A meaningful encounter

Justin Haroun

Published in JHH13.1 – Shaping the invisible

I trained as a bodyworker in 1999 specialising in an integrated approaches to working with people.This way of working encouraged me to incorporate structural and functional work with a commitment to helping people understand their bodies and their relationship to the world.This led me to train as a Hakomi therapist and mindfulness teacher. I have brought this approach into my profession as a therapist but also as an academic and feel passionately about supporting humanity in healthcare and education. In recent years this has led to the work we are doing at the Centre for Resilience at Westminster University.We are committed at the centre to helping people from healthcare, education and industry live more human and flourishing lives that are both meaningful and sustainable for the individual and communities in which they live.


This article is written as a reflective play in which an academic and a therapist take a seat on a metaphorical park bench to pause, reflect and discuss meaning in professional day-to-day life and how that enables or detracts from living a meaningful life. The two characters represent the multifaceted and often-divided lives professionals lead. At times during the scene some theorists join them on the bench and contribute to the dialogue.

The scene

[It’s a warm spring day. Flowers are opening tentatively. A well-worn wooden park bench entices those walking past to take a seat, to pause for a moment and reflect. A steady stream of people walk past, some look to be enjoying the walk but others seem lost in the past or worried about some imagined future. The therapist and the academic sit side by side on the bench. Though they seem as if they are one person, there is a division but you could only notice it if you knew them intimately. They are deep in conversation about the meaning of the word ‘meaningful’. We join them half way through the conversation. [During the scene, others come to join them briefly to offer their insights]

The therapist: Take this place for example. It’s a meaningful place for me.

[The academic nods]

The therapist: I always come here in between sessions. I enjoy the space, and it helps me to get perspective, top myself up and rejuvenate. It also helps me to integrate meaning. I suppose that’s one of the reasons people come to see me.

The academic: your patients?

The therapist: yes, but I don’t like to call them my patients. I don’t think they are mine, and secondly, I find when I use the term ‘patient’ it increases my sense of them being passive.

The academic: Hmm! I think that may be true for ‘my students’ as well. I will have to think about that one.

The therapist: Anyway, I think many of the people who come to see me are often struggling with a loss of meaning or feel confused about themselves. Their disease, pain, symptoms, and histories are causing them to suffer. It’s as if they have disconnected plots in the narrative of their lives.

The academic: I often feel like my organisation is a series of disconnected plots.

[They both laugh]

The therapist: disconnected plots and disintegrated, incoherent and meaningless narratives. Lives lived in that way are confusing.

The academic: But how do we then help people, and ourselves become integrated and live more meaningful lives?

[Two visitors join them on the bench]

Polkinghorne: I think there are some inherent problems with studying meaning (1998: p6).

[The academic and therapist listen to this new visitor on the bench]

Polkinghorne: Firstly meaning exists in different forms than natural objects. Meaning is an activity, not a thing. It cannot be picked up and held. Nor can it be measured by an impersonal instrument.

The therapist: yet so many people use external measures to make sense of their plots. In the consultation they tell me their stories, and there is often a disconnect. There is a story being told which is often a jumble of others’ stories. Tales from their doctor, partners, mothers, culture, test-results…a whole list of contributors weaving a patchwork narrative that seems to make sense to the outside world. But then if you listen, if you truly listen you can begin to hear a storyteller who is telling a story. And it’s often an entirely different tale with a different plot. For me, the trick is to listen to the storyteller as well as the story.

George Sweet:

‘What I need to know most of all is;

for this client, What Is?

to observe, to be aware of What Is,

without giving it any slant or interpretation.

to recognise without

judgement, condemnation, justification,

agreement, disagreement.

to follow What Is, calls for a still mind,

a pliable heart, a tranquil energy,

a Body in Tao.

Because What Is

is constantly changing and moving’ (1989)

The academic: Yes, it seems we need to learn to listen to the storyteller within us as it speaks from the present moment through our bodies and movements. But how are we to hear our untold stories when they’re blocked by a version of ourselves that are programmed not to listen? Perhaps if we learned to observe, recognise, become pliable in our hearts then we could live a more meaningful life moment to moment.

Polkinghorne: ‘It’s like looking in a mirror. What we see is a fleeting indication, a whisp. But the meanings of the reflection are continuously being reconstituted. The reflection we see is not a fixed thing; it is constantly changing. So for us, meaning can be difficult to get a hold of. Once we think we have it, it can change’.

The therapist: Perhaps that’s why we miss so much. Moments are fleeting, and before we know it, we are following plots that don’t serve us well. Steady cultural, organisational, infrastructural plots that give us an illusion of certainty when in reality there is no such thing and what we need is ways of being more open, curious and flexible. Maybe from this open place, we can respond more effectively to others and ourselves.

Polkinghorne: We only have direct access to one realm of meaning: our own. The region of meaning must be approached through self-reflective recall or introspection in our mental realm. However, the activity of producing and recollecting meaning normally operates outside of awareness, and what is available through self-reflection is only the outcomes of the meaning-making process, not the process themselves. A further problem is that in everyday living we are normally busy attending to the world, and meanings express themselves merely in our actions and speech; recognition of their presence requires that we consciously change the focus of awareness to the realm of meaning itself. Yet when we focus on the realm of meaning in self-reflection, the meanings that are available to us can be limited by other mental operations, such as repression (1998 p7).

The academic: that’s interesting, I often find that in my everyday life I can get lost in the busyness inherent in my organisation. I can lose meaningfulness in my day-to-day life as I am too busy managing the distress of being in a large, and what often feels like an inhumane organisation.

The therapist: I am glad I don’t have to deal with any of that. I can’t imagine the tension of working somewhere like the NHS, trying to find space to engage in self-reflection – let alone find time to explore how the outcome of the self-reflective process influences my day-to-day life and the meanings I live by. Perhaps we need more ‘park benches’ in large organisations where people can feel safe enough to explore their meanings with others.

The academic: I think you are right. Sitting here right now I feel safe and present. But when I feel pressured or threatened in some way, my mental default operations are likely to cloud my reflective lens. Then add in trying to stay present while looking through smudged and fear-tinted lenses organisations so often view the world through! Once the fear lenses tap into some older part of my brain, suddenly everything feels like a threat.

The therapist: Ahh it’s a reptilian response to a human problem, closing down rather than opening up. No wonder so many big ‘solutions’ seem inhumane.

The academic: I think that’s the real challenge, how does one stay open in order to live a meaningful life in communities, organisations, families (and oneself!) when the rumbling background narrative is so often one of fear. That’s not how I want to live. Fear disconnects us from one another and from ourselves.

[Another joins them on the bench]

Parker Palmer: Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects and their students so that the students can learn to weave a world for themselves (1998 p11).

The academic: I try to weave worlds in my day-to-day work. But when I weave I don’t want to let go of my golden threads, the core values threads that make what we are weaving meaningful.

The therapist: It’s the same for me. Without those, I just could not do what I do. I would have to do something else. Working in harmony with our values is essential.

The academic: The trouble is you are often ordered to weave with threads that, at best scratch and irritate the skin and at worst destroy and corrode the very fabric you are trying to weave. There are threads that ought not to have any place in the world of education.

The therapist: Or healthcare.

The academic: Indeed. When I’m teaching I need to hold on to the threads that make teaching meaningful for me.

Parker Palmer: The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able, so that teacher and students and subjects are woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living require (p11).

The therapist: that’s what a meaningful life requires. An open heart that allows individuals and communities to flourish. That won’t come from fear and disconnection.

Parker Palmer: Each time I walk into a classroom, I can choose the place within myself from which my teaching will come…I need not teach from a fearful place: I can teach from curiosity or hope or honesty, places that are as real within me as are my fears. I can have fear, but I need not be fear – if I am willing to stand someplace else in my inner landscape (p 57).

The academic: When I do that, I need to feel a deep caring for myself. A sense of self-compassion and sometimes, I need to make a self-compassionate act. Anyway, firstly I have to recognise my fear in the moment, then soften towards that scared place in myself, and let the inner noise stop screaming at my amygdala.

The therapist: Ahh, quieting the noise. The landscape always looks different when there’s less traffic! Then you get a chance to see what paths are open to you. There are many paths better suited to teaching or practicing medicine than fear. But so often I find myself going down the old paths that lead me into unnecessary suffering, and I’ve cut myself off from a meaningful life.

Thomas Moore: In psychotherapy we deal with wounds of the heart, issues of love. And, therefore the cure is love. Our heart asks for appreciation, acceptance of complexity and to speak for the disowned part. It may be necessary to stretch the heart wide enough to embrace contradiction and paradox (1992).

The therapist: Life smudges us, knocks, caresses, strokes, stings us…I could go on! But these hurts can incite us into making sense of the conflicting stories that spin around within and outside us, though their plots may be hard to follow, if we don’t weave meaning from them they will produce a divided self and a divided life.

The academic: so for me living a meaningful life has to be a choice. I need to wake up. It’s far too easy to go to sleep when fear, shame or some other emotion that is not appropriate for the situation hijacking my body and mind. But when I am awake I can make a choice in each moment to live a more fully human life where I can listen to others and to myself respectfully, with openness, curiosity and care.

[The academic and therapist sit for a moment in silence; enjoying the sounds, smells and sights of spring. They both get up and walk off together knowing that the park bench will be there tomorrow offering its safe space to sit together and with others to explore yet more contradictory, disconnected stories, plots and narratives in the messiness that is life. But for today at least, they are both feel more able to act in more meaningful ways that support a more meaningful life]


  • Moore T (1992) Care of the soul. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  • Palmer PJ (1998) The courage to teach: exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Polkinghorne, DE (1988) Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany, NY: Suny Press.
  • Sweet G (1989) The advantage of being useless, the Tao and the counsellor. Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press Ltd