In the Northern Hemisphere of our globe it is customary to refer to the North Star (Polaris) as the fixed point that sailors and land travelers can use to stay on course. In the Southern Hemisphere, where Polaris is not visible, the constellation, Crux, (also known as Southern Cross) serves this purpose. Imagining that sailors, as far back as 5000 years ago, used these markers in the skies to plot and maintain their courses gives them something of a magical quality. Just the fact that we need to look up to the heavens to see them makes them imposing and mystical for us. Centuries before we were able to begin to measure the size and distance of the stars, we somehow sensed that they were far greater than us. Today they are not merely objects for us to marvel at because of their age, beauty and configuration. They still guide us! Even with the exquisite technology available to us in GPS systems, Celestial Navigation is still the reliable fallback when more recent technology comes up short.
Shakespeare was not the first, but perhaps the most eloquent, to speak of a person as having the qualities of the North Star:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks.
They are all fire and every one doth shine,
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.
Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I
Self-Coaching is about learning how to be one’s own North Star. Most of us don’t come to this easily. Over the course of our lives we have been guided. Our species needs this. We are not able, as some species are, to immediately venture out and fend for ourselves. In fact, the arc of self-sufficiency is a rather long one for us. After we learn to care for our bodily needs, we can still be stuck for many more years in worrying about what others think of us.
We all have known the occasional exceptional persons who are their own coach from an early age, not encumbered by worries of judgments by others, able to chart their course and maintain it with confidence. Most of us are not that way, however. If we have been fortunate, we can look back and appreciate those guides or coaches who helped us along the way. Parents, teachers, instructors, athletic coaches, tutors, spiritual guides, friends and relatives, in small ways or large ones, have been guides for us – and we are better for it!
Not all guidance is good guidance, however. Walt Whitman wrote:
all you have been told…
which insults your soul”
In education, in the home, and in business especially there is too much negative mentorship. Those we looked up to have at times, under the guise of coaching, told us how to cut corners, how to cheat. Worse still, they have sometimes told us things about ourselves that did not serve us well. “You can’t sing a note!” What an awful thing to say to a child! “You are not cut out for that!” This can be a soul-crushing condemnation for a young person. This is not to say that realistic feedback does not have its place if given in a loving, caring tone. But stomping on a person’s passion is often done in the self-interest of the supposed guide rather than as a service to the Pilgrim.
Pilgrim is the word I often use to refer to the person who has received guidance and who is moving to the desired level of being his/her own coach. In Dante’s Divine Comedy the main character, Dante himself, is the Pilgrim speaking in the first person, and begins the epic poem with these words:
In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself astray in a dark wood where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled the very thought of it renews my panic.
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter. But to rehearse the good it also brought me I will speak about the other things I saw there.
How I got into it I cannot clearly say for I was moving like a sleepwalker
Dante refers to himself throughout the poem as “The Pilgrim”. He finds himself in this dark wood and soon is threatened by ferocious beasts. Terrified and not knowing where to turn, he is miraculously given a guide in the form of the Roman poet, Virgil. Virgil accompanies him on a very long journey through multiple levels of Hell and Purgatory and shows him the dangers, pitfalls and dead-end spirals into eternal loss that surround them. In listening to his words and guidance it becomes evident that for the Pilgrim, Virgil represents Reason. He shows over and over again that if he uses sound reasoning, the fates that have befallen so many souls in Purgatory and Hell will not befall him. Dante writes this poem from the deeply Christian culture that he was immersed in. His language is often the language of sin and punishment, but the lessons are clearly practical and easily translatable to non-religious wisdom traditions.
After many twists and turns, and having learned hard lessons, Virgil leads the Pilgrim to the gates of Paradise where a new guide greets him – Beatrice. She represents something even higher than Reason. Reason served the Pilgrim well when it came to avoiding the pitfalls of suffering and pain. To understand and navigate Paradise, however, an even higher gift is needed – Faith. Beatrice shows the Pilgrim what Faith means and shows him the beauty of living a virtuous life of love. Here the reader begins to sense that the Pilgrim is glowing with wonder and gratitude and needs his guide less and less. In my parlance the Pilgrim is Self-Coaching, has paid his dues, and now illuminates his own path. Building on solid Reason, the Self-Coached individual is elevated by a sense of Purpose and Inspiration.
To “Self-Coach”, we need to do what Whitman said: “Dismiss that which insults your soul”, and we need to write our own story. We need to use our own Reason (Virgil’s gift) and we need to have Faith (Beatrice’s gift) – Faith in ourselves most of all – and faith in those we choose to trust. When we have arrived at this level, it will not feel like perfection. We may still be concerned at times what someone else may think of us. We can ask for advice from those who have expertise we lack. But fundamentally, we will trust ourselves. Fundamentally, we can feel that we are our own North Star. Fundamentally, we know that when the clouds clear in the night sky, our star is where it needs to be – and we can securely navigate from there.