existential moods

For when you’re feeling down: On the Heights of Despair by Emil Cioran


This is the text that made me fall in love with philosophy. It’s also the first philosophical work I ever read. It’s more lyrical than analytical which makes it seem like you’re reading poetry rather than philosophy. As counterintuitive as it may seem to read sad books when you’re sad, I found this text eerily comforting.

“The most terrifying intensification bursts into nothingness. You grow inside, you dilate madly until there are no boundaries left, you reach the edge of light, where light is stolen by night, and from that plenitude as in a savage whirlwind you are thrown straight into nothingness”


For when you’re feeling small: What Is by Alan Watts


Listening to this lecture immediately made Watts one of my favourite philosophers. He brought new light to ancient Buddhist philosophies, dissolving the self and privileging the now. I always go back to this recording whenever I’m feeling lost or insignificant. Watts always reminds me that I am neither.

“We live in an eternal now. You’ve got all the time in the world because you’ve got all the time there is, which is now. You are this universe. And you are creating in every moment because it starts now.”


For when you’re feeling disconnected from self: A Treatise of Human Nature (Section VI: Of personal identity) by David Hume


I came across this chapter of the Treatise while studying Philosophy of the Self at university, and while Hume can be a bit bland to get through this bit is worth it. His central thesis is that the self is like a republic – there’s no necessary unity to our identity, it’s all just thoughts, emotions, feelings, coming and going, tied together only by functionality. There is no subject of experience, just the experience itself.

“And as the same individual republic may not only change its members, but also its laws and constitutions; in like manner the same person may vary his character and dispositions, as well as his impressions and ideas without losing his identity”


For when you’re feeling alienated: The Outsider by Albert Camus


Another one of my favourite philosophers, Camus explores complex existential thought with a luminous clarity. He delves into issues of purpose, humanity, morality and death. Though it may leave you feeling more confused than assured, something about Camus’ detached tone provides a refreshing new perspective on life and how we live.

“I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the tender indifference of the world.”


For when you’re feeling out of touch with the present: The Island by Aldous Huxley


Though some may not classify him as a philosopher per se, Huxley’s later works were undoubtedly imbued with much Eastern philosophy. My favourite part of this text would probably be the mynah birds that the native people of the island trained to repeat uplifting slogans. It’s an interesting take on Buddhist doctrines, while also warning (in classic Huxlean style) of the dangers of consumerism and hedonism.

“But why did they teach [the mynah birds] those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?” 

“Well …That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”


For when you’re feeling anxious: The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts


But of course, I had to include another Alan Watts text. Here he argues that much (if not all) of our anxiety comes from either anticipating the future or lamenting the past – both of which involve ignoring the present moment. As always, lucidly written and incredibly calming, this too will make you feel at home in your skin.

“But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To “have” running water you must let go of it and let it run.” 


For when you’re feeling like you might be going through a legitimate existential crisis: Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche


We’ve all been there. And who better to turn to than the master himself. Nietzsche’s exploration of eternal recurrence and the will to power is sure to either soothe or exacerbate your existential angst. Either way it’s beautifully written and infinitely enlightening.

“You know these things as thoughts, but your thoughts are not your experiences, they are an echo and after-effect of your experiences: as when your room trembles when a carriage goes past. I however am sitting in the carriage, and often I am the carriage itself.
In a man who thinks like this, the dichotomy between thinking and feeling, intellect and passion, has really disappeared. He feels his thoughts. He can fall in love with an idea.”

By em

a sometimes poet, sometimes painter, always philosopher

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