Unlocking Personal Meaning
How to escape the prison of your thoughts.
Posted Jun 01, 2018
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. Not only do we rationalize our responses to life — we also fall prey to forces that 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. Because we hold ourselves prisoners of our thoughts, we lose sight of our own natural potential and that of others. 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.”1
Yet we can reshape our patterns of thinking. Through our own search for meaning, we can unfreeze ourselves from our limited perspective, find the key, and unlock the door of our metaphorical prison cell.
The range of what we see and do
Is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
That we fail to notice,
There is little we can do
Until we notice
How failing to notice
Shapes our thoughts and deeds.
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who suffered through imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, found meaning in spite of — and because of — the suffering all around him. His life work resulted in the therapeutic approach called Logotherapy, which paved the way for us to know meaning as a foundation of our existence. Dr. Frankl was quick to say, however, that such traumatic suffering is not a prerequisite for finding meaning in our lives. He means that whenever we suffer — no matter what the severity of our suffering is — we have the ability to find meaning in the situation. Choosing to do so is the path to a meaningful life.
Viewing life as inherently meaningful and with unlimited 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 breadth of ourselves.”2
The keys to unlocking personal meaning are, and always have been, within our reach. They are as close as this very moment. Whenever we stop long enough to connect to ourselves, to our environment, to those with whom we live and work, to the task before us, to the extraordinary interdependence that is always part of our lives, we experience meaning. Meaning comes from being who we are in this world. And it is the world that graces us with meaning.
Sometimes we are graced through our very gracelessness. This too can lead us to meaning, perhaps when we least expect it, maybe through chaos and confusion. In our life we might lay tracks that veer off in one direction just as the train of our life decides to go in a completely different direction. At those times we are a wreck waiting to happen.
Most of us have such times in our lives. The pressures pile on and we adjust and maneuver accordingly. We shift our attitudes, we push our bodies; we reframe our experiences to fit the challenges of our lives. Then something happens and it all falls apart.
When we embrace new possibilities for ourselves, even if they are difficult and challenging, we embrace possibilities for others. And the results can have unanticipated rewards. In Dr. Frankl’s words, “Each of us has his own concentration camp….we must deal with, with forgiveness and patience as full human beings; as we are and what we will become.3
Life has a way of leading us to meaning — if we let it. If we can roll with life’s punches and allow ourselves to be humbled by life’s blows, we can know deeper and deeper unconditional love for ourselves and others. Or we can toughen up and harden, becoming more resistant and less and less able to love. Importantly, there are seeds of meaning waiting to be discovered in either case.
“I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning.” —Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.4
There is a saying, “If you want things to stay the same, then something is going to have to change.” If there is one thing that does stay the same, it’s change. In fact our lives and the world seem to change more and more rapidly and dramatically, offering more opportunities and possibilities, making our choices more complex. We are continually challenged to know who we are, what our values are, and how best to live by them.
When we take the time to know ourselves, to know and honor our own integrity, we move deeper into meaning. When we act from the center of who we are and what we represent — honesty, fairness, kindness, and love — our lives are in partnership with meaning, on the job and off. To know we are blessed with meaning, that it graces every aspect and every moment of our lives, is true freedom. At work, it frees us from the judgment of our bosses and co-workers; it frees us to be in tune with what we know best — our own melody of life. Importantly, it’s a melody that only we can sing.
When we live and work with meaning, we can choose to see meaning, to cultivate meaning, and to share meaning. We can choose our attitudes to life and work; we can choose how to respond to others, how to respond to our jobs, and how to make the best of difficult circumstances. We can transcend ourselves and be transformed by meaning.
“Life retains its meaning under any conditions. It remains meaningful literally up to its last moment, up to one’s last breath.” —Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.5
As we awaken to life’s meaning inside us, we find that meaning is full of surprises, defying our expectations. We find connections to meaning in the most unusual places, under the most challenging situations, and with the most unexpected people, in our personal lives and at work. Our awareness grows, and we become more intensely ourselves and more deeply human.
Viktor Frankl’s legacy is one of hope and possibility. He saw the human condition at its worst, with human beings behaving in unimaginably intolerable ways. He also saw human beings rising to heights of compassion and caring in what can only be described as miraculous acts of unselfishness and transcendence. Something in us can rise above and beyond everything we think possible. Our instinct for meaning, in our everyday lives and in our work, is ours right now, at this very moment — as long as we are not prisoners of our thoughts.
1. See Deepak Chopra (1991). Unconditional Life: Discovering the Power to Fulfill Your Dreams. New York: Bantam Books.
2. Frankl, Viktor E. (1978). The Unheard Cry for Meaning. New York: Washington Square, p. 45.
3. Personal conversation, Viktor Frankl and Alex Pattakos, Vienna, Austria, August 6, 1996. See also: Viktor E. Frankl, Keynote Address, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Anaheim, California, December 12-16, 1990.
4. Frankl, Viktor E. (1997). Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography. New York: Plenum, p. 53.
5. Frankl, Viktor E. (1986). The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. New York: Random House, p. xix.