We are, by nature, creatures of habit. Searching for a life that is both predictable and within our comfort zone, we rely on routine and, for the most part, learned thinking patterns. In effect, we create pathways in our minds in much the same way that a path is beaten through a grass field from repeated use. And because these patterns are automatic, we may believe these habitual ways of thinking and behaving to be beyond our control. Life, it seems, just happens to us. Not only do we rationalize our responses to life but we also fall prey to forces that work to limit our potential as human beings. By viewing ourselves as relatively powerless and driven by our instincts , the possibility that we create, or at least co-create, our own reality becomes difficult to grasp. Instead, we lock ourselves inside our own mental prisons. We lose sight of our own natural potential, as well as that of others.
Each of us has his own inner concentration camp . . . we must deal with, with forgiveness and patience ”as full human beings; as we are and what we will become. [ 4 ]
The ways in which we hold ourselves prisoners of our thoughts are well documented in the work of many who explore the landscape of our psycho -spiritual lives. Physician Deepak Chopra, in the audiotape of his book Unconditional Life, says We erect and build a prison, and the tragedy is that we cannot even see the walls of this prison . [ 5]
It is through our own search for meaning that we are able to reshape our patterns of thinking, unfreeze ourselves from our limited perspective, find the key, and unlock the door of our metaphorical prison cell .
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who suffered through imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, found meaning because of, and in spite of, the suffering all around him. His life s work resulted in the therapeutic approach called Logotherapy , which paved the way for us to know meaning as a foundation of our existence. Frankl is quick to say, however, that such traumatic suffering is not a prerequisite for finding meaning in our lives. He means that even if and when we do suffer, no matter what the severity, we have the ability to find meaning in the situation. Choosing to do so is the path to a meaningful life. And a meaningful life includes meaningful work.
This book explores seven Core Principles that I have derived from Frankl s work: (1) we are free to choose our attitude toward everything that happens to us; (2) we can realize our will to meaning by making a conscious commitment to meaningful values and goals; (3) we can find meaning in all of life s moments; (4) we can learn to see how we work against ourselves; (5) we can look at ourselves from a distance and gain insight and perspective as well as laugh at ourselves; (6) we can shift our focus of attention when coping with difficult situations; and (7) we can reach out beyond ourselves and make a difference in the world. These seven principles, which I believe form the foundation of Frankl s work, are available to us anytime , all the time. They lead us to meaning, to freedom, and to deep connection to our own lives as well as to the lives of others in our local and global communities.
Viewing life as inherently meaningful and literally unlimited in potential requires a shift in consciousness. It also requires responsible action on our part for, as Frankl points out, the potential for meaning that exists in each moment of life can only be searched for and detected by each of us individually. This responsibility, he says, is to be actualized by each of us at any time, even in the most miserable situations and literally up to the last breath of ourselves. [ 6]
Frankl walked this path completely. By living a life with meaning right up to his last breath, he showed us how his philosophy and therapeutic approach were grounded in practice. His personal experiences throughout his long life, both as a survivor of the Nazi death camps and as a revered and respected thought leader, serve to illuminate the unlimited potential of a human being. His life gives us rich and ample evidence that the keys to freedom from life s prison cells ”real and imagined ”are within, and within reach.
Whether we choose this path of liberation, however, is a decision that only we as individuals can make and for which only we can be held responsible. When we search out and discover the authentic meaning of our existence and our experiences, we discover that life doesn t happen to us. We happen to life; and we make it meaningful.
[ 4 ] Personal conversation, Vienna, Austria, August 6, 1996. See also Viktor E. Frankl, keynote address, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Anaheim, California, December 12 “16, 1990.
[ 5] See Deepak Chopra, Unconditional Life: Discovering the Power to Fulfill Your Dreams (New York: Bantam Books, 1991).
[ 6] Viktor E. Frankl, The Unheard Cry for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1978), p. 45.