Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Searching for Meaning with Viktor Frankl

Last night fifteen of us braved the heat to spend 3 hours exploring how the great Austrian existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl could help us find more meaning in life.

I thought it would be worthwhile (meaningful even) to jot down a few conclusions.
  • The meaningless life might be one of depression (many depressives speak of lack of meaning) but it also be one of mundaneness. Both Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich and Abba's The Day Before you Came are examples of comforting to "the herd" and living an automaton-like existence more than being actively depressed.
  • Sometimes we need a jolt to awaken us from this meaningless state. It can be a brush with one's mortality or reading a book like Frankl's Man Search for Meaning
  • The YOU in the Abba song could refer to any number of possible sources of meaning, including
    • a lover
    • a union with someone or something
    • the divine
    • finding one's true vocation
    • awareness of one's mortality
    • winning the lottery
  • Frankl doesn't think there is any one meaning in life to be found any more than any one right move in the game of chess. There may be a best move in a particular position in chess and in life it's a case of detecting where meaning can be found in your life.
  • There is a responsibility for us to make our lives meaningful -just as we would feel a responsibility to save a drowning man.
  • Frankl can help us broaden our awareness of where this meaning may lie with a series of thought experiments
  • The "Rocking Chair" thought experiment helps us get more in touch with how our life may be meaningful in our future.
  • Frankl identified three areas of meaning - attitude, creations and experiences.The acronym ACE (not Frankl's! )can be used to remember these three areas.
  • The Andy Dufresne character in the Shawshank Redemption illustrates. For example in the scene where Andy gets stock for the prison library and then defies the warders by playing Mozart loudly to the whole prison shows
    • Attitudes of defiance, courage, perseverance, optimism, hope and love
    • Makes a difference to his fellow prisoner's day - both as a role model and changing their mundane grind into a special moment.
    • Gives Andy and his fellow inmates the aesthetic experience of Mozart - both at the time and when Andy recalls it when "in the whole" and also the experience of commune with each other
  • We can usefully think about what similar attitudes, creations and experiences will give our lives meaning.
  • It is important to look at this in concrete as well as abstract terms. One can do this by thinking about how one's life can be more meaningful in the next week. What attitudes, creations and experiences we can have in the next week.
  • We then need to think about what specifically we need to do and what obstacles we need to overcome
  • Some tips the group came up with to help included
    • writing down advantages and putting this list in a place we can see it
    • making a start however we feel
    • getting help from others (and avoiding those who will hinder)
    • asking what is the worst that can happen
    • recording our fears and comparing with what actually happens
    • breaking down large tasks into small manageable steps

We meet again next week, hopefully having got a step closer to living a life of meaning.

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