Sooner or later in life, we are all faced with the realization of our mortality and the meaning of our existence. Because the task of thinking about meaning can be daunting and scary, it is important that we do so in a constructive way. This thought can be anxiety provoking as it introduces us to uncertainty. Whenever we’re faced with uncertainty, we can experience anxiety and we can turn that anxiety into creativity.
Given that human life is possibly futile and meaningless, we are faced with the unavoidable task of making sense of it. The search for meaning can lead us to think about our values and morals. I believe it is interesting to periodically think about our decisions and life choices in light of our mortality. We can find meaning by following different paths, for example career goals, religions, humanitarian causes, life ambitions, projects, helping others and so on. However we want to think about it, the uncertainty of existence can give us a fertile ground for creativity.
Existential therapy has a wide philosophical ground and can provide us with the tools to think about meaning in a constructive way. There are a lot of different views and opinions on religion and spirituality. Some philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Sartre were strongly against all sorts of religions; others have extensively explored the role of spirituality in the human experience, for example Jung and Buber.
Got ist Tott
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1961/1883), Nietzsche famously rejects religion and proclaims the death of God. Nietzsche’s notorious statement of ‘Gott ist Tott’ (God is dead) has led to all sorts of interpretations, but what is clear is that his rejection was based on moral grounds. The death of God means that humans are now morally mature enough to define boundaries and values without the pretext of religion as a guarantor. God ist Tott implies that the moral codes can be defined independently by over-human forces. This is an incredibly empowering message: I don’t need God to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, I can decide that for myself! God here is to be intended as any overarching moral authority, so it can apply to all sorts of moral codes and laws. The power of this statement is in the realisation that I need to define morality for myself. It’s inside-out, as opposed to outside-in.
Religion VS Spirituality
The Nietzschian contribution is now well ingrained in the way we think about existential therapy (Van Deurzen & Adams, 2011). This means that now, more than ever, it’s essential to distinguish between religion and spirituality.
Religion is a structured moral code that comes necessarily with dogmatic beliefs and more or less structured rituals.
Spirituality is the need to make sense of our existence. In this sense we’re all spiritual beings whenever we think about morals, values and meaning.
Various existential therapists and philosophers agreed to codify our human experience in different dimensions (Binswanger, 1963; Yalom, 1980; Van Deurzen, 2010). They agreed on the following: physical, social, personal and spiritual. In an existential sense the spiritual dimension is referred to as Überwelt, literally over-world, which is the way we relate to whatever idea we have to make sense of our existence. This can be the dichotomy between: meaning and meaninglessness. Does our existence have a meaning? However we want to engage with that thought, we are considering our spiritual dimension.
To exist at the best of our potential, we want to think about how we relate to our mortality and how we make sense of it. Even if we can't find absolute answers, it's good to engage with the questions. Any choice can be a valid choice, as long as we make it in awareness.
Binswanger, L. (1963). Being-in-the-World. (trans. J. Needleman). New York: Basic Books.
Nietzsche, F. (1961). Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans. R.J. Hollingdale). Harmondsworth: Penguin (original work published 1883).
Deurzen, E. van. (2010). Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy (2nd edn). London: Routledge.
Deurzen, E. van. & Adams, M. (2011). Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential Therapy. New York: Basic Books.