Text Box: Life of a Mystic – Brian O’Neill, editor

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy and Existential Psychotherapy

Existentialism as a philosophical movement has been accredited to Kierkegaard (1813-55) who was a very religious man and emphasised man’s relation to God in terms of subjective, personal truth and choice. He also writes about angst or dread, which is the result of a life given over to the world and pleasures of the senses. Later existentialists mostly left behind the original religious emphasis of Kierkegaard.

Frankl focuses on existential psychotherapy, which is a loose grouping of divergent thinkers. To attempt to summarise the characteristics of this approach we can consider nine aspects of existential psychotherapy:

They start with the self of the individual, his presence.

Each individual is in constant development and growth.

There is a central importance to meaning each person gives to life.

Values are important, particularly ethical, aesthetic, noetic and religious values.

Each individual is constantly confronted by choice and the responsibility of their life.

There is a need to understand the motivation for these choices and the result they have in the person’s life.

There is a depth and seriousness of human life and the anxiety and suffering which arises from this.

There is an emphasis on the future and the present.

There is the recognition of the uniqueness of each individual.

It is to this school of psychology which Frankl is seen as a major contributor, and other existentialists are highly appreciative of his work and contribution to spiritual psychotherapy, classifying him and Rollo May as spiritual existentialists. 

Frankl was a student of Freud and developed an alternative psychotherapy which he came to call Logotherapy.  A key theoretical construct of this approach was what Frankl termed a “will-to-meaning”. 

In a similar fashion to the notion of Kierkegaard’s angst, Frankl described what people complained of as an inner void, which he termed an existential vacuum.  Having satisfied other more basic needs the human being then turns to higher spiritual needs, which for Frankl manifest as a need to find meaning in one’s life. 

Such meaning involves discovering what is valued in life, and when this meaning and values are not apparent the person’s existence becomes empty and meaningless. 

The role of the therapist is to help the person find meaning in their life, accept responsibility for their existence and find values to live by.

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl and the Holocaust

This profoundly simple approach is based on the experiences of Frankl in a concentration camp in World War II. He was interned with his whole family, including his parents and wife and children, who all died. 

In the first half of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl tells of the experience of shock, dehumanisation and later adaptation to this horrendously brutal world. He tells this in a way that is very simple and factual with in-depth self disclosure, yet without any hint of over emotionalism or exaggeration. 

In many ways his simple style of writing adds to the bare horror which he reports. At one instance he reports how dehumanised he had become. A friend had died and was dragged out of the hut. As he looked to the window he saw the person’s head thump on the steps as he was taken out – dead, lifeless eyes – and the only thing Frankl could think of was that he had the man’s bread. This is stark reality.

I have often used the story of Frankl in teaching counselling and psychotherapy. Having described his situation, I go on to tell how people would kill themselves in the camp by walking into the electric fence, which was not stopped as no one saw any point or alternative. These people were called the walkers. 

Once it was known Frankl was a psychiatrist, he would be called upon to come and talk to these people and dissuade them from suicide. I was ask student “What would you do if you were Frankl, how do you reach someone in this despair and what can you offer them that will help?”

The secret Frankl discovered was that when he could help the person find a reason to live and some meaning to this horror, then they lived. If they didn’t they died. Each will and meaning to live was unique, as was the eventual meaning that the person found in this situation. 

Frankl and Spiritual Experience

Frankel himself had some extraordinary spiritual experiences of heightened awareness within this paradoxically hellish situation of these concentration camps. While working almost naked and like a skeleton on a road gang, Frankl saw his wife in a vision and knew she must be dead, and he was greatly moved by this loving visit.

This approach of Logotherapy has a profoundly touching aspect of humanism, personal meaning and spiritual application in a wider sense of the word. Yet there has not been a significant upsurge in logotherapy and therapists who identify with this approach.  

Frankl approached the study of the psyche as more than mind and stretched to include the soul and the spiritual dimension. He has dealt with religion and God in his own way, and approached the spiritual as a scientist and therapist, a medical doctor and healer. 

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Frankl, Viktor E. (1984): Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Preface by Gordon W. Allport. Boston, Pocket Books (Washington Square Press), New York.

"A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and is love."