Archive for the ‘The Meaning of Life’ Category

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Ten Signs You’re Awake

December 9, 2012

Following my previous post ‘Ten Signs of Awakening‘, let’s now take a look at ten ways to recognise that you’re well and truly awake – that is, what life will be like when you’ve been through the awakening process described previously and come out the other side. You don’t necessarily have to resonate with all of these to be awake but you will find each of these factors becoming more prevalent in your life once you do wake up.

1) Being true to you

Now you’ve shed your ‘stuff’ and been through the healing process, your authentic core self – call it your heart, your soul, your soul-self – is revealed in all its glory. At last you know who you are and what it is you want – and there’s a good chance it’s nothing like the life you’ve been lead to believe you should want or the ‘you’ that the world has reflected back at you.

That’s because unlike the unawakened world you’ve grown up in, you’re no longer experiencing life via the ego which views everything with fear, is self-obsessed and creates defences to protect itself. Instead, you’re seeing the world through your soul-self and the eyes of love, which means you now look out more than in and have made that all-important switch from ‘service to self ‘ to ‘service to others’, which is the cornerstone of soulful living.  You now see the truth of what the world needs – and you know what it is you can do to make that difference.

‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment’.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

2) Living in the moment

When you were asleep and living your life steeped in fear, you probably found yourself constantly dwelling on past grievances and worrying about what the future would bring. Whilst it’s important to learn the lessons which the past has taught us and to have a plan in mind for the future, when you constantly reside in those places, you miss so much of what is wonderful in the here and now – and also miss what needs to be done to make the world a better place. Living in the past and the future is SO self-absorbing and creates depression and anxiety – living in the moment brings inner peace which leaves you free to truly notice what is really going on both within and without you.

3) Getting in the flow

Remember those Universal nudges I mentioned in my previous post about awakening? Now you’re fully awake, you become a clear channel for Universal energy and as such, you will find yourself getting into the flow of life and riding a wave of Universal nudges and your inner guidance (the voice of your ‘soul-self). These nudges, coupled with the discernment of your intuitive self,  will help to guide you on to the right path towards fulfilling your life purpose and to live an existence which resonates with your authentic self.

4) Having faith

When you’re awake, you learn to relax and have faith in the aforementioned flow of life which will lead you in the right direction for both you and the good of the Universe.  Having faith means letting go of outcomes and getting out of your own way – in other words, you no longer try and control things or force them to go your way, as you know now that what is yours will come to you. (What it doesn’t mean though, is that you just sit back and do nothing – having faith doesn’t mean that you can’t be proactive in your life so keep on following those nudges!)

5) Appreciation and gratitude

Being awake means that you now find yourself spontaneously appreciating and feeling gratitude for what you already have.  Instead of living life in a state of perpetual longing, you love the gifts you already have and appreciate the simple things in life – your home, your family, your health, your own unique gifts. You will also find yourself noticing the beauty around you and may find that you have a newly awakened interest in the natural world. Spending time in nature can be very restorative for the awakened soul.

6) Being able to manifest what you need when you need it.

When you get into the flow and have faith, something really amazing happens – you find yourself manifesting exactly what you need just when you need it (NB this is NOT about what you ‘want’ – the Universe is not going to make you a multi-millionaire overnight, unless of course, it feels that this is appropriate for your particular life purpose!). This is  due to your inner guidance being in tune with the Universal Energy, creating a mutual support system which manifests everything you need for the highest good of your self and others.

7) Radiance

When you’ve shed the layers of darkness which have been masking your inner light, your authentic soul-self will be able to shine through. Consequently you will find others being drawn to you as you exude universal energy and light – you literally become a beacon of light for all around you. However this does not mean that an awakened life is completely free of darkness – though you will find that your ‘light’ repels a lot of dark energy, so you won’t be touched by it on a personal level as much as before – as we will see in point 8.

8) Living in balance

One of the misperceptions which some people have about being awake is that an awakened life is all sunshine, fluffiness and twinkly angels. This can result in some rather sneery attitudes towards awakening from those who would consider themselves ‘realists’.  However nothing could be further from the truth.

Being awake means that we still recognise what is often termed the ‘duality’ of life (the light and the dark, the yin and the yang)  – but instead of attempting to repress, deny or project these aspects onto others, we accept them as a part of the whole rather than a separate entity – hence the term ‘oneness’ which is used to describe life as seen through awakened eyes.  We realise that the key to life is finding the balance between these aspects of ourselves and the world rather than allowing one to dominate – and in the next point, we will see how being awake and in touch with our core self allows us to deal with darkness in a far more healthy and productive way.

Living in balance also means that we live our lives in a more holistically healthy way, as we recognise how everything is connected. So we balance work and play, mind and body, and naturally gravitate to a more healthful way of being.

9) Dealing with unavoidable suffering in a positive and meaningful way

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes three steps we can take towards discovering the meaning of life, the third of which is our attitude towards unavoidable suffering.

When we are awake, our authentic core self and the strength and inner peace which that gives us, means that never again will we be destroyed by external events in our lives. This does not mean that you won’t grieve or feel angry, but you will no longer allow any tragedy which befalls you to define you and control you.

To read more about people who have dealt with unavoidable suffering a positive and meaningful way and find out more about the three steps Frankl suggested to discover the meaning of life, check out my blog post on this here.

10) Being the change you want to see in the world.

When you’re fully awake, you don’t just talk the talk, you walk the walk too. Your whole life becomes  an example to others of how to find inner peace and you become the living embodiment of compassion and empathy. Your mantra becomes ‘Do no harm’ and you strive to leave the world in a better state than it was when you originally entered it in your current physical form.

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It’s just a ride…

January 26, 2010

“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever. Because this is just a ride.” And we…kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok? But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, not work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”

Bill Hicks

(1961-1994)

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Recession is a healer

September 8, 2009

family-having-fun

Following on from my Meaning of Life blogs, here’s an article by psychologist Oliver James which I could have almost written myself. More syncs too – before I stumbled across this article, I was working on a re-write of one of my earlier blogs which coincidentally includes the line mentioned near the end of this article ‘You may say I’m a dreamer’ – and over the last few days I’ve not only watched a number of documentaries about the Beatles, but yesterday (no pun intended) I also read a magazine article about them which mentions the classic song from which that line originated.

If you’re interested in reading more of Oliver James’ work on this topic, I’d recommend Affluenza and the follow-up The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza.  I particularly resonate with the article below as it correlates with my intuitive feelings about the current recession –  namely that the economic collapse, rather than being the catastrophe our media would have us believe,  actually has the potential to free us from our increasingly oppressive/depressive state and the meaningless pursuit of ‘stuff’, which in turn will give us the opportunity to rediscover  what is really important and enjoy true meaning and fulfilment.  Here’s hoping…

Recession is a healer

By Oliver James

The implosion of the global financial system was as unexpected and rapid as the collapse of the Soviet Union. The good news is that we may be about to feel as liberated from oppression as the swarming crowds who celebrated in the eastern bloc in 1989.

The past 30 years have been a shop-till-you-drop, credit-fuelled consumer binge. Almost all of us caught what I term the Affluenza Virus — placing too high a value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame. This virus is very bad for mental health. People with the virus are significantly more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and substance abuse (booze and drugs).

But following the collapse of the old financial system in which both individuals and nations lived on the never-never, our Affluenza habit will no longer be affordable. Time for cold turkey. In the short term, as with any addicts cleaning up their act, there will be pain. At the most extreme, as recession bites there will be unemployment, which will be depressing for hundreds of thousands.

For millions of others there will be anxiety about job security. And yet within quite a short time, as our values begin to change, I predict we will start to feel a whole lot better.

When you stop to think about it, you have learnt to confuse real needs with wants: you do not really need an awful lot of what you buy, you want it. A real need is for things like emotional intimacy or to feel emotionally secure; a new flat-screen TV or a conservatory are wants stimulated in us by advertising and the desire to keep up with the Joneses.

Property is at the heart of our confusion of needs and wants. Take kitchens. Many of us have spent tens of thousands on “improving” ours, yet what do we really need from it? A cooker for cooking, a fridge to keep things cold, clean flat surfaces and somewhere to wash up. Likewise, most of us have houses larger than we truly need and have paid beyond what we can afford to live in more prestigious areas.

Enter the credit crunch and a complete reappraisal. Virus-free, we will start counting our blessings. If property prices plummet, we will not care — rather than living in an investment vehicle, homes are vital components of our existence.

We will also rethink our work lives. Nearly all the increase in family income in the past 30 years came from working longer hours and women joining men in the workforce. At last we will see that if you spend less, you do not need to earn so much, so can work less. Those with small children will start thinking twice about working such long hours, or if one partner is made redundant, think: “Actually, let’s just make do with less money and I will enjoy looking after the nippers.”

Affluenza values will be replaced by the pursuit of intrinsic pleasures. Interest, enjoyment and the stimulation of a real challenge will become paramount: things are done for their own sake, not simply to please anyone else. At work you will put promotion prospects and salary rises second to what you find really interesting. You will be like a child absorbed in imaginary play. Wherever possible, you will be looking for work that improves the state of your mind — not just the state of your bank balance or the index of your professional ambitions.

Cutting down on Having, you focus on Being. As you recover from the virus, your brain and body chemistry will rapidly change for the better. You will no longer be jammed in a permanent state of readiness for fight or flight by high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As you spend more time with your partner, your children and your intimate friends, your levels of the love hormone oxytocin will rise. Levels of the depression chemical serotonin will normalise.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I believe there is good reason to believe this version of our future. It is true that the poor are twice as likely to suffer from mental illness as the rich, but a recent British study proved that having a low income or unemployment does not in itself cause psychiatric problems. What was critical was how much a poor person felt themselves to be badly off relative to others — hard proof, as in many other studies, that if you can stop comparing yourself with others, you can be poor and happy.

Long before the credit crisis, downsizing (working fewer hours, seeking less competitive jobs) was already mushrooming among the middle-aged. Surveys reveal that young people are increasingly likely to reject “greed is good” workaholism.

Remember the title of the Christmas No 1 in 2003? It was Mad World. The truth is that we have been living through a crazy time in our history and we always suspected it. We should be grateful that the credit crunch is going to vaccinate us against the consumerist madness and that, nationally and individually, we are going to replace it with authentic personal fulfilment.

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The Meaning of Life (part three)

September 4, 2009

Jack White

In part two, I discussed the first step towards finding true meaning in your life, referred to by Frankl as ‘your attitude towards unavoidable suffering’.  If you are able to deal with your past and present negative baggage with a positive attitude, you  will find that the way becomes clear for you to discover what you – as oppose to your parents/peers/partner or society – really value. To illustrate what I mean by this, I’m going to share some of my own story with you.

The Free Dictionary offers this definition of an epiphany:

A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization: “I experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself” (Frank Maier).

There have been two significant epiphanies of this type in my life. The first occurred in my mid-twenties when I lost my job (also mentioned in the ‘On Being an Empath’ article) and finally faced up to the fact that the way I was living my life was unsustainable. I was well and truly stuck in the vacuum and it was killing me – my life had no meaning, though this was hardly surprising as I had no idea who I was and what I really wanted. Consequently I decided enough was enough and embarked on the path of personal development which would change my life.

Over the next ten years, I made many momentous discoveries whilst on that path. I acknowledged that a lifestyle based on consumerism wasn’t for me and that working purely for financial gain was akin to selling my soul, prompting me to retrain as a counsellor as I sought out work which would give something back. I reframed negative past events and, after learning the important lessons those experiences had to teach me, was finally able to make peace with them and let them go. I learned a lot about how I related to others including how to be assertive rather than passive or aggressive, and how to establish healthy personal boundaries. I also learned a lot about the real meaning of love through my relationship with my child and I most definitely learned the hard way what I didn’t want from my more intimate relationships. And best of all, as my false self image – created from the distorted reflections of other people – crumbled, I grew to like the person I really was and began to enjoy spending time in my own company. Yet something still seemed to be missing. It was as though I’d stripped my inner self clean of all the baggage and now my authentic self stood there raw and fresh and blinking in the sun, saying ‘well, here I am at last – so what next?’

Fast forward, then, to my mid-thirties. Over the previous decade I’d come a long way and now it felt like the final pieces were clicking into place. However, like running a marathon or climbing Everest, this last stretch was proving to be particularly difficult, not least because I’d ended a relationship with someone who I loved deeply and who I still believe was a true soul mate but who, due to difficult circumstances, was unable to show me the level of respect I deserved. Though I learned some valuable lessons about my own behaviour in intimate relationships which would stand me in good stead for the future, the feelings of hurt and betrayal due to his casual treatment of my finer feelings was still hard to take.

In an attempt to move on, I agreed to go on a long weekend break with a friend. Unfortunately the break was a disaster and I was forced to finally admit to myself something I had tried to deny for years – that this friendship was a little too one-sided for my liking. I’d been hurt and let down by this person several times over the course of our friendship but because I’d known her for so long – and had, at one time, looked up to her – I’d put my misgivings to one side. Now I’d finally reached a point in my personal development where I cared about myself enough to no longer tolerate relationships – be they with partner, friend or family – that were detrimental to my wellbeing. The rationality of this decision, however, belies how difficult it was for me on an emotional and psychological level. I literally felt like my heart was breaking and found myself plummeting into a particularly intense ‘dark night of the soul’.

During the break, I treated myself to a CD copy of Get Behind Me Satan by the White Stripes. I hadn’t really listened to them before but I’d recently seen their Glastonbury set on TV and was really blown away by Jack White’s powerful performance and the way he took command of the stage. The day after we returned, my daughter left to spend the week with her father so I decided to make the most of my free days and enjoy some much needed solitary time. Whilst relaxing, I played my new CD continuously, and the more I listened, the more impressed I was by the way Jack White expressed his feelings so vividly through the music and lyrics. In yet another marvellous piece of synchronicity, the theme of the album reflected perfectly the emotional turbulence I was going through love, betrayal, grief, anger, all exquisitely and impeccably portrayed. Even the title of the album seemed appropriate in reflecting how I was putting the negative aspects of the past – events, relationships and my own behaviours – behind me, once and for all.  (A bit of research uncovered the fact that prior to making this album, Jack had suffered a relationship break-up and been badly burned by a number of old friends ).

In my early years, creative writing had been a very important part of my life. Even as a child, I spent much of my spare time producing stories and poems but for some reason as an adult I kept closing the door on that intrinsic part of myself. That week, thanks to one man’s work, I rediscovered how powerful creativity could be and I finally realised what was missing and what my authentic self was screaming out for. Expressing my ideas through the written word to help others is simply what I was born to do.

As you can see, then, the second step towards discovering meaning in my life, as described by Frankl, was experiencing something – in my case, experiencing the power of creativity. I was still unsure how I would express this creativity – I initially began by simply pouring out my feelings onto paper then moved on to working on a novel – but further experiences and synchronicities ultimately lead me to the final step, referred to by Frankl as “creating a work or doing a deed”. That work is, of course, my Empathic Guidance project which so far includes a website, this blog and an upcoming book.  I also have people in my life who seem to thoroughly enjoy being with the authentic me and who support and encourage me wholeheartedly in expressing that. It’s taken some time and effort – and a vast amount of soul-searching – but I can safely say that my experience of the existential vacuum is a long way behind me now.

To end this article, we’ll revisit someone I mentioned in part two, Stephen Hawking. His positive attitude towards his suffering, coupled with his sense of purpose and encountering someone who he fell deeply in love with gave his life more meaning than it had ever had before, and for me, this quote sums up much of what I have attempted to express in this article:

My dreams at that time were rather disturbed. Before my condition had been diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing. But shortly after I came out of hospital, I dreamt that I was going to be executed. I suddenly realised that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I were reprieved. Another dream, that I had several times, was that I would sacrifice my life to save others. After all, if I were going to die anyway, it might as well do some good. But I didn’t die. In fact, although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research, and I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met just about the time my condition was diagnosed. That engagement changed my life. It gave me something to live for.”

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The Meaning of Life (part two)

August 28, 2009

jane tomlinson

So how do we find meaning in our lives? For each of us, the meaning of life is different – there is no universal meaning and even our own personal meaning may change over time. However,  the process of discovering meaning in our lives has common threads for each of us and Frankl describes these as:

a) creating a work or doing a deed

b) experiencing something (truth, beauty, goodness) or encountering someone (love)

c) the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering

Though Frankl listed these in this particular order, I think for those of us who are stuck in the ‘existential vacuum’ already, working through them in reverse can help us to discover the meaning in our lives. So let’s examine these a little more, beginning with the last item on Frankl’s list – the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.

We all have our own personal tragedies, although whether others would agree that these tales are tragic is another matter. The poor little rich kid who grows up psychologically wounded due to parental emotional neglect is probably looked on with contempt by the person whose formative years were an endless round of physical and emotional abuse. However, the point is not to engage in a ‘whose life sucked the most’ contest. What matters most is our attitude towards our suffering, past and present. Can we rise above our tragedies and use them to spur us on to great achievements – or indeed, achieve great things despite our tragedies? Or are we content to wallow in our role as victim and remain stuck in a pit of self-pity and blame?

Here are three poignant examples of  people who all dealt with unavoidable suffering in a positive way. Jane Tomlinson (pictured above) was struck down with cancer at the age of 36 and given six months to live. As a mother of three young children who had everything to live for, she could have easily succumbed to ‘give-up-itis’ and fulfilled her diagnosis. She became a prolific fundraiser, raising over £1.75m for respite care, nursing and research into the disease from which she suffered through participating in various sporting events that your average healthy person would struggle to complete, including a marathon and the Ironman triathlon. Her efforts added another 7 years to her life and she eventually died at the age of 43, having lived long enough to see her first grandchild. When interviewed three years before her death, Tomlinson said:

“When I was first told I was going to die, my son was only three, and I could not bear the idea that he would not remember me. At 36, I felt very much that I was too young to die. Now, at 40, I feel I have done more than a lot of people do in a lifetime. So if it’s my time this year, I would say thank you, God, for what you gave me. I mean, how many other Yorkshire lasses do you know that can say they have cycled to Monte Carlo this afternoon?”

Another famous example is Dr Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, he too could have succumbed to ‘give-up-itis’. Indeed, the majority of people suffering from his form of the disease rarely live beyond ten years following the diagnosis. 46 years later, however, Hawking is still here having had a remarkable career as a theoretical physicist, including making some influential discoveries and publishing a record-breaking bestselling book. On his website, Hawking himself says:

“I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many. The realisation that I had an incurable disease, that was likely to kill me in a few years, was a bit of a shock. How could something like that happen to me? Why should I be cut off like this? However, while I had been in hospital, I had seen a boy I vaguely knew die of leukaemia, in the bed opposite me. It had not been a pretty sight. Clearly there were people who were worse off than me. At least my condition didn’t make me feel sick. Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself I remember that boy.

“I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family, and being successful in my work…I have been lucky, that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope… I really enjoy life and all that it involves.”

Of course, not all tragedies are health related. Diana and Peter Lamplugh’s daughter Suzy was abducted in 1986. Suzy worked as an estate agent and disappeared after showing a house in Fulham, London to a man known only as ‘Mr Kipper’. No body has been found but Suzy has been presumed murdered and legally declared dead. The ordeal which Paul and Diana are going through – the case is ongoing – has to be every parent’s nightmare, yet rather than allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with grief, they instead decided that something good should come out of their tragedy and founded ‘The Suzy Lamplugh Trust’ to prevent others suffering the same fate as their daughter. The mission of the trust is ‘to raise awareness of the importance of personal safety and to provide solutions that effect change in order to help people to avoid violence and aggression and live safer, more confident lives’.

In an interview, Diana Lamplugh commented that surviving the enormous grief following Suzy’s abduction had been a process of “turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones”. This statement exemplifies what Frankl calls ‘tragic optimism’ – that is, the ability to ‘say yes to life in spite of everything by creatively turning life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive’. Most of us do not suffer tragedies as great as those described here, yet still we focus unhealthily on our individual misfortunes and shortcomings and allow them to hold us back. If we want to find meaning in our lives then we need to follow Diana Lamplugh’s example and turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones. We can do this by accepting all of ‘life’s negative aspects’, whatever they are. Some of these aspects may need to be embraced and actively incorporated into your life, as Jane Tomlinson did with her cancer; in other cases you may have to accept the limitations these negative aspects bring whilst learning to appreciate what you still have, as Stephen Hawking has done.

Whatever your circumstances, your attitude will be the deciding factor as to whether you remain stuck in the vacuum, merely existing and bemoaning your sorry fate – or whether you live an authentic life filled with joy and meaning.  You can find more on how to achieve a more positive attitude in parts four and five of the de-cluttering articles, where I give advice on how to emotionally and psychologically ‘de-clutter’ in order to achieve inner simplicity and a greater sense of emotional and psychological wellbeing. The emotional de-cluttering article can be found here and the psychological de-cluttering piece can be found here.

More on The Meaning of Life in part three – coming soon.

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The Meaning of Life (part one)

August 24, 2009

themeaningoflife

Recently I’ve been reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a best-selling book described as ‘A classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust’. Frankl was a psychotherapist who developed his own theory, logotherapy, and the second half of this book is a description of logotherapy ‘in a nutshell’.

What struck me was the number of similarities between Frankl’s theory and some of the discoveries I’ve made and conclusions I’ve come to during my own brief time on this planet. According to logotherapy, the primary motivational force for humans is striving to find meaning in one’s life. However, though many of us in Western society have the means by which to live (eg a roof over our heads, food on the table) not many of us actually have real meaning in our lives. The result is that an unprecedented number of people are living in what Frankl calls an ‘existential vacuum’.

In both my personal and professional life, I have encountered way too many people – including myself – suffering from the effects of this miserable condition. Frankl states that ‘the existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom’. I spent much of my youth complaining that I was bored but not really sure why, or how I would relieve this overwhelming feeling of ennui. Why did I feel this way? Because I’d completely lost touch with my authentic self – and as I’ve now realised, in order to know what brings meaning to your life and therefore avoid being in the vacuum, you first have to know who you really are. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Frankl, most of us either choose to do what other people do (conformism) or succumb to doing what other people tell us to do (totalitarianism). Who we really are and what we really want is insignificant and irrelevant in the face of society’s demands.

What our society seems to demand today is anything which adheres to the economic values set up by the most powerful people. We are constantly told that life is about ‘getting a good job’ and that success is not measured by who you are (and how fulfilled you may be) but by your status and what you have. When we meet new people, one of the first things they ask is ‘what do you do?’ and we are immediately judged by how economically viable that position is, despite how important our actual contribution is in terms of society’s wellbeing. So the wealthy professional/businessman is admired, but the dedicated stay-at-home mum is looked down upon. Even as small children we are conditioned to value ourselves and others in this way, with the routine question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’(although I do recall that when I was 7, I went through a phase of telling people I wanted to be a ‘lady boxer’ – that usually shut them up.)

Frankl conducted a survey amongst his students, which highlighted that 25% of his European students ‘showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum’, whereas amongst the American students, the result was 60% – the dark side of the American dream. Of course, the British government has closely followed the American economic system rather than the models administered in Europe (and look how that’s worked out for us, as we flounder in the worst recession in recent history), so it’s small wonder that so many people – in particular in the UK and the US – feel out of touch with their real selves and lack meaning in their lives. As Frankl says: ‘…the feeling of meaninglessness resulting from a frustration of our existential needs… has become a universal phenomenon in our industrial societies.’

It’s also not surprising that there’s been an increase in depression, aggression and addiction, three issues which Frankl states are a direct result of being trapped in this existential vacuum. It’s been well documented how depression has increased in our society – 1 in 4 people have had depressive symptoms and the number of  prescriptions written for anti-depressants is at an all-time high of well over 30 million a year. Depression can often be anger turned inwards so when that anger is instead expressed externally, the result is aggression. I don’t think I need to quote any violent crime statistics to prove this point as I’m sure all of us have either been on the receiving end of some form of aggression in the course of our existence – or have become frustrated and disillusioned enough to lash out inappropriately and disproportionately ourselves.

The final issue, addiction, leads me into the next point. Frankl talks about people in the camps who suffered what he labels ‘give-up-itis’:

‘…those who one morning…refused to get up and go to work… Nothing – neither warnings nor threats –could induce them to change their minds. And then something typical occurred: they took out a cigarette…and started smoking. At that moment we knew that for the next forty-eight hours or so we would watch them dying. Meaning orientation had subsided and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.’

Doesn’t this sum up beautifully the ‘instant gratification’ culture of our society today? So many of us are struggling to plug that vacuum, be it with substances such as drink, drugs or food; with meaningless sex and/or porn; with easy entertainment provided by TV and technology; or with the desperate pursuit of money and consumer goods. All these things give a quick fix but none of them will ever make you feel fulfilled or permanently hide the fact that you’re effectively dying inside. And by constantly relying on these modern day opiates to make the emptiness temporarily subside, we’re slowly but surely paving the way towards an unhealthy state of dependence.

I personally spent many unhappy years inside this existential vacuum. I swung from depression to aggression and back again, and tried to fill the void with all manner of things. In my desperate search for meaning – though I wasn’t aware at the time that this is what I was actually seeking – I tried on a number of different identities by altering my external circumstances (new career/house/relationship/clothes and so on) but ultimately that was about as effective as changing seats on the Titanic. How many times did I tell myself ‘If only I had this… then I’d be happy’ only to end up feeling exactly the same once the initial euphoria of achieving my superficial goal had worn off? And how many other people have I watched struggle with the same dilemma? Are you really as happy as you claim if you feel the need to crack open a bottle of wine every evening or have huge credit card debts because you just had to have that new dress/car/techno-gadget? ‘Meaninglessness’ is a malaise which is spreading fast at all levels of our society so what can we do to stem the tide? I’ll address this in part two.

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