Meaningful experience, meaningful life: humans’ need for meaning can be as strong as the most basic needs. This is demonstrated time and time again by those who survived against all odds during nearly humanly impossible life conditions they had to endure. Viktor Frankl was a sterling example.
Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy (existential therapy), survivor of concentration camp experience, and author of many books, including his best-known and widely read book, Man’s Search for Meaning, reveals:
the meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be.
…we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
This succinct and clear summary captures some possibilities about what constitutes a meaningful experience. Frankl’s ideas developed over many years, and in particular, from his three-and-half years in a Nazi concentration camp.
The first way, quoted above, points to an action or an accomplishment that matters deeply to you. Such can give a person the raison d’être (a reason for continuing to exist, for going on), even under the most grueling and harshest conditions. As the German existential philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”
The second way comes through particular experience of encounter with an event or a person. Most people have a story of how they had a chance encounter with a person or an event that radically altered the course of their lives. Many have more than one such story in their lives, and it doesn’t even have to be a near-death experience! They rightly say, “My life was never the same after that.”
The third way is the transforming of suffering into a soul-searching experience. This is the most internal of the transformational ways. Just by changing the way we understand, see, and interpret the world and life, we bring about profound changes in the self and most likely in others. And I submit to you that the first two ways also involve internal work, or as I call it, inner work. As an interconnected ecology, all three of these ways relate to an inner world experience that leads to an enhanced understanding of personal identity and, perhaps, a greater sense of connection to something bigger than yourself.
To go a little further into the composition of the inner world and its support for meaning-making; I once attended a talk at the University of British Columbia given by Alfried Längle, who worked with Frankl for 10 years, and is now one of the foremost logotherapists in the world. He stated: “Meaning derives from a combination of thought and feeling.” I agree, and would add that such meaning is not a fixed experience; rather, it evolves directly from experience and continues to change and grow over time. The detail, nuance, and understanding of meaning becomes increasingly fine-grained through the living of, and reflection upon, life as it unfolds.
There is a counterpoint, however, to the abovementioned existential therapies. Zen Buddhism does not speak directly about meaning at all. Rather, many processes, practices, and rituals are provided that assist you to become increasingly empty. This is an emptiness that translates into openness; an openness that is full of life energy and characterized most significantly by awareness of personal experience in the moment. This latter idea is key: as the Zen teaching insists, life only takes place in ‘this’ moment, the present. Such a now is created by mind (thoughts), body (sensations), feelings (emotions), and life force energy, all coming together, emergently. This view, however, does not negate the fact of memories of the past or dreams of the future; rather, it confirms the reality that these memories and dreams take place in the present, and that your awareness of this present moment experience is crucial to full aliveness. I will return to this point at the end of this musing on what matters.
How do these two apparently very diverse perspectives fit together, if they do, and how does this contribute to a life of felt-meaning? I shall not attempt to be comprehensive in response to this question here, as that would require at least a book! Instead, I will relate some personal experience that enfolds these possibilities. But before I do that, I will first reference some ideas that I developed, based on the work of my teacher and mentor Arnold Mindell (aamindell.net). Arnie said something to the effect that inner work is often initiated out of a rupture experience; personal, relational, and/or in the world, and in the cosmic scheme of things; not really an idea unique to him but still significant, and succinctly put. For most of us rupture experiences can be terrifying and paralyzing.
The important question is: do these fear-and pain-based reactions catalyze inner work and research, or do they initiate habits that are efforts to blunt and mask the pain? Of course, the latter are familiar to everyone, and may indeed eventually serve as the catalyst to enter into the inner work to which the circumstances are pointing. An encounter with a rupture experience can be terribly or terrifyingly transformational. Here is one such story, likely known to most of you in some form from your own experience: My first serious love was of great significance for me, and the meeting of my heart’s desire, or at least so I thought at the time. Her ambivalence about our connection and my determination to make the connection happen were a perfect combination to unleash the pain that related to my earliest attachment wounds. I was longing for a person whom I could not have and who she could not be. My projections were powerful and compelling. This is not to say, by the way, that she wasn’t a fine person. Indeed, she was, and still is to this day. As she once put it years later: “We were in no way equipped to have a relationship. We did our best.” Our relationship was, to put it mildly, turbulent. Many breakups, many times coming back together… I eventually saw the pattern and determined that we should separate and stay apart. The pain of this loss, which I had initiated in the last stage was immense. Here, as you can see, I had, as suggested by Frankl, “encountered someone.”
In the end, I realized that the person I had encountered most profoundly was myself. It actually took me years to realize that it was I that had initiated our final breakup, and not her! What was slowly but surely emerging was a different attitude towards my suffering with this loss. I began to see the importance of looking ever more deeply into my suffering and ‘seeing what it was telling me.’ I found that my suffering was saying, “It’s you, not the other…” I hardly knew what this meant but something about the idea resonated for me. I began to reflect ever more deeply on my own history, at least as I knew it, and as my parents to the best of their ability recreated/remembered it for me. I saw that I had never had a warm and nourishing multi-dimensional, mind-body-emotions-energy, connection with either of my parents, and for which I longed as a child, and this lack had insinuated itself deeply in my psych-soma, and was a highly influential and unconscious force in my life with immense implications for me and my relational life. I also began to see how I had been looking for this with my first love, and how I had looked for this in most all my relationships, particularly with those with whom I sought to be in the most intimate connection. I hasten to add that seeking a complex, in-depth, multi-dimensional relationship with a partner is a fine idea. However, if this is unconsciously driven by unmet childhood needs, this is a prescription for a very troubled relationship. I had no sophisticated view, guidance, or ‘skill to do such. The pain and suffering that showed up in my experience with my first love, and that which followed, led me to increasing inner reflection and research into what mattered to me, what I could do about it, and who I most truly and authentically was. I came to see that a complex relationship to myself, other, community, and the cosmos, involved an increasingly integrated connection of mind, body, emotion, and spirit, and that this was what really mattered.
I have come into knowing progressively that no person can really provide what is summarized just above. Rather, they can be a ‘vehicle’ for seeing into deeper and deeper truth about life, relationship, and self: in short, all and everything. This latter leads to the Zen view of emptiness (sunyata) that I came to interpret and understand: as a way of being that is consistent with my natural state of being — a state of being that is consistent with true nature at every level, personal, relational, and universal. A person who is in relationship with this way of being may in fact see the ‘truth’ of their own existence, and perhaps of all of existence. I hasten to add that this is a life-long quest, that even moments that seem to be like this are impermanent, and that such impermanence is indeed a doorway, if I can go through it, to further connection with nature.
And I would say that this ‘truth’ can be the outcome of using all of life’s experiences as potential doorways to finding what matters, and I would suggest that what matters is living a life of discovery mixed with care, good humor, exuberance, and the high dream of increasingly engaging with life.
I am moved to add one final note regarding the inevitable ‘dream crash!’ I will get back to this in a future Field Note, but suffice to say that the crash is already intrinsic to the dream. Consider that there is nothing wrong with the dream, or the dreamer for having a ‘high’ dream. The high dream shows what is possible, and ‘recommends’ inner and relational work that will identify that which stands in the way of movement towards the dream, learning to live in the ongoing process, and becoming ever more engaged with life. Also, I think it is good to remember Stephen Gilligan’s words, “Life has you by the throat!”
As 2019 opens up, may you be blessed with many meaningful encounters and the stamina and courage to go through at least some of the challenging doorways that life conspires to make available to you! I am moved to share a quote my Dad was fond of offering, “Be careful what you wish for!”
Notwithstanding the ‘caution’ about wishing, I wish you all a most meaningful and exciting year, and a year that includes at least some moments of peace and serenity, and increasing insight as to what matters, and the minding of what matters.
With gratitude to Heesoon for support with this writing.