One way of understanding what we are doing in philosophical counselling or coaching is that we living the life of philosophy. I do not mean theoretical reflection, I mean taking an honest and searching look at ourselves. Philosophy, an ancient Greek word, means "love of wisdom." To live philosophically is to commit yourself to living as wisely as you can.
This is why I say that philosophical coaching is like personal training at the gym, only for your mind and heart. You can tell a philosopher by how they lift their hands in the world. What do they do? How is their way of being with others? People sometimes criticise philosophy because they expect it to be easy and entertaining. As though you could sit on the couch, turn on the TV, and grow in physical strength and fitness. Philosophy is about cultivation. This is why Socrates praised the examined life as the best kind. He was a father, a craftsman, a soldier, and he died for his commitment to truth and goodness. His notion of “examination” was concrete, it was a way of living, a way of being with one another, a commitment to becoming what you might be.
No wonder, then, that philosophy makes us uncomfortable. If I was to picture the ethos of the times it would be a finger pointing accusingly at somebody else. We are losing the art of pointing it inwards. We are told that to do so is neurotic, or that it colludes with structures of oppression. And certainly it can. But the health of any civilisation rests on the character of its individuals. And the health of an individual life requires responsibility for oneself. We must stop focusing on changing others, and learn to change ourselves. That's not avoidance, it's the truest courage, and the only way to make our lives work well. Turn the finger around, with wisdom. With courage, face yourself. Ask hard questions. Do it with love and respect, but do it.
What if I am living my life wrong? If so, in what ways? In what ways am I getting life right? How can I make the good better? Am I looking past the distortions of my ego and reaching for something of genuine worth? What are my primary virtues? And strengths? What are my vices and weaknesses? How do I do less of the bad, and more of the good? Am I living a worthwhile life in this shorting, flashing instant that is my existence?
To point your finger outwards creates narcissism, to point it inwards with love and courage creates character and goodness. These days we don’t murder people like Socrates, we just ignore them. Or misrepresent them. Often we just laugh at them. Comedians have become our public intellectuals. Too often we become smug and self-righteous in our apparently 'enlightened' or 'correct' opinions. The impulse to run from the hard questions about ourselves – to look at oneself in the mirror – is as strong as ever. We have to replace that impulse with something better. We need the habit of turning our attention to the questions that really matter, regarding who I am, and who I can become, with respect to truth, goodness, justice, and love. And that can be uncomfortable. But it gets easier in time, as we strengthen the virtues needed to look at ourselves and persevere. Courage begets more courage. Speaking the truth can be hard, but it makes you more truthful. Resisting the urge to defend yourself unnecessarily against foolish attacks makes you more self-possessed. Entering your frightening cave and fighting your the dragon gives you more freedom and strength than you hoped for.