What’s the point in life?

iStock_000007789001LargeDear Jules,

I have been going through a really rough time lately and it is quite similar to your experience. I was quite a happy go lucky person through life until I had a bad terrifying trip on weed (my first time trying) I took way too much and freaked out and that traumatised me – having very anxious scary thoughts like what if I harm my self, what if I harm others – what is the meaning of life and whats the point of it all.

Like you I thought I ruined my brain chemistry forever. I still have the strange belief that everything in life is so insignificant and now I’m applying this to my daily routine – why bother getting dressed, why bother looking well in-front of people…strange thoughts like that and even when I give myself a sensible answer to this I boil down to WHAT’S THE POINT IN LIFE?

It’s like being told Santa isn’t real again.. Only I’m an adult and I want to be the happy-go-lucky one who got joy out of things instead of having this thought that puts a dampener on them (it is probably the worst thought I have, it makes my heart sink). Anyway I just want to know if you think I can be happy and live a life where I don’t feel like someone is poking me telling me life isn’t worthwhile.

Rachel

Dear Rachel,

Thanks for your email, and I’m sorry you’re having a rough time of it at the moment.

Some basic initial steps. Firstly, if you’re feeling depressed and frightened, it’s worth telling your parents – including telling them about smoking weed. They may react with anger and fear in the short-term, but that’s because they care about you. I didn’t tell my parents – or anyone – for years about my bad trips, and I think this made a difficult situation a lot worse.

Secondly, you might find it helpful to talk to a therapist. I’m not a trained therapist, but these days you can get free therapy on the NHS – find your local IAPT centre (it stands for Improving Access for Psychological Therapies, it’s an NHS talking therapies programme) or ask your GP. I can’t promise the therapist will be helpful, but it’s worth a shot.

The therapist will probably tell you that how you feel isn’t necessarily how things are. Sometimes our emotions become habits – we get habituated to taking a dark view of things, and are sure this view of things is true. So be wary of immediately believing your feelings to be true judgements of reality.

They will also tell you that sometimes we have irrational beliefs that cause us suffering, which we can learn to question and challenge. For example, I used to find it difficult to go to the theatre because I was very worried I would shout something out and everyone in the theatre would look at me. No shit! I honestly was so worried about this I’d put my hand over my mouth throughout the whole play. Then gradually I learned I wasn’t going to shout out, it was an irrational fear and I could call its bluff. Now I can sit through plays without my hand over my mouth. Progress!

Although I’m not a therapist, it doesn’t sound like you have schizophrenia to me, it sounds like you’re having what’s called an existential or spiritual crisis.

This happens when our consciousness sees through some of the constructs and conventions that ordinary life is made up of. We no longer believe in the things we used to believe in, and this makes us unhappy, because we’re not sure there’s anything worth believing in.

There’s a story-line that many of us follow in life. It goes like this.

In the beginning I was a happy-go-lucky innocent, without a care in the world or a distressing thought in my head. I lived in a Happy Valley of childhood. Then something went wrong. Something bad happened to me, and now I’m exiled from Paradise, and I’m stuck in a world where everything seems grey and miserable and somehow lacking in warmth and colour and joy and purpose. And I can’t get back to the Happy Valley. I can’t find my way back home.

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!

So, you’ve rumbled us. You’ve rumbled adults. You grew up thinking we knew what was going on. We don’t know what’s going on. No one knows why we’re here and we’re all basically winging it and passing the time trying to impress each other before we die.

What's the point?

What’s the point?

When I realized this, it made me feel quite melancholy – although maybe there was a certain pride in my melancholy too (I, the Deep One, have seen through the phoniness. I am the Awakened Greyhound).

I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more.  Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ -  doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward.

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: 'If you're going through hell, keep going'

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’

But what is the point? That question hangs over us like a cloud when we’re starting out on the journey, just as we find ourselves outside the Happy Valley. Why bother going on, when everything looks so dark and gloomy?

You won’t find an answer right now. It’s not like there is a Fortune Cookie slogan I can give you, which tells you The Point. First you need to practice taking care of yourself. Epictetus said: ‘practice, for heaven’s sake, in the little things, and then proceed to greater’.

Practice taking care of yourself. Practice taking care in the little things. Practice not letting your negative thoughts beat you up and cause you suffering. Why be so mean to yourself? Would you let someone be that mean to your sister, or your boyfriend, or your dog? So why be so mean to yourself?

Practice taking care of your body. The health of your consciousness is connected to your physical health – when you’re tired or hungover, you’re more susceptible to the automatic negative thoughts. Practice taking exercise, going for walks or jogs or swims or yoga, practice getting out into parks or the countryside. Feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things.

Practice being appreciative of little things – a cup of tea, a good book, a beautiful song, a funny film. Practice being appreciative of other people – little moments where people are kind to each other, despite all the hurt and confusion in the world. Practice loving other people. See them in all their beauty and vulnerability, and how much they want to love and be loved.  (I am rubbish at this, I’m usually an utter misanthrope – I need to practice being kinder and softer-hearted.)

I think this practice is easier if you find other people to practice with. That might be a self-help group, or a humanist group, or a Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim group, or it might be a group of friends that you can be genuinely honest and vulnerable with. Some of these groups might be dodgy, and we always have to be wary of ‘gurus’….but in general I think it helps to practice with other people.

All this practice slowly gets you into good habits. It’s like Mr Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid and getting him into good habits. Wax on, wax off!

And then, one day, perhaps months or years after you started the journey, you realize you’re in a different place, and that your world is full of joy, and colour, and meaning.

What is that place? It’s our inner nature, beneath the flaky conventions and constructions we’ve pasted onto it.

To get a bit mystical, I believe our nature is full of light, and when we practice well, when we get into good habits and out of bad habits, we let that light shine out, and we see the light in others too.And that’s the point. It’s not a sentence or a slogan. It’s an experience of consciousness enjoying itself, and helping other people’s consciousness shine out too.

I no longer feel as lost and scared and confused as I did when I was 21. I never became the happy-go-lucky child again. I never regained the innocence of childhood. I pressed on, and after a while I found something else, a kind of happiness regained, occasionally. I still have days of darkness, confusion, fear and ignorance – and I’m sure I have some bigger challenges ahead of me when I will write to someone and say ‘help!’ But I enjoy life, I’m grateful for it.

This is basically me, just so you know.

This is basically me, just so you know.

It’s difficult to talk about spiritual matters without sounding a pompous git spouting cliches. I’m 36, single, fitfully employed, writing this in my dressing gown. I’m a lazy, boozy, self-satisfied, egotistical idiot, caught up in the charade and wondering how many times his article has been re-tweeted. Just so you know who you asked for help.

Here’s a passage from The Catcher in the Rye which I’ve found helpful over the years:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many people have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.

What that means is, when you find a way through the particular forest you’re in at the moment, remember the way, and pass it on.

Jules

Comments:

  • Leelee Skinner says:

    This is very sane and compassionate advice, for a boozy misanthrope in a dressing gown. As a parent of younger teens, I’m going to try to remember what you’ve said here so that I don’t freak out if/when this happens to them. And so that the only advice I press on them is “feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things…” and try to love the other greyhounds.

  • Cate says:

    Nice advice Jules.

    I think that misanthropes can actually have a lot of kindness inside. I’m alone most of the time because I find it too anxiety inducing to deal with people. I’ve had a very different life, so I find it hard to relate to most people. Also, I had an experience with a real life psychopath that led to a complete breakdown in personality which can be a fast track to consciousness, though I wouldn’t recommend it. I see through all the crap, the social game and I think it’s all bullshit, so sometimes I feel contempt, but I’m still a dumbass myself.

    I feel like this quote from Bukowski’s film Barfly,

    “Do you hate people?”

    “I don’t hate people, I just feel better when they’re not around.”

    That being said, as you showed here, we can be capable of a lot of compassion I think.

    By the way, I’m writing this in my robe in opiate and benzo withdrawal (prescribed-but I’ve done non-prescribed drugs) REALLY wondering what the point is. And I’m in my 40s. I probably have fried my brain, yet something doesn’t let me give up and I do want to help people because I know what it’s like to really suffer. I want to put it all in a memoir. Perhaps I’ll try Adderall for that.

  • Tom says:

    Thanks Jules for sharing, I can really relate to this story. I am finally coming out the other side of a pretty deep existential crisis (possibly a result of drug use) and I am seeing the colour flood back into my life. I have just turned 29. The last 5 years have been pretty bleak and filled with crippling anxiety.

    I have read your book and been following your blog for a while. I often feel when reading your articles that you have somehow pinned down the thoughts in my head and eloquently put them into prose. I have just frwd this article to my girlfriend as I think it explains perfectly some of the things I have clumsily tried to explain to her in the past. Thank you.

    I also wanted to briefly share something that has helped me break through my crisis in case it is of help to people you work with.

    Mmm – how to put this into words!!!

    I believe that the brain at its simplest level is an input output machine. What you put in changes the outputs you get out. If you feed it with uncertainty and questions, it will look for answers to try and restore equilibrium. This I think is fairly well understood. What I think is not so well understood is how this might be related to an existential crisis.

    For me the cycle went thus:

    An increase in conciousness led to the floor of my view of the world dropping out, leading to depression. Everything I once believed and valued seemed to be lies and the world felt hollow.

    I then began looking for the truth.

    The deeper I looked into philosophy, Buddhism, meditation, health and fitness etc the more questions and uncertainty I created for myself. This ramped up my motivation to find the answers. What I didn’t realise at the time was that i was trapped in an ever deepening uncertainty cycle. The more I looked, the more uncertainty I created, and the more I needed to look. During this period my anxiety became crippling.

    Fortunately I was able to realise what was going on and pull myself out of this cycle. I decide for a period that I would cut everything out of my life that caused uncertainty. This included reading or listening to any self help, philosophical, health and fitness etc article or podcast. I then focussed on filling my days with play eg frisbee, non-fiction books, comedy, eventually friends. Within 2 weeks / month, I felt like a completely different person.

    I think there is a tendency for thinkers/sensitive types, whatever you want to call us, to over-think and intellectualise depression. I think in hindsight, if I had just ridden out the depression, I would have fallen back into life fairly quickly. However, my need to find answers lead me down a rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.

    I will still have questions because that is my nature. However, I now understand the importance of where I divert my attention and hope I am now better able to ask whether a particular line of intrigue is helpful or unhelpful to my quality of life.

    Best,

    Tom

  • Cate says:

    Tom, I agree with what you say. I’ve spent the past 5 years searching and reading philosophies and looking for answers, through a Dark Night, which I did need to do at the time because my entire false self had been pretty much obliterated, but now I’m done with it. I need to get out into the world again and quit THINKING. As soon as this withdrawal is over, I have to start attempting to work my way slowly back to health, as I’ve basically been bedridden for a few years. I’m one of those sensitive people you mention and my experience in the world has literally been too much and almost killed me. So now it’s a matter of trying to get my physical health improved enough (which, thanks to Stoicism, I know is not completely in my control) to make some kind of life with meaning.

  • Stephen says:

    Thank you for sharing a very interesting post Jules. Thanks also to the respondents, whose commentary I read first and which piqued my curiosity to read the full post! And no post is worthy of publication without a reference to Frodo and Sam ;-)

    You said …it sounds like you’re having what’s called an existential or spiritual crisis. This happens when our consciousness sees through some of the constructs and conventions that ordinary life is made up of. We no longer believe in the things we used to believe in, and this makes us unhappy, because we’re not sure there’s anything worth believing in.

    That is true. I’m not convinced everyone goes through it though. I’m fairly satisfied that lots of people indulge in social soma for life. I also think that some people come upon the equivalent of crises or profound doubt through philosophical thinking either at the everyday level or and including the planned disciplinary exploratory level.

    I have certainly come through a prolonged period of exploration on a reactionary and planned level. Indeed my own journey, which has come full circle, has I believe been prolonged due to conscious investigation. This is where I believe, to use the Matrix red pill blue pill analogy, most people differ. Many people will experience what Rachel experienced and will opt for the blue pill. A few will take the red pill. I’m not convinced they will be conscious of this choice, but that’s what happens.

    Your world view will also inform you in the end of why this happens. You might conclude that in all probability you are just bound by human experience to have such crises, or you might surmise that there are insurmountable tensions between our own psychology and our social milieu. You might consider that it is as a result of alienation brought about by the forces of production or you may decide that in the end it is the battle we face between choosing good and evil. I love the references to Tolkien’s work in your posts as it reminds me that we have free will and that we have control of at least terrestrial matters to a large extent.

  • Brett C says:

    Jules (and other commenters) thanks for a thought provoking read. The answer is love, though depending on what your individual question is, the answer may take less or more time to explain.

    I think as humans we have an amazing capacity to believe we are the first to think or feel things and that we are unique. That is unlikely given humans have been around for a while doing the same stuff: being born and growing up in a society of other imperfect humans – though sometimes we find a cool way of expressing it, and that sticks around.

    The danger of believing that life is a philosophical mountain to climb is that by definition as we climb the folks left on the ground all start to look small and the same, and we fail to see that solitary climbing can make us lonely and unhappy just as readily as it occasionally provides great vistas.

    The base camp is equally full of people that get that “just” falling in love and relaxing on holiday and sometimes being lost is as much as part of human experience as anything else (and probably enjoy the good times more) than those that feel the need to constantly intellectualise things that should be directly experienced – did you know it took Sallinger (Catcher in the Rye) until his late 20′s/early 30′s to talk about his adolescence clearly, and then he became a recluse the rest of his life (good book, not sure I would like to live his life)? The other group at base camp (whether they realise it or not) are optimising for things other than love like money, status, ego etc. Does that make them less worthly, probably not. Will that make them happy, probably not, but it may.

    At the top of the mountain after much suffering we realise that the humanity we left behind holds the answer to what we’ve been looking for all along, and that can set us free. Rachel you are and are not unique. Many have and will follow a similar path, what is unique is how you react to it…and how that moulds your future self (this may be a turning point in your life, or you may be over it by next week).

    Beyond that, learn to accept yourself, and make sure you’re spending some time with others that care about you, talking honestly about what’s on your mind (and try to find a few that have recently gone through what you have).

  • vitic says:

    Wow, that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read in my life. Whoever you are, I would be proud to call you my friend.

  • ctburcham says:

    The Matrix analogy (blue pill/red pill) really does kind of fit here.

  • Miraaj says:

    That was a good read. You are extremely self-effacing for someone (if I remember correctly) who listens to Kanye West’s music. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Peace.

  • DebJC says:

    Very good, I needed to read this, it will change my life…

  • Daniel Edward says:

    This article was [just] what I needed to come across! God bless and much love~

  • Kayleigh - Jane says:

    This is good, like really good, and i thank you for that.

  • Christopher says:

    Thank you I was looking for an answer and now I have found it.

  • Danny says:

    I just need to say thank you

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