My experiences with existential questions in the preamble of my PhD

Within this blog I would like to show my experience with existential questions I have gained in the years before my PhD. As my earlier blogs about the preamble of my PhD, they have led to the main question for .y PhD: “How to create space for students to live their existential questions?”. I could also have supported these examples with theory, but I think this blog can be the place where these experiences speak for themselves.

One example of this experience concerns a participant in a training I gave. He had a question about the cooperation within the team that he led. In the first two days, he had difficulty in understanding the content of the course. He tried to get tips and tricks for practice, but without success. On the third day, when we dealt with the subject of emotions, he realized another question was more significant for him. This was the question: “Why haven’t I processed my father’s death?”. He discovered that the real mourning had not started yet. As a consequence of becoming aware of this question and being able to keep it open, he started to understand the content of the first two days and after a while was able to
deal with his problem of cooperation within his team.

Existential questions in an learning exology

In this example, the participant became aware of a quite heavy questions that was bothering him for a while. He only wasn’t aware of the question.  In this case the question was posed by the participant, and not explored by a teacher. The question was directly related to the educational content though, as the example shows.  The question you can pose here is, if such deeper questions are suitable for educational settings, as the role of a teacher is to teach and not to give therapy.  At the same time, are these questions already entangled with the educational setting and, you could argue,ask for an educational approach where the person in case is not a victim of his/her feelings, but comes into a healthy relationship with them. This is initiated by asking the question, which is also the engine for learning, development, and transformation.

Existential questions and their relationship with unconscious resistance to change

Here my second eample. During the question exploration, a women asked the question: “How can I keep everyone happy that is involved in my life?”. This is obviously an illusion, because you have no direct influence on the happiness of others. But this women was not conscious of the fact that her question was an illusion. She went over all her limits to make that illusion possible, with the only result that she was not taking care of herself. So that result guided me into my next question: How can you take care of yourself? This touched her deeply. It was the other way around. She wanted to live this question. After two weeks she mailed me her reflections about the meeting, because she felt something was not right. When I read it, she didn’t mention her last question anymore. She only wrote about her question: how can I keep everyone happy that is involved in my life? I gave her feedback and wrote my memories about the last meeting. The next meeting we talked about her question. It turned out that she had completely blocked her new question. After this realisation she was able to keep the question open while staying in close connection to the question. In other words, she was able to live the question, that had a huge impact on her work and private life.

We know from theory that our unconsciousness plays a huge role in our life. This example shows that from practice. For me, this example shows how important existential questions can be as a condition for learning, development, and transformation.

These examples already show that existential questions are entangled with education and can help students thrive by transform the view on their lives, concurrently with transformative actions.

Hearth ritual

In this blog, I want to share a more personal experience in living my questions.

In the autumn of 2021, I have done a  Heart ritual. Trigger for this ritual was my felt disconnection with some of the important people around me. I had the feeling that by doing this ritual, I could come to a deeper acceptance of some of my patterns that run within my family. Being related to others and using the natural connections in life has been a central theme and existential question for a long period in my life. In the first step of the heart ritual, I got a heart of baked stone. And in the first session I was asked to hold the heart, connect to it, and listen in my body for resonance. I got a picture of the house where my parent have been divorced. I felt that this was the place where the next activity of the heart ritual should take place. That was breaking the heart. But that took another two months before that happened. First, I spent more time in relating to my heart. I painted the heart with leaves and flowers that I took out of my garden. After that, I rubbed the heart with olive oil. And it became deep green with colours of brown and orange. It felt more and more difficult to break my heart, as it had become really part of me.

It also soon became clear how I wanted to break my heart. I still had a stone that I found as a child in the woods around Wageningen. I wrote “break” at one side of the stone and “open” on the other side. One word related to the pain and the sorrow in my life,  the other one more to the openness in live and joy. When connecting both together, I feel life becomes alive and thriving.

At the beginning of December I went with Katrien to Randwijk, where the house stood where my parents were divorced. It was amazing to discover that the people who bought the house from my parent still lived there. We where friendly welcomed and they could give me a picture of how they had experienced my parents during the divorce. That helped me to get a better understanding of the divorce and of my parents at that period of their lives. After talking and showing the bouse and sharing memories, the moment had come that I had to break my heart. I broke it at the gravel path besides the house. I felt the fear of having to break it, also the relief afterwards. I hit the heart quite hard and had many pieces.

This was the moment the next phase of the ritual started. The bonding of the pieces together with glue and I got gold powder to sprinkle over the glue. I felt an urge to start immediately. In half a day, te heart was whole again, but some pieces where pulverised and I could not restore them, so the heart remained open at two sides.

I was completely satisfied with the result. In the last session with the facilitator of the ritual, the question arose: How can I keep my heart open despite the pain? This question is still alive. During the past year it has become visible how entangled I am with this question. If feelings arise that are hard for me to let flow, I return to my question. Not always immediately of course. I also find myself eating too much in trying not to feel. At the same time, this question gives me a direction of development which goes on, consciously and unconsciously.