamiliar situations by proposing one or more reasonable ways forward.  And then you can set up some experiments.  You can choose the best way forward.  And if you have set up your experiment well, the less favorable ways will also teach you a little more than ‘wrong way’.  This is the reason why you should study science.

To understand people, well, meet a lot of people and do things with them.  And read.

A good read is Paolo Coelho who also blogs and tweets.  Today he posted a 1 minute parable on the meaning of happiness.  It is an easy read.  The ending sums up the meaning of happiness.

For psychologists out there, this parable talks about two important psychological phenonena.

#1  Management of attention.

To manage one’s own direction and to pay attention to what is going on around us.

We need lots of practice at doing this. Computer games help us do this.  TV and reading books does not.  Sport helps us learn this.  Writing does not.  But speaking does.  Make sure you get lots of practice at learning to manage your attention so that you tackle frontiers with greater ease!

#2  We live at our frontier.

To define who we are by what we do.

Not what we feel, or believe.  But what we do in various contexts defined by who else is there.  We are our frontier.  We are our edge.

Perhaps we are a young man who cannot carry two drops of oil and look around a new place.  Or frontier is the new place, the new idea, and our own confusion.  It is here that we are ‘alive’ with our dreams and our hopes, our confusions and our sorrows.

This is a tough challenge for psychologists.  We have nothing to measure.  The definition may even be circular.  That is because psychology is not a thing. It is a goal or a purpose that is supremely personal.  Our goal is to live a our frontier.  The story of our frontier and our confusion is the story we all want to hear.

When we want to do the maths, then we look at whether we were in a situation that covers the whole gamut of emotions and whether we were able to respond appropriately as events unfolded.  Or were we like the young boy, first forgetting the context and then forgetting his task.  Can we recover from confusion and distress or do we get stuck?  Are we so scared of life that we insist that it be plain sailing all day and every day?

Do we approach our frontier or do we hang back?  And under what conditions are we able to approach our frontier and learn to carry the oil and look around despite our initial confusion?

Yes, positive psychologists do know something about this.  But so do poets.  Begin with them.

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How do you know you understand your client during coaching?

What do coaches do?

Some coaches tell you what do.

Hey, who is living this life?

Some coaches say hmmm,  haw, what do you think?

What are they contributing here that the cat couldn’t do just as well?

A good coach encourages wisdom

We are all wise, at least a little.  But in our impatience to make a decision, sometimes we rush to conclusions.

A good coach helps us do our thinking.

Dialogic thinking:  how would other people see this problem?

We could talk to lots of other people, and our coach might ask us to.  They will check that we have done so.

They’ll also suggest reading novels and watching movies. They’ll get you to take a “cloud journey” and fly around the world looking down on different cultures and imagine what they are doing right now.  It frees up the mind and welcomes in what you know but have pushed aside.

And a good coach will suggest techniques described by Paolo Coelho in The Warrior of Light.  Imagine fighting against yourself!  That helps you flesh out what you are doing and what you are taking for granted!

Dialectical thinking: how our questions and answers change over time

The difficulty with being a noobe, is that we have no idea how we will see an issue when we’ve had a little more experience!

A coach has seen many people go through the same process of noobe to expert and they know how you will change.

Importantly, they know you will change.  They’ll help you approach an issue in an experimental way.   Test, redefine, test, redefine!

A good coach shares your journey

A good coach is not only there for you when times are hard.  A good coach understands that their wisdom grows from their relationship with you.  They too used dialogic and dialectical thinking.

They need to understand your point-of-view about your predicament and your point-of-view about their relationship with you.  They too need to see their questions and answers change as as result of working with you.

A good coach is not expert who gives answers or pretends to know behind a hmm, haw, and what do you think?

A good coach is challenged by your views and changes their own mind as they learn about yours.


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