Interview by Guruttama dasa from ISKCON Budapest
10 November 2008, London
Guruttama dasa: Tell us about Gita Coaching.
Akrura dasa: Since January 2006, I had over 900 sessions with 250 devotees all over the world. I do coaching on the phone, on Skype, on email, and I had Gita Coaching seminars in twelve European countries. Many know about it, but not too many have become coaches.
Ad: It’s a new thing, so I am trying to find more people. Coaching can be a part of a spiritual guidance system, and Euro GBC has given a guideline about the Spiritual Guidance System. They support this idea, that every European ISKCON center develops this kind of system. So I am helping yatras to develop this system and train personal spiritual guides.
Senior devotees say that it is better if we don’t use these terms like counselor, mentor or coach. They suggest using siksa guru. Not everyone agrees with this, because many don’t feel comfortable using a term guru. So we agreed to call it “spiritual guide”. I have a slide show which explains how spiritual guidance system works. It is based on a system devotees have in Chowpatty. We added a part that speaks about how to conduct effective one-to-one meetings, which includes some coaching skills. We are working now on a course for training spiritual guides.
In Ukraine they have already developed a system, and they just sent me some pictures of their counselor retreat, with about 200 devotees there.
Here at ISKCON London we have 70 counsellees and 9 counsellors and we haven’t even officially announced it. We are still testing it, but probably next year in the first two months we will announce it. And when we announce it, it means that from then we can bring in more counselors and counselees, train them and expand the system. We have nine counselors, and we are managing and leading this project together. My service is coordinating the meetings and helping other counselors when needed. I have my own counselees (six) and they all live outside.
Spiritual guidance means that we want to provide holistic care, which means body, mind, heart and soul; not only spiritual life but everything that needs to be taken care of. For now we are having nice results, devotees seem to like it, but we would like to expand the number of counselors.
Two times a month we have a group meeting with counselees and once or twice a month we have a one-to-one meeting, where they can speak about their personal life, privately, confidentially, and we don’t speak to anyone else about their issues.
Gd: How are you invited to other countries, how do they get to know about your system?
Ad: I usually meet devotees here in London, via Internet or at the European Leaders Meeting. I also send emails on the PAMHO Free Forum or to devotees I personally know. When I coach someone in a foreign country they volunteer to organize a course in their country. They talk to their leaders and they usually agree, because there is a clear need for this everywhere.
The Global GBC is developing a leadership succession training program, for new leaders who would succeed old leaders, who will be GBCs, temple presidents, project leaders, department heads. It is a very comprehensive program: six times two weeks over two years. Anuttama Prabhu, one of the best ISKCON facilitators will be teaching about coaching when this course starts in spring 2009 in America. We are preparing lesson plans for him now.
Coaching is an official part of that leadership training program. The students will get coaching themselves, but they will also learn how to coach each other. They will be coaching each other after the first few coaching lessons. I will also coach them, and there are some other devotee coaches who can coach them. They are trained coaches.
We are also developing a course for spiritual guides and coaching skills will be part of it. The first part of the course will be about how to do group meetings, what qualities a spiritual guide must have, what attitude, etc. I call this course “Helping Devotees Succeed”, and it is about personal spiritual guidance. It’s a two- or three-day course, 10-12 hours.
Gd: How much does it cost?
Ad: At least for now, I don’t charge for the course. What only has to be covered is my travel cost.
In the coaching course it’s more one-to-one assistance, where I teach about listening, asking effective questions, turning problems into opportunities, goal setting, and accountability. I also have written material on this, it is on our Gita Coaching website and on my Gita Caoching Blog.
In the spiritual guidance course I will be teaching about how to lead a group meeting and how to keep in touch with the devotees in between. In my group I have six counselees, and some of them are employed in a very big company. They have families and for them following the sadhana and chanting is always a challenge. Therefore now we have a program to which everyone is committed, to do something about our japa. They are committed to, for example, chanting four rounds before work, at least, or eight rounds. Others will finish their rounds by 10 am every day. We have an email group to report every day to each about our rounds. This is provides inspiration and mutual accountability, which brings better focus and better results.
We also report if we have any preaching experience, maybe at work or on the train or with neighbors or relatives. Some of them are sending stories that inspire us. Since we started it two or three weeks ago, we are all getting better. One of them was in Vrndavana (India) where he finished his rounds by 7 am every day. Now his wife is also improving her japa.
So this mutual support helps, and in my role as a guide I am not acting as a senior devotee who is talking all the time, but I am opening the conversation, they also speak in our group meetings. And when we meet one-to-one, I don’t speak very much. About 75 percent of the time they speak. I listen and ask questions and summarize.
Gd: So they are talking about their everyday life, what do they do, etc.?
Ad: Yes. And this one-to-one assistance helps you to learn to solve your own problems. I help them to think creatively and responsibly about how to solve their problems and this empowers them to become self-reliant. And I tell them: “I want you all to become preachers and leaders.” Some of them already started giving classes.
There is a devotee I tried to get him to give class for a few months. He said I am not good enough, my sadhana is not good. Then I said that when you start it, you will be forced to improve your sadhana. So he agreed. Amazingly, he is an expert in Sanskrit and he reads books by the acaryas. So I told him that he has to share his knowledge with others. He might die tomorrow. He started preaching and he likes it very much.
I also assist ISKCON leaders, even some GBC members, and most of them have a challenge of working too much. So I am trying to help them to find a balance.
Gd: How are you doing that?
Ad: I make them to choose their most important activities that have the greatest impact. The rest they can delegate to others, or they can just delete. Or, for instance, accepting invitations. You don’t have to accept every invitation that you receive. You can accept about 70 percent. Then you will have time for reading and relaxing, which is not a luxury.
I induce devotees to take time off for themselves, like walk in nature, chant in nature, because it’s sometimes just too much pressure. They have many responsibilities and so many people they have to meet. I have to remind them occasionally to please slow down and relax.
For instance, the temple president in one large temple in the USA once a week he is not there. He is chanting, reading, he is on his own, or with some, but not too many, devotees. He renews himself, so he is fresh and in the mood of goodness. The next day, next week, he is ready to deal with devotees and continue with serving the mission.
A good leader always thinks how he can empower devotees. If a devotee has some potential he will train him and help him to become accountable and self reliant. We are looking for people who want to take responsibility for others’ growth. I have been studying leadership since 1992 and for several years I have published a newsletter called Leadership Excellence. It is now in the Vedabase 2003 and you can order from me an ebook with all of them free of charge.
One thing we have to do is to look how our leadership can be more effective. Who could do more, who could do things better. We can create systems and procedures and align it with our mission. If your temple has a mission statement, you always need to check are you really following it. How it can be turned into day-to-day activities?
You can quickly empower people. You can tell them: “Look I want you to take responsibility for your service, for your life. You can have a training in a few months but then think about how can you start taking care of others.” You have to introduce this idea to the devotees early. You say: “Look, you are maybe a beginner now, but in two years you will come to a state where people will come to you and say, Prabhu please help me, please instruct me, please enlighten me.” They have to learn how to solve problems and how to help others to solve problems.
Gd: I have experience that young people don’t like to take responsibility.
They just want to enjoy life.
Ad: To such people you cannot tell that they are suffering, you have to show them that you are enjoying more than them. And when they see that the devotees enjoy more, they might want to check it out. You can show them that Krsna consciousness is fun.
In a group if someone is a leader and someone out of ego comes up and says that I could also be a leader, you tell them: “You can be a leader but you have to get qualified, you have to get trained, and there are certain qualities of a leader you have to meet.”
I have identified four roles of a leader. First is example. Second is that you have to be ready to provide support to people. Third is to provide guidance. You have some knowledge and you know what you are telling them, how you are instructing them. Fourth is challenge. People that you are leading you have to challenge. Prabhupada said that a leader should always give a fresh challenge.
In the Vedabase you can find a letter to Karandhara from 1972, leaders should study this letter, there are wonderful instructions on leadership, you cannot guide people, and you cannot change people unless you are a good example and you care. There is a saying “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.” So there is a much more effective way to be a leader, and to be able to make other people to be leaders. One thing is that the best leader he actually makes leaders.
Your Guru MaharajÃ¡, SIvarama Swami, created some leaders in Hungary. Somehow he trained devotees, he initiated them. The best leaders in our movement create new leaders. Some disciples of Radanatha Swami are going around the world and preaching and guiding people. If you tell people we want you to become a leader some of them will be inspired, because everybody is ambitious, and they can see that in this movement I can become a leader, a spiritual leader.
I have a lot of professional materials online, and I can create a link so you can download them. I have a website and a blog as well. On the blog I have a lot of articles and on the Gita Coaching website I also put up some audio interviews. I try to put up a lot of things so devotees can use them, for free. There is even some devotional modern and traditional music.
Coaching is becoming very popular in the West, and devotees in Hungary could be one of the first who promote life coaching in Hungarian society. Maybe some people are already doing this. You might want to check it out.
We also have a GITA Coaching Model. By using it you can coach anyone, including yourself. First part is Goal, second is Instructions, third is Tests and fourth is Action. If someone comes to a session we first talk about the goal. Ok, what do you want to achieve in life? Choose one area. For example, I want to get up in the morning and chant my rounds. See instructions from the Bhagavad Gita or other instructions that can help you do it. Krishna says in the BG “one has to control the mind, bring it back when it wanders away from Krsna.”. Also He is saying that “Of sacrifices I am japa”. So these two verses can help with chanting.
Then what do you have to do? I have to go to bed early in the evening, eat less in the evening, have a good alarm clock.
And what are the tests? You have to be very determined to overcome obstacles.
And finally what are you going to do? I will get up four in the morning, go to Mangala-arati, chant my rounds, and I am going to report to you every day what I have done or haven’t done. So this is accountability. And if they don’t keep their commitment, they feel very bad. They know they have to report what they do, so reporting helps them focus. But this accountability is voluntary, I don’t push them.
We have created some more tools for devotees like Japa Excellence Table and 55 Gita Coaching Cards. The Cards have some questions and quotes from Srila Prabhupada, and you can use any of the cards to achieve any goal you want. We also have an e-book called “Helping Devotees Succeed”, and a Handbook for the course. We have weekly organizers for time management as well. We have DVDs, slides, stories, interactive games, etc. The training course also involves exercises, which are the best part of the seminar.
If you preach to people that we are at the cutting edge of professional development, many people could be attracted. If you know what is happening outside, what are professionals doing, what is coaching, it can help your preaching. You can even tell people that you can help them how to make money, but that it’s not the ultimate goal of life.
Leadership and coaching are the main topics of training and development. I found in one book that for resolving conflicts there important, powerful steps. First we have to agree that we will look for a third alternative that is better that mine or yours originally proposed. This is not compromise, but something better than I propose or you propose. For that, we have to communicate, and it has to be very respectful.
So how should we communicate in order to try to find some creative solution? Practically it means that I listen to you and I have to repeat what I have heard – to your satisfaction, and you have to be satisfied with what I am saying.
For instance you are saying that my classes are too heavy. Then I have to repeat back to you, making sure I understood you. Then you say: Because you always speak against sex, you always undermine women, you always criticize materialists, people end up fried in your classes. Than I have to repeat, so you are saying that my classes speak against sex, women feel undermined, and I criticize materialists, and people are frightened away. Is that what you mean? And you say yes. Now you feel understood.
Now, I have the right to make my point. I say: “The reason why I am speaking like this is because people are sleeping and somebody has to smash them and shake them because if you are too soft in your class nothing happens.” Now you have to repeat to me what I said. So in this way we patiently and respectfully communicate, and then look for a best alternative to resolve the issue.
Gd: What I understand is that you are speaking so strongly because otherwise they just keep sleeping, and they don’t wake up to ask themselves the questions of life.
Ad: Yes, I am not against them I just want to wake them up. So now, when I am satisfied with your understanding, now you can make your point. You say something.
Gd: But if you keep being so harsh they will leave and never come back.
Ad: I might say something to that but at one point we will say look into what would be the best solution for this situation.
I might say: “Because I have to say the truth, that is my duty, I am a teacher, but at the same time I don’t want to frighten away devotees from the temple. Like if I am a guest teacher, and you say that you would like to invite me, but your guests are complaining about me, and they said not to invite me again because I’m too heavy. But you still want to invite me, so what would be the best alternative? Maybe through stories I can say heavy things in a soft way, and normally people can accept. What do you think?”
Gd: It’s good.
Ad: You see? This could be a solution. I am happy, you are happy, and this is a win-win alternative.
I want to please you, and you want to please me, and we both want to please Krishna, so through communication, and our willingness to look for the best solution, we solved the problem. That is called synergy or creative cooperation.
You can also sign up on websites and forums where you can talk about these principles with other people. And it can be a preaching opportunity, because we can start talking to others about Bhagavad Gita. You can say: “Look, these principles can be found in the Gita, it might be interesting for you.”
There is a lot of things that can be used in Krsna consciousness, and we should. That is called yukta-vairagya, it is also called ajagara-vrtti. A mouse makes the hole, the snakes comes in, eats the mouse and lives in the hole. We can do the same thing, use their systems to improve ours, but we don’t make a new religion out of them. We just use what we need.
It takes only one devotee who takes responsibility who can bring about change. There’s an example of a small rudder on a boat that can change completely the course of the boat. Similarly, if one devotee understands basic principles of personal and interpersonal effectiveness they can achieve so many things.
We need to first of all work on our own self discipline: our sadhana, behavior, etc. Then we work on our close relationships, than we learn how to be a member of a team and how to build a team. Then you try to apply the principles to the team, than you gradually build many teams and then build communities. So everything is in order, and if you know what you are doing, you can do so many things, you can be an instrument in Krishna’s hand.
There is one man who is now a world expert on trust and building trust. He is showing that trust is not an emotional feeling but an economic driver that actually affects the profit of the company. It influences the money-making of the company. He shows that when trust is there, speed goes up and costs goes down. In relation to this current world financial crisis, there were big business people invited to a meeting to discuss what to do. It was a pleasant surprise that this man was also invited to speak about trust. Maybe different time is coming when spiritual values will become more relevant to the world.
The trust is one thing that stays clearly in line with Srila Prabhupada’s instructions. Prabhupada said love and trust. So what does trust mean? How we do it? Ok, I trust you because you come to the Morning Program. But what else? So things like that which are common sense we can learn in more detail from the outside sources. If it helps, why not use it?
Regarding spiritual guidance, we are trying to start this on a European level and trying to create a a European team for care and guidance of devotees. I would like to expand that team, to have more devotees on it. Any devotee can learn one-to one skills, how to help other devotees succeed. When someone appreciates one-to-one assistance and coaching we encourage them to learn more about it and start assisting others.
Coaching and spiritual guidance are not the same. You can use coaching skills to be a spiritual guide, but coaching can also be very non-directive. Devotees already know so much, they just don’t have a habit to think deeply enough. So we help them or sometimes force them to think. And because the ideas and solutions come from them, they actually use them, and they buy into them. If it comes from me, they might say thank you, very nice, but they might forget it.
Another thing is that if there is a problem, I ask them: “How can you turn that into an opportunity? Give me at least ten ideas.” Say, you have problem that you can’t sleep until midnight. How do you turn that into an opportunity? It’s an opportunity to find the cause of the problem, to learn everything you can about solving that sort of problems. So we help devotees to think how to solve problems and how to be self reliant. Thus they become self responsible and self reliant. And this will help them become leaders and preachers.
Gd: Thank you very much.
Ad: Thank you for your interest in these topics and services. Hare Krsna.
Akrura Dasa is a spiritual life coach who currently serves as a Counsellor System Coordinator and at ISKCON London and coaches ISKCON leaders and other devotees all over the world.
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