Have you ever wondered if there was more to “life” than what you were experiencing? Have you ever felt like “bad” things just happened to you; challenging situations that were out of your control? Have you ever worked in a job that you really didn’t like? Or even if you were satisfied with your job — say, because it paid well or seemed secure — you still didn’t feel fulfilled by the work that you were doing? If you answered yes to any of these questions, or even asked yourself such questions before now, you should know that you are not alone. Not at all. And, importantly, you should know that, because we are all human, it is totally natural and healthy to ask ourselves such fundamental questions about the way we live and work.
In our international bestselling book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, which is based upon the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor E. Frankl, author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, we introduce a core principle, Detect the Meaning of Life’s Moments: “only you can answer for your own life by detecting the meaning at any given moment and assuming responsibility for weaving your unique tapestry of existence.”
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. — Viktor E. Frankl, MD, PhD
We don’t “create” meaning; we find it. And we can’t find it if we don’t look for it. Meaning comes to us in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it looms big in our lives; sometimes it slips in almost unobserved. Sometimes we miss a meaningful moment entirely until days, months, or even years go by and then suddenly something that once seemed insignificant becomes a pivotal, life-changing moment. Sometimes, too, it is the collective meaning of many moments that finally catches our mind’s eye; as if we weave together a living quilt from patches of moments that, by themselves, would have passed us by unnoticed. And although we are not always aware of it, there is meaning, as Dr. Frankl would say, in all situations. Life, in other words, remains meaning-full literally up to its last moment, to our last breath. What we have to do, both in our daily life and at work, is to wake up to meaning and take notice.
The thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi writes, “It’s never too late to bend and kiss the earth.” The meaningfulness of life, as we know it and don’t know it, is manifest everywhere on this fragile planet. Wherever we are and whatever we do, it is this very existence of life that calls us to meaning. How, we should ask, are we inviting life into our lives? How, we should ask, are we bending and kissing this earthly experience? How, we should ask, are we acknowledging meaning in our personal lives, as well as through our work and at our jobs?
It all comes down to awareness. In this regard, it has been said that “it is more important to be aware than it is to be smart.” To be aware is to know meaning. To be aware takes time. If our lives are propelled by nothing but things piling up to respond to or the passive preoccupation with such things as television, we lose out on meaning. We have to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste meaning if it’s going to exist in our lives. However, as already mentioned, we can’t find meaning, even when surrounded by it, unless we look for it.
Against this backdrop, I would like to introduce you to a process that we call “existential digging.” We have found this exercise to be especially helpful as both a catalyst and guide for putting the principle, Detect the Meaning of Life’s Moments, into everyday practice. Simply put, for every situation or life experience, particularly one that is challenging and/or stressful, I would like you to do some “existential digging” by reflecting upon and making note of your responses to the following four questions:
1) How did you respond to the situation or life experience? In other words, what did you do and think?
2) How did you feel about the situation or life experience? What kinds of emotions were stirred up as a result of the experience or situation?
3) What did you learn from the situation or life experience? What new knowledge, skills, or attitude do you now possess because of the experience or situation?
4) How did you grow from the situation or life experience? How will you apply what you have learned from the experience or situation, especially key learning about yourself, for your personal development?
Dig deep for the insights into your experience. Review how you responded, how you felt, what you learned, and, most important, how you have grown (or will grow) from this experience. By faithfully and authentically addressing these four levels of existential questions, we guarantee that you will become familiar with and engage in the systematic process of detecting the meaning of life’s moments.
“You can change without growing, but you can’t grow without changing.”
Obviously, you cannot respond to the four questions for every moment of your life, but we highly recommend that you try to address situations or life experiences that really matter — or should matter — in your personal life and work life. In this connection, are you really growing and developing as a result of your learning from various life situations, or are you simply repeating old patterns of thinking and behavior? Do you recognize any common threads of meaning that may help you weave your unique tapestry of existence as you answer life’s call?
NOTE: More information about the “Existential Digging” exercise, including illustrations of how it has been and can be used, as well as about the core principle upon which it is based, is available in our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts.
Dr. Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon are co-authors of two international best-selling books on Meaning, Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work and The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work, as well as are co-founders of the Global Meaning Institute and co-creators of MEANINGology, the study and practice of meaning in life, work, and society.
Originally published at medium.com