(I wrote a similar paper following the First International Conference on Personal Meaning in Vancouver, in July, 2000. But in the wake of the Second Conference, in July, 2002, I've rewritten it completely, re-focusing my intention.) (Published, July 29, 2002)
I approach the idea of meaning as an experience rather than a conceptual formula. What is meaningful varies for the person's age, unique personality, life challenges, cultural background, and historical era, among other factors. More, the feeling that life is meaningful arises as the result of usually a combination of component experiences. On rare occasions, it happens alone, in a quasi- or fully mystical fashion. Even then, the specifics or associated imagery may vary considerably. More frequently, one experiences life as meaningful by contemplating it in the course of telling stories, of a special ceremony, a heart-to-heart dialogue, and other types of events.
Another way to appreciate the pervasiveness of this theme is to consider the variety of general cultural activities that have as at least one component the fostering of an enhanced sense of meaning for the participants. Generally, meaningfulness involves either or both of (1) feeling a sense of belonging, and (2) feeling a sense of purpose or direction in life.
Such experiences should not be taken for granted in our postmodern world. There are scores of social forces and types of experience that operate to diffuse, flatten, or otherwise diminish the sense of personal meaning. Or they may offer an illusory sense of meaning that dissolves as the short-term effects wear off–and this can involve anything from drugs and alcohol to sex, watching television, video or computer games, gambling, shopping, or house-cleaning or some types of religious piety. One aspect of the general psychology of addictions, then, can be the function of the addictive focus as a way of generating at least a brief sense of aliveness and meaningfulness.
Elsewhere on this website are papers on related topics: on ways of deepening meaning; on some approaches to creative mythmaking; and on the nature of the self.
This paper will note the kinds of fields that are associated with the search for meaning. The point in the following listing of associated fields is that they can learn from one another, that here is a point of shared concern.
Conscious Ageing.Also known as eldering, "spiritual eldering," and some other aspects of gerontology, there are scores of different kinds of endeavors that are pioneering a new frontier. People at retirement are for the most part far from being "over the hill." Rather, they have opportunities to refocus and become generative in more sublte ways. It's an opportunity for a re-balancing of the personality, for what the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called the stage of "integrity."
One of the components of this broad endeavor is that of helping people to tell their stories, to feel truly "seen" and "heard," to feel more open and accepted with all their faults and inner beauty revealed. It is important to promote the writing of memoirs, autobiographies or notes, obituaries and ethical wills (the value legacy one wishes to leave), and creating get-togethers in which folks can share their stories.
Coping with the challenges of retirement, the increased incidence of illness and the death of significant others heightens the deeper philosophical issues, makes them more relevant. The answers, such as they are, to such challenges, involve only a limited amount of the more rational, problem-solving types of thought and action. More, they involve a shifting of consciousness itself, a reduction of clinging to things and people and symbols of status and authority; a dis-identification with achievements and possessions; and a re-identification with more personal, emotional, and philosophical realities.
Spiritual RenewalReligious retreats of all sorts, study programs, activities of many types organized to help participants to deepen their sense of connectedness with God. This can involve contemplation, study, and even collaborative social action. There are many, perhaps most, among both clergy and congregation who become preoccupied by more mundane elements, such as the building fund, outside endeavors, the administration of the after-school program for the kids, etc. But others seek to re-vitalize the liturgy or other rituals, such as weddings, funerals, welcomings of infants, etc.
A related trend is towards a dimension of pastoral counseling that might better be called spiritual guidance. It's a type of psychotherapy, but not for clients who feel themselves to be in any way "sick." Rather, the sense of challenge is towards deepening, greater meaning, clearer direction. There's a deep tradition of spiritual guidance for the Jesuits in the Catholic Church, and some of those principles overlap with those of effective existential therapy.
RitualsThere has been a renewed interest in creating new and more meaningful rituals, both within the mainstream religions and also in many of the non-traditional spiritual paths. This relates to the cultural syncretism that is happening in general, the attempt to harvest the best images, symbols, concepts, practices from many cultural backgrounds and then integrate these in a new approach. Thus, many people who are not affiliated with formal religions often wish for an experience of a more meaningful ceremony to mark their cultural transitions (Blatner, 2000b)
Death and DyingThe field of "thanatology" has emerged–a truly inter-disciplinary field that draws from hospice workers, physicians, nurses, psychologists, funeral professonals, and addressing also the associated fields of bereavement support, anticipatory grief, and support for groups of people who have life-threatening illness (but who may not die for years, or, as new treatments are developed, perhaps not at all).
The theme of life as meaningful weaves in and out of component activities such as life review, the impact of near-death experiences, and the tying up of loose ends, reconciliation of damaged relationships, and re-alignment of unresolved spiritual and philosophical issues.
Holistic HealthIncreasingly, we are turning again to a less mechanical and more mind-body-spirit integrated approach to thinking about health. As part of this, the kind of support groups mentioned above for life-threatening illnesses can be equally applied for those suffering from life-challenging disorders. People with chronic arthritis, diabetes, different types of mental illness, etc.–all can be helped by mutual support. Again, people thus challenged often confront the experience of meaninglessness, and such concerns deserve to be addressed.
The alternative health approaches, from Yoga to Acupuncture, often are associated with traditional philosophies that speak to personal meaning. Thus, the general field of personal growth offers a rich source of collegial connections.
Oral History and GenealogyAnother cultural trend seemed to get a boost with the television program, "Roots," in the early 1970s, and another boost happened with the internet, which has made genealogical research much easier. Again, it's a counter-force to the alienation generated by people moving away from the community of their parents. As immigration and internal migration increase, people re-establish their identity in becoming more grounded in the stories of their ancestors.
Along with genealogy is often an associated desire to get the stories of the elders in the community. (This links to the first category above.) Organizations have formed, as well as protocols for interviewing, technologies for recording the interview, professional journals, all devoted to oral history. For these, too, there was relevance for the theme of highlighting or discerning what was more meaningful in the many episodes described. This sector, then, interfaces with the first item, gerontology, in promoting the writing of memoirs and helping the old folks tell their stories.
Education of Emotional IntelligenceAlthough for the most part related to a recognition of the need for a conscious learning of skills such as communications, problem-solving, and self-awareness, the "social and emotional learning" movement also has applications in business and community-building; and a component of this involves helping younger people as well as older folks to feel the sense of meaning and purpose of their lives. The field of Character Education is also connected in a general sense to this goal. To restate the point, I believe that the various fields being mentioned can find some common ground in the search for and deepening of the sense of personal meaning in life, and they can inform and be informed by each others' insights.
PhilosophyAlthough caught up with many different academic goals, there are many in the field of philosophy who are genuinely concerned with this quest for personal meaning, and seek to express their explorations and insights in ways that can be understood and applied by ordinary people in their everyday life. Some of these philosophers would clearly enjoy more cross-fertilization with others with a similar goal, but working in a different field.
Postmodernism has been an interesting current trend, and I think in its moderate form it offers some support for daring to create a more personal mythology, which will be discussed further on. More about postmodernism can be found elsewhere on this website.
Then there are the amateur philosophers. Without credentials, they nevertheless engage in the exploration of non-established lines of thought about the meaning of life. (Personally, I consider philosophy to be a non-frivolous game, a sort of dialectical process, in which all the players are trying to build a better explanation of what it's all about. We may never achieve a final "answer," but there is always the sense that we are at least creating ever more comprehensive, inclusive, balanced, and interesting theories.)
Comparative Mythology and ReligionStudies deriving from anthropology, history, cross-cultural sociology, and other fields supported a natural emergence of interdisciplinary studies. Religion moved from being a denominationally-biased mode of inculcating the young to a subject of impartial and cross-cultural study. What were the common elements that could be discerned in many if not all religions?
One impetus to this effort was the influx of Asian influences after the Second World War, first, Zen Buddhism; followed in the 1960s by a resurgence of interest in Yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Native American Indian religions, and the mystical streams within the major Western and Eastern religious traditions. Beginning in the 1960s, there was a proliferation of writings in this arena, coinciding in part with relaxations of immigration laws and an influx of spiritual teachers from Asia and the Middle East.
In the early 1980s, the work of the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell (who also based many of his ideas on Jung's theories), was popularized in a public television series hosted by Bill Moyers. One theme from this series and his then popular books is that we all can participate in a kind of "hero's journey." Since then, a number of books on "personal mythology" have been written subsequently in order to elaborate this general theme. (Some examples of these include: Bolen, 1990; Feinstein & Krippner, 1988; Keen & Fox, 1989; and Pearson, 1991.)
Another effect of the exploration of the myths of other cultures is that it brought into sharper awareness the "myths"–i.e., unquestioned assumptions and implicit attitudes – of our own Western culture. Modern culture presumed to be scientific, rational, and beyond the grip of "myth," but the combination of cross-cultural studies and dynamic psychology revealed that our own society was riven with a host of norms based on a combination of tradition and the sustaining of familiar power structures–i.e. we, too, had our own myths. In our own time of rapidly changing circumstances, international travel and mixing of cultural influences, the impact of new technologies, etc.-- we are being forced to re-evaluate what seem to be fixed truths–but are in actuality relative value systems, and knowing about comparative religions and mythologies helps to identify such assumptions, the better to bring consciousness to their revision and refinement.
EnchantmentAnother dimension of meaning is enhanced by the elaboration of imagery and fantasy. In the last forty years these dimensions were given new life by the popularity among older youngsters and many adults of the Tolkien books about the "Hobbit" and the "Lord of the Rings" in the late 1960s, through Castaneda's writings about his Mexican sorcerer-teacher, "Don Juan," through the "Dungeons and Dragons" games fashion, and now in the best-selling Harry Potter books. Themes of wizards and magical creatures, dragons and angels, fairies and gnomes have become more prominent in literature and toy stores, television cartoons and movies.
In many ways, as mentioned above, the early part of this last century was characterized more by a tendency towards de-mythologization, a tendency to explain phenomena "scientifically," in order to pull away more distinctively from the forces of mere superstition. However, for a while there came a relative lack in the celebration of personally meaningful images, and as with other aspects of spirituality and the dimensions of imagination and playfulness, the pendulum is swinging back.
A re-mythologization is emerging, or, in the title phrase of a 1996 book by Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. Like romance, a measure of magic adds a kind of sparkle. It partakes of a cultural re-balancing, a re-owning of the magic of childhood's imagination and spontaneity. The key point here is to add imagery, poetry, song, ornamentation, art, the development of personal symbols, which integrate a number of the other themes mentioned in this paper.
Self-HelpThousands of self-help books seem to weave in a blending of popular psychology and philosophy, and the theme of the meaning of life is a common element. People who are seeking to improve themselves often are the same folks mentioned above, seekers, sincerely attempting to open their consciousness even more.
While some of these folks may be preoccupied with self-help, let it be noted that a majority have a significant sense of social consciousness. Concerns about ecology, social justice, reductions of prejudice and bias, and community building have become ever more prominent in the self-help and "new age" literature. The accusation that "new age" folks are "narcissistic" or caught up in their own personal quest for transcendence is largely untrue. Probably no more are this egocentric than are those within mainstream religions, and we must remember that however much ministers might preach social consciousness, many congregants use their church-going as an opportunity for self-righteous complacence.
Sub-Cultural EmpowermentIn the wake of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, negroes took on Black Power, renamed themselves "African-Americans," and this process of empowerment continues in political, industrial, and community arenas. Women, Gays and Lesbians, Hispanics, the physically challenged, Seniors and other marginalized minorities are taking more assertive action in re-identifying their problematic social status as a potential source of pride and self-help. For many, the lifting of social status is a liberation movement, a form of meaningful redemption.
The PsychotherapiesThis is a broad field with many sub-sectors. While not an explicit philosophical goal, even the Freudians had an implicit one: To substitute more rational thought for illusions was an important mythic theme in the advancement of progress. It was a further step away from the domination of superstition-encrusted traditionalism and the central feature of the Englightenment (in contrast to the medieval mind.)
Adler "deviated" from Freud (for the latter, a mild insult, for those less devoted, a complement), and even suggested a healthy meaning for life, beyond the animalistic and reductionistic satisfaction of sexual drives. Adler called it Gemeinschaftsgefuhl, then translated as community feeling or social interest. It was an ideal of a mature attitude that balanced the concerns for family and wider world with egocentricity.
Jung, another early "deviant," opened the vision of basic motivations far wider. Including also the spiritual dimension, Jung discovered scores of "archetypal" sources of human activity (see my paper on this on this website). Jung's analytical psychology also tended to be even more concerned with the kinds of issues addressed by mature adults, and questions of meaning were very much a part of this approach.
Arising apart from the psychoanalytic tradition, there were some psychiatrists who applied their interest in philosophy to the challenge of the treatment of neurosis: These were the existential psychiatrists, and they have been especially notable in their attention to the meaning of life. The work of Viktor Frankl, Medard Boss, and Ludwig Binswanger are especially notable.
Arising from the emergent field of clinical psychology in mid-century, the work of Rollo May, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Charlotte Buhler, James F.T. Bugental, and others are notable in further elaborating on various permutations of existentialist and other philosophical traditions and psychotherapy. They constituted the emergence of "Humanistic Psychology," a "third force," in American psychology, standing in contrast to the reductionistic behaviorist tradition in academia and the reductionist (in a different way) psychoanalytic tradition (Goble, 1971).
As an offshoot of humanistic psychology, in the late 1960s the field of Transpersonal Psychology emerged. This group of people more explicitly re-owned the validity of spiritual experience and sought to integrate this dimension into psychology. In so doing, it also integrated more vigorously many streams of Asian philosophy, since that field for its more refined practitioners, more a group of "psycho-spiritual" disciplines than mere exoteric religions (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993; Scotton, Chinen & Battista, 1996).
Another root-form in the field of psychotherapy was psychodrama, which in the late1930s began to integrate not only drama, but also the challenge of creativity. Its inventor, J. L. Moreno, also was one of the first to advocate group therapy, the use of the other arts in therapy, and other techniques of applied social psychology. The deep commitment to creativity had philosophical and even theological implications for Moreno, and these elements also have relevance for the general study of meaning (Blatner, 2000a).
The other creative arts therapies arose, in part stimulated by psychodrama, and also from many other sources. Art therapy, dance and movement therapy, music therapy, poetry therapy, and drama therapy, all generated a wealth of methods that, like all of the other forms of therapy, often had implications not just for treating those in the sick role, but also for helping those who were healthy to discover and establish even greater levels of bodily, emotional, and spiritual health and vitality. For example, many arts therapy techniques are used in conjunction with the support groups for people with chronic or life threatening disease.
Other forms of therapy have also participated in this general process of evolution, with some aspects that address deeper issues of meaning. Family therapy, for example, generated some approaches of narrative therapy which also resonated with the earlier personal construct theories of George Kelly. These approaches also integrated postmodernist ideas and allowed for a more creative approach to how we construct meaning in life. There is much in these evolving fields that can be useful to those working in other arenas concerned with personal meaning.
SummaryThe general quest to help people discover the sense of meaning in their lives and to feel it more deeply is a particularly interdisciplinary one. The purpose of this paper is to remind workers (and players) in many fields who have as one of their goals the quest for personal and community meaning to look beyond their own field, to all the other endeavors that also share this goal. From this, there may also be greater interchange among these fields, which will stimulate creative syntheses and more collaboration.
ReferencesBlatner, A. (2000a). Foundations of psychodrama: History, theory, and practice. New York: Springer.
Blatner, A. (2000b). A new role for psychodramatists: Master of Ceremonies. International Journal of Action Methods, 53(2), 86-93.
Bolen, J.S. (1990). Gods in everyman. San Francisco: Harper & Row. (Also wrote Goddesses in Everywoman in 1985, same publisher).
Feinstein, D. & Krippner, S. (1988). Personal mythology: The psychology of your evolving self. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
Goble, F. G. (1971). The third force: The psychology of Abraham Maslow. New York: Pocket Books.
Keen, S. & Fox, A.V. (1989). Your mythic journey: Finding the meaning of your life through writing and storytelling. Los Angeles: Tarcher. (This is an update of Keen's 1973 book, Telling your story.)
Pearson, C. S. (1991). Awakening the heroes within. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Scotton, B.W., Chinen, A. B., & Battista, J. R. (1996). Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology. New York: Basic Books.
Walsh, R. & Vaughan, F. (1993). Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher.
Comments and suggestions for additions or revisions are invited. Email me.
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