About six years ago, I noticed a shift in my coaching practice. People were coming to their sessions more fragmented and with heavier loads. I also noticed that it took a little longer to get into each session.

Since then, two comments I often hear at the end of sessions have stuck with me:

  • I feel more grounded.
  • I feel lighter.

As a researcher, such trends and patterns have given me pause.

Being a Coach Today

Over the last two years, three events have rocked so many Americans: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd murder and protests, and the insurrection against the U.S. government.

Today, being a coach means understanding how such events impact us and our clients. Whether culturally, socially, productively, or personally, incidents such as these shake foundations, rattle emotions, disrupt lives, overwhelm the senses, and fragment attention.

Combined, these dynamics compete with accelerating technological and cultural change and complex modes of communication. Our general frazzled state involves exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, and mental drain. This is what arrives at a coaching session.

Unlike in previous years, when I might have checked in on clients in pursuing their goals and getting into action, supporting clients in becoming grounded is now vital both during and beyond coaching sessions.

What is “Ground?”

Ground questions our view. What situation are you encountering? Who is arriving?

Who are you in your situation? Are you projecting, or are you reacting to or observing circumstances? Can you access your awareness in the moment, or later upon reflection?

We’ve developed an effective grounding practice that involves three phases:

  1. What’s so: Observe what’s happening in this situation.
  2. Intention: Create aspirations for direction.
  3. Motivation. Investigate what moves you.

I’ve developed each leg below with an inquiry for reflection.

1. What’s So: Observe What’s Happening in this Situation

The power of what’s so acknowledges situations and conditions as we find them. We distinguish facts (who, what, where, when, and why) from any interpretation.

Like the ladder of inference by learning theorist Chris Argyris, what’s so reveals our beliefs and assumptions. When distracted or “hooked” on an interpretation or assumption, we notice our thinking and bring ourselves back to discern what’s happening.

Developing What’s So

In more than 20 years of research and practice, I’ve discovered a version of what’s so in every wisdom tradition I’ve pored over.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung taught us that whatever we resist persists.

EST guru Werner Erhard developed a document that begins as follows:

“What’s so is always just what’s so. What’s so doesn’t care what you think, feel, intend or wish; it will not bend.”

Buddhist author and black and gay activist Lama Rod Owen offers the following insights:

“… if we want to change something, we must first begin to love it; what I am actually communicating is that we must accept the reality of something before we can begin to change it. …

This teaching can be hard to hear when we are being asked to accept forms of violence or harm happening to us or others. I tell activists often that if we want to change systems of violence and inequity, we must accept the reality of those systems. Again, accepting doesn’t mean celebrating or condoning; it only means that we allow the reality to be present so we can see it … We cannot walk unless our feet are on the ground.”

What’s so trains our observer in objective examination. There are two points here:

  1. “Objective” means external or empirical circumstances or facts (not to be confused with a neutral or rational view).
  2. Developing skillful practice with empirical situations tests our ability to observe evidence. These skills then support the perception of subjective experiences that involve levels of interpretation to analyze emotions adequately.

Our ability to reproduce empirical situations accurately increases our awareness and discerning judgment, which develops our capacity to examine our experiential life.

Applying What’s So

As a coach, applying what’s so is fundamental to support grounding.

Consider the following scenario:

A client arrives at a session upset.

I ask, “What happened?”

“They just don’t respect me.”

“who doesn’t respect you?”

“My colleague and his boss.”

“How do you know this?” 

“I got an email that has messed up my entire weekend. I am so frustrated.”

“What did it say?”

“It was so disrespectful.”

“I see. Can we review the email together?”

“Sure, I’ll pull it out.”

“Okay, let’s review it.”

I’ve seen different versions of this scenario all too often. We read the email together, and with each sentence, the client begins to calm down.

“Oh, I didn’t see that. I stopped reading after a couple of sentences about working this weekend.”

“What do you see now?”

“Well, I see I have some wiggle room here. I can negotiate some of this and not have it spill into my weekend.”

Sometimes it involves rereading an email or getting the client to lay out the details of an incident. Other times, it involves the client reproducing both sides of a conversation.

At the end of the exercise – even if the situation hasn’t changed – grounding in “what happened” produces calm and can even allow for a different perspective.

As the Dalai Lama said, “The suffering and happiness each of us experiences [reflects] the distortion or clarity with which we view ourselves and the world.”

The point of “what’s so” is to refine our observer. We see things as they are — what is happening now as a matter of observed reality.

What’s so is fundamental to being grounded. The ability to see and say what happened penetrates our fog to achieve clarity. Stay with this practice to embody it as an observer.

Inquiry: Am I projecting or perceiving reality?

2. Intentions: Creating Aspirations for Direction

Intentions, by nature, are deliberate and conscious. We establish them via thoughts, attitudes, or aspirations to deliberately set a purpose or direction.

Intention is within our locus of control – the way we show up. When I attend a meeting, I can create several intentions, such as 1) being open, 2) being receptive, 3) being of service, or 4) leaving everyone well/at peace.

In the fullness of intention, we become responsible for our speaking and listening; our past and present; and the possibility that shapes our thoughts, feelings, and responses.

After any meeting, I can reflect on that experience and consider my dignity (or self-worth) based on how I fulfilled my intention. I can witness this regardless of any external goal, accomplishment, or expectation.

Expectations, which are often concealed from us, can undermine our intentions. Akin to a projection, assumption, or anticipation, they assume conditions that guide and cloud us until we learn to discern them.

We often live in society’s expectations, norms, or “ideals” about how things are or should be. When we become attached to these things, unexpressed expectations can be sources of upset.

Expectations project an external focus — what I project. When attending a meeting, I might expect that 1) the others will waste my time, 2) the others will/will not participate or be prepared, and 3) it will go smoothly or be challenging.

After a meeting, we judge ourselves. Did we meet our expectations? Or did we undermine our intentions through unseen expectations?

Inquiry

  • Are my thoughts and attitude/aspirations aligned with my actions?
  • Do I evaluate my success (or worth) based on my ability to fulfill positive expectations and avoid negative ones?

3. MOTIVATION: Investigate What Moves You

We investigate motivation as the reason, desire, rationale, and logic behind WHY you are doing something. Unlike intentions, our motivation is unconscious to us and often only discovered upon reflection.

Motivation is a process that arouses, sustains, and regulates human and animal behavior. It is what turns us on. We are often unaware of it until we reflect on it. Our motivation might be fame, money, excitement, sex, recognition, success, loyalty, service, belonging, safety, protection, justice, or something else entirely.

In Western psychology, we note extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

  • Intrinsic motivation involves performing a task because it’s personally rewarding to you.
  • Extrinsic motivation involves completing a task or exhibiting behavior in response to outside causes, such as avoiding punishment or receiving a reward.

Investigating Motivations

In Buddhist psychology, motivation is a matter of desire — specifically, the desire to act accompanied by a sense of purpose. The Dalai Lama once suggested a simple way of checking our motivations by posing the following questions:

  • Is it just for me or for others?
  • For the benefit of the few or for the many?
  • For now, or for the future?

Examining our motivations can be complex and begins with reflection.

Again from Buddhist psychology, we can discern motivation through a framework of eight worldly concerns in four pairs — happiness and suffering, fame or insignificance, praise and blame, and finally, gain and loss — that we seek or avoid.

A version of these worldly concerns, when concealed or obfuscated, often motivates our actions while undermining our best intentions.

For instance, as I reflect on a moment in which I was upset or impatient, I might see that my intention was to serve or learn. Upon reflection, I might also see a motivation — perhaps to control or be significant.

Now, I examine this situation:

  • Intention: To serve or to learn
  • Motivation: To control, be significant, or succeed.

In this scenario, my motivation and intention are not aligned to serve each other. This can create stress or the feeling of being overwhelmed. Often, we manage such a feeling without realizing its true nature.

Cultivating Motivations

Reflecting on and surfacing our motivations creates space for the possibility of cultivating our motivations.

Whether ambition, autonomy, comfort, connection, avoiding loss, fame, FOMO, quality, or success, every motivation drives your intentions and actions.

My motivations for writing this blog involve developing ideas and quality. These can align with my intention to awaken learning. However, shadow motivations, such as fame, success, or perfection, could undermine my intentions, writing, or view.

Cultivating motivation takes patience, discipline, and practice (topic for another blog). This life-long process lives in self-discovery to help us reveal unconscious, shadow, or competing motivations.

Like intention, motivation can be aspirational. It drives and informs — and can align — our intentions, thoughts, attitudes, and views. For instance:

  • Imagine being motivated by either connection or ambition.
  • Now, imagine how these motivations might shape an intention — perhaps learning or service in a specific situation.
  • Without judgment, envision the impact of either motivation on a situation.

This envisioning process can help align and cultivate motivations.

Inquiry:

  • What is your motivation in this situation? Are you internally (intrinsically) or externally (extrinsically) motivated?
  • Are your motivations aligned with your intentions and actions?

Walking on the Ground

In the face of volatile changes in technology, society, and culture, combined with an excess of information and even disinformation, we can find ourselves lost, isolated, and reactive.

One more text can tip the scale.

Developing contemplative practices, such as “pausing,” can help bring ourselves back. With this practice, we stop, connect with the ground (earth or object), and breathe deeply.

At that point, becoming grounded is required. As Lama Rod said, “If we do not accept something before trying to change it, the process becomes like trying to walk without your feet being on the ground.”

Employing our short framework here supports what’s so to discern situations, intentions to examine our thoughts, and motivations to investigate what moves us.

Aligning these conditions will, over time, reduce stress, preserve energy, and align us with our potential.

Reading Time: 8 min. Digest Time: 11.5 min.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators and learning professionals, and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.