Answers to Existentialism


Picture Credits: Sarah Wilkins


The human psyche is obsessed with finding meaning in every facet of our daily life. We don't want to do things that don't yield a benefit or that yield nothing at all. Instead, our behavior is always driven to seek something. Philosophers have wondered what it is that we seek and whether it is even worth seeking. We aren't just seeking pleasure, or feelings of euphoria. Instead, what we are truly searching for is meaning in our lives. And to fill the void within our hearts, we attempt to give meaning to the various activities we do. Our very sense of self and personality is built out of this sheer motivation to find meaning in life. Life is meaningless if there is no agenda if there is no goal if there is no agent behind the action. Life is meaningless if we have no free will and everything in the world is predestined according to our past. In this post, I will be discussing various existential ideas, and relating them to my personal experience. Then, I will provide my answers to some of the most profound questions that existentialism aims to address. My views come not from a particular philosophy or a religion, but rather from my own journey, from my own emotional and intellectual experience. Perhaps intuition is deemed unreliable, but in my case, I think our most intimate experiences guide us towards the unbiased truth. I would also like to mention, I have been heavily influenced by Buddhism, especially the doctrine of the Madhyamaka school. Of course, the Buddha started out as an existentialist but later turned out to change the whole paradigm of epistemology and search for meaning. I will discuss this later in the blog. But now, I would like to first share my own journey through an existential crisis and some of the insights I found along my way. After this, I will discuss briefly what existentialism means, and explore the history of philosophical existentialism. I will be writing about Schopenhauer, Nietzche, Kafka, Sartre, Camus and end off with the Buddha. At the very end, I will suggest my solutions to the problems these philosophers pondered and hope to provide my reasoning alongside.

Existentialism and Jean Paul Sartre

The word existentialism actually comes from an eighteenth-century philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. It was mainly he and Simone de Beauvoir, that came up with the term. They basically said that existentialism is the philosophy that puts existence over essence. And I quote Sartre,

"Existence precedes essence." JP Sartre. 

Sartre thought our beingness precedes all phenomenological experiences of meaning and value. This builds on the Kantian philosophy of transcendental idealism, which reports that all phenomena are literally represented to the mind and that it does not exist apart from that mind. Sartre believed that we give meaning to things before they have any value. In other words, good and bad are merely habitual standards brought upon through generations. There is no inherent meaning in the universe and it is up to us to determine how we experience the world. This philosophy is quite opposite to Plato's philosophy of Essentialism. Essentialism suggests that all phenomena have an essence, what Plato called the form of things. This essence was prebuilt before we could perceive that thing and Plato argued that if we could understand the essence of things, we could better perceive those things. In Plato's eyes, meaning is predetermined in the objects, and we have to align ourselves to that essential meaning to truly come to terms with reality. Now, we clearly don't have a definitive conclusion as to which philosophy is better or 'more right.' But I think existentialism branches from the idea of subjectivity and humanism, which is more pleasing and desirable. Sartre would argue that all religious associations are nothing but a way to create meaning in our meaningless lives. There are two things Sartre is saying here, 1. There is no meaning in the world and 2. We are agents of our minds and worlds, so we can create the world we want. This view is half pessimistic and half optimistic in nature. But it burdens us because it puts the responsibility on our shoulders to carry out our lives with our subjective standards and be accountable for its repercussions. We no longer can blame luck or cosmic power for our degeneration. If a calamity occurs, it is only because of our own decisions that it happened. As Sartre famously states,

"Man is condemned to be free because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." JP Sartre.

We are creators of our own world, and this very fact is scary in nature, so we defend ourselves by transferring that responsibility onto an external agent, a God, or a divine being. But in reality, we have all the freedom in the world to do what we may like. We can choose to be free, or we can choose to act out of fear and avoidance. The choice is within us, and the very act of choosing or not is also dependent on our disposition.

Phenomenology and Arthur Schopenhauer

The reason why we are interested in the meaning of things is that it gives us some sort of comfort in knowing. Phenomenology is the study of experience rather than objective reality. Existentialists are concerned not with the reality of objects, but with how those objects relate to us and our experience. Schopenhauer is one of the first philosophers to examine existentialism through the realm of epistemological inquiry. He stated that things are of no value if they have no plurality. His concept of Will to Live refers to the flow of consciousness that is undisturbed by the continuous attachment of things. In reality, there is no meaning in things in themselves, but rather the meaning of things as they relate to one another. We cannot describe objects without referring to how they relate to other constructs. Hence, the very existence of humans cannot be described as singular in nature. Humans are a by-product of cultural and sociological structures that aim to maximize utility. For Schopenhauer, the will to live opposes the representation of the various plural things. The will to live is singular in nature and it has no goal or purpose. It lives on its own in solitude and has the unconscious striving to just be. It does not rely on any other entity but itself. This will is to be worth striving for, according to Schopenhauer, because it is only this level of relaxation that gives us the truth. As I will later explain, the willingness to seek truth outside the mind only leads to plurality and a mess of things intertwining with one another. The truth is singular in nature, but when understood through words, it takes the form of plural ideas due to how they are represented to us.

Qualia is the characteristic of an object that is beyond objective reality. It synthesizes the experience and the experiencer, and projects a total view of the scene. For Schopenhauer, it was the qualia of things that mattered over the quality or the objective reality. A blind man can listen to as many books and recordings about the color red and its scientific properties, but he can never have the 'qualia' of red because he lacks the fundamental faculties for understanding it. This is why the experience of things is important. The things in themselves lack meaning because meaning is a composition of the very faculty that is used to examine it. It is like putting on sunglasses- the entire world changes if we change the faculty on vision. The entire sensation of feeling changes if the faculty of touch is manipulated through gloves or something else on the hand. Thus, examining the faculties within our mind helps us better understand the world. 

Absurdity and Albert Camus

While Sartre was more of a philosopher at heart, Camus was an author, a storyteller, and a comedian. He never called himself an existentialist, but he brought many concepts that tied in with existential ideas. Some of the very pressing questions he brings up are:

Who are we, and why are we here? What is the meaning of good and bad and who is to decide whether we go to hell or heaven? Is there a meaning to life?

These questions aren't simply answered through writing, but they are brought upon through his literature. His famous book, The Myth of Sisyphus, showcases a man named Sisyphus who has to roll a big boulder up a very high hill only for it to go down once it is at the top.  This represents the dissatisfaction in our lives, where the very goals and events we dream to make us happy lead us to resentment. We are driven to live in a world where we must constantly struggle to get to the top, only to realize it wasn't good enough and that we have to do it all over again. The natural question then becomes, why doesn't Sisyphus just stop and give up? The answer is that he can't stop himself. Part of the curse from Zenus is that regardless of the struggle, Sisyphus can't make himself stop. Sisyphus is the current embodiment of our helpless nature which again and again seeks contentment in its dreams and willingly struggles in the way, yet when the dreams are accomplished, the contentment fades. With no other resolution, our helpless nature tries once again to look out and find something to achieve. This endless thirst for more things, more tasks, more money, and more ideas leads us towards conceit and disappointment. Yet, Camus argues that helplessness can be resolved if we accept absurdity. As Camus states,

" The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Camus

The struggle itself is worth living for and it is only through acceptance of absurdity that we become closer to being sane. Camus's fundamental question is should we commit suicide? If life has no meaning because of all the struggles we must go through, is it justified to end life? Regardless of what one may strive for, or live for, that very thing is simply a transient moment of happiness. So what's the worth of striving? Camus, on the other hand, denies the concept of suicide and argues that it doesn't solve the root problem. Killing yourself only gives in to the absurdity and it doesn't change the world or your perspective in any manner. You just don't exist to face the absurd. Instead, for Camus, it is better to be an absurdist hero who goes out in the world and embraces its uncertainty and absurdity. The hero knows that all things are meaningless in nature, yet he continues to struggle and put himself up to the task of pushing the boulder again and again. He does this because the struggle itself gives him meaning. It isn't the goal we must strive for, but rather the struggle itself that we must pursue. This isn't a sadistic way of inducing suffering onto ourselves, but rather a way of being radically accepting and willing to the possibility of absurdity. If we become scared and commit suicide, we lose the experience of the absurd. Why must meaning have more value than meaninglessness? It is only because the world is meaningless that we are given chance to struggle again and get up. This process develops our mental strength and gives us a persistent perspective that is inherently satisfactory. Freedom lies in accepting the absurd and never asking for more than what is given in this despairing and struggling life. His books, The Stranger, and The Plague are just some works that highlight the absurd nature of our lives. I summarize his philosophy below,

"The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning. This is a truth nearly all great minds have taken as their starting point. It is not this discovery that is interesting, but the consequences and rules of action drawn from it" and " You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of and you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life." Albert Camus. 

Psychological Trauma and Franz Kafka

Out of all the philosophers I will be discussing today, Franz Kafka is certainly the most interesting and eye-opening. Kafka had a terribly abusive environment and his ideas derive from his personal experience of oppression and desire to relinquish the suffering. It is only natural that his works discuss the horrible nature of the world and its implications on our human suffering. Kafka's writings portray the feelings of many individuals who suffer from psychological abuse and have to live with the perspective that the world is simply a horrible place. Kafka's own history traps him in a pessimistic view that secretly defends him from overcoming his trauma. Our childhood abuse can drastically impact the way we view the world, but Kafka uses the abuse as a defense mechanism to feel self-pity and writes about the terrible conditions of the world. He uses transference of his own life onto the whole world and boldly argues that the entire world suffers. Clearly, Kafka is unaware of how his own emotional turmoil is leading him to terrible conclusions, yet his disposition is valuable because it suggests how distorted our views can be based on our childhood trauma. Kafka lived in fear of his father, and he couldn't do anything against it. If we apply Camus' philosophy of accepting the struggle, we come to the dichotomy of being overly passive towards our pain and eventually numbing it to the point of being emotionless. Therefore, radical acceptance must be balanced with sufficient egofulness. If a broken ego attempts to accept the world, it loses confidence in positivity and accepts the world as painful and despairing. As Kafka writes,

"I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself" and "I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy." Franz Kafka

Kafka couldn't build a positive ego, so he had to accept the view of pessimism to survive. I write about Kafka not to pity him or to bring about his misery, but to explain the foundation of trauma and pessimism. Existential thoughts have the power to bring about neurotic breakdowns and psychotic episodes. The very combination of emotionality and intellectualization that comes into existentialism gives it a higher dimension of experience. Our minds, unaware of the depth of water, sink into the rabbit hole of thought and cognition. In fact, most existential thought leads to headaches and annoyance. For Kafka, his existential thoughts were automatic due to his psychological profile. He was forced into asking himself who he was and why he was here because he couldn't love himself, he couldn't care about anything. It was only when he had suffered the most severe mental agony, that he chose to turn towards investigating deeper aspects of himself. However, this view is far too dangerous. Abstract philosophy and over-rationalization under a traumatic background can lead to very lopsided conclusions. Thus, it is best to pair existential thought with an underlying positive experience. The combination of existential thought and depression or trauma often leads to very dark holes that take far too much struggle to get out of. This finally leads me to the Buddha and his answer to the existential paradigm. The Buddha took existential thought and paired it with a tranquil mind, rather than one that was intensively hurt or overly rational. He taught that our existential questions can be solved not when we fight for the answer or struggle with the trauma of abuse, but only when we let go of our conceptions of idealism. Even acceptance and attachment are simply conceptions of the mind, which attempt to come up with a theory of reality. The Buddha teaches us to deconstruct the very root of our search for truth. If anything, the Buddha is an anti-philosopher, one who teaches not to do philosophy but to give up the act of searching, and experience without interference.

Buddha and The Deconstruction of the Mind

Schopenhauer studied Buddhism and Daoism extensively, but he failed to see what the Buddha was explaining. He took the Buddha's first noble truth literally in that the world is suffering, but he failed to see the third truth which stated suffering is relieved by relinquishment of the ego. Schopenhauer's flawed views can be seen here:

" Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom." Arthur Schopenhauer.

Why must he assume that the fact that we can't fulfill our desires is a sign of our life's mistake? Schopenhauer takes the human condition in a very pessimistic view and suggests that because man can never fulfill his desires, he is doomed to suffer forever and that he can never get what he truly wants. However, the Buddha claimed that there is a way to both overcome suffering and the thirst for wanting more. Schopenhauer presumes that there is no way to overcome this wanting for more and that even if that is possible, it leads to only painlessness and not happiness. However, the Buddha denies that too and claims that the uttermost happiness, which is not paired with boredom but a sense of unity with the world, overcomes all need for wanting more or even judging itself. We look for more because first, we judge our current state and then assume its insufficiency.

The mind of an organism is born to seek comfort outside its own self to fulfill itself. Yet, in this search for comfort, it only cripples itself on the likes of other concepts and 'things.' The very search for comfort leads to discomfort and suffering. The only remedy then is to not look outside one's own mind. One's own mind is sufficient by itself, and it is only through one's own mind that an organism can actualize its true potential and meaning. The mind is all there is and all there is- is- the mind. The Buddha, then concludes,

"I do not perceive even one other thing, that when undeveloped entails such great suffering as the mind. The mind when undeveloped and uncultivated entails great suffering. I do not perceive even one other thing, that when developed and cultivated entails such great happiness as the mind. The mind when developed and cultivated entails great happiness."

So the answer to all existential questions lies in our own minds. There is no grandiose truth that needs to be pursued through experimentation or philosophy, all we need is our own mind. We don't need the mind for reasoning or for sensory perception. Rather, we need the mind to turn its awareness onto its true nature, that is to see the mind with the mind to dissolve its defilements. Thus, the Buddha asks us to purify ourselves by meditating and seeing the egolessness of all things. Form is emptiness because all things are dependent on one another therefore they have no pure existence in themselves. Yet emptiness itself is a form because it assumes that some 'thing' is absent when in reality there is no 'thing' in the first place. When we still all of our mental formations about the world, the reality about our self-nature arises automatically within the mind. The mind has all the answers that we need, all we need to do is turn inward and slowly uncover the real nature. In reality, there is no enlightenment, there is simply the uncovering of the mind. For years, the mind kept searching for meaning outside itself and continued to be dissatisfied. But from my own experience, I can affirm the Buddha's claim that when the mind sees itself and its inner emptiness, it starts to dissolve and give rise to a more true version of nature. Immense tranquility and peace arise as this transition occurs, and at last, there is a breakthrough to liberation from all delusion. Then, the questions of Who am I and Why am I here are uncovered on their own. The path has reached the goal, yet nothing has been done because we have only uncovered what has been here for eternity.

" A disciple should develop a mind which is in no way dependent upon sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensory sensations, or any mental conceptions. A disciple should develop a mind which does not rely on anything." so "When all ideas and conceptions are cut through, the true Buddha nature is uncovered. And at the same time, truly nothing has been done" Diamond Sutra.

So, how does a person develop a mind that has no preferences? How does one overcome his or her own habitual tendencies and instincts of seeing phenomena in patterns and concepts? Can our minds even get to such a still state, where all thought is suspended and only awareness is present? The Buddha would ask us to try meditation on ourselves and see if it works. But alongside meditation, one would also need to discipline his habits. Our thoughts are governed by our behavior, and our behavior is structured based on our intentions. So the Buddha would ask us to be aware of our intentions and examine whether or not they are 'wholesome' or 'unwholesome.' This transitions us to look at morality, which is a key concept in Buddhist studies. We cannot just find answers to existentialism if we are immoral and our minds are filled with greed, hate, and delusion. The Buddha states, 

"Even an evil-doer sees happiness as long as his evil deed has not yet ripened, but when it has been ripened, then does the evil-doer see the evil. Until the good is ripened, nor does the good man see good days, but when it has ripened, he sees happy days. " Buddha, Dhammapada. 

Buddha is referring to the law of karma, which is central to Buddhist ideology. The law of karma pervades all destiny and free will, and it impacts our mental and physical lives. So even if we don't find causality and specific consequences of our actions right away, they are substantial in our future. This makes logical sense as the things we do affect our brains and decision-making. So naturally, our future is shaped by the things we habituate our minds to. I will explore Nietzche's works in a bit, but the principal idea here is that no knowledge is useful or true if it doesn't come from practical application. The Buddha believes that a person who wants to uncover their existential problems must first work on their practical and moral problems so that their mind is balanced and ready to grasp the ultimate truth. In general, there are two types of Truths in Buddhism: relative and ultimate. The ultimate truth seems absurd and nihilistic in nature because we don't have the foundation of relative truth. The philosophers we discussed above all focused on developing ideas about the absolute realm without ever building a relative foundation. The relative truth asks us to be good people, and do good deeds so that our minds do not get attached to the ego. The axiomatic idea of good relies on selfless action. If we intend to be selfless at each moment, it transcends the bad result and results in good karma. These good karmic imprints add up cumulatively and lead to the development of the mind. When the mind is habituated to selfless action, it can let go of the ego easily and start to experience reality. The Buddha explained that reality cannot be understood through words or translations, it can only be experienced on a moment-to-moment basis. 

Nietzche and Morality

So when we come to Nietzche and his idea that God is dead, we can only ponder whether Nietzche ever relied on the relative truth. Nietzche believed that there is no distinction between good and evil and that our impulses are natural products of existence. His famous book, Beyond Good and Evil, tackles the idea of transcending social norms and coming to a state of equilibrium. This is similar to the Wu Wei (effortless action) of Daoism and the Will to Live of Schopenhauer. It gets very close to the Buddha's ultimate truth, but it has no basis in practical application. The closest application of his writing comes from this quote: 

" Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil" Nietzche. 

This ties back to the principle of selflessness and overcoming our egoistic drives. Good and Evil are just relative terms to help our minds let go of attachments. The absolute truth has neither good, nor bad, nor both nor neither. The absolute truth is messy, and incomprehensible to relative moral judgments. Yet, we cannot discard our daily moral duties because that is the only foundation we have. If we let go of our moral duties because we believe that is the absolute truth, we fail to see its interconnection with the relative truth. The absolute truth cannot be understood without a mind that is sincere, and disciplined. Furthermore, a man who sees the absolute truth is defined and observed as someone who always dwells in his serene mind that is undisturbed by thoughts. That man doesn't think about whether he is going to do good or not, or whether someone else is good or not; instead, at all times, he does good with an intention of being selfless and satisfied. It isn't that he does well knowing he is doing good, but that all he does is fundamentally good and that good is defined by the very spontaneous things that man does. Good, in other words, happens spontaneously when a man's mind is serene and unhindered by ego. The great sage and the wise monk have transcended good and evil but their actions only reflect goodness to set an example for the world. Hence, we cannot become nihilists and deny the existence of God; God exists not as an entity, but as a concept in all that is good. Goodness reflects the persona of a God, who is always the embodiment of truth and virtue. It is only when we do good, with an intention to see good in others (or God) that we can start to see the absolute truth. The absolute truth, at the core of it, relies on the ideas of being virtuous, kind, and compassionate. 

"Let no man think lightly of evil, saying in his heart, it will not come nigh unto me. Even by the falling of water drops a water pot is filled; the fool becomes full of evil, even if he gathers it little by little. Even by the falling of water drops water is filled; the wise man becomes full of good, even if he gathers it little by little."

In the absurd world, where nothing matters, virtue and compassion are the guides toward the truth; not because they are good in nature, but because they help us see the world beyond the distinction between good and evil. Nietzsche was correct in that good and evil are substantially meaningless, and that if there is a God, he must be dead. But he failed to understand that it is only when you do good that you are able to transcend the boundaries of good and evil. On the other hand, if you do evil or both you simply get caught up in the ego's attachments to the world. To transcend the ego, we must be mindful of our intentions and let go of our expectations to be perfect. The extreme opposites are always dangerous in the path to the truth because they give ecstatic feelings but eventually lead to a distinction. Therefore, to get to the goal of non-duality and transcendence, we must first walk the path of mindful awareness towards virtue and compassion. 

"If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for, or against, anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind... As long as you remain in one extreme or the other, you will never know Oneness... Stop talking and thinking, and there is nothing you will not be able to know...Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions." Faith in Mind, Sheng Yen.