Freedom from Mental Captivity: Lessons from a Concentration Camp Prisoner | Mindfulness Rewrites

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Freedom from Mental Captivity: Lessons from a Concentration Camp Prisoner

     by Dr. Linda Miles
Freedom from Mental Captivity: Lessons from a Concentration Camp Prisoner

Do you find that your thoughts make you more anxious and depressed?

Do you have trouble quieting your mind and falling asleep?

Is it difficult for you to control your negative emotions?

They Imprisoned His Body But His Mind Remained Free

World-renowned author and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl was a concentration camp prisoner during WWII. He tells his story within the pages of his aptly-titled book, Man’s Search for Meaning, along with some truly grounding insight. He is not alone—there are many men and women who have emerged from a personal living Hell with their humanity preserved—and yet he speaks up to emphasize a very important message: you must guard your inner life.

No one can make you a prisoner of your own mind unless you let them. You have the power to rewire your brain and choose the alchemy of your own brain chemicals.

Despite the degradation, deprivation, and nightmarish misery of the Nazi concentration camp, Frankl clung to his one and most important freedom—the freedom to control his inner life. He realized that, though the Nazis could subjugate him and his fellow prisoners, though they could beat him until his bones cracked and his body numbed, though they could starve him and unclothe him and physically mutilate him, no one could enter his mind without his consent. They could not dehumanize his inner existence. They had no ownership over his mind, heart, or soul.

Frankl made a decision, consciously, to focus on the love he felt for his beloved wife:

We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and three large puddles, along the one road running through the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk […] My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness […] I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings the right way—an honorable way […] can, through loving contemplation of the image he carried of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

What We Can Learn from Viktor Frankl's Brave Example

There may come an instant in your life when things appear to have gone horribly, horribly wrong. That is life though; without the downs, it’d be impossible to genuinely appreciate the ups—such is human nature. The human range of emotion is spectacular in its extent—if you stop to think about it, it’s fascinating that we have the capacity and capability to reach the depths of despair, the heights of ecstasy, the warmth of bliss, the chill of terror, the serenity of peace, and all those myriads of feelings in between.

When times are tough, remember our NOW acronym:

  • NOTICE.  Look around and you’ll find hundreds of living, breathing examples (and countless more, before our time) of inspirational people who transcend circumstances. They say that a person’s sufferings are what make or break them—because those are the moment when choices are made.

  • OPPORTUNITY.  Challenges can be impediments or stepping stones, depending on your perspective. These are the times when people decide to either fall and fester or fight and flourish. Look at your life and think about the lessons you have learned through hardships. Do you hold an "obstacle" or "opportunity" mindset? Do you choose to become bitter or better?

  • WITHIN.  Although Nazi captors controlled every aspect of his outer life, Frankl maintained control of his inner life and thought process. He chose to focus his mind on love. How consciously that choice is made depends on the person, and therein lies the power. Realize that no one's inner world can be altered without their consent. What is happening within YOUR inner world?

The Path of Mindfulness

Exile. Abuse. Wars. Toxic relationships. Disaster wreckages. Prisons. Torture chambers. There are people who get out alive—and they all have something in common. They have a burning desire to survive.

It works because they have aligned themselves with a purpose greater than themselves. Always this is an extremely deep emotion—the desire to return to a loved one, the need to persevere for a better life, the yearning to break free and prove to yourself and to everyone else that you can. There is something beautiful and positive inside these survivors that burns so brightly, so fiercely, that they can’t choose to give up. The strongest and most long-lasting of these emotions? The most positive, enduring, powerful quality of all time: love.

“I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me.”
                                                                           –Joshua Graham

Mindfulness is a practice that circles back to love. It’s about filtering through the thoughts in our mind and focusing on what we ultimately wish to keep. Our brain is an incredible memory bank, storing positive and negative thoughts. These thoughts have immense power, since they literally affect our body’s chemistry. By focusing on negative thoughts or caustic memories, our body generates cortisol and adrenaline—stress signals that cause tension, anxiety, and super vigilance. These chemicals are essential for short-term fight-or-flight scenarios, but are detrimental—even lethal—when experienced constantly for a long period of time. Focusing on loving thoughts, on the other hand, releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin which help us feel mellow, centered, and happy. Such chemicals enable people like Frankl to survive horrific conditions; he had the presence of mind to preserve his strength and will to live, and his purpose and love were the fuel that kept him alive.

You, Too, Can Influence the Release of Hormones Related to Stress and Calm!

Mindfulness is something you can do anytime, anywhere. It only takes a moment. With the following technique, you will instantly discover how your thoughts alter your body chemistry, and the power you have to control all of this.

  • Close your eyes and recall a time you had a very negative interaction with another person. Look back and really live this memory again, and let yourself feel those distressing emotions. Now open your eyes. How do you feel? Most people report an automatic reaction of increased tension; it’s obvious from their clenched teeth or hands, a pressure in their chest or stomach, and increased muscle tightness. If you feel this, it means your body has just unleashed a surge of adrenaline and cortisol.

  • Now close your eyes and recall a time when you felt very close to someone, very loved and cherished. Think about how serene and blissful you felt. Perhaps this is your favorite memory. Now open your eyes and notice how you feel. See the difference? Most people express greater feelings of relaxation, safety, and peacefulness. If you feel these things, it means your body has secreted oxytocin and dopamine.

Knowing this, you can master the technique so as to always center yourself and protect your well-being and inner world. During challenging times, you can remember the details of a loving memory and deliberately prompt your body to create positive chemicals that will enhance your calm state of being and your clarity of thought. By doing this, and refraining from nasty thoughts, you are not just being kind to others, you are foremost being kind to yourself and your own health.

“Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
                                                                           –William James

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