Shaking the Pluralistic Kaleidoscope on a Central Asian Campus
Pluralism is a process and not a product. It is a mentality, a way of looking at a diverse and changing world. A pluralistic environment is a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day.Aga Khan lV, Toronto Royal Conservatory Centre for Performance and Learning, Lecture Series, 2010
True Confessions. When I attended and presented at my first pluralistic counselling conference in Dundee in 2018, I didn’t have much of a clue what this new approach was about. I am employed by the Aga Khan Development Network and pluralism is a core value within the Ismaili Muslim community, so I sneakily thought that I would have a better chance having my professional development application approved by my organisation if I was attending something with ‘pluralistic’ in the title. As it turned out, my experiences at the last two pluralistic counselling conferences have given me a sense of finding my ‘tribe’ of like-minded counsellors. I have realised that I have been practising pluralistic approaches without knowing there was a counselling term that encompassed my values and collaborative way of working with students and clients. Mick Cooper eloquently describes that pluralistic counselling:
is about aligning my work as a therapist with the kind of world that I would like to see emerging: one in which we all have more care and compassion towards each other. It means that, at every moment of my therapeutic or supervisory work – however small and transitory – I am contributing towards the kind of society where we can all more fully thrive.
Dr. Diane Eck from the Harvard Pluralism Project explores core principles by differentiating pluralism from diversity, tolerance, and relativism:
- Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.
- Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.
- Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.
Eck says that pluralism is based on dialogue:
Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the ‘table’ will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table – with one’s commitments.
When I returned from Dundee after the first pluralistic counselling conference, my new understandings of the world of pluralistic counselling started to merge with the concepts of pluralism promoted by my employer the AKDN. The Global Centre for Pluralism describes a pluralistic society as one that values complexity and where everyone can find a sense of belonging:
The goal of pluralism is belonging. Building inclusive societies requires both institutional responses (‘hardware’) and behavioural change (‘software’) to ensure that every person is recognised and feels they belong.
My understanding of the newly emerging field of pluralistic counselling is that it encourages a respectful collaboration with clients to determine which kinds of approaches are most beneficial. Perhaps, we are learning to embody a new ‘software’ that is more flexible, humble, and inclusive.
Shortly before going to the Dundee conference, my colleague, Dr. Murodbek Laldjebaev, at the University of Central Asia in Tajikistan and I started talking about challenges our students were disclosing. He mentioned that students were talking to him after his human geography classes about their challenges with motivation, time-management and mental health. I agreed that I had been hearing many of these same concerns in my counselling office. Out of this conversation we both decided to enroll in the ‘Science of Well-Being’ course from Yale University so that we could see whether these approaches might be useful for our students. Hailed as the most popular course ever offered at Yale, professor Dr. Laurie Santos introduces many different sociological and psychological studies that help students understand the neuroscience of happiness and wellbeing. She presents multiple strategies that have been proven to promote a lasting sense of contentment. Some of the techniques we learned and practised included mindfulness meditation, conscious gratitude practices, savouring good experiences, realistic goal setting, regular sleep habits, and moderate use of social media. Although we both found the course meaningful and useful, we did not assume that university students aged 18-22 years old from five different Central Asian countries would resonate with these approaches. We decided to design a pilot research project that combined neuroscience research with practical productivity and wellbeing strategies that we both used in our personal and professional lives.
Our research aligned with the core principles of pluralistic counselling by engaging with students as co-researchers. The program was a smorgasbord of experiences, tools, and philosophical approaches that students could experiment with to see what fitted their own personalities and lifestyles. Both Murodbek and I were also trying to ‘walk the talk’ and we personally engaged with all the strategies that we were presenting to our students. We saw students as the experts of their own lives and our valued consultants who could help us understand the lived experience of university undergraduates. We were continually curious about the way they made sense of their reality and we used anecdotal written surveys, pre- and post-test questionnaires, and many rich and layered group dialogues to capture the diversity of their experiences and insights. This is illustrated by the following quotes from students:
Last semester I was often late in submitting my assignments and had problems focusing while writing assignments. I started setting the timer for every individual component of assignments. Surprisingly, I was not feeling exhausted and distracted anymore. Applying the ‘pomodoro’, I learned how to use my time effectively and be focused during my work.
Before, when I lacked sleep, I would feel dizzy, tired, and fall asleep in class. Trying to get 7-9 hours of sleep helped me. I could concentrate, do more and have energy.
The phone was disturbing me, so I deleted all my social media. And I am so happy about that and now I see more of the beauty of nature and people. Before it was like social media controlled me, but now I am controlling everything in my life.
I used to stay sad and lazy but after getting to know about the power of gratitude, I started to be thankful for what I have. This not only helped me to stay happy, but it also gave me motivation to get the best out of every small opportunity.
Mindfulness worked for me. For example, during lectures when my thoughts began to go somewhere else, I would practice mindfulness and regain my focus. I would go for a walk and look around and notice things. Being present in the moment you see a lot of beauty and learn.
For being positive-minded, I use the ‘savouring technique’. So that I don’t go into a deep depression. I notice the good feelings or think of past good moments and it helps me.
Workshops with students concluded with discussions based around Viktor Frankl quotes that helped us explore how humans find purpose and meaning that guides their lives through challenging times. We each created a personal map of how we wanted to integrate well-being strategies into our lives. People expressed their dreams, goals, and ‘mission statements’ through collage, art, and words, and then hung these ‘success maps’ in their study areas as reminders of their overall purpose and life directions:
My success map was mainly about my life goals. Each time I felt myself distracted, I gave some time to looking at it. It not only reminds me of my overall goals, but also motivates me to use time efficiently and move forward.
One of the challenges I am facing is not only in my academics, but in my social life as well. In my map I drew the mountain which I need to pass through.
I had my mission statement on the map. When you have a plan for the whole year you can keep track of the big picture, despite what has changed daily.
Six months after the completion of the workshops, we met with students again to see how they had used the strategies and approaches we had presented and practised. In front of a small audience of faculty, each person rated the strategies that were most helpful, using a ‘dot-mocracy’ exercise. We then used the ‘most significant change stories’ research approach to help deepen our understanding of what aspects of the program they found most useful and enduring.
At the end of March, Murodbek and I are coming to the Dublin conference to share more about our journey with the ‘Neuro-Science of Well-Being and Personal Purpose’ research project. If you join our workshop, you will have an opportunity to experience some of the strategies that we introduced to students. We look forward to sharing our insights and exploring with you how some of these approaches might work in your various counselling worlds. See you there!