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Heuristic Researach: A Review and Critique of the Moustakas Method

Heuristic Research: A Review and Critique of Moustakas’ Method


The Last Frontier

The idea of investigating the last frontier may create images of climbing to the heights of rugged mountain peaks or exploring the depths of the ocean’s floor, of developing far more powerful telescopes to peer into the farthest reaches of outer space or microscopes to probe the center of an atom.  But I believe there is a terra incognito that may be far more available for human inquiry than any of these places. This final frontier, I propose, is the interiority of our experience where feeling, which may previously not have been noticed as significant, is not just a core component but the dominant one (Damasio, 1999), despite the profound efforts of the intellect to alter this reality.   Entrance into this territory seems to have been resisted for so long, and little credence has been given to its investigation.  Yet, I speculate, this region has a potential to bring expanded understanding to so many of the other arenas of our investigation. Within this interiority, feeling responses to external circumstances combine to create meaning, and out of meaning, personalities are organized, personal and cultural myths are formed and world-views are constructed.   Some would even say that worlds and universes themselves are created from this interiority.

Mainstream science, which includes traditional research psychology, has focused on describing, defining, explaining, and predicting, the objects of its investigation.   However, what I identify as this last frontier requires a release of the skills of controlled, objective observation and a willingness to surrender, to leap into subjective experience.  Moustakas (1961, 1972, 1975, 1990) took that leap into the interior.  After analysis of his own work, and the work of his students who were doing similar studies, he organized a systematic form for investigating this experience that he called heuristic inquiry.

In the fall of 1998, I had completed a nearly 2-year self-study.  At the time, I had neither the intention of having my work become a thesis, nor had I planed to follow any research method; I was simply trying to resolve a crisis in my life.  However, after the fact, I found that the process I had experienced and written about had paralleled the Moustakas (1990) method precisely.  My pre-thesis self-report was written in six chapters, each of which covers one of the six phases (initial engagement, immersion, incubation, illumination, explication, and creative synthesis) and followed in the same sequence as outlined by Moustakas (1990).

According to Moustakas (1990), the heuristic process opens to knowledge that is embedded and integrated within the self through understanding of the self in relation to and in context of the dynamic whole.  Moustakas (1990) pointed out that his deeper understanding of the heuristic process was influenced by the work of Maslow (1956, 1966, 1971); Jourard (1968, 1971); Polanyi (1964, 1966, 1969); Buber (1958, 1961, 1965); Bridgman (1950); Gendlin (1962); Rogers (1985); and his own later work (Moustakas, 1968, 1981, 1988).   This interiority is the arena of Buber’s (1970) understanding of what is formed within the self and flows between the I and thou.   It is Polanyi’s (1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1974, 1983) unique background of practical and personal knowledge each person develops and brings to the next encounter.  This is also Heidegger’s (Guignon, 1983, 1993; Steiner, 1996) beingness, and Bronowski’s (1978) selfreference in all understanding.   It is the unseen connective tissue that flows in and between people that Ullman (1996) and Sela-Smith, (2000) discovered in dream work.  It is found in Damasio’s (1999) step into the light when one becomes conscious of The feeling of what Happens.  This is what is experienced and interpreted by the “I” in the Upper Left quadrant of Wilber’s (1995, 1996, 1997) matrix as simplified in the chart below:

4-quadrants of knowledge:

According to Wilber, all must be represented in any knowledge system


Interior- “I”                       Exterior-you (it)

Intentional                                 Behavioral

Subjective                                    Objective


Interior- “we”                   Exterior-them (it)

Intersubjective                        Interobjective

Cultural                                               Social

Self-Transformation:  Surrender to Feelings of the Experiencing “I”

A few months before I left my husband to begin life as a single woman, an action that I never before had considered as a possibility, I had a dream.  In the dream there was a major reconstruction project taking place in the offices of the business my husband and I owned and operated together.  Workmen were putting up new walls everywhere.  Sawdust and debris were everywhere as everyone was intently busy doing tasks of remodeling.  My husband was leaning over a blueprint and discussing changes with the contractor.  I walked from room to room and noticed that there was no office for me.

After several attempts to communicate with my husband, I finally caught his attention and asked him where my office was.  He seemed disconnected from me and uninterested in my obvious frustration.  Without looking up, he pointed to a set of unfinished stairs in the back of the building indicating they led to my office.  I walked up the stairs and found an old desk with old files and papers on top of it that looked more like garbage than valuable material.  It seemed that all the things that no one knew what to do with were relegated to that upper space.  There was no phone, no intercom; there were no windows—it was a dimly lighted space without a carpet, without any comfort at all.  I walked back down to the main floor and told my husband that the place felt really awful to me.  He didn’t hear me.

I stood in a central place where I could see all our employees in their offices working diligently and a shock wave washed through me as a dreadful thought entered my mind: There is no place for me here!  I felt my throat become tight, and hot tears spilled down my cheeks; it felt as if my heart were breaking.  The business that I had helped create had no place for me anymore.  I turned toward the main entrance and noticed how dark it was outside.  I walked to the front door and opened it.  I saw the most overwhelming, frightening blackness in front of me. My dreaming self was facing a moment similar to that faced by the adventurer Indiana Jones in the 1989 film The Last Crusade as he stood looking into a chasm that was impossible to jump.  I was about to step outside the door when I realized that I had no idea if there was anything outside for me to put my foot on to support me, or if  in the stepping, I would fall into total nothingness.

     I turned my head to reconsider my decision to leave.  Everything in me wanted to cry out to my husband to persuade him to become conscious of the horror of what was happening to me, to us.  I had been with him for so long and the thought of leaving was excruciating.  But I knew that he would not hear me.  In the moment of the turning I knew in my heart that remaining there would be too painful, perhaps even more painful than falling into what might be “forever” darkness.  I walked to the threshold that separated the known from the unknown–and I stepped into the blackness.  I woke in panic.  My heart was racing.  My body was drenched in perspiration.  I was too frightened to cry, and I felt so totally alone.

     When I woke, still aware of that “dream-moment” standing between what was known and unknown, I became consciously aware of painful knowledge that my feeling-self, long dissociated from my thinking self, had known for many years.  I was living with a man who had no place for me and was working in a business where I did not belong.  My work in therapy helped me find the deep level where personal beliefs had kept me bound in a marriage that was literally killing me and working in a business that had become disconnected from my heart.   Through accessing the “I-who-feels,” I was able to reorganize the structures that had been formed in childhood and begin to reform my personal myths about myself, relationships, responsibilities, marriage, and terminating marriage.

A few months following that nightmare experience,  the dream became reality.   I left my husband, and our business, and stepped into the unknown.  The journey I have taken since that time has been led principally by the “I who feels” where my own footsteps have created the path.  After leaving, I lived in China for nearly 2 years.  At the age of 49, I began the process of getting a Ph.D. in psychology. This endeavor has taken me all over this country and to other continents, learning, as well as, teaching about what I have experienced while living in the Upper Left quadrant as the “I-who-feels.”  Not only has my external, observable world changed dramatically, but my internal, feeling experience of my world has been forever transformed by following my dream into the blackness and the unknown where another way of knowing exists.

From personal experiential inquiry into the Upper Left quadrant, I have become aware of both the inherent potentials for profound transformation within heuristic method as well as my own resistance to any self-search that I initiate.  I have found that the resistance has to be confronted and overcome before resolution can occur.   After completing my Masters Thesis, Regaining Wholeness:  A Heuristic Inquiry Into Childhood Sexual Abuse (Sela-Smith, 1998),  I decided I wanted to use the Moustakas (1990) method for my dissertation.  Toward that end, I conducted a review of research literature using Moustakas’ (1990) heuristic method.

Heuristics Defined

The term heuristics originated from the Greek word heuriskein that means to find out, or to discover and can be used in any science, in any research endeavor where the inquiry is on the cutting edge of new territory being explored.  When there is no idea of where the researcher or the territory is going (i.e. there is no paradigm established for the field), then exploratory discovery, rather than testing hypotheses, is the goal.  The inquiry is open-ended with only the initial question as the guide. “What works” becomes the focus and anything that makes sense can be tested.  This trial-and-error process, this discovery of what works, is the heuristic.  What succeeds becomes the “right thing.”  After heuristic discovery, the cutting edge of terra incognito becomes a part of the field from which other scientists can make hypotheses, conduct tests, and verify whether their hypotheses can be accepted or rejected.  The use of the word “heuristic” to identify the inquiry method explicated by Moustakas (1990) was earlier used by Polya (1945) to identify the mental operations or procedures one moves through in the process of solving problems in mathematics.  The same term was later applied to computer science problem solving and was recently applied to the general process of higher order thinking to include reflection and judgment in dealing with complex issues. (Reeves, 1993)

As did Moustakas, Polya (1945) recorded steps or stages that are a part of the heuristic process he observed.  His stages relate to problem solving procedures in mathematics: identification, assessment, clarification, determination of cause and effect, decision making, outcome prediction, and outcome analysis where each piece of the process is entered with trial-and-error methods until the solution is discovered.  In both Polya’s (1945) and Moustakas’ (1990) explications there is an implication that intuition instead of formal techniques determines the steps taken in each stage.

In the articulation of the conceptual foundations and core processes of his heuristic method, Moustakas (1990) legitimized using the term “heuristics” to define the organized and systematic form for investigating human experience in which attention is focused inward on feeling responses of the researcher to the outward situation rather than exclusively to relations among the pieces of that outside situation. The Moustakas (1990) method of heuristics invites the conscious, investigating self-as-researcher to surrender to the feelings in an experience, which carries the researcher to unknown aspects of self and the organizational systems that reside outside normal awareness. With new, revised, or expanded understanding, internal reorganization naturally occurs resulting in a self-transformation that almost always has social and transpersonal implications. (Moustakas, 1990, p. 15) Since positivism became the authority in science where objectively attained empirical evidence was the only acceptable source of knowledge, internal subjective experience was negated as a source of scientifically approved knowledge.  The proposal of this particular perspective provides a valuable method in psychology for research to incorporate the internal subjective experience of the “I who feels.”

The Deep Structures of Tacit Knowledge:  Experience, Feeling, and Meaning

      Construction of tacit knowledge structures.

 Yu bang xiang zhen, yu weng de li., Yi ri zao she yao, shi nian pa jin sheng” (translation) “Once bitten twice shy.  Once bitten by a snake, a thousand times frightened by a rope” (Si Tu Tan, 1988, p. 292), is an ancient Chinese saying which reflects an aspect of tacit knowledge.  The tacit dimension of personal knowledge is that internal place where experience, feeling, and meaning join together to form a picture of the world and a way to navigate that world.  Tacit knowledge is a continually growing, multi-leveled, deep-structural organization that exists for the most part outside of ordinary awareness and is the foundation upon which all other knowledge stands.  This deep dimension of knowledge is under construction each time a new experience is introduced.  The individual constantly compares the outer world with the inner knowledge base to evaluate and to determine what it is that is being experienced. Though some of the comparison may be explicit, it is more likely to be subliminal pondering of what fits or doesn’t fit just right.  If knowledge at the tacit level is flawed, the experience of and response to the external world will reflect that flaw.  To correct flaws, we must find entrance to the tacit dimension.  I propose that “feeling” is the key, and heuristic inquiry as introduced by Moustakas (1990) provides a very large door to the generally unexplored territory of the Upper Left quadrant.

Moustakas (1990) identifies tacit knowledge as “the deep structure that contains the unique perceptions, feelings, intuitions, beliefs, and judgments housed in the internal frame of reference of a person that governs behavior and determines how we interpret experience” (p. 32). Krippner and Ryan  (1998) state that these structures create a personal mythology that acts as a chaotic attractor (Abraham, 1989, Krippner, 1994) that pulls to it images, beliefs, values, priorities, memories, emotions and labels them.  These structures explain how people who were bitten by a snake respond to snakes when everyone else sees ropes.  Personal myths let us see and experience what we have already decided is our view of the world.

The gestalt of a whole experience is packaged as a structured whole and becomes a part of our tacit knowledge.  According to Polanyi (1969)  “while tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied.  Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge” (p. 144).  Though it is the foundation upon which all other knowledge stands, tacit knowledge is ordinarily not available to conscious awareness (Moustakas, 1990, Polanyi, 1969).  Polanyi  (1964, 1969, 1983) states that each new experience produces another whole that fits together with the earlier ones.  Over time, the unique combination of wholes creates the fundamental building blocks of each individual’s personal knowledge. The question of true or false is not applicable here, but rather whether the individual’s tacit knowledge helps or hinders. The answer to this may change over time.

The experiencing “I” makes continual comparison of the outer world with the inner knowledge base to evaluate what is “out there” against what is “in here.”  If something is determined to be known, then thought, feeling, and behavior responses are initiated that have already been organized the first time that “something” was experienced. If what is out there does not match anything on the inside, new evaluations, thoughts, feelings, behaviors must be formed into new wholes. This development of wholes is an ongoing process (Stern, 1985, p. 260).

At the time that wholes of the tacit dimension are being formed, it is probable that incomplete, inaccurate, or misinterpreted information will be a part of the embedded in personal knowledge. I surmise that if knowledge at the tacit level is flawed, both the experience of and response to the external world will reflect that flaw. Flawed information can be transformed if an entrance to the wholes at the tacit level can be found to allow new information to reach the deeply hidden places (Moustakas, 1990, p. 30).  Perhaps more than we imagine, portions of tacit knowledge are of the “rope is dangerous” variety and the embedded world-view will be verified by lived experience, appearing to be true.

Role of thought in tacit knowledge:  global vs. verbal.

Thought-processing begins as pre-verbal, body-based, global experience of wholes in the present, and in early childhood changes to verbal language systems that are linear, time oriented, that differentiate and generalize, and are observational (Stern, 1985, Werner, 1948, Werner & Kaplan, 1963).  According to Stern (1985), the emergence of language is a double-edged sword.  While language can enhance both interpersonal awareness and awareness of self, language can also drive wedges between what is spoken and what is known, and between parts of the self:


Language then, causes a split in the experience of the self.  It also moves relatedness onto the impersonal, abstract level intrinsic to language, and away from the personal, immediate level, intrinsic to the other domains of relatedness. (pp.162-163)


Stern (1985) goes on to say that language can have an alienating effect on self-experience when what is experienced at the level of core and intersubjective relatedness is not able to be verbalized.  The non-verbalized global experiences are then sent underground into a misnamed and poorly understood existence, and the verbal becomes accepted in awareness while what is experienced is out of awareness (p. 175).  Aspects of Polanyi’s (1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1974, 1983) tacit dimension and its ineffable nature appears to me to be related to Stern’s core self, a self that organizes in the infant at about 2 months, but is separated from conscious awareness.  According to Stern (1985),

 causes estrangement from one’s own personal experience where representations of things can be talked about and what is talked about may not be what is experienced (p. 182)

Because the foundation of all knowledge is either tacit knowledge or rooted in tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1969 p. 144), and because the earliest foundation of tacit knowledge is pre-verbal, and disconnected from the verbal-thinking self, I conclude that changes in flawed tacit knowledge must take place through thought that is connected to pre-verbal, body-based, global experience of wholes rather than reflective reason. I speculate that it is not the thinking-observing self but rather the “I-who-feels” who is experiencing the feeling that provides access to the tacit dimension.  Once access is made through feeling experiences, wholes that were formed out of limited or flawed awareness can be reconstructed by new, corrected, complete, or reinterpreted information and the meanings which propel our lives can be transformed.   No matter how much I tell myself that a rope is not a snake, my body reacts in fear when I see a rope.  Not until I enter the feeling of fear in my body in the present, will I be able to find the entry point to the “long thin snake-bite-pain-long thin rope-fear-avoid” global structure that was formed in the past and is part of the building blocks of my personal knowledge.  On entry, I can bring present information that differentiates ropes and snakes into the tacit structure and transform the flaw of my fright-response to ropes.

Entrance to the Last Frontier

In my initial understanding of Moustakas’ (1990) heuristics I concluded that this method provides entrance to the tacit dimension. This method requires that the participant-as-researcher focus on the feeling dimension of personal experience to discover meanings embedded therein. Perhaps, for the first time in human science research, discovery of both the experience and I-who-feels is possible in ways that conventional observation, description, explanation, discussion, or reflection could never provide.  Reorganization on the tacit level that was not possible by objective observation is possible through subjective experience. With reorganization, how we consciously experience our worlds and ourselves is transformed.

Surrender to the 6 Phases of Experience

Moustakas’ (1990) references Polanyi (1983) who says that “underlying all other concepts in heuristic research, at the base of all heuristic discovery, is the power of revelation in tacit knowing” (p. 20). The heuristic process begins with a question or problem from within, regarding a passionate concern that calls out to the researcher.   The personal question or problem connected to self-understanding is rooted in tacit knowledge and creates a sense of un-ease that the researcher seeks to resolve.  In order to participate in this heuristic self-inquiry, the researcher must experience self-dialogue, be willing to use feeling to enter the tacit dimension, and allow intuition to make connections in the structures of tacit-knowledge.  The researcher must remain internally focused and dwell within the feelings of the tacit dimension, allowing the 6 phases to unfold naturally by surrendering to the feeling state of the subjective “I.”  Instead of rigorous planning and controlling the steps as in Polya’s (1945) heuristics, the researcher must release control and discover whatever the stage has to offer.   If any one of these phases is not completed with full integrity, heuristic research is not successfully accomplished.

Yet, the completion of the phases cannot be the focus. The idea of completion according to a set of guidelines is a verbal thought.   If a verbal thought is the focus, the process will be mechanistic; only feeling can direct the process through the uncharted territory to global experience of the tacit dimension.  Each of the phases in heuristics is not a labeled step on some ladder that lists all the necessary components of that step.   Each phase is experiencing stepping off and falling into feeling all that occurs in the process.  Each phase is an uncharted territory because the ground is not formed until the inquirer literally creates both the territory and the path by surrendering to the unknown and then walking the territory to discover what is there.

The goal of heuristic self-research is to come to a deeper understanding of whatever is calling out from the inside of the self to be understood.  To do this the researcher must maintain “an unwavering and steady inward gaze” (p.13).  In the process, the researcher is coming to understand something within that is also a human problem or experience.  The researcher uses the data within to lift into awareness the experiences that are felt and trigger the being of the researcher.  In this lifting, an awakening, a greater self-understanding, and personal growth occur that combine to produce self-transformation.  When a story is formed with the embedded wholes of the transformation in it, the story itself contains the power to transform anyone who dares to surrender to the listening.  Moustakas (1990) carefully outlined the intentions of each of the 6 phases:

Phase 1: initial engagement.  “Within each researcher exists a topic, theme, problem, or question that represents a critical interest and area of search.  The task of the initial engagement is to discover an intense interest, a passionate concern that calls out to the researcher, one that holds important social meanings and personal compelling implications.  This initial engagement invites self-dialogue, an inner search to discover the topic and question.  During this process one encounters the self, one’s autobiography, and significant relationships within a social context”  (p. 27)

When someone feels an internal draw and hears the call from the deepest recesses of the self, it is almost impossible not to notice.  This may be something that is being consciously or unconsciously experienced as incomplete and needs to be completed.  It may be something that is discordant that needs to be brought to harmony or something that is unclear that needs to be clarified.  It may be something that is misunderstood that needs understanding or something that is dissociated that needs to be integrated.  Perhaps, it is something that has not been known before that seeks to be known. This first phase is like the attention-getting circumstance pointing to something that cannot yet be seen but has the smell of significance that draws any scientist into inquiry.  From this intuitive place come hypotheses, theories, and questions that stimulate positivist scientists as well as scientific explorers to begin what may be years or a whole lifetime of research to discover some external truth.  It is also the place where the subjective scientist feels a call to discover some internal meaning.  From the moment of the call, the researcher may not even be aware of what needs to be done–only that something is calling out, and that to dismiss it is to deny something very important in the self.

If the topic is not adequately clarified it will be only partially formed; if only partially formed, research will not be able to unfold in heuristic self-inquiry.  If the topic is personally painful, the researcher may unconsciously resist the actual personal problem and consider something less threatening as the stated-problem and thus avoid re-experiencing pain.  The research will suffer from a split focus as the unconscious self continues to push the whole personal question into the research that is focused on an incomplete question or another stated question.

Phase 2: immersion. “Once the question is discovered and its terms defined and clarified the researches lives the question in waking, sleeping, and even dream states.  Everything in his or her life becomes crystallized around the question.  The immersion process enables the researcher to come to be on intimate terms with the question–to live it and grow in knowledge and understanding of it” (p. 28).

Something amazing happens when a researcher has surrendered to the call in phase one.  When the question has been properly formed, it appears to have a power that draws the image of the question everywhere in the researcher’s life experience.  Immersion happens naturally, not through control or planning.  Moustakas (1990) states:


If I am investigating the meaning of delight, then delight hovers nearby and follows me around.  It takes me fully into its confidence and I take it into mine.  Delight becomes a lingering presence; for a while, there is only delight.  It opens me to the world in a joyous way and takes me into a richness, playfulness and childlikeness that moves freely and effortlessly.  I am ready to see, feel, touch, or hear whatever opens me to a fuller knowledge and understanding of the experience of delight.  (p. 11)


The inner focus of phase 2 is not without contact from the outside.  In fact there is a continual movement from the inner experience to what it is in the outer that originally stimulated the research.  This is followed by a retreat to experiencing internally what is both internally and externally lingering in the presence of the researcher.  The call of phase 1 seems to be orchestrating the experience of phase 2 wherein the researcher’s internal experience of the research becomes the “song into which the researcher breathes life . . . because the question itself is infused in the researcher’s being” (Moustakas, 1990, p. 43).   It is not uncommon, even in positivist research, that metaphoric dreams provide significant pieces of information needed to continue the research toward the visioned goal.

If there is no call or no immersion into the call, the research will not unfold; it will lack integrity.  When the question does not have integrity, the researcher will be unable to remain focused on his or her own felt experience, and will not be able to live the question in his or her waking, sleeping, and dreaming.  The formation of a question may appear to be heuristic in that it seems to focus on an experience of the researcher, and the immersion may appear to be full submersion in the topic.  However, the question is not a true focus that is coming from the depths and passion of the researcher, and complete immersion does not take place.  Instead, the researcher may contrive situations with co-participants, might spend designated times in research situations which may be many hours of work for days on end.   Yet something is missing: the question does not feel alive within him or her self.  When heuristic research is initiated to fulfill dissertation requirements for graduation instead of growing out of the very being of the researcher, it is possible that the researcher may not be intimately and autobiographically connected to the question.  Immersion requires the whole self to be engaged in the focus of the research by surrendering to it in such a way that the research unfolds, rather than an observing self attempting to control and direct the process to assure that it moves in the right direction.  When there is inner conflict between the stated problem and the self-problem, whether the researcher is consciously aware of it or not, focus is easily lost and confusion occurs.  If the focus is on something outside the self, an institutional concern, a need for an intervention process, an experience of other people even if those other people have had a similar experience as the researcher, there will be no immersion and self-inquiry heuristics is not happening.

Phase 3: incubation. “Incubation is the process in which the researcher retreats from the intense, concentrated focus of the question…[and allows] the inner tacit dimension to reach its full possibilities”  (p. 26).

Incubation is not a period of putting something aside, or putting action on hold to do something else.  Incubation is the period when additional input is stopped because living with the question has provided all the information that the unconscious processing part of self needs to sort through, consider, review, and reorganize new ways of thinking, being, seeing, and understanding, to create meaning and form an answer to the question.  This stage begins without planning.  Researchers may resist this period, afraid that if they lose focus, detach, or walk a totally different path from the question, they will fail to complete their work.  It is the surrender to this process that allows this to happen.  Moustakas (1990) describes this third phase as a time when there is a retreat from the intense, concentrated focus on the question.  This is a time when “inner workings of the tacit dimension and intuition continue to clarify and extend understanding on levels outside the immediate awareness. . . . Discovery does not occur through deliberate mental operations and directed effort” (p. 29).  If there was a problem with the initial engagement and no discovery of the true self-problem, immersion will likely be confused and incomplete and incubation will not spontaneously work on solving the “stated” or the real, unarticulated-problem.

Phase 4: illumination.  “The process of illumination is one that occurs naturally when the researcher is open and receptive to tacit knowledge and intuition.  The illumination as such is a breakthrough into conscious awareness of qualities and clustering of qualities into themes inherent in the question” (p. 2).

This fourth phase occurs the moment the inner work of phase 3 spontaneously breaks through into conscious awareness.  This is not a conscious process of list making or theme-creation based on the commonalties found in co-participant experiences. It may bring new experience, new interpretations, new meanings, or it may correct distorted understandings.  This phase may allow for integration of dissociated aspects of the self by providing insight into the meanings that were attached to the internal experience of the past.  These meanings, even if they are the products of incomplete or inaccurate information, formed the basis upon which tacit knowledge and, therefore, the experience of life was built.   Illumination is not something that can be planned, nor does it occur necessarily when we have completed a particular task, such as when journals are read or co-participants are interviewed.   One cannot plan an “Aha” experience.  It occurs of its own, as major reorganization of knowing happens and transformation takes place on the deep level. The self and the world are experienced in brand new ways.  It may take place in a single moment or it may take place in waves of awareness over time.

Phase 5: explication.  “The purpose of the explication phase is to fully examine what has awakened in consciousness, in order to understand its various layers of meaning….In the explication process, the heuristic researcher utilizes focusing, indwelling, self-searching, and self-disclosure, and recognizes that meanings are unique and distinctive to an experience and depend upon internal frames of reference.  The entire process of explication requires researchers attend to their own awarenesses, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and judgments as a prelude to the understanding that is derived from conversations and dialogues with others” (p. 31).


After illumination has occurred, the researcher begins a process of expressing or explicating what he or she has discovered.  It is the period of time when the new insight, the new understanding, the new meaning, and the new world-view take up residence within the researcher.  Like a new person coming into one’s living space, everything within that space will shift as it relates to the change that has taken place.  As this is experienced, expressed, and explicated, a “more complete apprehension” is occurring.  The reorganization that has taken place on the deep-conscious level during incubation is now occurring in waking consciousness in the explication. This cannot occur, according to Moustakas (1990) if the major source of data is the experience of others.

Phase 6: creative synthesis.  “The creative synthesis can only be achieved through tacit and intuitive powers. . . . Inspiration…eventually enables a creative synthesis. . . . A comprehensive expression of the essences of the phenomenon investigated is realized” (p. 31).

If the researcher has surrendered to the heuristic self-search, and the process has unfolded naturally through the first five phases, the final phase spontaneously occurs to form a creative synthesis.  This is the “story” that contains some new whole that has been identified and experienced as a result of this union of the deep-unconscious and the waking consciousness, between the internal and the external.  This new whole draws some expression of creativity out of the researcher to reveal its presence in the outer world.   The new whole and its expression cannot be scheduled or pre-planned; it is born and the researcher is perhaps the “mid-wife” who is there to assist its emergence.  There is something transpersonal about what emerges that seems t takes on a life of its own.  It is an amazing time of synchronicity, harmony, connection, and integration. When others allow themselves to experience the story, be it in the form of a painting, a book, a piece of music, a dance, a lecture, or anything else creative, there will be something that resonates deep agreement within the observer.  There will be a mutuality with the creator and the experience; a sense of connection and transformation that cannot be falsified.

Six Key Components in Heuristic Research

After studying Moustakas (1990), I concluded that there were 6 key components that are intrinsic to Heuristic Inquiry:

(1) The researcher has experienced what is identified as being researched (Moustakas, 1990, p. 13, p. 27, p. 40).

(2) The researcher makes reference to some intense or passionate concern that causes the investigator to reach inward for tacit awareness and knowledge (p. 27).

(3) The research indicates surrender to the question has taken place (living, waking, sleeping and dreaming the question) (p. 28).

 (4) Self-dialogue, not simply a one way reporting of thoughts or feelings is evidenced.  To report a feeling is not the same as dialoguing with the feeling. (pp. 11, 16-20)

       (5) The search is a self-search.  (pp. 11, 13, 15, 17, 25)

 (6) There is evidence that transformation has taken place by way of a “story” that contains the transformation and may transform who “read” it. (pp. 13, 14, 19, 99, 124)

A transformational story:  emergence of a cemetery plot.

Moustakas (1990) discusses a situation wherein he records his experience of passing a beautiful countryside scene on several occasions. On a fifth passing, he sees a large cemetery plot he had not noticed before.  Not only does he become aware of it; he identifies the cemetery plot as not only a core component of the scene, but also the dominant component.  Previously he had been only aware of the characteristics of the scene that reflected life: trees, flowers, peaks, and things burgeoning with life.  The original meaning of the scene to him was life.  As he points out, he had missed the symbolic presence of death.   He was not able to see death in the scene of life until he experienced the unexpected death of a friend’s sister.  He had been unable to contact his friend and had put death out of his mind. An outer experience in the form of the woman’s death that had been put aside, caused him to see something in another outer experience in the form of the scene that contained symbols of both life and death and then to notice something about himself. Until then, he states, he “had not wanted to face the meaning of death in such a strikingly beautiful setting” (p.30).

Self-transformation as intention.

The researcher’s transformation becomes embedded in the story that then can be transmitted to the reader, listener, or viewer. To write this story, the researcher must move beyond the data to “permit an inward life on the question to grow, in such a way that a comprehensive expression of the essences of the phenomenon investigated is realized” (p.31). This suggests to me that if something is growing on the inside of the self that tells a story of self-transformation and enables self-transformation, there is self-transformation expected in this method.

Ambivalence in Moustakas’ Method:  Resistance

Application Failure Leads to Method Re-assessment


Based on the 6 key factors I consider to be intrinsic to Moustakas’ (1990) method, I conducted a review of 28 research documents claiming to follow Moustakas’ method.  I found that of the 28 cases only 3 were able to successfully fulfill the Moustakas method. Most inquiries presented no evidence of free-fall surrender to the process. The majority did not report personal, subjective experience.  Instead of having the process determine the phases, nearly all seemed to have been conducted by a time clock, a calendar, and by procedural rules.  In each of the 25 cases there was no reported internal discovery of the tacit dimension, and themes for the explication of experience were sought from co-participants instead of from within the self.  In those 25 cases, none presented evidence of transformation based on an “I who feels” finding access to tacit knowledge and bringing change to it in the process.  What I consider to be key to the investigation is missing. The self-search within an experience is replaced by what I interpret as a phenomenological explication of the definition of an experience.

To better understand the failure in almost 90% of the cases I had reviewed , I decided to take another look at Moustakas (1990) and discovered ambivalence in his method that I had not noticed before. I identified several areas that might create confusion for the researcher.  The first area relates to use of the word “heuristics,” without more narrowly identifying his method as heuristic self-inquiry in psychology many researchers studied external situations rather than internal experience.  Second, the inclusion of co-participants seems to create a distraction from the internal process.  Third, as with Wittgenstein’s (1961) language games, the confusion of languages, with different perspectives and different meanings can fully disorient the researcher doing self-inquiry.  And Finally, perhaps because of the other confusions, there is a shift from experience and self-search to observation of experience of self and others.

Though self-search, in my opinion, is the objective of this method, even in Moustakas’ (1990) own process I notice a shifting in his focus from the self who is experiencing the problem, to the experience that the self is having with the problem.  In this shift that a researcher makes, it may appear that he or she is attempting to understand an experience being felt. However, in reality, when the experience becomes the focus and there is no return to the “I who feels,” feeling is cut-off and self-transformation does not occur.  The unchanged tacit foundation remains intact.

Mixed Messages

In his introduction, Moustakas (1990) gives two examples of heuristic research that provide evidence of the double-focus within the method.  The first example identifies heuristics as a self-search through which one discovers the nature and meaning of the experience.  He explains: “The researcher experiences growing self-awareness and self-knowledge” (p. 9).  In the second example, Moustakas (1990) describes an experience Archimedes had while taking a bath when he observed a floating bar of soap and discovered the principle of buoyancy.  Moustakas (1990) shifts from “experience” used as a verb that is connected to the internal self-search, to experience as a noun that is connected to observation and thoughts related to the observation. This dual explanation of heuristics that I had not seen in my first reading of Moustakas (1990) represents the subtle split in focus that my re-evaluation of the text allowed me to see; a split focus that I contend permeates the explication of the heuristics method.

Experience of Loneliness vs. Experiencing Loneliness

I returned to Moustakas’ (1961, 1972, 1975) earlier writing and noticed that when he first began his search to understand loneliness, it was not a search to make a context-stripped, phenomenological explication of the word loneliness.  He was not seeking to create categories or themes that explicate an objective human experience, nor was he planning to develop a research method.  I believe he needed to solve a crisis in his life.

Moustakas’ (1961) little daughter had become gravely ill.  After being told he had to make a decision regarding surgery for her, he became overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility.   He felt utterly alone, totally lost, and frightened.  He found himself falling into the unknown and was terrified.   Fully immersed and confused in his feelings and unable to articulate them, he believed no one understood what he was experiencing in having to make such a decision.  While he was still experiencing overwhelming feelings and struggling for a clear answer that did not come, the child had surgery, a decision made primarily by his wife (Moustakas, 1990).

His daughter survived the operation; he maintained a vigil at her bedside.  Late one night while sitting quietly in his child’s hospital room, his attention was drawn to a small boy in another room who was gazing out a window.  He interpreted the child’s experience as waiting, intently gazing out into the darkness, looking for someone to come, and waiting for someone to bring protection and comfort.  But no one came. He stated that he knew what the child was experiencing. He knew the child was feeling deserted, forsaken, abandoned, and utterly alone.  He reported that he could no longer bear holding the suffering that the child was feeling.  He went to the child’s room and told the youngster:  “I know.  Right now there is no one.  No one at all, your mamma has left you” (Moustakas, 1961, p 3).   The child burst into tears and a nurse entered the scene, angry with him for disturbing the child.  She chastised the little one for fussing and waking others, and she left the room.  The researcher, who was not yet researching, followed the nurse down the hall and told her:  “You can’t leave him that way.  He is painfully lonely.  He feels cut-off from all meaningful ties.  He will harbor this terror for a long time.  Go back.  Tell him you care.  Hold his hand.  Say something gentle.”

Later, while his daughter was still recuperating in the hospital, she went into seizure that resulted in a hitting and kicking frenzy.  When he attempted to comfort his distraught child, she pushed him away saying:  “No, you bad .”   He was devastated.  Unable to connect with her, and feeling helpless to comfort her, he felt totally alone.  He interpreted his daughter’s actions as evidence that his child was as lonely as he was and that only he alone realized her pain and terror.

Moustakas first felt his pain of loneliness when he had to make the medical decision, but he had to focus on the decision rather than on his loneliness because of the immediacy of the decision.  He felt his pain of loneliness again when the boy’s own expressions reminded him of his yet unexplored feelings, however, he was unable to contain his own suffering, though he claims it is the child’s suffering he cannot contain.  Though there is little question that boy was likely lonely, I suspect that Moustakas, (1961) was projected his own feelings on the child who was looking out the window. I would contend that the child reminded him of his own feelings of being forsaken, deserted, and utterly alone, painfully lonely, and cut off from all meaningful ties. He may have been feeling a terror that he feared he would harbor for a long time and projected that on the boy as well.  The demand he made to the nurse to go back to gently comfort the child, to hold and care for the little one, is, I suspect, something for which he, himself, longed during that terrifying ordeal because holding loneliness was too painful..

The father points out that the original question–what do you want us to do regarding the operation for your child? –was never answered (Moustakas, 1961, p. 2; Moustakas, 1990, p. 91). I believe what may have been the heuristic question was never formed.  I suspect the flood of overwhelming emotions he experienced came from unformed responses from the inside related to how he “felt” about being confronted with the original non-heuristic question that plunged him into loneliness.   I speculate that the heuristic question might have been: What is my experience of feeling lonely?  This question has the potential to take him into the tacit dimension where global loneliness exists.  This is very different from the phenomenological question of what is the experience of loneliness, which he later answered by gathering data from observations of others.  I suspect that the unformed painful question was aborted because of the external timetable of the surgical decision and perhaps because of the terror of confronting the heuristic question within his own self.  In the process, I believe he missed something that I interpret as an amazing contradiction to his conclusion about loneliness.  When his own child was in pain, he was able to feel it in his own nerves and bones and tissues and blood. (1961, p. 5)  He was sharing it with her.  By projecting his feelings on the child in the other room and on his own daughter, as well as by studying loneliness in others, he may have cut himself off from his own feelings for a long time and thereby missed the deepest foundations of tacit knowledge.

Feeling cut off from all meaningful ties, feeling utterly and painfully alone, totally lost and frightened may well cause him to harbor a second question that has remained with him for a long time–a question regarding the experience and meaning of loneliness.  This second question, which is also valuable and legitimate, is now separated from the Upper Left quadrant of direct feeling as “I who feels” and moves into the Upper Right quadrant of observation of the experience within himself as he might observe it in someone else.  By collecting observations of others there is a further separation from the feeling self as feelings are talked about, not experienced.  If he were to deal with the experience of loneliness, he would dialogue with it, and in the dialogue, he would enter the tacit dimension of his personal knowledge to discover what is calling out to him to be more deeply understood.  In my own projection, it is not hard to imagine that a part of himself that he has projected on the child gazing out the window, is still waiting for the assurance that he is not alone.  Later he finds solace in a passage he quotes from Rilke (1954) in Letters to a Young Poet  reminding readers:


Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and…try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms…Do not now seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.  (p. 35)


Opposing Halves

Moustakas (1961, 1972, 1975, 1990) investigated loneliness for years and determined that this condition is intrinsic to human existence and growth.  Aware of his own loneliness, he saw loneliness in the eyes of an unknown child.  He also found loneliness in his own child who pushed him away, seeming to know she has to suffer alone. The researcher shifted his focus to studying other people’s reports of loneliness and created a method to help researchers understand the meaning of experiences such as one that he has had.

I propose that he explicates a method that contains two processes instead of one.   The first process is presented in the first 2 chapters of his book.  This is the path of surrender to an internal question that flows from the internal focus of the I-who-feels.  It reflects a leap into the unknown, a letting go, a falling into the river that flows into a new stream of consciousness. This is his “leashless “ path, the way not limited or confined by methodological structures (Moustakas, 1990, p.17).  It is the place of self-honesty, self-dialogue, and self-disclosure.  It is the path that leads to the tacit dimensions, to the building-block structures that act as “chaotic attractors(Abraham, 1989, Krippner, 1994, Krippner and Ryan, 1998)  which create our lives.  When this method unfolds, it moves through the 6 phases that he discovered by observing the processes of those who made the leap ( p.10). The second process is presented in the third and fourth chapters that outline the application of his method that I believe to be connected with his second question, one which I propose is not a heuristic self-search question.  It focuses on the phenomena of the objective, observed experience, not the self who feels.  I propose that his method mirrors his attempt to distance and gain control of “overwhelming” feelings by resisting the first question and forming and answering a second question.

This second observing-not-experiencing focus reflects years of investigating co-participants, and perhaps is his way to “live the question now, and gradually to live into the answer.”  His discourse begins with the “leashless” concepts of the first process, and he emphasizes that his method is neither hermeneutical nor phenomenological.  Yet the internal phases seem to turn into external steps (p. 51) with requirements that appear to be both hermeneutic and phenomenological.  The application portion of his method has been codified into an external process.   It requires making lists, constructing methods, and following data collection procedures in a prescribed fashion.  The final product is a document that depicts themes, meanings, and essences of the experience.  Other participants become the major source of data. Validity of the self-experience is established by similar experiences of others; yet, validity in subjective discovery-research is not possible by comparing to others’ experience.

It is only when an internal focus is maintained that the researcher’s own tacit knowledge can be lifted into conscious awareness.  When the focus is on another, what is learned is from an Upper Right quadrant perspective, an observing rather than an experiencing place.   In the applied process that focuses on the participants and on the phenomenon, the self, the I-who-feels, can be too easily lost in a sea of explications and step fulfillment.  The focus of the feeling, experiencing-self can become lost in the experience, and the experience is lost in the articulated application of a process.

For those who see metaphors in everything, it would not be difficult to see the method presented by Moustakas (1990) as the metaphor for a man who loses himself in a dreadful experience and wanders the streets in search of an answer; a man who then loses the dreadful experience in a research method which articulates a dissociated process of discovering the phenomenon of the experience.  The spontaneous creative synthesis, the story with embedded transformation, seems to disappear as a research manuscript is formed to fit the requirements of objective positive science.  He has come to know about loneliness and his extensive writing has helped many others who struggle with feeling lonely.  Children’s wards in many hospitals are much different in 2000 than they were in 1961, perhaps due, in part, to his study of loneliness. He also has developed a method with the potential to enter the tacit dimensions more than most any other research inquiry method.  Yet, the method possesses internal conflicts, perhaps the same conflicts he himself experienced when he was grappling with a question that, I speculate, was never fully formed.  Instead of remaining fully inward-focused on the experience of feeling lonely, he is distracted with the word loneliness, and with the formation of a method–extremely important, but not self-focused.

In the method that Moustakas (1990) develops, he contradicts a significant aspect of self-inquiry.  He says “from the beginning and throughout an investigation, heuristic research involves self-search, self-dialogue, and self-discovery; the research question and the methodology flow out of inner awareness, meaning, and inspiration” (p. 11).  This self-discovery “defies the shackles of convention and tradition. . . . It pushes beyond the known, the expected, or the merely possible.  Without the restraining leash of formal hypothesis, and free from external methodological structures that limit awareness or channel it, the one who searches heuristically may draw upon the perceptual powers afforded by. . . direct experience” (Douglass & Moustakas, 1985, p. 44; Moustakas, 1990, p. 17).   Paradoxically, he creates a methodological structure for a process that he himself states must take, place free from methodological structures if it is to be authentic.

When he describes the phases, Moustakas (1990) emphasizes the need to surrender to them, not to formalize them and mechanically follow them.  But in explaining the application of his method, he does not give direction for letting go and falling into the river  or swimming into the unknown current  that occurs when one leaps into the unknown self.   He only says it “may be refreshing and peaceful, or it may be disturbing and even jarring” (p.13).  But he gives an extensive description of the inclusion of co-participants and the rules they must follow in order to determine the meaning of the experience being studied.  I surmise that he himself shifts back and forth within his method between focus on self in the experience and focus on what is experienced, because his own personal research subject and process contain confusion.

Moustakas (1990) often reminds the reader that the question emerges from the depths of the person  and the data are within while the self is immersed in the experience.  He states that research from outside sources comes “at a point near the end, not at the beginning where it might have acted to predispose or color…growing awareness” (p. 96).  Yet, when he is explicating the methodological structure, the focus subtly shifts from the self to the named topic being researched.   He now says that in the first stage of formulating the question, the researcher should focus on the topic at hand and enter into a thinking process about themes and subthemes that can be formulated into a question. No longer is there a psychological free-fall; now there is a plan organized by reason.

He sets out the methods of preparation for the second stage of immersion as a plan rather than the surrender that he previously says is necessary.  There can be only one subject for self-study, and that is “I”;  however, inclusion of co-participants is strongly suggested as desirable in the directions Moustakas (1990) gives to implement his original method.  In preparing for co-participants’ inclusion, he directs the researcher to let them know what is expected of them, that a set of criteria be formed for selection of co-participants, and that there should be a contract with them.  He makes these suggestions, apparently without noticing how the suggestions contradict the very core of his method.  I suspect that personal ambivalence and resistance to self-search of a possible unformed heuristic question in 1961, has acted as a chaotic attractor  (Abraham, 1989, Krippner, 1994, Krippner & Ryan, 1998) producing the ambivalence within the method he explicates in 1990.

As I read Moustakas (1990), the self-search of this heuristic process is one that is self-formed, not formed by being selected as a co-participant and agreeing to certain expectations.  It is a process that must focus on the individual’s unique, yet universal humanness, which makes developing a set of criteria for co-participants such as “age, sex, socioeconomic and education factors, ability to articulate the experience, cooperation” (p. 46) etc., a meaningless act.  When Moustakas (1990) suggests the forming of a contract with co-participants to include time commitment, he is violating one of the most significant aspects of the method.   He, himself, states:  “The heuristic research process is not one that can be hurried, or timed by the clock or calendar” (p. 14) and that “the researcher enters into the material in timeless immersion until it is understood” (p. 51).  If input from co-participants is to be authentic, it would seem necessary that the same guiding principles that apply to the researcher must apply to the co-participants.

Co-participants, if they are used in self-search, are valuable as reflectors of possible areas of resistance that may be out of conscious awareness in the form of denial, projection, or incomplete search.  This sends the researcher back into the self to continue the self-search into deeper or more distant tacit dimensions, thus allowing the transformation to be more expansive.  This is what Humphrey (1989), another researcher who followed a self-search method, did when he was searching life’s meaning and found his co-participants had included the dark side which he had not included.  He returned to a self- search to look for what he had not seen before of his own dark side that expanded his search for meaning.  A process of using others’ input without removing the focus from the self as in Moustakas’ (1990) application chapters (pp. 45-54)  might be found in adapting Ullman’s (1979, 1996, Sela-Smith, 2000) dream method to the heuristic self-inquiry method.

 I speculate that in attempting to make his method acceptable to positivist science where external observation establishes validity, he has moved from the Upper Left quadrant to the Upper Right.  But checking personal experience against the experience of others to determine what is a most accurate descriptor of one’s own experience is not what makes one’s own experience valid and it does not provide access to the tacit dimension.  The feeling response as experienced, is valid as it stands.  Checking against others’ experience can become reductionistic towards some statistical mean. Validity of the research is established by surrendering to the process that is pushing itself into the consciousness of the researcher, allowing the process to unfold and then noticing results in expansion of self-awareness,  deepening of self-understanding, and of self-transformation that others can experience in the “story” .

Moustakas (1990) notes that the bridge connection between the “implicit knowledge inherent in the tacit and the explicit knowledge that is observable and describable” (p. 23) is intuition.  Intuition, according to Moustakas (1990), “is an internal capacity to make inferences and arrive at a knowledge of underlying structures or dynamics. . . . Intuition makes possible the perceiving of things as wholes” (p. 23).  These wholes include patterns, relationships, and inferences.  While implicit, or tacit knowledge under normal conditions is “ineffable and unspecifiable,” intuition is a skill that can be developed by broadening of background inputs to tacit knowledge.  The more one is willing to look more widely for clues, patterns, relationships, inferences, or underlying conditions, and imagine a reality made of these observations, the more one can become perceptive and sensitive to deeper understanding of wholeness that exists, yet is unseen.  As Moustakas (1990) shifts from the experiencing feeling-self and into the intuiting-self he returns to thinking as the proposed access to the tacit dimension.  Intuition is a valuable tool in assisting the researcher to notice when wholes do or do not exist, and providing information that exposes the need for a leap into the unknown.  However, it is feeling that makes the leap, as well as, the transformation that can happen.  Intuition is really an after-the-fact recognition of a new perspective.  It is not a pre-plan meta-process to implement for “intuition-ing.”  It is the thinking self that creates plans, makes leashes, and directs processes that paradoxically channel and, therefore, limit the potential that heuristic self-inquiry has to offer.

Three Languages:  Two Perspectives

In considering the confusions that are apparent in Moustakas’ (1990) own work and the research of others who follow his method, I have become aware of 3 languages implicated in Moustakas’ method.  Each language has a different stance.  The first language is “I feel” oriented.  This is the language of the Upper Left quadrant of the experiencing “I” and the language of surrender implicit in the first two chapters of Heuristic Research.   It is the language of internal focus, the “I,” feeling in the present and alive in the moment, even when the present “I” is remembering a painful past, for it is the feeling that connects the past to the present.  The second language is “reporting” oriented which is a third person abstraction of the experiencing “I.”  It is an external language even though it may be the individual doing a self-report.  This is what I do when I no longer am in the feeling, but talk about the feeling objectively.  This stance is past-focused and is separated from the present feeling-self in that it accumulates and summarizes, making generalizations about the accumulations like statistics that say nothing about the particular.  From this language perspective, I make generalizations about my feelings and can easily slip into the third “external observation” orientated language of the third-person observer within scientific language, because there is little difference between my generalizations regarding others and my generalizations about myself.  Whenever the second language stance (reporting) is substituted for the first language stance (feeling) there can be confusion of the first with the third.  I think I know what an experience is in general, but I do not connect to the specific, present, alive, feeling, where what is felt can be truly known and can lead me to the tacit levels where my feelings are connected to meanings.  Both second and third languages are external and verbal, cut-off from foundational global experience. When Moustakas (1990) opens to feeling in the experience that predominates in his first two chapters, he provides a bridge to the tacit level.  However, when he shifts to the second and third languages in the third and fourth chapters, he removes the bridge and experience is simply one more “thing” for the positivist scientist in a qualitative researcher’s mask to observe.

The internal language orientation is difficult to maintain.  It can open long buried wounds;  it can lead to feeling terrified, to feeling hurt, to feeling angry.   It can result in major life changes when the researcher may not feel ready to make those changes.  The experience of  life may be turned up side down when there is surrender to feeling.   Even so, a relentless inward focus can lead to greater self-understanding, self-transformation, and reconstruction of a hindering world-view.  Silent, painful fears that unconsciously control the experience of life can be confirmed again, heard, felt, and released as they transform.  Incomplete, incorrect, or misinterpreted information that inhibits life-experience can be completed, corrected, and reinterpreted allowing life to proceed with fewer blocks.

      When Moustakas (1990) constructs a method based on ambivalence, the double meanings are present in the languages that are used and either internal or external stances can be taken.  Depending on the inclination of the researcher, one of the stances will be noticed above the other and the one not noticed will be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, much like Moustakas (1990) dismissed the cemetery plot.  My original interpretation of Moustakas (1990) was formed out of my internal oriented “first language” internal stance inclination.   My tacit knowledge base that recognized the process as described in the first two chapters of Moustakas’ (1990) method as the method, did not even consider the possibility that there was another interpretation.  I dismissed the application chapters without realizing that I had done so.  Others who followed the method chapters very likely dismissed what I interpreted as the Moustakas’ (1990) research method without knowing they had done so, and accepted the application chapters as containing the correct descriptors.  I remain committed to the understanding that without surrender to ones own, non-projected feelings, the tacit level will not be reached and brought into consciousness.  Change will not occur at the tacit level; whatever change does occur in spite of the external focus, will be limited in comparison to what might have been with internal feeling orientation.

The ambivalence within the method established by Moustakas (1990) that uses all 3 languages and both stances creates confusion for researchers attempting to implement his heuristics.  I suspect that if there is a crisis in a person’s life that needs to be answered, the researcher is likely experiencing an unknown.  The investigator will more likely respond to the portion of the method that deals with surrender, jumping into the river, the darkness, the unknown because the crisis disrupts structures and the “known” has no answers.  If there is no crisis, the researcher might not notice the suggestion to surrender but rather gravitate to the structured portion of the method that focuses on something external.  Just as Moustakas (1990) did not see a cemetery plot in a beautiful natural setting until an unexpected death entered his experience, researchers looking at an external experience may not seek an internal focus unless something of a deep-feeling nature draws them inside.  Researchers may find themselves focusing on some external problem, rather than doing a self-search in relation to the problem that draws them inward.  They gain their data from others rather than from themselves and they do not experience self-transformation because that is not the goal.  They create a results-list, an explication of categories in a results-chapter in a dissertation, or a summary statement of what was cognitively determined from generalizations made.  They are following the steps explicated by Moustakas (1990) in chapters 3 and 4.  There is no story that contains the self-transformation which is always the potential bi-product of living through a crisis in such a way that learning can be passed on to those who hear, read, or see it .  Instead there are only themes and explications of an experience, not a story of self-transformation.  Like that cemetery plot that is first not seen and then discovered to be not only a core component but the dominant component of the scene that had drawn Moustakas’ (1990) attention, I believe that self-transformation that does not seem to have been seen as a component of heuristics by many researchers, is not just a core component, but perhaps the dominant part of heuristics research.

Resistance to the Upper Left Quadrant

Humankind always has been on a quest for knowledge.  In the Western world that quest became narrowly idealized as positivist empirical science.  By legitimizing knowledge gained only through empirical observation, much of what it is to be human, experiencing in what Wilber calls the Upper Left quadrant, has been ignored.  Many current philosophers of science and a growing body of contemporary researchers recognize the self-imposed blindness of the positivist frame for knowledge, and the role of experience as a legitimate source of knowledge has been introduced.   Ironically, Moustakas’ (1990) attempt to introduce a method with experience as a source of knowledge,  has had only a negligible impact on psychology and human science research.  Heuristics as a method of discovery, which ontologically predates positivist reification, appears to be interpreted for the most part from an exterior perspective even in the self-search method by focusing on thinking about and observing experience rather than self-focus on feeling an experience.  I contend that heuristic inquiry that results in self-transformation and the creation of a story that generates potential for transformation in others and in society is the strength of the self-inquiry method.  A man who reportedly went out into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights twenty centuries ago to experience what I believe may well have been a heuristic inquiry  wherein he confronted himself, his feelings, his beliefs, and his myths.  As a result, he experienced self-transformation.  He told his story and lived from it the rest of his short life.  Others hearing the story were transformed and a religion grew up; the entire world has been directly or indirectly impacted by it, for better and for worse, for the last two thousand years.

I conclude that heuristic inquiry as presented by Moustakas (1990) has not had the impact on research that I believe is possible because of resistance as evidenced in Moustakas and by the ambivalence in the method he established.  I suspect that when researchers fully immerse themselves in the Upper Left Quadrant of experiencing the feelings by moving through resistance, and remaining focused until self-transformation occurs there will there be a potential for social transformation.   I also believe there will be an expansion of self-awareness that can provide even greater understanding of information gained from observations made from the other 3 quadrants.  Without the Upper Left, all others will suffer.

Overcoming Resistance:  Heuristic self-search psychology

I propose a heuristic self-search psychology research, a process that removes the ambivalence of Moustakas’ heuristic method.  It is clearly focused on the “I who feels” and addresses the experiencing-self in the Upper Left quadrant as a way to access knowledge that is significant to human experience, available only by stepping into the blackness of the unknown within feelings.  Heuristic self-search psychology is process wherein the researcher surrenders to the feeling in an experience and does not know what will be learned at the time the inquiry is begun.  There are no hypotheses or expectations regarding outcomes, no hope to confirm or refute a proposition.  There is no attempt to isolate variables, or observe the effects one set of variables has upon other variables within the research.  The purpose is making new awareness and connections or seeing things from a different perspective, and thus reinterpreting their meaning or significance. There is no controlling the process; in fact the opposite must take place. It is in this surrender into feeling-the-feelings and experiencing-the-experience that allows the self-as-researcher to enter heuristic self-search psychology inquiry.  Long hidden tacit knowledge, suppressed, repressed, rejected, and feared by the individual, by social systems, and by humankind may finally emerge.  Once known, individuals can be transformed by this self-knowledge and human beings can begin to consciously and collectively create new experience from New World views.

Resistance as a Component of Heuristic self-search psychology Inquiry

What I call heuristic self-search psychology is what Moustakas (1990) presents in his first two chapters describing the method, the one my own process instinctively followed independent of his method.  However, there is another aspect not present in the Moustakas (1990) method; resistance.  I propose that this “Interior I” search is what Moustakas (1961) intended to do but failed in his own self-search process because of resistance.  I also propose that this sent him on another search outside his feeling-self that became a heuristic inquiry in psychology, not self-search.  His applied method, I believe, shifts to the observational position of the Upper Right quadrant (Wilber 1995. 1996, 1997).  His substitute question on the experience of loneliness from the second-language-orientation results in the creation of a palimpsest document where the first-language-question regarding his “feeling lonely described in chapters 1 and 2 that would lead to the “leap into the unknown,” can still be seen underneath the second writing, the application chapters, but the two are not the same.  An ambivalent method is the result.  I submit heuristic self-search psychology as a method to distinguish it from Moustakas’ (1990) method. This expansion is significant because it addresses a concern Wilber’s (1997) voiced that if any one quadrant is ignored by any of the others., what is ignored will actually reappear in the system as an internal and massive self-contradiction and destroy  system from within.  (p. 23)

Evidence of Moustakas’ Resistance

I believe that as Moustakas (1990) dissociated from the Upper Left quadrant of the I-who- feels, and replaced it with the “observation of the self responding to feeling” from the Upper Right quadrant, he ignored this most significant validity claim to knowledge.  This denial did reappear as a massive, jolting contradiction in his method.   It is from the Upper Left quadrant, the knowledge of the interior, subjective, feeling-self that psychology in theory, as developed in academic and research settings, is most connected to psychology in practice, in the form of the client in the therapist’s office.   Resistance on the part of the researcher-as-participant to surrender to I who feels  results in research that does not access the Upper Left quadrant which is needed if there is to be an integration of all of the knowledge regarding what it is to be human.  Resistance to feeling and the loss of Upper Left quadrant knowledge also negatively impacts one of the central foci of psychology in practice:  transformative psychotherapy.  This failure prevents the shift in tacit knowledge; it does not lead to the transformative story, and the shifts in society or humankind that are potential in self-inquiry are missing.  With the Upper Left Quadrant unaddressed, the gap between theory and practice, which has long plagued the field of psychology, still remains.  We have had enough of the negation of feelings in science, in academic psychology, and in the cultural imperatives as reflected in “boys don’t cry” and “it is not attractive for girls to get angry” method of child-raising.  We have had enough of the present paradigm that negates research into experience of the Upper Left quadrant or knowledge of feeling, as well as, the world that such a method creates.


The results of this study of the application of “heuristic research” are threefold.  First,  there must be recognition of the value of a heuristic self-search psychology research  and a return to the internal perspective.  Second, there must be an acknowledgement of resistance to feeling in the re-connection with the I-who-feels, and finally, there must be an acceptance of surrender that opens to transformation that can impact the individual, society, and all of humankind.

I believe I was able to follow the Moustakas (1990) method as presented in the first and second chapters precisely, without knowing the method because I had a purely internal goal.   I am convinced that this portion of the method, does reflect an authentic internal process that is human.  I did not have something to accomplish in the outer world that would draw me into the external observational stance and away from the inner search.  Most of the researchers who selected Moustakas’ (1990) method did have something to accomplish externally while they also had something inside that I suspect became the hook that drew them to Moustakas.  My understanding of the power of personal myths on the tacit level has caused me to realize that my outer world is a mirror for my inner world and vice-versa, because my inner world draws to me as a chaotic attractor (Abraham, 1989, Krippner, 1994, Krippner & Ryan, 1998) a matching outer experience.  I know that if I want my outer experience to change, I must search internally to discover what caused me to create the external experience.  It is my wish that by establishing the need to include the Upper Left quadrant of the I-who-feels in individual, professional, and cultural quests for knowledge, in research theory, and in practice, that more of us will recognize that the world we have jointly created is a mirror of our collective internal tacit knowledge.  Perhaps, then we will discover the need to become conscious of the last frontier, the interiority of the self as experienced by the self, in order to transform both the inside experience and the outside world.


I commend Moustakas for the groundbreaking work he has done in the field of research psychology in encouraging inquiry into the Upper Left quadrant of the self  who is experiencing experience.  The explication of my own work, which I interpret as an expansion of Moustakas, would have been impossible without his foundational contribution.



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