To what extent would you say you are “open” the following ideas. You may even want to give them a rating from 1-10 as you read through them in terms of how open you feel to each one at the moment.
- I am open to the idea that I am free to choose my attitude toward everything that happens to me.
- I am open to the idea that I can manifest meaning in my life by making a conscious, authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals.
- I am open to the idea that I can ﬁnd meaning in all of my life’s moments and events.
- I am open to the idea that I can learn to see how I work against myself and can learn to avoid thwarting my best intentions.
- I am open to the idea that I can learn to look at myself from a distance to gain insight and perspective as well as to laugh at myself.
- I am open to the idea that I can shifty my focus of attention when we I am facing difﬁcult situations in order to help me cope with what I’m going through.
- I am open to the idea that I can reach out beyond myself and find meaning not just in my own accomplishments and pleasures, but in the not-me-ness of others and the world.
These principles lie at the heart of an existential form of therapy created by Victor Frankl which asserts that finding and making meaning in our lives trumps our focus on and desire for power or pleasure (which we sometimes refer to as “happiness”).
The latter two “drives” (power and pleasure) were postulated by Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud respectively, but let’s not be essentialists here, it’s probably a combination of all three that drives us. Frankl might argue however that we often lose sight of meaning when we are either trying to avoid pain and discomfort in our lives, or gain some traction with other people and our environment. In a sense we supplant meaning with power-pleasure goals and then wonder why we feel unfulfilled even after experiencing the rewards of those pursuits.
I don’t think anyone would argue with this realisation, but as with any insight, how do we shift into more meaning-focused ways of doing and being?
Here’s one radical exercise/thought-experiments you might want to try. As you read through it though, be aware of the kind of resistance your mind puts up to giving it a go. When I am struggling with an experience inside myself (painful thoughts or emotions) or one outside of myself (a difficult situation) I find my mind becoming even more resistant than usual to this stuff – you too?. But maybe that’s a sign of needing to do something different, like the practice described below? Maybe the medicine needs to taste just a tad bitter for us to know it has the potential to do any good?
So see if you can, just for a minute or two, put that resistant/closed part of the mind (a part that often fears having some of its provisional meanings and beliefs shaken, even if those beliefs are no longer serving us as they once did) to one side, and try out each experiment as just that: a try-on or tryout, a little fling with doing something different or other than the norm.
CREATING MEANING PRACTICE
To begin with, think of a situation in your personal life or at work that is or was especially stressful, negative, or challenging for you. Now take a deep breath, and write down ten positive things that could result – or did result – from this situation.
Again, even as you embark on the exercise, notice any resistance you might have to doing this. (Sometimes it’s more interesting or even “meaningful” to some extent, to stay angry, self-righteous, or “right”.) But just let your mind loosen and entertain the possibilities. Write down whatever comes to mind ﬁrst. Continue to stretch your imagination and suspend judgment, listing whatever comes into consciousness, no matter how silly, far out, or unrealistic your thoughts appear to be. Feel completely free to determine or deﬁne what positive means to you.
Frankl might give as a reason for trying this experiment is that the way we accept our fate – those things beyond our control – and start trying to make some sense or meaning from it, the easier it will be for us to recover from situations that didn’t go well for us.
Writing in Psychotherapy and Existentialism Frankl reminds us that we are condition-dependent creatures, which means that our freedom is a finite one.
“We are not free from conditions. But we are free to take a stand in regard to them. The conditions do not completely condition us. Within limits it is up to us whether or not we succumb and surrenders to the conditions. We may as well rise above them and by so doing open up and enter the human dimension. . . . [We are] not subject to the conditions that confront us; rather, these conditions are subject to our decision. Wittingly or unwittingly, we decides whether we will face up or give in, whether or not we will let ourself be determined by these conditions.”
So this is not to say that our reactions to these events (confusion, and some form of dismay) are not valid, but rather once we have “felt the fuck out of our feelings”, as Dan Savage often memorably puts it in his podcast and advice column, how do we pivot and get a handle on what we’re struggling with?
I like Frankl’s somewhat long-suffering use of “we may as well” in the above quote. We may as well choose to make some meaning of our often absurd human animal conditions. Or even: until you can come up with a better plan for how to tackle this painful stuff other than feeling crushed and tyrannised by it, let’s walk the path of meaning!