Language, listening, loving, living and learning: strong stand alone words which hold equal measure of challenge and opportunity; and words which have woven together to form the main threads of my 2014 tapestry.

After returning home in July from walking my fifth Camino De Santiago, I stepped into a Graduate Diploma in Ontological Coaching (DOC) through the Newfield Institute in Australia. The Camino covered 21 days and about 12 million steps (approximately 670 kms at an average step of 60 cm), whereas the DOC extends for 18 months and how many (metaphorical) steps I will travel on this programme is, at this stage, unknown. What I do know from the first six months of being on the programme, that just as the Camino is not simply about traversing from ‘A’ to ‘B’, so too is the DOC about far more than traversing from coach to ontological coach.

The DOC programme consists of three ‘levels’ and each level focuses in-depth at one of the three domains of what, in an ontological understanding, are at the core of us human beings. These domains are: our language, our emotions and our bodies. How we operate in each one of these domains shapes how we observe and experience the world, as well as the actions we see as possible to build a meaningful and fulfilling life.[1] In addition to these aspects, ontological coaching is fundamentally concerned with the notion of ‘learning’ (about our way of being) and ‘being a learner’. It is this latter aspect that has been my greatest challenge over the past six months, and which no doubt will continue to stretch me over the next 12 months of the programme.

Listening and learning …

A significant area of learning for me has been in relation to ‘listening’ which, in an ontological understanding, is recognised as being a critical component of ‘language’. People very easily identify speaking as the primary mode through which we ‘language’ ourselves in the world, and while we certainly do bring ourselves into the world through our speaking, how we listen plays a fundamental role in shaping how we relate to ourselves, others and the world around us. It is said that language is like a coin with two sides: speaking on the one side and listening on the other. Ontology offers a somewhat different and broader understanding of listening – where listening is not simply a matter of what one hears, but rather an active process which involves all the senses and which process principally concerns itself with meaning-making. When someone is speaking we may be present, to a greater or lesser degree to what they are saying. However, we are also ‘already’ listening to our own conversation – to what is in our background knowledge, understanding and experience; to our preferences and prejudices; to our view of how things are or should be. The way in which we listen has a considerable impact on the quality of our existence because inherent in our listening are the judgements and opinions we make about people and situations. If they are negative, they will affect our mood and predispose us to thinking or acting in a particular way. If they are positive, they will impact very differently on our thinking, body and behaviour. It can therefore be said that the way we listen generates the reality which we live in and this reality in turn impacts considerably on the quality of our existence.

For me, listening is also critical to the process of learning and how we are able to engage as a learner. Because the more we listen to ‘the story’ that runs in our inner dialogue (and we all have one), the more difficult it is to engage fully, openly and without expectation in the learning process. These stories often incorporate our ‘enemies of learning’[2] – the things that stand in the way of or close down our learning.

To the Camino ….

Earlier I mentioned the Camino and I would like to share an evening which to me talks richly about listening and learning.

Five days into the walk, I spent a night in the beautiful village of Puenta la Reina. The wonderful thing about that evening was not just the benign atmosphere and glorious light, but the language and listening that it brought. At about 9.30 pm, I walked from the small private hostel I was staying at, to the large municipal hostel to visit friends who were staying there. As I approached the albergue, I could see a group of pilgrims gathered together outside and I could hear the very distinct sound of the ukulele. Sitting around the Spanish ukulele player were pilgrims from all over the world, and on a random basis, people were singing solos or the group were singing songs which were more ‘universal’. It was the most incredible thing to be a listener in that community and to share what seemed to be a common language, a language of connection in our being (as pilgrims) while people were singing in their own languages. There was someone who sang in French, another who sang an ancient Arabic lullaby, and another who sang in Spanish. It did not matter that the words were ‘foreign’ because there was meaning, meaning that each one of us made through connecting in the moment to the external community and connecting to our own stories of being a pilgrim, on and off the Camino.

The most unusual song of the evening was sung by a Japanese pilgrim, who stood up, raised her hands in the air and sung with enormous whole-heartedness. The next day I passed her (and her daughter) on the path and I told her that I wanted to share with her my gratitude for her singing the previous night. She burst into a big smile and said: thank-you, thank-you and she proceeded to tell me that after she sang, she had been troubled by thinking that she had not sung well enough and she wondered if she should feel embarrassed by the quality of her singing. My immediate reassurance to her was: that it was not the quality of her performance that really mattered or would be remembered, but rather, the way in which she engaged in the singing – with freedom, generosity and whole-heartedness. Furthest from my thoughts was whether there was an off-key note or an assessment of her performance. My deep appreciation was for the love, heart and spirit she so abundantly brought. I wondered if her self-assessment after the fact detracted from the living and loving I observed her to have experienced in the moment of the singing.

In hindsight, it is interesting for me to notice how quick I was to reassure her, because I am a person who can relate so closely to the voice which questions: “did I get it right … did I do it well enough?”, which voice has the potential for causing significant suffering and closing down of learning. How difficult does learning become when one has to get it right, even though one has the status of learner?

To the DOC programme ….

Six months into the coaching programme, I recognise how much I have been challenged by the notion of ‘being a learner’. I have experienced learning as a deceptively complex and deeply emotional process. The issue is therefore how to step onto the path of learning in a supportive and compassionate way; to bring a healthy dose of loving to the learning.

Again I return to the Camino for guidance because there are parallels for me between being a pilgrim and being a learner; and a large part of my Camino journey over the past five years has been about learning to walk in a self-compassionate way. So whereas in the ‘early years’ it was about covering distance and reaching destinations, it has become about going slower and discovering things along the way – going slower to learn more – that it has not been in the ‘doing’, but rather in the ‘being’.

Supporting learning …

So, in the context of formal learning we undertake, be it in a field of study or in terms of our self-development, a useful question may be: What loving is necessary to support living resourcefully and whole-heartedly as a learner? Because in the process of learning, it is so easy to sit in a place of judgment (of not getting it right), of shoulds (be further along the road or more competent) and musts (be working harder to be progressing faster). And it is these judgments that bring suffering and negatively impact on the quality of our thoughts, feelings and body. Yet, in my experience of being a learner, it has been very hard not to suffer. Does one need to accept that there will (inevitably or always) be a measure of suffering in learning?

If this is the case, the question becomes how could one be in/with that? Is it about being fully immersed in the learning and being conscious about what one is listening to; to be curious about why one is listening to that; and then thinking about what else there might be to listen to and how tuning in to something else might help to shift some of the suffering and to live with more love as a learner?

Some questions about your learning …

  • How am I as a learner?
  • What are my enemies of learning i.e. what about me or my way of thinking or being stands in the way as a leaner?
  • What are my friends of learning i.e. what about me or my way of thinking or being supports me as a learner?
  • What stories do I listen to the most when I am in the process of learning?
  • What shifts could I make to be kinder and more loving to myself and more open to the possibilities that learning can provide?

[1] Ontological Coaching in Action © Newfield Institute. For more information about ontological coaching visit:

[2] For more about ‘Enemies of Learning’ see Coaching to the Human Soul Ontological Coaching and Deep Change, Volume II by Alan Sieler, Newfield Australia 1997 at page 70-73.