Learning or practice: which is greater?

At the heart of Integral Coaching is the understanding that it’s in the nature of human beings to become who we are through our practices, the purposeful actions we repeat again and again. There are all kinds of grounds for this claim. The extraordinary plasticity of our nervous systems is one. The observations of the existentialist philosophers, Martin Heidegger in particular, on the way our shared world is constructed over time is another. What they have in common is the understanding that we are how we are not simply because of how we think about something, but because of the way we bring ourselves repeatedly to action. What we do in this way shapes our bodies and our whole way of being in the world. It happens for us as individuals as well as for families, communities and whole societies.

I want to take a look at this topic from my own experience with Jewish practice, as I’m sure my Jewish background played a huge part in my coming to coaching. It’s a tradition that recognises the unique preciousness of others, and understands that acting upon this recognition contributes in a very tangible way to the ongoing repair of what is most damaged and broken in the world. Isn’t that exactly what we can be up to when coaching?

I live in London, which is probably not so different in many ways from any major city in the USA or Europe. Almost all of our shared business, educational and social practices have a very particular notion of time, mostly that there is never enough of it and that it is all to be filled with activity. London is increasingly a 24-hour, always-on, ever-connected city. We are called constantly by our Blackberries and email, our stack of voice messages and our crowded diaries. Busyness is the way to be. It’s in the midst of this that the Jewish practices around shabbat, the sabbath, seem to me to be so extraordinarily powerful.

Each week, on Friday night, I gather with my family to declare the beginning of a special, holy expanse of time (the Hebrew word translated as holy more accurately means separate, distinct, special). We light candles, and sing blessings of gratitude for what is most simple and life giving: light, wine and food. We bless our children, and each other, in recognition of the extraordinariness of simply being able to be together. Many gather together in synagogues, communities of meaning dedicated to something bigger than each of us. And after twenty-five hours, as the sun sets on Saturday evening, we declare the return, again with candlelight and singing, to the ordinary, everyday concerns of the week with its work and responsibilities.

The rabbis of the ancient world knew about the power of all of this. A famous story told in the Talmud tells of an argument among a group of rabbis over which of learning or practice is greater. The conclusion they reach is that learning is greater, but only because it leads to practice. In this deliciously self-referential conclusion they show us how intimately entwined the both are, and also how learning which does not turn into action is a pale shadow of what is possible to bring forth into the world.

What I find most amazing about shabbat practices is the possibility they invite for a different shared relationship with time. On shabbat, I don’t check emails, pay the bills, do the supermarket shopping, or fix up the house. It is time dedicated, purely and simply, for being in relationship with friends, family, the world. Putting down endless doing in order to be in this way is sometimes very difficult… I can still experience keenly the hollow feeling that arises when the endless stimulation of communications technology falls quiet, and the tug of my attachment to unfinished projects and plans. But over time, as I am more aware of how these things pull at me, I find that I am cultivating a new relationship with time itself. I recall that getting things done is not the measure of all things. I have a deeper connection with others. I remember that being in relationship brings life to human life, and I develop the capacity to pay attention to what matters. For a day every week the concepts of success and failure fade into the background. What matters most is simply that I am, that we are. My life joins up with the life of others and with life itself. It’s a stretching, awakening, revealing commitment to take on, and a wonderful source of inspiration for practices to bring to my work with clients, too.

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