Adam Blatner, M.D.

This is a supplement to a workshop given at the annual meeting of the American Society for Group Psychotherapy & Psychodrama, in San Francisco, April 28, 2006.
(It is also based on a presentation at the Second Conference on "Personal Meaning in the New Millennium," in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, July 18, 2002.)

1. A Feeling, not a Concept

Personal meaning isn't a matter of getting "the answer" to the question, "What is the meaning of life?" There can be no single answer because the meaning of life is not a concept or philosophy that applies to everyone in all ages. Rather, one develops a sense of meaning, or loses it, it is a subjective experience similar to and in some ways slightly related to the sense of self (see paper on self-ing on this website.) The experience of one's own life as meaningful or meaningless is of course often related to various ideas, belief systems, symbolically significant relationships, and so forth, and for most people the feeling of life as meaningful typically emerges from participation in a variety of activities. Stories, values, memories, and other experiences may be woven together–loosely or tightly–into a kind of psychological "tapestry."  Generally, two themes stand out--a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.

2. A Tapestry of Stories

A tapestry may be tightly woven and thickly textured, or on the other hand, loosely woven, frayed at the ends, thin, and perhaps even with holes. The sense of meaning for different people may also reflect similar characteristics. Certain experiences such as betrayal or unexpected significant role transitions can thin and tear the tapestry, induce a sense of alienation. Other experiences, such as the development of a more resilient personal mythology or self-story, can help people cope with stress and counter the associated weakening of the sense of personal meaning. Some people become aware that they want more meaning in their life and engage in activities that would promote this--indeed, for some, it becomes a kind of heroic quest. For others, their weakening of their sense of meaning compounds other psychological tendencies. In short, it is worthwhile to engage in the activity of meaning-making, or, using this metaphor, of thickening and tightening up one's tapestry of themes and stories.

The metaphor of tapestry suggests the involvement of many different threads, of different textures and colors, and cross threads that bind them. The point here is that personal life stories aren't the product of the construction of a dry, linear, philosophical argument. (Well, for a few intellectuals, philosophical theory-building  can indeed aid in the process, but that is just one of many possible approaches. More often people deepen their sense of meaning is through the telling of their life stories, linking past, present, and future aspirations and expectations. It's not just a matter of recounting factual events, but adding comments on feelings, what was exciting, what became less important, and so forth. In a sense, people subconsciously tell and re-tell their life stories as a way of maintaining attitudes and their sense of themselves. Doing it consciously allows you to create a more mature and constructive personal myth.

Imagine that you had a professional, highly-paid biographer writing the story of your life, the way some celebrities hire ghost writers to aid in their memoirs. Consider that you are helping that professional, and recognizing that the process involves re-telling stories, and watching how the professional works with them to bring out a bit more drama. Ideally, there won't be factual distortions, but a meaningful story isn't just about the facts. Events need to be placed in historical perspective, and a degree of interpretation is inevitable.

Now imagine that you are doing this--as indeed you may yet write your autobiography. This workshop is meant to offer some tools for the job. First, give yourself permission not to feel you have to finish it or present it as a whole work, from beginning to end. It may suffice for the psychological purposes of enhancing your sense of meaning in life to present chapters or parts of chapters, simple stories, some even rather brief. Meaningful vignettes, dreams, associated literary allusions--these, too, belong in the story. In this way, you may build up your broader narrative one small step at a time.

Stories are more than mere chronologies. They involve interpretation, and this in turn requires the weaving together of a wide range of images, memories, values, symbols, historical circumstances, and a kind of fiction. I'm not implying intentional distortion of that questionable concept called "reality"–especially questionable regarding the complexities of past memories involving people and perspectives–but rather fiction as the elaboration of truth, adding the dimension of "psychological truth."

3. Dramatizing Your Stories

The real meaning of an event often lies in how people experienced that event as much if not more than the mere facts of what occurred at the level of physical reality. The psychological truth including memories, expectations, fears, hopes, and attitudes might also address what you might have said if you had the chance, what you wished you could have said, or asked, what you wanted the other to do, just once, these kinds of inner scenes sometimes play a bigger part in our lives than the memories of what "actually" happened.

For example, remember the dramatic device of the aside–or in movies, "voice over." It's that dimension of life in which what was said may be less important than what you thought but didn't say out loud. Or what you thought the other person(s) thought but didn't say. It's this layering of degrees of disclosure that adds so much to the thickness of an experience.

Dramatized story is a mixture of experience and process, feeling and thinking. By drama I mean those less prosaic elements--poetry, imagery, the evocation of movement and dance, gesture or enactment, voice tone and allusion to symbolic elements, intuition and emotion. These are the things that lend experience the amplification of affect, and from this the sense of relevance, of importance. Simple chronology, the recitation of mere "I was born here and when, and then lived there, had three kids, worked in this job–the structure of too many obituaries–just doesn't capture the feelings of a meaningful life.

Drama in life doesn't require extreme events, hairbreadth escapes, cosmic battles of good and evil, climbing the highest mountain or swimming in raging rivers. That's melodrama, exaggeration. I mean giving events the respect they deserve as fully human interactions, whether they be a memory of cooking with a child or a contemplative time on a beach. To return to work reliably may be more heroic than the tarnished image of the ramblin' cancer-ridden Marlboro man.

4. Recognizing Themes

One of the ways to deepen the sense of story and meaning is to begin to discern certain themes–and each individual has a different complex of themes. For some, romance is more important, for others, it's the raising of children, or nurturance of young people in other forms. Others have a sense of destiny more in relation to art, or creating a business. And most people have a number of interdependent themes.

5. Including an audience.

Even if it is through a journal, allow yourself to envision your audience. Imagine they care and may be inspired, instructed, amused, sympathetic, that they need to struggle to understand–and that they really want to understand. This makes the story-telling more "real."

6. Interweave specifics and generalities, concrete examples and abstract observations.

A good story has enough specific imagery so that your audience can track, can imagine along with you. Describe places, times, people, what is said, as if you were a playwright, rather than explaining in terms of general concepts. If your audience can't picture a scene, then you've been too abstract.

7. A Multiplicity of Themes

Let there be a number of ways you approach the challenge of describing your life. First, warm up to the process very gradually–you need not push towards any conclusions. Allow there to emerge a goodly number of different stories regarding a variety of themes. Then, begin to gently explore that variety. In this next section, we'll name some of those themes:

 - Your name–how you came by it, how you've held on to it or changed it...

 - Your sense of home–where and what and how that word works

 - Your individuality– that mixture of personal history, temperament, areas of special interest, preferences, and personal symbols or meaningful imagery–each category can be talked about at length, and in its aggregate, you'll see how absolutely unique you are.

Some of these themes will be far more meaningful than others in the construction of your tapestry of stories, just like different colors and textures of fabric. You don't have to use all of them, or you may find that one of these categories, unuseable now, becomes more meaningful months or years later.  (Other themes in Appendix C)

So what we will explore today is some techniques you can use to deepen your own sense of what your life has been about, and is becoming. There are a goodly number of these approaches, and you can use all of them. Imagine you are a biographer of someone who has led a heroic life, and you can begin to discern different chapter headings.

Some of these may be partially chronological, but others may take off on the reality that people can live several different themes or roles at the same time, just as a symphony orchestra can play a complex piece with many lines of musical dynamics from the different instruments. Allow yourself the drama of complexity, then.

A second element in drama is the element of audience. Without an audience, how can we know what is mere dream and passing whim and what was reality? Our doubts can quickly devalue and erase experience unless they receive some confirmation.

See Appendices on next three pages:
 A: Evocative Questions
 B. Social Network Diagram
 C. Possible Themes


If you knew you would be dying in some foreseeable time–six months, two years, five days–and yet would be healthy enough until that time to do pretty much what you wanted, what would be your priorities? What would you do?

If you knew that a special loved one would be the one who'd be dying in that foreseeable time, what would you do differently?

If you suddenly won the lottery or in some other way became rich enough so that money was no object, what would you do?

What if you suddenly lost your savings, became poor? (Let's say, just poor enough so that you didn't have to struggle for bare existence, but you could afford no luxuries.)

If we discovered that reincarnation did occur and what life was about was in part "learning soul lessons," what soul lessons are up for you in this lifetime?

What information do you really want in your obituary? What would you prefer that they not omit?  What in light of your present consciousness has become incidental?

There is a practice called writing the "ethical will" in some Jewish traditions. In addition to the will addressing the disposal of material property, the person contemplating death writes a letter to various beneficiaries, usually family members, sometimes others, to be read after the writer passes on. In it are often affirmations of especially dearly-held values, descriptions of a positive future for the reader, encouragements, warnings, etc. What would you write and to whom? Imagine the readers would care and allow this letter to deeply move them. You needn't be excessively flowery in expression or feel obliged to write all that well, just think what you want to say from your heart.

This is a modification of an exercise called "the orpheus experience," developed by the humanistic psychologist, James Bugental. List ten of the most important roles you play in life. Imagine, if you had to get sick or disabled, that you would have to give up one of those roles–which one would you sacrifice first? Imagine, if you had another illness, even more disabling, and you had to give up a second role, which one would go next?  (The full experience is very heart-tugging and requires the support of a group, and lots of time to talk it out and talk it through. The leader takes the group members through this kind of imagery for all ten roles, in effect, "dying." Then very gradually, brings the group members back: "Now, look at your list, and re-order their importance: Having nothing at all, which of the ten would you want back first? Second?...)


One way to discover meaningful themes in your life is to recognize the web of relationships which sets up an interpersonal context for your existence. To draw this as a kind of map brings this implicit set into more vivid awareness. Parts of it can be concretized and dramatized as a kind of living "family sculpture"-- another technique derived from psychodrama.

Simply draw the five to twenty key people in your life. Whose images are important to you. (For some people, deceased relatives or pets are significant figures, so put in anyone or anything with which you have a meaningful psychological relationship.) Put yourself in the middle– a triangle for men, a circle for women. Position the others around you with their names or initials, and place them closer or farther away according to the degree of relevance for your life. Indicate on the diagram in the lines between yourself and each of the others whether the feelings were positive or negative or neutral.

You can make other maps, too: Instead of individuals, indicate the groups with which you affiliate, whom you give varying degrees of allegiance to– including groups with whom your relationship is ambivalent.  Other maps might be of what you'd like your social network to be like in the future, or what it was in the past.
A typical sociogram might look like this


Blessing others who have helped you on your way–this is a sweet dimension of our life stories, a chance to honor and talk about those whose gifts of time, patience, concern, and other elements were particularly special. You'll find as you review these elements that it lends a rich patina of "gratitudinism" to your life story.

Recognizing some elements in your life that parallel or resonate with the themes or stories of more noted figures, whether they be legendary, spiritual, artistic, political –whatever.  This helps to weave in some mythological elements, certain meaningful symbols, figures of speech, allusions to poetic and heroic elements.

References on Personal Mythology.

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