Carolyn Elliott’s Existential Kink: Book Overview & Takeaways

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What are your deepest desires? Are you even in touch with them? How can you take control of your life by taking control of your desires?

We all have negative patterns we see playing out again and again in our lives. In Existential Kink, writer and teacher Carolyn Elliott argues that the negative patterns in our lives are manifestations of what we unconsciously desire.

Read below for a brief Existential Kink book overview.

Overview of Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliot

In her book Existential Kink, Carolyn Elliott argues that negative patterns of feelings and behaviors in our lives are manifestations of what we unconsciously desire and that embracing and fully approving of such desires will help dissolve them. By taking emotional and physical pleasure in our unconscious desires and making those desires conscious, we can eliminate their ability to secretly control us, freeing up our time and energy so we can want and manifest positive things. She refers to this practice of embracing and taking pleasure in our unconscious “negative” desires as existential kink. 

Elliott is a writer, poet, playwright, and teacher with a Ph.D. in critical and cultural studies from the University of Pittsburgh. She is also the author of Awaken Your Genius and has created the online business and life courses INFLUENCE, FORCE OF NATURE, and THRILL, which include the principles of existential kink.

What Is Existential Kink?

According to Elliott, the term existential kink can refer to both an attitude about life in general and a specific meditative practice. We’ll discuss the attitude first and later describe how to do the meditative practice.

The premise of existential kink is that the negative patterns—of feelings, behaviors, and so on—we see recurring in our lives are the manifestations of our unconscious desires. As humans, we have an instinctual drive to experience everything—both good and bad—but we repress our desires for bad things because we’re ashamed of them. For example, we might consciously believe we desire financial independence, but unconsciously we delight in the feeling of being dependent on others, so we don’t take the necessary steps to gain financial security.

According to Elliott, this repression doesn’t eliminate these negative feelings and desires. It merely makes us unaware of them. They continue to impact our lives by creating destructive patterns, which we tend to attribute to the cruelty of other people or the universe. The only way to eliminate our negative patterns is to acknowledge, embrace, and take conscious pleasure in them until they’re no longer interesting and lose their ability to manifest themselves in our lives—this is what it means to practice existential kink. 

Uniting the Conscious and the Unconscious

Elliott bases many of her ideas of unconscious desires on the work of Carl Jung, who established the idea that our conscious minds, or our egos, comprise only a tiny fraction of who we actually are. The rest of our selves exist in the unconscious. 

Our conscious minds make choices based on polarities (such as light and dark, wealth and poverty, strength and weakness), and specifically, based on the side of each polarity that aligns with our identities. For example, we collectively view strength as a good thing and weakness as a bad thing, so we’re encouraged to seek to be and identify as strong. This leads us to consciously make decisions that we think make us feel or look stronger and avoid decisions that make us feel or look weak. 

However, our world is made up of polar opposites: Both the good and the bad sides of any thing or issue exist, like wealth and poverty, life and death, courage and fear, and so on. So by identifying with only one side and alienating ourselves from the other (for example, by seeking happiness and spurning sadness, or valuing control and devaluing helplessness) we divide our whole self, repressing the aspects of ourselves that we view as negative and shameful but which our unconscious is deeply curious about. 

This repression leads us to exist in a divided state, seeking only the “positive” and trying to avoid the “negative” even though we secretly want to experience the negative, too. But the unconscious subtly attracts what it wants, and thus we attract things we’re not willing to admit we want (such as poverty, weakness, or sadness). Because these desires to experience the negative won’t go away until we satisfy them, and we can’t satisfy a desire we won’t acknowledge, this unwillingness undermines our ability to attract the positive things we are willing to admit we want (or at least, that we know we’re supposed to want). This is how we end up watching negative patterns continue to play out in our lives.

While it may seem absurd that anyone would want to only be in relationships with controlling partners or constantly struggle to pay the bills, Elliott explains that on an existential level we desire wholeness, not division, and the positives in these situations—being in relationships with good partners or having no trouble paying the bills—is only one half of the whole. To become whole beings, we need to exist and revel in our repressed desires and take pleasure in them so we can satisfy them. This will ultimately loosen their hold on us so that we no longer desire the things that make our lives worse. Practicing existential kink is about embracing both sides of these polarities, becoming whole, and taking control of your fate.

The Seven Principles of Existential Kink

To understand existential kink as an attitude, let’s look at the beliefs about the world that underpin it, according to Elliott. Existential kink is founded on seven principles—incorporating them into your worldview will help you understand and practice existential kink.

Principle #1: What You Have Is a Manifestation of What You Desire

Adopting existential kink requires becoming aware of your unconscious desires. If you’re struggling to identify what you unconsciously desire, all you need to do is look at what you currently have, explains Elliott. The things your unconscious secretly craves will come to be in your life, seemingly from some force outside your control. 

Principle #2: Sensation Is Neutral

We repress desires that arise from what we think are “bad” feelings, but there are no inherently “good” or “bad” feelings. When you have a sensation, feeling, or emotion, it’s up to you whether you interpret it as pain or pleasure (hence the “kink” in “existential kink”). 

As proof that this is possible, Elliott notes that many people enjoy BDSM, which involves deriving sexual pleasure from physical pain. The fact that humans are able to do this, argues Elliott, suggests that pain itself is a neutral sensation and that it’s only our interpretation of it that’s negative. You can experiment with this concept by momentarily choosing to believe that, deep down, your unconscious wants the negative things in your life to happen (essentially, consenting to the pain as people do during BDSM), and this will give you a greater sense of control over what happens to you.

Principle #3: Everything That Happens to You Can Be a Source of Pleasure

According to Elliott, it’s possible to enjoy every event and circumstance that occurs in your life. We generally only take pleasure in certain types of things, such as compliments, moments of good fortune, and other things our conscious mind and society deem “good.” The purpose of existential kink is to allow yourself to take joy and excitement in both the good and the bad.

Principle #4: Joy Depends on Acceptance

As we’ve discussed, existential kink isn’t about changing your life but about taking pleasure in every part of your life. Therefore, how much pleasure you can take in anything depends on how accepting you are of your life as it is. According to Elliott, taking joy in the bad things requires you to get rid of your moral judgments about yourself and your life and take everything—negative feelings, difficult circumstances, unpleasant events, and so on—less seriously. We often take a moral approach to our lives, so when we feel bad, we feel as though we are bad. 

Instead of taking a moral approach, Elliott recommends looking at your life from an aesthetic perspective, the way you would a great story or work of art. We don’t repress or avoid stories about suffering and hardship. In fact, we seek them out and delight in them. Try doing the same with your life: Don’t see “bad” events or emotions as reflections on you, but instead feel those bad emotions deeply, understand them inside and out, and appreciate them like you would a work of art. 

Principle #5: Denying Your Unconscious Desires Only Makes Them Stronger

People often think that if they ignore the bad things in their lives, they’ll go away, but the principles of existential kink show us that the opposite is true. Pretending we don’t have unconscious desires won’t get rid of them, explains Elliott. The only way to keep them from manifesting as negative patterns is to satisfy them. For example, if you consciously want to succeed in your job, but you’re constantly making avoidable mistakes because you subconsciously enjoy the lack of responsibility, you won’t be able to fulfill your conscious desire to succeed until you acknowledge and enjoy the feeling you get from being irresponsible.

Principle #6: Shame Is the Number One Enemy of Existential Kink

Existential kink requires you to unite your conscious and unconscious desires and thereby take control of your life, and according to Elliott, the primary hindrance to this is shame. Shame is a sign that you’re suppressing something, so letting yourself be shameless opens the door to embracing your true self.

Principle #7: You Experience Physiological Reactions to Personal Truths

As you’re practicing existential kink, when you come upon a true new insight into yourself, you’ll feel something, like a jolt that goes through your body, a feeling of weightlessness, or even sexual pleasure. Elliott explains that these sensations can help you distinguish true from false beliefs about yourself or life, so you should pay close attention to them and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them. 

For example, as you’re meditating on a negative pattern in your life, like being unable to hold down a solid job, you may have many ideas about why this is happening: Maybe you secretly want to avoid the accountability that comes with a career, or you enjoy feeling dependent on your friends and family, or deep down you believe that only boring people have real jobs. You’ll have many ideas, but you’ll know you’ve hit upon your true insight into why you can’t stick with a job when you feel some kind of sensation like those listed above in response to one of these thoughts. 

How to Practice Existential Kink

The basic method of employing existential kink is through meditation. Elliott describes a six-step process for an existential kink meditation practice, which we’ve condensed into four steps. 

Step 1: Relax and create a comforting space. Since existential kink involves noticing physical sensation in response to your thoughts and feelings, you should be as relaxed as possible before you begin. This will allow you to better tap into your body and mind so you can be more aware of your feelings and sensations. Elliott recommends using incense and a candle, along with a 15-minute timer to keep you centered in the moment and to keep you from losing track of time.

Step 2: Choose a life event or circumstance to reflect upon. This should be something that your conscious mind dislikes, or something that you would typically label “bad.” This works best for recurring patterns. As an example, imagine you find yourself drawn to romantic partners who are distant or unreliable, and even though this frustrates you, it continues to play out in your life. 

Step 3: Notice the bodily sensations and emotions that this circumstance evokes in you, and revel in them. Elliott explains that this involves approaching these feelings from a sadomasochistic perspective, allowing yourself to take “kinky” pleasure in these ostensibly negative feelings. This doesn’t mean coming to enjoy the negative situation itself, merely the sensations it evokes in you (which are the sensations your unconscious is seeking). In the case of the distant partner, you probably don’t enjoy rarely seeing your partner, but you might be drawn to the feeling of martyrdom you get when you complain about how unreliable they are. 

It may help to pretend the circumstance you’re reflecting on is going to magically disappear from your life in a month so you can feel more open and honest about it. It can also help to give yourself explicit permission to feel good about these things, or even to talk dirty to yourself about how much you like them. This will culminate in an emotional and physical release not unlike (and possibly including) an orgasm.

Step 4: Allow yourself to connect with your unconscious and embrace gratitude for what you’re experiencing and feeling. In the previous step, you allowed yourself to feel joy from the feelings surrounding your “negative” experiences, but in this step you’re identifying and connecting with the part of your unconscious that has these feelings. Here, you’ll move past the feelings and fully embrace and feel gratitude for the negative situations that caused them. 

This is the step when your unconscious and conscious merge, putting you in touch with your whole self as you come to understand that you as a curious human seeking to experience all of life, both the good and the bad. The more you do this, the more uninteresting the “negative” circumstances will become and the more easily you can let them go. Still, your goal in this practice should be to just feel and enjoy, not to get rid of the bad things in your life.

Returning to our example, in this step you would acknowledge that your unconscious wants these feelings of independence and has created this situation (the pattern of seeking distant partners) in order to achieve those feelings. Instead of feeling bad or resentful for this, you give thanks to your unconscious for the relationships in your life that it created.

Elliott gives some caveats about existential kink. She explains that it’s not a good idea to attempt this meditation when you’re feeling depressed or dealing with a recent trauma, as it can cause you to ruminate on your negative feelings and make you feel worse. Additionally, you shouldn’t use this process if you’re currently grieving, as you’ll need some distance from the situation to view it with gratitude. Finally, reflecting on childhood trauma during this process can also cause you to feel worse, because we have very little control over the things that happen to us as children, and existential kink is most useful when we reflect on things we choose or have control over.

Additional Practices

While you can study and perform the principles and meditation described above, these are conscious efforts that you have to think about and put energy toward. In order to fully incorporate the process and attitude of existential kink into your life so it happens effortlessly, like magic, Elliott recommends several other practices. Though these will take conscious effort at first, as well, over time they’ll become second nature so you no longer have to think about them.

Identify Your Fears

One exercise Elliott suggests is to take stock of your deepest fears. Fear is often what stops us from receiving the “positive” patterns we think we want. In fact, Elliott explains, fear and desire always coexist: Everything we desire is something we fear to some degree, and everything we fear is something we desire in some way. For example, you may tell yourself you want to achieve better health, but deep down there’s something about improving your health that you fear, and this fear is why you keep manifesting the opposite. This process is about acknowledging that it’s not because of bad luck or the cruelty of the universe that you don’t have what you want: It’s because you’re afraid of it.  

To confront your fears, identify something you think you consciously want but can’t seem to achieve, and then write at the top of a sheet of paper that you hate or refuse to have that thing. Below that, list 20 fears you associate with it. For example, if you want to get your graduate degree, you might write that you refuse to pursue a graduate degree, and list fears such as “I’m afraid I won’t get good grades,” “I’m afraid of the high costs, and I’m unwilling to feel the responsibility of making it worth the money,” or “I’m afraid of what I might discover about myself.” This puts you face-to-face with the internal sensations that are preventing you from achieving what you want.

After listing your fears, include a statement at the bottom asking the universe to remove your fears. Read the whole thing to another person, then tear it up and throw it away. This way you acknowledge the negative emotions associated with this thing you think you want, and then you release them into the universe. The more you do this, the less power your fears will have over you, and the more control you’ll have over your life and self.

Add Some Levity to Your Perspective

Elliott also recommends an exercise to help you take everything in your life (including yourself) less seriously. This is important for existential kink because, for one thing, many of our negative feelings come from an overly serious perception of ourselves. For another thing, the process of existential kink can feel silly, so you have to be able to approach it with a sense of humor and lack of judgment. She suggests that anytime you feel bad as you go about your day, imagine you have a group of cheerleaders rooting for you, dancing and chanting about the “negatives” in your life. This will help you associate those “negatives” with fun and goofiness, taking away their sting and making it easier for you to take pleasure in them.

Dealing With Pain and Discomfort With Your Body

Elliott also offers advice for those who suffer from chronic pain or discomfort with their bodies. She explains that at every moment, others are experiencing pain and discomfort just as you are. 

This knowledge is not meant to make you feel bad about yourself, but rather to help you take the pain impersonally. Taking pain personally makes you feel like you’ve done something to deserve it as an individual, but understanding that it’s universal helps you realize you’re not uniquely bad, and this in turn helps you fully and joyfully embrace the feeling of pain—since, as with every other sensation, you must be able to embrace pain in order to practice existential kink. She recommends practicing Tonglen meditation to reframe how you think of your pain.

We’re All Sadists: Seek Power Through Compassion

Connecting with others compassionately can also help you come to terms with your unconscious sadistic tendencies. As Elliott explains, some of our “negative” behaviors are driven by sadism, and while this can be a startling and even repulsive notion, understanding and embracing it helps you dissolve those tendencies. She explains that behavior that negatively impacts other people—such as passive aggressiveness, controlling behavior, or frequently inconveniencing others—is a manifestation of the unconscious desire for power

It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, but everyone in the world has a desire for power. Some people express this desire through behaviors that cause great harm, such as committing violence against other people. The way to channel this desire productively is to reflect on it, embrace and revel in it, and then identify what feeling you truly want to inflict on others in order to feel powerful and important. Rather than making someone hurt, you might actually want to impress them with your intellect or talent. In fact, Elliott explains, artists in particular are expert at channeling their desire for power into ways to positively impact others, by inflicting aesthetic “pain” via their art.

Carolyn Elliott’s Existential Kink: Book Overview & Takeaways

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  • That the negative patterns in our lives are manifestations of what we desire
  • How to dissolve your negative desires so they lose hold over your life
  • How to practice existential kink meditation

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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