Existential Void: beyond an empty belly

“I said nothing for a time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.”

Haruki Murakami

One of the core struggles many people bring to therapy often lies beyond their immediate awareness.  It is a sense of emptiness that can manifest in a variety of other ways: addictions, anxiety and worry, frustration, confusion, boredom, loneliness, depression, mid-life crisis, infidelity, consumerism and spending patterns, unfulfilling ambitions and achievements, relationship conflicts, overwork and exhaustion.  Many of these ‘problems’ can be understood as symptoms of something much deeper and fundamental: a void within us that we have routinely attempted to fill with what is at hand.

Like hunger, we have the choice of what we eat: McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell or any of a hundred different sources of tasty junk that fills our bellies, fires up the dopamine in our brains and, for a while, leaves us feeling that we’ve satisfied our hunger.  Nutritionally, however, we are far from fed.  What our bodies wanted was pure, clean, whole food: the product of love and care, time and effort, nature and nurturing.  Food grown in good soil, using natural, uncorrupted seed, organic growing methods, watered by clean rain under clean skies.  Food like this once grew naturally in our world and gave us all the nutrients our bodies and minds needed.  But the craving and greed of some humans corrupted the soil, the air, the water.  And now it is virtually impossible to find real food that is whole in the way that nature intended it to be.  This is arguably one of the greatest tragedies of our human history.

Existentially, our hunger expresses itself in a similar, felt way, sometimes with a similar urgency; often in much subtler, more pervasive ways.  If in response we consume the equivalent of Genetically Modified food, products of cruelty and suffering, contaminated with herbicides and pesticides, microwaved, irradiated, wrapped in plastic, stored on a shelf for two weeks, then we simply maintain the inner emptiness, whilst only adding to our personal toxic load with a toxic contribution to a troubled planet.  Whilst we are accustomed to recognising hunger as a fundamental need expressing itself in body sensations that we respond to by eating, even hunger is a need we have confused when we feed ourselves rubbish in an effort to simply silence the pangs we feel in our guts.  This fundamental error and failure to attend to the subtleties of experience and employ the better wisdom of our ability to discern what we need as distinct from what we desire, also characterises the existential needs we have.  Some hunger pangs need to be listened to, not silenced.

The existential void is a hunger at the level of our existence as multidimensional beings. It is more than the intellect, more than the feelings, more than our Ego’s desires.  Like the body’s need for real, whole food, ‘Being’s’ need for real, whole living requires us to attend to the subtler features of our feelings of emptiness, lack of fulfilment, boredom, addiction, craving, compulsion, habit.  It isn’t enough to quell the symptoms.  Because, just like the cheeseburger, fries and Coke, an hour or so later you’ll be craving something else that doesn’t feed you.

Each of us are beings who emerge from the inherently profound mystery of a wider fabric of life.  We are each temporary, fleeting expressions of this context; this life.  As such, we each have a purpose and the existential void – as our existential hunger – drives us to fulfil this purpose.  It is up to you to plumb the depths of this void in order to find your authentic way of being.

Equally, you are free to expend your energies chasing the latest iPhone, promotion, your boss’s approval, another qualification, a bigger salary, a bigger house, bigger breasts, a fancier car.  The challenge is to see how long these relatively trivial pursuits satisfy you.  Some people spend entire lifetimes in pursuit of these cravings, only to greet retirement with the same unfulfilled longing.  When all they wanted was to be received as they were; to love and be loved; to be free of authority figures who instill fear or tell us what to do; to do something truly meaningful; to find joy in the simplest experiences; to do nothing; to feel genuine connection with others; to be content with less instead of chasing more.  Things that were available to them all along had they only stopped long enough along the way to genuinely find out what matters beyond the immediate cravings of an empty belly.

Your existential needs are there within you waiting to be met.  They often speak to us in silence.  All you need do is learn to listen.

Image used under Creative Commons free usage rights via dreamypixels

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. LovingSummer says:

    It’s nice to be reminded that it’s often the simple things in life that bring the most reward, sometimes that idea can get a bit forgotten as it’s all to easy to get swept up in whatever the prevailing mindset is (which I notice changes anyway – there’s a big clue right there!).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jim- says:

    We typically overcome boredom with things that lead to more boredom. Our disconnect from neighbors and society in general is a big problem. Those were the activities we remember with a smile, now it’s each to his own device—literally

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Hi Jim. Indeed, it’s very sad to see the way communities have disintegrated across the world, especially US and UK. Social media ‘friends’ just can’t replace real, face-to-face, investment of time in other human beings. But computers, phones and other devices seem to have replaced real connection: they’ve become the junk food of our social diet.

      Very insightful what you say of boredom: Doing things that lead to more boredom. Existential need can often be found by delving into the experience of boredom instead of trying to escape it. But that can feel counter-intuitive in our culture of endless distractions and entertainment.


  3. I think we’re all aware of the void at some level but we shift and change in the way we try to fill it, or silence it. It might be food, partying, TV, work, church, studies, relationships, travel, new activities … Really, it could be a million different things. But eventually the emptiness seeps through – until it is finally faced

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Yes, often we’re aware of it as anxiety, boredom, frustration, loneliness and other discomforts. Unfortunately, most people seek to alleviate these feelings as quickly as possible and the real message – the existential message – remains unanswered. Some get themselves hooked into spirals of addiction and bad habits as a result.

      Liked by 1 person

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