I’ve got a client who calls me their Mad Hatter. This client organises writing workshops for children, so it’s natural for them to make reference to a children’s book. I think it’s meant to be a compliment, meant to mean that I help clients navigate this strange ‘Wonderland’ in which we live, aka London, or indeed Life.
Just last week I was sorting through some boxes of dusty books from the attic of my parents’ house, when I came upon a copy of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The cover of the book was coming off and you could see it was printed long ago, but nonetheless the book had that special glow, that ‘numinosity’ if you like, which hangs around things that you knew from childhood.
I immediately though of my coaching client and that evening, I reread ‘Alice’. It was a lot funnier and a lot crazier than I remembered. Logic doesn’t apply in Wonderland at all. Nothing makes sense there. Time has gone funny too – in fact, at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, time has stopped altogether. It’s teatime perpetually.
At that mad tea party, Alice keeps trying to make sense of things, but loses her way continually. Her memory is shot and when she tries to be logical, it’s illogical. On top of that the Mad Hatter seems to be no help at all. He constantly contradicts her, challenges her and interrupts her flow of thought, over and over again. When he’s playful and asks a riddle, there’s no answer to it. It’s a Zen koan. (Even today people are debating the answer on the internet. Just google ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’)
Which made me smile. I got why my client had thought of the Mad Hatter when she came to a coaching session, despite the fact that a coaching session is quite calm (though emotions may run high). It’s not just the cups of tea I dish out (at least before the pandemic). It’s that beneath the civilised veneer, it’s a space out of time and out of normal life, where anything can happen.
The first step is to slow down. When a coaching client arrives they want to rush forward and tick off the answers to their problems. That’s natural. It’s what we’ve been taught to do. But things are counter-intuitive in coaching, and what needs to happen first is to breathe and come into the present. When you’re too full of adrenalin, whatever answers you find won’t seem to be enough. You won’t take them in, or you won’t see them at all. If you do see them, you won’t see how precious and important they are or how they can transform your life. You’ll be like the Buddhist ‘hungry ghost’, never satisfied, always seeking.
It’s only when you slow down, when you step outside the busyness of ordinary life and the 9 to 5 way of looking at things, that you can find new perspective. It’s a pattern interrupt. If the answers could be found in the old way of looking and being, you’d already have done that. It’s hard of course, slowing down. It’s a challenge – the first challenge of many, when you come to a coaching session. Really thinking – that’s a challenge. Admitting what your heart longs for – that’s a challenge too. Realising that your dream is bigger than you ever thought, that’s a challenge and so is admitting that it terrifies you.
Not surprisingly, by the time Alice leaves the Mad Hatter’s tea party, she’s cross and confused. But it’s only now, now the status quo has been totally upended and turned inside out, only now can she get into the beautiful garden, which she’s been trying to enter since the beginning of the book. And once there, a whole new adventure can begin.
That ’Mad Hatter’ client wrote me a testimonial. I’ve always liked it. I like it even more now I’ve reread ‘Alice’.
‘London can seem like rabbit hole. You follow the white rabbit and down there in the dark you might lose your goals, your values, yourself. Through a humble cup of tea and a few simple writing exercises, Stephen, as any good mad hatter, reminds you of who you really are and where you really want to go…’