The Untold Story of the INPM and the Meaning Conferences

As we celebrate the INPM’s 20th Anniversary, I think it is an important occasion to remember and reflect on the history of the International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM). My story will focus on the Meaning Conferences—to review what we have accomplished in the last two decades and to serve as a blueprint for future meaning conferences around the world.

As a psychology professor, researcher, and writer, Paul could not find an academic home because of two problems:

The first problem is that, like Bruce Lee, Paul had his own unique ideas about psychology. He refused to be boxed in any single school of psychology, because he believed that psychology should be integrative and pluralistic. He wants to absorb what is the best in every approach and discard what is not helpful, and then add his own unique insights because of his personal and cultural history.

The second related problem is that psychology is fragmented into different silos, and no one is willing to fully embrace him because he could not be an orthodox follower. For example, some Logotherapy leaders considered him not Frankl enough. Some positive psychology leaders considered him not positive enough (see this chapter in Paul’s Autobiography).

After many years of rejection and marginalization, Paul finally found a solution—to create his own game—a “Big Tent” where every misfit is welcome, and everyone is free to pursuit one’s own path.

In this Big Tent, we welcome everyone interested in meaning-centered research and applications regardless of their theoretical stripes, disciplines, or nationality.

INPM’s Mission:

First, to pursue an integrative approach to advance meaning research and applications. Second, to help all people find and use their gifts so that they can give them away to create a better world.

How to implement his vision was a daunting and impossible task. Still working at Trinity Western University, he had the support of his staff, graduate students, and his Academic Vice-President, Dr. Don Page. However, financially, he had to sign a statement promising that he was personally responsible for all the expenses related to the first Meaning Conference. As a result, he started fundraising and marketing.

The Meaning Conferences

True to his style, he worked day and night, leaving no stone unturned. He made a cold call to Irvin Yalom, offering all expenses and $5,000 dollars honorarium, totally by faith. Similarly, he invited several other keynotes, such as David Myers, Ernesto Spinelli, Jeffrey Zeig, Eugene Bianchi, Salvatore Maddi, and Glenn Affleck by faith, not knowing where the money would come from. His faith and hard work eventually paid off with a successful first conference. Like the proverbial old fool moving mountains, he believed then and still believes now, that his example would inspire many younger people to carry on the mission.

The venue for our first Meaning Conference was the same as for this 10th Meaning Conference, although, at that time, it was called the Airport Executive Plaza Hotel. The conference theme was Searching for Meaning in the New Millennium. Paul was excited to see the long lineup at the registration desk on the first day of the conference. Yalom’s keynote was on the gifts of therapy, based on the new book he just released. He was able to draw a large crowd to his lecture.

To gain broader acceptance within Trinity Western University, Paul made a political move of enlisting other two graduate programs to join him with the assurance that it would not cost them anything.

The second theme was significant, because it not only dealt with the core theme of freedom and responsibility in meaning, but also with the challenge of social justice as an external condition in meaningful living. We were pleased to be able to have Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, as a keynote in a Public Address.

Arun Gandhi spoke on the non-violence way to achieve social justice. Paul’s phone rang off the hook from people enquiring about this public address. We knew then it would be a very successful event. Indeed, he attracted a large audience, especially from the Indian community in Vancouver. My son Wesley Wong, who was still studying at UBC at that time, attended this conference too.

Table 1: Meaning Conference Themes

2000 Searching for Meaning in the New Millennium
2002 Freedom, Responsibility, Justice
2004 Transforming Suffering, Loss, and Death through Meaning, Hope, and Faith
2006 Addiction, Meaning, and Spirituality
2008 Living Well and Dying Well
2010 Creating a Psychologically Healthy Workplace
2012 A Positive Global Vision of Healing and Flourishing
2014 Exploring What Makes Life Worth Living
2016 Spirituality, Self-Transcendence, and Second-Wave Positive Psychology
2018 Courage, Faith, and Meaning: Existential Positive Psychology’s Response to Adversity

Activities

The Board of Directors took on many planning activities.

Planning Retreat

We had the luxury of having a planning retreat for our second meaning conference in Las Vegas, thanks to the unexpected large income tax return for Paul. He contributed the entire tax return (more than $6,000) to cover the cost of the retreat.

Here were the people present at the planning retreat. On the right, you can see Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba, who have been faithful supporters of the INPM and the Meaning Conferences from the very beginning.

Inviting Prominent Conference Speakers

Over the years, we have invited many prominent speakers in positive psychology and humanistic-existential psychology. Dr. Christopher Peterson spoke at one of our conferences. He passed away unexpectedly a few months after speaking at our Conference. Dr. Robert Neimeyer has been our speaker for years, drawing many attendees to his workshops on grief counseling. Other keynote speakers included George Valliant from Harvard, Dr. Alfried Längle, Dr. Salvatore Maddi; our friend, Dr. Emmy van Deurzen, and Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, one of the most influential psychologists in cognitive behaviour therapy.

Many conference attendees met with Donald Meichenbaum at the informal “Meet the Speaker” session. In addition, Dr. Alexander Batthyány, Director of the Viktor Frankl Institute in Vienna, has been a strong supporter of the INPM in its early days.

Light Hearted Moments

There were many (sometimes unexpected) lighthearted moments in every conference. For instance, Tony Robbins and his family unexpectedly attended our Meaning Conference in Vancouver and gave an informal talk to interested individuals. We did not have to pay him for speaking. Other moments involved our conference participants from Taiwan. There were more than 20 delegates from Taiwan in this year’s Meaning Conference.

Other INPM Activities

The INPM has a dedicated team to plan and manage its activities. One of our outstanding team members, Evelyn Tam, will be leaving for Hong Kong in September this year after helping us for three years. Another member who made these conferences work was our past webmaster, who is no longer with us too.

We’ve also held many Board retreats, opening up the program for the Summer Institute in Vancouver in July 2005; and hosted Meaningful Living Meetup Groups in the backyard of our home. Sometimes, we have had over 40 people attending. We have had people attending from all walks of life and all faith traditions (for teaching materials used for the Meetups, visit www.inpm.org). We are thankful that we still have supporters from the beginning.

Conclusion

In addition to the regular INPM Projects, such as the Meaning Conferences, Summer Institutes, Journal, Newsletter, and Meetups, Paul enjoys mentoring numerous younger professionals as evidenced in the various testimonials at the recent Meaning Conference Celebration Banquet. He often gives his time and energy contributing to the personal and professional development of others without getting any credit. In the past 20 years of serving the INPM, he has set an example of servant leadership in serving others with the spirit of love and generosity.

Paul always sees his role as a facilitator who provides resources and encouragement to all people who pursue a meaningful life. This idealism is clearly evident in his 2011 article on Meaningful Living Project, which articulates his bottom-up approach to advancing the cause of meaning:

Meaningful living is a way of life that brings out the best in us while healing the worst. The [Meaningful Living Project] can become a grassroots movement when more and more people embrace a purpose-driven life as a simple and effective way to transform lives and the world regardless of the circumstances.

Paul’s main disappointment in his role as President of INPM is that he has not been able to translate his idealism into organizational and financial success. He feels that he has failed to develop enough Board members, who not only share his Big-Tent and bottom-up vision, but also his practice of making personal sacrifices to ensure the INPM’s financial viability and standard of excellence.

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