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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.

My “Speer in the chest” moments that led to my PhD

What are my inner drivers in wanting to change Higher education?

I would like to share one of the biggest “speer in the chest” moments, or cold shower moments (as we say in Dutch), where I was confronted with my illusions and at the same time inspired to make a change. This was around 2008.

A woman presented her question at the first day of an education I gave. Within the first minutes I realized she had no impact on the group whatsoever. Then she told us that she was quite nervous, but was unable to show it anymore. She had learned during all kind of courses to be this nice, kind and pretty doll. These courses addressed topics like presentation skills, assertiveness, and acquisition. During this process, she was more and more focused at the outside, while blocking her true feelings. Now she was at the point where she had lost the connection to her inside. She could register that she was nervous, but was unable to show it anymore. I asked her what the impact was of this realization, and she began to cry. She had lost herself in the game of interests of the big organizations she had worked for. These organizations wanted their employees to present a controlled picture of the organization to their customers. This story was for me a cold shower experience. Until now, I believed that managers were the bad guys who sent people to training programs from their organizational interests. Thereby corrupting the human development of their employees. Only now I saw that I as a trainer had considerable influence on this process of corruption. Trainers make a party out of their meetings, thereby seducing the participants half consciously into the learning goals of the training. My next realization was:  in the worst-case scenario, participants actually learn something from this! They learn how to be a good employee according to the picture of the organization. Participants put themselves aside, and built a business personality instead that they turn off after work, not realizing that they cannot turn a part of themselves off. This woman had become one with this business picture from the outside and thereby lost herself. After this realization, she jumped into a burn-out and I referred her to a fellow coach of mine to assist her in her recovery. 

Now I can say that this was one of the moments that changed my life and reinforced my search for ways to stimulate people to take responsibility for their own development. In our technical society that is addicted to grow and

I have made the turn to higher education because I realized that emerging adults are in a fragile period of their life. They set out to discover who they are, what they want, and what their place is in society. Often they come from high school, being conditioned to focus on getting grades, and mostly learning knowledge they do not genuinely relate to. Learning the knowledge and skills has become the (learning)goal of education, instead of the mean for personal development, where self-knowledge contemporaneously grows with the knowledge students acquire. And where students have to space to create a genuine relation to the educational content.

Questions can create this genuine relation because of the nature of questions. A question is always living inside people. It is the worded tension people feel inside and a source for wonder and action (Broek et al., 2014; Schinkel, 2020). Learning goals are always in front of people, and it is not naturally to genuine relate to those goals, especially the learning goals that are imposes by the courses students follow. I have seen many students following courses that students do not immediately like go for the grades. What they often do not realize is that this way of learning makes them become numb, and leads them further away from their passion and desire. What I want to prevent with my research is that, like the woman described above, students lose their connection to the inside.


Broek, M. v. d., Thiebout, M., Henkes, R., Thiemens, A., Baarda, T. v., Buijs, D., Duiverman, B., Dijkstra, C., Eldrik Thieme, C. v., Haak, M., Hatteland, Ø., Hoedjes, M., Keijzer, D., Klein, V. G., Krückels, G., Loo, J. v., Lugt, P. v. d., Olofsen, F., Prins, F., & Vis, J. (2014). Praktijkboek Dynamische Oordeelsvorming. Christofoor.

Schinkel, A. (Ed.). (2020). Wonder, Education, and Human Flourishing: Theoretical, Empirical, and Practical Perspectives. VU University Press.

The preamble of my PhD project

My project started a lot earlier than the official start at September 2019. The preamble to the project was actually very important! It was the time where I created the basis for the project, and searched for the right research team and stakeholders.

Already ten years ago I wanted to do a PhD, and had conversations with possible promotors. They were interested in my ideas, but thought my project could not meet the conditions needed for a PHD project according to the standards of science.

In 2016, my work as a trainer and coach within my company Kernvraag fell completely silent, and I had to do something else. I wanted to work with students, and after many attempts, I met Michaela Hordijk at a meeting of Stichting Dialoog. The Dutch organization for the fostering of Dynamic Judgment Formation.  I told in the sharing that I was stuck in my work biography and was searching for a job in higher education where I could work with students on their question-development.  This was spot on for Michaela, who worked at that time as program director for the research master International Development Studies. Two and a half years later, we would have our first meeting with her as my co supervisor. Something we did not even dream of at that moment. Our common research started nonetheless. We created a couple of workshops on existential questions, judgement formation, cooperation to empower the students to create their own study career path within and after the research master International Development Studies. My first steps to discover the space within higher education for student’s existential questions.

After the first year, I realized that this was my path, my calling, and I wanted to continue. I wanted to change higher education from the inside. I felt that I had to try to start a PhD project. This moment was the one and only chance of my life. I started looking for possible promotors and began to write a proposal that would enable me to acquire money for the project. Then something special happened. It felt like the universe was helping me to make things happen.  In my search for a supervisor, I first asked Gert Biesta. He was interested in my theoretical framework I developed from my practice as a trainer.  (Un)fortunately,  Gert had no space left for PhD’s. Via Gert advised me to  ask Doret de Ruijter from the Universiteit voor Humanistiek. Before I contacted her, someone in my network, that was growing quickly, advised me to ask Arjen Wals. His goal is to engage students in the big questions that arises in the climate crisis. That is for me a great match with my aim to help students to relate to their existential questions. Arjen wanted to be my promotor under the condition that I would get enough funding for my project, and helped me with my  proposal to increase my chances.

My proposal was based on the work I have done with Dynamic Judgement Formation, based on the thesis of Lex Bos which was further developed in the Netherlands and abroad. This focused my search for funding to the organizations that I have worked with before and have supported the impulse of Lex Bos before. I started with the Iona Stichting. I had a very constructive conversation there, and they wanted to finance a part of the project and we discussed how to finalize the budget.

My second fund was the Triodosfoundation. Lex Bos was one of the founders of the Triodos bank, and because of that, Dynamic Judgement Formation is used throughout the organization. The Triodosfoundation wanted to finance the project costs. My budget was almost finalized. Their condition for funding was that my budget would be finalized.

The last fund was the cloverleaf foundation. This found covered also a part of costs for the project. But my budget was incomplete, so I needed more money for my living maintenance.

When Michaela heard that I already had covered the biggest part of my budget, she gave me a job at the bachelor of Interdisciplinary Social Science, so I would be able to investigate my own job. This job would be for two days a week.

My PhD could start!