Deepening Personal Meaning:
Associated Approaches
Adam Blatner, M.D.

This is a supplement to presentations at the International Conference for Personal Meaning in the New Millenium, in Vancouver, BC, Canada. First written in July, 2000, for the first conference. Revised and posted, July 8, 2002.
This paper addresses the question, "How can people feel that their lives are more meaningful?" During this conference, I offer a workshop in which techniques derived from the method called psychodrama can be applied in the service of experiencing life as a kind of story, embellished dramatically. (See paper on this website on deepening personal meaning using drama.)  I use the metaphor of the threads of meaning being woven together to make a tapestry, and for many people, that weaving is thin, with many holes and loose ends. The challenge then is to "thicken" that weaving, adding depth and texture and coherence.

However, there are a score of other approaches which can also help in this endeavor, and they deserve to be considered, also. We'll consider contributions from the fields of psychology and psychotherapy, from current cultural trends, and other factors:

Psychology and Psychotherapy

1. Humanistic Psychology. At mid-century, two forces dominated psychology: Behaviorism, in academic circles; and psychoanalysis, in clinical circles. Neither fully addressed the more refined capacities of play, spirituality, meaning-dimensions that couldn't be reduced to "rat" conditioning or the determinism of early childhood experiences. Thus, a "third force" emerged, led by visionary psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Charlotte Buhler, James Bugental, and others- and these integrated also the seminal work of the existential psychiatrists and psychologists such as Viktor Frankl, Ludwig Binswanger, etc. They addressed such phenomena as "peak experiences" and talked about authenticity-and they actively considered questions of personal meaning as a factor in psychotherapy (Goble, 1971). Many of their ideas continue to be a source of insight in this endeavor.

2. Transpersonal Psychology and Psychiatry. Out of Humanistic Psychology emerged another trend, one that extended psychology into the realm of spiritual concern. (I define spirituality as that activity of developing a deeper sense of connection with the Greater Wholeness of Being, usually called "God" in Western cultures; religion, then, is the social organization of that spiritual impulse, which sometimes helps channel it, and sometimes unfortunately interferes with this mission.) At the end of the 1960s, then, the Association of Transpersonal Psychology was founded (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993; Scotton, Chinen & Battista, 1996). Essentially, it proposed that an exploration of people's spiritual concerns and helping them to develop this dimension of their being could also help them work out their problems.

Transpersonal psychology, though, quickly moved beyond the challenge of purely clinical concerns-helping individuals or families with personal problems- and became involved with a somewhat larger concern for consciousness expansion, including ecology and social activism. Over the last few decades, a number of organizations and journals have been founded to support this effort, such as the Institute of the Noetic Sciences (IONS), the journal, "Common Boundary," and even a radio program called "New Dimensions."

Another development emerging from this field has been an expansion of philosophical ideas, such as those worked out by Ken Wilber (1998), who has created a model for integrating many seeming opposites, such as science and spirituality. Other areas of academic philosophy have then responded and begun to build on these proposals.

3. Carl G. Jung's Analytical Psychology. For various reasons Jung's ideas hadn't become as well-known as Freud's, but around the mid-late 1960s they enjoyed a renaissance. I suspect it may have been in part because no other approach addressed the richness of the psychedelic experience, and once intellectuals began contemplating "the farther reaches of human nature" a psychology that had a wider scope was needed. Jung's inclusion of many dimensions, spirituality as well as sexuality or aggression, and all the other archetypes, invited people to think about the more general goals of life as the balancing of many different temperamental and motivational variables (Blatner, 1999b).

In the last few decades, a number of writers have become widely known, such as Thomas Moore, James Hillman, Jean Shinoda Bolen, etc. These writers have addressed the challenges of personal meaning from a variety of fascinating standpoints. One common underlying theme is that life becomes more meaningful when lived in "depth," experienced at a number of simultaneous levels or dimensions, such as art, philosophy, social concern, etc.-in addition to the immediate problems of superficial survival. And these ideas are also prominent in the work of transpersonal psychology.

4. The Creative Arts Therapies, involving the use of music, dance and movement, art, poetry, sculpture, and drama, at first developed as separate fields and applying these primarily to therapy. By the 1980s, these diverse fields began to interact in a more interdisciplinary fashion. (Indeed, the spin-off field called "expressive arts therapy" promotes the integration of several modalities.) Also, like many aspects of psychotherapy, the creative arts therapies offered much not only to sick people wanting to get better, but also to healthy people who want to become healthier and even more resilient. Many of their techniques may be applied in workshops aimed at deepening personal meaning.

5. Group Psychotherapy This activity likewise transcended its boundaries of treatment of those in the sick role, many of its methods becoming applied for support groups of various types and for sensitivity training. In addition to talk, action techniques were taken from psychodrama to make these processes more experiential. Beginning with the "T-Groups" in the late 1940s, group work began to be integrated with Humanistic Psychology in evolving into sensitivity training-some of it used in business-and then into encounter groups. Group therapy, in part influenced by Yalom's work, came to include a consideration of "existential issues," and this concern also came to be used in support groups for people with life threatening illness, bereavement groups, and for helping people with other problems. Personal meaning was a natural subject for sharing in these settings.

6. Narrative Therapy Instead of trying to generate insight into what may have been the "truth" in the past, this approach concerns itself with simply clarifying memory as if it were a story people tell themselves, a "narrative," and then going on to consciously work with role definitions and words in order to re-tell that story in a more constructive, life-affirming fashion. The problem with traditional psychodynamic approaches, especially as applied to family work, from which narrative therapy chiefly emerged, was that everyone in the family had a different version of history and it became a fruitless task to seek to discover "what really happened." Co-creating a new way of thinking about past and present redirects the family towards a more positive future. It became clear that such artful constructions benefitted from an inclusion of people's higher aspirations, and clarifying these values and ideals before weaving them into the narrative constituted a kind of logotherapy, a working with personal and collective meaning (Sarbin, 1986).

7. Experiential Therapies. In addition to the use of the creative arts, other approaches to psychotherapy emerged, addressing dimensions that had been overlooked in conventional talk therapy. The "Body Therapies"-especially the post-Reichian form of Bioenergetic Analysis, the "Imagery Therapies," the aforementioned Gestalt therapy-which had integrated some psychodramatic methods--, and other approaches helped people attend to a wider range of their experience-their bodily sensations, the feeling of the streaming of bodily "energy," the vividness of imagery evoked by quasi-hypnotic techniques-these and other approaches also offered implications for learning to become more sensitive to a wider range of life experiences and to take this increased sensitivity into account as one developed a more holistic sense of personal meaning.

Cultural Developments

From the middle of the 20th Century onward, dynamic psychology increasingly penetrated the fabric of the culture, in the Humanities, in academia, the media, and even in popular cartoons. In addition, a number of general developments in the wider culture added to the wealth of approaches available for the deepening of personal meaning.

8. Comparative Mythology and Religion Studies 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.

9. The Human Potential Movement, emerging in the 1960s, invited people to explore the frontiers of mind and socially constructive behavior. Beginning primarily at Esalen Institute in California, it soon spread nationally and internationally, with "growth centers" in the late 60s and through the 1970s hosting a wide range of workshops relating to psychology, spirituality, body awareness, etc. The "encounter" group was a prominent element for a decade, but then fell out of fashion, transforming into many more focused programs for personal development.

10. New Trends in Spirituality. Related to items number 2, 7, and 8 above, although there have been precursors throughout the ages, a continuously increasing percentage of people-more among young adults-began to explore nontraditional avenues in religion. Some of these efforts involve re-discovering or re-creating greater depth within the mainstream traditions, with a greater emphasis on personal experience and social action, while others try out different, sometimes rather "foreign" spiritual traditions. The activity of finding one's most satisfactory spiritual path has itself become a common phase in the life journey (McLennan, 1999). This incredibly rich trend in contemporary culture deserves to be vividly recognized (Taylor, 1999; Smolley & Kinney, 1999, Drury, 1999). This spiritual renaissance, of course, brings into sharp focus the question of meaning in life.

11. Consciousness-Expansion itself has become an important movement. With roots in the Human Potential Movement and new trends in spirituality, the idea of becoming more conscious about a wide range of other issues-political, social, environmental-also relates to our view of the meaning of our lives. The point here is that meaning is not merely a matter of acting for oneself, but also to foster the greater advance of the species in harmony with all of life.

12. Quality of Life As our culture has moved toward affluence, the need for focus on making money has lessened for many people, and this, along with a fluctuating job market, has led to a proliferation of books and workshops and writings about how to "stop and smell the roses," or "follow your heart," or other bits of advice about balancing ambition and enjoyment. These trends also offer many ideas and techniques that relate also to the conscious assessment of meaning in life.

13. Vital Aging. With advances in health care, increasing numbers of people are living beyond 70 and doing so with remarkable vitality. A significant cultural trend has been towards addressing the needs of this sector of the population, and one aspect of this is a recognition of the need for more meaning in reviewing and living life, and also for contemplating its ending (Schachter-Shalomi, 1997).

14. Reminiscence and Story-Telling A growing theme for seniors-and also for others- is that of creating autobiographies, memoirs, even just collections of stories. New developments in genealogy, the possibilities of creating cd-roms, videos, scanning-on photographs, websites, and desktop publishing, all make it more possible for the sharing of these stories with family, or archiving them.

A combination of the themes of group work and narrative mentioned above can be applied as a form of recreation or community theatre-- sharing our stories, or dramatizing them, using, for example, the recent psychodramatic-theatrical innovation called "Playback Theatre" (Fox & Dauber, 1999). A number of books have been written about how to write your own memoir, and the group work showing some more specific techniques for telling your story and discovering the depths of meaning in the tapestry of your life's meaning is the subject of the workshop I'm presenting at this conference.

15. Thanatology The study of the dying process, somewhat of a taboo subject before the late 1960s, has become the focus of increased attention. In addition to seeking ways of helping the dying become more comfortable, there has also been a focus on promoting opportunities to experience and review life in order to make its ending a more meaningful experience. The popularity of the recently published and persistently best-selling book, Tuesdays with Morrie, reflects the spread of this growing sensitivity to this subject.

Other Elaborations

A number of other related threads of development also have implications for cultivating and deepening the sense of personal meaning.

16. Individuality: In the last half century a number of methods have been developed to help people identify specific abilities and disabilities. Coming to learn to accept areas of mild weakness, such as subtypes of reading disability, or tendencies towards depression or subclinical mania, and working out methods for compensating for these problems without letting their presence become an occasion for defeatism, this is one of the more subtle forms of the heroic journey.

Research into differences in temperament, which may be assessed according to a goodly number of schemas, also may be turned to practical use. Recognizing your tendencies allows you to channel them more positively, or to avoid certain roles that are clearly not your interest.

A related theme arises from the idea that perhaps popularity isn't a matter of one dimension-- "in" or "out," but rather involves finding the subgroups which are more naturally congenial to your own temperament and interests. Breaking out of the social norm that measures everyone according to simplistic criteria is another form of personal emancipation and the development of authenticity. In this process, it takes time to relearn to become sensitive to your own intuitions.

The clarification of dimensions of individuality helps to correct tendencies to become socialized to general cultural or family expectations. A common theme in the discovery of personal meaning involves the rediscovery of authenticity, the relinquishment of the "false self" or certain parts of the social persona that feel inconsistent with deeper values and preferences, and the re-ownership of what is sensed as "real self."

17. Enchantment: Another 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 recently published book by Thomas Moore, an invitation to "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 -in short, the integration of some of the aforementioned items 1, 3, 7, 13, and 15.

18. Many Parts of the Self. Another development in the field of psychology has been the emergence of a pluralistic model of mind- that is, instead of thinking of self as one person, a personality with a given set of traits- with an implication that a cohesive personality is a good thing- we are coming to find that many people are not only multi-faceted, but actually healthier and more resilient because of this (Rowan, 1990)! The postmodern condition can lead to a kind of "identity diffusion," as Erikson called it, but it can also lead to what I've termed "multiple personality order." The point here is not that there may be a plethora of roles, but rather that the managment of the employment of those roles can be relatively more or less competent (Blatner, 2000; Lifton, 1993).

While one of the roots of this approach arose from the problem of multiple personality disorder, the therapeutic approach of treating each subpersonality with respect, helping these personality fragments have a voice, speak for its own needs, as a way of negotiating some movement towards integration, expanded to using this approach with people who weren't dissociated so much as merely in conflict among different roles.

Actually, this is an old psychodramatic technique, one which became more well known when Fritz Perls co-opted it and it became better known as part of Gestalt Therapy. But the idea of having different parts of yourself talk to each other, once you get the idea, is fairly simple and, if done correctly, very, very useful-again, not just in therapy, but as a technique that can become part of ordinary life, as a form of ongoing mental hygiene (Blatner, 1985).

The practical implication of a pluralistic model of the mind is that people can begin to celebrate their own multifaceted nature, exulting, as did Walt Whitman in his Leaves of Grass, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself! I am great! I contain multitudes!"

19. New Rituals. As an extension of a combination of the arts therapies, drama therapy, and narrative, there has been an emergence of a number of books encouraging people to create new ceremonies and rituals to celebrate life transitions in ways that feel more meaningful to all concerned. Such rituals anchor the feeling of meaning in life.

20. Creativity as a Value. Emerging from the traditional age in which creativity was a quality that was suspect, verging on heresy, it became the province of artists and inventors. In our own time, with the speeding up of the rate of invention, becoming creative has become an adaptive quality for all people, and its implications for education and even the world of spirituality and philosophy are profound. Books on promoting ways of being creative in business, art, and life are proliferating.

Other Factors: This list is not exhaustive, but evocative-it's meant to stimulate your thinking about all the emerging trends that also relate to the enriching of people's capacity to seek to live more meaningful lives, or to find meaning at the end of those lives.


The need for personal meaning is being addressed in many ways at this conference; however, a vision gathers strength when it can include some sense of how that vision may be implemented. The trends to be mentioned include a wealth of methods, techniques, concepts-and these, too act as tools-all of which offer a rich palette of colors for the individual in the role of artist, creating a sense of deepened personal meaning.

The capacity for deepening the sense of personal meaning has been facilitated by the emergence of a number of trends in contemporary culture. From the fields of psychology, psychotherapy, and comparative religion, and from many "grass-roots" trends, including literature, popular fashions, and the emergence of a new interest in consciousness-expansion, a wealth of approaches are now available for integration into this endeavor. For the first time in history, we are capable of considering a new possibility, that of expanding consciousness to a new level of self-awareness and self-reflective behavior. This in turn opens us to the possibility that purposeful cultural evolution may be the next step in the evolution of our own species. Considering the theme of personal meaning is an integral element in that creative advance.


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Blatner, A. (1999b). The relevance of the concept of the archetype. On this website.

Blatner, A. (2000). Applied Role Theory. In Foundations of psychodrama: History, theory, & practice. New York: Springer.

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