Even Stuck in Hell, You Can Still Choose Your Own Way!

At the heart of Buddhist teaching and practice is the great truth that every individual has the innate capacity to change for the better—to make decisions and choices that lead to the end of suffering and to lasting happiness. Each step on the Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration — is a step that presupposes the human being’s free will and ability to make right choices.

Few people have written more movingly or authoritatively on this innate freedom to choose than Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.  Life in a Nazi prison camp was truly a hell realm. And yet, in the very midst of that living hell, Frankl saw a freedom that can never be taken from us.

When we are struggling in own personal prisons and hell-realms, Frankl’s words can inspire us not to give up.  We can remember that we can choosehow we respond in even the worst circumstances.  And in that very choice, we find the dignity of a Buddha.

On Choice & Dignity

Viktor Frankl

“I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings. (In this case the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern.) But what about human liberty?

Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors-be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”

The Last Human Freedom

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

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

Seen from this point of view, the mental reactions of the inmates of a concentration camp must seem more to us than the mere expression of certain physical and sociological conditions. Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

Viktor Frankl

Eternal Flame at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Karma-no big deal, just the way things work | Metta Refuge - 2011/08/01

    […] about long-term, lasting happiness—the one thing we do have control over is our own choices.  As Viktor Frankl notes, it’s our last great freedom, something even a prison-camp can’t take from […]

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