From Life Coaching To Soul Mentoring - Semantics, Spin, or Something More?

Part Two of How To Be A Life Coach – The Real Answer


My first life coach came through a bestselling author’s program I found more than 25 years ago. I was young and bright-eyed and it seemed like a great way to dig in and dive deep.

My assigned coach was an older gentleman named John. He was semi-retired and truly desiring to help others as a coach. He was kind and warm and seemed to genuinely care. I liked him a lot. What I didn’t resonate with, though, was his checklist of questions, the seemingly endless boxes I was to fill out before each session, and the strict adherence to the company protocol – a process that always seemed to miss the mark on what I was really trying to get at. It was as if I needed him to scratch that itch that was just an inch to the lower left of my right shoulder blade, and he kept firmly pressing two knuckles into the center of my back - as frustrated as I was that this didn’t really help.

Not surprisingly, I fired John after six weeks of us both really trying. True to the format he was following, this made me a quitter, and “quitters never win.” I never returned his last call.

Life coaching has come a long way since then, and I know that there are now a great number of wonderful life coaches who work with the utmost of earnest and skill. Even so, when it came time for me to start helping others, I promised myself I would go to the places that I had wanted John to go, and then some. There would be no checklists, no set protocol, and all customization would be done in collaboration. It wasn’t my client’s job to fit my program, it was my job to fit my client’s deepest needs. Needless to say, the idea of calling myself a “life coach” wasn’t overly appealing.

Semantics, Spin or Something More?

If “life coach” didn’t feel quite right, what was I to call what I was offering? Did I just need to brand myself correctly as everyone said? It seemed worth a try. As it turns out, there are almost as many people who can help brand your work as there are workers to be branded. It’s their job to make sure that whatever is different about you is easy to see and understand. Finding someone to brand “me” proved as difficult as finding a great life coach had been early on. (When it came right down to it, the only people who really helped were Finola Howard and John Rooney, both from Ireland, but that’s another story.)

I threw up my hands again and again because it had to be REAL. It had to be TRUE. It had to be EARNEST. Semantics and spin make me cringe, and I didn’t want others cringing at my work before they even got to know me.

I asked others, and myself, in deeper and deeper rounds: What was real about what I was offering? What was true? What was congruent to how I live and, ultimately, to who I am?

It soon became clear that I mentored the soul – and yes, there was a huge difference between this and life coaching. I was not interested in success as it is commonly thought of in life, but in the soul as it informed and colored and made meaning out of our experiences. After this is discovered, we can then go for any and every success we still desire.

This was not semantics. It was not spin. I had found my ideal playground and it quickly resonated with what I have come to call my people.

The Soul Mentor As “Something More”

While “more” on the surface level is often overrated, when it translates into deeper, truer, surer, and ultimately freer, it is priceless. When it actually scratches the real itch, and “grows corn” as some of my indigenous teachers might put it, it is the very thing we are after. It is castles in the air – but with firm foundations underneath. It is heart and meaning in a life that works on all levels that are important to us, and the dismissing of everything that detracts from that. It is real connection, solid reasons for joy and gratitude, and heartfelt sighs at the end of a hard-won day. In short, it is the dream lived out in waking life.

Of course, we all crave this Something More.

It’s just that we don’t all believe it is out there, or if it is, that it is possible for us-in-specific to find it. The soul mentor knows better. We know it is out there for any earnest seeker. How do we know? We have found it ourselves and made it work in our lives – at every level.

So at the risk of generalities, and with great hope that I do not offend those who choose the term “life coach” for their great work, I offer these potential distinctions:

As a soul mentor…

…I challenge the premise of every question as it arises. Without knowing, we are primed to ask the questions of our surface culture. We are fish swimming in water having no idea that water exists. Our initial questions are born out of a sell-you-something society that doesn’t have any agreed upon definition for the soul, let alone a way to affirm and nurture it.

As an example, the question “why do I have low self-esteem?” is one we would do well to consider carefully. What if we are trying to find esteem for something we ought to care about, but actually don’t? Likewise the question “why can’t I get ahead?” very often assumes that “ahead” actually means something concrete, when most often it’s no more firm than a vague ideal. Going even deeper we find the underlying assumption that there is such a thing as “enough.” We must ask: By whose standards? By what measure? Who defines the finish line? Is there one we can point to and cross? If not, is the “success” game nothing more than an elaborate version of the song that never ends?

When we define and follow our unique soul truths, defying society to create our own finish lines, and then create the rituals to celebrate what is meaningful to us, we are finally, fully home. Being home, our soul can truly rest - for a day, or maybe a week, or even a year. We no longer fear being left behind when we take time off, because we know the soul is happy, and this happiness will undoubtedly create another adventure soon enough. We come to trust that we will know when it is time to jump into the river of life again, and when that time comes, we'll be sound of body, mind and spirit, ready to play again at the highest levels. This is the true work-life balance we seek and it is only through the soul that we find it.

As a soul mentor…

…I know that the part of us that is both timeless and fathoms deep wants to be seen, and heard, and experienced directly. Yet it does not wish to be discovered, dissected, and then rushed right up the ladder of “soul success” (as if there were such a thing). Like a young debutante at her first ball, both shy and eager, there is no place for push. This coming out moment is too precious for that.

With no one to tell us the “soul” is real, let alone share the stories about how this seeing and hearing and experiencing can come to be, we can be timid in our first steps. How does it work? Is it real? Will soul-satisfaction be any less fleeting than all the other kinds? Can it last?

Growth of the body is a conveyer belt (the baby becomes toddler, the toddler a child…), and growth of the mind is accomplished in grade-by-grade factory fashion. But how does the soul grow? How is this growth nurtured, encouraged, and shown the ways of awakening and expression, especially when we are ridiculed for taking it seriously?

It is the mentor’s job to show the way. To assure those we work with that these timid but powerful conversations are sacred and that the questions of the soul are worth every moment spent in pondering and consideration.  We must also be a living example of one who contemplates, sitting with the questions at deeper and deeper levels. We must share our “better” questions far more often than our answers.

As a soul mentor…

…I know that progress will not be linear, nor easily measured. We can be making our way beautifully and then find a sudden drop from awareness, a place of depression, or even seeming backwards movement. We awaken to the world and all its beauty and forget that in seeing clearly, we will see it all – including those parts that are filled with darkness and even horror. Our mantras of “love and light” land like loud, crashing tin on our ears, and we realize we will have to come to terms with the truths of tsunami’s and terrorism. Just when we thought we had escaped our human limitations, soaring above in total freedom, we are again plunged knee deep into the oh-shit moment.

Here the soul mentor nods her understanding. Here she says: “Yes, yes, this is beauty too, even if you can’t see it yet. A different beauty, to be sure, a terrible beauty. But you have not lost your way.”

The soul mentor does not see this as a step backwards, but a step within the great dance. “This is dimension, this is wilderness, and as such, this is worthy,” she will say, acknowledging that it hurts, but still not shying away.

As a soul mentor…

…I must make it my job to know the maps that the many different centuries and traditions have left us. If, as soul mentor, we know the maps of the soulful traditions - alchemy, Taoism, mysticism, shamanism, and others still - we can take the perspective of the soul as sojourner. If we can offer more recent maps as well, including such works as the remarkable Piero Ferrucci’sInevitable Grace: Breakthroughs in the Lives of Great Men and Women,” then we can relate the map to our time and place and even personality. If we can address what Joseph Campbell and Maureen Murdock took great pains to offer us through the hero’s and heroine’s journeys, things begin to make sense at a more soulful level. Even the difficult and barely emerging maps, such as Ken Wilber’s integral vision, can bring new direction when it appears we’ve gone about as far as we can go.

Being a student of what has come before, the soul mentor is able to see where the client is on track and off track. She can offer the reminder that the client’s holy inner pilgrimage has been taken before, countless times and through countless traditions, yet is at the essence level very much the same. However much it seems we are alone, when we reach beyond the borders of time and space, we find the literature of the soul is actually abundant. As a soul mentor, it is my job to translate such maps to these times, this culture, this life. This great comfort cannot be underestimated.

Finally, as a soul mentor…

…I must help those I work with (and now teach) become a master storyteller as she relates to her own life. To understand the soul as a story-in-play, and the soulful life as the grandest of adventures, is to finally gain the perspective needed for real progress.  We can learn what parts of our story are real, what parts are open to interpretation, and what parts are nothing more than lies we have told ourselves for far too long. Our soul knows what is real and true, what matters and what will bring joy and meaning. When our soul starts telling the story of our life, each day becomes a page-turner.

The adventure of our life becomes nothing short of that place in a good book when you simply cannot turn out the light and go to sleep – you MUST know what happens next. What began as a dry, expensive textbook becomes a rare find we would pay anything to lay our hands on – the pearl of great price, which could be found, after all.

We begin to ask ourselves: How do we tell this story with our lives? How do we translate it to others in such a way that they, too, catch a vision? This is where a soul mentor is most helpful. This is where the mentoring transcends life on its more common terms and brings forth a rich and rare satisfaction.

Reflecting back on my coaching with John…

I wish I could have told the frustrated and fearful me – the one that was tempted to believe that, indeed, “quitters never win” – that I wasn’t quitting. That in fact, I was insisting on Something More, and that it really was out there. I would not be young by the time I found it, but when I did, everything would change. As evidence, my bright eyes would grow all the brighter.

I wasn’t able to assure my younger self because I did not yet know, but I can assure you now instead: The Something More you seek is out there. It can be found. Never stop looking. Never give up. Turn the light of your soul on and point it forward. She’ll guide you, true as true can be.