Alexandre Jollien shares his experience of English Coaching

Alexandre Jollien is a philosopher and writer, author of ‘ In Praise of Weakness’, ‘In Search of Wisdom’, ‘ A Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters Most’ ( co-authored with Matthieu Ricard and Christophe André), 10 books published in French and numerous articles published in French magazines. His depth and sensitivity in sharing his spiritual path is a great inspiration to his many followers, who have found comfort and a better understanding of the human condition thanks to his honesty and power of expression. In this article, in the form of an interview, Alexandre shares his experience of English coaching, his quest for ‘relaxed English’.

How would you describe your main activity Alexandre?

First of all, I would like to say that it is very tricky to try to define ourselves because when we say ‘I am this or that’ we put a label on ourselves and reduce ourselves to something and precisely, all my life is an attempt to escape from labels. So, what helps me get my bearings in my life is to think and to experience that I have 3 callings. First, I was born with a disability and I spent 17 years in a centre for disabled people where I learned to be astonished by everything, to be full of wonder at life. What struck me the most when I was in this institute was the inner joy of my ‘fellow sufferers’ and my first calling is to experience and display unconditional joy with my disability and to consider my disability as a laboratory to deepen humanity and everyday life and to build tools and to experience philosophy as a way of life, as a spiritual path, as a spiritual exercise.

My second calling is fatherhood. I am the happy father of three kids, Victorine, Augustin and Céleste and for me to be a father is to learn every day how to love unconditionally, how to free our kids and how to accompany them with tenderness and love.

And my last calling, so to speak, is to be a philosopher and a writer. I try to communicate to people the ideas that I discovered in the laboratory of everyday life. When I write a book, an article or whatever, I always think “what is the spiritual tool that I can share or convey, what is helpful?” I think I also write to give meaning to my life.

How is English important for you?
First of all, I would say that English is a bridge, a way of connecting with people. English is a bit like French in the 18th century, Latin in the time of the Roman empire. Wherever you go, you can use English. I was amazed when I was lost in the streets in Korea, the way to connect with people was with English. When I made a trip to Nepal, I was connected with people in English. I met some ex-prostitutes in Nepal, who were struggling for human rights and I was amazed because I was capable of being connected with them and I derived a big lesson from them, I cured myself of the idea of curing myself! I approached them with the question “are you happy?” and they answered, “we cannot be happy as long as there is human traffic, but we are joyful to battle for human rights.” It was a bit like that with my disability or my fragility, or my trauma. If I wait to get rid of all my problems in order to be happy, I would wait for ever. But I can be joyful here and now.
At the beginning, English was a kind of elitist language, because I saw TV intellectuals speaking English, I watched movies and I didn’t get a single word. So, my link to English was more intellectual and thanks to you Delia, my connection to English is more affective. It’s no longer a skill, a set of rules, a list of vocabulary, but it’s a way of being in life. It’s a spiritual path, to learn English. It’s a way of thinking more broadly than in my mother tongue.

How do you think English Coaching is different from traditional English teaching?
English coaching is a kind of apprenticeship in order to know who you are, rather than accumulating rules, grammar and vocabulary by heart. English coaching is learning to swim and to float in English, instead of having a life jacket or a buoy. I had a few English lessons before you and I was very disappointed because we spoke about the weather, my favourite colour, my favourite animal and it can be very artificial. English coaching is a way of expressing your deep aspirations -the art of living rather than a theoretical thing. It’s more vivid, more open. It’s learning how to think, to express, to feel and to live in English, to be immersed in English rather than to try to possess or to get something.
We cannot learn to swim by reading books on hydrodynamics. At some stage we have to jump into the pool. And what you helped me to do, is to jump.

Before I met you for English, I was always thinking: “How can I jump? When will I jump? It’s dangerous! From which height should I jump?” And when I reflect on that, it is like you are in the pool as a coach and you say, “Come! Don’t be afraid. Just jump!” and I jump, and I experience that I am not sinking, I float. What you do as a coach, as a friend on the spiritual path, you permit me not to stay in the paddling pool but to swim out a bit further every day. I had lots of preconceived ideas about how I have to speak English – to concentrate, to be very accurate and I realised that using a metaphor is much more helpful than pages of conceptual stuff. This taught me also about how I use words in my mother tongue.

What did you gain from English coaching?
The biggest gain, so to speak, was to really practice relaxed English. We often say that we need to learn like a child because children learn languages effortlessly. They learn at the breast of their mother. What we forget to add is that children are very open, they listen, they have kind of antennae to be sensitive, to be like a sponge. I think the first requirement, in order to be like a child, is to trust in oneself, to trust in the coach, to trust in the path and to trust in being open. Like a baby who learns to walk and falls and gets up again, the baby has to be moved by trust, by love. The coaching creates an overwhelming trust and creates, step by step, a serene atmosphere in which the coachee can bloom and flourish.

The comparison with Socrates is very relevant in my eyes. Socrates used to trust people, he didn’t impose an external knowledge on his students. He trusted the students and gave them the inner trust to dig deep into themselves. He sharpened their desire to know. The piece of advice that you gave me was to follow my joy. Instead of learning vocabulary heartlessly, you advised me to listen in English to topics that interest me. So that’s effortless- the effort is to sustain and be loyal to the everyday practice. The effort is to take a car and go to the swimming pool or the ocean but to jump into the ocean and swim is effortless. My English apprenticeship used to be a chore, it was very painful, full of effort.
It’s a bit like meditation. At the very beginning, we may have to struggle to set a daily ritual or routine but by practising we are eager to do that. However, I think we cannot do the path alone. The very nature of language is to connect people, so it is meaningless to stand back and learn all alone in your corner. English coaching is experiencing the very nature of language.

What did you learn about yourself through English coaching?
I learnt that my engine for learning English is joy. Another thing you showed me was the limit of my vocabulary. I often use the word ‘I fear’, ‘I crave’, ‘I’m worried’, ‘I’m joyful’, and you invited me to dig into the very experience behind these words. When I use ‘joy’ or the word ‘craving’, actually there are plenty of ways to experience ‘craving’, but we summarise all the facets of experience with just one word.
You kindly pointed out that I should explore the vocabulary and look at what my words mean. I realised that I often focus on bad things. ‘I fear’, ‘I crave’, ‘I am sad’, ‘I am anxious’, and I remember one decisive step in our path was the day when you invited me to look at the good side of my faults, my failures, my fragility, my vulnerability. I am, for example, impatient but the impatience can be a trigger, can be a force that precludes me from being stuck in fatality, in resignation. What is the good side of fear? Of craving? For example, the good side of craving can be to be open, sensitive, to have antennae. That is a tremendously good way to convert our point of view on the world. Instead of struggling against our faults or failings, to just acknowledge to ourselves what they are and then to look at what they can teach us.

You also taught me to escape from my comfort zone, which is a beautiful invitation not to be stuck in one area but to explore instead, to go where I don’t spontaneously want to go, to leave my hometown. And first to acknowledge and to know where my hometown is – philosophy, literature, spirituality, and once again to build bridges, to explore other things.
One of the things I am learning with you is to sustain and enjoy the study of something. We can decide to learn this and that, but without being nourished by it. As Seneca said, if we don’t take the medicine enough times, we are not healed. If we change every day – “now I want to take this tablet and then another tablet on another day”, the healing cannot happen. I think for happiness it’s a bit the same. If we try every day a new set of devices, new tools, we cannot dig into the very path, or sustain. For me, English coaching is really something to sustain, to stick to, and that’s precious.

Actually, you helped me to come across the very resources which inhabit my heart. The capacity to sustain, the trust to explore, to leave my comfort zone, the curiosity and the art of revisiting the vocabulary we believe we know, because words can become a bit worn out, a bit tired. We are no longer fresh, and we use words without being astonished and amazed by the word ‘joy,’ for example. I can use the word ‘joy’ thousands of times a day, but by using it without feeling the very reality behind the word ‘joy’ can be very sad and colourless and tasteless. You taught me that words are treasures, they are like baby dragons. They are awakened, energetic, not mummies, not skeletons, not worn out. You can step on words like the elephant, one word, one step. That’s a beautiful gift you are giving and I’m very grateful and I thank you for all these months.

What advice would you give to someone who is afraid of speaking English?
To jump into the ocean of English and to try to practise an ego-less English. It’s like dancing. If you dance in front of the mirror of your judgement, you are not in the dance you are the spectator of yourself, but you don’t dance. When you really dance you are in the eyes of your partner you are carried by the rhythm of the music, you are completely forgetful of yourself and in order to speak English or whatever language you learn, you are invited to forget the constant regard on yourself and to open yourself to your interlocutor. When we are speaking to somebody, if you are 100% concentrated on yourself you forget the other in front of you. The dancers who dance are very aware of the music, the partner, the rhythm, but they are not rigid and they are not doing the dance like a robot, “I have to do this move, this move”, they are completely engrossed in the dance. That’s amazing and marvellous, the huge and lovely challenge to be aware and ego-forgetful. It’s like a baby who tries to make his first steps. The baby doesn’t judge himself, “I have to put this foot here, I have to do this in order to balance”. He just goes and step by step he becomes more and more stable and fluid at the same time. And likewise, speaking English is a bit like that.


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