At a certain point in life, there is sometimes a moment when everything suddenly becomes painfully meaningless. There is rarely even any warning. One day, everything is fine, and then the next, nothing even makes sense.
The underlying basis for an existential crisis starts with the fact that we are taught values, instead of developing them. For instance, when we are growing up, we inherit our beliefs, values, and judgments from our parents, friends, school, and (if applicable) church.
However, at a particular moment in life, we realize that these values are not what we internally believe in. For example, we might go to college, get married and have children..all before realizing that we did it because that is what we thought we were “supposed to do”. And when we question what will make us happy in life, we realize that we don’t know. We absolutely do not have a clue as to what gives our lives true meaning and joy.
When this realization sets in, the emotional pain can become quite intense. There is this feeling of angst; it’s almost as if being pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, our current life feels empty and there is this idea of “I can’t go on like this”. On the other hand, there is no understanding of what could give life meaning. I.e. everything seems meaningless and pointless.
Dark night of the soul
Although the term “existential crisis” is most often used in this situation, I’ve also heard people label the experience as a “dark night of the soul”. I think this term might be more helpful simply because it infers that the experience is one that is spiritual in nature.
It’s worth noting that the original meaning of “dark night of the soul” did not actually relate to a life crisis. The term comes from a poem by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic from the 16-century. In his poem, St. John was describing a stillness that is necessary to reach union with God.
In modern use however, this term is used to label a life crisis that involves an intense struggle to find meaning in life. This struggle is extremely painful on the emotional level, and can lead to severe depression or possibly even a mental breakdown.
You may have noticed that some people can be quite content with life as it is, while others in similar situations might feel depressed or unsatisfied. One of the things my ex-wife use to tell me all the time was “If you want to be happy, just be happy”.
But at moment in my life, I couldn’t “just be happy”: it didn’t seem to work that way. I also didn’t know what was wrong, and that was very frustrating. Only later did I discover a vital piece of missing information: more “developed” souls will be less content with life in general.
From a spiritual-psychological perspective, an individual can be said to be comprised of multiple components, including a soul, a lower self, and a higher self. The lower self includes the ego and all the thoughts and emotions associated with the ego. The higher self is the aspect of a person that is connected to God. The higher self is interested in the soul establishing a connection with God, which is done by more closely connecting with the higher self.
The higher self and lower self are “located” inside the individual, with the lower self wrapped around and covering up the higher self. The lower self actually acts like a barrier that prevents access to the higher self. The more flaws that the lower self has, the harder it is to penetrate and connect with the higher self. So a more developed soul is one who has already made significant progress on overcoming personal flaws. As a result, the higher self is able to penetrate through the lower self more easily and manifest in one’s personality in some areas.
With this in mind, it should be noted that an existential crisis is actually the result of spiritual progress. I.e., the higher self has started to “shine through” the lower self more and more. The results in a closer connection with God, which in turn results in many aspects of the material world becoming much less important than in the past.
To restore a sense of purpose to life, it is necessary to continue down the spiritual path of self-discovery and self-improvement. The journey itself is not a pleasant one. It involves being extremely honest about one’s shortcomings and faults, which is not at all pleasant for the ego. Additionally, it includes a lot of effort and determination to overcome these faults.
But doing this will allow for an even better connection with the higher self, and open up new connections with God and the spiritual world. These new connections will then be able to provide even better guidance on the spiritual path. And the end result is a life filled with purpose, and which leads to inner peace.