37. The Search For Meaning

Q: In Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl describes his unlikely survival in a Nazi concentration camp, explaining that the survivors were almost all people who found some kind of meaning in the seemingly senseless suffering they were forced to endure. This observation provided the core concept for the method of psychotherapy he named Logotherapy, designed to heal depression and other ills by engaging the patient in a quest to discover significance and purpose in everyday living. It is a powerful book, but I was left with this question: Does any human being really have the power to decide to find meaning in living, or, more generally, to decide anything?

As we discussed some time ago, psychotherapy is limited to dealing with the ego and the feeling of being a “someone” in this life, so it seems to me that the search for meaning is a case of the ego looking for security and consequently picturing itself continuing into the future as a “searcher for meaning.” I do not mean to say that this is useless, only that, in terms of our previous conversations, it seems just palliative.

A: Well, no mode of psychotherapy can “cure” the patient of being human, after all. So what, if anything, would not be “just palliative”?

Q: But when Frankl says that a man, even one incarcerated and stripped of all normal means of control, still enjoys a deep inner freedom to choose, I feel some doubt about that. Incarcerated or not, what freedom can there be when everything is already predetermined as fate?

A: Is everything already predetermined as fate? Are you certain of that?

Q: Well, we are born with a genetic inheritance, on top of which we receive and continue receiving conditioning from all around us; therefore, every action springs from thoughts based on all our previous experiences, memories, and learning. So, if past is prologue to the present, at what special moment is there ever a free decision? And are we not simply fated as human beings to search for meaning whether we find it or not, not because we choose to search for meaning, but because that is just the way we are by genetic nature plus conditioning?

A: Part of that genetic inheritance seems to involve a powerful tendency among human beings to extrapolate whole worlds from tiny bits of information. That is why, for instance, this:


may be recognized as a human face although it is not a face at all, but only a few keyboard characters, and even though nobody tries or decides to see it as a face.

So if I have the feeling of desiring to move my arm, and I “try” to move it, and it does move, I am likely to jump from that bit of information to the conclusion not only that “will power” in general exists, but that I have it. From there, it is only a short jump to the conviction that choosing or deciding to harness that power properly is somehow of paramount importance. For example, a child might be taught that if the arm is used for masturbation, that would be a “bad choice,” but if used for writing out a homework assignment, that would be a “good choice.”

Furthermore, that child has been indoctrinated about good and bad choices since infancy, both explicitly and implicitly (implicitly because being punished for “bad choices” logically implies that one could have done differently by willing it). Consequently, the “myself” of that child has come to take the notion of free will as axiomatic, completely beyond question, so that information tending to confirm and strengthen that belief will be accepted readily, while information to the contrary will be resisted, ignored, or just forgotten. This is the “confirmation bias.”

But to jump from being able to move parts of the body seeminglyat will” to the conclusion that myself possesses “free will” omits the entire question of what made me want to move my arm in the first place. Where did that desire originate? Where does any desire originate?

We do not know where. Desires seem to emerge spontaneously like the bubbles that form at the bottom of a glass of soda, rising to the surface, seemingly at random, when and as they do. Can anyone actually choose what to desire next or when? Of course once something like the desire to move one’s arm does bubble up, “myself” will quickly take credit for the whole show: First “I” decide to move my arm, and then “I” move it.

But who is running the show here? If “myself” feels a desire it never actually decided to feel or chose to feel, but only noticed when the desire, whatever its ultimate source, bubbled naturally to the surface, how can that be called choosing?

Now you might say, “Well, I have lots of desires. They bubble to the surface, as you say, and then ‘I’, the decider, choose which ones to pursue and which ones to resist.”

Oh, really? What makes you want to do that? What, I mean, makes you want to pursue some desires and resist others? Where does that wanting come from?

And just how do you decide which to pursue and which to resist? Does some little birdy just whisper those decisions in your ear? “Well,” you might say. “I just feel it. The desire is me. My choices are me. You can’t separate all that.”

That’s good. That’s how I see it. You can’t separate all that. But how does that square with so-called free will? It doesn’t.

Besides, for an arm to move, no will power is needed. If my hand touches a burning hot surface by chance, the arm will move before “I” know anything about it, just as the arm on the steering wheel of a car moves when an emergency manoeuver is required. “Myself” gets the news after the fact, as I am sure you have observed.

Although you may call those movements the work of “my” reflexes, it seems clear that “myself” is not producing those movements. Nor is “myself” beating a heart, growing hair, or digesting food. All that is beyond control, just like the bubbling up of desires, along with the bubbling up of considerations about how or whether to satisfy them.

Q: So does that mean that Frankl’s will for meaning is something existing outside of any conscious activity, something just inherited as part of this human mechanism? And if so, is the work of the Logotherapist to guide the patient into a relationship with that primary force?

A: As I am not a Logotherapist, I do not assume that the desire for meaning is primary. Adler, as you know, said the primary force was the will to power, and Freud, the will to pleasure. So, those three psychologists, now in Heaven together, might spend many hours knocking back the schnapps, and discussing such questions, probably arriving at precious few points of agreement. Psychological theories tend to be shaped to deal with the ills of their own inventors, I have observed.

Joseph Campbell once weighed in on this question of meaning, remarking, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of … the rapture of being alive.”

Yes. The enchantment of being here at all, alive and aware, is a gift too often considered a problem. And rapture is not to be found in telling ourselves stories about who or what “myself” is. That can be discussed endlessly. Meanwhile, simply feeling the aliveness — the unique suchness — of each never-to-be-repeated moment outshines completely the desire for power, or pleasure, or meaning— outshines those desires in my world at least. When actually engaged in this aliveness without trying to explain it (as if it ever could be explained), questions such as “What does it all mean?” or “Who am I?” never even arise. The aliveness is the meaning. But let me say a bit more about free will and ego.

Choosing and deciding may exist as feelings, but what if they are only feelings, not actual powers? Or perhaps choosing and deciding do operate in a certain way, but only within a very limited domain of conceptual boundaries drawn between “myself” and the rest of the universe—boundaries that do not actually exist, but can be established in fantasy so as to create a play space for “choice.” If I have the remote control in my hand, I can “choose” which movie to watch in the limited domain of me and the TV set, but, again, what makes me want to choose this movie and not that one? That question takes us outside the boundaries.

The more one looks into the matter, the more it appears that all boundaries between self and world are more imaginary than real. If you say that the boundary between myself and the universe is the surface of skin that seems somehow to contain oneself inside and keep the rest of the world outside, that raises the question of whether without an entire environment, both natural and cultural, myself could or would even exist.

If you say that “myself” is consciousness—or, more materialistically, that “myself” is the brain—obviously, you are not in control of that. So, from that perspective, it may be more accurate to say not that anyone wills movements to occur, but that both the desire to move and the movement associated with that desire just occur when and as they do, and the explanations, including “willing” and “deciding,” follow.

Nevertheless, a lack of free will does not establish convincingly that everything, or even anything, is predestined. We have no way of knowing that, or even knowing anything about that. But even short of knowing about such ultimate matters, even from a more practical view, I find the notion of predestination pointless and even pernicious. Since it cannot be demonstrated, just asserting that all events are predestined is bootless conjecture, and if that conjecture is taken as a working theory, it tends to slide quickly into fatalism, a close sister to the nihilism that Frankl’s therapy attempts to treat.

So, you should not hear my perspectives on free will as a call to a paralyzed fatalism. That’s not the idea at all. You may not have the power of freely willing what to want or when to want it, but that does not mean that you must act like a limp noodle. Efforts, regardless of their ultimate wellsprings, may be part of the big picture in ways that no one understands. So, if you feel yourself making decisions and acting on them, choose well, I say.

When the notion of free will is questioned, “myself” may feel threatened and diminished. After all, one seems to be choosing and deciding constantly, but if that activity is largely illusion, what of “myself” remains? That’s a good question, but one seldom investigated.

Many prefer to finesse that question with a rush to judgment, insisting that, “Of course I have free will,” as if repeating it emphatically made it truer. Others tend towards a determinism in which free will may no longer apply, but “myself” soldiers on anyway, no longer the chooser, but still the separate “person” to whom “fate” is happening, as if myself and fate were so easily teased apart and disunited.

From the erstwhile firm believer in free will, the protean ego has rejiggered itself as a firm believer in predestination. But a believer is still a believer, not a knower, and belief, however firm, is still just belief, not knowledge. No matter the details of such beliefs, the subtext and central focus is still “I-Me-Mine,” as George Harrison, lifting a line from the Bhagavad Gita, liked to sing. So, from a functional perspective, nothing has changed at all.

Q2: So, is there a place for psychotherapy or not?

A: I worked as a psychotherapist for many years, and for part of that time also met with people seeking, for lack of a better term, awakening, which they often pictured as coming to regard ego as an illusion.

Some people imagine that seeing ego as illusive will heal the aches and pains of old psychic wounds. In my experience that is a misconception. Those hurts are recorded not just in thought—not just in recollection and autobiography—but prior to conscious recollection, and even engraved into bodily structures as well. Consequently, healing must take place not only by means of adopting some mental formulation such as “there really is no ‘myself’ apart from the universe”—which is an idea — but by means of relationship between two human beings in ordinary life. That is what psychotherapy aims at fostering. A relaxation in companionship with another person — when “two or more are gathered”—so that there is space for a human healing.

As I see this, healing of wounds is not well accomplished by an ego’s “transcendence” of ordinary existence. That is a foolish, circular pursuit. The discussion here is not about transcending anything, but about seeing that each moment of experience occurs only once-upon-a-once, never to be repeated. When that is clear, one is free to meet each moment — to meet oneself in each moment — open-heartedly and without reservations.

If you are a spiritual seeker, there will never be a melting away of the illusion of separate self as long you are driven by a self-serving motive: “I am tired of suffering, I want to awaken.” That approach only deepens the illusion of separation. Anyway, if you are often in great psychological pain, it is unlikely that the roots of that pain have much to do with feeling like a separate self.

You can paper over psychological suffering with beliefs about “spirituality,” but eventually it will show through, and will keep showing through until it is addressed. If you need therapy, I advise getting the therapy you need, and leaving the spiritual seeking to itself.