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Jul 2015 by PCI College

A Day of Discussion and Deliberation on The Meaning of Life

Oonagh Hogan, Lecturer on the Certificate Programme and former PCI College student, reflects on the recent PCI College National Counselling and Psychotherapy Conference 2015.

This year’s PCI College, National Counselling and Psychotherapy Conference was entitled “Psychotherapy and the Meaning of Life”. The five speakers brought their own astute and sensitive insights to the days proceedings and left the attendees with much to discuss and deliberate throughout the day and thereafter.

Paul Gilligan, CEO of St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services commenced the day’s events by talking about how to raise emotionally healthy children and noted that children are dependent on adults to help them find meaning. He talked about the delicate balance between the reality that there have been many failures in Ireland’s support systems for children and opposing this, the experience he has had with the many parents in Ireland who will do anything to support their children. He talked about the importance of celebrating parenting and childhood. He noted that “the purpose of childhood is not to create adulthood but just to live childhood”.

Prof Emmy van Deurzen followed on from Paul Gilligan in the quest for meaning in the context of Existentialism and talked about how “meaning is how we are connected…and that we get meaning in how we relate to other entities in the world”. Her talk looked at the many ways in which people connect and disconnect from each other and the meanings that are created in these actions. She spoke about our core, in that this is our centre of gravity and allows us to connect or disconnect and in doing this we create meaning. Emmy likened humans to the sun using the layers of the sun as a comparison to the layers of our cells. These layers are not layers of self but really are layers of connectivity. She introduced the idea that it is the paradox of human existance which gives meaning. Here she acknowledges that people face challenges on a daily basis, and it is in facing up to these challenges that we experience the gain. She posited that we cannot make meaning or connect with another person if we avoid such challenges. She also spoke about the concept of ‘happiness’ stating that it is something we enjoy occassionally but is not the most important aspect of life. She believes that there are other values greater then happiness such as love, truth, beauty, loyalty, honour, courage and honesty. She talked about the need to teach these values to our children and in doing so drew a parallel with Paul Gilligan’s earlier talk.

There were three seminars scheduled before the break for lunch.  Dr Barbara Dowds seminar was entitled ‘In Our Right Minds – Meaning, Value and Connection’ while Eoin Stephens, PCI College President explored ‘Spirituality and Meaning in Addiction and Recovery’.  I attended Professor Digby Tantam’s talk, which followed on from Emmy Van Deurzen stating that he was not going to refer to the meaning of life but he did ask the question, “does it matter if I live or die?” – to which he answered – “it does” . He talked about his efforts to find out why life matters to us and stated that we need to find this out for ourselves. In doing this, he talked about looking for a definition to Well-Being and included Happiness as being a factor in this definition. As with Emmy’s presentation, he did not state it was the main factor but just an element in an overall defintion. He talked about how people’s perception of happincess is relative to each person’s situation and life. He moved from the great philosophers to present day research and government policy which gave a wide ranging perspective as to what Well Being might entail. Both Health and Life Satisfaction were also concepts woven into the possible definition. He talked about how psychotherapists, in looking at the issue of Well-Being need to address ‘Satisfaction’ with clients. For those clients asking the question, ‘why am I not happy in life?’ – he suggested that we may ask our clients to look at how they think about happiness and in doing this it brings us closer to our expectations and closer to a personal meaning.

Chris French’s presentation looked at our tendency to see meaning where there isn’t any. He commenced his talk by stating that one of the reasons we are successful as a species is that we can see patterns in life. We have an ability to think fast and intuitive – this way of thinking enables us to survive. We then follow this up by rationalising our actions. This system works well for us but it can also mean that we think things are there when they are not. He demonstrated many examples of voice recordings which displayed the idea of ‘Confirmation Bias’– the tendancey to notice or be presuaded by things we believe already. He also showed that we can see different events to be related because of a belief or an expectancy that we have requires there to be a relationship. This thought provoking talk lead to the question, ‘How do we not fall into such traps?’ PCI College President Eoin Stephens. Chris French postulated that this is very difficult unless we apply a scientific method, which is difficult in the usual one to one work of the psychotherapist. And so to work against this, he stated that we need to educate ourselves to have better critical thinking skills. We need to look for the counter evidence to see can we disprove the idea.

To finish the day’s conference, John Sharry talked about, ‘Cultivating Hope, Managing Dispair’. He commenced by tracing the roots of psychotherapy in philosophy in searching for personal meaning. Akin to Emmy van Deurzen, he talked about polar opposites in life, and that this is where the meaning lies. He talked about the writings of Kirkegaard and Nietsche who he read as a youth. In referencing Freud and Jung, he noted both their medical backgrounds and in a parrell to the talk of Chris French he commented on their Confirmation Bias in using medical models when developing psychotherapy. He explored Hope and Despair as core dynamics and presented a strengths-based approach to both Hope and Despair. He stated that there is no short cut - we have to experiene life and in this experience there is the probability that there will be pain but as he quoted RD Lang, “the only pain that we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain”. In concluding, he brought the idea of hope to the fore and talked about psychotherapy as being the creation of hope.

Oonagh Hogan (July 2015)
PCI College Lecturer

About Oonagh Hogan:
Oonagh Hogan lecturers on the PCI College Certificate Programme and is a Psychotherapist in a private practice in Limerick. She  has worked with the HSE in a variety of settings for approximately fourteen years and also has over ten years training experience. She earned a Bachelor of Social Science after completing her second level education. After several years working with migrant communities she gained a Masters in Philosophy in Ethnic and Racial Studies. In later years she returned to her studies, initially completing a Diploma in Life Coaching after which she enrolled in PCI College where she completed a BSc in Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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