By Chris Chittenden
The distinctions set out below are referenced by both the Newfield Network and Newfield Institute approach to ontological coaching, however the role of time in the basic premise has meant that we have arrived a different interpretation of the distinction that sees our being of being in a moment in time rather than as general state of being. This allows for the idea of patterns of being rather a general state of being. We have also reframed the idea of our way of being to be related to a hierarchy of predispositions rather than representing it as a Venn diagram.
Self-awareness and self-understanding lie at the heart of living a more fulfilled life. As Socrates once said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, so in order to build our understanding of self, let’s begin by looking at the human way of being.
The foundations of the ontological approach were established in part through the work of a Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana. He wanted to explore the nature of living systems and through his inquiry he came to some remarkable conclusions.
Maturana identified that each human being is a closed system. It is the state of our nervous system as perturbed by our environment that creates our own personal view of the world. He coined the term ‘structural determinism’ to help us understand this. ‘Structural determinism’ infers that we can only act out of the structure we have at a point in time.
Each individual has his or her own structure and so responds to the world in a different way. This includes how we are cognisant of the world, how we interpret our observations and use language to explain those interpretations. For example, if I find myself breathing polluted air, I may notice little difference in my way of being whereas if someone around me has asthma then they may have great difficulty breathing. The situation is the same but our structure responds differently.
However, it is clear our structure is not fixed but changes over time. To account for this, Maturana identified that there is plasticity in our structure. This plasticity is common to all human beings and allows each one of us to change our structure and, as a result, observe and act differently. We do this in part through what he termed ‘structural coupling’ - the interactions that we have with our environment. As our environment also includes other human beings, our coupling with others can impact on their structure and vice-versa. As a result, structural coupling provides a key ingredient for learning.
Another one of his key conclusions related to the way in which living systems and hence human beings are cognisant of the world in which they live. Through his work, he put forward the notion that we are all unique observers of the world because we can only ever truly know our own experience of being in the world. We have already touched on this concept and also defined three distinct but mutually dependent domains - our physical being, our emotional states and our use of language.
In the ontological approach it is valuable to further distinguish our emotional states as our moods and our emotions. Therefore we can then use these FOUR aspects - body, moods, emotions and language - to expand our exploration of the human experience.
Examining these domains further, the distinctions can be deepened by thinking of them in terms of a hierarchy. As Ken Wilber has pointed out in his book, ‘A Theory of Everything’ , hierarchies have received some bad press in the past few decades mainly due to hierarchies associated with domination. Those who are critical of hierarchy tend to overlook the importance of hierarchies in nature, most particularly in relation to how entities contain other entities. Wilber uses the term ‘holarchies’ to better describe these forms of hierarchy, where one whole fits into another whole. A simple example of this can be seen in the nature of matter. Atoms are part of molecules; molecules are part of cells; cells are part of organs; organs are part of the human body and so on. Destroy all molecules and you destroy all cells. In other words they form a growth hierarchy, which are found everywhere.
A hierarchy that applies to our way of being relates to our predispositions. A predisposition is what we are likely to do in a certain situation. If looked at as a hierarchy of predispositions, we can see that our physical being predisposes our emotional being which in turn predisposes our linguistic being. This does not mean we will always act out of our predispositions just that without intervention we will tend to do so.
The Hierarchy of Predispositions
Our BODY or PHYSICAL BEING is the physical living organism that we are. It is our physical structure that encompasses everything physical about us from our skin to our neurons to our energy levels and wellness. Our physical being is the structure holding our basic predispositions at any given time.
Our physical being establishes an underlying emotional state we define as our MOOD. This can be seen as a background emotional state. Moods manifest from our current stance in the world and can be affected by physical aspects such as our energy levels, emotional states that hang around or through our linguistic being via our stories about our self or the world in general. Moods will predispose us to manifest certain emotions in given circumstances. For example, for someone who is in a mood of resentment it is much easier to access the emotion of anger than the emotion of compassion. If we have some distinctions about moods and we reflect on our emotional states, we can often identify our current mood and thereby create the opening for a shift.
In response to our environment, our physical being can generate certain chemical responses to what we observe that we define as EMOTIONS. Emotions predispose us to certain actions and patterns of thinking. For example, someone experiencing fear may be predisposed to think that they will be hurt in a given situation. As was said before, emotions can also hang around and become a mood. For example, a prolonged sense of fear can manifest into the mood of anxiety.
Our LANGUAGE involves our beliefs, stories, prejudices and patterns of conversation (including thinking) that predispose the other actions we take.
Given they exist in a hierarchy there is a connection between these domains such that when a shift occurs in any of the domains, it has the potential to create shifts in the others which over time can lead to a new ‘pattern of being’. If the shift is not sustained, then change will be fleeting as we are drawn back into our old coherence and our old predispositions will remain in place. With this hierarchy in mind, we can see authenticity in the human condition as being coherence and alignment between all four domains.