Existential suffering

“What are your thoughts on existential suffering and ISTDP? When I refer to existential suffering I relate it to issues concerning life and death, and or feelings that arise as a result of a fatal illnesses.” Thanks to one of our community members for sharing this important question.

Reality is the Great Teacher. It reminds us of the illusions which have silently guided our lives. Death reminds us that we will not always live. Our time is very limited. We will not achieve everything we hoped for. Illness reminds us that our health is a gift which can be taken away. The image of constant health is an illusion because all of us will die. For instance, we don’t really “have” anything. Our life, our health, our friends, everything is simply a gift, on loan. And the death of our friends or our hopes only reveals to us that our belief in “ownership” was just an illusion.

And yet, by bearing the grief and losses we experience through life, our illusions peel away one by one, revealing to us that life, every person, and every thing is a gift, incredibly precious. All is given.

When facing loss, we can think that something is “wrong”, “unfair”, or “unjust”. From the perspective of our illusions, loss is always wrong, unfair, and unjust. But life is as it is, prior to all of our judgments and illusions. Loss and death in life is neither right nor wrong, fair nor unfair. Loss and death are realities in life.

When we judge loss and death as wrong, unfair, or unjust, we are merely saying that life “should” not be this way. It should supposedly be the same as our fantasy. But no matter how much we fight reality, reality always wins. We thought we were God and that reality would conform to our ideas. But it turns out we were wrong.

So do we surrender to reality? It’s not necessary. Reality keeps being reality whether we “surrender” or not. But there is a kind of surrender that occurs through which we are healed.

We sometimes think the pain of loss is a problem to be “worked through”. What if our grief and pain are not wrong? What if they are the very path of healing? What if feeling the grief and pain as deeply as possible is how our illusions are washed away, leaving the new you revealed?

After grieving the loss of our illusions, we don’t really need to surrender them, since they seem to float away on the tears. Now that we can face the emotional reality of loss, the illusions are no longer necessary to protect us from the real.

For instance, when facing death we might think that our lives were meaningless. Upon deeper reflection, we realize that our lives, our commitments, our loves were deeply meaningful. That’s why we have so much feeling. We may want to deny their meaning so that we would not have feelings. But the meanings are real. What proved to be meaningless were our illusions, our defenses, and the lies we told ourselves.

Then we face the grief over the unnecessary losses we inflicted upon ourselves and others through our defenses, our failure to embrace reality. A patient may report having deep shame and guilt over the choices he made in his life. Today one person who had made disastrous choices in his life said to me, “I just need to get past this shame and guilt.” I replied: “What if your guilt and shame are not the problem? What if they are the path to healing? This shame is a sign from deep within you that you did not live up to who you could be.” “That’s true,” he said, and he sobbed deeply. I continued, “This guilt over all the people you hurt is a sign of your love, the higher part of yourself that is calling out to you to come home.” He sobbed again and said he did not think he had ever even tried to live up to his inner self. He felt he needed to get past the guilt and shame. I replied, “You don’t need to get past the shame or guilt. But you need to go through it. This guilt and this shame are the signs of who you could become, the man who has always been inside of you under the façade.” Again, he sobbed.

The painful feelings heal us. They strip away our illusions. We have never been hurt by our deepest feelings. We have been hurt only by our resistance to reality and our feelings about it. When reality starts to pull the illusions off of us, we start to feel pain. We might think we are dying or that we want to die, but this is to avoid the death of our illusions. After our illusions die, we are reborn in some new and unexpected way. As the Sufis say, we have to die before we die.

Sometimes we “rage against the dying of the light.” But reality always wins. This is not a rage to explore in therapy. But it may be one to accept as we encourage the patient, through the acceptance of his rage, to accept as well the loss of his illusions which were so dear to him. This acceptance of our inner life is not a form of cherry picking where we accept some dimensions and don’t accept others. That is just a form of self-rejection and self-hatred masquerading as therapy. The difficult task is to accept our rageful protest against reality, our grief over the loss, the wish to hang onto our illusions, the shame and guilt over our failures, and fear of letting go and then becoming. Accepting all of it, all of you. Because when we talk about existential suffering or life, we are talking about you. We are existence. We are life itself. Since reality and existence have already accepted you, why shouldn’t you do the same?






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