Conversations On Meaning – Part 2

We live in a very busy world, often caught on a hedonistic treadmill trying to juggle the pressure of dealing with life around us. Being in constant competition to keep up our performance may lead to a loss of identity as we wear the masks that help us cope. If we get ourselves trapped in an existential daze – that place where we doubt our value and purpose and start to reflect on what Frankl calls the Tragic Triad, we start focusing on pain, guilt and our own mortality. When we are in such a space, we lose the connection with our authentic self and with that the dreams, visions, and hopes for a fulfilling, meaningful life.

In the previous section, we identified three domains of meaning. The ultimate meaning of life which we may never be able to grasp, the ultimate meaning of our individual lives which we are able to get a better understanding of, and the unique meaning of the moment which is a crucial starting point on this road of discovery. Logotherapy tells us that deep within each of us – in our spiritual dimension, is a voice that can guide us towards better awareness of the many areas of meaning within our life. Yet, to be able to connect to this voice, we need to put away the masks we were told to wear. We need to connect with our authentic self and rediscover our true identity. From childhood were told many things. We were told what to believe, what we are supposed to do, what we are and how to behave. Whereas some of this is very useful and necessary, it is a conditioning process within which we sometimes loose a very important sense of self. To know who we really are may be tricky to discover. And once we have a firm grip, the task is to get over ourselves and transcend into something better.

To start the process of discovering a strong sense of individualism, we need to become aware of not only our own uniqueness but also our uniqueness in this very moment. This moment of you, in this life, reading this page – our singularity. Not only are we absolutely unique, we are forever standing at an absolute unique moment of our life. Never to be repeated and impossible to predict. Logotherapy suggests there are ten aspects, which make us uniquely human:

  • Every person is an individual with a unique body, mind, and consciousness. Each of us has certain physical strengths and limitations. We have emotions, thoughts and a mental conditioning that shape our individual lives. Some of this are conditioned and can be re-conditioned. Most importantly we have a spirit or consciousness that are and enabling us in our search for our authentic self.
  • Every person is un-summable, cannot be constructed by adding individual characteristics (the person is more than the sum of the separate parts). We are not the sum of our parts, we are infinitely bigger than that.
  • Every person is a new creation, unique in this time.
  • Every person is a spiritual being with the ability to generate creative expressions that can make life more fulfilling and meaningful.
  • Every person is real (exists in reality and is existential). We are here, we exist and we have a task to fulfill. We have a commission from life to express ourselves with differentiation.
  • Every person is self-directed and able to determine the course of his/her own life. We have instincts, unique mental conditions and a moral guidance that shapes our destiny.
  • Every person is a unified whole of body, mind and spirit. We are multidimensional and able to differentiate between the various parts that make us whole.
  • Every person is not a closed system. We are dynamic, open to others and life around us. Unlike animals we are infinitely capable.
  • Every person can self-transcend the situation. This is what makes us truly human – the ability to observe a situation, understand the context and shape it into something better.
  • Human beings understand themselves to the extent that they can transcend. We have an ability to become aware of what we are and what we can become.

How we think of ourselves has a huge impact on what we become. Many philosophers through the ages have confirmed that our thinking and mental conditioning determine largely what we become. Human existence is always directed at something other than the self. We may be preoccupied with our selves at times, but life is always experienced though the connections with someone or some thing other than ourselves. If we consider the work of Abraham Maslow and his concept of self-actualization, it’s important to read his teachings in context. As he put it: “the business of self actualization can best be carried out via a commitment to an important job”. And even more strongly “salvation is a by-product of self actualizing work and self actualizing duty”. Self-actualizing is not a light bulb moment but comes through dedicated effort towards something bigger than one self. And in order successfully search for self-actualized meaning, we first have to complete the search for self.

In defining our uniqueness it is important to recognize our individualized dimensions of body, mind and spirit. We have a body that comes with potential and limitations. Often our identity is strongly affected by how we look and feel. But we are not our body. In our mental world, our psyche, we may have dominant states of mind and unique neurological pathways of thinking. Whereas this world is also limited, it’s more open that our physical dimension. And it is within these two worlds we create our current reality. However, what makes us truly human is our ability to change ourselves with the guidance of our moral conscience. Our spiritual domain empowers us to take responsibility to become the kind of person we are destined to be. And it can help us create a path to a more meaningful and purposeful life. This process presupposes three steps:

  • Awareness of what is and what ought to be
  • Self acceptance of the way we are now
  • Thirdly, taking responsibility to transcend and become the person we ought to be

To increase our awareness of how we see ourselves and what other people think of us, an assessment tool called the Johari window can be very handy. Developed by two American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, this is a technique that helps us better understand the relational dynamics with ourselves and with others. With this process of self-evaluation, consider yourself as a house with four rooms. Room 1 is what we see and what others see in us – the arena in which we express ourselves and what we show the world every day. Room 2 are the things others see in us that we may not be aware of, these are our blind spots. Room 3 is our private inner thoughts we keep away from others and Room 4 is that part of our unconscious than is known to neither others nor ourselves. By doing an exercise involving input from others we can get a refreshing view on how we are at the moment.

In doing this self-audit we need to evaluate not only our behaviors but also the state of our psyche. How would we describe our mind – the state and nature of it? Is it restless, open, questioning, and receptive? And we should strongly awaken our intuitive sensitivity to our voice of conscience. How in touch are we with our deepest calling? Our conscience speaks to us though channels like intuition and we are not always in touch with this voice.

Once we have done such an evaluation can we proceed to consider the level of our humanness on which we are mostly living – are we living on the ground floor of our body and instincts, on the floor of our mental and egocentric illusions, and how many times have we been up to the top floor and connected ourselves to the voice of conscience? Are we listening to our instincts, mental afflictions or spiritual calling? To which voices are we listening mostly? And what are the roles of each of these voices as we go though life?

The second phase, that of self-acceptance, is very important and can be traumatic to contend with. Often we resist and blame ourselves into denial. And we stay stuck, immobile and incapacitated to loosen ourselves from the bonds of our own self-limiting beliefs. We need to accept all of our parts, even the parts we don’t like. All our parts make us who we are and acceptance means to embrace all the parts as identified by the questioner – our voice of conscience. An illusionary self-image divides ourselves into parts we are proud of, and parts we don’t want. Rejecting those unwanted parts keeps us from achieving true spiritual growth. The extent to which we accept our challenging parts, overcome them, and address them, has a direct bearing on the level of spiritual growth we will experience. Every emotion and every part is needed as it might play a secondary role in our life that we may not be aware of. If we reject any part (even if they are bad memories or thoughts – yes thoughts are part of us), we deny self-growth and create tension within ourselves.

Moving onto the third stage of self-evaluation – that of taking responsibility to self transcend and become who we ought to be, we tap into our self-curative powers of courage, defiance, humor and gratitude. These attitudes reinforce the independence of the human spirit and open up a noo-psychic antagonism. This is a healthy tension between mind and spirit, a tension between fate and freedom. Between the parts which are susceptible and those that are intact and healthy. To help us though changing our mindset, it may be useful to watch the semantic effect of language. We are severely restricted by the language we use to describe complex emotions. Consider as an example the effect of the word “yet” on our thinking. Research by the psychologist Carol Dweck in the field of motivation has shown how we can develop a growth mindset by simple adding “yet” into our vocabulary. Whenever we have to reflect on a task or personality trait we have to complete or change, by suggesting “not yet” can fill one with optimism and openness to forge ahead. To think of matters as “yet”, or “not yet”, gives one confidence to build the bridge between what is and what we would like it to be.

Going through an exercise of establishing our own uniqueness helps to create a canvass on which to express one’s creativity in life. And from such a clear understanding, one can build healthy confident self-esteem. It is only when one has a strong sense of self that one can add value to life and live transcendently. However, the job is not done yet. Self-awareness and a healthy self esteem also require us to consider our values and beliefs. This we will deal with separately in another section. The homework tasks that are part of this module will help to illuminate various aspects of our individual uniqueness.