Finding Value in an Existential Crisis

When I was a freshman in high school I played Inez in John Paul Sartre’s No Exit. As an angry but well-meaning goth kid, this was pretty much my dream role. The play is about three people who realize they’ve died and gone to hell, and that “hell is other people.” More accurately, hell is the consequence of their actions mirrored back to them by others who can see through their self-deception. They’re caught in a lust-triangle of seeking validation from one another to escape the truth of what they’ve done. Even when the truth comes out, they can’t accept responsibility for their behavior and endlessly torture each other as a result.

A little grim, right?

There actually is an exit, and Sartre believed that. If hell is a lack of awareness and responsibility, then that can be changed (no matter how discouraged we feel when we turn on the news).

He says that by choosing who we want to be, we are taking part in creating the world we live in. “Nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If….we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole.”

No pressure! 

My simplified takeaway from this is to make choices that are good for me just as I’d want other people to make choices that are good for them. I want to recognize and own my shortcomings, and I hope others will do the same. All that I can control are my own choices. I thought about this during my middle school years when I became vegan. I wore T-shirts with factory farm footage on them because I thought the world would be a better place if people cared about the suffering of animals, though this wasn’t the best way to motivate people to think about their food choices! Part of me was a lost teenager who needed a cause, but the truer meaning is that it broke my heart to see such reckless disregard for the wellness of animals. I knew my personal choice to not eat meat wasn’t going to make a huge impact, but it felt right.

It’s not so easy to live with complete integrity. I’m not always at my 100 percent, but I try my best to release whatever gets in the way.

All my “new choices” for the “new year” started yesterday, which is how it goes sometimes. I’d just hauled a bunch of stuff to the dump, so it seemed like a good time to start. Also, we just had a lunar eclipse, or the Super Blood Wolf Moon. When the moon has that kind of title, we’d better do something! It was a good time for some clearing and change.

Most of my intentions involved starting up routines I’d let slide during the holidays. One routine is to meditate every day. When I sat down to do this, my stomach clenched up and I became aware of some stuff I’d been holding onto, which I thought I’d moved through already! That’s the thing with anxiety or other emotions: they inundate us when we least expect them. What we think about a situation doesn’t always match how we feel about it. That’s why I’ve never liked affirmations. A lot of people wonder what they’re doing wrong when they don’t feel better with positive thinking.  

Positive thinking absolutely has its time and place. If affirmations help you, please keep at it! If they don’t seem to help, there’s nothing wrong with you. Try telling yourself the kindest thing you can about whatever you’re going through. Simply acknowledge what you feel without resisting or analyzing it. See what happens when you stop trying to fix it or make it go away. 

It actually felt good to acknowledge some stuff during my turbulent meditation, and to make room for fear and whatever else was going on—being real with myself. I’m still struggling with this issue and maybe I will my whole life. Cool, I acknowledged it. I’m aware, so I can work on it.

I sat again today. (Actually, I like to lay down with an eye pillow when I meditate, as long as I’m not too sleepy). This time, there was no sadness or anxiety. I felt peaceful and grounded, and I know the next time will be different. I also did some strength training for dancing, and realized that after a month or two of barely doing anything, strength goes away. Imagine that! I didn’t feel discouraged, though (I would have in the past). If something is that important to us, we can work at it again. It should make us happy.

Our mind is also like a muscle that needs to be kept in shape. Good habits can become as second nature as any bad habits, such as getting down on ourselves or coping with anxiety in ways that feel good in the moment and are harmful in the long run (we’ve all been there—we want to feel better, and that’s not a bad motive).

Self-compassion takes vigilance! You are the only constant person in your life, so be mindful of how you’re treating yourself. We can start to build better habits by focusing on things that are in our control, and what we have gratitude for. We can also learn to hold space for our pain without shutting it down or plastering it with happy faces or gold stars.

Life happens, and there’s a lot about it that we can’t understand or control. Sometimes it drives us into the existential blues, and we lose purpose or direction in our lives. Maybe the choice we have to make is to accept that’s what’s up, for now. Then work on strengthening our relationships and becoming more present, defining our values. We can always start from wherever we’re at.

Healing Happens Through Relationship, Including the One You Have With Yourself

Photo by VINICIUS COSTA on Pexels.com

People need each other, there’s no way around that. Betrayal, shame and isolation are some of the most painful feelings we can experience. To see an example of how an infant is affected when her mother won’t respond to her, click here. This study shows how we need to feel seen and heard as we’re developing our sense of self, safety and belonging in the world. 

Our nervous systems are designed for social engagement. We feel more relaxed around people who know and understand us, and we need to feel safe in order to make these connections. When we don’t receive support during times of overwhelming stress, our bodies kick into fight or flight mode, or we freeze up. This can cause prolonged anxiety and numbness (imagine how this affects a child who’s scared of a person they depend on for love).

When we’ve been hurt, it can be hard to trust others or want to be vulnerable again. We might avoid deep personal relationships that could trigger more painful feelings. When our needs for acceptance and belonging have gone unmet, we might focus too much on pleasing others. We might compromise our needs, seeking distractions instead. We might think we have to control or manipulate others to get our needs met. 

The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says, “Healing happens through relationship.” We need relationships where we can be our vulnerable, messy selves.

Healing also happens through strengthening the relationships that exist within ourselves—between our mind (logic, narrative memories, beliefs) and body (physical sensations, unconscious or sensory memories, feeling). When these parts of ourselves aren’t working in a unified way, it becomes hard to know what’s best for us. 

UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel came up with a field of study called interpersonal neurobiology, which describes a process of enabling higher functions of the brain such as insight, empathy, and intuition. His research suggests that the more “integrated” we are, the better able we are to empathize with others, while remaining our individuated selves. For me personally, I’ll experience warm chills throughout my body when a thought resonates with an internal sense of what’s right for me. 

To strengthen these connections within ourselves, we can start by paying attention to sensations happening in our bodies, without judgement. For example, often grief accompanies chest tightness. We feel as if our heart has literally broken as our bodies release stress hormones. There might be stomach tension or other pain and discomfort.

We might feel sadness, guilt or anger. When these feelings come up, they can seem like a part of us that has always been there and might never go away. However, we can ride all feelings out, just as we always have before. Feelings don’t define us. They always pass. They are often a testament to how much we value something or someone we’ve lost.

Every situation—even grief over a loss—presents a new opportunity to get clear about the kind of love we want, a chance to ask for what we need from the people in our lives who embody these qualities, step away from the people who don’t, and take good care of ourselves. 

We can also begin to take an honest inventory of all those split-off parts of ourselves that need attention because they once seemed not good enough, unacceptable, or even scary, then find a healthy way of acknowledging and expressing all of those parts.

Going through these difficult feelings deepens our understanding of what it means to be human. Acknowledging and tending to our pain doesn’t make us victims, or a burden. In fact, it empowers us to take better care of ourselves, which also helps us to become more open and available to others.

Why Hiking is Good Therapy

fay canyon
“For me, hope arises from outdoor activities that empower people to incorporate Nature’s wisdom into their lives….They help us unashamedly love wildness, Earth and each other because balanced life feels good.” -Michael Cohen

I was on a hike with my parents, in Sedona. My dad has cerebral palsy, affecting the way he walks, and this was the first time I’d ever hiked with him.

When we began the hike, a nice guy patted him on the back, saying, “Good for you.” That was annoying and patronizing, I thought. But later, when I asked my dad how he felt about the numerous people who stopped to congratulate him, he said he felt loving-kindness; that back in the day, he would have felt shame, and contempt toward anyone who brought attention to his disability. Now, he felt supported and encouraged. Years of practicing and teaching mindfulness meditation helped him to accept praise and make this little trek through Fay Canyon.

And while I normally would have blazed down the trail to get a workout and arrive at the majestic red rock formations at the end as fast as I could, I was forced to slow down and notice the trees, which my mom helped me to identify—the silvery-green cypress, and the blue juniper berries sprinkled over red earth.

Later that evening, I learned about a person named Michael Cohen who developed an ecopsychology program close to where I live. Ecopsychology promotes the idea that we live in relationship with nature, and that deviation from this natural order causes disruption–a view held by many indigenous cultures and largely overlooked in our own.

Cohen writes, “For me, hope arises from outdoor activities that empower people to incorporate Nature’s wisdom into their lives. These activities act as responsible rituals and therapy. They mandate that our honed sense of reason and language awaken, enjoy, trust, celebrate, integrate and act off our many natural senses. They catalyze lasting bonds to the global community. They help us unashamedly love wildness, Earth and each other because balanced life feels good.”

Being in nature always helps me feel grounded. I hope you can make time to find peace in nature as well, if that resonates. ❤

References:

The Soul Unearthed: Celebrating Wildness and Spiritual Renewal Through Nature, Cass Adams – Sentient Publications – 2002

https://www.apadivisions.org/division-34/publications/newsletters/epc/2011/10/ecopsychology.aspx