Death is a subject we’d rather not think or talk about. But how can we ignore it when it jumps out at us every day from the TV we watch and newspapers we read? So, it’s not surprising that three of our readers have written in about their concerns about death and asked for my comments. Perhaps my replies to them may also help you to clarify your own thoughts on the subject or lead you to conduct your own research. If the latter interests you, the References section at the end of this article may prove to be helpful. Enough of an introduction, now let’s meet our readers and learn about their concerns and my responses.
Our first reader writes, “ Most people fear injury and death. Much of what people do involves the prevention or avoidance of danger. Fear dominates a great deal of people’s emotional life, and it prevents them from undertaking things that could bring them great joy, if not an altogether more ecstatic life.”
I am in complete agreement with our reader. If we were to raise the subject of death in a conversation with friends, they would most likely tell us to “ stop being morbid.” But what I find morbid is not the subject of death, but our inability to talk about it. Blaise Pascal suggests that we are uncomfortable being alone because thoughts of our own death may come to mind. In fact, he goes on to write in his Pensées (“Thoughts” ) that we fill our lives with diversions merely to avoid thinking about our own inevitable end. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger shares a similar view; mainly, that one reason for our interest in gossip and in the latest news and fads is to keep our minds off death.
Our reader continues by adding:
“ A person who considers him or herself dead in the samurai way is free of such crippling fears. A person who does not fear death (because he considers himself already dead) is able to engage in extraordinary undertakings, and thus enjoy extraordinary accomplish–ments. There is a real risk, of course: the possibility of premature death. But the rewards of overcoming the fear of death in terms of an ecstatic life are immense. Risking death, in other words, has its meaning in the intensification of life. ‘Live dangerously,’ Nietzsche once wrote, and his inspiration was not a morbid fascination with death, but a vision of an expanded and intensified life. It is in this sense that the samurai’s meditation on death can enhance his vitality — his supreme command of the possibilities of life.”
A common mistake is to label courageous men and women as “ fearless.” They are not fearless, but committed to their cause and determined to act in spite of their fear. Where is the glory and exhilaration of accomplishment if we are unafraid of acting? The “ fearless” samurai you write about were afraid to walk alone late at night, for they believed that demons stalked the night in search of prey (I studied medieval Japanese history in Japan). Yet, if there were a need to go out, the samurai would not allow their fears to prevent them from carrying out their duties. So, you see, we conquer death not by extinguishing fear, but by being passionately committed to life. If we are determined to live courageously and embrace life, despite our fear of death, what is there that we cannot do?
Our reader ends with these questions:
“ How does one live life without the fear of death or injury? How do you meditate on death to become free?”
A man walked into a doctor’s office and said, “ Doctor, you’ve got to help me; every time I bang my head against the wall, it hurts!” “ So,” said the doctor, “ stop banging your head against the wall.” When you focus on death, you’re banging your head against the wall. Stop it! When you focus on death, you are ignoring life! To expect to live without the fear of death or injury is to expect to live the life of a coward. You were made for much greater things. Your goal should not be to live without fear of death but to live with such passion, determination, commitment, and self-discipline that you follow your dreams despite your fears. You were made to follow your dreams, not to run from your fears.
Regarding your second question, and a point you made earlier, the samurai did not meditate on death, but on the nature of life, which is fleeting. Cherry blossoms, dragonflies, samurai, and ordinary men and women may have brief life spans, but they are punctuation marks that give meaning to life. The American Naturalist, John Muir thought like a Zen Master or samurai when he wrote, “ Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous and inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows…and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”
True, Buddhist monks do meditate on death, but not to free themselves of fear, but to become compassionate, for Gautama Buddha taught, “ Knowing that all beings will die, how can you hurt them?” After all, if we come to realize that everyone we meet is at that moment on his or her deathbed, how can we be mean, spiteful, and hurtful?
Here’s a question for our reader. How do you know death is terrible and worthy of fear? Isn’t your fear tinged with arrogance when you assume you know what you do not? Consider the words of Socrates: “ To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise, for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them, but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”
Isn’t it possible that as Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “ Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.” Also consider these comments of poets and mystics. “ The gods conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life.” (Lucan). “ Death is the veil which those who live call life; They sleep, and it is lifted.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley). Finally, “ I died a mineral, and became a plant. I died a plant and rose an animal. I died an animal and I was man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?” (Jalal-Uddin Rumi).
Our second readeris just 17. She has been diagnosed with depression and OCD and is being treated for them. She is obsessed with the fear of death, so much so that she is uncomfortable around the elderly or anyone who brings up the subject of death or the brevity of life. She writes:
“ What if the thing that you fear is not something that your imagination irrationally creates? How can you learn not to fear the inevitable and instead to embrace it and live life to the full?”
Many youngsters have the opposite problem. That is, rather than fearing death, they believe they are invincible and will live ‘forever.’ This is a problem because they are not afraid to take unnecessary risks such as taking drugs, driving while intoxicated, and exposing themselves to sexually transmitted diseases. Also, many don’t concern themselves with doing well at school and developing good habits that will bring success, such as self-discipline.
The good news for our reader is she doesn’t have any of those problems. On the contrary, she is already on the path to success.
So, once she overcomes her fear of death, she’ll be poised to enjoy life fully, which may then dissipate her depression and OCD.
The secret to enjoying life is to realize it is a great adventure. Missing this simple point can have disastrous effects.
For example, imagine you and a stranger are strapped into a roller coaster. The stranger was plucked out of a primitive society and knows nothing about modern life. After the ride, how will his experience differ from yours? In his eyes, the ride was a devilish form of torture. During the entire ride he was bewildered and in fear. And you? You enjoyed every thrilling moment!
Can you see how the failure to understand the nature of a roller coaster prevented the primitive native from enjoying the ride? It is no different with life. Those who have yet to learn that life is an adventure mistakenly believe they are victims of circumstances, condemned to a life of suffering.
Our reader’s state of mind is similar to that of the primitive man in the roller coaster. She was placed into the roller coaster of life before learning about its nature. But as she grows in experience, she will start to unravel the mysteries of life, discovering beauty and joy.
Since the subject is fear, let me define it. Fear is nothing more than the expectation that something bad will happen. The opposite of fear, by the way, is not courage, but the expectation that something good will happen. In other words, the opposite of fear is FAITH (trust in life/the future).To understand our fears, it helps to probe into them more deeply.
For example, what do we really mean by “ the fear of death” ? It simply means that one who fears death believes it is synonymous with the extinction or annihilation of the self. In other words, once we die — poof! — we no longer exist; we’re gone forever.
Our young reader understands there are rational and irrational fears. But what about her fear? Which is it, rational or irrational? Well, to her it’s rational. Here is her line of thinking. “ I’m afraid of extinction, and it is a fact that I will die and disappear forever. Therefore, my fear is rational.”
Well, her fear is rational only if her assumption that death is synonymous with extinction is correct. Here are two reasons to question that assumption.
1.Near Death Experiences. For example, after a series of eight heart attacks and a clinical death in 1964, Peter Sellers had the following experience. “ Well, I felt myself leave my body. I just floated out of my physical form and I saw them cart my body away to the hospital. I went with it … I wasn’t frightened or anything like that because I was fine; and it was my body that was in trouble. I looked around myself and I saw an incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me. I wanted to go to that white light more than anything. I’ve never wanted anything more. I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light which was attracting me so much. It was kind and loving and I remember thinking That’s God. Then I saw a hand reach through the light. I tried to touch it, to grab onto it, to clasp it so it could sweep me up and pull me through it. But the hand’s voice said, ‘It’s not time. Go back and finish. It’s not time.’“
(Doctors massaged his heart and revived him.) There are thousands of such cases reported by respected experts and eminent institutions. So, we certainly have a reason to question whether death is the end of personal existence. Interestingly, none of those who had a NDE was afraid or wanted to return to life.
2.Many brilliant thinkers, including philosophers, mystics, poets, and scientists believe in eternal life. It doesn’t make sense to dismiss their conclusions without further investigation.
At the very least it opens up the possibility that our assumption that death is the end of our existence may be incorrect. One recent book worthy of mention is The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
Instead of running from fear, embrace it and use it in a positive manner. For example, here are five things you can do:
1.Use your fear of the apparent brevity of life to do and enjoy as much as possible. Use your ‘weakness’ of fear as a strength by squeezing the most out of life. Since you fear the loss of life, that means you value it. So, cherish it; embrace it, and take advantage of every moment.
2.Rather than viewing your fear as uncomfortable and almost crippling (negative), see it as a wonderful opportunity to learn how to cope at such an early age (positive). You may have to pay to join a gym, but life is a free school that provides the opportunity to practice and develop important life skills.
3.Redirect the energy consumed by fear into positive activities. For instance, use that energy to express your feelings in poetry, keep a journal, write essays, or study spirituality.
4.Another valuable tool in self-mastery is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the art of living in the present moment. The ironic thing about the fear of death is it denies you of the very thing you fear losing. Whenever you experience fear, you are not living. Life is only experienced in the present moment. When you are fearful, you are not living, but drifting off into some imaginary nightmare. At that moment, the sounds, fragrances, textures, colors, and tastes of life that surround you pass by unnoticed. You are asleep at the wheel. Wake up!
Fear cannot exist in the present moment; it exists only in the expectation of a future event. As soon as you return to the present, fear is absent. The present moment is a wonderful place to be. It is the only place you can discover how magnificent you are. A college education would be incomplete without the study of mindfulness and meditation. There are many excellent books written on these subjects. Also, many hospitals offer free mindfulness and meditation classes. Since you are being treated for depression, ask your caregivers about such classes.
5.Introduce yourself to new ways of thinking. Start off by watching this very entertaining video How to Overcome the Fear of Death. Next, watch this video, Your Fantasy: Overcoming Your Fear of Death. This may be enough to get you started on the right path. All it takes is to shift your focus from what you will one day lose (life in this world) to what you now have (life in this world).
Our third readeris a bright, 21-year-old university student who would like me to comment on a few points.
“Although you have written extensively about fear of one’s OWN death, I couldn’t find anything about the ever-looming fear of others’ death. You see, I read in a web forum a statement that shocked me. It said: ‘The most painful part of the death of loved ones is to know I will never have a conversation with them again, share a beer with them, do ANYTHING with them ever again.’
“I am perfectly fine with death myself. But, I love my father very, very much. And I cannot imagine how it would be like for him to be gone, forever, one day. To know he has ceased to exist; that I will never talk with him again. It feels like having a short circuit inside the brain; life seems so vain and entrapping. Whatever I do seems pointless as one day, he will cease to exist and only a memory of him will remain. And the more joyful the memory, the greater the pain. It makes me want to scream, cry, and run away.”
Yes, the fear of our own death and the fear of the death of our parents are quite different. The fear of our parent’s death has its origin in childhood. At a very early age we realize that we are completely dependent on our parents. That is, as infants, we cannot survive without them. So, whenever our parents are angry, we are afraid we may be abandoned by them. We are also fearful of losing them. After all, how could we survive, cope, or get along without them?
This childhood fear remains with us. Even as adults, we may be badly shaken by the death of our parents, especially after realizing that we can no longer turn to them for advice, support, and encouragement. We may feel alone in the world, which can be quite a scary prospect. However, there are steps we can take to prepare for that day, and we can begin by changing the way we view life. Here are some points to think about.
1.You may lose your father, but you will never lose your memories of him. You will find that the advice and tender moments he shared with you will serve as a source of strength for you in the future.
2.What is it that belongs to you? The moon and stars are here for you to enjoy, but you don’t own them; they don’t belong to you. Nothing that life offers you belongs to you. Be grateful while you can and enjoy it, but be willing to return it. This was recognized by Epictetus, for he taught, “ Never in any case say I have lost such a thing, but I have returned it. Is your child dead? It is a return. Is your wife dead? It is a return. Are you deprived of your estate? Is not this also a return?”
3.Death is our greatest loss, but “ Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight” (Marcus Aurelius). Death or change can be beautiful. For example, the death of fear, despair, and doubt opens the door to a triumphant life. Are you fearful and in pain? Good! Because they are inviting you to become a hero, a master of your fate. Isn’t that what you want?
Our reader continues, “ But the issue I talked about connects to the emptiness and meaningless view I have toward life.”
We have now arrived at the heart of what is troubling our reader.First he read something on the Internet that triggered the fear of his father’s death. Next, thoughts of his father’s death remind him of his mortality; he too will die. This thought then induces the fear of dying without a purpose, which is revealed by his statement that he has an “ emptiness and meaningless view toward life.”
What’s troubling our reader also disturbs many other young, bright people. You see, whatever has a purpose, has value. But that which has no purpose is worthless. Young men and women who don’t yet have a sense of purpose fear that they may be worthless. So, when they contemplate death, it isn’t death that frightens them, but the possibility of dying without making a difference.
Everyone wants to have value, so imagine the pain of those who believe they don’t have any. But it is not that they lack value, but that at their young age they lack understanding. Here are a few simple points they fail to comprehend:
1.Much of humanity is suspicious, discouraged, and unhappy. They are in desperate need of encouragement. Imagine if our reader offered a smile and kind word to everyone he met. Those simple acts would transform him from a lost soul to a person of immense value.
2.People often confuse their role with their purpose. Some young people will say, “ I don’t know if I want to become a doctor, lawyer, cook, airplane pilot, sales clerk, or teacher. I don’t have any direction. I lack purpose.” But the job we take is merely the ROLE we play. Roles are WHAT we do. PURPOSE is HOW we do it. We immerse purpose into our role. To become a teacher is to take on a role. But to become a compassionate, gentle, understanding and inspiring teacher is to live with purpose and make a great contribution to the world.
3.Most young people place undue importance on their choice of occupation. They are afraid of making the wrong career choices. They feel uncomfortable if they don’t know exactly what type of job they want. Again, this is due to confusing role with purpose, The truth is, it doesn’t matter what job you take, for when you are purpose driven, you can be happy and successful doing anything. Take the example of the school teacher in the above paragraph. Suppose after deciding she wanted to become a teacher she found there weren’t any jobs available. So let’s say she decided to become a healthcare worker instead. That is, instead of a compassionate, gentle, understanding and inspiring teacher, she would become a compassionate, gentle, understanding and inspiring healthcare worker. She would become equally successful, equally happy, equally fulfilled. Can you see how our core values or purpose remain constant and can be transferred to any role we play?
4.Thoughts of death also often lead to another type of confusion. Some will ask, “ What’s the point of it all? What’s the point of life if we’re all going to die?” The argument goes something like this, “ I can study and work very hard or I can lie down in the sun all day. What difference does it make since it all ends in death?” The reason for the confusion is they are asking about LIFE but are focusing on DEATH. If they were to focus on life, the answers become clear. If I work hard, I will experience the joy of accomplishment, contribution, and self- expression. In a word, I will feel fulfilled. Lying in the sun all day may physically feel pleasant, but unless I am contributing to life, I will soon feel that I am wasting it, have no value, and be unhappy. We didn’t choose life. It chose us.
We’re here. We’re alive. And we have a choice. We can embrace life, contribute to it and enjoy it or we can bemoan the fact that we’re going to die. Which makes more sense to you, to live with exuberance or despair? To focus on life or death?
What’s the point of it all? A great deal. Asking about the point of it all is like asking about the point of a rose. Sure it serves a function (pollen), but for man its role is to awaken us to the beauty and majesty of life; it is here to be experienced; it’s purpose is to help us discover our own grandeur, for flowers, humans, and the rest of creation are all part of the inexpressible expressing itself. The point of it all is to participate in it and help it unfold, which is precisely what it does for us; in other words, life is our dancing partner. The point of it all, then, is to experience the excitement of discovery, joy of achievement, and wonder of mystery.
Our reader concludes by writing, “While I am sure it would be soothing to imagine the dead looking at us up from the skies, it does not satisfy those of us with a more objective and logical, or in essence scientific, mentality. Hence, these kinds of thoughts are more difficult to work through as there is no afterlife to look into.”
Our 21-year-old reader says “there is no afterlife.” Yet, millions of others say there is. Of course, saying there is doesn’t make it so. But neither does saying there isn’t make that so. One of the mistakes of youth is believing they know it all.
But it is more than a matter of inexperience. You see, most of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We don’t like to believe you may be right and I may be wrong. We don’t like to stand on unstable ground. We like to have something firm to grasp. So, when it comes to an afterlife, most join one of two camps: believers or nonbelievers. They may not have the truth, but at least they have something to believe in, something to cling on to.
Yet, there is a third camp. Those who embrace uncertainty rather than run from it. They would rather live courageously than comfortably. Those who seek shelter in beliefs that provide all the answers never experience the profound awe of mystery, or the unknown. It takes courage to admit one doesn’t know and courage to live without knowing. But those who choose this path are adventurers who know the taste of exhilaration and joy, for they willingly accept what is, whatever it may be.
The doubts and confusion of our reader and others like him are very good. They are calls for further exploration, study, and consideration; they’re opportunities for growth. Why did our reader experience fear? It is the call of life, nudging him, pushing him to take the next step. It’s a wakeup call. It is life’s way of saying, “ Share with those you love NOW. Start creating a meaningful life NOW. Start enjoying the wondrous magic of life NOW. Start contributing to the world NOW. Start learning acceptance NOW.
And now a personal word to our reader. Look at the world around you. It has great need of your talent, intelligence, and capacity to help. Will you heed its call? I’m sure you will and am confident that you will excel and make a valuable contribution. I am also sure you will make your father proud.
The Death Class: A True Story About Life by Erika Hayasaki
Death: The Final Stage of Growth by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
by Roy Abraham Varghese
by Gerald L. Schroeder Ph.D.
by Guy Murchie
Peter Saul: Let’s talk about dying
Deepak Chopra and others: Death & Dying Dinner
Deepak Chopra: Overcoming Fear of Death
Sr Jayanti:Overcoming Fear
Your Fantasy: Overcoming Your Fear of Death