To BE Human is to have Concerns and Habits

By Karen White

Habits of Being

We all have what I call Habits of Being, which said in a slightly longer way, are ways of being that are habitual. These are strongly linked to our Way of Being, which simply put is who and how we are in the world. In Ontology we can observe our Way of Being through three distinct aspects, namely Language, Emotion and Body, as well as how they interrelate and interplay together. For example, our emotions will inform our language and how we are in our bodies, and likewise language will influence emotion and body, and body, emotion and language. These three aspects are what we arrive with in this world and are what make us distinctly human. Enlightening ourselves about these three areas and being able to inquire into them, provide a very powerful way of observing and learning new and different Ways of Being. Instead of being driven by them, we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat!

Growing up, we learn those "Habits of Being" that I referred to initially. These habits we have learned and then honed over years and decades of living. We don’t announce to ourselves and others that we are learning them, and more often than not, we do not know that we are learning them. We learn them through the culture we are born into, our family of origin, and then all the various ways we are socialized in our culture. One of the definitions Wikipedia gives to socialization is the following: "Socialization essentially represents the whole process of learning throughout the course of life and is a central influence on the behaviour, beliefs, and actions of adults as well as of children."

I’d like to give you a personal example of this, that has just happened. I had decided to write this article to support myself as well as to offer it to someone who is completing the Ontological Coaching program I co-lead (as an aside, writing the previous 6 words was a challenge for me, as it puts me in the lime-light. More about that later) with my friend and colleague, Alan Sieler. So, I was going to sit down this morning and get cracking on it. Before doing so, I looked at my email and found something that I thought would be useful to share with some people in my work community. Before I’d even thought about it, I was sending out text messages and mails to them, effectively abandoning what was important to me in the process. It took me a little while, and then I had my eureka moment... there I go again with a Habit of Being, which tends towards focusing not on what is most important to me but centers more on what might be useful and valuable for others.

I am delighted with the discovery and frankly, I’m a slow learner. I don’t think I’m alone, and saying this with the utmost respect, you dear reader are probably in this with me, and have some slow learning too. We could consider these life-long habits that are so well honed and practiced that they may never go away. And, the big idea here is that they do not have to go away and they do not have to be a chronic condition. We can learn about ourselves and what our tendencies are, and begin to develop new habits that allow us to expand our capacity and Way of Being and with it have new choices and actions available to us. As you may have noticed from the example I shared, this is not immediate and we may never arrive at completely shaking the habit. We are always practicing a Way of Being though, so the good news is that we can create practices that allow us to choose what we want to develop within ourselves, loosening the grip of habits that don’t allow us to be our own best friend.

Where else do our Habits of Being come from?

To perhaps "paraphrase" from the philosopher, Martin Heidegger: To be Human is to have concerns. Probably a more accurate representation of what he said was as humans we are constituted by care and our life is perpetually being orientated to take care of our concerns. And what does that mean? By virtue of being human, living and swimming in language, along with our emotions and body, an inescapable part of that is an overwhelming desire for meaning. A big part of how we make meaning comes from concerns and could even be considered at the heart of how we make meaning. Simply being human, means we have things we care about and that deeply matter to us. While these are linked to our particular upbringing and culture, there are some universal and crucial concerns that we all share. I suggest that these can be considered core concerns.

Some core concerns are:

What I’m offering above is not an exhaustive list. If you look at those and ask yourself whether those matter to you, I have a pretty strong hunch, you would say they all do matter, and they are more than likely are at the heart of what matters deeply to you. This is a reason they can be considered core concerns, as they live in the core of our being and when these concerns are not addressed for us, it can trigger strong emotions in us and be the cause of deep suffering.

That we have these core concerns and that they matter hugely is not taught in our education system. If they were, my sense is the world in which we live would be a very different place. My hunches are that it would be kinder, gentler, more egalitarian, and more humane. Once we recognize and decide that this is the destiny, and not the curse of being human, it opens up vistas of possibility for what we can do to take care of ourselves, and to recognize that we are all in this world together, sharing commonality that is precious.

The Intertwining of our Way of Being and Habits of Being

The phrase "No (wo)man is an island" comes from the poet, John Donne, and one interpretation of this can be that we need to learn from each other because no (wo)man is an island.”. In the same manner, our Way of Being and Habits of Being go together and are informed by our prior experiences and learning. An immediate example of this is that John Donne’s quote is about "man", which is completely understandable given the time he lived in (his culture) and his gender. In one way, it just is how it is, in the sense that we don’t have to make a big song and dance about. And in another way, it is significant, because we can go through life thinking that is just how it is and so isn’t open to inquiry, question and learning. Personally, I like the latter approach, and have some more to offer on that.

Our upbringing, socialisation and culture, largely inform the relationship we have with our core concerns. The two particular concerns I would like to bring into view here are that of our Dignity and that of holding ourselves as Legitimate.

Many people who know me personally would probably characterise me as a woman who knows what she wants, is strong, and speaks up. And I would like to reveal to you that it is an ongoing and forever practice, and I am a work in progress. When deciding whether to stand up for myself and take up my dignity, there are many conversations that happen inside my head. Some of them include other concerns, such as I may hurt someone’s feelings, offend the other person, be seen in a negative light, be judged because I’m being too bolshy, and, and, and... These conversations are loud, quite regular, and often pernicious, because at times I don’t speak up when there is something very important for me at stake. I had a magnificent learning this week in that I realised that a go-to emotion for me is indignation, and in case you haven’t spotted it, dignity is right in the middle of that. More often than I would like I sacrifice what is important for me for what I consider would be for the sake of another. If over time I don’t stand in my dignity I can fall over either on the side of keeping quiet or on the side of being overly enthusiastic in my response – that’s me being polite with me!

In me not speaking up at those times I don’t treat myself as Legitimate and so compromise myself. No-one is doing this to me, but myself. And of course it is not so simple to recognise and then act upon. As human beings we have grand scale habits of thinking, one of which is that of cause and effect. If this, then that. Our concerns cannot be quantified and managed in a cause and effect manner. Even though treating myself as Legitimate is core for me, I live in relationships with others, which are important to maintain, nourish and preserve, and that is also a big part of what is meaningful for me. These intertwining and important concerns result in me balancing what I say and do, and inform all the actions I take, and sometimes don’t. So in the example of not treating myself as Legitimate, I am unintentionally conserving a core aspect of my identity that I developed at some stage in my life that I equated with being acceptable and therefore legitimate. And at this stage of my life, I’ve realised that it is time to learn a new habit of being that takes better care of my concerns.

With this in mind we can all, with awareness, be in an inquiry and practice that allows us first and foremost to treat ourselves in the way we want to be treated. This will have an ever-expanding way of how others begin to treat us, and if it may even be a gift for the people we are in relationship with, as we are practicing. Bringing it back to the practical, and by way of example, at the beginning of this writing I shared that I co-lead a coach training program. I chose to share this as a way to legitimise myself, and be visible. It is a role that is important to me, where I make a difference, and where I am seen in the world at large. It is much easier for me to speak about my friend and colleague, Alan, and his remarkable contribution, and so in this moment I chose to practice legitimising myself as well.

A learning I’m stepping into is one of from "#me too" to "#me first". Even writing that as a woman and with my socializing, has some emotional charge, and at the same time I know that this is profound and crucial work I am committed to for myself, so that I can make a contribution to and for others! I’m going to keep legitimizing myself and not give a further explanation of what I mean by #me first, and also legitimize you the reader in trusting how you will make meaning of this. Phew, more practice!

A brief perspective on the world we find ourselves in and opportunities

So far, I have looked at this from the personal perspective, and would like to offer something from the perspective of the "other"’. With all that is going on in the world, my sense making is that many people in our society at large do not feel, and indeed are not, legitimised and treated with dignity. As I wrote earlier, learning how to treat ourselves and others in terms of these core concerns is not taught in any curriculum. Sadly, in that absence other learning has taken hold, that seems to me to be at odds with dignity, legitimacy, respect, care, love, and kindness. I think there is a unique opportunity for us to examine this notion of concerns in relation to ourselves, others and the world we live in, and in particular, those of dignity and legitimacy. We can do this without blame or reprieve and in the process open up ourselves to learning something different while, at the same time, recognising we are all the same and our Race is called Human Being.

In Closing

What follows on the next pages are some reflection practices with questions to help you explore this notion of concerns, which I hope you will find practical and useful.

Thank you to all my teachers. The people I choose to learn with and from, the students who I am privileged to teach and learn with, clients, friends and family. I am grateful for every relationship I have and for every encounter, and this includes the people in my life who sometimes aren’t as tuned into what is important to me as I would like – important teachers and teaching moments...

Finally, I leave you with this quote by Maya Angelou which speaks powerfully to dignity: "Dignity — the word itself — has come to mean different things to different people, as many words do. It doesn't just mean always being stiff and composed. It means a belief in oneself, that one is worthy of the best. Dignity means that what I have to say is important, and I will say it when it's important for me to say it. Dignity really means that I deserve the best treatment I can receive. And that I have the responsibility to give the best treatment I can to other people."

We teach what we would benefit most from learning.

Practices for Habits of Being

In Relationship with Yourself

If your Habits of Being are to focus more on what’s important for others and less on your own concerns – and now would be the time to answer that as honestly as you can – then have a look here first:

Inquiry - for a week or longer

Having inquired, a new practice

In Relationship with others

If your Habits of Being are to focus more on what’s important for yourself and less on what is important for others – and now would be the time to answer that as honestly as you can – then have a look here first

Inquiry - for a week or longer period of time

Having inquired, a new practice

Karen White is an executive coach and co-leads ontological coaching and leadership programs in South Africa, Europe and the USA, as well as being the director of training for the Ontological Coaching Institute. Prior to coaching she had a 20 year career in the corporate world holding key leadership roles, spanning strategic and operational business areas. She can be contacted at or +27 83 455 4744.

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