When the Bottom Falls out of Our World

There is a central human experience that will rock us to our core and that each of us will eventually face. We don’t acknowledge it and rarely talk about it. Because of its threatening nature we distance ourselves from it by being busy with the affairs of relationships, work, education, food, pleasure and status. The experience is best termed existential despair and can happen when all the props that have supported our life collapse unexpectedly. Suddenly, the meaning our life had up to this point in time is no longer enough and it ceases to be meaningful. Previous to this moment of our world collapsing, in order to feel secure, we may have relied on success, achievement, wealth, power, status, being the bread winner, being loved or loving others. But now it all seems empty, meaningless and we wonder why have we being doing all of this and how was it that we were so blinded not to see that all of these pursuits were illusory and provided no absolute meaning? In our anxiety we may now seek for some absolute, unshakeable reason for it all, some solid ground, yet all we are left with is the arbitrariness of it all and our hopeless efforts to grasp onto something when there seems to be nothing there at all.

There is a school of thought in psychology – Existentialism – that distinguishes between two types of anxiety – ontological and neurotic anxiety. Ontological anxiety arises from meaninglessness and gives rise to existential despair. It is called ontological as it is a response to potential loss of being and loss of meaning for human existence. Because we create our purpose, direction, security, support and meaning based on factors outside of ourselves we can find ourselves suddenly unable to depend on them. It is then the bottom falls out from our world. Neurotic anxiety arises in response to threats to our self-esteem, security and life-style. Common neurotic anxieties are worrying about how others see us, being successful, and anxieties created in response to a lack of loving. However, there comes a point where what others think, and being successful cease to matter in the face of the deeper existential dread of the whole world we have created falling out from under us. For me, there is wisdom too to this crisis and that is to bring us to a deeper experience and appreciation of our true nature.

Existentialism developed from the ideas of the philosophers – Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – who came to believe that there is no clear, absolute ground for human life, hence Nietzsche’s exclamation ‘God is dead.’ What existentialism attempted to do was to resolve existential despair by creating meaning out of a person’s own individual existence. Basically, they believe that the only real source of meaning is our own individual conviction, action and choice. However, such a perspective brings no resolution to existential despair because it offers no absolute and unshakeable meaning for human existence. In other words, it is subjective in nature, hence existentialism offers no way to resolve the experience of groundlessness and dread that hits all of us at critical points in our lives. Personal meanings don’t hold up very long in the face of impending death and man’s inhumanity to man. So, what are we to do in the face of such overwhelming darkness of spirit; in the face of the absurdity of it all?

Five years ago I experienced an episode of existential despair. I was doing a course on Psychotherapy and Buddhist Spirituality. As the course progressed I found myself questioning many aspects of Buddhism – as I had done with Catholicism many years before – and during one night when I retired to my room from the course (which was residential) I plummeted into the blackest of depressions. The despair arose from the dashing of my hopes that the teachings of the Buddha would provide the absolute meaning for life that I had long sought. I was shaken to the core, but decided that I would stay with the depression and allow myself to sink into it, not having any idea where this would take me. Over several hours I wrestled with the hopelessness but eventually an over-riding realisation emerged that ‘it is not Buddha that can save me, not Christ, not Mohammed, but only myself’. Somehow, that realisation lifted the depression and I began to sense a deeper reality of transcendence that I have continued to pursue. What had transpired was that the depression, meaninglessness and hopelessness, rather than being experiences that needed to be denied or rationalised, became stepping stones to something deeper. What emerged, though elusive, was an essential clarity, transparency, a warmth and peacefulness and a fullness of presence that had no need to be something. This is not the neutral or terrifying emptiness that existentialism attempts but fails to address, but a pathway to a connection to one’s true and unique nature. The words of the late John O’Donohue powerfully echo the experience I have attempted to describe:

Allow your loneliness time

To dissolve the shell of dross

That has closed around you;

Choose in this severe silence

To hear the one true voice

Your rushed life fears;

Cradle yourself like a child

Learning to trust what emerges,

So that gradually

You may come to know

That deep in that black hole

You will find the blue flower

That holds the mystical light

Which will illuminate in you

The glimmer of springtime.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a Clinical Psychologist and is an Author, National and International Speaker. The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking is relevant to today’s article.