I’m someone who’s done a lot of years and varieties of therapy – Somatic, Narrative, and EMDR, to name a few. I’ve been involved with twelve step groups. I’ve also worked mainly in religious institutions – synagogues specifically. And, I spent a number of years in my twenties working both as a massage therapist and a self defense instructor. In other words, much of my adult life, and my professional life, has been spent in environments where part, if not all, of the intent was personal and spiritual healing and growth.
There are obvious reasons for me to be drawn to this kind of work. My past includes childhood trauma, and I have lived with PTSD since I was quite young. I have also struggled with food addiction for most of my life. The work I’ve done on and for myself: seeking to heal my relationships with myself – body and soul, with others, with the world, and with various concepts of spirituality, has been vital to understanding how I function, what matters to me, and what my core beliefs are.
But in some ways they all taught me the same thing about myself – that I was broken. Trauma effects the development of children’s brains and influences how we see and react to the world moving forward, I learned in therapy. I am powerless over the addict in me, and my relationships with the addicts/mentally ill people in my life, I learned in twelve step. The horror stories I heard as a self defense instructor, compounded by the horror stories I couldn’t escape in the news and in the lives of my friends and loved ones, taught me that not only was I a broken person, but I lived in a broken world, full of other broken people. In my efforts to impart Jewish values to others I came face to face with my own lack of faith, in the state of the world, in other people, and in a concept of ‘God’.
Ongoing childhood trauma teaches a core message that the world isn’t safe, that other people aren’t safe, and that the worst really can happen - and when it does, sometimes there is no one to save you from it, including yourself. So I lived much of my adult life using every tool I could find to try to compensate for this brokenness, to somehow accept it, and to make peace with the brokenness I saw all around me.
When I started studying coaching, in my very first introductory class I was offered this sentence: “People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.” Immediately, I was totally was on board with the idea that people are naturally creative and resourceful. In fact surviving ongoing childhood trauma calls heavily on and really develops those traits. But ‘whole’? That struck a sour note for me. Most humans seemed to me so fragile, so tenuous, many seemed broken, it felt dismissive of all the hurts we’ve endured to imply that all people are inherently whole.
But, in this series of coaching classes the teachers asked us to come with a 'beginner’s mind’ - to put aside our notions and ideas and just be open to what they were offering for the days we were in class. We could always dismiss it after learning it, they said, but they invited us to try everything on as though it might be true. Just to give ourselves the chance to really try it out before making a call about it’s value or truthfulness. So, I did. I tried on the idea that people are naturally whole.
One of the core practices in coaching is asking and answering powerful questions. Through working with coaches myself and through studying coaching, I’ve been asked many such powerful questions, and a handful of them have changed my life. The amazing gift of coaching, that for me differs from every other thing out there, is that it invites you to be open to radically shifting the place from which you orient. So that weekend, the powerful question for me was: What if I am whole? Then what?
We did a series of exercises in class which led us to create a core statement of purpose. Mine was: I carry the message that humans are vulnerable and need to be held as priceless and precious. That was a radical shift in thinking for me. Not because I didn’t believe in the value of the human heart and body before, but because I didn’t carry that message before. The message I carried before was closer to: humans are precious and priceless, but they are vulnerable, and that is scary and it sucks.
If I’m the messenger of this new idea, it means, in my relationship with my adult self, I know that because I’m vulnerable it’s my job to care for myself as something irreplaceable. It requires of me that I place high value on caring for myself in all situations whether it’s convenient, or whether there are external pressures to do otherwise. It means viewing myself as something both fragile and whole at the same time. It means trusting myself to care for myself well.
In my relationships with others, being the messenger requires openhearted kindness and acceptance of others as whole too, regardless of circumstance. It asks me to hold those values higher than the value of quick comfort, or being right, or controlling the outcome. It says two vulnerable beings can be close together, and both can still be whole. It also says that I have a fight ahead of me. There are folks in the world, the big world and my immediate world, who don’t believe that humans are priceless or precious. If I am carrying this message, I have a cycle to help break, a perspective shift to help enact. I must be like the prophets, carrying this whole-y message, that all humans need this level of care and concern. If I ever had a spiritual message to share, this is it.
In my relationship with the world, it means that I am required to have some sense of hope for the future. It means holding the complexity that while horrible things can and do happen, everyday, so does beauty. Hope is a balance shift from the belief that the other shoe is always about to drop, to the raw belief that the love and joy in the world is a true gift and at least as powerful as the fear and suffering in the world. Hope says the only thing between us and a safer world is radical care of each other. Acceptance of each other. Seeing each other as whole. Seeing ourselves as whole.
This is so hard to hold onto in the face of being awake and alive. But then I was asked another powerful question, and it changed my life. We were talking about a true life of fulfillment, one that totally honors our core statement of purpose, and about the voices inside that hold us back – Mine: the world is unsafe, people are unsafe, people are often cruel, the safest place is numbed out, better be prepared because suffering is around the corner – and the teacher said, if you really ultimately let those voices be true, if you let them win, then you have to ask yourself ‘How does it feel to choose to live an unfulfilling life?’ It’s a pretty harsh question, but it was a moment of radical shift for me.
What became clear to me, right that second, was that I didn’t have to orient the rest of my life around the trauma of my past. I didn’t have to let it define me, or own me. It would always be a part of me, but I had a choice to prioritize a different message, a message of kindness, love, trust, hope, and wholeness. It was so clear. It’s not that addiction or PTSD disappeared from my life that day, they are real things, but it gave me a different answer for them, a new clarity. A very simple answer really: they are not my priority anymore, my priority is holding myself and others and our world as priceless and precious.
My life before that point was dictated by one series of truths, but after that moment I had a new option, one that I also knew in my gut as a truth. Now in every moment I have a choice, to turn toward the limitations and pain of the lessons of my past, or to choose a radically new path of care of self, care of others, foundational wholeness.
As you can see, I decided to keep the idea that people are naturally whole past that weekend. I still find the world heartbreaking very often. And frightening. I know I am vulnerable, those I love are vulnerable, and those I don’t know are also vulnerable. I know there is much suffering. But while heartbreaking, I do not find the world soul-breaking in the way I used to. In the face of horror, I have a core truth, I know that humans are priceless and precious, and that my mission is to seek out those who are doing work to honor and to spread that and join them. I know that in my relationships I can choose to honor that. I know that I can honor that in myself. In my work as a coach, I find that one of the core messages I carry to my clients is that each of them is truly whole. A radical shift for me. A radical shift for a few of my clients as well.
This is what a handful of powerful questions did for me. They transformed my understanding of my core truths, and therefore my choices, and therefore my entire approach to my life. And from that place of transformation, I offer you a few powerful questions of your own, and request that you please consider them with a 'beginner’s mind’: Do you prioritize your core values and deepest purpose everyday? Are they the message you carry to the world? Are they the message you carry into your interactions with your loved ones? Are they the message you bring in how you care for yourself? If not, what if they were, every single day?