Saturday, 27 February 2016

Ikigai: As Meaning Emerges

I recently, unintentionally, attended a workshop led by a young woman who worked for Citizen’s UK. She talked about the organisation its purpose and what it can offer individuals and groups in an attempt to empower them so that they can bring about change in their own communities.

One aspect of their method was to encourage individuals to examine and talk about their stories. In this way individuals and groups can find common ground and then hopefully find ways in which they can work together.

At one point we were asked to explore the things that make us angry, that get our passion flowing. She asked where our pain came from? Explaining that this is where inspiration to act comes from. She talked of the etymology of the word anger, which as always pricks my ears up. Anger comes from the old Norse word “angr” meaning “distress, grief, sorrow, affliction” She then talked about the positives that can then grow from this pain, explaining that there are two forms of anger “cold anger” and “hot anger”. She suggested that “hot anger” consumes and controls a person, leading to irrational and ill thought out actions that can make things worse than they were originally. Whereas “cold anger” is more thoughtful and reacts to the individual rather than the other way round. She suggested that this type of anger can be harnessed positively and can lead to change.

We were then shown several methods, employed by Citizens UK, that help people to explore their own lives, to examine their own stories and to find out what really matters the most to them. We tried several of these exercises and as we did so I thought of the things in my own life that had hurt deeply and caused lingering anger. Anger and hurt that had at periods in my life been destructive and paralysing. I then thought of how these hurts and angers had in time turned into something positive and how meaning had eventually emerged from them, in the person I am today and the life I am now living. Meaning and deep love had emerged from the deepest most painful experiences of my life.

As I sat there reflecting I remembered the anger of Jesus towards the money changes from the Gospel accounts, along with images of his compassionate loving eyes and gaze. I remembered how his life was motivated by love, but not immune from anger when people moved beyond the pale. I thought of the passage of the rich young man who could not give up his love of money in order to follow what his heart truly desired. His worship of money was too great it seemed for him to give it up and lead him to follow his true bliss. I then thought of one of my favourite verses from the classic hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” the verse

“Oh Sabbath rest by galilee! O calm of hills above! Where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity interpreted by love!” “Interpreted by love!” The repeated line “Interpreted by love!” just stayed with me and dwelt in that place deep in the soul of me. I thought to myself, everything of true meaning must be interpreted by love. That this is where the true meaning in life comes. This is what must motivate all life and this is the thing of highest worth and value and meaning in life and that if you put anything in front of it that you will be consumed by it. Interestingly, as if by chance, in another workshop the following day we explored this very hymn in a more prayerful way.

Now all this awakened my “homiletic consciousness”. My mind slipped back to a word I had come across while flicking through facebook on the train journey to Worthing and the FUSE (Festival of Unitarians in the South East) earlier that day - The Citizen’s UK workshop had proceeded FUSE and I only attended it because I had arrived early - The word was “Ikigai”. “Ikigai” is a Japanese word that simply means the thing that makes your life worth living, the things that gives your life meaning, the thing that makes your life worth dying for.

I wonder what it is that gives each of our lives meaning?

Now there are of course many who will tell us that life has no real meaning, that it is essentially meaningless. I was once one of those people. When the old pleasures were gone there was no meaning left, just a life meaning no-thing, nothing. Thank God this is no longer the case.

Viktor Frankl then floated once again into my consciousness. A friend who I have witnessed awakening these last two years, had told me he had started reading his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, only a few days before. Another friend had recommended it to him a few months earlier. I did not, thank God, mention to the man that it was I who had initially recommended the book to our mutual friend. I did not need to as here was the love coming back and multiplying ten-fold. Here was further meaning growing on and on and on...

In “Man’s Search For Meaning” Frankl gives an account of his struggle to find meaning when held as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps of the “Second World War”. He lost most of his family and friends in the camps and yet he never lost hope in humanity.

Frankl was the founder of what has often been referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” Freud founded the first which was based on the central role of the libido or pleasure principle in human psychology. Alfred Adler founded the second which emphasised the importance of the will to power and the significance of the superiority/inferiority complex in human behaviour. In contrast to these two schools Frankl’s psychology is based on the will to meaning which he saw as the primary motivating force in human life. He named it “Logotherapy” taken from the Greek term logos, which means “word”, “reason”, or “meaning”.

Think of the opening words from John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The word here of course is “Logos”. For Frankl meaning had a transcendent origin.

Frankl saw a spiritual dimension beyond the biological and psychological. He saw the suppression of this spiritual dimension as the root cause of our human malady. Therefore the task of “Logotherapy” was “to remind patients of their unconscious religiousness”; to uncover the spiritual dimensions of their lives; enable them to recover the capacity to choose those values which give our lives worth and meaning.

Now this meaning is of course different for everyone, he did not see one universal meaning. As Frankl said himself:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

Frankl claimed that meaning is discovered through creative and worthwhile activities, by creating something beautiful or doing good. That meaning can be found through experiencing and sharing in the beauty of art or nature or through loving or ethical encounters with others. That even in the most horrific and terrifyingly hopeless situations we still have the capacity to choose our attitude towards whatever circumstances we are faced with. It is our response to life’s events that shapes our souls. Remember Frankl developed his theory during the utter despair and horror of the Nazi death camps.

As Frankl himself said “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.”

I attended many other wonderful workshops throughout the FUSE weekend and experienced many more beautiful moments of connection and conversation, too many to mention now. There was one that stood out though. It was during a session about listening in which we were asked to break into threes and listen to one another in non-responsive and non-judgemental ways. Now just as I broke into a three, there were originally five groups of three, just by chance another person came in late and wanted to join in. The facilitator of the group asked if one of the threes could become two two’s and the group I was in did so. So we were now two. This meant that the whole process did not work as it was meant to, but what actually followed was deeply meaningful and seemingly exactly what my partner in the exercise required right then. He began to speak about something I had shared publicly some time ago that had helped him immensely and lead him down a path. I couldn’t even remember saying it, but it did sound like something I would say. My partner then began to open up about some pain and struggle he had been going through. We spent the whole session sharing and listening uninterrupted and he seemingly came to a place of conclusion in the time together.

The session had not gone the way it had been planned to but something far more important had emerged instead, something deeply moving and meaningful. Now some could suggest that this was “meant to be”. Perhaps this is true, nobody knows. My preferred conclusion is that this was a moment of possibility for both of us. A moment we took and meaning emerged from it due to our response to the given situation and the many situations that followed it. I believe that it is a perfect example of meaningful interchange and how the Lure of Divine Love operates. It does not control life and nothing is pre-determined but it is their offering itself constantly and it is up to us to respond. It is certainly how meaning emerges in my life. My task and I believe all our tasks is to stay open to these moments, and that by staying open to every moment our own meaning emerges from them as they pass.

There are those that say that life has no meaning, that nothing matters in life. I was once one of these people. These days I see no truth in such statements. These days I see meaning in everything, even in the most painful moments in life. In fact I have discovered that it has been through coming through these most painful moments that the greatest meaning has emerged. Not immediately always but eventually, as I have been able to give back to others from the experience of the suffering I have experienced and or witnessed. This in no way justifies the suffering please do not get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting any such thing. No what I am saying is that through living openly meaning can emerge. Meaning can merge from living by the way of the Lure of Divine Love.

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