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What is the Meaning of Life?

Aug 17, 2007
Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and author of "Man's Search for Meaning", developed his theory of human existence while awaiting what he assumed was almost certain death in Nazi concentration camps. He determined that psychological health follows directly from the discovery of meaning in one's life. Happiness, to Frankl, is a side-effect of this discovery.

How do you discover this meaning in your own life? It's possible that you don't. "Thy lot or portion in life is seeking after thee", said the Caliph Ali, "therefore, be at rest from chasing after it."

But there are clues in everyone's life that can be examined to find purpose and meaning.

Your meaning is different from everyone else's. To seek it, look at your own biography. Find the tendencies and patterns from every era of your life that are truly different from those of others you know. Examine the life incidents that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but which have remained in your memory and consciousness ever since. Thus you may discover the essential meaning towards which your life trends.

But be careful. Separate those things that are truly 'YOU' from things which others told you, and which may be true for them but not for you.

When you look at the accomplishments of your family, your community, your nation, what things do you notice are missing? What should be there, but isn't? Often your talents and abilities reveal themselves 'negatively'; that is, they first manifest when you observe the lack which they are able to relieve.

Which great men and women of the past and present hold special significance for you? Can you see your life as a new building block built upon their example, and predicted by it, as the new living layer of coral grows on top of 4,000 meters of dead coral extending to the ocean bottom? Notice especially the 'holes' in their achievements which you are uniquely qualified to fill.

Ask yourself, "How have I brought joy to others?" If you repeatedly enrich otherrs, eventually the differences between you break down, and you create community (or communion) with them. This is the ultimate transcendence of Death.

Your destiny need not sound 'noble' to others. "Even taking out the trash, if done with conscious awareness, is an inspired act" says a Zen saying. Listen carefully to what you heart says is right for you.
Said Emerson, "Life is hardly respectable if it has no generous, guaranteeing task, no duties or affections that constitute a necessity of existiing. Every man's task is his life-preserver. The conviction that his work is dear to God and cannot be spared, defends him... A high aim reacts on the means, on the days, on the organs of the body."

.Consider that your purpose may vary according to time of life. In the Indian tradition, someone goes from child to student, warrior, householder, parent, and then retires to the forest for contemplation. Each of these life 'eras' essentializes a different meaning. On the other hand, the Greek model called for 'Balance in mind, body, and soul' at every stage of life. Your path may lie between these two.

For King and commoner alike, Life is a succession of millions of moments. If Fate chooses not to reveal itself to you in this second, there is always the immediate task at hand, even if it's to brush your teeth or wash the dishes. Eventually Fate will speak.

Have there been things you've done, that seemed to cause time to stop? Holding a baby, viewing a painting or a sunset, solving an equation, teaching something that conveyed your passion to another, a religious experience, a walk in a forest? That is a key. Many things in your environment can reflect your Life's meaning back to you. Emerson again: "Slow, slow to learn the lesson that there is but one depth, but one interior, and that is-- his purpose. When joy or calamity or genius shall show him it, then woods, then farms, then city shopmen and cabdrivers, indifferently with prophet or friend, will mirror back to him its unfathomable heaven, its populous solitude."

Listen to your body. What activities bring it consistent joy? Even its hurts may have a message for you. For example, is there for you a 'good' kind of discomfort'? Like the pain felt upon completing a marathon, building a house by hand, or giving birth? If even the unpleasantness connected with doing a certain thing has an evolving nobility for you, there's a good chance that this is part of your destiny.

You may wish to employ the ancient concept of 'energy pools'. Each of us has a certain number of stores or reservoirs of different types of energy: physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual. Which pool feels depleted this year, or this minute? Which type of lifestyle keeps your storage capacities in balance? What things do you still do from convention, habit, social pressure, or fear of change, which leave your various energies unrestored or out of balance? Can you learn from a time in your life when all the reservoirs seemed filled?

Some say that there is no Ultimate meaning; that our efforts to find such a thing in our lives are arbitrary and capricious; that meaning is entirely constructed within our skulls. Some existentialists even claim that maturity resides in recognizing that the Universe is ultimately devoid of meaning. This may be, but if you spontaneously set upon a course and it turns out to be beneficial and fulfilling for yourself and others, what difference does it make?

Wrote Shaw: "This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy."

Finally, Broson Alcott said, and this is as good a life purpose as any,:
"When you enter the room, I think I will study how to make humanity beautiful to you."

What could be more meaningful than that?
About the Author
John Toomey is an author and the president of InterBooks. He is a founding director of IEICO and a Trustee of the Psychosophy Institute. He can be reached at fixxer@prodigy.net http://www.dxpixelsite.com
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