It all goes back to when everything was a singularity—when all the matter that existed was on top of itself and time didn’t yet exist. I mean, that’s really backing up a lot, but really, I do think it starts there. I like to think of this as the time when collective consciousness was as infinite in its own density as all physical matter was. Everything was one. Then, the universe exploded into existence and then all the laws of physics as we now know them arose and here we are—separate, individuated in our own experiences.
We experience life in separate bodies and minds and it can be very unsettling. It becomes especially unsettling when we become acutely aware of it. Once we realize there is an “I” we also realize that our consciousness is separate from our bodies. We also realize that our consciousness is individuated from everything else. There is a gap—a lack—a space that keeps us from being entirely integrated. It also keeps us from entirely connecting to all that is not “I”. I think that this self-awareness and individuation is the source of our existential anxiety.
Once this awareness of the gap arises in us, we can either deny it or accept it. If we try to deny it, we are most likely trying to distract ourselves from thinking too much, feeling too much, or being quiet for long enough that we sense it. Distraction usually looks like avoidant behaviors that disconnect us more from ourselves and others, though they tempt us with the hope of escape. If we accept that there is this gap between our consciousness and existence, we can own that chase for wholeness and integration. And this is different than the chase owning us. This can mean that we embrace the reality of that gap and find ways to connect back to wholeness.
I think noticing when we feel this gap and when we feel detached from wholeness makes all the difference. The irony is, it is a universal human experience to feel that way. Sometimes just realizing that it’s part of being human can tie us back into the feeling of being connected to more than ourselves.
Also, once we’ve noticed that we sense this gap, we can decide how we want to chase wholeness. When we do the things that connect us back to our sense of vitality, I believe we temporarily fuse that gap. We all know feeling when we achieve flow and that feeling when we lose track of time and ourselves—that is when I think we temporarily bond back to more in the Universe than just our small self and forget that we exist separately. We become integrated. We forget our self, and we become part of a bigger flow of energy. Spirituality, love, sex, music, art, poetry, comedy, adventure, theatre, sports, dance, chivalry, social justice—these are all good things that are born from that chase to fill the gap.
What we choose to do with this gap is up to us. But the fact that it is there is the consequence of having a separate consciousness. And the universe is still expanding. So, it’s going to be a long time before it collapses again and returns to a singularity.
At different points in life we become more or less acutely aware of the gap between our existence and our ability to reflect on it. I remember the first time I became aware of my own consciousness and existence. I was 6 and in first grade. I was walking to get a piece of candy from my teacher for getting a 99% on my spelling test, and I had the thought “I am in this body, and I exist.” And I almost fainted entirely, but came to when I fell into a desk.
After that initial realization, a lot of us are able to normalize our finitude and our separate-ness and we just go back to a state of childhood. We get swept up in the early part of life with all the firsts and novelty of discovering life. Then we get into adolescence and early adulthood and we revisit these existential questions. Then maybe we hit another groove in the upswing of figuring out who we are, living and chasing dreams, and building the life we want. Then we hit midlife, and there it is again and with the special twist that we are noticeably aging. The finitude of our mortal life becomes a reality. I think the anxiety and grief caused by this gap and awareness of it is more or less acute at different points in the timeline of our lifespan. That’s another thing that didn’t exist when everything was a singularity: time.
I’ve decided to accept that this gap is part of the human condition and make my peace with it. Sometimes it’s extremely uncomfortable, and I feel my soul squirming and seeking resolve. If the universe hadn’t exploded into existence and we hadn’t all individuated, we wouldn’t have this existential separation anxiety. This gap may be the source of gnawing existential angst, and it may cause us to feel detached from our life without realizing why. Existential angst can present emotional and psychological challenges for humans and make life emotionally complex.
The unique challenge of being a self-aware and individuated human and the journey back and forth between those moments of wholeness and integration—it’s what allows us to be painters, writers, comedians, dancers, therapists, gardeners, creators, adventurers, revolutionaries, philosophers, logicians, lovers…the best of what humanity can be. It’s what allows us to rise above mere instinct and biology and become closer to who and what our ideals are. It’s what allows us to give our stories, describe our experience, and share with one another. That gap is where the gems of creativity and inspiration are formed. And when we mine that gap in our souls for meaning and for art, for love and beauty, for courage and just action, for poetry and story— we give ourselves and each other glimpses of wholeness and perfection.
Conclusion: Mind the gap. Embrace its reality. Learn how to harness the angst. Learn how to connect meaningfully to more than yourself—others, nature, transcendent experiences.