Paper presented to CCPE, London - October, 2002.
© Dave Hiles 2002



Narrative and Heuristic Approaches to Transpersonal Research and Practice

Dave Hiles
(Psychology, De Montfort University, Leicester. LE1 9BH. UK.)
(Email:  )



When I was asked to repeat the paper that I gave last year, I decided that I should develop the topic a little further. After all, last year’s lecture is published on my website, and can easily be read by anyone (Hiles, 2001). I felt it important to include a discussion of both heuristic inquiry and narrative inquiry, and I wanted to address issues of both research and practice. I am also particularly encouraged by the recent publication of the Handbook of Humanistic Psychology (Schneider, Bugental & Pierson, 2001), which offers five chapters as “ . . representative illustrations of contemporary human science research,” one of these is a chapter by Clark Moustakas on heuristic research, and another is a chapter by Ruthellen Josselson & Amia Lieblich on narrative research. Although these chapters are brief, and in Moustakas’ case, little more than a reprint of an earlier journal article, it is their inclusion that I think is particularly significant. They are offered as methods of research that are “ . . poised to turn over a new chapter in empirical psychological inquiry and, indeed, in science itself” (Schneider et al, 2001, p. 228).  Both heuristic and narrative inquiry are now receiving the attention that they deserve.

As I have stressed before (Hiles, 2001), the very nature of the transpersonal paradigm requires an approach to inquiry that is necessarily somewhat in contrast to other areas of scientific inquiry. Transpersonal inquiry is no less scientific, or empirical, than any other area of inquiry, but the empirical data may be different, as they take the form of subjective experience, discernment and direct knowing, etc. It is worth noting in this respect something that Ken Wilber stresses. In his discussion of direct transpersonal experience, he asserts that such experience is "repeatable, reproducible and confirmable,”  and these are of course the basic requirements of the scientific approach (Wilber, 1999, p. 43).  

Despite the very considerable progress that has been made in the development of research methods more appropriate to the paradigm of transpersonal inquiry, by for example Braud & Anderson (1998), Heron (1996; 1998), Bentz & Shapiro (1998) and Valle (1998) etc., I still have a fascination with what I see as two fundamental methods of inquiry, that possibly underpin much of what has been achieved recently in our field. I am of course referring to heuristic inquiry and narrative inquiry, which I see as particularly relevant to researching authentic accounts of human experience.  

For some time now I have been exploring the idea that the essence of transpersonal or spiritual experience involves the notion of knowing through participation. I am pretty sure that this idea can be traced back right through the history of spiritual practices to ancient times. This idea of knowing through participation is part of what Ferrer (2000) has called the participatory turn in transpersonal research, and is directly related to the ideas of participatory consciousness (Berman, 1981), sacred inquiry (Reason, 1993), integral and intuitive inquiry (Braud & Anderson, 1989), and John Heron’s co-operative inquiry, participatory theology and participatory worldview (Heron, 1998).   

When I refer to knowing through participation, I really have two things in mind that are relevant here. First, I am claiming that the essence of spirituality is participation in life, indeed we know life by taking part in it. That may seem obvious when you think of it, but it needs to be said.  I think it needs to be said more often, and I think that practice and research in counselling need to reflect this. Secondly, any method of research into spiritual or transpersonal experience must be participatory in its approach. Furthermore, I need to add that what seems to distinguish the spiritual from others forms of participatory knowledge is its authenticity. Because I would define counselling and psychotherapy practice as an authentic participatory practice, it follows that I therefore see all therapeutic activity as grounded in spirituality. I know that there are therapists who do not work in a transpersonal model, but to the extent that their work is participatory, to the extent that their work is authentic, their work is spiritual. I am drawing upon a very wide concept of spirituality here, but it really does help to think in this way.

The point that I am making here about research should not be confused with the basic idea of participatory observation, participatory inquiry, and action research, etc. These are all very useful approaches in their own right. What I am concerned with is the importance of knowing through participation. It is because I see both heuristic and narrative inquiry as inherently participatory that I want to examine them together here as two key approaches to transpersonal counselling and psychotherapy research.  

I will begin by highlighting a few of the issues that I raised in Hiles (2001), and then I will examine more closely the idea of tacit knowing, with the intension of identifying one specific research approach, that I will call heuristic indwelling. I then want to examine narrative from a similar perspective, especially the notion of authenticity that emerges from a study of narrative. Finally, I will try to relate these issues to both research and therapeutic practice.

I will briefly summarise here the essentials of the method developed by Clark Moustakas, so that I can then explore more closely the notions of tacit knowing and indwelling.  

Heuristic inquiry was developed by Clark Moustakas (1967; 1981; 1990; and Douglass & Moustakas, 1985) drawing heavily upon the ideas of Michael Polanyi (1958; 1966/1983; 1969). It is defined as follows:  

“Heuristic research is a search for the discovery of meaning and essence in significant human experience. It requires a subjective process of reflecting, exploring, sifting, and elucidating the nature of the phenomenon under investigation” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p.40).  

“Heuristics is concerned with meanings, not measurements; with essence, not appearance; with quality, not quantity; with experience, not behaviour” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p.42).  

The heuristic approach is an adaptation of phenomenological inquiry, but explicitly acknowledges the involvement of the researcher, to the extent that the lived experience of the researcher becomes the main focus of the research. Indeed, what is explicitly the focus of the approach is the transformative effect of the inquiry on the researcher's own experience.  

“From the beginning and throughout an investigation, heuristic research involves self-search, self-dialogue, and self-discovery. The research question and methodology flow out of inner awareness, meaning, and inspiration. [ . . ] My primary task is to recognize whatever exists in my consciousness as a fundamental awareness – to receive it, accept it, support it and dwell inside it” (Moustakas, 2001, p.263).  

Table 1 presents a summary of the heuristic approach. Douglass & Moustakas outline a three-phase model, and they suggest that, “ . . a natural process is at play when one attempts to do a thing heuristically”  (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 47).  Moustakas (1990) has elaborated this model further, and has identified a number of core processes, together with seven basic phases of inquiry. 

Table 1: A summary of heuristic inquiry  


  Immersion (exploration of question, problem, theme)
  Acquisition (collection of data)
  Realization (synthesis)


  Concepts and processes:

  Identify with the focus of the inquiry
  Self dialogue
  Tacit knowing
    Internal frame of reference

  Phases of research:

    Initial engagement
    Creative synthesis
    Validation of the heuristic research



Moustakas does not explicitly refer to the participatory quality of heuristic inquiry, but it is clearly implied by his stress on heuristics as a way of knowing that involves a personal encounter:  

“ . . The heuristic process is a way of being informed, a way of knowing (Moustakas, 1990, p. 10).  

" . . In heuristic research the investigator must have had a direct, personal encounter with the phenomenon being investigated. There must have been actual autobiographical connections”  (Moustakas, 1990, p. 14).  

It is worth re-emphasizing some points that I have made before (Hiles, 1999; 2001):

(i)     In effect, it is not you who chooses the research question, but the research question chooses you - invariably the research question is deeply personal in origin – for example, in my own experience, the research question seems to have been a preoccupation of mine for some thirty years.  

(ii)    heuristic inquiry highlights the importance of working with the heuristic process of others - the outcome of the heuristic process is a creative synthesis, which is validated by a participatory sharing with others – who in turn may be inspired to engage in their own heuristic inquiry. And so the great chain of heuristic inquiry is moved along – originally as part of the ancient oral tradition, then down through the centuries as recorded and written tradition, and most recently as part of the empirical scientific tradition. The works of writers, poets, artists, spiritual leaders and scientists, all invite participation, and all of these can be usefully treated as the creative products of heuristic inquiry.  

Moustakas emphasizes that heuristic inquiry is basically a process of discovery of an inner knowing. It is discovery that involves participation by engagement and surrender, requiring:  

“ . . a passionate, disciplined commitment to remain with a question intensely and continuously until it is illuminated or answered”  (Moustakas, 1990, p. 15).  

What emerges is a form of knowing that the scientist/philosopher, Michael Polanyi, calls tacit knowing, which he stresses stems from the fact that “ . . we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966/1983, p.4). 

Douglass & Moustakas acknowledge the tacit dimension as “ . . Polanyi’s significant contribution to humanistic science” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 49). Indeed, the influence of the ideas of Michael Polanyi on Moustakas cannot be underestimated. The concepts of tacit knowing and indwelling, and even the term heuristic itself, all stem directly from the work of Polanyi. These ideas are central to his major work, Personal Knowledge (1958), which is based on his Gifford Lectures delivered in 1951-2, at the University of Aberdeen. It is also interesting to note that Richard Gelwick, in his introduction to the thought of Michael Polanyi, proposes that Polanyi’s philosophy might be called “a heuristic philosophy”.

“The term ‘heuristic’ seems to bring together and to emphasize the distinctive contribution of Polanyi’s point of view. ‘Heuristic’ derives from the Greek, heuriskein, to find or discover. [ . . ] the heuristic thread runs throughout Polanyi’s thought and is the element that leads to a new understanding of knowledge and ourselves” (Gelwick, 1977, p. 84).  

Gelwick’s point is that Polanyi regarded the past three centuries of belief in ‘scientific detachment’ as having produced a crisis in scientific method. Polanyi argued that at root of all claims to objective scientific knowledge there is always a reliance upon personal knowledge. However, Polanyi’s ideas may have been a little before their time, he was not a part of mainstream philosophy, and his ideas have been largely marginalized by other philosophers. It is to Moustakas’ credit that he has taken Polanyi’s ideas and used them so effectively in psychology.  

The central role that tacit knowing plays in heuristic inquiry is stressed by Moustakas as follows:  

“Underlying all other concepts in heuristic research, at the base of all heuristic discovery, is the power of revelation in tacit knowing”  (Moustakas, 1990, p. 20).  

“In actually obtaining data, the tacit dimension is the forerunner of inference and intuition, guiding the person to untapped aspects of awareness in nonlinear ways that elude analysis and explanation. In this sense, the tacit is visionary. [ . . ] Tacit knowing operates behind the scenes, giving birth to the hunches and vague, formless insights that characterize heuristic discovery” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 49).  

Moustakas is further indebted to Polanyi in the recognition that indwelling plays a key role in tacit knowing. For example, Polanyi argues:  

“Tacit knowing now appears as an act of indwelling by which we gain access to a new meaning. [ . . ]  since all understanding is tacit knowing, all understanding is achieved by indwelling” (Polanyi, 1962/1969, p. 160).

The notion of indwelling will be familiar to anyone who has engaged with a spiritual practice, although they may express the idea in different ways. I for example use the term discernment to describe a participatory process of inner reflection and discovery that leads to fresh insight, greater awareness, or new conceptual or practical distinctions.  

Indwelling is particularly important with respect to what I am discussing here in at least three ways: (i) indwelling especially stresses the participatory nature of tacit knowing, (ii) indwelling offers an important bridge with transpersonal inquiry, and (iii) indwelling seems to offer the possibility of a specific methodology within heuristic inquiry.  

Moustakas does not explicitly acknowledge the participatory here, but this is implicit in the process being described. We know tacitly by taking part in the process of discovery, by indwelling:  

“Indwelling refers to the heuristic process of turning inward to seek a deeper, more extended comprehension of the nature or meaning of a quality or theme of human experience [ . . ] The indwelling process is conscious and deliberate, yet it is not lineal or logical. It follows clues wherever they appear; one dwells inside them and expands their meanings and associations until a fundamental insight is achieved” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 24).  

Polanyi does extend the tacit dimension to include among other things, the arts, myths and religion (Polanyi & Prosch, 1975), but neither he nor Moustakas make explicit reference to transpersonal knowing. Nevertheless, it does not seem to be unreasonable to claim that tacit knowing should include the transpersonal and spiritual. Indeed, my simple claim is that the heuristic process can be used to discover, or more accurately recover transpersonal, archetypal or collective knowing. This is only a slight expansion of the point made by Douglass & Moustakas:  

“Beyond the pale of ordinary conscious awareness, every person is in touch with numberless sources of knowledge. Subliminal, archetypal, and preconscious perceptions undergird all that is in our immediate awareness, giving energy, distinctiveness, form, and direction to that which we know” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 49).  

The only proviso is that we each must do this for ourselves, it cannot be done for us (although we can be guided). One very basic idea of how this can be addressed is in thinking how we respond to a work of art, or a piece of literature. This is especially well expressed in a work by Helen Luke. In the introduction to her commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Luke points out that:  

"I would emphasize the truth that the work of all great artists awakens insights and meanings of which the artist or writer is himself unconscious" (Luke, 1975/2001, p. xv).  

What Luke seems to be referring to here is the tacit knowledge that can be awakened in the reader, and not necessarily intended by the artist or writer, by engaging with a text, or work of art, presumably because of the way it is accessing the archetypes of the collective unconscious. The artist or writer cannot do this for us, but we can participate in the creative synthesis of their work.  

This reiterates precisely what I said earlier, concerning the great chain of heuristic inquiry.  The works of writers, poets, artists, spiritual leaders and scientists, all invite participation, and in turn promote tacit knowing. This is clearly acknowledged by Douglass & Moustakas:  

“At the heart of heuristic lies an emphasis on disclosing the self as a way of facilitating disclosure from others – a response to the tacit dimension within oneself sparks a similar call from others” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 50).  

This seems to suggest a specific application of the process of indwelling for  exploring the human response to a particular text, practice or event.  

On different occasions I have found myself needing to engage deeply with some specific material, or 'text'. I have to come to call this deep study of a single text, heuristic engagement, or perhaps it is better named heuristic indwelling (and I am very aware that this is almost precisely how I view working with a client in therapeutic practice). On other occasions I might deliberately choose two or more 'texts' for this work, and I have called this methodology heuristic comparison (Hiles, 2001). Both of these methods are simple adaptations of the method of heuristic inquiry, designed as formalized analytical tools for the study of the phenomenological experience resulting from a participative engagement with almost any cultural or clinical practice. Table 2 sets out the seven phases of what is involved in the methodology that I have called heuristic indwelling.


Table 2: Heuristic indwelling 

The proposed methodology of heuristic indwelling involves these basic phases:  

(i)         choose a text or cultural/spiritual practice for engagement - in making this choice, there is no expectation of what will emerge, only the basic belief that something will

(ii)        engage with the text/practice, participating as deeply as possible in the experience, exploring the demands it places on you as the researcher

(iii)       indwell over an extended period of participation by exploration and  discernment, following 'leads' to material outside that chosen, but always returning to the main focus of the study

(iv)       sift through and gather together the materials and experiences, allowing tacit knowing in a range of insights, meanings and themes to emerge

(v)        reflect on the authenticity of these insights, meanings and themes, perhaps working back through phases (ii) to (iv) again, and again, and again

(vi)       formulate a creative synthesis of the inquiry that reflects both participation and authenticity

(vii)      and finally, share the creative synthesis with others, establishing the validity of your work.


It should be fairly clear that this methodology is the outcome of trying to do justice to the required depth of the engagement and participation with the material, while also being able to set appropriate boundaries to the work that is involved. Indwelling is a critical way in which we can participate in such a way that knowledge is then revealed to us. It is my view that heuristic indwelling is almost always simply a part of a wider heuristic inquiry. Also, it is possibly a very ancient spiritual practice, but is particularly of relevance to recent developments in transpersonal inquiry.

I now want to change our attention to narrative inquiry. Narrative plays a crucial role in almost every human activity. Narrative dominates human discourse, and is foundational to the cultural processes that organize and structure human behaviour and experience. Narrative is also fundamental to human reality and our understanding of human experience. It offers important ways to encode human truth and experience, and, in turn, share knowledge and insights with others. It therefore is important to realize that narrative is not simply a literary form, but is a basic property of the human mind. The psychologist, Jerome Bruner, describes narrative as . . one of the crowning achievements of human development” (Bruner, 1990, p. 67).  

The past two decades or so has seen the remarkable development of the field of narrative psychology (Sarbin, 1986; Bruner, 1986, 1990; Polkinghorne, 1988; Crossley, 2000). This field of study proposes that narratives are an easy, unconscious, and involving way of constructing our world. The view that is emerging is that narrative constitutes the primary process by which human experience is made meaningful.  

For example, Donald Polkinghorne argues that:  

“Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with stories that we tell and hear told, with stories that we dream or imagine or would like to tell. [ . . ] We live immersed in narrative. Recounting and reassessing the meanings of our past actions, anticipating the outcomes of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed” (Polkinghorne, 1988, p.160).  

One of the strongest claims that is repeatedly being made for the psychological functions of narrative is that it has a primary role in the construction and maintenance of self-identity (Shotter & Gergen, 1989; Kerby, 1991; Schafer, 1992). We are then, simply, the assembled stories that we tell about ourselves, and the stories that are told about us by others. But we also have the power to renegotiate our identity by altering these stories.   

In order to grasp the full significance of the basic function that narrative serves, it is useful to examine an idea that is so eloquently explained by Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson (1967) in their book Pragmatics of Human Communication. They argue that there are three basic types of human knowledge about objects and events in the world. They propose a first-order knowledge that involves a knowledge of things, a direct sensuous awareness of objects which our senses convey. But they point out that in the mature adult, “first-order knowledge alone is probably a very rare thing”. They therefore propose a second-order knowledge that involves knowledge about things. This is knowledge about first-order knowledge, a meta-knowledge, a knowledge about the objects of experience, their meaning, and ways to react to them accordingly. Finally, there is third-order knowledge that can be understood as follows:  

“Out of the sum total of the meanings that are deduced from the contacts with numerous single objects of the environment there grows a unified view of the world into which we find ourselves 'thrown' (to use an existentialist term), and this view is of the third order. There is a strong reason to believe that it is really quite irrelevant what this third-order view of the world consists of, as long as it offers a meaningful premise for one’s existence. [ . . ] What is important, however, is that we operate with a set of premises about the phenomena perceived and that the interaction with reality in the widest sense will be determined by these premises. [ Indeed, . . ] reality is very largely what we make it to be. Existential philosophers propose a very similar relationship between us and reality; they conceive of each of us thrown into an opaque, formless, meaningless world out of which we create for ourselves our situation. The specific way of “being-in-the-world”, therefore, is the outcome of our individual choice, is the meaning we give to what is presumably beyond objective understanding” (Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson, 1967, p. 261-2).  

I want to emphasize two important points that Watzlawick et al are making. Firstly, that human knowledge goes beyond what is given by our senses to include experiences, meanings and points-of-view or perspectives, that arise from our unified world-view. Secondly, that, at least in principle, it does not really matter at all which particular point-of-view or perspective we adopt towards the reality of the world.  

If we accept this notion, and I think there are very strong reasons why we should, then we can suppose that these points-of-view, or perspectives, will need to meet some minimal requirements. This would be in terms of some relevance to the givens of human existence, some concern for internal consistency, and the need to be able to share this knowledge with others. This third-order knowledge will need to be encoded in some form that is capable of being circulated in human communities. It would seem that it is precisely the function of narrative to encode this third-order knowledge, which is essential for human existence, and crucial in the human construction of a sense of reality.  

The psychologist, Rollo May, in A Cry for Myth, expresses the same basic idea, when he suggests that the modern view of myth is a matter of serious concern. He argues that myths can supply models for human behaviour, they can establish and justify human conduct, and actively give meaning and value to life. He passionately expresses his concern for a general loss of myth in modern society. He observes that:  

“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. [ . . ] Mythmaking is essential in gaining mental health. [ . . ] Language abandons myth only at the price of the loss of human warmth, color, intimate meaning, and values - these things that give personal meaning to life. [ . . ] Without myth we are like a race of brain-injured people unable to go beyond the word to hear the person who is speaking” (May, 1991, p.15).  

Rollo May suggests that myths give us a sense of personal identity, they make possible a sense of community, they support and validate moral values, and they offer a way of dealing with the inscrutable mystery of creation. Psychologically, myths have important healing powers (cf. Hillman, 1983). Myths can bring into awareness repressed, unconscious motives, longings, and fears, or can reveal new goals, new ethical insights and possibilities. Myths can draw out inner reality enabling a person to experience a greater reality in the outside world, or they can discover for us new realities, reconnecting with the universals beyond concrete experience.  

Narrative inquiry therefore highlights a number of important areas on which a focus needs to be made. The importance of narrative for making sense of our experience of the world around us, our place in it, and offering ways to share that with others. The methods of narrative inquiry are inherently participatory. For example, Mishler (1986; 1999) points out that narrative methods involve the joint construction of meaning, and Josselson & Lieblich propose that narrative involves a particular type of encounter.  

“Narrative research refers to any study based on discourse or on people’s verbal accounts of their experiences. Such a story need not compose a complete autobiography; it may be short descriptive statements or narratives. [ . . ] The common aspect of all these narratives is that the material is offered in the natural language of the teller and is created through his or her individual experience and judgement” (Josselson & Lieblich, 2001, p.280).  

“Ideally, a narrative research interview is an ‘encounter’, in which the listener accepts the story with complete respect and refrains from judging or evaluating it. [ . . ] We aim to reach the internal array of another’s experience, always bounded by our shared participation in a matrix of signification” (Josselson & Lieblich, 2001, p.281).  

But before we explore this participatory quality of narrative, we need to briefly explore the therapeutic uses of narrative.

Recently, there has been a significant turn towards a narrative model for therapeutic practice (Schafer, 1981; Spence, 1982; Mair, 1989; White & Epston, 1990; Neimeyer & Mahoney, 1995; Freedman & Combs, 1996; McLeod, 1997; Payne, 2000). The view is emerging that psychotherapy and counselling involves a collaboration in the narrative construction and reconstruction of meaning. The client is offered an opportunity to narratively reframe their experience. Thus, while fictional narratives may primarily service the needs for vicarious experience, diversion, escape and amusement, the principal function of narrative in the therapeutic arena is empowerment, and control over meaning.  

Recently, John McLeod has written a comprehensive review of the application of narrative theory to psychotherapy and counselling practice:-  

My basic thesis is that stories and storytelling represent the primary point of connection between what goes on in ‘therapy’ - whether contemporary psychotherapy or traditional religious healing - and what goes on in the culture as a whole. From a cultural perspective, a therapy session is a site for telling certain stories in a certain way. The telling of personal stories, tales of ‘who I am’, ‘what I want to be’, or ‘what troubles me’, to listener or audience mandated by the culture to hear such stories, is an essential mechanism through which individual lives become and can remain aligned with collective realities (McLeod, 1997, p. 2).  

It is perhaps in the work of the clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, Miller Mair, that the richest picture emerges:  

  . . speaking from my experience as a clinical psychologist ] . . when I look at what I actually do, I have to conclude that I am a professional conversationalist of sorts.  [ . .]  What is called 'psychotherapy' could also be called 'psychological conversation'.   [ . .] In these conversations, stories of many kinds are told and listened for.  These stories may be broken in fragments seeking some greater flow and coherence, or overworked coherence needing to be infiltrated with risk-filled questioning rather than tidied up with imprisoning answers. I do a lot of listening to the stories others tell.   I listen for the different voices within the voice, to hear who is speaking under the guise of 'I'.  I listen for who has the right to speak and who is deprived of rights to say and know.  I listen for the breaks in the offered 'text' of a person's account of who and how they are, so that hints of other stories, other selves, other ways of feeling and being can be offered a, sometimes never before granted, chance of articulation. I chip in, suggesting another scrap of story line that might, equally well or better, be woven through the events of a person's life.  [ . .]  I suggest other stories, sometimes mini-stories;  sometimes stories which offer a wider and different view, that the person with me could begin to tell themselves.  So often I and others entrap ourselves in endlessly disparaging and debilitating accounts of who and how we are, spat out at ourselves with silently persistent venom. And it is not just what is told and how it is told, it is the very act of telling, the speaking itself, which seems to matter.  In the act of speaking I become a different being.  In becoming a little more articulate about some aspects of my experiencing, I articulate myself.  In speaking myself to and with another, I may gain some sense of 'authority' that was not there before(Mair, 1989, p. 1-12).

It seems to me that stories are inherently participative. I want to take up the crucial point that Mair is making towards the end of the long quote above: "And it is not just what is told and how it is told, it is the very act of telling, the speaking itself, which seems to matter.
There is, of course, an echo here of the point made by Watzlawick et al (1967) in how people can be helped to negotiate their third-order knowledge, which is not about truth as such, but something that is true for them. Thus, in the context of therapy at least, it is is not the particular story told that matters, but it is in taking part, in the telling to another person, that the therapeutic benefit is realized. In telling a story, I participate in the act of constructing myself, I participate in the act of constructing my own world. In participating in such an act, we reveal tacit knowledge about our selves, and tacit knowledge of the world we participate in. 

The act of creating and telling a story, or engaging with the story of someone else, or even reading a fictional story, are all, in effect, particular examples of heuristic inquiry. Moustakas claims:

“ . . . essentially in the heuristic process, I am creating a story that portrays the qualities, meanings, and essences of universally unique experiences” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 13).  

Also, it should be noted that there are clearly parallels here with the notion of organic research which is outlined in Braud & Anderson (1998), but that it is important to recognize the fundamental role played by narrative in such methods of inquiry.

Narrative thinking, whether in the form of fiction, or everyday conversation, offers us the opportunity to practice our imaginative faculties. It 'exercises' our ability to consider and explore different points-of-view, and as human beings this is exercise that we frankly are desperately in need of. We need this exercise because we need to be open to different points-of-view, whether in the everyday construction of our utterances, or in listening to the utterances of others; whether in dealing with and negotiating conflicts, in adapting to changes in the real world, or in trying to make sense of cultural differences. To have a sense of the possible, we also need the sense of the impossible. By reflecting on the relationship between what is possible and what is impossible, we just might expand what we are able to think is possible.  

It is in the following remark made by Donald Polkinghorne that the astonishing power of narrative thinking is revealed:

“Facts only partly determine the particular scheme to be used in their organization, and more than one scheme can fit the same facts: several narratives can organize the same facts into stories and thereby give the facts different significance and meaning” (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 181).  

It is well worth taking out a few moments to explore the full implications of this observation, i.e. several narratives (perhaps an infinite number of narratives) can organize the same facts into stories!!  

It seems clear that a story must incorporate a point-of-view or perspective, and the same facts, or events, can be accounted for by many different stories, told from many different points-of-view. The human imagination can generate an infinite number of stories to fit any single 'reality'. The particular point-of-view is not crucial, but some stories and some points-of-view may be more authentic to human reality than will others. And, there is never the need to insist that just one story, or point-of-view, is true and all others false. 

To the extent that personal narratives have become a major focus for counselling and psychotherapy, the issue of their historical truth must be addressed. However, it needs to be made clear that the goal of therapy is not come up with a story that is strictly true to the events portrayed, but to come up with a story that is personally true. To ask if a story is true, too often becomes limited to the question of whether or not the events depicted in the story correspond to what has taken place, and whether or not the story accurately reflects those events. But, truth has a much wider range of meanings than this. For example, we can be true to some principle, or we can be true or faithful to our basic underlying nature. We can be true to a promise or to a rule, and something can be called true when it lies directly in line, undistorted and uncorrupted, with some point of reference.  

I would argue that the notion of truth should not be left to the rationalists. What we seem to be dealing with is two basic types of truth. The first type concerns what is generally called truth by correspondence, and the second type concerns what might be called truth by authenticity. This distinction is crucial. Art and literature should not be judged by how well they imitate the real world, but they can be judged by their authenticity to how human beings experience that world. This notion of truth by authenticity, raises such questions as: Is this story true to human reality? Is it true to human nature? Does the story accurately represent human values and concerns? Is it authentic to human experience? What profound truths does this story, poem, or painting explore?  

The idea of truth by authenticity is almost identical to the notion of narrative truth proposed by Donald Spence. Writing in the context of psychoanalytic practice, he proposes that,  

“There seems to be no doubt that a well-constructed story possesses a kind of narrative truth that is real and immediate and carries an important significance for the process of therapeutic change” (Spence, 1982, p. 21).  

Furthermore, Spence proposes certain criteria for this narrative truth:  

“Narrative truth can be defined as the criterion we use to decide when a certain experience has been captured to our satisfaction; it depends on continuity and closure and the extent to which the fit of the pieces takes on an aesthetic finality. [ . . ] Once a given construction has acquired narrative truth it becomes just as real as any other kind of truth; this new reality becomes a significant part of the psychoanalytic cure” (Spence, 1982, p. 31).  

Exactly what such claims to authenticity really mean will be difficult to say without a clearer notion of human reality than has been outlined here. We do need a more complete view of the way in which the human imagination plays out its role, and we need to amplify Spence's criteria for narrative truth in order to decide more clearly what is to be counted as authentic.  

What I am sure of is that we can learn more about the nature of human reality through the authentic expression of others, and through the direct first-hand accounts of others' lived experience. This can be from texts ancient and modern, from friends, partners, and clients, and, in the creative synthesis of music, song, dance, drama, poems, writing, paintings, sculpture, scratches in the sand, and the joys and sorrows of everyday living. Moreover, I see no real problem in knowing where to begin. It would seem that there are enough examples of authenticity, which can generally be agreed upon, to begin this work.  

If we return briefly to Watzlawick et al's claim that it does not really matter which particular point-of-view or perspective is adopted as third-order knowledge, then two qualifications do need to be made. Firstly, this knowledge must be capable of being communicated to others, or at least encoded into cultural practices that can promote its circulation as part of our cultural reality. Secondly, this third-order knowledge will need at least to offer "a meaningful premise for one's existence," and will need to be authentic to human experience if it is to have any real value or purpose. Without much thought, it is not too difficult to see that narrative precisely fits such requirements. Narrative provides an ideal code for third-order knowledge, and, provides an ideal mode for its transmission and circulation. Narrative too gives us a handle on what is authentic. We know when a story works. This perhaps offers us a way of investigating what we mean by the authentic.

It is my proposal that all this can have a place in counselling and therapeutic practice. Counselling and therapy involve essentially a heuristic process. A process of revealing tacit knowledge through the participatory experience of indwelling. It is a process that grasps for the authentic in human experience, and as such, I would like to see a much wider acceptance of this being recognized as a spiritual process. I have tried to suggest that there are research tools available that can help us to bring practice and research much closer together, so that the transformative quality of practice can be better realized. It is this idea that I think lies behind Ferrer's idea of the participatory turn. He says:

“ . . the participatory turn situates transpersonal studies in greater alignment with the spiritual enterprise because the aim of most contemplative traditions is not ‘to have experiences’, but rather to realize and participate in special states of discernment. These states of discernment are special in that they have a soteriological nature: Spiritual knowledge is knowledge that liberates” (Ferrer, 2000, p. 232).

I have tried to stress the importance of participation through knowing, and I have argued that knowing through participation is the key to understanding transpersonal inquiry. I have proposed that that both heuristic inquiry and narrative inquiry are essentially participative forms of inquiry, and that they both implicitly acknowledge the importance of tacit knowing. I have stressed the importance of Michael Polanyi's concept of indwelling, and have proposed a new methodology, heuristic indwelling, as a variation on the heuristic approach. Narrative in inherently a heuristic process, and as such provides a key way in which to investigate human authenticity. 


Bentz, V.M. & Shapiro, J.J. (1998) Mindful Inquiry in Social Research. Sage.

Berman, M. (1981) The Reenchantment of the World. Cornell University Press.

Braud, W. & Anderson, R. (1998) Transpersonal Research Methods for the Social Sciences: Honoring human experience. Sage.

Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of Meaning. Harvard University Press.

Crossley, M. (2000) Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, trauma and the construction of meaning. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Douglass, B.G. & Moustakas, C. (1985) Heuristic inquiry: The internal search to know. J. Humanistic Psychology, 25, p. 39-55.

Ferrer, J.N. (2000) Transpersonal knowledge: A participatory approach to transpersonal phenomenon. In T. Hart, P.L. Nelson & K. Puhakka (Eds.) Transpersonal Knowing: Exploring the Horizons of Consciousness. SUNY Press.

Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (1996) Narrative Therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. W.W. Norton & Co.

Gelwick, R. (1977) The Way of Discovery: An introduction to the thought of Michael Polanyi. OUP.

Heron, J. (1996) Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the human condition. Sage.

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred inquiry into the spiritual and the subtle. PCCS Books.

Hiles, D.R. (1999) Loss, Grief and Transformation: A heuristic inquiry. Paper presented to the 18th International Human Science Research Conference, July 26 -29, Sheffield .

Hiles, D.R. (2001) Heuristic inquiry and transpersonal research. Paper presented to CCPE, October 2001.  Available at:

Hillman, J. (1983) Healing Fiction.  Spring Publications.

Josselson, R. & Lieblich, A. (2001) Narrative research and humanism. In K.J. Schneider, J.F.T. Bugental & J.F. Pierson, (Eds.) The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and practice. Sage.

Kerby, A.P. (1991) Narrative and the Self. Indiana University Press.

Luke, H. (1975/2001) Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Parabola.

Mair, M. (1989) Psychology as a discipline of discourse. BPS Psychotherapy Section Newsletter, pp.1-12.

May, R. (1991) The Cry for Myth. Souvenir Press.

McLeod, J. (1997) Narrative and Psychotherapy. Sage.

Mishler, E.G. (1986) Research Interviewing: Context and Narrative. Harvard University Press. 

Mishler, E.G. (1999) Storylines: Craftartists' Narratives of Identity. Harvard University Press.

Moustakas, C. (1967) Heuristic research. In J.F.T. Bugental (Ed.) Challenges of Humanistic Psychology. McGraw-Hill.

Moustakas, C. (1981) Heuristic methods of obtaining knowledge. In C. Moustakas, Rhythms, Rituals, and Relationships. Center for Humanistic Studies.

Moustakas, C. (1990) Heuristic Research: Design, methodology and applications. Sage.

Moustakas, C. (2001) Heuristic research: Design and Methodology. In K.J. Schneider, J.F.T. Bugental & J.F. Pierson, (Eds.) The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and practice. Sage.

Neimeyer, R.A. & Mahoney, M.J. (Eds.) (1995) Constructivism in Psychotherapy. American Psychological Association.

Payne, M. (2000) Narrative Therapy: An introduction for counsellors. Sage.

Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Polanyi, M. (1962/1969) Tacit knowing: Its bearing on some problems of philosophy. Reprinted in: Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, (Edited by M. Grene). Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Polanyi, M. (1966/1983) The Tacit Dimension. Peter Smith.

Polanyi, M. (1969) Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi, (Edited by M. Grene). Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Polanyi, M. & Prosch, H. (1975) Meaning. University of ChicagoPress .

Polkinghorne, D.E. (1988) Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. SUNY Press.

Reason, P. (1993) Reflections on sacred experience and sacred science. J. of Management Inquiry, 2(3), 273-283.

Sarbin, T. (1986) Narrative Psychology: The storied nature of human conduct. Praeger.

Schafer, R. (1981) Narration in the psychoanalytical dialogue. Critical Inquiry, 7. (Reprinted in W.J.T. Mitchell (Ed.), On Narrative.  University of Chicago Press).

Schafer, R. (1992) Retelling a Life: Narration and dialogue in psychoanalysis. Basic Books.

Schneider, K.J., Bugental, J.F.T. & Pierson, J.F. (Eds) (2001) The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading edges in theory, research, and practice. Sage.

Shotter, J. & Gergen, K.J. (1989) Texts of Identity. Sage.

Spence, D.P. (1982) Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and interpretation in psychoanalysis. W.W. Norton & Co.

Valle, R. (Ed.) (1998) Phenomenological Inquiry in Psychology: Existential and transpersonal dimensions. Plenum Press.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J.H. & Jackson, D.D. (1967) Pragmatics of Human Communication. W.W. Norton & Co.

White, M. & Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.  W.W. Norton & Co.

Wilber, K. (1999) One Taste: The journals of Ken Wilber. Shambala.


[ Home ]