Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl: a review

This is one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read. It details how the author (a psychiatrist), despite his horrid experiences as an inmate of several Nazi concentration camps, found meaning in his life — and urges the reader to do the same.

The book is divided into three major sections:

  • Experiences in a Nazi Concentration Camp:

This is an account of the three psychological phases a prisoner of a concentration camp goes through:
— shock as he enters the camp,
— apathy (emotional deadness: death of emotions such as disgust and pity) as he gets used to the hellish living circumstances around him, and
— depersonalization, bitterness and disillusionment after he’s liberated

Even under such circumstances, and in fact in all kinds of societies, there are two kinds of men: the decent and the indecent.

Too, no matter how tragic one’s circumstances, one still has the last freedom: to choose one’s attitude toward one’s circumstances (and thus, to give meaning to one’s suffering). This is called mental or spiritual freedom. Only those prisoners survived the camp who had such a meaning to live for.

The author lived in anticipation of meeting his beloved wife after release.

  • Logotherapy in a Nutshell:

Logotherapy sees mental health in the tension between what one is and what one could become.

There are three ways to give meaning to one’s life:
— by creating a work or doing a deed (the way of work)
— through interaction with something or encounter with someone (the way of love)
— in the attitude one takes toward unavoidable suffering

(Enduring avoidable suffering, however, is masochistic and not heroic.)

Another small aspect of logotherapy is paradoxical intention, i.e. eliminating a fear by intending exactly what one fears.

  • A Case for Tragic Optimism:

One should always say yes to life, despite the tragic triad of:
— pain: by making of it an achievement through one’s attitude toward it,
— guilt: by realizing the opportunity thereby to change oneself for the better, and
— death: deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action

Some of my favourite quotes from the book are:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” ~ Nietzsche

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.” ~ Victor Frankl

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ~ Victor Frankl

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” ~ Victor Frankl

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” ~ Victor Frankl

Being more creative

In academic psychology, there are two concepts of creativity:

1. an older one which sees creativity in terms of dreamlike cognition, psychoticism, ‘primary process’ thinking, and thoughts linked-by emotional-associations; and

2. a newer one which sees creativity in terms of ‘openness to experience’ – that is neophilia, novelty-generation, random permutations and combination of memorized information.

The first kind is what we’re talking about here.

The three cornerstones of creativity are:

  • Unstructured time alone: Creativity is founded on introspection.
  • Diurnal rhythm: One needs to figure out the time of the day when one is most creative, i.e. basically whether one is a lark or an owl.
  • Sleep: Sufficient sleep of high quality. Sleep is where most of creativity happens, when the subconscious mind makes its connections.

(Source: Intelligence, Personality and Genius)

Developing one’s intuition

Intuition is what makes the difference between someone with a 180+ IQ and someone who doesn’t. The two are not the same. Intuition in itself is completely natural, and to always rely on intuition is also completely natural.

So what is intuition and where does it come from?

Well, intuition comes from the subconscious mind which is the seat of our intelligence and genius. The intuition itself is always the correct answer to a particular situation or problem, because the subconscious mind can process all the possibilities which our conscious mind cannot. Someone who can therefore properly identify and use their intuition can be said to be a genius, because they will always say and do the right thing.

In terms of the qualitative feel of intuition, it will be like an “aha” moment or a fine thought which cannot be distracted. It is more easily recognised when we have a calm and thought free mind, because then the subconscious rooted thoughts can differentiate from thoughts which we ourselves have created consciously. Below you will find some key steps to develop your intuition, and therefore bring you closer towards becoming the genius of your dreams.

1. Practice mental silence.

This is the state of mind where you are completely free of thoughts and are silent and calm on the inside. It is achieved by having a strong focus and direction in life, and learning to think only those thoughts which bring you closer towards your goal. It can be helped through silent meditation (i.e. no visualisation).

2. Have a clear vision in life.

When you have a clear vision, your intuition has a clear direction. Your intuition will therefore give you the thoughts which you require to achieve your goals. You will imprint your vision into the subconscious mind when you visualise it in mental silence.

3. Live in the moment.

When we live in the moment, we allow the subconscious mind to take over the day to day running of our lives. This allows all the thoughts which result to be intuition, because subconscious thought is intuition itself. This will make us become a genius in all areas of our life.

4. Develop a genuine interest in life.

This is very similar to living in the moment, but with an important difference. We need to take a genuine interest in the things which happen in our life, so much so that we begin to see life as a game where we can eventually win. Life is a game where you are guaranteed to reach the final level and win, when you allow the subconscious giant within to show you the way.

5. Refrain from expressing opinions, judgements and debate.

When you express your opinion, you will develop a tendency to express your opinion. This is because of the law of binding, in that what you do, you will do more of. The implication of this is that when we do get an intuitive thought, we will be prone to express our opinion and judgement over it, thus demeaning the power of the intuition which arose and making us not act on it. This is the root cause of all inaction in our lives. We fail to act on our dreams, because we stamp down on our intuition that shows us how to achieve our dreams.

6. Pay attention to thought urges. 

A thought urge is a type of intuition which keeps coming back again and again over time. It is a signal to say that you must do a particular thing. It may come in the form of an image, sound, colours, image sequences or whatever. In either case, they must not be ignored and must be acted upon. These images can be both negative and positive. Don’t worry, you will eventually know what to do to act on the thought urge. Just make sure that you do act, and follow the action through to completion.

(Source: The Power of Intuition)