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May 2015 by PCI College

In Our Right Minds? Meaning, Values and Connection by Barbara Dowds

Dr Barbara Dowds considers the difference between meaning in our lives and the fulfillment of basic needs, ahead of her workshop at the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference next month.

What is the relationship between life having meaning and the fulfilment of our basic needs (e.g. Maslow)?  Or in van Deurzen’s terms: in which of our existential dimensions – the physical, psychological, social and spiritual - is meaning absent? People can have all their material and esteem needs met – successful career, relationship, beautiful home- and yet feel that their lives are empty. But why can ‘having it all’ seem so empty and pointless? I want to suggest that the individualistic - even narcissistic - nature of our culture means that our needs for connection are not being fulfilled.

Meaning may reside for us in love of (an)other(s), in our values, in being part of a community or a great project, through our connection to the earth and the biosphere, through transpersonal practices or creativity. These are all about connection with the greater web of being that creates meaning - whether experiencing ourselves as part of nature, part of the human community or in relationship to God or the cosmos. The steady increase in depression coincides with a decline in public values, with an associated cut-off from our place in the social community and the ecosystem as well as reduced religious belief. Diminished values and disconnection are self-reinforcing: loss of values (nurturing families, communities and the environment) leads to disconnection; alienation leads to a further decline in values. While private relationships are perhaps in a better state than ever (e.g. more aware parenting and teaching), public values are abandoning the welfare state concern for human good and moving in the direction of capitalist ideologies of expansion and profit: the economy comes before people. We can see this split between the private and public in the counselling and psychotherapy sphere as well. There is in clinical practice increasing emphasis on the client-therapist relationship, but therapy institutions have taken on the capitalist and bureaucratic values of control, regulation, power, expansion and profit with their associated depersonalisation of the therapy practitioners.

The two hemispheres of the brain have evolved different ways of processing input. The left hemisphere is associated with linear, literal, abstract knowing, the right with integration, contextual and holistic processing of living and novel experience. In interpersonal communication, the left brain controls language and is concerned with logical, literal understanding, whereas the right processes tone of voice, body language and one’s own body response and therefore is concerned with emotional, intuitive and empathic relationship. According to Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary), the right brain is the source of values, vision and wisdom, whereas the left is merely an excellent technician and bureaucrat. Thus the right should be the master in charge of our destiny and the left his emissary. Unfortunately in our society the left brain has run away with its own importance and we are largely out of our right minds. Despair and meaninglessness are a product of living in a left-brain world. 

At the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference on June 20th, I will facilitate a workshop entitled 'Engaging the Right Brain to Find Meaning in Life'.  This workshop aims to bridge the gap between some of these ideas and experience. I will argue that meaning is there to be found rather than created. We will explore our own experience of what gives meaning to our lives and what takes it away.  We will examine ways of engaging the right hemisphere of the brain through metaphor, creativity, beauty, connection and body awareness.


Dr. Barbara Dowds, MIACP (May 2015)


The National Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference takes place on Saturday 20th June at The Gibson Hotel, Dublin and you can see full details here on our website.

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