By Chris Chittenden
To my knowledge the distinctions set out below are not referenced by either the Newfield Network or Newfield Institute approach to ontological coaching.
One of the strengths of our ontological approach is that it extends from a clear foundation to create alignment in relation to the human way of being. We have done this by identifying a basic premise of the human condition and then ensuring the ontological approach is aligned to this premise. This creates a way of exploring the human condition, our relationships and generally our challenges in life in a way that allows for misalignment to become more visible. It also provides the opportunity to develop greater alignment in life so we can live a more authentic life.
The basic premise states:
Life is internally experienced as an ongoing process in a sequence of indefinable moments; yet our life appears to us as a constant state of being and becoming.
So what does that mean?
Our Inner Experience
That “life is internally experienced” speaks to the idea that an individual human being cannot know anything outside of his or her experience. When we think about it, this appears to be self-evident. How could I have any other experience but my own? Even if I believe I am having someone else’s experience I still only have my own experience of sharing another’s experience. So how can I ever know with certainty whether that sharing is valid or not. A simple example can demonstrate this.
If we assume you and I are not colour blind, we can both look at an object and identify its colour. Let’s say, we both say it is blue. We might disagree about what shade of blue it is, but we both claim it is blue. Even though we have this agreement, the question still remains ‘is the blue you see the same as the blue I see?’ Based on our similar physiology, we assume what is blue for you is the same for me and act accordingly, yet we cannot know this for sure. However, we can still agree it is blue and act consistently with that agreement. As human beings, we have to assume that others have experiences similar to ours if we are to live and engage with them. The alternative is isolation.
However, this is not the end of it. One of the defining aspects of all living things is they are cognisant of their immediate environment albeit in different ways. However this does not mean human beings know the true nature of our environment, just that we are cognisant of it. For most of us, cognisance of the outer world comes through our five senses. These senses may be the avenues through which we perceive the outer world, yet each of those senses is an internal function of our physiology. Since we just spoke about seeing blue, let’s further explore this idea using the example of sight.
The human act of seeing is an internal physiological function triggered by photons of light. The photons of light do not pass directly into the brain creating a direct image of what we see like they do in a camera. Rather they trigger our internal structure, mainly our neural system, and create our sense of seeing.
So it is with all our senses in varying ways. We are cognisant of the world around us because our physiological structure is constantly in a dynamic interaction with what is external to us giving us a sense of what the outer world is like for us.
It may seem we know the outer world as it is; but this is not the case. We only know how we experience it based on our physical interactions with it and our structure at the time.
Now let us look further into the nature of our inner experience of living. In order to do so it is useful to distinguish three distinct domains - our body sensations and movement, our emotional states and our use of language. Each of us experiences and interprets the world and our response to the world through those three elements - physical sensations, our emotional states and language. They represent our experience of the human condition and form the basis of the interpretations of our way of being in the ontological approach.
Our Relationship with Time
One of the major aspects of our way of being is our sense of time. Think about what is going on for you at this very moment. As you think about it, the thought comes but then goes. Even if you clear your mind of conscious thought your experience comes and goes. It continuously becomes part of your history and there is nothing you can do about it. You are relentlessly moving into the future. Your experience seems to come and go in a continuous stream of existence from the moment you are conceived until the moment you die. We all appear to exist on a constantly moving conveyor belt of experience that creates our history and moves us relentlessly into our immediate future.
Furthermore, through this experience we cannot actually pinpoint the now in our experience, for if we attempt to do so that moment has passed to be replaced by another. In other words, each of us live in a constant stream of being and time. In many ways, the present is simply a boundary between the immediate past and the immediate future. It is undefinable yet we are always in it.
Despite always being in a moment, human beings have a linguistic capacity to perceive time. This has been critical in our success as a species. It allows us to create a rich story about our history and the history of other human beings. It also allows us to anticipate and seek to create future moments. Although we cannot clearly define the exact ‘now’ of the present, we can anticipate a future moment and seek to design our actions in that moment. This is critical as it allows us to coordinate action in the future and to create a change in our normal pattern of being – our becoming. We are able to do all of this through our sophisticated use of language.
Here is a simple everyday example. I might be making my breakfast and suddenly remember that I want to do a load of washing. I don’t want to do the washing now as I am in the middle of preparing my breakfast. However, I can anticipate that I might forget to do the washing and put something in place to trigger awareness at some point in the future. I could quickly grab the dirty clothes basket and put it in the hallway, where I cannot help but see it when I have finished eating. In doing so, I am seeking to generate awareness in a future moment to trigger the action associated with doing the washing.
So to recap what this all means, for each one of us:
- Our experience of life is an inner experience unique to each of us;
- Our experience is continuous and although we have a sense of time we cannot point to a precise moment of ‘Now’ in that experience; and
- Through language, we are able to reflect and interpret our experience as it has been and design and seek to create our experience and actions in future moments.
The basic premise of the ontological approach allows us to ask some fundamental questions about our life as they relate to our way of being in time:
- In any given moment, why do I do what I do? Given all the things I could do, why do I do that? and
- How can I design for and create a better way of being in a future and similar moment?
Finding answers to these two lines of inquiry is at the heart of the ontological approach to life.