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April 2020


Some Reflections on Existential Shock

                                                    Some Reflections on Existential Shock

It is commonplace in recent days for people to express astonishment at how COVID could have so completely upended the world, causing everything to change so suddenly and all at once.   This is a kind of situation for which the term “existential shock” seems both apt and descriptive.

Existential shock can result from many different kinds of trauma that befall human beings –both personal and global cataclysmic events.   Its defining characteristic is an experience of intense personal upheaval in which it is felt that “the world” itself seems called into question.   The philosopher Martin Heidegger describes such moments as the darkness which can break out at any point in the struggle of human existence.

Grappling with the existential shock of COVID has invited me to ponder the question “what IS ‘the world,’ anyway?”   This is a deep inquiry with many layers, but where I looked first was to what the German language designates by the word “weltanschauung”:  the fundamental cognitive orientation which encompasses the whole of the individual’s or society’s knowledge and presumptions about the nature of things.  

Bottom line,  “the world” is generated by a collective and socially constructed experience which corresponds to what we come to expect about “the way life is” at a particular time and place.     On one level,  “the world” includes all of the mundane features of the modern Western cultural lifestyle, inclusive of things such as running water, electricity, grocery stores,  and the internet.   At another level, “the world” includes planet earth and all of its denizens, and presupposes all of the things that we take to be eternal, including planetary events such as seasons, climate, weather patterns, etc.   

But existential shock shows us the Zen truth of “not always so”[1]. Our expectations about the world rest on the common metaphysical illusions of human life:  the presumed nature of things which is communicated and sustained through the medium of words and reified pictures.   As the philosopher Wittgenstein expressed it, we humans are “bewitched by language”; our shared illusions replace the tragic finitude and transience of existence with a picture of a permanent and eternally changeless reality[2].   

When we encounter the fact that life is otherwise — transient and context-dependent – this can be shocking.   ( In the effort to remind myself to be mindful of this existential truth, for many years I kept a refrigerator magnet which said on it “SUDDENLY!”)

As I reflect on it, I see that existential shock arises as a consequence of being dislodged from the ongoing-ness of life.  We are psychologically reliant on what feels ordinary and routine,  on the structures of meaning that define our lived experience.  When this structure suddenly changes, our felt sense of the continuity of being is disrupted.   And because, as the famed psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott was the first to emphasize, going-on-being is the subjective center of our human world,  interruptions in our experience of going-on-being are traumatic.

Many circumstances and crises have this tendency to disrupt the experience of continuity of being, but none more than the experience of being seriously ill or attending someone who is dying.   When we are very sick – even from causes which are not life threatening – it can feel that the world has gone on without us.  The existential impact of such an experience can be profound.   As indicated in the Chinese book of divination, the  i ching,  crisis contains both danger and opportunity.   Crisis can be an important threshold experience and a portal to personal transformation.  It poses an existential challenge: will we be broken down and defeated by our reactivity and resistance to change, or broken open and transformed?[3]

The value of existential shock is well conveyed in the story of the Buddha’s life.   Leaving the protected enclave of the kingdom of his birth and youth, it is told that the young Buddha encountered the realities of old age, sickness, and death,  and he was so struck by these “heavenly messengers” that he vowed to find the path to enlightenment.  Existential shock can be profound in a way which can initiate deep transformation in us, awakening our consciousness.  

As has been observed by many, the COVID pandemic presents us with opportunity as well as crisis.  Thanks to the necessity to stay at home, the enforced busyness and pressures of life are stripped away, giving many of us a taste of what is available on meditation retreat.  For all of the danger it presents, COVID shows us what is available when we slow down enough to be present and open to a more spacious awareness of being.   We have the opportunity to lean into the uncertainty which seems to be the center from which everything begins.

At the level of “the world”, the opportunity inherent in this pandemic is nowhere expressed more beautifully than in the following poem:


from Richard Hendrick (Brother Richard) in Ireland, March 13, 2020

Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise, you can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet, the sky is no longer thick with fumes, but blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the empty squares.
Keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighborhood, So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting.
All over the world people are looking at their neighbors in a new way, with empathy and compassion.
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality — To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To love.
So we pray and we remember that –
Yes there is fear. But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying. But there does not have to be selfishness.
Yes there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul.
Yes there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic.
The birds are singing again, the sky is clearing, spring is coming, And we are always encompassed by love.
Open the windows of your soul.
And though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, Sing.



[1] Suzuki, S.   (2002)   Not Always So.   Harper Collins Books

[2] Stolorow, R.   (2020)  Planet earth: crumbing metaphysical illusion. American Imago, Vol. 77 (1): 105–107.

[3] Lesser, E.  (2005)   Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.    Villard Books, Random House

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