Attention and Awareness

monkey-10The Monkey in Our Mind

The aspect of mind we’re working with in meditation is our meddlesome, hyperactive and mischievous attention – the part of the mind we were nagged about all through childhood, all those parents and teachers exhorting us to, ‘Pay attention!’

For most of us, given our modern culture and the lives we’ve lead, of doing many things at once and relaxing by using distractions and entertainment, our attention has become extremely jittery and reactive, which forms the main source of most of our suffering.

The Buddha called it ‘monkey mind’:
‘Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.’ [Samyutta Nikaya 12.61]

Like this monkey, our attention leaps from thought to thought, reaction to reaction and distraction to distraction, chattering and babbling all the time. So if we are to train the mind to let go and be still, it seems obvious that it’s this monkey attention we must train first. So let’s take a look at the attention and see what we’re dealing with.

It’s generally assumed that our attention is the same as awareness – that they perform the same function. But they don’t.Though they are certainly related aspects of the one mind, they each have very different characteristics and abilities. And it’s exactly this difference between them that’s so important to what we’re doing in meditation.

A simple demonstration of the distinction between attention and awareness is this:

Right now, you’re paying attention to reading these words. In this, your attention is the interactive part of your mind – the part you use to gather information and create thoughts. It flits from object to object like a laser beam, building concepts and reactions, and it does this very quickly – indeed, most of the conscious activity in your mind is created by your attention.

As you read, you are passively aware of everything around you – the room you’re in, whether it’s hot, or cold, and various sensations coming and going in your body. But this awareness is passive. It does not think, or remember, and it is always in the present moment.

So, as the busy monkey of your attention flits about collecting information and projecting your personality and what you think to the outer world, the awareness is passively cognizant of everything around you. It positions and connects you with the environment you’re in.

This distinction between attention and awareness is extremely important. In fact, it’s fundamental to everything we’re doing in meditation, so I’ll reiterate what I’ve just said.

Your attention is the interactive part of your mind

And your awareness is the surrounding theatre your attention moves about in – of everything you sense in each moment. Awareness doesn’t think. And it doesn’t remember. It simply  knows. And it is always in the present moment.


So why is this distinction between attention and awareness so important to meditation?Well, lets look at meditation itself, and see what we’re trying to do.

Our primary objective is to create an ability to be able to disengage at will from the incessant thinking and reacting our attention is constantly creating, which keeps us revved up all the time … to be able to go still, without it making us anxious, so our mind and body can unwind and rebalance, as they naturally do when they’re given the space and leisure to do it.

So why can’t we stop and be still?

Well, that’s because the monkey of our attention doesn’t know how to stop. In the lives we live, and the culture we’re conditioned to, we’ve been trained from birth to be active, get things done, compete, win, and cling to what we’ve got.

We’re told, ‘don’t be lazy’ and ‘get off your bum and do something’. But when were we ever told to ‘stop and do nothing’.  Never.

For this reason, stopping and being still is very stressful for us. It creates feelings of anxiety, guilt and restlessness. Which is why, unlike every other creature on the planet, we have to learn how to be still.

And that’s where meditation comes in. It is the means by which we learn how to stop.


So what do I mean by stop? Stop what?

Well, if we examine everything that disturbs us, we see it is our attention that creates it. Attention creates the thinking and reacting, which creates memories and emotions which, through the reactive cycle, stimulates more thinking and reacting … and so on.

Awareness does not create these effects. It’s momentary, simple, and unconditioned – there is no good, bad, right, wrong in awareness.There just ‘is’. In each moment sensations are there or not there, and they are always changing.

As such, awareness is acutely in sync with the changing environment we’re in, in a way that our attention, which is busy freezing moments so it can think about them, is not.

Because that’s what out attention does – when we switch our attention to something we’ve become aware of, it immediately converts what we were aware of into information, so it can freeze the event in our mind and evaluate it. Then it dredges up similar experiences from our memory, to decide if we like this thing, or not – then creates a spreading fog of thinking and reactions around it.

And, big or small, our attention is doing this constantly, and mindlessly, because the habit is so automatic we don’t even know we’re doing it. And it’s that mindlessness we’re seeking to change in meditation practice. With meditation, we’re learning how to disengage out attention when we don’t need it to be doing stuff. We’re learning how to stop.

The Party in Our Head.

A lot of people think it’s thoughts and thinking that disturbs us. But that’s not so.
If we didn’t pay attention to the thinking, it would rapidly evaporate, even as it arises in the mind.

It’s our attention that excites the thinking, ordering the thoughts into stories which makes us happy, sad, angry, excited, fearful, whatever. So we assume it’s thinking that’s the problem, but it’s not. The problem is that we cannot control our attention’s addiction to reacting to every thought that appears in our head.

I liken our attention to an overeager host at a very busy party. Every thought that rushes through the front door, our attention is there, asking questions, arguing, entertaining and reacting. And because it’s paying attention to every thought that rushes in, the room of our mind gets filled up with a cacophony of chatter.

With meditation, we’re teaching the attention to stop being such an eager host. As each thought rushes in through the door, we’re encouraging the attention to fold it’s arms and keep its mouth shut – to not speak to it.

In the beginning, because we’re new to this, the thoughts will keep talking, trying to get the attention to do what it’s always done – to participate. But if we keep on applying the meditation methods to help the attention to ignore the chattering thoughts, they will eventually slink off out the back door.

As we practice this letting go and ignoring, because the host is not engaging any more, the party slowly empties -the room of the mind goes quiet.

And though thoughts still rush in, because our attention is getting better at not engaging, they rush right out again. As our skill at doing this disengaging becomes more effortless, the rushing in and rushing out happens faster and faster, until ,eventually, though thoughts are still rushing in and out, the mind is effectively silent – still.

We’ve stopped.

The problem is, we cannot force the attention to do this.

Like the Monkey in our example, the more we try to tie the attention down and gag it, the more it will squeal and fight and try to escape. After all, everyone knows, when we’re told ‘stop thinking about it’, it only creates more thinking, making us more anxious and agitated.

So it’s pointless trying to force the attention to stop.

So the meditation methods are not there to stop anything. They’re simply strategies to gently tame the attention and coax it to relax until it eventually disengages and goes still – a process that must be tinged with compassion, patience and understanding.

In meditation, we apply the methods, understanding that in the beginning it will be difficult, and the attention will struggle.

We also understand that it’s not the attention’s fault that it’s become so meddlesome and noisy – it’s not trying to be difficult. It’s simply doing what we trained it to do. So we keep gently applying the meditation methods until our attention gets used to being quiet.

Eventually, our attention get used to being quiet, and that’s when we can drop the meditation method – at that point, the skill of stillness is innate.

And through all this process, the awareness is allowed to shine brightly – which it will. The more the attention calms, the more vivid and expansive the awareness will become.

At that point, we become aware of amazingly subtle sensations in the body, and quiet bursts of intuitive understandings in the mind, and we realise we never had to think so much at all – that the thinking was just a messenger for what we already knew.

And there’s much more you’ll discover which, in the fury of our old habits, you were previously unaware of .And that’s when life becomes interesting.



Fail Gladly to Succeed

Just found this wonderful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the writing process, in which he says: “I always consider the entire process about failure …”

Like with any skill, I also believe this to be true about meditation.

The process of apparently failing is also, paradoxically, the process of succeeding. For this reason, accept the difficulties as the path you walk in meditation, and they cease to be difficulties. We fail and we keep on failing, right to the point when we succeed, which always comes as a surprise. And then we fail again.

In this way failing disappears, and there is only the path to success.

Change Your Self, Change Your Life

A wonderful movie showing how the process arising from Vipassana meditation methods can change the way we are.

It’s by Eilona Ariel & Ayelet Menahemi, the story of a strong woman named Kiran Bedi, the former Inspector General of Prisons in New Delhi, who strove to transform the notorious Tihar Prison and turn it into an oasis of peace using Vipassana meditation methods. But most of all it is the story of prison inmates who underwent profound change, and who realized that incarceration is not the end but possibly a fresh start toward an improved and more positive life.


Beginning To Meditate

colour7Recently I sent out an email to all the people who bought the Practical Meditation Audio Course, asking them if they had any questions, so i could post my replies for everybody. Since then I’ve received quite a few replies. This first question comes from Brian, who asks:

“I think the course you supplied was great and I follow your blog avidly. My issue is that reading or listening is about as far as I take it. Despite my best intentions I ‘skirt’ around the disciplined practice needed – start and then put off when other issues in life arise. I sometimes think the only way I will overcome is via sessions with other practitioners to get some sort of structure and routine.”

Hi Brian,

I think your hesitation is quite normal.

One of the things people forget about meditation is it’s a skill formed a long time ago in a different kind of world to ours. No television or radios or clocks or mobile phones. People’s lives were simple, uncomplicated and leisurely and most work was in tune with the slow natural rhythms of sun, rain, wind and water – farming, fishing and so on. Life ticked along in a timeless way, making it such that meditation was not so separate from the lives people led.

In isolated parts of Thailand, where I’ve trained its still like that. Farmers in their rice paddies, peaceful villages – quiet, timeless and in flow with the flux of nature. Makes meditation easier than doing it in a city. Which is why many of the best temples to learn meditation in Thailand are in the forests, far way from the cities. That’s where the monks are who have reached extraordinary levels of mental development. But you never hear about them because they stay away from the world beyond the forest. They’re not interested in being a part of the environment we live in – this clanking, rattling, electrified world of information, celebrity and money. They avoid it because it’s too hard to meditate in the kind of environment we live in.

But we’re not not monks. We choose to live in this insane, modern world. And that makes meditation a very hard thing for us to do. In our modern world our mind has adapted to a different environment – of noise, languaged thinking, analysis, information, acquisition, entertainment and distractions. Our minds are not used to the stillness, detachment, silence and intuitive flow that’s needed to slip easily into meditation. In fact, for many people, these things make them anxious.

So in our world sitting still to meditate often seems quite daunting. And even if we do push ourselves to do it, it takes time and quite a bit of discomfort to get used to the strange mental environment of meditation.

So what’s the point then? Why meditate?

Well, even though we might struggle and feel uncomfortable with meditation, nevertheless, even with the struggle, a meditation practice inevitably creates a stronger, more resilient mind with new habits that enable us to process life more efficiently.

And why have a more efficient mind? Because in the cut and thrust of our insane and rather brutal world, an efficient mind creates:

  1. Less stress on the body as emotions and reactions are processed more quickly.
  2. A more agile and intuitive mind, not so bogged down in convoluted loops of thinking.
  3. A greater capacity for kindness and joy as the mind becomes more interconnected with the intuitive heart.
  4. More creativity as our thought processes change from heavy languaged thinking to more intuitive flow.

And much more – in short, a meditation practice helps us sail the toxic oceans of our world and live well.

So why is all this relevant to you?

Well as I said, it’s understandable that beginning meditation seems quite daunting. because sitting still with your eyes closed is a very strange thing to do in our culture. Think about it – when have you ever sat still with your eyes closed unless it was to go to sleep. For most people, rarely.

But it can be done – so long as you’re patient and kind with yourself. No need to rush.

So lets see how we can make meditation seem a bit less daunting. 

For a start, whether you begin attending sessions or not is up to you. Many people find them very helpful because the group dynamic helps them settle down more easily. But ultimately everybody has to face up to the fact that sooner or later you still have to face up to doing it on your own. And for this reason, I focus on exactly that, because I have found people who rely on groups to practice become addicted to the group dynamic, and find it very hard to do on their own.

So whether you begin with a group or not, doing it on your own is the challenge you ultimately have to face, so you might as well begin there.

I think a part of your inability to begin meditating is in the way you’re framing it. You seem to be looking at meditation in very workman-like terms – as something you ‘should’ do. Something you need ‘discipline’ to do.

I think with any beginner words ‘discipline’ and ‘structure’ and ‘routine’ are very daunting in themselves. Not to mention totally ‘un-fun’. You’re turning meditation into work even before you’ve started. So I suggest you listen to the Audio Course in a playful way – soak up the information that interests you and see if a motivation grows out of that.

Then, once you feel motivated to try it out, take it easy – just play with meditation for a while. Get to know it in an experimental way.

I suggest you:

  1. Only sit for as long as it is comfortable, and play with all the methods in the Audio Course Package (particularly walking meditation) – if five minutes is all you can do, then just do that.
  2. Get to know yourself in the new and strange environment of your still, sitting body with its eyes closed.
  3. Use the methods to see what happens … with no expectations.
  4. Get to know meditation as a friend.

Hopefully, you’ll begin to experience things that pique your interest a little more, and provoke you to begin the work, or training of meditation, such as it is.

But don’t rush into it.

The training can come later when you’ve explored the methods and gotten to know them, and feel more comfortable with sitting still. Then you can begin pushing yourself to begin training the mind in a more determined way.

I hope this has been helpful.


A Little More

Ashleys party 30-7-2010 053I was looking through a meditation journal from one of my retreats in Thailand the other day and I found something that made me smile – a vibrant little note scrawled in my journal about something I’d realized – something important at the time, that had to be written down or my head would burst.

It made me smile when I read it, because it encapsulated the peculiar naiveté that settles over one’s heart like fairy dust when one shuts oneself in a hut and meditates for a month or two. It’s like, cynicism and hopelessness fall away – the mind sees possibilities which seem so obvious in the peace of the monastery, and which, when one brings them out into the harsh light of this pounding, crashing, brutal world we live in, become child-like, even silly.

And though these hopeful little notes and head explosions make me smile when I read them later on, I often feel a little sadness as well, because I wish life was as simple and innocent as the naked, beautiful mind I meet within myself in the monastery, who I love so much.

The journal note I made said:

 “I’ve figured out the solution to all of our (humanities) problems!  It came in a flash and is encapsulated in one simple phrase: ‘Always give just a little more than you take.’

Just imagine if, in everything they did, everybody in the world gave just a fraction more than they took – a minute more work than they’re paid for, a dollar more than is asked for or earned, their place in the queue, a little more food on some one else’s plate than our own, a spontaneous smile, a greeting to a stranger, a small gift that has no reason. To clean up a little of someone else’s mess, wash someone else’s dishes; fix something broken by someone else.

It doesn’t have to be much. We always think that a gift has to be a big deal, but that’s only because we don’t have a habit of giving – so when we give, we give too much.  If we gave just a little all the time, everything would change. It’d be a slow spreading explosion of good-will that would feed on itself.  It’d be amazing!”

Hmmm … wouldn’t it be wonderful.

Happy New Year to all. May it be filled with insight and inspiration – the best year of all, for everybody.

love Roger XXX


Make Friends With Yourself

IMG_8827-001So, let’s go back to basics.

Meditation is not a big deal. All we’re doing is learning to sit still, and be still, mentally and physically, without it making us anxious. We’re teaching ourselves to be happy to be still. And in that stillness the mind and body slowly unwind and balance naturally occurs.

It’s inevitable. Be still long enough and the mind and body will naturally become tranquil. Trouble is, we rarely have the patience for this to happen.

The stillness I’m talking about is the most fundamental state we can be in – mind and body in a state of symbiotic unity so close the two become one.

And for every living thing on the planet except us, this stillness is an integral part of their lives. Everything in nature moves in and out of the alert stillness that lies at the core of the life experience.  For them, it is one of the most necessary parts of their life – an endless source of wellbeing  – everything they do arises from it, and when there’s nothing to do, they return to it.

Take your family cat, for instance, or your dog. When there’s nothing to do, they do nothing. They sit or lie still. And though their eyes might be closed, in many cases they are not asleep. They’re just resting until something happens, aware of everything that’s going on around them. And in that awareness they are not worrying, or fretting, or regretting, or planning, or needing. And if something happens they’re instantly awake and refreshed, ready and raring to go.

This is a skill we contemporary human beings have largely forgotten, though we unconsciously yearn for it.

And we suffer the consequences.

In the restless world we have built, with the kind of lives we’ve created, our attention is constantly engaged, like a motor always running in top gear – work, entertainment, life business, social media, radio, television, computers – we’re constantly being force-fed from a plethora of often meaningless and unnecessary information, in which our emotions, fears and desires are being tweaked or titillated in some way. This is the world we’re used to – the exciting, adrenalised race in which, while we have the stamina to keep pace, we thrive on.

And because we’re used to it we tend not to notice the fatigue it creates, because things are happening so fast and it’s all so exciting. We’re addicted to the adrenalin, so we don’t notice until the effects on our wellbeing have become so debilitating we cannot ignore it anymore. Trouble is, then we have drugs to keep the effects at bay – caffeine and anti-depressants being the most common. And though these keep the effect at bay, they are not solutions – they simply blind us to our dysfunction until it makes us sicker or kills us.

In nature it’s not normal to suffer the way we do with depression, anxiety, psychosis, cancer, high blood pressure and heart problems. Within their place in the flow of nature, other creatures on this planet live relatively successful, quiet, peaceful lives while all the while we humans are getting sick, going crazy, getting lonely and depressed and messing things up.

But as critical as we know things have become, we blame everything else for our problems – our workplace, food, our relationships, parents, childhoods, government, pollution, bacteria, virus’s, lack of money, lack of exercise, lack of everything we can think of – the list of reasons why we feel ruined is endless.

We point the finger at everything around us – but never at ourselves.

Twenty three years ago, when I began my training in Vipassana meditation at Sorn Thawee Meditation Centre in Thailand, my teacher said something that gave the shock I needed to take meditation seriously. He said: “Your self is like your own child, ignorant and often lost. For this reason you should treat your own self with the same love, kindness and patience as you would treat your own child. This is what we do when we meditate.”

In that moment, as I turned around and looked at what I had become, and how I had treated myself throughout my life, I realized how abusive I had been – and how mindessly cruel I had been in my treatment of my best friend – my Self.

I had taken my mind and body for granted and ruled my Self like a tyrant, always expecting and taking from my mind and body but never listening, or giving back. I had expected my body to feel good and look good and do what I wanted when I wanted it. And if it complained, I ignored it.

Same with my mind, which I expected to always be happy and confident and inspired – if it tired or complained, I whipped it along with drugs to keep it at work, to get the stuff I wanted. And I judged my Self more harshly than anyone else and was unable to be satisfied by its efforts, no matter what I achieved. And if my Self failed I cursed it, worried at it and hated it, while shutting out its complaints with entertainment, alcohol and drugs.

I was no friend of my Self – not at all. I was a slave driver, and in those days it showed. I was only 38, but my Self was exhausted and disillusioned and my body was falling part.

I realized then, this was not a mental crisis I found myself in, nor was it a physical crisis as I had always thought – it was a crisis of love.


We try so hard to give meaningful love to people around us – yet invariably we forget to form the same meaningful relationship with ourselves. We forget that, like any of our lovers, parents, children or friends, our own Self needs the same kindness, patience, tolerance and understanding  that we try to give to them.

In this, we never stop to ask ourselves – what are all these aches and pains telling us? What is our body trying to say when it gets ill and when we feel terrible? We rarely listen – rather we try to escape, ignore or take drugs to make the sensations go away, then keep whipping ourselves forward.

The same with the mind – do we ever ask ourselves, what is this anxiousness or depression trying to tell me? What is my mind trying to tell me? Again, not at all – we simply amputate the feelings with anti-depressants and keep whipping ourselves forward.

In this we forget a simple truth of nature, which is this – there is nothing in existence that has no reason for being there.

Pain, anxiety, depression are all there for a reason – as such, they are not superfluous inconveniences to be pushed away and ignored. They are your body and mind telling you the truth about themselves – and usually, if they have gotten to the point of extreme pain or anxiety or depression, they are truths you have already been ignoring for too long.

The sensations in our body, and the feelings that arise from mind are the child of your Self asking you to pay attention.To pay attention with patience, tolerance, kindness and …. Love.

And in good meditation, that is what we do. We commune wit the Self, and give it the attention and love we usually reserve for everyone else. In fact this kind of self-love should be right at the core of meditation, because without it, meditation will just not work.

As a meditation trainer, I keep hearing the same complaints. ‘I feel pain and it’s distracting me,’ or ‘I can’t stop thinking, and its distracting me,’ or ‘My body is so restless I can’t sit still so I can’t meditate,’ and so on. And I keep telling people that all these things – the pain, the thinking, the restlessness – they are not distractions from meditation. At the point where they are happening, they are the meditation. But people keep forgetting this – they keep trying to meditate past these things – to make the signals the Self is sending go away – as if meditation is simply another anti depressant or analgesic.

And in this, they betray themselves terribly.


 As you meditate, it is inevitable you will meet your Self and it won’t be the carefully constructed apparition you like to present to the world each day. No, the Self you will meet will be the truth. It will be your real self.

And you must be there to meet it. And you must be ready to pay attention to what it tells you – without judging, or reacting. Like any good parent with a child, you must be there to pay attention and be patient and kind and listen to its confusion and sadness and rage and pain. Because after all, no-one else ever will. No-one else can ever give you the attention your Self needs.

And you know what?

This paying attention is all the mind and body needs to heal.

What you will find as you meditate is, if you stop trying to use the meditation method to escape yourself and do the opposite – turn around and give your self loving attention, things will begin to evolve and change.For example, the thinking that ‘curses’ you – instead of trying to stop it, pay attention to it.  Take an interest in what it is – not what it is saying, but what the phenomenon of thinking actually is – feel the activity in your head, watch the frenetic quality of it.  Take a interest in it ‘as it is’, and you will find the thinking will calm down.

Same with pain, or anxiety. Instead of trying to stop it, or escape it – turn around and give it a gentle, loving attention. Let the discomfort be there and just pay attention. ‘Listen’ to it as a sensation. Let it change and evolve. Take an interest in it, because after all, it has very good reasons for being there.

And you will find it will change, and calm down.Your mind and body have been waiting for you to turn around and love them.

And you will find when you do, they will respond. Like an abused child, they will calm beneath your touch, and all kind of emotions long suppressed will arise – of grief, anger, or even happiness.  And as the good parent, you allow these to unfold.

And as you continue meditation, using the methods to listen to you Self rather than escape, you will find more and more sensations in the body, and deeper levels to mind – because finally you are listening. All of the different parts of your Self will ‘speak’ – skin, muscles, stomach, lungs, kidneys, heart, emotions. They speak with sensations, feelings, memories and compulsions, some so strong they will be uncomfortable, some so subtle you barely notice them. And as each part of your Self is listened to, it also listens – and in the wordless dialogue that occurs, mind and body become unified, helping and healing one another, and balance appears naturally.

No need to imagine figures of light or ridiculous visualizations. Just pay attention and listen, without thinking or trying to do anything, and change will happen naturally.

And the longer this meeting of the spirit continues, and the more often it is done, the deeper the healing effect will become. You will lose mental and physical ‘mass’ in layers. First the surface layers of body tension. Then the layers below, of sensations and feelings more subtle than before – tingles, itches, deep aches, emotions and feelings.

And as each layer arises, the sensations and thoughts will become more and more subtle.  And the deeper we get, the more subtle these layers will become until our mind and body are in balance. These are the layers of our physical and mental Self which, as each of them passes through our awareness, are re-assimilated with each other so that the community of our Self can work more efficiently, and feel more unified with itself.  In the lessening of internal conflict, we feel more clear, more fluent, and our life opens up and breathes a sigh of relief.

But don’t wait for it. That would be like trying to watch a flower grow.  And anyway, the end point is not the purpose. The purpose is to be in an on-going fully functional relationship with your mental and physical Self.

Change will come as it comes, in its own time – all you have to do is make friends with yourself … easy huh?


There’s More to Life Than Being Happy

The following article addresses one of the most confusing issues of today – the question of happiness.  In a culture that constantly bombards us with messages selling happiness in the form of many and various products, our idea of happiness and its place in life has become confused.

But I’ll let the article speak for itself:


‘There’s More to Life Than Being Happy’

By Emily Esfahani Smith

Taken from ‘The Atlantic’ – published Jan 9 2013, 8:06 AM ET

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”


                                                                                                                                                    Kacper Pempel/Reuters

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

RTR6BQFinset.jpgViktor Frankl [Herwig Prammer/Reuters]

In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”


This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Nearly a quarter of Americans do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.

“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”


Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.

RTR29GZDinset.jpgPeter Andrews/Reuters

In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.

While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.

That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.

As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”

When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.

The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.