Three Dirty Words

photoAs a form of therapy I highly recommend blogging to all PhD researchers. As opposed to academic writing, in a blog: I don’t need to unpack terms all the time – I can just say stuff that I think or feel without citing who might have thought similar things or influenced my thinking- I can reference non-academic texts that won’t make it into my thesis; and most importantly I can make connections between my research and my life.  When you also have a full-time job a lot of general life stuff gets squeezed and at times sacrificed for PhD activity hence the desire to explain my research to friends, family, and colleagues without giving them my thesis to read!

So if this is therapy, I can be personal.  Frankly my PhD research question could quite easily be translated in to what do I have to offer the world or what do I now know that’s useful? If this seems indulgent then don’t worry I’m not sponsored by anyone, I pay my own fees and use my own time.   Over the last twenty years or so I have developed three core life interests that I mainly keep on the down-low because I know how easily they can be misconstrued or perhaps even perceived as the type of interests in which only someone who has not experienced any hardship could afford to indulge.  Well regardless, it’s time to come out – I’m obsessed with: –

– theatre

– research

– spiritual well-being

I keep these interests under wraps because as explicit, stand alone terms they can easily be associated with elite or wafty experiences, concepts, and places and I am actually interested in how they can be incorporated into the everyday – i.e. theatre doesn’t have to happen in a dedicated theatre building, research in a university, or the spiritual in a place of worship.  Professionally I have mainly worked outside of such institutions because I think it is important to find useful ways of incorporating knowledge developed within theatre, research, and spiritual wellbeing in broader human development practice such as formal and informal education and community development. In my view it’s everybody’s right to have access to processes that could support their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Well if this was an academic piece of writing I would probably now need to turn to someone like Pierre Bourdieu to demonstrate that I understand how my interests could be explained by reference to constructs such as habitus and cultural capital and that as a child growing up around parents immersed in education I was privy to the code of academia thereby explaining my interest in research.  But this is a blog so I’m not going to go there! I will say that to a certain extent, Bourdieu has a point although I was arguably just as influenced by family members who had not accessed extensive formal education but conducted what could be classed as their own everyday research projects- I’m thinking of my Great Uncle Harry who meticulously documented the Redcar tides, weather, and daily observations not for a readership or a qualification but for the personal value of taking stock, reflecting, capturing and documenting.

Even though my current professional practice would probably be best classified as ‘management‘ I privately still think of myself as a theatre person. I don’t make plays or work in a theatre now but my management approach is influenced by what experience of theatre work has taught me about effective team work, empathy, perspective, problem solving and generally making things happen.  I am not interested in classic literary texts or imposing buildings but the transformative potential of theatre processes.  I think processes such as rehearsal and theatre games take us as near as a human being can get to “the sort of self knowledge that you can only get from experience[i] without having actually had that experience. As a theatre researcher I need to understand this better; whilst others are looking towards neurobiology I am interested in frameworks and theories that help us understand how involvement in these processes might enable a connection with a sense of a bigger picture; with self transcendence (and the key to spiritual wellbeing in logotherapy terms).

I was first able to articulate an interest in spiritual well-being having read Man’s Search For Meaning which a colleague gave to me whilst I was trying to cope with supporting my partner through cancer treatment.  In Man’s Search For Meaning Viktor Frankl lays out the fundamentals of logotherapy and describes how  “even in the degradation of Dachau Concentration camp he retained the belief that the most important freedom of all is the freedom to determine one’s own spiritual well-being.”[ii]   I now find myself undertaking a PhD project that revolves around Frankl’s definition of spiritual wellbeing.

Part of me is clearly caught up in concerns that by declaring an interest in spiritual well-being I will be perceived as a new-age fanatic, in theatre a cultural elitist, and in research a lofty academic. So where might my concerns about the associations these interests generate come from? Well Viktor Frankl would tell me that these sorts of worries come from the automatic self rather than the authentic self. By thinking about a human being as having three dimensions- the physical, psychic and the spiritual – Frankl helps us to understand that our worries and emotional responses do not come from a deep sense of self but from the psyche (automatic self).  To achieve a greater sense of spiritual well-being we need to put aside or go beyond these sensations to connect with our spiritual realm (authentic self), our true core, which is concerned with making meaning by acting for the sake of values or others beyond the self.  We really need to find more every day ways of exploring and expressing this side of ourselves through nonreligious (as well as religious) frameworks.

To a certain extent this is what I am personally trying to do by fusing my interests in a research project.  PhD study is proving highly effective as a process because you have to work really hard to name what you know deep down – first you have to understand what has already been said and how you are developing, extending or contradicting it (you can’t just say what you think or feel) – research is a highly technical and specialist discipline which does eventually pull out and give you confidence in all your hunches, intuition, and instinctual knowledge.  In turn this is developing my leadership capabilities and enabling me to make decisions that will ensure Orangebox offers a healthy environment for young people, so hopefully not too long now until the building is handed over….

That then concludes this month’s ‘therapy’, it has certainly helped me work through a few issues and I really hope it will be of some value to those of you who take the time to read this – thank you!


[ii] Frankl Viktor, The Doctor And The Soul, Souvenir Press, London 2004

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About madiirwin

Madeleine Irwin is a PhD researcher in the Drama Department at The University of Manchester. Madeleine is also an independent consultant specialising in creative education, applied theatre, partnership working, action research, and young people's participation http://uk.linkedin.com/in/madeleineirwin
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One Response to Three Dirty Words

  1. Yvette says:

    Nice one Maddy.

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