The place of suffering in psychotherapy

 26 March 2021 by Dirk Marivoet

This text is a representation of a presentation that Dirk Marivoet gave for the Fédération Française de Psychothérapeutes en Psychanalystes (FF2P) in 2009 (in French).

Instinct cannot be liberated without liberating the mind, just as the mind separated from instinct is condemned to uselessness. Not that the bond between mind and instinct is necessarily harmonious. On the contrary, it is full of conflict and means suffering. Therefore, the main purpose of psychotherapy is not to bring the patient to an impossible state of happiness, but to help him gain steadfastness and philosophical patience in the face of suffering. Life requires a balance between joy and sorrow for its completion and fulfillment.

(Carl Jung, Collected Works Vol. 16, par 185)

He who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Man does not just exist, but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment.

— Viktor Frankl


Psychotherapists are called upon every day to alleviate human suffering and give it meaning.

Carl Jung had the following to say about this:

… the main purpose of psychotherapy is not to transport the patient to an impossible state of happiness, but to help him persevere and have philosophical patience in the face of suffering. Life requires a balance between joy and pain for completion and fulfillment.

C.G. Jung Collected Works, Vol. 16, p.81

This is not an easy message that most people like to hear. It is difficult to accept that suffering is a part of life, that it is meaningful and inevitable. It is hard for patients and often hard for therapists to stick to what is painful, to resist the urge to slip into what is more comfortable, comforting, or easy. This way of understanding therapy also goes against the “feel-good” orientation that seems to dominate Western culture. We want to operate, amputate, medicate, meditate or otherwise eliminate suffering, without facing it, sitting in it and exploring its meaning. Joseph Campbell once said, “Joyfully participate in the sorrows of life” – he did not mean by this that we should enroll in a masochistic attitude to life, but rather that we would recognize that life is full of difficulties and that an individual should embrace the experience of being alive by living affirmatively in the face of inevitable worry and suffering. This echoes a Buddhist teaching that calls for “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”


And Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the genius of melancholy in a powerful passage in the third volume of his “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung”, argues that suffering is an expression of the true destiny of human existence. Paraphrasing it comes to this “Life is absorbed in suffering, and cannot escape from it; our entry into life takes place in the midst of tears, its course is always tragic at the bottom, and its end all the more.”

Schopenhauer, like the Buddha, touched by the spectacle of the world’s suffering was the first major philosopher of the West to recognize the relevance of Vedantic and Buddhist thought to being; but in his doctrine of the metaphysical ground or uniqueness of each and every human individual, he was miles away from the indifference of Eastern thoughts to individuation. The goal in India, be it in Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism, is to purge individuality by insisting on the absolute laws of caste (dharma), and then on the long-known, mapped-out stages of the way. (marga) toward indifference to the winds of time (nirvana). The Buddha himself only renewed the timeless teachings of the Buddhas and all Buddhas, being cleansed of individuality, like the rest. For Schopenhauer on the other hand (although in the end he indeed saw the denial of will-life as the highest spiritual goal), not caste or a social order but intelligent and responsible autonomy in the realization of character was the criterion of moral worth, as well as in sympathy and well-being, with as a general rule the formula: “Hurt no one; but if possible benefit everyone.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, über die Grundlage der Moral (1840), in Sämtliche Werke (Stuttgart: Cotta’sche Bibliothek der Weltlitteratur, undated), Vol. 7, pp. 133e.v.

In Schopenhauer’s view, the species Homo sapiens has attained a stage in evolution that transcends the word “species” as applied to animals, because to him among humans every individual in himself is a kind, as it were. “No animal,” he argues, “displays individuality to such a remarkable level. The higher animal types, it is true, show traits; but even there, it is the character of the species that predominates and there is little individuality of physiognomy. Moreover, the further down we go, the more each trait of individual character disappears into the common character of the species, until at the end only a general physiognomy remains.” Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt as Wille und Vorstellung, Book II, Section 26; Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 2, p. 176. By interacting with reality through our Will, according to Schopenhauer, we inevitably end up in this life in despair, suffering and dissatisfaction. Schopenhauer’s pessimistic view of life and its meaning goes something like this: when our desires and longings are satisfied, while we may experience a sense of contentment for a short moment, we will either soon be led by boredom and emptiness or fall victim to the same desires and aspirations. So we are left with few options: We painfully refuse to satisfy our groans, we are unable to satisfy those groans, the satisfaction of these groans involves painful and unfortunate consequences or we satisfy them in a way that makes us feel better. bored and left empty. However, we learn from experience. And remarkably unlike the Socratists and Platonists, for whom the body is nothing more than a prison, is his view that we are not a mind merely a spectator of the actions that can be observed emanating “from” our body. This notion thus strongly undermines Descartes’ view of the mind as being perfectly transparent in a way that will precede Freud’s description of the unconscious mind.

For Schopenhauer, we don’t think about how we interact with our body while doing it, we simply do it. Throughout our body we have access to our emotions, longings, moods, fears, desires and aspirations. Knowledge of our bodies, he says, is internal, non-rational and non-sensory. Our bodily actions are not only available to us in an immediate and non-rational way, but are ceaseless, frequent, urgent, and usually conflicting. Our mind interacts with our body in a direct way without any rational thinking or decision making. Schopenhauer thus rejects the philosophical idea that all knowledge of the external world as it is must be indirect by suggesting that we are in direct and revelatory contact with our bodies, which are themselves parts of the world as it is. Descartes’ less than optimistic view that knowledge of the body can only be obtained through the sensory experience necessarily interpreted by a rational, res cogito, according to Schopenhauer, is simply not correct. And it also ends up with the emotional experience in the body as a direct result of the impersonal and unsatisfactory expression of the Will within us, an expression that makes us suffer significantly but also pity (Mitleit). So we constantly experience the world as it is in an immediate way in the body, and it is moreover impossible not to do so in the case of our emotional experience, which is closely related to the most basic aspect of reality, namely “Will“. “How is it possible”, he asks in his famous essay “Über das Fundament der Moral”, “how is it possible that suffering that is not mine and does not concern me directly affects me as if it were mine and in such a power that it prompts me to act? … This is something truly mysterious, something for which Reason cannot explain and for which there is no basis in practical experience. However, it is a normal phenomenon and everyone knows it from their own experience. The feeling is not unknown to even the most harsh and selfish. Every day we see examples of such instantaneous reactions, where one without thinking, helps, comes to the rescue, even endangers his life for someone he has never seen before, with no thought in mind other than that the other is in need and is in mortal danger…. ” (Schopenhauer, 1840, pp. 253-254) Schopenhauer’s answer to this question is that this immediate reaction represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization – namely (as he puts the idea in Sanskrit) “tat tvam asi”, “you are that ”. (p. 293) Schopenhauer, as a Western philosopher, had integrated Eastern wisdom into his thinking. “This presupposes,” he says, “that I have identified myself to some degree with the other and thereby for a moment have broken down the barrier between the“ I ”and the“ Not I ”. Only then can the condition of the other, his need, become mine. Then I no longer see him in the manner of an empirical perception, as someone alien to me, who is indifferent to me, a completely “other” than me, but I suffer in him, despite the fact that his skin does not enclose my nervous system.” (p. 254)

Schopenhauer was unmistakably the first philosopher to realize that in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781) Immanuel Kant had broken down not only the philosophical constructions of both Cartesian rationalism (18th century French Enlightenment) and Baconian empiricism (the Anglo-Saxon “common sense”) , but also created the prerequisite for the bringing together of Eastern and Western metaphysical terminology. (Campbell, Man, Myth and Metaphor, p. 118) “Individuation is just an appearance in a field of space and time, which are the defining forms through which my cognitive faculties recognize their objects. Hence, the multiformity and differences that distinguish individuals from each other are also mere appearances. That is to say: they only exist in my imagination (in meiner Vorstellung). My own true inner being actually exists in every living creature, as real and immediate as it exists, to my consciousness, only in myself. This insight, for which the standard formula in Sanskrit is tat tvam asi, is the basis for this compassion (Mitleit) on which all true, that is, unselfish, virtue rests and which is expressed in every good deed.” (P. 293)

It is also in this vein that a ritual such as the North American Inipi (Sweat Lodge) can be understood. Participation in the ritual implies voluntary suffering. People literally and figuratively sweat it out for their loved ones who in this case are “all my relations” (Mutakuye Oyasin: We are all connected, we are all relations). Nothing in this universe is separate and everything has consciousness, from the stones to the plants and the animals, the stars, sun and moon. It is the glowing stones in the middle of the hut that, like the breath of the creator, transform the suffering of the people. By being fire and stones oneself a lost harmony is restored and one arises reborn, transformed from the Inipi.

In the field of time and space, we thus acquire individual and collective “character”: The innate “intelligible” character unfolds gradually and imperfectly through circumstances; and what comes into view Schopenhauer calls the empirical (experienced or observed) character. Our neighbors, by observing this empirical character, often become more aware than ourselves of the malleable, innate personality that secretly shapes our lives. By learning from experience what we are, want, and can do, and “up to that point,” Schopenhauer explains, “we are characterless, ignorant of ourselves, and often have to be thrown back to our own way by hard blows from outside. However, when we do eventually learn, we will have acquired what the world calls “character” – that is, what the world calls “character” – that is, deserved character. And this, in short, is no more or no less than the most complete knowledge of his own individuality (Schopenhauer, A., Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Book II, section 28 (Vol. 2, pp. 202 ff.) and Book IV, section 55 (Vol. 3, pp. 140 ff.).

So life must be lived and from Hegel’s thesis (Anecdote: Schopenhauer was teaching in front of an empty auditorium at the same time that Hegel was teaching in the same building in front of a full auditorium) that history is cognitive and rational in its course, so that it is even can be seen like God’s autobiography living itself out in nature, Schopenhauer, in his uncompromising commitment to the irrational Will, had absolutely nothing to do with it. According to Schopenhauer, history has no rational direction or structure at all, which basically means that it has no “meaning”.

Carl Jung, in turn rejecting Hegel’s view, also speaks in similar terms. In 1911/12 (he writes “The Symbols of transformation”) he asks himself the following question: If I am faced with a situation of total disaster, if everything I love and thought I lived for was destroyed, where would I life for? If I came home, my family killed, my house burned up, or had my entire career swept away by some disaster, what would keep me going? In Memories, dreams, reflections he says: “Barely had I finished the manuscript, when it dawned on me what it means to live with a myth, and what it means to live without one…” The thought came to himself. to ask what the myth was he was living, and he realized he didn’t know. “So in the most natural way, I have taken on the task of knowing my myth, and I consider this to be the task of tasks.” The privilege of a life course is to be who you are.

Joseph Campbell says: What you do, do it while playing. Life is meaningless. You give it meaning. The meaning of life is what you attribute to it. To be lively is the meaning. The Warrior’s approach is to say “Yes” to life. “Yea” to the whole lot. Joyfully participate in life’s anxieties. We cannot resolve the worries of the world, but we can always choose to live joyfully. Our job, according to Campbell, who was inspired by Jung and Schopenhauer, is to straighten our lives. “We have to get rid of the life we ​​have planned so that we have a life that awaits us.” The old skin has to be stripped before the new can come. If we build on the old we get stuck, if we stick to any form we risk rotting or hardening. And Lao Tse put it this way: “Human beings are born soft and flexible; When they die they are hard and stiff… Plants arise soft and delicate; When they die they are withered and dry. Thus, the hard and stiff are disciples of death; The soft and flexible are disciples of life.” Lao Tzu, 6th Century BCE

Hell is life that dries up. The “hoarder”, the one in us who wants to keep, clings, has to let go. If we stick to the shape of now, we will not have the shape of later. And you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Demolition and construction is the process. Nothing can be made from perfection. Every process means that something is broken down. The earth must be broken to bring forth new life. If the seed does not die, there is no plant. Bread results from the death of grain. Life lives on life. Our own lives live on the actions of other people. If you are worthy of life, you can take it. What we really live for is the experience of life, both the pain and the pleasure. The world suits us. We fit the world. And we play the match. When our dreams show us horrors, they do not necessarily predict events in the real world. (However, you can never rule out such prefigurations from occurring). Rather, what it evokes is the if- or metaphorical attitude that takes the dream and its implications symbolically and at the same time seriously. Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves arise when life is most challenging. Negativity to the pain and raw power of life is negativity to life. We are not there unless we can say a full “Yes” to everything and that is not easy. Taking a moralizing attitude towards whatever is denigration. Wonder is what drives us. If you follow your own path in life, birds may shit on you, don’t worry, wipe it off. A “comedic” view of your situation gives you spiritual distance. Humor saves you. Eternity is a dimension of the here and now.

W.B. Yeats’ Vision

W. B. Yeats in “A Vision” provides us with a system of images relevant to the current discussion. It’s about what he calls the masks we have to put on to live. Jung had given us the idea of ​​the persona, which says we should put on a mask, but Yeats says more: In his book, he talks about what he calls the primary mask, the role society expects you to play. From birth, the parents communicate life patterns of living with the child that define society as the parent sees it. The hope is that the teachings from childhood will guide you in your life. The first half of life is about engagement in the world. Here you will find the desi: the images of local culture that draw you to the world so that you choose to enter. Society and parents encourage you to make an effort to live according to the possibilities that society recognizes in you. There is a second type of mask that Yeats calls the antithetic mask. And this is where it gets exciting. Just at the age of mid-adolescence, when you come to maturity, it begins to dawn that you have your own life, which is not the same as what society did to you. “You have never seen me before! I am a unique thing. There are great things in me and watch out, I’m going to find out what these are!” And so you discover the problem of your own myth.

Yeats elaborates on this conflict between the primary and antithetic masks through an image of the twenty-eight days of the month. On the first day of the cycle, it is dark – you were born. You start to grow, mostly in the dark. Nature and society urge you to continue, you wear the primary mask. At the end of the first week – the eighth day of the moon – comes the phase of the crescent moon, the time of adolescence and more importantly, the awakening of the full moon’s potential, namely the antithetic mask. Suddenly, you are eager to find your own destination, your own light. A great tension arises with the primary mask and with the society that made you wear it. You experience a desire to break out, to break through: “let me be”. People break through, with good or bad luck. On the fifteenth day of the cycle, we get the full moon. On this day, the antithetic mask attains fulfillment: midlife, mid career. If there is anything to come from you, it is now. After that, the darkness begins to descend again. By the twenty-second day, the primary mask takes over again; nature is back. The rest of your individual life gets smaller and smaller, and you spend most of your time with doctors and sleeping and things like that. Finally, of course, on the twenty-eighth day – extinction. This is the mystery of life and its masks. What are you going to do the moment something breaks and it goes downhill again? Are you going to be an old dog getting older and older that sinks into his body? Or will you take the plunge into the sunlight at the moment of the full moon? On the Great Plains of central America, on the fifteenth day of each lunar cycle, the sun sets in the west, as the full moon rises in the east. They are the exact same size, even the same color, and they are visible at the exact same time. That is the moment of the fullness of your powers in midlife, when the drive for your own life has reached its peak. From that moment it must remain in your spirit, in your mind. The moon is symbolic of the life of the body, which carries death within. The sun is symbolic of the pure spirit that has no darkness, no death within it. It is the pure spirit that can watch with compassion as your body follows the path of all bodies. It can share in the amplitude of your spiritual experience of the life of all beings.

Joseph Campbell often asked during his lectures to look at the source of lighting on the ceiling of the room. We can speak of this illumination as light or as multiple lights. Each of these ways of seeing provides a general principle, namely light. If a lamp breaks now, no one says. “Oh my God, how we loved that lamp, and isn’t it a terrible shame.”… You turn on another lamp. You can think of the world in two ways: one is the way of the individual lamps, and the other is the way of a general light that shows itself through lamps. When I now look at the people in the room, I don’t see any lamps, I see heads. What’s in those heads? Awareness. Each head is a vehicle of consciousness. What do you identify with now? Is it with the lamp or is it with the light? Is it with the body or is it with consciousness?

This is a basic mythological motif. What young people do is bring this vehicle – this body – to full maturity, in such a way that it becomes the best possible carrier of awareness. And at that moment, the center of gravity of the vehicle changes from consciousness to identity with consciousness, you will eventually be able to let go of the body. That is the great crisis at the moment of the full moon. It is the crisis that Dante says he experienced at the age of thirty-five; this is the vision of the Divina Comedia, in which the entire universe becomes a manifestation, not so much of consciousness, but in its vocabulary of love. He identifies himself with that love, that grace that progresses from the transcendent throne and shows itself in the beautiful vehicles of which Beatrice was one. No culture except modern and late medieval European culture has allowed individuals to develop the antithetic mask. In the Western world, our mythologies are typically intended to awaken Yeats’ antithetic mask. For that reason it is a beautiful world, because it is antithetical in a way, antithetical to the primary mask. That antithetic mask, like the unconscious self in Jung’s model of the unconscious, represents the potential of your fulfillment. All Eastern cultures require that you live according to the patterns that the culture imposes on you. In other words, they expect you to identify with the primary masks, with what Freud has called the superego. In India, they call it dharma, or duty; in China it is called the Tao, the way or path. In each of these cases, the concept means that you identify with the cultural image.

Dante, in contrast to Yeats with his lunar metaphor, compares life to the daily transit of the sun. He mentions four ages, each of which corresponds to a time of day and each of them has its own set of virtues. The first is childhood, which goes up to the age of twenty-five, you know. The qualities for childhood are obedience, a sense of shame, good looks, and sweet demeanor. This is the morning. Then you come to the age of twenty-five to what is called maturity, and this stage will last until forty-five years. You have reached the peak of your life, and for this stage he mentions the values ​​of the medieval knight: moderation, courage, love, courtesy, and loyalty. When you have lived your life in terms of what society requires of you, you will come to a mid-career point, around forty-five years, when in fact you have the experience of what you were simply taught before; then you are a candidate to pass on the knowledge. This is the afternoon. Dante calls the age of forty-five to seventy the age of wisdom. In India, the wise go into the forest; not in the West. Here you are expected to stay in society, look around you with a critical eye, and share the benefit of your experience. In this phase, the qualities are wisdom, justice, generosity, and humor or cheerfulness. What are you going to do differently? You have nothing to lose; you have reached the evening. From the seventies onwards he calls decrepitude, dying, and the qualities are looking back on your own life with gratitude and looking forward to death as a return home. Now it is night. This little scheme, this pattern of life – this is mythos. And it is an important schema in relation to the theme of suffering. Ultimately, you live with yourself and there comes a critical moment for everyone when you ask the question: if suffering is inevitable, where am I going? To the light of the antithetic mask or am I being swallowed up by the dragon of “thou shalt” and inertia? Some good advice was given to the young Indian at the time of his initiation: “In the course of your life, you will encounter a chasm (a division, a break). Jump! She’s not as deep as you think. ” And Chief Standing Bear (Lakota) said, “The white man is…. with primitive fears.” We are suffering buddhas when we do not recognize our split and so we devalue all those who are different. We can approach mentally ill people with compassion. They are our brothers and sisters in need. To really help, we need to speak a nonviolent language that does not make the other an enemy.

A story that, according to the theologian Walter Wink, in “The Powers that be”, goes back 8,000 years. As long as thinking is accompanied by dominance, punishment and reward, guilt and shame, and judgment of right and wrong, we are trapped in the split. Anthropologists I trust tell you that 8,000 years ago when people were hunter-gatherers, there was no such violence. In the very old traditions the accent of “Yea” is to the world as it is. That is not easy; you look at the world, and you see creatures eating, killing each other, and you realize that life is eating life. You may feel that some have felt that this cannibalism is too awful to bear: “I will not participate, I will not play.” This change in thinking is what Joseph Campbell has called “the Great Reversal.” For him, this is historically around the sixth century BC, with Buddha’s statement “All life is sorrowful”.

Well, there is possible escape from suffering. “I don’t play anymore. I distance myself.” We have two main attitudes to the central terrible mystery, beyond good and evil: affirmation and negation. Zoroastrianism (Zarathustra) introduced a third way of responding to the terrible mystery of life in the idea of ​​two deities, one good and one evil. One god represents truth and light, and the other represents darkness and lies. The god of good is Ahura Mazda and the god of evil is Angra Mainyu. The good deity creates a good world, and the evil deity corrupts the world. There is a battle between the forces of light against the forces of darkness and a battle to reconstitute the good world. Neither affirm or ignore life as it is – this can be called compromise – and this represents some kind of progressive vision.

Buddhist aphorism says, “This world – as it is with all its horror, all its darkness, all its brutality – is the golden lotus world of perfection.” The progressive or improving way says, “Let us go to it and improve it.” This is like marrying someone and then improving the person. This can hardly be called affirmation. It usually puts you in the position of slight superiority: “If only God had asked me, I could have given Him a hint.” So you have this wonderful culture whose entire purpose is to cleanse every individual soul from the terrible mistake of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. And people live in split like that. It is the glue that holds a society together.

But Schopenhauer’s question of how it is possible that a human being can participate in the danger of another, forgetting his own self-protection, spontaneously running to the aid of the other, the first law of nature, namely that of self-preservation aside putting, has shown that reality is different.

Maslow’s basic needs: those of self-preservation, but also those of security, belonging, Self-worth, self-actualization, according to Campbell, are potentially driving people apart !! Maslow’s hierarchy of values ​​correspond to the bottom 3 chakras. These are values ​​that we share with the animals. We have an animal body, but not the body of a dog or a gazelle, but the body of a human animal. And we live animal life in a human way. But let’s not flatter ourselves that this is the highest aspect of our humanity. We want to cling to life, just like animals. We have sexual urges, just like animals. And we have a desire to win or defeat the opposition and strike down what is blocking us, just like animals. And that sums up Maslow’s hierarchy of values.

In the Kundalini Yoga philosophy, it is said that when the kundalini snake reaches the fourth chakra, the soul has the experience of awakening, and this is symbolized in hearing the sacred vowel aum. This is something animals don’t hear. Receiving this sound opens a dimension of mystery in the universe, and the feeling of wanting to understand that mystery is the beginning of the spiritual life. In the kundalini system, the fourth chakra is at the level of the heart. It is at the level of the heart, they say, that the worshiper’s hands touch the feet of the god. And it’s just the feet of the god where you are at that moment; you have to move on. So it is when the sense of mystery opens that we begin… also in psychotherapy. A patient who is not amazed patiently undergoes the coercive forces of the animal chakras and tends to strive for immediate gratification. In the kundalini system, the great human experience begins when aum is heard. At that moment the mind is drawn to the effort to know it more, to bring it closer, and this urge is associated with the fifth chakra, which is situated at the level of the larynx, where the word begins, and this is where animals no longer follow. They cannot speak. They make noises, but – as far as we know – no verbal communication, no concept communication. And this level is again where the psychotherapeutic relationship demonstrates its strength. What the heart lives or does not live at the larynx to give verbal expression that can be heard by the listening therapist with a sense of wonder as aum, an aum that does not push you away, but one that teaches you to receive, just as in the noise from your refrigerator that becomes a “disturbing” hum for the one and for the other is also an expression of the aum that resounds in everything and in which everything is connected.


Victor Frankl, was a world-class Austrian psychiatrist and philosopher who had been in four different Nazi concentration camps, including that of Auschwitz, between 1942 and 1945. At the end of the war, his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother were murdered: of his close family only he and his sister survived. After the war he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, a book inspired by meaningful experiences in the camps, in which one can find much wisdom and comfort. He has developed a method, called “logotherapy”, which allows to escape the despair and find taste in life by … giving it a meaning. Remarkably, Frankl integrates Nietzsche’s concepts of “will to power” and “overcoming”, which formed the basis of his concepts of “the will to meaning” and “self-transcendence”. [Several other existential psychotherapists have developed therapeutic modalities centered on the existential philosophy of being human].

Medard Boss developed an existential psychotherapy called “dasein analysis”, which is based on Heidegger’s philosophy of “dasein“, a term that reflects the human way of being in the world. Contemporary existential psychotherapists such as Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, Adrian Van Kaam, and Emmy van Deurzen have all made meaningful contributions to the development of the theory and practice of existential psychotherapy.

What does Frankl propose?

Frankl who passed the ordeal of deportation shows us three paths. 1. To realize a work or to perform an act; 2. by experiencing something or meeting someone; and 3. by the attitude we adopt towards the inevitable suffering. (pp. 111-115) In “Man’s Search for Meaning” Frankl states that every individual has an innate tendency to search for the meaning, the meaning of his existence. The author’s experiences in a Nazi death camp are used very efficiently to show how focusing on the reasons behind the situation rather than the results that follow allows the person to survive even the most agonizing circumstances. Appropriate counseling, according to Frankl, removes the obstacles that prevent individuals from using this capacity and / or expressing their will to meaning. This will for meaning is special because only unique individuals can find the source of their own unique meaning. Still, the counselor can assist in guiding the individual toward overcoming the obstacles that keep them from exploring possible answers. When a person is prevented from connecting with the will to meaning, according to Frankl, this can result in extreme frustration and possibly in a psychological decompensation. Thus, the role of therapy is vital in helping the individual uncover the veiled meaning and subsequently restore and maintain mental health.

1. To realize a work or to perform an act

Man lives not only on material security, but on the meaning he gives to what he has realized. “It happens,” writes Viktor Frankl, “that the situation a person finds himself in requires the person to take action to shape his own destiny.” A prisoner of war intended to take his own life because he no longer expected anything from life. Frankl, who had been a prisoner himself, manages to convince him that life still expected something from him: this man was a scholar, he had started writing a series of books and he was the only one who could finish his editing. He was irreplaceable!

The unemployed person who engages in voluntary work or who enrolls in an evening class does not solve his economic situation, but he will not fall into depression: man lives not only on material security but on an activity rich in meaning. What we can remember is that each person has specific talents, that he is the only one to put them into effect. It is enough to acknowledge this and… make them work for you! It is the artist who makes life more beautiful, the nurse who gives small attentions, the teacher who prepares well for his lesson, the mother who takes care of her child. 

2. To have the experience of beauty or love. Moments of wonderment enough to transform life.

The second way is to enter into the experience of goodness, of truth, or of beauty. Also wonder (aesthetic judgment) in the face of nature is able to tear the human soul free from the most sinister darkness: “If, during our journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp,” Frankl says, “someone could have seen the expressions on our faces through the bars of the train’s window,  when we contemplated the mountains and their radiant peaks in the sunset, he would never have believed that these people he saw had lost all hope of survival or of regaining freedom”. But still: knowing the uniqueness of another person through love, Frankl recalls how much thinking about his wife had helped him to endure when he worked in the camps to the point of exhaustion: “My mind was completely clouded by the memory of my wife. I imagined her with incredible precision. I saw her. She answered me, she smiled at me, she looked at me tenderly; her gaze was bright, as bright as the rising sun. I had finally discovered the truth, the truth as proclaimed in the songs of the poets and the wise words of the philosophers: love is the greatest good to which the human being can aspire. I realized that a person in whom nothing remains can find happiness, even for brief moments, in the contemplation of his tender love. (…) If I had been informed at the time that she was dead, I do not believe that I would have contemplated less on her image, or that my conversation with her would have been less lively. “Put me like a bucket on your heart, because love is stronger than death.”

3. Assume inevitable suffering. 

Older people have realized dreams, started a family, developed their talents, taken on the pain… And in the face of painful, often unavoidable situations. How to overcome suffering and find meaning where the “non-sens” seems to reign. There too, Frankl opens a track. Suffering (plural) cannot be erased, he argues, but it can be transformed. He thus gives the example of one of his patients who did not recover from the death of his wife. (Frankl 1963: 178-179)) He helped him to realize that by surviving his wife, he had spared her from an immense grief. This was a great comfort to him. Or still, the example of a woman forced to forsake her brilliant professional future because she had to take care of her handicapped child.

What a relief she had found in becoming aware that in this way she allowed a human being, her child, to realize herself: she filled her short life with joy and love. She prioritized love instead of responding to the sirens of power, wealth, or pleasure, and felt fulfilled. It is in this way that, according to Frankl, the elderly should be envied, rather than complained: they have realized their dreams, founded a family, actualized their talents, accumulated their pain … There is no one who can take away these treasures of good deeds, of love or suffering from them: they are their dignity. In this way, suffering can be an opportunity to mature inwardly and to transcend oneself. Often it opens the way to a deeper understanding of others and allows them to join in their suffering. Assuming one’s own leading with dignity takes the value of everything to itself. Assuming his guilt is sometimes also a way of realization when it is accompanied by the decision to change life in depth.


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About the author

Dirk Marivoet psychotherapist in Belgium

Dirk Marivoet, MSc is European certified and accredited psychotherapist (ECP). He’s also a licenced psychomotor therapist and physiotherapist (University of Louvain). He is the founder and director of the International Institute for Bodymind Integration (IBI) and an international teacher in several Body Oriented Psychotherapy Schools and diverse other training programs. Dirk is a certified Trainer and Supervisor for Postural Integration, Energetic Integration, Reichian Bodywork and Pelvic-Heart Integration (Jack Painter, PhD), a Core Energetics Teacher and Supervisor (John Pierrakos, MD). He studied extensively with Al Pesso. His work is “polyvagal and trauma informed”. After more than 35 years of working and teaching in the field of integrative and holistic therapy, he created his own comprehensive synthesis and approach, Core Strokes, which he offers worldwide in the form of professional trainings, workshops and individual sessions. Dirk is a public speaker about these and other topics and chairs the Core Science Foundation. He lives in Ghent (Belgium).

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