Coaching through the lens of consciousness.
Broadening focus from fitness to well-being involves more than acknowledging the multiple components of physical, emotional and mental functioning. It represents a revolution, or more accurately an evolution, in consciousness. Awareness of ourselves and awareness of our relationships and our purpose in this world constitute important elements of human consciousness. Read on to appreciate how clients’ levels of consciousness impact their engagement in fitness and, more broadly, their well-being.
If there is one meta-lesson to extract from all the research about exercise physiology and the various approaches to fitness, it is that technical knowledge is not enough. Knowing more about how to exercise has not significantly impacted participation rates (Steffen et al. 2006). We need to develop deeper insights into the personal dynamics of our clients and recognize the profound interplay of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle. Ultimately, we need to focus clients’ attention on the long view—lifelong fitness, health and wellness. For those who exercise regularly, one part of the wellness formula has been embraced. What will it take for these clients to develop a more encompassing perspective on wellness, and how does their level of consciousness pertain to this objective?
Envisioning the 21st century Wellbeing (a human being who engages the values and actions of healthy living in all its dimensions) requires that we dip beneath the surface of behavior patterns and fitness preferences. If people are to thrive throughout the ages and stages of life, we need to “get” the core beliefs that feed their concern for and engagement in healthy eating, intelligent training, mastery of stress and mindful living.
Life expectancy now is about 30 years greater than it was a century ago (Arias 2007). Over the centuries, increased lifespan has been accompanied by increased capacities—and the evolution of consciousness. An appreciation of the way consciousness impacts the progression of fitness clients into Wellbeings will be beneficial to your career.
The explosion of interest in such exercise forms as yoga, Pilates, tai chi, qigong and others (Schroeder & Friesen 2009) reveals a fundamental change in how fitness clients are positioning themselves and their bodies. IDEA’s articles on mind-body exercise, as well as its Inner IDEA® Conference, which is now moving into its fifth year, evidence this expansion. Yesterday’s clients are morphing into a new kind of beings—Wellbeings.
The progression from fitness client to Wellbeing represents a process of change over the lifespan. As we age, our values, preferences, needs and behaviors shift as a result of evolving consciousness. Fitness to a teenager will have remarkably different meanings than it has to a septuagenarian.
It’s normal for teenagers to be self-preoccupied and under peer-group influence. It is to be hoped that this will have dissipated by the time they grow up and begin families of their own. Once people hit their early 50s, when career and family issues assume new focus, another perspective may arise. And so it goes over the decades, with people moving through levels of consciousness at differing velocities.
In the world of fitness, clients’ consciousness guides choice and action. On the surface, we recognize how activity programming is fashioned to diverse personalities, interests and capabilities. At a deeper level, we believe that clients are strongly influenced by their levels of consciousness when choosing how to define and relate to their health and fitness.
Embedded in each level of consciousness is an elaborate matrix of underlying beliefs, values, orientations and behaviors. As people evolve, so do their relationships to physical activity, health and wellness promotion. Attention broadens and deepens in the growth patterns of individuals transitioning from traditional fitness clients to Wellbeings.
There are many approaches to understanding consciousness, including one that was identified almost 5,000 years ago—the chakra system. The perspectives offered here are closely aligned with those of modern Western theorists who focus on adult development over the lifespan.
For the first half of the 20th century, the prevailing belief was that we evolve through infancy and childhood, then hit a developmental plateau for the remainder of our years. Sigmund Freud popularized this view in the early 1900s, and it remained largely unchallenged until 1943, when Abraham Maslow published his now famous hierarchy of needs (Maslow 1943). Though Maslow’s model of self-actualization altered beliefs about what could happen in adulthood, it was only toward the end of the century that theorists found significant evidence of more profound changes in early, mid and late life.
Theorists like Robert Kegan, Ken Wilber, Clare Graves, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Jenny Wade, William Torbert, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan extended our purview of adult evolutionary changes by generating detailed maps of the patterns of values, thoughts, feelings, morality, social relations, language and behavior at multiple levels of conscious evolution, rather than limiting inquiry to a simple hierarchy of needs.
At lower levels of consciousness, perspectives are narrow and concrete: “I want to lose 10 pounds by the senior prom.” As consciousness develops, we progress to wider, more inclusive ways of seeing and behaving in the world.
Four levels of consciousness that have been adapted from the literature seem to characterize the vast majority of clients you will encounter. These levels have been shaped from different frameworks of consciousness, among which there appears to be significant convergence. Level labels are similar to those described by other authors, namely Opportunist (Torbert 2004); Conformist (Cook-Greuter, 2000; Wade, 1996); Achiever (Torbert 2004; Wade 1996); and Pluralist (Gebser, as described by Feuerstein 1987).
Level 1: The Opportunist
Samantha believes in miracles. Luck plays a large role in how she interprets life. And she has been lucky. Blessed with great genes, she can eat, drink and do whatever she wants and still look great in the morning. She’s 25 and wants it all. She’s big on self-gratification. When things feel good, she does them. If results don’t come right away, she’s gone. “Training” is not part of her vocabulary—though she has been hooked recently on a boot camp class that promises washboard abs.
Clients at this level are very much about “me.” They are motivated by self-desires and needs they can barely name. They are concrete and view the world according to dichotomies of “me and you,” “haves and have-nots,” etc. They can be impulsive, seek immediate gratification and will follow rules only if it serves their needs. Other people in their lives are viewed as friends or foes for goals they seek. When things don’t go their way, they blame others. They often speak in platitudes—“Life is good,” “Only the strong survive,” “My way or the highway.” And they rarely worry about consequences.
Level 2: The Conformist
John is a hardcore athlete, an ex–Navy SEAL and a firefighter. At 35 he is lean and fit; he trains hard to keep in shape for work. Raised in a farm family, he strongly identifies with his religious and cultural heritage. John teaches his kids to follow the rules and be loyal. He says, “Be honest, work hard and keep your faith. You will be rewarded in the end.”
Right and wrong, order and stability, and self-sacrifice for ultimate rewards represent aspects of the world order, according to individuals at this level. Their identity is strongly enmeshed with that of their culture, religion or “tribe.” The group with which they identify has truth and authority, and “shoulds” and “oughts” guide thought and action. Codes of conduct are rigid and unquestioned. Living up to others’ expectations and being good, according to “tribal” values, is critical to behavior choices. Impulses need to be controlled, and it is assumed that self- sacrifice will be rewarded. They avoid making waves when they speak, especially within the “tribe.” When they offer an opinion, it’s either very factual or grounded in their belief system.
Level 3: The Achiever
Eleanor knows how to play the game—and win! At 45 she’s next in line for the CEO position at work; no one else really has a chance. Whatever she does, she gives 150% and gets results. She studies “best practices” in all domains of her life. A competitor at heart, in her precious spare time she competes in triathlons and has trophies to prove it. She’s big on science and technology, and she likes to measure herself and others against rational criteria. Her life is a study in efficiency; how she does everything so perfectly astonishes friends and colleagues. Her car and home are her just rewards.
Life is a task to be mastered for clients at this level. “Play to win, seek material abundance and strive for independence” are the guidelines. There are winners and losers, the latter being identified by their lack of material success or societal status. Achievers look for rational, logical explanations. They are action-oriented and preoccupied with goals and results. They see how things tie together, and identify people according to the roles they play. Hierarchy and power are part of the natural sense of order for these clients. They know that people have different views, and try to figure out how to frame things to get others “enrolled.” They speak in terms of how to make things happen to obtain the desired results.
Level 4: The Pluralist
Warren sees things from all angles. He is all about community and making sure others are included. When he does things, he wants to learn from them—about himself, others and his world. This 55-year-old embraces the relevance of mind-body-spirit in all that he does, including his somatic education (physical training). He is always in a “process of becoming”; who he is this year may be left behind for a more compelling possibility next year. For him everything is relative; there are few absolutes. He is both a popular and an enigmatic professor at a prestigious university where he has published a number of cutting-edge theoretical papers. His classic answer to students seeking “truth” is, “It depends.”
Beliefs are up for grabs. Truth is relative. Personal identity is not fixed, but rather an ongoing reflection of emerging self-perspectives and the contexts in which one lives. Opportunities for personal growth are pursued. These clients are focused on harmony and community; decisions need to be made by consensus. There are many realities—it’s all about the “big picture,” about creating space where differences can be embraced. Pluralists are psychic explorers and social activists. Bodies are energetic systems; they want to tap into subtle energies as well as be fit in mind, body and spirit. They believe in equality and in sharing resources; they oppose greed and any slavish adherence to dogma. They are inclusive in their attitudes and behaviors and seek an integration of self with an emphasis on wholeness. They use language to emphasize feelings—being rather than doing.
If you were to work with the same clients over a couple decades, you would probably witness their transitions to higher levels of consciousness. Over time, patterns start to break down in a person’s current structure or way of being (Hunt 2009), and this provokes initial explorations into a more evolved perspective.
Kegan and Lahey’s (2009) evidence suggests that up to 27% of the adult population in North America is at or below the Conformist level, with another 66% moving toward or at the Achiever level and only 7% beyond that. While these results are suggestive of where most fitness clients are, remember it’s about evolution. Clients change over time, and it behooves good practitioners to know all the “shapes” clients are likely to take.
Fitness clients attend to and act on different agendas, depending on their level of consciousness. You probably know clients who will do whatever it takes to create a certain look now. Whether that means supplements or surgery, Opportunists need results immediately and have little appreciation of the long run. They will train if you make it fun—or for an immediate payoff, like getting buff for bikini season. The knowledge they seek and the actions they are willing to take are shaped by the criteria of immediacy and self-gratification.
Conformists run with the pack, and that dictates adherence to the workout-of-the-month. For these clients, choices are shaped by conformity to the norm, and information approved by the “tribe” is a principal reference for action. Engaging them in your club’s fitness programs involves “group” recruiting strategies.
Achievers tend to be methodical and scientific in their fitness approach. They, too, want results; sustainable, long-term ones. Sound, academic research is sought and valued above personal opinions. Actions are guided by evidence-based practices acknowledged by renowned experts. They need to experience success and win. They will train reliably and with commitment in order to get the results they seek.
Pluralists may be less in evidence in mainstream fitness centers. With a strong focus on the mind-body connection, blaring pop radio stations and TV sports channels could discourage such clients from hanging out in the cardio room, and bodybuilder bonding rituals may not be their way of getting somatically grounded. They will look at fitness from all angles, wanting to appreciate it in the context of personal growth and how it helps them understand their body’s energies. Pointing out how different fitness options can “grow” unique psychological traits may intrigue them enough to explore all the possibilities available at your club (Gavin 2005).
When you are working with a client, the first step in fostering the evolution of a Wellbeing is appreciating, honoring and building on the client’s current vantage point (Hunt 2009). Once you have looked at the world through your client’s lens, you will know how to design training or coaching, recommend readings, address the client’s motivations and choose language that resonates. For example, talking about “energy” or mood-enhancing breath practices will appeal strongly to someone at or near a Pluralist level, but may have only entertainment value for someone at the Opportunist or Conformist levels.
The concept of wellness takes on different faces at different levels. Becoming a Wellbeing is about a gradual awakening rather than a static state. As clients evolve toward the third and fourth levels of consciousness, their lives and worlds expand considerably, as does their approach to fitness and health. At earlier levels, fitness is something they do to their bodies—it isn’t as multidimensional.
As consciousness advances, clients shift from a focus on fitness now to fitness for life; from a narrow emphasis on the body to an all-encompassing view of health. Moving up the levels of consciousness pushes clients toward a full-spectrum appreciation of wellness. A fitness client may go to the gym solely to build muscle or increase performance; a Wellbeing will seek experiences that speak to her mind as much as her body, to her spirit as well as her physical health, to her need for community as much as her interest in fun.
Your expertise is needed for clients at all levels. A highly conscious individual is not necessarily knowledgeable about the health and exercise domain, nor does consciousness always lead to action. Clients get stuck or immobilized, no matter how aware. With your appreciation of their levels, you can help foster enactment of their intentions.
What more can we gain from looking through the lens of consciousness? At a minimum we can see that there may be a bodybuilder deep inside the most evolved being. We might realize that yoga can appeal to any level of consciousness, depending on how it is marketed, structured and taught. Statistics (Kegan & Lahey 2009) tell us that there may be a lot more talk of consciousness than actual integrated conscious action—the anticipated masses of Wellbeings may not yet be at the door.
In this light, programming needs to guide the evolution rather than assume it is here. The fitness center of the future will need to acknowledge through programming, staffing and its environment the multidimensional desires of Wellbeings. This means offering an expansive realm with place for body, mind, spirit, emotions and community.