Practical ExistentialismOct 02, 2023
Practical Existentialism is a term I use to describe the theoretical and clinical foundation of my work. It is a particularly effective mindset and operational strategy for creators.
Practical existentialism provides an explanation for the genesis of mental illness but more importantly, it outlines a path to mental health, wholeness and success. My aim in this article is not to discuss the role of existentialism as it relates to psychopathology, but to explore how these concepts can serve the population of mentally healthy individuals in general and professional creators specifically.
To understand practical existentialism and why it applies to all cultures, ages, orientations and worldviews, we have to take a short journey into philosophy.
Existentialism is the branch of philosophy that attempts to address the “big questions” that surround our existence: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? Existential psychology deals with the impact those concerns have on us as human beings. We are brought into existence alone and with no idea of what we are supposed to do, why we have to die and when that will happen.
What about the fact that our existence doesn’t really seem to matter, outside of the extremely small period of time that we are alive on this tiny piece of rock that is hurtling through the cold vacuum of space?
Philosophers and Philosophies
Since the early 19th century, philosophers have wrestled with human freedom, choice, responsibility, alienation, and the meaning of life. Here is a (very) brief summary of some of the major figures in existential philosophy and their core beliefs, in roughly chronological order:
Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855): Often regarded as the father of existentialism, Kierkegaard emphasized the individual's subjective experience, and coined the term, “leap of faith.” He wrote extensively about the tensions between aesthetic, ethical, and religious stages of life.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) rejected traditional religious and philosophical systems, and introduced the idea of the "Übermensch" or "Overman" as someone who creates personal value systems. At one point, Nietzsche proclaimed the "death of God" and what that means for humanity.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was primarily a novelist, but I include him here because his writing deeply engages with existential themes. Dostoevsky explored the nature of good and evil, freedom, and the existence of God. While dark, his works "Notes from Underground" and "The Brothers Karamazov" are essential readings in the existential literature.
Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) focused on the concept of "Existenz," the indeterminate nature of human existence that is realized in personal choices. This is a pretty heavy read. Jaspers introduced the notion of "boundary situations," moments (like facing death or suffering) that confront individuals with the limits of human existence.
Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) introduced the concept of "Dasein" or "Being-there," which focuses on the nature of being. This is incredibly dense material, and probably not the place to start learning about existentialism, but essential for an advanced understanding. Heidegger’s concept of "thrownness" describes human existence as being "thrown" into the world. His concept of "being-towards-death" highlights the finitude and temporality of human life.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980): Probably the most famous existential philosopher of the 20th century, Sartre coined the phrase "existence precedes essence," to indicate that humans first exist and then define their nature or essence through their actions. Sartre was primarily concerned with concepts like bad faith, freedom, and responsibility.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was a close associate of Sartre who incorporated existential themes into her feminist philosophy. She explored the concept of "the other," emphasizing the ways women have historically been defined in relation to men. Her work "The Second Sex" is a foundational text in feminist philosophy.
Albert Camus (1913–1960) explored the idea of the "absurd," the conflict between our desire for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe. Camus argued that one must confront and embrace the absurdity of life, rather than resort to philosophical or religious “suicide.” His work "The Myth of Sisyphus" provides a deep dive into these ideas.
I list these to give you an idea of some of the themes of existentialism, and to provide starting points for reading more, if you are so inclined.
Existentialism and Psychology
Existential angst has influenced humans as long as there have been humans, but once the philosophers clarified these concepts, it was easier to identify their influence in psychology.
This is the point at which existentialism changes from theory to practice. This stuff isn’t just abstract musing; it profoundly influences you, all the time.
There are times that you feel a vague disquietude, a nagging sense that in spite of your best efforts to be happy, something is wrong. If you are like most people, these feelings remain just beneath the level of articulate consciousness, buried deep enough in your psyche that they elude reasoned consideration.
We spend an enormous amount of energy to become masters of distraction: we have the radio on in the car at all times; we scroll endlessly through social media in search of a dopamine fix, yes, but also to prevent the emergence of that which is primally unacceptable. My mother - and many like her - slept with the television on all night in an attempt to keep existential concerns from bubbling up in the quiet.
Existential anxiety is the reason that we resist solitude. It is the reason we fail at meditation. It emerges unbidden from the quiet, patiently waiting for its voice to be heard above the noise of life.
The unfortunate reality is that we humans seem to be the only species intelligent enough to understand the “big” questions, but too ignorant to formulate answers. There is only one way for you to integrate existential concerns into your life: you must sit quietly with them and hear their message. They will tell you what they have told every person brave enough to listen:
You are finite.
You may at this point say, “I already knew that, obviously. So what?” But when you trivialize the message in this manner, you have created yet another distraction from its truth. See, you really are going to die. You can’t be certain when or how that will happen, or what that actually means. This is the existential dread that has spawned millennia of philosophical discourse and religious dogma.
You must deal with this most inescapable of truths to rid yourself of the thing that holds you back from your authentic self. The fear of death is the fear that informs all other fears.
This is by no means a new concept. The currently popular trope of Memento Mori, with its ever-present skulls, can be seen in art and architecture across cultures and great spans of time. This visual reminder is meant to prod the viewer to deal with this ultimate reality in order to truly appreciate the value of life.
As I moved through successive degrees in psychology, I began to develop a feel for which theories (there are dozens) resonated with me in regards to personality and psychopathology. By the time I was seeing patients and working on my doctorate in clinical psychology, I had come to an understanding that made sense to me.
It seemed as though there was always something missing from the theories I studied. While they were (to varying degrees) internally consistent, I felt that they fell short when applied to real people in real situations. I was frequently left with the feeling that there was something deeper at work.
Something causes the anxiety, the neuroses and even the psychoses that other systems strive to classify, diagnose and treat. Psychodynamic, humanistic, Gestalt, behavioral, cognitive and many other major schools of psychological thought offer explanations for dysfunction and pathology, but - in my opinion - are incomplete. They fail to address the root causes.
The so-called “biological” approach is even worse, in this sense. It is important to understand the role of the ventral tegmental area in dopamine regulation, for instance, but the psychotropic medications that result from such studies only mediate symptoms (if we are lucky). They don’t address the facts of our existence.
Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, Irvin Yalom’s existential psychotherapy and more recently, Paul T. P. Wong’s integration of existential psychology and positive psychology are the exceptions. They are very much aligned with the concepts under discussion here.
At this point in my career, I counsel and coach mentally healthy individuals who want to optimize their personal and professional lives. Over the years, it has become obvious to me that the best way to deal with the often harsh realities of life is to find (or create - that is a topic for another long discussion) a sense of meaning, of purpose.
To put these concepts to work in your daily life, begin to observe where your psychological energy goes. There is only so much time and energy available to you each day. What do you spend your time thinking about? What actions do you take as a result of those thoughts? Are your thoughts and actions moving you closer to your goals?
Once you have become aware of the fact that your energy is limited and then observed the ways you spend it, the final step is to reapportion it; to create an energy budget, so to speak. You have a choice:
You can choose to spend your energy on thoughts and actions that move you closer to your purpose, and further from existential anxiety.
When you do that, you will notice that all your other worries and concerns decrease in intensity as well, because existential anxiety is at the root of all other anxiety.
Practical Existentialism in Daily Life
How do healthy people apply the concepts of existentialism and existential psychotherapy to live happier, more productive lives?
Here’s an example: You may be worried that the cost of living is going up but your income is staying the same. How is that an existential concern? Your worry really is, “What if I get to the point I can’t pay the bills?” That situation could result in the loss of your home. You could end up homeless and without health care. Underlying those concerns is the fear that with no place to live and no way to afford to take care of your health, you could die.
Well, that escalated quickly! That’s about as existential as it gets, to say nothing about other existential concerns like meaninglessness, freedom, alienation and choice.
When you are focused on a sense of purpose, however, it becomes easier to endure major challenges and work towards solutions. If a sense of purpose sustained Viktor Frankl through Auschwitz, it will help you with the loss of your job.
The negotiation with existential angst is not a one-time event, but a process. When it emerges (as it certainly will, from time to time), you can recognize it for what it is and not run away from it in a haze of distraction. You can sit quietly with the dread and let it inform your action.
The miraculous fact is that you are here, regardless of “why.” You do have time to take action, regardless of “how long.”
Your decision is binary: you can chose to ignore the categorical imperative to make the best use of your time and simply exist until you die, or you can choose to take advantage of the interlude of consciousness you have been given, and create a meaning for your life.
The first choice brings with it anxiety, depression and regret; the second brings an answer to the question, “Why are you here?” The great paradox inherent in this realization is that you don’t have to find all the answers in order to solve the puzzle. You will likely never gain definitive explanations for all of the mysteries of life, but you can create a meaning for your life in an otherwise meaningless existence.
Practical Existentialism for Creators
So now you have a feel for the “big” existential questions, some philosophical ideas about the human condition, and an overview of how existential concerns inform mental health. You even have seen some ways that existential concepts can help you find a sense of purpose to strengthen your resilience. Whew!
How can all this help us as creators?
Energy: Once you develop a sense of purpose - what is important to you and where you want to be, life-wise - you will find that you have less need to distract yourself, because your anxiety lessens. The energy you used to put into distraction can then be focused on creating content, whether that is music or writing or coaching or live-streaming or architecture or painting, or whatever it is you create.
Authenticity and originality: You can then come to the realization that, since you create and recreate your own meaning (as purpose), you are less inclined to follow other peoples’ paths. After all, if you can create your own meaning, you can certainly create your own content.
Inspiration: To wrestle with existential realities is to accept that your lifespan is limited. When you get to a place where you accept that you may never pass this way again, even the smallest, most mundane experiences take on new meaning. What was once just a tree or a cloud becomes something miraculous when you know someday you will never again see one. Suddenly, everything everywhere becomes numinous. Endless sources of inspiration; the end of “writer’s block.”
Resilience and determination: You will find that the message of existentialism is simple but incomparably powerful:
Time is short: don’t waste it.
This knowledge is the absolute best cure for “I’m not really feeling it today,” and “Maybe I’ll just watch some TV for a while.” If you want to achieve your goals, and make a difference - which is why you are a creator, right? - you don’t have all the time in the world.
Have a setback at work? Time is short, better get to it. Having relationship issues? Time is short. Better get to it. Fall behind on your deadlines last week? Yep. Time is short; better get to it.
Adopt Samuel L. Jackson’s admonition: “Tick-tock, motherf***er!” And you will be motivated to beat all your deadlines.
Existential concerns will be a reality for you as long as you exist (by definition). Might as well put them to work to create a meaningful, resilient life and career.
Practical Existentialism is one of the three main pillars of my work. To learn more about how to use these concepts to transform your life or to inquire about working with me, you can contact me through my website, the comments section on my Substack or Medium accounts or The Authentic Life Blog page. If you have found value in this article, consider following my Instagram and Twitter accounts. Subscribe to my River of Creation podcast - The Podcast for Creators, coming this November, wherever you download your podcasts.
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