Existential Awareness and How We Deal With It: A Wandering God Review (Part 1)

Existential awareness — that mundane experience we all take for granted — had dramatic historical effects. Morris Berman explores some of these effects in his book Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality.

Who are nomads? What is their spirituality and consciousness like?  How does it differ from more sedentary cultures?  What role did it play (and what role might it continue to play) in the evolution of human consciousness? 

Berman hints at an answer for the role of nomadic spirituality when he writes of his personal motivations:

“Years of body work and meditation led me to believe that paradigm zeal is rooted in a denial of our somatic experience. Emotions, often painful, live in the body; paradigm-shift addiction (like substance addiction) enables us to escape these emotions and live in our heads. Carl Jung and the transpersonalist’s (…) call for a renewed spirituality only went so far, in my view; clearly, we needed a renewed corporeality if we were not going to repress the body and fall into the trap of a new mythology, make a fetish out of our supposedly new spirituality.”

A lot of painful emotions that live in our body can be traced back to the dawn of existential awareness. It’s here that we’ll start off.

What Is Existential Awareness?

“There are certain experiences common to the human race (…) One of these is existential awareness, the perception of having a self separate from the environment, and from others (…) In any case, the effects of this alienation are, and probably were to some extent, painful; and, historically, the human race has tried to grapple with it in three basic ways.”

Berman’s own definition of existential awareness, taken from the quote above, is “the perception of having a self separate from the environment, and from others”. He also uses the synonym “ego consciousness” at various times.

The Oxford Dictionary defines existential as an adjective “of or relating to existence” and defines existence as a noun meaning “the fact or state of living or having objective reality”. The same source defines awareness as a noun meaning the “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.” Wikipedia gives a more satisfying definition with “the ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, thoughts, emotions, or sensory patterns.”

Taken all together, this would lead us to define existential awareness as the ability to perceive, feel, be conscious of and have knowledge of the events, objects, and sensory patterns that constitute the state of living, especially as it pertains to the thoughts and emotions of having a self separate from other selves and the environment.

Morris Berman Horizontal Consciousness

When Did Existential Awareness Arise?

We were not always aware of this awareness. The perception hasn’t always existed. Most likely our early ancestors 2 million years ago didn’t experience a self separate from other selves and the environment — or at least not the extent we do today.

Perhaps it’s only with anatomically modern humans and specifically sapiens that it became a thing. But to be honest, time frames are difficult to pin down.

For this reason, Berman doesn’t place much emphasis on exact dates for the birth of “ego consciousness”,  but he does point to the bicameral thesis of Julian Jaynes as a source of inspiration for understanding how it might have occurred, even if the when is way off.

All this curious development of the sixth century B.C. is extremely important for psychology. For with this wrenching of psyche = life over to psyche = soul, there came other changes to balance it as the enormous inner tensions of a lexicon always do. The word soma had meant corpse or deadness, the opposite of psyche as livingness. So now, as psyche becomes soul, so soma remains as its opposite, becoming body. And dualism, the supposed separation of soul and body, has begun.

-Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The birth of existential awareness was a painful birth. The effects of it created a split between Self and World. A distance. A little part of the world extracted itself from a unified matrix by processes unknown and for reasons unknown.

This alienation has lingered ever since and led “the human race” to “grapple with” the painful birth effects of existential awareness “in three basic ways.”

Morris Berman Vertical Consciousness

How Do We Grapple With Existential Awareness?

1. Paradox: This solution is a sort of anti-solution. It doesn’t seek to confront it head on like some battering ram forcing open a door. It doesn’t seek to solve the riddle, but would rather live inside the riddle with awareness of both the person inside the riddle and the riddled environment.

Morris Berman writes:

“This is a diffuse or peripheral awareness, which can be characterized as being ‘horizontal’ in nature (…) It is not characterized by a search for ‘meaning’, an insistence or hope that the world be this way or that.”

This way is most readily seen in Hunter Gatherer societies whose way of life creates a  ‘mature ambiguity’. We’ll return to this phrase later on.

2. Sacred Authority Complex (SAC): This form of grappling advocates a trance-based or ecstatic escape. The goal of it is to generate mystical experiences that are often projected upwards into a realm of gods.

Although its beginning predate agriculture, it’s in the sedentary life of civilization that this ‘solution’ becomes dominant. Ascent experiences, especially starting around 2,000 BCE, became “the most dramatic way of generating (temporary) psychological security” as Berman writes.

In a large part, the purpose of these experiences was:

“to offset the pain of ego-consciousness by means of a mystical experience that merged the psyche with the rest of the creation, what Freud called the ‘oceanic experience.'”

In contrast to the horizontal orientation of the paradox ‘solution’, this solution keeps itself vertical. The diffuse awareness of paradoxical consciousness becomes far more focused and centralized.

3. Dullardism: This is less of a solution to a problem or a grappling with a problem as it as a pretending that the problem doesn’t exist. An unwillingness to engage with it. However, as the old existential adage goes: not choosing is a choice.

It’s basically the worst alienating effects of modernity coupled with a detached inability to try and figure out where the effects come from or how to live with them.

Trance practices become heretical and ‘spacing out’ is where it’s at.


So the painful birth effects of existential awareness (the perception of feelings, emotions and patterns attributed to oneself being separate than others and the surrounding environment) has lead to three reactions:

  1. Paradox
  2. Sacred Authority Complex
  3. Dullardism

And these three reactions attempt to ‘heal’ the alienation in some way. Or at least they try to maintain awareness of the dynamic at play.

Is there solution? Go back to an assumed unified matrix that preceded the birth of ‘existential awareness’? How does ‘heal’ and ‘make go away’ relate? Are they the same thing or is to ‘heal’ mean, in some sense, to accept, to understand, to get at the root of what it is and leave it at that.

In the next series of posts, we will unpack the context of Paradox and Sacred Authority Complex and see what it might teach us about how we got where we are.