Do you really want to know what’s true?

At a recent session 3 of the PCC in Boston, I came up with three essential skills for all human beings:

  • being able to deal with the inner critic
  • staying present with and learning from anxiety
  • being able to tell what’s true (not in a mathematical or scientific sense but rather knowing when something I say or feel is true in my life and also being able to tell the truth when someone else says something to me).

The first two are essential for the third one to be realized. When under attack from our inner critic it’s very difficult for us to stay present, and consequently to differentiate between reactivity from the past and response to the current moment. Facing the truth, which often threatens to displace our self-image, closely held beliefs or sense of worth, requires us to stay with anxiety and its unsettling somatic, emotional and cognitive experiences.

We like the notion that the truth will set us free, we just don’t like the feeling of floating freely unmoored from our usual safe habitat of self identity (a strong indicator that we are engaging the truth). When we feel anxious, the frequent experience of being unmoored, we abandon our inquiry into what’s true.

In other words, the truth dissolves our persona, our mask, our shell of personality in the process of revealing more fundamental aspects of us. Does that sound inviting to you?

Perhaps theoretically. But in practice we must have spaciousness, constancy and groundedness to hang in there with anxiety. We are not taught any of these responses and often don’t have practices to cultivate them. Instead we’ve learned to interpret anxiety as an indication that something is wrong and not as an invitation to the deeper relationship with ourselves and reality.

Of course all this shows up in coaching. As coaches it’s common and normal for us to feel anxious when we realize it’s time to say something direct and contrary to the client’s self-concept. Or when our client challenges us or brings us a difficult situation to work with or is in the midst of strong emotional, somatic, or cognitive content.

The destabilizing power of anxiety comes from an intuition embedded deeply within that if we persist in our investigation we will find out that who we took ourselves to be is empty, hollow and has no meaning. That’s what the existentialists tell us – that’s what they found out – they just didn’t take their study far enough.

Yes, our personality is a social construct that only exists as a way of getting by in the human world and has no meaning or reality beyond that functionality. And yes we feel deeply identified with it—so deeply identified in fact that we are certain that its demise means the end of us.

But we don’t disappear or get annihilated when the truth dissolves our personality – that’s the part existentialists didn’t write about  even though they knew it in their own experience. How can I say that? Because the major writers in the tradition, say Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre, all had transcendent moments of insight, deep encounters with beauty; they all felt profound love. Just read their books and you’ll know what I’m talking about yourself. In these experiences they were living at least for a moment beyond their personalities and still they existed.

No doubt this has also happened to you.

When we get transported by strong experience we frequently bypass anxiety, at least momentarily.  So maybe these wonderful thinkers never caught on that anxiety is a harbinger of truth. (By the way, Heidegger was totally on to anxiety as an invitation to a direct meeting with ourselves.)

If you want the truth than please welcome and delight in and make friends with anxiety.

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