The American Psychological Association defines “existential crisis” as a stage of life at which a person’s goal is “finding meaning and purpose in life” or any crisis that causes someone “to ask fundamental questions about human existence.”
Are you asking yourself questions like – Why am I here on earth? What’s my purpose in life? Is this all there is in life, or is there more? Why are these things happening to me? If so, there is a good chance you may be in the midst of your own existential crisis. Those who have had serious illnesses, faced death or are merely growing older may also be among this group.
From a Zen perspective, these questions are just the starting point of a deeper quest. From a Zen perspective, the question is not so much why but who. Specifically, who is asking?
Answering this question requires more than just reading, researching and analyzing. This intellectual approach can take you only so far; it is not capable of answering the fundamental question: who am I? This search requires you to turn away from looking outward and instead turn your eye inward.
Telling students that they and the universe are One is the simple answer, but truly experiencing this oneness is difficult. We point out that the music they hear is actually note-by-note-by-note, and that it is the mind (through memory) that connects these separate notes into a melody. It is the mind that translates vibrating airwaves into any sound at all. Similarly, the mind also turns light waves into colors, which in turn help us to differentiate the red light from the green one.
The universe we experience is one we ourselves create.
What can you do to experience this oneness yourself and to end any gnawing existential uncertainty and anxiety? Quiet your body to quiet your mind. Exhale. Cut off any thoughts that arise. Let your mind become like flowing water instead of ice.
This state is the best time to seek the answer to the question of “Who is asking?”