When it comes to death most of us fear it. Our reaction is deeply rooted on the lack of familiarization with death. We have an extensive and nourishing vocabulary to help us teach children about life yet death is one of those subjects which remains taboo or is often demonized. We tend to use the concept of death not that differently than when speaking of the “boogie man”; with fear, anxiety and sometimes even hostility. That is why I decided to write about Death; for it is an inevitable part of life.
Whether death comes to meet you unexpectedly or whether it announces its coming, don’t you want to feel at peace when it does? Unfortunately in our culture no one teaches us to become familiar with death yet we will have to face it; it is not a choice. Death is part of life, and if we were educated to look at death in the face, not only would we stop fearing it so much but just like in other cultures we could use it to focus on living more, to grow spiritually and to learn to enjoy life as it is, a wonderful and ephemeral gift.
In other cultures death is so common and so visible to everyone that it is completely impossible to look the other way. I never thought the terrorists attacks; which took place in my grandparents town when I was young; would ever have such great impact on my view of death. Living with complex PTSD doesn’t seem like a gift, yet the same memories that haunt me have also become the reason why I stopped fearing death. Having unexpectedly lost people whom I was close to, and having witnessed the death of my father as Cancer slowly did what it does, I learned not to look away. From losing my friends I learned how unexpectedly death can occur. From watching my father, I learned to accept death with courage; if nothing else I watched him accept death with dignity. He loved the code of the Samurai and I witnessed how he applied that discipline to his meeting death. Even though he was told how long he had to live, he never showed fear. I know he must have felt afraid but he didn’t let the news break him, he faced death head on; that for me was to become a valuable lesson. Having had close encounters with death, I learned when it is our time nothing we wish to do will change it; same goes if it is not our time.
In some cultures you learn to face death head on, you learn about it as another step towards the ethereal plane and you learn to celebrate it, expressing gratitude for having had the opportunity to enjoy the company of those that no longer are with us. Unfortunately, in our Western Society death is seen quite differently. We see our society so focused on prolonging the aging process that when someone talks about death as a natural fact of life, most like to stop the subject and others will only examine it superficially; without wanting to understand or know more about it. It’s certainly not something we like to talk about, but why? Because we are very afraid of death and afraid of the deep meaning of life. Death forces us to confront how we have lived our lives. More often than not, those who have lived without meaning tend to fear it, while those who have submerged in life’s waters; feeling every aspect of life, without trying to exempt pain and “uncomfortable feelings”; have an easier time facing it. Death should not be something to talk about only when we find out someone is dying; almost like “gossiping” about the subject; conversations without real meaning or depth.
Whether we like it or not, one day we will have to meet death or at least become acquainted with it; as it is the case when a loved one dies. In our modern society, to the pain of loss we add ignorance and bewilderment due to our lack of familiarity with the subject and the intense emotions death will bring forth; not to mention our ridiculous insistence on getting over it as soon as possible. Wouldn’t it be much healthier to become familiar with death before it takes us by surprise? Wouldn’t it be better to be more prepared? Wouldn’t it be healthier to accept pain and sadness (which are part of life) instead of pretending they don’t exist? Surely if we had less fear or shame of death, the pain and grief would last less and we would use it to become stronger and more prepared to enjoy life.
Speaking about death doesn’t mean we have to shout it out; if we we were to be “lucky” enough to know how much time we have left on this plane of existence. Some of us don’t want the extra “attention” which often leads to people acting awkward or to pity. Some of us do want the extra support and need more comfort getting acquainted with death; that is why it’s important to recognize and respect whatever path a person chooses…it’s called being sensitive.
When I reflect on my father’s and grandfather’s lives, I see 2 people who were ready to face death. My grandfather was more spiritual and understood our bodies were simply a vessel. My father’s attitude towards death was more disciplined; regardless both didn’t try to ran away. Such attitudes became a gift to me; a gift which I hope to pass to my children by one day letting them witness their mother without fear of dying.
We like to live life with our back towards death as if “Life” (this plane of existence) will last forever, yet life is as fleeting as anything else. In our society we believe a “successful life” consists in amassing material toys, but those won’t do us much good when the time comes to face whether or not we have lived life instead of just entertaining ourselves with it. Isn’t it a bit childish to live pretending death won’t happen? I am not trying to get you depressed about death, constantly thinking horrible thoughts, instead let’s look at death from a kinder, more loving and more mature perspective.
Psychologists affirm many people are strongly motivated by the anxiety of having to face the finality of their lives, but is it okay to feel like that? Is it not possible our terror comes from our own ignorance on the subject?
It is still widely believed that being rational is incompatible with being emotional, but being afraid can often be quite reasonable. Feeling uncertain about what is to come is totally reasonable; such feeling/avoidance behavior to face death has a scientific explanation which is found within our brain. Therefore I am not trying to suggest you should throw a party regarding death, that would be “denial”; what I am hoping for, is for us to learn to differentiate between being afraid and living pretending death won’t come for us.
We are very complex beings, our brains are the only ones with the capacity for abstraction and assimilation that there is an uncertain past, present and future. Because of our abilities to recognize emotions and to think logically, human beings are the only ones who can conceive pondering questions about death and what is to come.
For those who do not believe in spirit and feel our physical bodies are all there is, I ask, why worry? After all, if our fears are only there because of mechanical processes within the brain, then any type of suffering will stop once our organs stop functioning. Why then those who do not believe in spirit fear death? Scientists say it is because there are neurological mechanisms that lead us to believe (whether we want to accept it cognitively or not) there is something else after we die.
To those who believe in spirit I ask, why fear death? Isn’t it just the discarding of our flesh and bones? Neurological processes of fear which will stop once we move to another plane? Why then those who believe in spirit fear death? Spiritual masters have said that it is not death we fear but the lack of meaning we have given to our lives. Deep inside we know we came here not to amass material things but to live comfortably and in balance (mind, body, spirit) so as to prepare ourselves (self development) for the next step.
Imagine you knew you were going to be immortal, wouldn’t you be terrified to know you have an eternity of chaos ahead of you? After all life is not just unicorn and rainbows; you would have to face life’s cycles over and over and over again. Wouldn’t it be punishment to spend an eternity watching others suffer illnesses and misfortunes? Psychologists then suggest we look at our concept of death and identify how we feel about it and how prepare are we for it. If you feel afraid but it doesn’t drastically alter your normal life, then you are more ready than most and what you feel is just a defense mechanism. However, if you feel scare to look at the subject of death seriously, it is important to first determine whether the terror of death is a symptom or a cause. If the first, you will have to face the phobia like any other while you analyze how it affects you, so as for your fear not to become excessive. If it’s the second, direct your efforts to treat the anxiety caused by the fear. After all whether death is just a biological process and there is nothing else after that or whether you believe in spirit, one way or another the outcomes don’t seem too bad. It’s accepting this which will lead us to experience peace regarding death.
The greatest of our fears is that of not existing or becoming nothing. Many of us believe our existences begin the moment we are born or conceived, and that they end the moment we die. We believe we come from nothing and when we die we go to nothing. Many others think they have been created by a Supreme Principle and that at their death they will revive to eternal life. In any case, we are seized by the anguish of annihilation. Before death, it seems that only two possible options can be considered: to believe in the eternity of an indestructible soul or to believe in the annihilation of a perishable material body. Many scholars and philosophers asked the Buddha on many occasions about the opposing philosophies of eternalism and nihilism. To those who asked if there was an eternal soul, the Buddha replied that there was no permanent self. To those who asked him if when we died we disappeared into oblivion, he answered that there was no annihilation. True to the middle way, he rejected both extreme ideas. From his realizing experience, the Buddha views existence in a totally different way: We have never been born and we can never die. Birth and death are nothing more than concepts in our mind. Believing that they are real gives us a powerful hallucination that makes us suffer. The Buddha taught there is neither birth nor death, neither arrival nor departure, neither similarity nor disparity, neither growth nor decline, neither a permanent self nor annihilation. We just believe they exist. Thus, the terror that death infuses is caused by our misperceptions and ideas about being and becoming. Now when we understand that our true original nature is non-birth and non-death, we free ourselves from the fear of non-being, of annihilation. This requires that we observe things very carefully and carefully penetrate deeply into their ultimate nature. Then we know the freedom and joy of the middle way that runs between the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism and we can enjoy life and appreciate it in a whole new way.
Being prepared for death allows us to live freely. If you are one of those whom life has let the estimate time of your death be revealed, preparing yourself for that fateful moment is important, but even more important is to live the moments you have now. Facing the knowledge of our time of death in some ways can be a gift; life can help you shed the false ego, allowing for the true you to live; no pretenses, not doing things for the sake of recognition or fear of condemnation. Freeing yourself from false ego and false acceptance can be quite liberating as you put yourself in the hands of life.
We cannot prevent our death or that of the people we love, we have the right to be sad, to take time to overcome it, to feel the pain and then like everything else, to let it go and learn from the experience. Remember our lives and that of others, do not literally belong to us. What we do with the time we are given is under our control, when we leave this plane of existence is not.
Our possessions and our bodies are not permanent, let’s enjoy it while we have it and free ourselves from the burden of pretending everything is perfect. Our lives on earth are finite and that is precisely why life is extraordinary. Freeing yourself from false ego, false acceptance, false popularity and mechanical “correct” ways of being, means putting yourself in the hands of existence; it’s like letting yourself be embraced by a loving mother, surrendering to something that is far above our rational understanding and trusting that if things are as they are, there is a reason even if presently we cannot understand it.
Death reminds us life is a wonderful gift. If instead of fearing it so much, we realized that waking up every day is a blessing, if we understood each day we live is an opportunity to grow and to live authentically, if we looked at death (which is part of life) as a great ally which teaches and constantly reminds us the present is important yet fleeting, and that we are going to die whether we want to or not … then we could really LIVE. Then we could experience the miracle of being here every moment, accepting and celebrating with joy any experience that awaits us around the corner. Thus, instead of obsessing over outdoing others, instead of wasting time trying to succeed only through material possessions or focusing only on our physical aspects, instead of over worrying and manipulating the future of our children, we would simply dedicate ourselves to experiencing life with honesty… living as true to ourselves as possible, doing what the heart asks of us, enjoying our true healthy desires, without fear or guilt; without fear of standing up when injustices take place or guilt when we set boundaries.
I don’t know about you but I want to meet death on my terms. When my time comes I want to look at death as an old friend who was always there; side by side; a friend who wasn’t there to scare and stop me from living but to encourage me to value each moment. Death…a friend who would remind me to live life genuinely, who would watch me go through the cycles of life, helping me find my own voice and my tempo. When my moment comes, I want to look back at my life and know it had meaning. I want to look at my life and know I did not let struggles stop me and that I learned from my own mistakes. I want to look at those I love and know I have given them a gift greater than anything money can buy…the ability to be themselves in a world that demands our authenticity in exchange for false acceptance. And when death looks at my eyes, at the final moments, I want to look at it and say “there you are old friend, what’s next?”