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I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

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Last autumn I wrote here about the idea of “forest bathing,” which sounds like it might require getting naked in the woods and some water. It doesn’t.

The practice began in Japan in the early 1990s and was known as Shinrin-yokuwhich translates roughly as forest bathing.

More recently I heard an NPR story about someone who went for a forest bathing adventure on the pocket of forest outside Washington D.C., Theodore Roosevelt Island, on the Potomac River. If that doesn’t sound wild enough that seems to be part of the point of the activity.

You don’t need hundreds of acres of forest or water or miles of trails or a destination. You probably don’t need a certified forest therapy guide either, though some guidance is always helpful.

Forest bathing is about slowing down and becoming immersed in the natural environment. Immersed is a good word. It does mean to plunge into a liquid, but the dictionary also says to involve deeply, absorb and to baptize. In a good forest bath, you would plunge into the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. Touch the tree bark, smell the pine needles, loam or the black walnuts, taste the mulberries.

It is meant to cleanse the mind of the accumulated mental detritus from the outside world.

One of the exercises that might be done in your bath time is the body scan. It is a technique I learned many years ago in a mindfulness workshop. It can be done any place, but in a natural setting it will take on another dimension.

Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed. Then, turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.

Think of this as a guided meditation, though easily self-guided. You move focus to the sole of your right foot, then right ankle, and move up to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg.

When I first tried this I was so relaxed by the time I had moved up my torso, through my back, chest and shoulders, that when I tried to focus on my head, scalp and hair, I fell asleep. That is not what is supposed to happen, but it did. I have used the technique to fall asleep on nights when my brain can’t shut down.

A body scan is not a trick. It is a way to shift your focus and train your mind to go where you want it to go. In an age of many distractions, being able to control when you want to let your mind wander (which can be a creative thing) and avoiding drifting into worry and doubt is a powerful ability.

This all sounds very “new age” and a lot of people unfortunately use that term in a disparaging way. They lump together everything from well-documented practices like yoga and meditation to more fringe practices. For example, many people would probably dismiss aromatherapy and yet we all experience emotional responses to aromas in our lives – the smell of baking bread, the scent of herbs you brush against in a garden or the pine forest you walk through.

Forest bathing is being studied as an alternative kind of therapy or medicine. The NPR story I heard said that a 40 minute walk in the forest is associated with improved mood and feelings of health and a real decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol .Excess stress can play a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis, among many other ailments.

The idea of trying in your day to “Be here, not there” seems so simple, but is so difficult for most of us.

Henry David Thoreau knew that his little Walden woods didn’t need to be very far from Concord to be an escape. I have my own nearby small woods that certainly doesn’t qualify as a forest but allows me to turn off the outside world. It is more than walking or meditating or being mindful in your home, office, or on city streets. Those are all good things to practice, but this is about being in the natural world.



Listen to “A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation” for a guided body scan.

Learn more about forest therapies at natureandforesttherapy.org. Perhaps you might even become a guide one day.

Most people would not see any connection between the newly released film Hope Springs with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, and a film from earlier this year called Jeff, Who Lives at Home. I saw the former in the theater last week and watched the latter on DVD a few days ago. Very different films. I liked both of them a lot.

Hope Springs is about a couple that after 31 years together go to Great Hope Springs, Maine to work with a famous therapist to try to rediscover the reasons why they married so long ago.

In the other film, Jason Segel plays Jeff who is simply looking for meaning in his life. He is a stoner slacker who has been pretty much written off by his brother and mother, but he knows that signs are leading him towards meaning.

The connections are signs.

Jeff was powerfully influenced by the film Signs. That’s a film that focuses,in  B-movie thriller style, on an alien-invasion and was directed by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable).

The film tracks a series of signs and portents that come to a  family in Pennsylvania who wake up one morning to find a 500-foot crop circle in their backyard. The news tells them that crop circles are being found all over the world.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home was directed by the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, who have directed some rather eccentric and funny films like The Puffy Chair, Baghead and Cyrus.  Jeff, Who Lives at Home  is more of a major studio, major names film, but it is still an odd one in all the best ways.

Kay and Arnold have been married for 31 years. Jeff has been on the planet for 30 years.They are both searching for answers because they can see the signs.

The couple has a therapist as a guide. Jeff has only himself to interpret the signs. He reminds me of the father in the TV show Touch that I wrote about earlier who is trying to find the red thread that his son sees.

Everything is connected. Everything has a purpose.

Jeff is living in his mom’s Baton Rouge basement. He watches TV, smokes pot, eats junk food and does not go out into the world. One critic said that Jeff,  in his soul, is a “character out of Dostoevsky – a holy fool.”

Random events ( a television infomercial, a wrong number, a stranger on a bus) are not random. There are no accidents in the universe.

More than ten years ago, I read the book There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives by Robert H. Hopcke. Hopcke is a Jungian marriage and family psychotherapist. (A therapist, like in Hope Springs – coincidence? Of course not.)

The book explores the nature and role of synchronicity.  It was Carl Jung who coined the term “synchronicity” to describe those odd “coincidences” and events that seem to tell us something, teach us and sometimes turn our lives around. They make life a  grand, mysterious story.

But how do you identify these coincidences as signs and uncover their significance so that they turn our lives towards greater meaning.

Some of the stories in the book – a woman is set up on a blind date with the same man twice, years apart, on two different coasts; a singer’s career changes direction when she walks into the wrong audition; a man gives his wife an unexpected gift, after she repeatedly dreams about that very same item – will trigger memories of your own synchronicities.

One of Jung’s favorite quotes on synchronicity was from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, in which the White Queen says to Alice:

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.’

‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.

‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first–‘

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘–but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure MINE only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

I heard author Rupert Isaacson talking about an incredible journey he made with his wife and autistic son.  Rupert and Kirstin Isaacson were dealing with their two-year-old son Rowan who is autistic. Rowan’s isolation, and uncontrollable fits were increasing, and treatments were ineffective.

One day, Rowan ran away and slipped under a fence into a field of horses. His father was terrified that the boy would be trampled, but the horses responded gently to him and he seemed to connect with them.

Rupert, who had a long connection himself to horses, began to think that horses save their son from his condition. The family left their home in Texas and traveled to the place where horses and spirituality still are intimately connected – the plains and mountains of Mongolia.

That story is told in  The Horse Boy: A Father’s Quest to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson. The family seeks out shamans in the horse-centered culture as a treatment for Rowan. (There was also a documentary film, also called The Horse Boy,  produced. )

Rupert Isaacson and son Rowan in Mongolia

Did it work? Yes. Did it cure the autism? No.  The Mongolians were accepting of Rowan and he the animals.  During their trip, Rowan developed dramatically  improved language and behavior.

It doesn’t surprise me that much, because I have heard of many other stories like it. They weren’t stories about autism, but rather stories about animal therapies.

A friend of mine works with Chariot Riders in New Jersey. That’s a non-profit organization accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) that provides therapeutic horseback riding for physically and mentally challenged children and adults. They work with the riders using horses to improve their physical, emotional, mental and social well-being.

Temple Grandin, who is well known for her own work with animals and autism, sees the book as aligned with her own beliefs. She and Isaacson spoke before he wrote his book and they discussed the idea that perhaps the shamans and the healers in some traditional cultures had autistic traits. She sees the rhythmic chanting and repetitive movements as similar to autistic “stims.” In a review of the book, she said:

Children with autism need to be exposed to lots of interesting things and new experiences in order to develop. One of the reasons the trip to Mongolia was so beneficial was that Rowan could explore lots of fascinating things such as horses, streams, plants, and animals in an environment that was QUIET. The Mongolian pastureland was a quiet environment free of the things that overload the sensory system of a child with autism. There were no florescent lights or constant noise and echoes. Some individuals with autism see the flicker of florescent lights which is like being in a disco with strobe lights. When I was a child, loud sounds hurt my ears.

Parents and teachers can duplicate the benefits of this trip without having to travel. Horseback riding is a great activity. Many parents have told me that their child spoke his/her first words on a horse. Activities that combine both rhythm and balancing such as horseback riding, sitting on a ball, or swinging help stabilize a disordered sensory system. There are lots of places you can take a child to explore nature such as parks, brooks or a field with tall grass. Children with autism need to be shown interesting things and encouraged to do new things. Everywhere Rowan went he was asked questions and encouraged to talk about the things he was looking at. You need to find QUIET, interesting places away from crowds of people, florescent lights, traffic, and noise, where you can engage the child and keep him tuned in. This is a great book and everyone who is interested in autism, animals or different cultures should read it.

Read an excerpt from the book

Watch a video trailer for the film

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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