How to Cope with Existential Dread and Despair

 

So, nothing too big, right?  I felt moved to add some kind of counterbalance to the posts of the last couple of weeks, and now (as we seem to be entering a new age of endemics and pandemics) it feels all the more appropriate.  I want to begin with two potential problems with ‘happiness formulas,’ along with corresponding apologias.

First, ‘happiness formulas’ can sometimes serve as ways of bulldozing ourselves.  In other words, we may have very valid, difficult feelings that deserve our attention and care, and if we have developed an aversion to them, maybe because the adults who were around us when we were children had an aversion to them, then ‘happiness formulas’ can be a perfect way to bulldoze, bury, deny, reject and disown uncomfortable feelings.  I do, however, love the practices mentioned in my last two blogs because I believe they help us make the very best use of our precious lives, and cultivate the wild joy and pleasure that can seem so native to life itself, for as much of the time as we possibly can.  Also I feel that one must have a pretty strong ‘practice’ (whether it is a spiritual practice, a self-help practice, or a comprehensive, community-oriented self-care or self-compassion practice, or even a pleasure practice), else life will be very difficult.  I suppose, in this way, I am what Swiss-born British writer Alain de Botton would call a ‘cheerful pessimist’.

The other potential problem with a purely happiness-oriented approach is that it can come across as short-sighted, emotionally immature, and/or shallow when the ‘truth’ is that consciousness and human life are deep mysteries, and each of us will face death, will watch people we love face death, and will be shattered or have our hearts completely smashed multiple times across the span of our lives, if we’re lucky enough to enjoy longevity.  It is entirely normal, across the span of a human life, to have the proverbial rug pulled out from under us, rather violently, not just once but a number of different times.  Each time may bring with it a shattered sense of who we are, a pulverized sense of the purpose and meaning of our life (and of life in general), and sometimes also an utter demolition of our most important emotional and relational pillars.  And each time someone is in this kind of ‘broken open’ place, the most helpful sort of presence is one grounded in the more melancholic and deeply mysterious aspects of human life (not a Pollyanna approach or a spiritual bypassing approach).

The corresponding apologia that I would like to include for the potential shallowness/soullessness aspect of a happiness-oriented approach will take the form of an actual Alain de Botton video, called, How to Live in a More Light-Hearted Way.  Be forewarned, it contains some pretty naked (and literal) gallows humor:

In addition to this, some of the world’s great spiritual and mystical traditions are designed to carry devastated souls through the wasteland of shattered meaning, shattered hopes and dreams, wild grief and trauma.  (Please don’t read that as a recommendation of spiritual practice as an alternative to seeking professional assistance with sorting through clinically significant struggles like actual trauma.)  There are veritable treasure troves of spiritual beauty and wisdom designed to speak directly to the heart that has broken open, turning this emotionally tortured no man’s land into a very particular kind of sacred space.  Some mystical traditions would even say that the moments of most profound heartbreak have the potential to become turning points when the heartbroken individual turns towards ‘The Beloved’ (the internal connection to all love, to cosmic love, to divine love, to whatever you want to call it) as the primary target of all longing.

In many ways, the title of this blog is a misnomer.  Existential dread and existential despair are difficult to cope with in any ordinary sense.  They are deeper than regular emotions– rather, they are more like states of being which may always be there in the background, and which are sometimes entered more thoroughly than at other times.  Some schools of Western Philosophy deal with this rather squarely, but do not seem to really offer any answers or solutions.  Tibetan Buddhism is geared almost entirely (per my quite possibly inaccurate understanding) towards death preparation.  If we at least attempt to contemplate our existential predicament with something approaching a daily rhythm or practice, we will be less caught off guard when real existential dilemmas show up on our doorsteps (read: perhaps an unpleasant diagnosis for you or a loved one.  You get the idea.).

Perhaps I spoke to soon.  Western Philosophy does offer some solace, especially where the constructs of time and eternity are concerned.  Take this quote, for example:

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

It is a mistake to think of death as “infinite darkness forever and ever”.  Our concept of “forever and ever” is based on the typical human subjective experience of the passage of linear time in three dimensions, upon which we base the concept of objective time per se.  But as long as we live, we cannot escape our subjectivity.  Objective time as such may be nothing like the experience of linear time that we have as human beings.  Also, no one knows what happens to consciousness when we die.  We are all pressed inexorably up against the unknown.  Increase your comfort level with the unknown, in large and small ways.

Connect with others over our shared mysteries and sorrows.  Not only do the grim existential facts of life unite us all and offer the most compelling reasons to feel compassion towards others, but they also serve as some of the most compelling reasons to be here now with your loved ones.  Say the words you most long to say.  It’s amazing how normal it is to never imagine that the people most dear to us actually have no idea how we truly feel . . . because we never told them.  Tell them.  It might feel vulnerable.  It might feel odd.  But it is one way to cope with some of the scariest and most unbelievable facts of our existence, together.

Turn terror into holy terror.  What do I mean by this?  Sometimes the facts of our existence can feel truly terrifying in a bottomless and black way.  The awareness of this comes and goes at different phases of life and for different reasons.  Much of this terror has to do with our inability to ever truly know, or have answers to, some of the most urgent existential questions our species has never taken a rest from asking.  (You know, questions like, Who am I?  What is life?  What does this all mean?  Where did we come from?  Where are we going when we die?  Etc., etc. . .)  Yes, yes, we are all pressed up against the roaring precipice of the abyss.  But if we could encapsulate all this unknowing, all that is beyond that roaring precipice in one word, what would it be?  ‘Mystery,’ maybe?  Could we turn towards Mystery itself as something sacred, something holy, something great?  I think maybe we can.

Aside from daily contemplative practices, sacred relationship to Great Mystery, sacred relationship to being broken open, increasing your comfort level with the unknown and being here now with loved ones, I lastly want to emphasize the important way that the most difficult facts of the human predicament can be potent fuel for compassion.  Feeling into that is another way to cope.  Not only feeling into it, but living it, practicing it in the world.  Then, come what may, you can look at the way you lived (mostly) with a very full heart.

Need some support putting this kind of stuff into practice?  That’s what therapy is for.  Click here to schedule a free 20-minute consultation call if you have questions about what might be right for you.

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