Meaning gestalt

The second speaker at the “To touch the pain from a place of faith” conference was interesting to me because neither his science nor his logotherapy were new to me it was interesting to hear how logotherapy is being implemented in the world (even though he did not mention logotherapy).

I’m referring to neurologist Dr. Yakir Kaufman, of the Herzog center at Hadassah Hospital. He spoke about stress and the disease process, and cited some of the research connecting body and mind. For example a study of stress secretion done on medical students showed that a decrease in stress enhanced the immune system and resulted in less illness.

Whereas in the past scientists taught about distinct systems in the body, with the brain as the center, in the last decade the scientific community has come to recognize the connection between body and mind as well as spirit. We can measure these things. When a person experiences stress there is a behavioral response. The endocrine system releases cortisol and the autonomic nervous system releases adrenaline. When there is chronic stress the limbs receiving the hormone cortisol wear down over time. The body expends a lot of energy defending itself, which in the long run weakens it.

Well-being is the opposite of stress.

When we look at the root of stress we see a lot of it is lack of feeling of control over what is happening.

Next he proceeded to talk about logotherapy without mentioning it by name. (The therapy that must not be named…?)

He showed a picture of a square with dots (points of life difficulties) drawn inside and outside the square. Everything inside the square symbolizes our meaning gestalt, or how we successfully explain the world to ourselves.

Words have power, he said. Thus what we say and how we say it makes a difference. If we have a way of explaining life that’s good and meaningful then when difficult or challenging events come along we can explain these things and incorporate the difficult things within the square of our meaning system.

But when the person’s meaning system is limited (the square is very small) much more things will be a source of stress for him (illustrated by more dots lying outside the square).

The way to reduce stress is to expand our meaning system. To do that we need to become more aware of our world of values and this will allow us to explain why one particular event or another is part of our meaning world.

Meaning is an important topic because it influences our experience of life and of pain. The main problem in the world is lack of meaning and this lack of meaning is also the main problem with pain.

He asked the audience: What are the main things that give meaning to our lives? People offered: a mission, belonging, faith, family, love…He called us an idealistic crowd and added: money, power, position and career. Whatever is meaningful to us can even turn into our identity. It gives the person a sense of security.

Often people are fired from their jobs, this one thing in life that gave them the most meaning is taken from them in an instant. As a result they have a strong crisis of meaning. Another person finds meaning only in family and when they lose family they have a crisis. He asked: What is in common between these two situations?

His answer: They are both external to the person. If we have meaning that is not dependent on any thing external then I still have meaning and I have the ability to stand in the face of this crisis of loss. Having meaning that doesn’t depend on anything allows us to expand our square of meaning that gives us the ability to meet the pain strengthened.

He said he sees people in his clinic all the time and the source of their problems is lack of meaning.
Healers often find a solution that is superficial and symptomatic but it does not get to the root of the problem. – Where has the meaning been hurt and how can I help him find a higher meaning for himself?

He gave an example of someone who came to his clinic with back pain. There was a discrepancy between their objective diagnosis and their pain. Pain is a subjective experience. When he’s working with the person’s spirit and meaning, he can change the experience of pain.

He added findings that religiously active people have longer life expectancy and that prayer helps defend against Alzheimer’s, the influence of which can be seen on a brain scan.

He ended with a few words about awareness./consciousness – We are usually not aware f our negative habits (depression, anger, stress). They can continue to exist under cover of the darkness of our subconscious. If we would shed the light of awareness/consciousness/da’at) on these subconscious habits they would eventually disappear. The development of da’at is also something that acts as preventive medicine. (end quote)

(My “take” on what he said) – To my understanding one point in his analysis does diverge slightly from logotherapy.

Frankl speaks about expanding the person’s spectrum of meaningful areas of life so that if one area is lost to a person there are still other meaningful areas. However, while Frankl talks about opening the person to a bigger spectrum of values so that meaning is not depending solely on this one thing sitting at the top of the pyramid of values, in Dr. Kaufman’s formulation the person’s meaning does not depend on any thing that is not intrinsically meaningful.

Thus in my understanding Dr. Kaufman implied two things by his assertion. When we expand the square representing the person’s meaning gestalt we are helping him:

a) To discover meanings that are intrinsic to his world of values rather than meanings that are dependent on what he wants

b) To find explanations for what happened and thus enhance his perception of meaning in difficult situations.

The (a) in a logotherapeutic formulation would be slightly different: to expand his spectrum of values so that more than one area of interest is on his radar.

To illustrate, let us say someone lost his job. The difficulty of being unemployed is lying outside the square of his meaning gestalt.

Point (a) in logotherapy would be expressed in the following way: If a person only has one all-important value at the top of the pyramid, then when that falls he has a crisis of meaning. We want to expand his repertoire of meaning. So we want to help the person find additional areas of interest such as playing with his kids, spending time developing new skills and so forth so that his entire world does not collapse by losing his job. Within the context of expanding his pyramid of values the stress factor of the challenge gets dimmer.

Point (a) according to Kaufman would be to help the person to see that the job itself is not “giving” him meaning but there is a meaning inside himself that he finds there, and this meaning does not go away with the loss of the job.

Point (b) according to both logotherapy and Kaufman is that we help the person find an explanations that will enhance the very definition of what is meaningful and thus incorporate this challenge into the definition. For example, if learning is a value, it is meaningful and necessary to make mistakes (which can sometimes lead to the loss of a job) so that learning can take place.

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One Response to Meaning gestalt

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