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- Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
My dharma friend Neso and I have been having a lovely time sharing passages of books over the past year and for our next book we will be doing the same thing in this thread so anyone who likes can join in. In addition to being a lot of fun and a good learning experience in and of itself, we have found this to be a wholesome motivator to practice well and we hope others will also find it to be so. Comments on how to relate the reading to personal practice (morality, concentration, or insight) are strongly encouraged.
The book we will be reading is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which was originally published in 1946. Fair warning: the first half of the book describes in graphic detail the author's experiences as an inmate in concentration camps during the Holocaust, so be sure you're in a good headspace to deal with that before reading the book. Despite this, the book is ultimately optimistic and by now has sold well over 10 million copies and been translated into at least 24 different languages, to give you an idea of how influential it has been.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who specialized in depression and suicide prior to the war. After being liberated from the camps and discovering that his wife and all but one of his family had been killed he further developed his own therapeutic approach to psychological healing, a form of existential analysis and psychotherapy known as logotherapy that is still taught and practiced around the world today.
We'll probably get start in a week or so. I'll copy a single passage below just to pique your interest:
...An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man's attitude toward existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
Edit: Here's a link to a free PDF of the book: www.fablar.in/yahoo_site_admin/assets/do...Meaning.78114942.pdf
I think the big thing for me about this book is that it forces me to take a very close look at my current life and spiritual practice. If I were to suddenly lose everything and find myself in a concentration camp, could I still be free and present in that situation with all of its horrors and painful difficulties? I've spent many hours using pain as an object for vipassana, but this would take it to a whole different level. Are my values and daily practice strong enough to withstand such severe external hardship, so that I could remain principled enough not to be turned into an animal? Could I still find meaning in that situation, as Frankl did?
I'm also pondering the difference between logotherapy and its basis being the quest for meaning, and other forms of therapy that assume we are creatures of our instincts and subconscious drives. Last night I read Frankl's description of a patient, an American diplomat, who came to him after working with a "traditional" psychoanalyst for five years and being told his issues were caused by his subconscious need for the authority of a father figure. Interesting to think about the juxtaposition of the basis for human motivation that underlies our various theories of the human psyche.
I was 20 when I visited Dachau in 1978 (and took the attached photo when entering the camp). The experience hit me hard. A year or two later, after traveling Europe and bristling with Autobiography of a Yogi, I was back in West Germany to save up for my first trip to India. I lived in a work camp as part of a road gang near the southern city of Ingolstadt.
In the evenings, I struggled to read a small number of German books to improve my facility with the language, which I thought reminiscent of Shakespeare and Yiddish. One book that made a lasting impression was Eine Handvoll Staub (a handful of dust) by Lina Haag, a communist activist who was incarcerated and tortured for her beliefs at Dachau and elsewhere, but who through her courage managed to gain release for herself and her fellow-activist husband. I saw for the first time in this book many of the more painful words I have learned in German: the equivalents of whip, betrayal, shriek, wail, torture, barbwire, hanging, shame, execution.
In recalling this here and looking up the book on the Internet after all these years, I see it has now been translated into English (twice?), and there is even a German-language interview with a very elderly (102!) Lina Haag that let me hear her voice for the first time (bringing unexpected tears to my eyes): collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn50162
One of her observations that has stayed with me is how the pain in the faces of the Nazi tormentors always seemed greater than that of the helpless victims they were destroying.
I once asked two of the older Germans at my work camp about their war experiences. They said "Ja, we did all the horrible things you have heard about. In Poland. And in Russia. For that we are ashamed, for EVER. But we did it for our families, to protect them. And remember this: nobody who was not present can be sure that they wouldn't do exactly the same things if they found themselves in our shoes. How proud you feel, not knowing yourself when confronted with those circumstances, those choices! Now look at our feet, at the missing toes we lost walking back from Siberia without boots."
Every morning before dawn as I prepped for work in the rough-hewn wooden barracks of the work camp, standing at the tin-covered plank sink next to these old Germans cursing and hacking up blood from too many newsprint-rolled cigarettes and bottles of Jägermeister, I felt transported to the dreadful places I was reading about. Later, as I stood raking hot Autobahn asphalt in the burning sun to the barked orders of the "Kapo" foremen while NATO tanks rolled by, I felt it again. Of course it was just a summer job, and I can't even begin to imagine how horrible it actually was for the people who endured the Holocaust.
I'm curious how trauma that was experienced by someone else can bring up such powerful feelings in myself. Why would Schindler's List send me into paroxysms of weeping every time I so much as heard Itzhak Perlman's opening bars?
And why would the earth-shatterning story of the White Rose affect me for so many years, even though she had nothing to do with me? www.nytimes.com/2018/02/21/opinion/white...-hitler-protest.html
I have variously ascribed it to genetic memory, past life resonance, psychic empathy, transference of early childhood trauma, the Akashic Records - you name it.
For a time I was obsessed by the Holocaust, since it impacted - debilitated - so many of the people closest to me. Lina Haag's book is very disturbing - often called "hysterical" (I couldn't imagine not being hysterical after enduring what she went through) - until I much later read Frankl's very different account at my partner's recommendation. I'm still amazed by how powerful Frankl's conviction was, to enable him to endure these horrors without succumbing to the insanity of hatred and bitterness.
The Buddha is quoted as saying that even if we were hacked limb from limb, it would be a failing to harbor the slightest resentment against our attackers. How unachievable does that sound? That's the standard Frankl appears to be holding us to - for our own good, apparently.
A teacher I was able to serve briefly, Namgyal protege Chorpel Dolma (Beatrice Raff) was once a brave wife who got her downtrodden husband released by the Gestapo, in the years before she became a brilliant, awakened teacher of Dharma. Ruth Denison stands out as one more Dharma goddess - from the other side - who emerged from a brainwashed Nazi childhood and transformed her subsequent trauma - of rape and starvation at the hands of avenging armies - into the gift that keeps on giving. tricycle.org/magazine/natural/
In a similar vein, I'm amazed by Bernie Glassman Roshi's repurposing of Dharma to focus on empowering the homeless as a path of practice, and by his annual retreats at Auschwitz. Such powerful statements of love and confidence in the midst of such painful despair. zenpeacemakers.org/programs/auschwitz-bi...ing-witness-retreat/ And one more WWII trauma-delineated exploration of meaning: www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow
Could all this suffering exist simply to force us to lean in instead of looking the other way?
Where does this power - to overcome - come from?
Viktor Frankl has always puzzled me. When watching video of him addressing crowds, I've found him intense, sometimes frantic. I ask myself to what degree he was able to embody and imbue himself with the peace and resolution of which he speaks. I still wonder if he was tilting at windmills in some fantasy of denial, or if he truly found the freedom he writes about. www.ted.com/talks/viktor_frankl_youth_in_search_of_meaning
Most importantly, I wander intently, seeking to apply the Buddha's teachings about becoming free from resentment and anger. Man's Search for Meaning symbolizes for me a glimmer of hope that this is possible. Dharma practice is my lifeline to that possibility.
I hope to learn more about these topics from all of you.
"Could all this suffering exist just to force us to lean in instead of looking the other way?" Such a profound question! It echoed in my mind when looking at your photo of the Dachau gates.
And what a privilege for you to have heard the stories of the old Germans who "did all the horrible things" to protect their loved ones and now must live with the shame. Would any of us have done any different in the same situation? This is such a critical point: we want the bad and horrible to be "out there," in other people, but the truth of the human condition is that every single one of us is born with the innate capacity for violence. Some of us might be better at it than others, but none of us is separate from it and we simply cannot know what we will do in an extreme situation until we are actually in it. These were impossible choices that people were forced to make. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of his experiences in the Russian gulags: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest and destroy them. But the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Many thanks for contributing to this conversation, Ranger. Neso will be posting a Frankl passage to officially get the ball rolling in the next couple of days and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.
Edit: I hit post only to see Chris beat me to the Gulag Archipelago reference
With a deep discussion already underway, let me begin by simply welcoming everyone to our sharing on Frankl’s writing with a potent passage from Kushner’s forward to the book:
‘Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that I have called on often in my own life and in countless counseling situations:
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.‘
Frankl's pragmatic, existential approach in discovering freedom and meaning in how we respond to situations is so powerful. As a Dharma practitioner I'm looking forward to learning more about this, and also about the second part of the equation: how he - and all of you - approach controlling how we feel about what happens to us. That second bit seems like a tall order (part of why we practice?) and one I hope to learn more about from your perspectives.
To suppress feelings about anything seems to create resistance. What I resist - persists. The more I "go with the flow" of feelings that arise, the easier it is to transform them and choose positive or neutral feelings and the resulting mind-states.
Time and patience with what arises is also a key factor in how I feel about events that happen. At first they may be very charged and seemingly potent; but with time, feelings soften and compassion often supersedes the more potent feelings of fear and anger, for example.
I have continued to ponder the question: does all this suffering exist for us to lean in rather than looking away? In working intensely with the brahmaviharas over the past couple of years, it has been compassion that has been the most challenging for me because it requires exactly that. I had to lean directly into suffering, and at times this felt like a razor blade to the heart. And yet it has also been profoundly rewarding and comforting because I discovered that suffering is like the North Star. As one of the three characteristics it is always there for us, and so long as we have the courage to lean directly into it then we can find the axis moving away from it that is compassion.
I have continued to ponder the question: does all this suffering exist for us to lean in rather than looking away? In working intensely with the brahmaviharas over the past couple of years, it has been compassion that has been the most challenging for me because it requires exactly that. I had to lean directly into suffering, and at times this felt like a razor blade to the heart.
This is precisely what I have learned/am still learning about myself. To me, compassion feels like an open space -- yes, there's a lot of room to make connections and welcome "the other," but there's a great deal of vulnerability there. If we take the notion that life gives you your practice seriously enough, suffering truly is a great teacher. I cannot say whether or not it "exists for" that role you're describing, but it certainly seems to function that way if we bring a certain level of attention to what's happening. Unfortunately, given my limited capacities, I was trying too hard to be equanimous to fully experience certain forms of suffering as they arose, resulting in a sort of feigned dispassion or pseudo objectivity (the superior indifference of the god realm perhaps). So the brahmaviharas/tonglen are helping me open to things as they really are. That was something that came to mind when, early on, Frankl mentions one reaction to the horrors of his situation: "Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At the time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection." It seems to me that I would use objectivity to not have to feel the Other's pain and often my own, as well -- a useful survival strategy in Auschwitz or a war zone, but rather unhelpful in my current circumstances.
Michael V, I know that cold, detached, clinical curiosity quite intimately and it has served me well in the sciences and certain survival situations, but as you say it is also something that can be easily misused. And that is exactly what I did for a long time--it wasn't until my early 20s that I started to open up to people at all and even then it was slow and painful going for years until a dramatic heart opening made things a lot easier. Prior to that, the brahmaviharas seemed to me too saccharine, touchy-feely--but really, it was likely just a fear of being vulnerable. Thank goodness we are capable of change! These are some of my favorite practices now.
"A selection of sick or feeble prisoners incapable of work would be sent to one of the big central camps which were fitted with gas chambers and crematoriums. The selection process was the signal for a free fight among all the prisoners, or of group against group. All that mattered was that one's own name and that of one's friend were crossed off the list of victims, though everyone knew that for each man saved another victim had to be found."
When our survival is threatened, we humans seem all too happy to throw somebody (anybody!) under the bus to escape. "Dharma" people are no exception in my experience. I was part of a spiritual group where everyone was delighted to talk about practice being "for the sake of all sentient beings." Then one of our longest-standing members was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her roommate/de facto caregiver asked everyone to pitch in and help care for our friend and mentor. Suddenly, everyone was too busy because "I have to cook for my husband" or "I'm her teacher. Students come to me - I never go to them." Or even "I live in a different city. Hopefully those who live nearby can help." (This last was me, I'm ashamed to say.)
Please stop me if I'm dragging this discussion down - no need to reply if so. But even the Buddha had to exhort his monks to care for a sick colleague they were ignoring, saying "whoever cares for the sick cares for me" or some such thing. Where does the balance between oneself and others tip in one direction or the other? I think this is one fundamental issue raised by this book.
When I was a child I read a pulp account of a US soldier in the Korean War who was captured by the North in starving conditions. I was shocked to read that men would fight and kill their buddies for a sliver of meat the size of a matchstick. What a shocking notion. Not knowing how we each would respond in such dire circumstances (unless we've had the chance to find out - also food for discussion), I'm curious and eager to explore how to begin to bring a bit more of my ideals and values into my actual choices. I guess it's easy to see where I might do this: give up my seat on the train? Set aside an evening to go play darts with an acquaintance I know is depressed and isolated for lack of friends? Be more generous with my time and resources? Okay, I'm trying to do some of those things, for starters.
This book brings up a lot of unpleasant issues. I'm concerned with how we keep our practice "real." How do we keep practice from becoming a place to hide out from the unpleasant that we'd rather avoid?
I have to add, I've seen hugely generous and powerful acts of courage on the other side. In the end I do believe we rise to the best we are able. What's your experience, everyone? Has your practice brought about a major change in how you respond to "me or them" situations? Creative alternatives to fight or flight? Where has it helped - and where could it use work? I'd love to explore this.
"Where does the balance between oneself and others tip in one direction or the other?" I agree, this is a fundamental question and it really gets at what can be so challenging about compassion. It's a fine line between selfishness and self-destructive martyrdom, isn't it? We're not helping anyone if we simply drown in another's pain. With compassion we touch on suffering and experience an almost joyful movement or expansion away from it (at least this is my experience), whether we can actually do something about it or not. Active compassion is another component--can we take some effective action to actually relieve some of that suffering? This is where it gets really tricky, because we have to honestly assess what we are capable of doing skillfully and without causing harm. The feeling isn't enough--we have to have practical knowledge as well.
At one extreme, we have people looking the other way and doing nothing when they might have done some simple little act of kindness that, even if just symbolic, can really make a difference in the life of someone who is suffering. At the other extreme, you have a sort of egotistical selflessness, an elevation of the other over one's self that reeks of grandiosity, of "look at me!" and judgment of others who do less, that simply isn't a sustainable way to give. And then there's a whole spectrum in between. Finding the middle way is something that I struggle with and undoubtedly will continue to struggle with for the rest of my life. But compassion is a skill that gets better with practice. I may never attain perfection, but the gains are well worth the effort.
"How do we keep practice from become a place from becoming a place to hide out from that which we would rather avoid?" Another great question. Personally, this is why I periodically do some sort of shadow work in order to explore the darkest parts of myself. Most recently, this has entailed a practice called 5 dakinis/5 elements.
"Has practice brought about a change in 'us or them' situations?" Absolutely, but it certainly has not totally eliminated my flight or flight reactions (although they've been tamped down quite a bit, don't "stick" as much, and I've cultivated helpful skills for more quickly dampening them when they arise). My lizard brain still wakes up when this body is threatened with grievous harm, which is probably not a bad thing as it does keep me alive. What is different is that I can be more mindful of the reactions which makes me less likely to get caught up in them. Whereas prior to practice, I might have sought vengeance or escalated a situation when someone sought to harm me (I was so scrappy in my youth!), now I try to de-escalate, make rather than break connection, find the least forceful solution to conflict resolution. And that's not just a result of sitting practice, but years of martial arts training and reading a lot of books in order to learn the right skills (for example, I'm currently reading an excellent book called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg). And a lot of practice. It's definitely a work in progress!