A Chakra Based Approach to Career Development

Chakras are some kind of mystical sources of energy beloved by tree-hugging hippies, right? Until quite recently this was pretty much what I thought. I had chakras filed away along with various other bits of yoga philosophy that seem a bit supernatural or hard to believe, as “interesting but probably not real”. After all, doctors have never actually located these chakras in the body.

I know from experience that different yoga sequences produce different energetic responses in the body, ranging from calm and grounding to light and euphoric, but I hadn’t really made the link with the theory of chakras.

However, I have recently been doing some research, (particularly Anodea Judith’s book,  Eastern Body Western Mind)  and it turns out there is more to the chakras than you might think. The chakras are thought to be the energy centres of the body, each with a specific function and associated with a particular part of the body. Each chakra is also associated with life stages, needs and developmental  tasks, which is where the link to career development comes in. Each chakra is associated with both a stage in childhood, and an adult developmental task.

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The structure of the chakras and the developmental tasks they are associated with is very similar to some Western psychological models, including   Maslow’s Hierarchy of  Needs,Erikson’s Stages of Pyschosocial Development and Super’s Developmental Stages.

The first chakra, located at the base of the spine is associated with grounding and survival.  It is associated with the baby’s task of feeding and surviving, and also with the early adult task of learning to survive independently and make a living. People with insufficient development of this chakra may struggle to make enough money to cover their needs, even when they have the skills and qualifications to do so, perhaps because they sabotage their own attempts to make a living, refuse to conform to social expectations or lack self-discipline. They may feel unstable and fearful, and at some level be unsure if they have the right to exist. This chakra is similar to the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in that until basic physiological and survival issues are addressed, issues related to the higher level chakras will go unaddressed.

The second chakra is associated with lower abdomen and also with sexuality and pleasure seeking.  It is linked to the childhood tasks of getting needs met and the early adult tasks of forming sexual relationships. Over-development is associated with hedonistic choices, which might lead to ill-advised workplace affairs or putting pleasure ahead of work!

The third chakra is linked to the solar plexus, and is associated with action in the world, purpose and self-esteem. This chakra is most obviously associated with work, since it relates to our most purposeful activities. It is similar to the fourth level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, self-esteem, since we often find self-esteem through purposeful activity. When it is over-developed, people can end up becoming workaholics, being power hungry, competitive, manipulative or arrogant. When it is not well developed, people can be too passive and struggle to take action at work. They may suffer from low-self esteem and feel they are a victim of circumstances. Where this chakra is balanced, people feel they can take on challenges confidently and have balanced ego strength. This chakra is also associated with the childhood task of developing autonomy and the adult task of establishing a purposeful career.

The fourth chakra is associated with the heart centre, and our relationships to others. When it is balanced people expereince self-compassion and compassion for others. It is associated with the childhood task of forming friendships outside the family, and the adult tasks of forming lasting relationships and family. Career related issues may arise as people try to balance family and work roles. Where this chakra is insufficiently developed, people may struggle to form relationships, and experience relationship difficulties at work, since they may lack empathy and compassion. This chakra is the bridge between the upper and lower chakras; some people never cross this bridge, but remain preoccupied with issues at the lower chakras.

The fifth chakra relates to creativity and communication, and is associated with the throat. If it is deficient, people may find it difficult to speak up and get heard. They may not feel they have the right to speak, or they may struggle to produce creative ideas. They may find it hard to network or promote their ideas. Job interviews and public speaking may be a struggle. This chakra also relates the childhood task of learning to create things, and the adult task of self-expression and creation, and to Maslow’s need for self-actualisation. It is balanced when adults are able to contribute to society though building a business, building a house, creating arts and crafts, starting a community group, gardening or writing, for example.

The sixth Chakra is located at the “third eye”, and is associated with vision, intuition and perception. When it is balanced people can use visualisation as a tool, and get in touch with their intuition to make sound decisions. They are good at recognising patterns. They may be able to remember their dreams well and think symbolically. They may also be able to relate to archetypes, such as the hero, the mother, the teacher, the artist or the father. These archetypes can be inspirational, but can also be limiting if people associate themselves too closely with one archetype.  This chakra is associated with the adolescent task of establishing a personal identity, and growing self-awareness, and the adult task of searching for meaning, which can intensify as children leave home and careers plateau (Super’s maintenance stage).

Finally, the seventh chakra is located at the crown of the head, and is associated with wisdom and spiritual understanding. It can be associated with sharing knowledge with others, particularly late on in a career, as a mentor or advisor, and disengaging from the competitive rat race, through retirement. This is rather like Super’s disengagement stage, but it is more positive in that it emphasises spiritual growth.

So, what would be the advantage of using the chakras rather than a Western model of developmental stages?

  • Some people might relate better to the chakras, particularly if they already have an interest in Eastern philosophy
  • The chakras can provide a way of organising the career story, identifying themes and making connections,  that might make more sense for some people
  • The later chakras have more association with positive growth where the Western models emphasise decline in later life
  • Working with chakras can suggest a range of potential solutions, including working with the body, energy levels, posture, breath, creative expression,  intuition, meditation, dreams, affirmations, symbols, stories, myths and legends, as well as more traditional approaches to career development
  • Some of these solutions have the potential to bring about deep change, particularly if practiced over time, which will support the ability to manage multiple career transitions and issues rather than just provide  quick fix for the problem at hand.
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Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.” So said Abraham Maslow, and he did know a thing or two about personal growth, self-actualisation and the hierarchy of human needs.

Every day we are faced with the choice of whether to take the safe and comfortable option, the familiar path, or whether to do something new and challenging even though it makes us uncomfortable.  If we take the safe option, we know we will feel ok but it’s unlikely we will learn anything new about ourselves or the world. If we take the riskier option, we could fail, but even if we do we will be learning something new and growing our capabilities. To grow to our full potential we need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

A good reflective activity is to think about what we have done in the last few weeks that has stretched us.  I’ve often sat down with clients and helped them map out their comfort zones, stretch zones and panic zones as a diagram.

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The comfort zone is those tasks that are easy, unchallenging and possibly relaxing. My comfort zone is the routine of dealing with my usual work tasks, working with my regular team, relaxing over a TV series with my family, curling up with a good book, catching up with my close friends, my drive to work, my regular yoga class. I enjoy most of these activities but they don’t challenge me.

The stretch zone is the activities which make us a little anxious, because they are challenging or unfamiliar.  My stretch zone currently includes delivering webinars, training managers on new areas of work, going to a new yoga teacher and travelling on my own.  I recently did a zip wire activity high up (with harnesses) with my kids and took my 94 year old grandmother shopping with her new buggy; the activities were challenging in quite different ways. Work activities that I haven’t done for a while often sit here (configuring the annual appraisal process, for example) as do new tasks for which I already have the skills (planning an assessment centre). Receiving critical feedback or complaints is also a stretch; it’s never entirely comfortable.  These activities made me nervous, but in the end I was really glad I had done them, and I felt more confident in my abilities as a result.

My yoga teacher has recently introduced Hanumanasana (monkey pose or the splits) to our yoga class. It is definitely not in our comfort zone but there is something exciting about it and it does create a buzz in the class.

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Every time we do these stretch activities we grow a little. We learn more about ourselves by seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we find we are capable of more than we thought. When we succeed it is a real achievement. If we get comfortable with these activities through repetition, they become part of our comfort zone and the comfort zone grows bigger.

The panic zone is the activities which are too much of a stretch and we aren’t ready for them so there is high chance of failure.  In the panic zone we can’t think straight so we may not learn so much. My panic zone includes sorting out certain technical problems with the computer, climbing without harnesses (I am a bit scared of heights), karaoke (based on a traumatic experience of auditioning for the school choir 30 years ago – I didn’t say it was rational!), picking up big spiders and dropping back into a back bend in yoga ( even with the teacher holding me, I just can’t do it).  The panic zone is generally not such a useful place for growth, and may even be downright dangerous. However, sometimes it’s possible to build up to these activities in small steps, (holding gradually bigger and bigger spiders, for example) so that what was previously in the panic zone becomes part of the stretch zone.

In yoga there is a similar concept to the stretch zone, sometimes referred to as the edge. Stretching to your full extent is definitely uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. We are always looking for this point of challenge in yoga, and then using the breath to find steadiness and ease at the edge of our current ability.  We bring mindful awareness to all the physical sensations, recognising when to keep stretching and when to back off. We also notice thoughts and feelings that arise (“when can we stop?”, “I think I’m doing quite well”, “why am I so stiff?”, “I used to be able to this better”) and learn to let them go, bringing focus back to the breath and body. The impulse might be to come out of the pose but we learn not to mindlessly follow the impulse but to notice it and then decide what to do for the best.

This can be a great bit of yoga learning to take off the mat and into real life. In our working lives and in making career changes we often need to put ourselves in the uncomfortable stretch zone area to achieve our goals. A young person might need to pluck up courage to travel on their own to an open day. A career changer might need to approach a potential employer to find out about opportunities. A competitive job interview is rarely in the comfort zone.  A new manager will be in the stretch zone as they work out how to relate to colleagues in different way. A manager might need to have a difficult conversation with a team member or introduce changes to their area of work. Organisational change always brings a level of discomfort to everyone involved.  Uncomfortable situations provoke anxiety, and our anxiety can impact on those around us if we are not aware enough to manage it.

This is where mindful awareness of reactions to stretching activities can be so helpful. When asked to do a challenging activity, one impulse might be to make an excuse for why it can’t be done. However, by noticing that impulse as it arises, we can chose whether to respond in that way, or choose another response. In approaching a difficult conversation, mindful awareness of bodily reactions and facial expressions can serve as a reminder to ground ourselves first with some deep breaths and compassionate thoughts before tackling the conversation. We can spot a self-critical inner voice that only serves to make us feel anxious about a high stakes event, and choose whether to believe it or not.

By learning to pay attention to our reactions in uncomfortable situations we can learn to feel our way through them mindfully. We can learn the difference between uncomfortable stretch and the sort of pain or panic that means we should back off. We can learn to notice our thoughts and know that they are just temporary mental events rather than reality. By being more aware of impulses, we can take control of them rather than mindlessly responding to them. Self awareness helps us to find a level of comfort in discomfort.  It is ok to be uncomfortable!