For some reason, Existence has got a bad rep. We just don’t like to think about it too much. Or talk about it. This is a pretty odd situation, since everything is existing all of the time — including us. Tragically, this cuts us off from the real juiciness of being alive here on planet Earth. In this article I will explore our tendency to shy away from existence and discuss the deep positive emotions that grow when we come to embrace it.
We are constantly concerned with the particulars of life and not with the fact of life itself — so immersed in the stories of our lives that we never pause to question them, or the mystery that there is any story in the first place. We are aware, but we are continually distracted and pulled away from this fact.
The Existential Lift happens when we become actuely aware of being aware. Aware that we alive, we exist, are conscious. There is something rather than nothing, and this — each unfolding moment of our reality — is that something. We are existence itself. Once this realisation, this Lift takes place, a whole new plane of life begins to open up. Heidegger called it the “authentic” mode of living — because we are no longer out of touch with what we are, who are we, and most importantly, the fact that we are. Being acutely aware of the fact we exist — let’s call it existential awareness — can lead to some of the most profound possible feelings in life, feelings that I’ll call existential emotions.
Amazingly, existence — the fact that underlies absolutely everything, by definition — is mostly a taboo topic of conversation. This is a reflection of the fact that we immerse ourselves in details and stories because the “big questions” bring up existential emotions of an unpleasant nature. This is why we have the terms “existential crisis”, “existential angst” and “existential dread”. Indeed one pioneer of existentialism, Sartre, wrote a whole novel exploring his confrontation with existence called, quite directly, Nausea. All this is negativity, I believe, is related to an innate fear of death. Contemplating existence naturally brings up the question of non-existence. This bugs us and so we bury the topic entirely — which is a deep shame, because it closes us off from some of the most enriching and life-affirming feelings we can ever experience: the positive existential emotions. Because existence is taboo topic, these emotions remain the hidden gems of life. We stumble on them privately, occasionally and spontaneously, like flowers in a field. No doubt you will recognise many of them. And no doubt, you haven’t had many conversations about them. But I think that bringing them out in the open for discussion, exploring their nature, can help us cultivate them. These are flowers we can grow.
I see existential emotions as important because they stem directly from the basic fact of existing, not from any particular circumstances or conditions of life, and can therefore provide a truly robust, durable source of positivity — so long as we exist, we can feel them! Any spiritual or religious path worthy of the name will lead to an increase in these feelings — as will any heartfelt calling, passion or love. So, let’s explore them.
I first discovered this emotion through a video on the BigThink about happiness. It came out of nowhere. There was this professor talking about happiness, and he put forward the following question: what if all you needed to be happy was to simply exist?
In any moment of life, you can ask yourself: am I happy that I exist right now, compared to the alternative, which is that nothing exists at all?
This, or nothing?
Really asking ourselves this question can bring up existential gratitude. Before picking out any detail or feature of our current experience, we come to feel deeply grateful that we are even having an experience.
You are alive! You didn’t choose to be but here you are, and here the world is, unfolding before you and inside you every moment. Can you find a feeling of gratitude that reality isn’t just darkness, silence, nothingness — a void?
This emotion can help us in difficult times, because no matter how hard life gets, we can still be thankful that we are here, alive and striving with a fullness of dignity and humanity that nothing can take ever away from us. Existential gratitude is always accessible. The train to work, the pain in your legs, the smell of coffee, the anxieties and fears that you can learn and grow from, the wind on your face — all of this exists, and we can always be grateful for that simplest of facts.
It might be important to say that we can’t force this feeling. Sometimes the confusion and pain of life will overwhelm us. But stopping, taking a deep breath, or stepping outside, is usually enough to bring us back to the clarity of existential gratitude.
The more we practice tapping into this feeling, the more we’ll find ourselves happy for no reason. We can move beyond needing a specific cause for happiness — existence is enough. We can be happy just because we’re alive. Ain’t that a thing.
Triggers of this emotion are diverse and intimately personal. Whatever grabs us and makes us stop, whatever really speaks to our soul can set us alight with existential gratitude. People are a prime example, as we realise how grateful are we to exist in the company of these countless unique beings, human and animal, who inspire, mystify, challenge and love us. That existence is a shared phenomenon is a limitless source of existential gratitude. We wouldn’t exist without other beings, and as the culmination of 4 billion years of evolution, we have a lot of beings to thank for our existence!
Existential gratitude might be triggered when we immerse ourselves in nature, in art, music or play — anything that brings us to feel that deep inner “thank you” for the gift of life. Learning to spot those triggers in our everyday life, and to craft a life around them, is to walk a path of ever deeper gratitude.
The fine-tuning problem of modern physics takes existential gratitude to a new level when we learn the sheer unlikelihood of life existing at all, which physicist Lee Smolin estimates at a vanishing 1 in 10²²⁹ (that’s 1 with 229 zeroes after it). Almost every other configuration of the universe contains no intelligent life, making the odds of our existence seem to be unimaginably slim.
We hit the cosmic jackpot. Not bad!
Life doesn’t always go “our way”. At least, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. We resist change and wrestle with the world around us, burning ourselves out in the process. But, just maybe, all of these efforts aren’t necessary.
The emotion of existential surrender is the feeling of releasing our grip on life, relaxing that ever-present resistance to what’s happening, that endless attempt to force the world to be the way we want. It’s a feeling of radical acceptance — of surrendering to life exactly as it is, in the moment. Existential surrender is a pathway to presence, to being completely immersed in the now where there is no self, no separation, and thus no suffering. This is truly liberating. It’s freedom in the deepest sense. We can let it all happen.
We can let it all go — in both the sense of releasing and the sense of allowing something to “go”: to proceed, naturally and without our interference.
Touching this emotion can be incredibly difficult or utterly effortless, depending on our current state — because it only takes one thing, whatever is happening: just let it be.
The biggest barrier to existential surrender is resistance to unpleasant feelings. But the more we learn to face our suffering, the more we grow from it. Contrary to propagating pain, we are freed from it, because we see that the source of suffering is in the wanting for life to be different than it is. Surrendering is the antidote, and it’s always available.
“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”
― C. JoyBell C.
This emotion stems from the realisation that in exactly the same way we exist, so do other beings — human and animal, perhaps even plant, fungi, and beyond. From the standpoint of existence, these conscious minds find themselves in exactly the same situation as us: thrown into a body and world they did not choose, a world they do not understand but must survive in, and in which they are destined, one day, to die. Heidegger called this unchosen and unasked-for aspect of existence “thrown-ness”: literally, we are thrown into an existence that is totally beyond our choosing.
No matter the circumstances of our lives, the mere fact of existing puts all beings on an equal footing, helping us to see our fundamental “sameness”. Seeing that every other being has been “thrown” into their existence generates compassion (the wish that others be free from suffering). We recognise that in others’ place — if we had the exact same genes, parents and environment — we would be exactly the same as them. The murderer, the dictator, the soldier, the beggar, the buffalo, the bumblebee, the oak and the dragonfly: it could have been us.
Is any being fundamentally bad, or did the lottery of existence deal them a poor hand? Every birth is a dice roll, and when you realise your sheer dumb luck (yes, you, wealthy Westerner who has the time and education to read Medium articles!), your heart goes out to those who haven’t been so lucky.
These insights reflect back onto our own lives as an important source of self-compassion. We too have been thrown into existence, an innocent child thrust into a world beyond our choosing. Seeing this weakens our negative self-talk — that deeply ingrained habit of being hard on ourselves and holding ourselves accountable for every challenge in life. We see how much is beyond our control and come back to the fact we are simply doing our best to be happy.
Further, through insights into interdependence and non-duality, we come to see that our minds are fundamentally connected. These insights naturally generate compassion through the knowledge that we are not separate.
This is that eyes-wide feeling when everything else drops away and we’re hit by the amazingness of the fact that we exist. Whatever exists, it’s incredible. We know that intellectually, but sometimes, we feel it. Sometimes with every fibre of our body.
You don’t need to believe in God to feel rapture — total awe at existence — in the truest sense of the word.
There’s not all much I can say about a feeling this pure and beautiful. It comes and goes, but when it’s present, we’re right there in the beating heart of life.
Why is there something rather than nothing? The fact that anything exists at all is the mystery of all mysteries. That feeling can hit us at any time, in any place.
We must come face to face with our utter inability to answer the question of existence. We must dwell in the silence that follows. For it is in this silence that we might begin to hear the gentle tread of the mystery that anything exists at all. In our bones and face and breath, we can come to experience that we are the mystery of existence itself, the unfolding consciousness that goes totally beyond all human ideas and concepts.
We only know about reality and existence through our conscious experience of it. In this way, we are the mystery of existence itself; it is not something outside of us. The ineffable, the transcendent, the absolute, the infinite, the nameless, the Tao… words fall away to nothing when you can feel the mystery in your bones.
These words and concepts that masquerade as truth, under whose spell we have been entranced our whole lives…we cling to them as dear because they provide comfort, by means of explanations, in the face of the mysteries of existence. But we must learn to wake up and see through them, and we can only achieve this through doubt.
You might consider the total insufficiency of your assumed and accepted answers to the following existential questions:
Who am I?
What am I?
Where am I?
This world, this existence: where does it come from? Where does it go?
How many of your answers to these questions are simply ideas that have been handed to you by others — your parents, schooling and society? Are they really the truth, or just words?
Existential doubt arises when we admit that the stories we’ve told ourselves for so long about our existence, and see that really, they tell us nothing at all. Doubt can be uncomfortable and many shy from it. But it can also be deeply enriching, because doubt grows questions. And when we question our assumptions, our beliefs, we begin to cut through confusion and delusion and approach the reality of our lives, beyond the stories and ideas. Existential doubt is a powerful vehicle to awakening. We can doubt our way to truth. How else are we to free ourselves from the false?
“Life is a question demanding a response” (Stephen Batchelor). If it is not this question — of existence itself, of birth and death — that we are responding to, then we have sunk into distraction and turned away from the central matter.
We might say that existential courage is the strength to face up to this question, every moment, every day. Only then are we being true to ourselves, and are able to cast away the obstacles that stand between us and all we desire and deserve: the experiential awakening to life / reality / existence that is our birthright.
Existence is the cosmic joke, and existential humour is the emotion that arises when we “get it”. I’ll give others their due credit for explaining this better than me.
Death laughs at all our efforts. Laugh with it!
Or, as the poem goes,
Laugh and the world laughs with you.
Hold life too tightly and you’ll crush it. Too lightly and it’ll slip by before you realise. Wake up and laugh! Every moment is another chance to get the joke.