By Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHCA
One of the frequent sources of anxiety mentioned by clients in my specialty psychotherapy practice of working with intellectually gifted individuals is the fear of obliteration of consciousness at death.
To them, Being and Nothingness is not just a thick book by Jean Paul Sartre. As a concept, it presents a nagging source of panic attacks for some, of restless nights for others.
They struggle to understand the next phase for the animating spirit that moves us through our lives but leaves our bodies upon our deaths. What happens next? Where does it go? What is it?
By animating spirit, I simply mean the quality, whatever it might be, that distinguishes a living human person from a corpse.
These conversations with my clients are not often religious in nature, but they also are not necessarily atheistic. My clients are intelligent enough to grasp that there are limits to the human mind’s ability to grasp everything presented to it.
Some assert the existence of a creator God, which permits them to believe that as created beings we are by definition lesser beings that our creator, and, therefore, less capable of comprehending the world around us.
That limitation is answer enough.
Discussing the work of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – specifically his concept known as the leap of faith when the mind cannot construct evidence – is often fruitful with these clients.
Others believe that our neuronal pathways simply lack the complexity required to understand concepts such as finitude and infinity, and they are willing to stop their line of questioning there, avoiding what they view as the absurd conundrum of asking questions that cannot be answered.
These are clients who benefit from an introduction to the thought of Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, who believed that what cannot be discussed must be consigned to silence.
Others need more mental comfort food.
They need mental tools to keep their thoughts from spinning into vortexes that keep them awake at night and cause them to break a sweat, gasp for air, and struggle to feel sane – classic signs of a full-blown panic attack.
There are two metaphorical models which I bring into the conversation when clients express existential anxiety about obliteration.
The first derives from the world of physics and the idea of energy.
I ask my clients who understand physics to conceptualize their animating spirit as organized energy which in this life is confined within the embodied form of their human body.
When contemplating death, I ask them to imagine this energy as no longer being contained by form, and free to disperse.
Since energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it is fair to extend this metaphor and imagine that it can be transformed via osmosis, a process which will eventually spread that which was once organized into the form of a particular human spirit into even distribution of that once-organized energy across the unending vastness of the multiverse.
Some clients find this comforting.
They realize they may cease to exist as a point of consciousness, but there is enough meat on the bones of this energetic dispersion model to keep them comfortable when thoughts of obliteration rise to their consciousness.
They have something to chew on. They are able to ward off panic attacks by envisioning this dispersion.
A second model I use with clients who may not understand physics is the hologram.
Even children understand the basic outline of holography: that each part, no matter how small, contains the whole.
This way of imagining what happens at the point of death also includes the notion of dispersion, but it includes the idea that the former unified self, the personality and character that once gave unique expression to a particular human form, is now dispersed into the multiverse in tiny holographic packets, each of which contains the whole.
Of course, the stumbling block here can be the next question: what happens to consciousness upon the death of the individual?
The holographic model seems to offer more comfort to some, because they can imagine tiny packets of information that reflect their personal consciousness living on forever, with the possibility of including multiple perspectives and experiences simultaneously from various points of consciousness throughout eternity.
Others find the idea of ever-dispersing and reformatting energy comforting, as it gives rise to the ideas of parts of their consciousness becoming the consciousness and motivating spirits of other living beings.
Some see this as a rational way of understanding notions of reincarnation, which they find comforting.
There are never answers. There are only more questions.
The challenge with intellectual giftedness when coupled with existential dread is to locate a metaphor into which the gifted mind can extend itself, to provide a sense of rootedness that at least raises a sword against the dragon of obliteration, scaring it off into the darkness for at least long enough that the individual can get a good night’s sleep.
Sometimes that’s all that is required. A good night’s sleep.
Sleep, which my clients are quick to point out, is a pause in consciousness rather than a state change.
Then we have to stop the conversation before we slip into deep questions about the nature of sleep.
Usually, however, these sleep and consciousness questions arise sooner or later in the course of our therapeutic relationship.
There is, as my mother always told me, no rest for the weary. There is often no rest for the existentially challenged client, either.
Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHCA
Psychotherapy, Intellectual Giftedness
1818 Westlake Avenue North, Suite 312
Seattle WA 98109
http://swensoncounseling.blogspot.com | www.swensoncounseling.com
Read her Description of Psychotherapy Practice on the page Counselors – Therapists – Coaches
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Additions by Douglas Eby, author of the Talent Development Resources and The Creative Mind series of sites:
Top image: Søren Kierkegaard, from my article Gifted, Sensitive, In Need Of Meaning: Existential Depression.
Lower image: ‘The Muse’ by Robert Stinson – cover of book My Teeming Brain: Understanding Creative Writers, by Jane Piirto.
Jane Piirto, Ph.D. notes that her book title comes from the poet Keats who knew the experience well, writing in a sonnet about his “fears that I may cease to be / before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain…”
In his book Why Smart People Hurt, psychologist Eric Maisel notes that intelligence is a central aspect of our identity, and lists fifteen challenges every smart person experiences, which many people have in common, including:
“Dealing with a racing brain that, because it doesn’t come with an off switch, inclines itself toward insomnia, manias, obsessions, compulsions, and addictions.”
– See more in my article: Developing Creativity: Excitabilities – Our Teeming Brains.
In his article Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals, James T. Webb, Ph.D. writes:
“It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression.
“Although an episode of existential depression may be precipitated in anyone by a major loss or the threat of a loss which highlights the transient nature of life, persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously.“
His related book: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment – “Many bright idealists find themselves disillusioned in today’s world, and they may experience existential depression as they examine their lives and search for meaningfulness. This book will help such individuals to understand themselves and their struggles.”