Zen Coaching began at Angsbacka, the Swedish community and retreat centre which hosts the annual “No Mind” festival. It’s a beautiful, soulful and nurturing place, with an ethos of sharing, honest communication and connection.
Zen Coaching could be said to be the intellectual heart of the community. It was developed there by Kare Landfald, and it’s offered at nearly all their festivals. What I really like about Kare is that he comes from a mainstream background, so is able to communicate well in language that cuts through. In person he’s a very solid, authentic and grounded presence, and it’s no surprise that since he began creating it in 2006, Zen Coaching has spread widely around the world, with 250 accredited coaches and trainings across Europe.
It’s a form of self-inquiry into the present moment through questions and awareness exercises, and it’s described as a process to “support us in recognizing our own nature as awareness, and all the essential qualities of awareness, such as freedom, love, strength, creativity and spaciousness”.
Having experienced it, I can say that it’s subtle, clever, and very powerful. Coming fully into the present moment may sound like a truism or a cliche, but when we fully commit to it, what comes up is all the limitations, judgements and old patterns of body and mind that keep us stuck in the past or projecting into the future.
Kare was working as a conflict mediator and consultant in international affairs, working with the UN and othe government organisations. He quit work to stay at a Zen monastery for nine months, during which time he deepened his own practice, and from this self-inquiry in time came Zen Coaching.
I caught up with him on Skype to find out a bit more about the process.
He had some very interesting points about inner work – the nature of desire, and the role of emotional release work in a path of self-development.
First I want to know if the person knows what coaching is – so I explain my view of coaching, which is supporting people through asking questions and deep listening. So it’s a way to support people finding their own answers and their own potential. It’s like a sports coach – you look for the talents and nurture those.
Q – Are there certain key concepts?
Yes – so that’s the coaching part, then comes the Zen part. The Zen part means to focus on the being of a person, not the doing – and the being rather than the thoughts and the feelings. so you could say that it’s more of an inner-style coaching. helping people to find their inner strength, inner peace, inner joy etcetera. and the path – zen also means ‘here now’ so it’s a bit like gestalt work – it’s very much focused on what’s happening in the present moment. and the way or the path there is very much saying yes to one’s experience – allowing whatever is there to be there – allowing the feelings – whatever they may be, allows us to access the being, which is deeper than the feelings. the trick here is that sometimes it’s difficult to allow this, so we have resistance to the feelings. So people get stuck because they try to allow… So the Zen coaching trick is to not fight the resistance, to also allow the resistance. The allowance is where we stop the inner fight, and when we stop the inner fight we drop deeper into ourselves, and that’s the main principle. And that’s where our full potential is, and that’s where our satisfaction is. From there we can act and achieve and all that kind of stuff – and from there it’s not done from desire but from the joy of creativity and the joy of contribution.
Let me explain – I think there are three levels to the human being – there’s the mental level, there’s the physical emotional level, and there’s the being level. it’s quite easy to explain this to people in a way where they can say yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
Q – That’s an interesting point – because there seems to be a paradox in the Buddhist idea that one must transcend desire, because if one wants to live ones deepest passion in the world, surely one’s deepest passion is a desire?
Yes I think there is a certain confusion around this concept of desire. The misconception is that when you take away desire you take away passion for life – so that’s why people are not very attracted to taking away desire. But it’s a different kind – I think what people need to understand is that it’s not taking away a zest for life – it’s taking away the rejection of the present moment, it’s taking away living in the future – it’s taking away certain ways of suppressing the zest for life and seeking fulfilment in the future. So the typical example is the child, the joyful two, three or four year old – this kid is acting spontaneously out of joy – so this is my model for the human being. It’s not like we lose our joy in life, each moment is an expression of our being – so we still want to do stuff and we still want to act and share and create, but it’s from a different inner motivation. I like to say that you can act from inner abundance or from inner lack, and those two kinds of actions look very different.
Q – Do you think it’s possible to do only this work – some models work with a cathartic, emotional release. do you think that is also necessary?
I think it’s also necessary to some degree. It’s also needed, but it’s not enough, generally. You can’t just do catharsis and then it’s done – it doesn’t work like that.
Q – Was that the error of the encounter groups of the 70s, that they thought that was the only necessary work?
Exactly. it’s more like wishful thinking – the idea that I just express all this suppressed stuff then I’m free. it’s not quite like that. but it’s a necessary step.
Q – My experience with that stuff is that it’s all about the intelligence of the group leader, that you can be facilitated to go into your stuff and release it – but if it’s not done intelligently in the right way then it’s just acting out.
I totally agree. With two different people, one person may need to express the anger, and the other person needs to get out of the anger. It’s like an old habit that they always use. But for others it’s a feeling they have never expressed – so it’s very different needs for each person.
Q – It seems quite an interesting point that we may be at – self-development work is still relatively new – and the intelligence within the field seems greater now than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
I think there’s a collective intelligence happening, certainly. I would say there is a hunger for it now. It’s hard to say how many people, but there’s a significant hunger – also the concept of being is quite easy to explain to people, and I think 20 years ago that was not the case.
Q – You’re using some Buddhist concepts, but do you try to avoid the word ‘spiritual’ with your work?
Yes, I do. I only use that word with people who I know are comfortable with it. I use the word being, and I use the words – your inner potential, and peace, strength, compassion, creativity, joy, love, sense of freedom. Anyone can relate to those words. Then you can use the example of the experience of being in flow – where everything is going easily and there’s no thinking involved. Like when you play certain sports and then suddenly you’re in the zone. Everybody has experiences like that, whether you’re so-called spiritual or not, people can relate to that. And also, I say, are you acting from fear or acting from trust and strength.
Q – What are the key components of any self-development path?
Saying yes to your experience, that’s it really. feeling what you feel, noticing what you’re feeling, whetver mode you choose, finding the yes. the yes to your present moment experience – that’s the main key. and being curious about the present moment.
I think there are so many people now who have a taste of being. so the mental/emotional space that humanity has lived in for so long – so many people now know there’s another dimension than the mental emotional dimension – that dimension that’s so ideologically driven, so based on opinions. so I think there’s a movement happening where this other dimension is accessible at some kind of collective level. not for everybody, but for significant enough numbers. I think the dimension of being, a lot of people are interested in it. we can give it so many names. even looking at management books, there’s one called Presence, self-inquiry – there’s quite a willingness in business communities to look at spiritual ideas. the speed of change is so fast that you can’t have those old opinion-based systems. if you want to have creative systems, you have to base it on something else. and what is this something else apart from a kind of inner connection. I have friends who work on the top levels of business around the world and what they offer is very spiritual – though they don’t use that word.