Expanding horizons

Dear blog readers,

I’ve started a new blog called themeaningseeker.com

themeaningseeker.com will be made up of daily essays on logotherapy and will serve as the home base for my logotherapy courses.

meaningtherapy.wordpress.com will continue on a new footing which will more closely approximate my original intention for it. It will be comprised of weekly essays by a variety of logotherapists and lay people with a logotherapeutic message to convey.

If you have an essay you’d like to submit, please send a comment to any blog post with your email address and I will contact you. May we enrich each other with meaning!


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Unhealthy and Healthy Detachment

There are two different phenomena that take place when we relate to unwanted reality: unhealthy and healthy detachment.

Unhealthy detachment manifests in the phenomenon of dissociation – withdrawal from reality in the face of a traumatic or stressful situation. This can range from mild detachment from one’s surroundings as in daydreaming to extreme detachment even from one’s own physiological and emotional reality.

This defensive reaction is a coping mechanism and in that sense it does show strength, as it is attempt to protect one’s self. However it’s unhealthy when it becomes a pervasive reaction that comes up in unwanted life situations and this turns it into a severe psychological disorder such as PTSD.

A completely different kind of detachment takes place when one takes a stand toward what’s happening and says “This is wrong.” “I won’t do this.” “This is boring.” or “This is bad for me.” In this second case one is detached from reality not in order to escape from it but rather in order to orient one’s self to have a true relationship towards it.

In the first case the person is beset by fear and withdraws even from his own person-hood. In the second case the person shows strength and becomes a conduit for positive change.

The irony in healthy detachment is that by detaching from what is wrong one becomes more connected on the level of creating a meaningful relationship.

Thus if I’m not afraid to admit my wrongdoing and apologize for it or call someone on his hurtful words and express this, I will detach myself from what’s wrong in the situation and become more strongly connected to what’s meaningful about the relationship with this person.


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Murphy’s Law

One day last week my son had a day off and he said to me “Let’s go to the beach.” I said, “It’s a crazy idea. – Yes, let’s.”

Some people are spontaneous and some people want to check everything out, and they just can’t bring themselves to do something on the spur of the moment.

This reminds me a little bit of Murphy’s Law, or “If anything can go wrong, it will” has always seemed to me to be a reasonable idea. If you check to make sure the breaks on your car are in working order, it will save you much heartache, and probably your life.

But I have some problems with it when the same concept it applied in what I consider to be unreasonable or extreme ways. At a workshop I once attended, the topic for the day had something to do with choosing between Murphy’s Law and being spontaneous. The idea being put forth was that Murphy’s Law (as it was being applied to life, beyond any meaning Murphy had ever dreamed of) represents an unhealthy attitude toward life. One should always be spontaneous and not worry about checking everything out all the time. I had a strong negative reaction to this because of my own personal experience. There have been times I didn’t give something enough forethought and planning and the results were disastrous.

In the workshop I protested with an example I thought would make perfect sense to the facilitators. “What if my adolescent kid doesn’t take money for the bus because he’s being spontaneous and then he’s hitching a ride home late at night?” This didn’t seem to bother the facilitator, who continued to drive home his point.

On the other hand I can argue just the opposite when Murphy’s Law is used so pervasively that the amount of “checking” and “making sure” that needs to be done would preclude the ability to get anything done.

For some things there just are no guarantees. There is no way to be sure about your success doing something, and you have to take a risk. If you’re afraid to take any risks you’ll never accomplish anything in life. Sure, it might not turn out the way you would like. But if it seems like the right thing to do, you hope for the best.

Probably one person’s reasonable risk is another person’s unreasonable risk. But I think this is one of those things where the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If planning ahead will make life better for you, why not? But if something feels right to do even if you don’t know what the result will be, you don’t have to be immobilized by your inability to see what will come of it.

Maybe the difference is between being able to know the result, where you might as well check it out and take precautions, and being unable to foresee the result, where you have to just trust. Any thoughts?

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Giving and Receiving Meaning

In the post “The Realness of the Intangible” I shared a meaningful teaching my study partner and myself learned from Alei Shur. Today I want to share our continued learning.

Until now we learned that the world was created at a particular point in time and that the ten commandments were revealed as a “user-manual” for creation at a particular point in time. Yet this revelation is not limited to a particular point in time but is continuous.

Today we learned that a) revelation begins with potential which subsequently unfolds and b) there is a parallel process going on between creation of matter and the revelation of the user-manual.

On the first day of creation matter was created, a “something” from “nothing.” At that point on everything was created from this original substance. We can say that whatever creativity unfolds was there in a potential state from the beginning. At the beginning, potential was created.

The same holds true for the “user-manual.” Whatever creative process unfolds in our understanding of the ten commandments was in a sense always there, present from the start. The law was given together with its hidden potential. This is the context in which we who uphold rabbinic Judaism view the rabbinic debates and their unending clarifications.

My friend commented how apropos it was that we were studying this on Holocaust Remembrance Day, when entire communities with their chain of tradition of grandparents, handing down to their children and their children to their children were wiped out.

Then the book makes a surprise (to us) move and says that although the creative process of creation continues and the creative process of Torah, the “user-manual” for creation continues, something about it is not a potential being developed but rather a continuous renewal of the original creation.

The gift of potential was given long ago. If I think about a child’s potential, I think of a talent that was inherently there but once the talent was given that’s the end of the gift. Now it’s all up to the receiver of the talent to work and develop the talent.

Here we’re saying something different. The unfolding creation and revelation of how to use creation existed in a potential state from the first moment. But this creation of potential was not the end of it. The One who gave life continues to renew life. The potential for material substance to renew itself was an intrinsic part of creation, but the enlivening of this material substance is an ongoing creation. In our prayer we say, G-d renews every day the work of creation. The Creator of old continues to give us new life at each and every moment. Similarly there is an ongoing spiritual enlivenment in the wisdom of the law and how to live our lives.

And then the book adds something still more surprising to us: There are two different types of potential. There was creation of heaven (and the potential for creating heaven) and there was creation of earth (and the potential for creating earth).

Exactly what this means was not so clear to us but he goes on: The parallel of these two kinds of potential in creation extends to the presence of two different kinds of potential present in the revelation at Sinai.

One kind of potential is the potential for continuous renewal in the ongoing deeper understandings of God’s will, attributes and leadership. The other kind of potential is the potential for receptivity to what will be revealed through those who study the law in every generation, in every condition of life. This is the source for our faith in tradition.

We have gotten so far removed from this consciousness after the Holocaust. There is a rigidity of clinging to whatever is written in a book and we’ve forgotten that what is written in a book was written down only so as not to forget what was spoken orally. As my friend Rivkah put it “Making that place in your self to receive is what makes it possible for renewal to come through you.”

This is one of those posts that are here because I am sharing my meaning, not because of logotherapy. Yet it always comes back to logotherapy when what is sought is meaning. What is being discussed is giving and receiving meaning. I feel a great discomfort whenever I participate in a discussion that is purely critical and analytical in nature. A quality of receptivity is missing from the discussion. It is only through the giving and receiving together, as in the continuous revelation and receptivity to God’s word or as in the midrashic metaphor of rain coming down and the earth receiving it or of male and female bonding, that something fruitful comes forth and there is birth.

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Certainty In Free Choice

Before I go off on a computer vacation for a week, I want to share with you something I learned with my study partner yesterday.

The meaning of freedom is to have such a high degree of certainty that no power in the world can shake you from your belief and force you to act contrary to what you know to be true. The certainty has to involve a combination of both mind and heart but it first has to be grounded in the mind, in being convinced of something that just makes good sense.

This implies that paradoxically, when you have certainty even though it would seem that certainty would render it impossible for you to choose otherwise, yet you have the greatest degree of free choice because your certainty gives you the strength and the freedom to choose what you know is right, and when you choose what is wrong in such a situation it’s not really a choice at all but a “giving in,” buckling under pressure.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. WordPress might be kind enough to approve your comments without me if it’s clearly not spam, but in principle I’ll be back in a little over a week.

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Freedom Within

In the process of clarifying my values through the Hutzell workbook I’m starting to notice a value of mine that was difficult for me to name with one word. I thought of vitality, intensity, letting go, immersion, throwing myself into or losing myself in something. What came to mind was one time this past year when my two year old grandson came to our house. He took my hand and started to dance with me, and he said “Let’s be wild!” To him, being wild means the same thing as having fun because when he’s busy having fun people tell him he’s being wild.

I identify with him. When I’m at a wedding dancing in a circle dance and I close my eyes so that I can really get into the dancing and be totally supported by the hands holding me, it’s because I want to be wild. When I go jogging in the morning and feel the spirit moving me I want to be wild. When I play bongos and put my passion into the rhythm I want to be wild. I want to be free.

In the Jewish calendar, this is the season of freedom. So what is freedom? Frankl spoke about freedom “from” and freedom “to.” When Nick Vujicic explains that he gets up again for the umpteenth time after falling repeatedly, he is demonstrating what it means to be free. And when you see students in his audience with tears in their eyes because they are painfully aware of the perceived invisible barriers in their lives, it is because they are aware that they are not free. (By the way I think you’ll find that in a different video, not this one.)

Frankl understood that we don’t understand the meaning of freedom and this is why he spelled it out. He said that freedom does not preclude restrictions but is contingent upon restrictions. Like the ground beneath our feet, the boundaries of life give us the jumping off point for our freedom.

Then my thoughts turned to a message in my email box about a statement by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, that people destroy their children by always repeating the Yiddish phrase ‘Es is shver tzu zein a Yid.’ (It’s hard to be a Jew.). He continued with the comment: “No, it is not hard to be a Jew. It is beautiful and joyous to be a Jew.”

I answered the friend who sent me the message by saying “The question it leaves me with is: Why is it so hard to be a Jew who says ‘It is beautiful and joyous to be a Jew’?”

I got my answer to the question yesterday when our synagogue’s rabbi spoke about the topic of leniencies and stringencies in the law. To keep a law in a stricter way can be a sign that you care, but if you’re depressed over it, this is not a good thing. It’s possible to be enlivened by the law or depressed over it. This has nothing to do with how strict or lenient you are but about whether it’s coming from a commitment that comes from deep within or not and whether it is right for you or not.

The holiday of Passover constitutes our birth as a nation, a birth from slavery and non-being to freedom and existence. What is the difference between a slave and a free person? A slave has no mind of his own. A free person asks himself: “How can I take all the gifts I’ve been given and use them to serve a good and useful purpose?”

There are two kinds of structures in life. There’s a structure that releases your spirit into a transcendent space, and there is a structure that confines. The structure that releases is something like the structure of music. There is a circle of fifths, there is tempo, there is timing. There are rules. The music comes out through the structure of the rules. Writing is the same thing. Many things in life are like this.

And then there’s a different kind of structure when you feel you’re restricted, limited, bound. Don’t do this and don’t do that. You can’t or you believe you shouldn’t and pretty soon you can’t move. You’re stuck in one place, with no life left in you. This structure is what we call barriers. The first is what we usually call boundaries.

But the truth is there is only one kind of structure. Because Nick experienced the structure of barriers in life. Everything other people could do so simply, for him there was a stop sign. No, you can’t just walk like a regular person. You can’t just eat with your hands. But he turned his confining barriers into boundaries that were springboards for his freedom. He has inner freedom and as a free person, he made his limitations serve him, serve a good and useful purpose.

The type of freedom the Jewish code of law is meant to be is the second type. It’s like the musical circle of fifths. It’s supposed to release a person into service rather than servitude, to access the capacity for choice in order to express the profundity of love and joy and also responsibility – the responsibility that only a lover can feel compelled to express.

So now I return to my Passover cleaning. Will I access my love in my relationship to God, to other people and to life? As I wipe away these bloated yeast-filled arrogant breadcrumbs will I release my spirit into freedom and self-transcendence or will I do the opposite and use the boundaries that are meant to release me as a depressive barrier that confines? It’s up to me. The freedom is within me.

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The Realness of the Intangible

An exciting new understanding came to me today, in my study of the book Alei Shur, the section called ‘emunah‘ (faith). It is an insight that I value. As always, although it is tied to my particular world view I will attempt to broaden it to make it relevant for everyone, regardless of religious persuasion or ethnic group. Ultimately I like to do this for myself as well. It takes on a richer meaning for me when it makes sense to all people, because this shows that the idea has been taken to its ultimate over-arching meaning.

I am referring to the three points in time of divine revelation in the world that Jewish religious books describe as creation, Mount Sinai and the future redemption.

The faith of revelation at the time of creation is a faith in a Creator whom we cannot see with our physical eyes, yet whose existence we infer from seeing the works of creation. The world cannot have created itself and the intricacies of nature point to the presence of intentional creation and power that is beyond our comprehension.

The faith of revelation at Mount Sinai of the ten commandments is a faith in a Creator we encounter directly and with whom we dialogue face-to-face. This second revelation will feel more relevant to those who believe in its reality. I won’t go into that here.

My study partner compared the first kind of faith to the developmental stage of object permanence. The Creator is hidden from view and can only be inferred, but every time we see creation we are reminded of existence of a Creator behind it. In contrast the faith of direct encounter and direct dialogue is a different kind of faith-challenge. There is nothing tangible, such as concrete creation to look at yet the Source is present constantly.

The third kind of faith is the faith in future redemption. This revelation involves consciousness of an ideal world and a fully revealed Creator of that world.

All three of these revelations are in a sense distinct points of time in history. In another sense they are above time and as such signify constant consciousness. Each type of consciousness has a distinct quality to its awareness-constancy.

The first kind of faith means having constant appreciation and gratitude for the Source of all creation and the gifts that come to us each day. The second kind of faith means knowing this Source did not create a world only to abandon it but is always there and this knowing brings us to always keep the lines of communication open in prayer and reverence for the One we address as “you.” The third kind of faith means living with anticipation in the positive sense of knowing redemption can come at any time.

What I see here is a progression from a) inferring the existence of a Creator from the imprints of tangible creation, to b) direct dialogue on a purely spiritual, intangible plane and finally c) to the most intangible of all – a reality that does not even exist yet but which can be felt by the human spirit as potential.

This last, partially hidden revelation is in a way the most revealed revelation of all. The hiddenness is a kind of revelation because it points to something unseen. The consciousness that there is something yet-to-be-revealed is what allows us to see the “hidden revelation” or what we call from our human perspective “suffering” as perfect for what is going on right now. The ideal cannot be real now because we’re not living in an ideal world. But the ideal can always exist in potential.

I drew lines of connection between these three faith-states and the blessing we pronounce: baruch (blessed) – the Source of all blessing, ata (are You) – You who are always there, Hashem (God) – the ultimate consciousness of Oneness and unification of the whole world that always exists in potential.

When Frankl speaks about meaning in suffering, saying ‘yes’ to life and embracing all aspects of life out of the sense that absolutely everything has meaning, we are called upon to muster up this third type of faith, the faith in future redemption whether it’s on a personal, national or global scale.

It is this faith that allows us to feel the positive tension between what is and what ought to be, between the suffering that should not be and the values that life calls us to fulfill, between who we are and whom we know we can be and between what exists in reality right now and what does not yet exist.

And it is this faith in the intangible – faith in the One who created us, calls us and redeems us as well as faith in the spirit of man and faith in the spiritual reality – it is this faith in the “spiritual” that motivates us to do the most tangible things.

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Down Syndrome and a logotherapeutic attitude

Apropos to what I was writing about yesterday and the understandings that congealed in our logotherapy group, I received in my box a most beautiful, poignant and meaningful article by William Kolbrenner illustrating a logotherapeutic attitude towards life (although he is not a logotherapist).

I liked it for several reasons.

a) What Frankl calls “the defiant power of the human spirit”: I am always positively impressed by someone who believes in a child’s potential and doesn’t accept the standard expectations (in this case for a child with Down syndrome) but sees all he is capable of and gives him the chance to develop into all that he can be.

b) Love: Perfection is not what brings happiness, because we can never attain perfection. In the struggle for perfection we always have to be better than the next guy. We have to be the star. This brings competitiveness and pushing everyone else out of the way in order to get to the top. On the dark side of life this brings envy and bitterness and the sense of never being “good enough.” What brings happiness is having something of value to be happy about. For example, one can be happy about giving the gift of love and belief in a child’s potential and this motivates a parent to devote time and patience and energy to provide the tools the child needs to grow especially when others are not providing it.

c) Humility; The article illustrates the difference between the emphasis in today’s world on choices in contrast to recognition that not everything is in our control nor is it meant to be. One aspect to the “it’s about me” focus is the desperate attempt to hold on to control. When choice is couched in these terms choice becomes part of the psychological, ego-oriented realm, not the dimension of meaning and values and the human/spiritual capacity for choice. So even choice, which is seemingly an aspect of the spiritual dimension can be twisted into something unrecognizable as a spiritual power.

d) Trust and responsibility: This seems to me to be an outflow of a different article recently written by the same writer which can be read here. To acknowledge that you don’t know why anything is the way it is but you do know that you are here in this world to use all of the gifts you’ve been given requires a different kind of attitude than the standard way of thinking. You have to believe you’ve been entrusted with this gift, including the gift of a Down syndrome child, and that the reason you’ve been entrusted with this gift is because you have the capability of doing something beautiful with it. Finally you have to believe that it is not up to you to ask what you expect of life but what life expects of you.

d ) Saying ‘yes’ to life: Lastly, it means saying ‘yes’ to life, and embracing all of life without without conditions and without discrimination based on what you think is good or bad.

For all of these reasons I found the attitudes expressed in the article inspiring.

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A Skip, a Leap and a Paradox on the Road to Meaning

The healing process in logotherapy can be divided into three parts or stages:

a) Emotions

b) Values

c) Responsibilities

a) The emotional plane:

The first stage consists of emotional processing. The client is expressing all of the distressing emotions that come to the fore. The overwhelming feeling that comes with any kind of suffering or perception of obstacle in life is that life is unfair. If we only allow the person to obsessively go over the traumas and the pain without any compass pointing elsewhere they would stay stuck there. The reason why you react in this way of feeling life is unfair is because you want life to make sense and there is no way to process what happened in a way that will make sense to you.

The conclusion you come to by the end of your outpouring of emotions is that your life is senseless and meaningless.

Since this is not a good place to be stuck in, we need to acknowledge their pain while at the same time listen for “meaning cues.” What is the meaning, that longing in the spiritual unconscious that got crushed? We want to be careful not to allow the person to be stuck in feelings of victimhood and we certainly don’t want to get sucked into the whirlpool with them.

b) The value dimension. Discussion around values brings back meaning, because values are always meaningful! Therefore, wherever values are found, whatever seemed to the person to be senseless before is redeemed and now becomes meaningful. This putting of things into a meaning context can come in a variety of ways. You might have faith in an ultimate meaning even though you don’t know what that meaning is. You might pay attention to what is still intact/what remains. Rather than feed energy to what is missing you say, “Let me do something with this that I value and magnify its value by my attention to it. Let me keep going despite this thing that’s getting in my way…” You might access strengths you didn’t know you had such as the defiant power of the human spirit, choice and other human qualities that you discover within yourself in the process.

The conclusion you come to once you access this level of values is life is meaningful. Since everything has values attached to it and values are always meaningful, absolutely everything in life is meaningful.

At this point you refuse to accept that life is meaningless and this conclusion brings you to embark on a search for meaning

c) The third stage is responsibility, a task, a mission or a commission. At this stage you are capable of saying “How can I take the gifts or challenges I’ve been entrusted with and use them faithfully?”

The ability to shift consciousness from emotions to values is a skip.

The shift from values to responsibility is a jump.

Throughout this process, the texture of the road you tread upon is paved with humility Without humility you could not get there.

Humility is a paradox on the road to meaning.

Humility makes me realize it’s not about me and what I want and what I expect from life. Paradoxically it’s all about me but only because I am part of something much larger than myself. Something is expected of me.

When we are in the emotional dimension we are cut off from our relationship with G-d, cut off from our deep, authentic being and that’s why we go on about how life is unfair. The feeling that it’s all about me comes from the emotions which are part of our material being and part of our impulse for survival.

It is only when we start to access values that we can come to a feeling that life is meaningful, and this is always a place of connection and direct dialogue. When it’s not “all about me” but there is an “other” to relate to, there is an opening for responsibility.

Frankl wrote about self-transcendence as the essence of human existence. Man reaches out for values and meanings beyond himself. In logotherapy we are not engaging with the psychological unconscious that is focused on “me” but the spiritual unconscious that is reaching out to the world in love and relatedness. As Dida commented in our group meeting, Frankl’s wisdom is the wisdom of the heart.

Furthermore Teria noted that no other approach embraces all of life as logotherapy does. We do not look to soften suffering or compensate for it or adjust to or cope with it. We’re not giving compensatory comfort. We address suffering full face and bring the client fully face-to-face with himself by relating to the person’s fundamental desire for the suffering to make sense.

Unlike certain existentialist philosophers who said we will help the person live despite the meaninglessness of life, logotherapy helps the person actively search for the meaning – in the way it provokes us to see what ought not to be and what ought to be.

If this is what I don’t want, what is it, then that I most deeply do want? It provokes you to question life in a different kind of way. Who do I most deeply want to be? It provokes a search for the truth, in comparison to the distortions and misperceptions we’ve built up about life thinking life is unfair. Life is unconditionally meaningful despite the way things appear.

As Aryeh put it, life is not about me. I’m about life. It’s not about power and self-actualization. It’s about what I can give, about finding my place. What makes the suffering meaningful is it doesn’t necessarily have to be for my benefit. It’s looking at what I have and the contribution I can make with what I have.

The fundamental reorientation of logotherapy is that it’s not what we expect from life but what life is expecting from us. Life has given us the capability to become someone.

The true ‘you’ is beyond who you think you are. We are not focused on self-indulgence but on self-emergence. It is the call of “Adam where are you?” It’s about you but it’s you in relation to. The freedom is freedom to respond to that which addressees you and invites you and calls you.

When you are open to this, when the answer to “Where are you?” is “Here I am” then you are led there.

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Logotherapy From a Religious Perspective

1) What are the ways therapy might be viewed from a religious perspective and how is therapy likely to be viewed from the perspective of a religious logotherapist?

2) How do we picture G-d and in what ways if any does this impact therapy?

3) What does it mean to have a personal relationship with G-d?

4) Assuming that our relationship with G-d is a constant (G-d is never on vacation from us and we are never on vacation from G-d), are there times when what we do matters to G-d yet G-d doesn’t tell us what to do?

5) Assuming the answer to this question is ‘yes,’ what is the source of our knowledge? Where does the capacity to decide come from?

6) Since there are areas of choice where no explicit instruction is given by G-d and there is no universally accepted moral standard, isn’t it a problem to give people free choice and help them find their meaning, when it is in the realm of possibility that what they decide is meaningful to them is actually evil?

7) In conclusion, is there any advantage to logotherapy from a religious perspective?

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