Carolyn Elliott’s voice is filled with a twinkle.

Back in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, she taught a course called The Soul of Poetry. Imagine a mesmerizing woman at the lectern. A swirl of dark curls frame an elfin visage bedecked with a black eye patch.

Colleagues often glared when they passed the doctoral candidate in the halls of the Cathedral of Learning, the Gothic university building with a name both grandiose and revered. Elliott’s unconventional teaching methods drew ire. She guided her students in visualizations, instructing them to imagine themselves doing future coursework.

“I had them write about the experience and predict what they imagined for their final grade,” she says.

At the end of the course she gave them whatever they had ordained, whether an A or D. It was a lesson in vision and intention, in what she calls “a poetics of the everyday,” a way of making meaning of the world.

Elliott also provoked judgment because of what she laughingly calls her “pirate patch.” She was forced to wear it after a sudden and dire cornea abrasion. A series of top-rated specialists diagnosed her condition as incurable. Light hurt. She could only read for one hour per day—“nowhere near enough for a grad student in literature,” she says.

Existential Kink, Inner Shadow, Molly Pennington author, Unity Magazine, Why suppress a perfectly good “negative” emotion when you could ask it to dance instead?

Plus, her work was disavowed by fellow academics as too offbeat and weirdly spiritual. The path she’d imagined for herself as a child—a career as an esteemed professor—was now bedeviled by embarrassing obstacles. Somehow, this wasn’t the right cathedral.

The Poetic (and Kinky) Unconscious

Elliott did become a professor, but not the traditional kind. Though teaching was a longtime conscious desire, academia ended up being entirely too staid an outlet for her philosophies on the unconscious—its poetry (the rhymes that structure our world) and its unavoidable “kink.”

That is, its resplendent and, yes, even sexy, freaky, sensual pleasure. She teaches multiple courses that fuse the synchronicity of meaning with spirituality and magic. Her approach combines her scholarly background in poetry, philosophy, and psychology with modes for personal transformation that focus on pleasure and shadow—on the wild will of the unconscious. Elliott’s book Existential Kink: Unmask Your Shadow and Embrace Your Power (Weiser, 2020) explores the pleasures of getting off on those things you don’t like and don’t want but that nevertheless keep showing up in your life.

What if it were true that you both wanted them and liked them?

Elliott’s eye affliction so constrained her ability to read that she became selective.

“I only wanted to see texts with magic and beauty,” she says. Enigmatically, the narrowing of her view widened her outlook, fostering an innovative fusion of her scholarly studies with her spiritual passions.

Elliott had always immersed herself in spiritual seeking within both New Thought and various religious paths. It struck her that a paradoxical shadow existed within Law of Attraction philosophies that intersected with the work of psychologists like Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung, who famously offered that, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Elliott was also drawn to the premises of the early existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote on the painful process required to simply be oneself.

Life circumstances emerge from our personal unconscious. Power comes from noticing what our unconscious desires have wrought in our lives. In other words, whatever we have is truly what we want.

Going dark, she realized, was key.

She began to focus on the parts of life most of us would rather avoid—embarrassments, scarcities, failures, and repetitive, shameful dramas and traumas. Such events seem like cruel fate attacking again and again. What if, instead, these events created a beautiful opera? One conducted by an unconscious shadow chasing an ecstasy that the conscious ego repeatedly denies?

What if this deep, never-ending reservoir of wrongness is actually perfect? she wondered.

She received the name of another eye doctor, which seemed insignificant at the time.

“I’d already seen the best cornea specialists, so I wasn’t expecting much,” she says. He found her affliction easy to treat and prescribed drops that quickly allowed the scratch to heal. “I’d just been reading Norse myths,” says Elliott, describing the god Odin who plucked out one of his own eyes in exchange for knowledge about cosmic mysteries. The healing of her eye seemed like poetry—synchronicity.

‘Having Is Evidence of Wanting’

After earning her doctorate, Elliott found herself unemployed, adrift within an academic job market that didn’t value her metaphysical bent.

“I was a mess,” she says, detailing struggles to live on $500 a month scraped together from side gigs. She slept on friends’ couches. Once, in line at a food bank, she recognized the desperate sensations of shame and embarrassment shoot through her body in a roller coaster of emotions.

Do I desire the darker things? Elliott asked herself.

Soon after came a moment that shifted her whole experience. “I opened my bank statement and it was at $0—or worse, negative zero, so terrible,” she says, laughing, “like so many times before.”

She considered what it would mean to allow the full intensity of that experience to come in.

“I decided to just be present with the feeling,” she says. “I had no idea how to remedy the situation, but I saw in it a hot drama that was full of fear and anxiety—but it was also funny, even sexy.” Elliott worked with the sensations, transmuting them from angst to a playful pleasure. She explains that it was like getting off on what was previously terrible and shameful—the sensations of scarcity.

“What we resist continuously persists,” she says. One of the central premises of existential kink is “Having is evidence of wanting.” Inspired by Jungian philosophy that synchronicities are always at work, Elliott finds that our lives are a perfect reflection of our desires. Life circumstances emerge from our personal unconscious. Power comes from noticing what our unconscious desires have wrought in our lives. In other words, whatever we have is truly what we want.

[Y]our shadow is already running your life through unconscious attachments. You may be scared to unleash it, but it’s much more powerful when you don’t look.

Never Blame Victims

Our personal unconscious is powerful, but it’s always entwined with the collective unconscious. Elliott recognizes that there isn’t a singular blame for the collective unconscious that shapes injustice. She acknowledges a cosmic cycle in which we are all victims and perpetrators. Elliott emphasizes that existential kink rejects blaming—because blame perpetuates shame.

“Shame is the magic killer,” she asserts.

Elliott’s existential kink practice advises noticing the negative without shame and without judgment—only forgiveness. In this way, the practice strikes her as an expression of Christ consciousness. The inherent duality within incarnation is divine. Therefore, she advises revelry in its every expression, letting go of avoidance, judgment, and repression.

Elliott honors finding and noticing deep meaning in bodily, physical experience—even those we may consider lascivious, messy, or bad. She advises experiencing these sensations without the usual shame and discomfort.

Such intense acceptance gets to a level where you can directly change and influence your will. What you want consciously can unite with what you want unconsciously. Existential kink offers a way to end the repetition of our personal parade of cruel fates.

Root for Your Shadow

Elliott points out that “your shadow is already running your life through unconscious attachments. You may be scared to unleash it, but it’s much more powerful when you don’t look.” Elliott explains that “the unconscious is generative and feminine—it’s like a womb in the sense that the seeds of desire gestate there and then are born in external experience as events, meetings, and situations.”

You can weaken your shadow’s battle with your conscious desires, she says, when you give it voice. “When you sleep in and eat chocolate, without guilt or shame, your shadow loses power.”

“Get on your shadow’s side,” Elliott recommends. “When the conscious deliberately works with the unconscious, power emerges.” She advises we think of this merger as a pleasure—a sexual, alchemical union.

Existential kink offers a way to have wild, passionate, erotic love for yourself and your life. It’s a way to create the poetry, the rhymes and rhythms, of your united will. “It’s up to us to choose the meanings,” says Elliott. “Follow the signs. Magic is real.”


This article appeared in Unity Magazine® and was a 2020 Folio: Eddie Award winner.

About the Author

Molly Pennington, Ph.D., is an award-winning writer whose work often aligns social justice and spirituality. She’s published articles on parenting, education, and popular culture (with an emphasis on race and gender) in print and online. Pennington is committed to cultivating optimism without ignoring the wounds of the world. Read her blog at mollypennington.com and engage with her on Twitter and Instagram (@docpennington) or on Facebook (@mollypenningtonphd).

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