“We are not here to fit in, be well balanced, or provide exempla for others. We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being… we are here to become more and more ourselves.”
― James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life
In the two years I’ve been practicing as a therapist, there’s one type of client I’ve been most challenged by. Surprisingly, these are the ones who actually seem to be doing quite well. They have a successful career, meaningful relationships, and a relatively healthy dynamic with their family. And yet they feel something is wrong. Sometimes they describe the symptoms of what we would think of as depression. Sometimes it’s anxiety. Often it’s just a deep and restless unsatisfactoriness.
I can relate. I was this client to many therapists over the years. I had a pretty good life in many ways and yet felt disconnected from it. I was deeply dissatisfied with my life, and this dissatisfaction made me question everything. I fantasized about things that I thought could make me happy; a perfect relationship, a more successful career… and yet I knew these were just fantasies. I had already had great relationships and as much success as I really needed. But something still felt off. I was game to do the work and figure it out. I showed up for therapy in a big way, challenging myself to be vulnerable. I explored just about every avenue I thought could help; I meditated, went on retreats, and gave it my all. And yet I remained stuck.
The Buddhist path is one of radical acceptance. Accepting that we cannot control how we feel all the time and that we won’t feel good much of the time. The more we can abide in this reality, the less we need to feel good, and feel a sense of being free from life needing to be any particular way. We can just be ok with things as they are, in all their imperfection. And yet my very earnest attempt at this full acceptance of life still left something unaddressed. It was helpful in many ways, but over time it became clear that I needed to make some real changes.
A real eye opener for me was learning about the existential crisis. An existential crisis (could also be called a mid-life crisis) is when we realize our value system isn’t doing it for us anymore. We’ve outgrown what was previously meaningful for us, and this also means we’ve outgrown our identity (as they relate to our values).
When we’re young, we’re identified with our immediate family. Who we feel ourselves to be is intimately connected to the people closest to us. Adolescence is a big shift in our identity, when we start to explore peer groups and form an identity based on those relationships. The emphasis is on fitting in. We explore our environment, the social groups that gather around sports, music, fashion, and other interests, looking for a sense of acceptance and belonging.
This identity inevitably evolves over time as we deepen our relationships, discover new interests, develop a relationship with work, and possibly pursue a career. But at some point this identity, which has helped us immensely in finding our way in the world, starts to show some cracks. The validation and belonging we once felt is no longer satisfactory. Something is missing.
This time may be marked disorientation, fear, anxiety, or depression. The things that used to make us feel good just aren’t doing it for us anymore. Some people panic and try to regain what feels lost. They double down on their old values, thinking more of what they have will fix things. Some get desperate, like the stereotype of the middle aged man buying a sports car to revive a sense of youth and excitement.
What the wise ones tell us about the existential crisis is that there is no going back. We must let our old values and identity fall away to make room for something new. This can be extremely difficult and requires some degree of faith, faith that something new and meaningful can come after letting go. It is often talked about as a death; our old identity is dying, and it’s not going without a fight.
This process can be terrifying as we fear that without the belonging and validation of our identity and values, we would have nothing. We are already struggling as we don’t feel the same solidity in ourselves, and the idea of having even less, to let go of the few things that give us a sense of wellbeing, this is just unthinkable.
But there is no other way. As long as we hold onto our old selves, there is no space for a new one to be born. And this is what it’s all about, letting go and making the space for something more authentic. Instead of exploring and adopting characteristics from the outside world, an existential crisis is an opportunity to explore our inner world.
My meditation practice helped me immensely through this process. In meditation we are practicing letting go in each moment; letting go of our thoughts, of our feelings, and of who we feel ourselves to be. We find solace not in holding on to what we know, but in knowing that there is ultimately nothing to hold on to. It is a practice of being ok with just existing, and it was this practice that allowed me to resist the urge to grasp at the pieces falling away; to rest in the unknowing without panicking.
The existential crisis is a call to more meaningful values, to discover what is meaningful to us beyond the validation we receive from others. It’s uncovering what we really care about on the deepest level; who we really are.
The way forward, to a genuinely meaningful life, is to find this authentic motivation. To let go of what worked for us in life previously, and be open to discovering a new way of being. To discover what we care about on the deepest level then work to live in alignment with those values.
This journey is not an easy one, as there is no map. We make the path by walking it, we feel our way as we go, and it usually involves a lot of trial and error, things not working out, repeated failure, and relentless doubt. The big changes came in my life once I exhausted every other option and realized nothing was offering me any sort of relief from a sense of disconnection and a pervasive feeling of something being wrong.
I went back to school to train as a therapist as a last resort. I wasn’t especially excited about it at first, but as the time went on it felt more and more right. I started to feel a part of myself that is hard to put into words. I felt it when I was being really present with another person, offering them a safe space to express their insecurities. I felt it when I explained a concept to someone and helped them see things in a new light. It had the qualities of presence and connection and integrity. It was an authentic part of me that had always wanted to be expressed, and had at times, but now I was organizing my life around it. It felt good to be of service to others in a meaningful way.
It’s not as if things were suddenly perfect though. When we align with values and discover our personally calling, this does not mean our life gets any easier. It just means the challenges we’re facing are the right ones for us, and we can summon the energy needed to meet them.
I was visiting a wise old Tibetan grandmother named Khadro who’s a close colleague of one of my therapy heroes (Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing) and she asked how my therapy practice was going. I realized this was an opportunity to tap into some of her hard earned wisdom. I brought up the clients that were doing well in a superficial sense, but had this deep sense of lack, that were struggling to find more. She replied “it’s not your job to figure out their lives, that’s their job,” and a lightbulb might as well have lit up over my head.
Some of us are lucky to find our way to a life that resonates, but many of us are not so privileged. I have a theory that our true inner values are ahead of the world around us. This world might not be at a place that can support us to pursue our true values, but if we all made the effort to seek out and live what’s meaningful for us in the truest sense, then we would be living in a different world that would be much more supportive of us going after what our hearts desire.
For now though there’s usually a necessary compromise, a weighing of priorities and a limitation by practicalities. And maybe it will always be that way. Or maybe we can co-create a world where we all have more freedom to explore and pursue what’s personally and collectively meaningful.
This month at CEC we pose the question: what’s personally meaningful to you? And what parts of yourself are you ready to loosen your grip on, and maybe begin to let go? Maybe these questions are a bit much right now, and you just want to meditate in the virtual community. You’re all welcome to come explore!
If you enjoyed this essay, feel free to subscribe to Jude’s recently launched Youtube channel where he explores similar themes!