The following is adapted from Death Makes Life Possible: Revolutionary Insights on Living, Dying, and the Continuation of Consciousness, Published by Sounds True.
If you want to love life, that means loving death. –Tony Redhouse
Why, we might ask, is there such a fear around death? What has made death the great taboo topic, in spite of the fact that we all die? Josh, a bright thirteen-year-old boy, has given death some thought and offered this insight:
I know I’m afraid of death because I don’t want to think a different way. I don’t want to become a different person. I just want to stay who I am. If I change, I want to remember this form or, I guess, person.
The famed writer Mark Twain suggested another reason: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
Luisah Teish, an Oshun chief in the Yoruba Lucumi tradition, echoed both Josh and Twain. She observed that modern society has, in many ways, estranged us from our natural role in the cycle of life.
Everything is constantly being transformed. I don’t see any evidence that death is just the end. But I think that whoever controls resources, media, images, and education can cause people to come to fear and hate the natural cycle. The fear of death is an attitude that the media has sold us. It bounces between fear and romanticism.
I personally have more fear of an unfulfilled life than of death itself.
As Teish noted, our worldviews about death are informed by many factors. While such factors can bring death to our attention, it is equally true that many in the modern industrialized world have rarely seen a dead body. As Daryl J. Bem, a social psychologist from Cornell University whom we briefly met in the introduction, pointed out:
If you ask people in the advanced industrial world like the United States, very few people have actually seen a dead body until it’s been prepared, and even then you often don’t see them until your grandparents die or your parents die. And so [death is] a taboo topic just from the way our culture treats it and [the fact] that we don’t have daily experience with it. I would not wish upon any culture that they face death all the time, but it does change one’s notion of how one treats death, how one sees it, how one anticipates it. I think it’s taboo in part because the larger culture treats it as taboo. Some people are comforted by more conventional religious points of view. There’s an afterlife they can imagine. I think other cultures have come to a more relaxed view of death.
Lee Lipsenthal, who had several months to live at the time of this interview, expressed his frustration about our collective worldview:
I think the structure of our society right now is one of a fear of death. I hate to sound so blunt about this, but it’s a whole anti-aging movement. You’re a loser if you die. You’re a loser if you get old. And our society has set it up so that death and aging are the enemy, whereas they are inevitable.
THE DENIAL OF DEATH
Ernest Becker spent a significant portion of his career seeking to understand the fear of death. While he was a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, he published his seminal and Pulitzer Prize–winning work, The Denial of Death.1 With this book, he awakened a conversation in American society about the cultural meanings of death. Becker saw the endemic denial of death as a source of pathology in our modern world.
“In our culture we have done a tremendous amount to deny our own mortality and in that process we have been initiated into a kind of pathological social organization,” Becker wrote.2 He saw the fundamental motivation for human behavior as a biological need to control our basic anxiety about death. “This is the terror to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die.”
Becker’s work and theory about death denial has catalyzed decades of research on what is called terror management theory (TMT). To learn more about this provocative theory, I interviewed Jeff Greenberg, who, along with fellow social psychologists Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski, developed TMT.
Inspired by Becker, Greenberg and his colleagues proposed that a basic psychological conflict results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and this terror is believed to be unique to human beings. Each of us, according to TMT, is holding this suppressed death terror, largely at an unconscious level. In other words, we are not aware of the fear. To buffer ourselves against death terror, we seek to boost our self-esteem by affiliating with cultures or groups whose values provide our lives with meaning. For example, religious affiliation is a strong factor in Becker’s model (for example, if you are Christian, or Hindu, or Jewish, you will affiliate with people of the same faith tradition). As we are confronted with our own mortality—or, in psychological terms, as our mortality salience increases—the theory predicts that we may become more aggressive and violent to other groups that hold different opinions, values, and worldviews than our own. At the same time, we may identify even more strongly with our “in-group,” which offers us a greater sense of social support and security against outside threats.
The theory can be broken down into three main hypotheses. The first is the mortality-salience hypothesis. This asserts that an awareness of death leads people to defend or uphold their worldviews and seek self-esteem. In short, we want to feel good about ourselves. The second is the anxiety-buffer hypothesis. Here the idea is that high self-esteem, secure relational attachments, and deep religious faith should buffer people against death-related thoughts. The third, the death-thought accessibility hypothesis, proposes that when qualities such as self-esteem are undermined, we may experience increased vulnerability to death-related thoughts and maladaptive behaviors.
Testing these hypotheses has led to a series of novel experiments that simulate the real world under controlled research conditions. In one experiment, the team of social psychologists tested the mortality salience hypothesis by working with municipal court judges who, by profession, are charged with upholding the dominant social worldview defined by the law and a sense of fairness.3 To test the hypothesis, they asked the judges to set bonds for alleged prostitutes. Before the judges did so, half of them were given mortality-salience prompts. The researchers asked the judges two questions: “What emotions does the thought of your own death arouse in you?” and “What do you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead?” The researchers then measured the amount of bail that was set by the judges who had been asked to think about death against the bail set by the other judges. They found that mortality salience had a very large effect. The judges who had been asked the mortality-salience questions set the bonds at an average of about four hundred and fifty dollars. The other judges set bonds of fifty dollars.
Since this original study, there have been hundreds of other studies that have replicated the results using different measures and in different countries, confirming that people became more rigid about their values when threatened by death awareness. According to Greenberg, “when we are reminded of death and it’s sort of close to consciousness, we grab on more tightly to the structures that protect us from death. Those structures are a worldview that imbues life with meaning and a sense of permanence, and the self-worth that we derive from that worldview.” In the case of the judges, this self-worth involved upholding the law as they understood it. Their conviction about the values they protect was amplified in response to the death reminders that half were given.
To test the second TMT hypothesis, the anxiety-buffer hypothesis, the researchers created a seven-minute video that highlighted images of death.4 They also created a control video that consisted of neutral images unrelated to death. Prior to showing the videos to study volunteers, the researchers gave them false personality feedback. (With this feedback, researchers took advantage of what psychologists call the Barnum effect, named after famed showman P. T. Barnum: when people read flattering descriptions of themselves, they become gullible.) Based on questionnaires that the volunteers had filled out when they were recruited for the study, the experimental subjects were told either that they had a lot of potential for creativity and would achieve all their goals, or that they were just okay. After showing the subjects the death-image and control videos, the researchers measured the subjects’ self-reported anxiety levels. When people “felt really good about themselves, they could watch those death images and not get anxious.”5 These anxiety levels were compared within the subjects who looked at both videos.
In another study, the social scientists introduced what they called the hot-sauce paradigm. They organized their test subjects into two preselected groups: liberal and conservative. They put each subject in a room and told them that a second person, seated in the other room, was either liberal or conservative. They then told the subjects to administer hot sauce to the second person as a punishment. When the researchers manipulated the subjects’ mortality salience beforehand, the subjects administered significantly more hot sauce to those people who disagreed with their political views.6
Researchers have also explored mortality salience in the context of various forms of extreme worldviews. In one study, the researchers explored Islamic extremism. Student volunteers in Iran were either given a mortality-salience prompt or not. They were then instructed to read an interview on martyrdom or an interview on peaceful solutions to a conflict. The volunteers who received the mortality-salience prompt were significantly more inclined to think favorably of martyrdom than the control group (those who didn’t receive the prompt).7 A similar study focused on politically conservative Americans and found that the group in the mortality-salience condition advocated for more violent measures, when dealing with foreign conflict, than the control group did.8
Becker described how our death terror ultimately can lead us to a perception that the world is frightening. There are various ways in which we attempt to manage this terror. Becker’s model says that we conspire to keep our terror of death unconscious by pretending that the world is manageable, that humans can have godlike qualities, and that the self is immortal. Society reinforces the creation of hero systems that lead us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth—the pyramids, for example, or great cathedrals, or an orbiting space station, or the Internet. To deal with our own mortality, we feel compelled to create works or take actions that will live on after we die, giving us a perception of immortality.
In the foreword to Denial of Death, writer and philosopher Sam Kean notes, “We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious.”9
But in the process of developing the hero myth, as comparative religious scholar Joseph Campbell called it, we have created personal and collective struggles. As our emotional stability is threatened, Kean explained to me during an interview, the existence of alternative worldviews can cause us to question our own convictions and beliefs. As we saw from the TMT research, this may lead us to feel defensive and hostile toward people who are different from ourselves—what sociologists call the out-group. And this defensiveness can lead to conflicts, including religious wars, state conflicts, and racial battles. In Kean’s words, we suffer from a crisis of heroism: “Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life-and-death struggles—my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project.”
GAINING PERSPECTIVE ON DEATH
The studies of TMT show that reminders of death can be both personally unsettling and socially disruptive. And yet there appear to be ways in which our awareness of death can lead to positive psychological and behavioral outcomes. Addressing the third hypothesis, the death-thought accessibility hypothesis, an international group of social psychologists, led by Kenneth Vail at the University of Missouri, reported in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review that there is ample evidence to suggest that “the management of death concerns can play a key role in motivating people to stay true to their virtues, to build loving relationships, and to grow in fulfilling ways.” This may include a renewed commitment to exercise or a healthy lifestyle.10
Other research indicates that there may be anxiety buffers that lead to positive and life-affirming behaviors. Linking death awareness to values of tolerance, appreciation, and curiosity about alternative worldviews can help people feel less threatened in the face of mortality-salience prompts. This move from “me” to “we” is predicted in the worldview transformation model. Direct personal experiences, such as near-death experiences, have been shown to enhance intrinsic values, such as love and compassion. This is compared to extrinsic goals, such as attaining wealth or success. In this way, these experiences appear to promote prosocial behaviors that enhance individual and collective wellbeing.11Given how strongly the fear of death affects our beliefs and behaviors, several colleagues and I wanted to research ways of transforming fear, so that people can live a fuller life. To do so, we first created an online course that reviewed diverse worldviews concerning death and the afterlife.12 The course encouraged group discussions and sharing direct personal experiences related to death. We used excerpts from interviews with individuals representing different cultural, spiritual, and religious traditions. This provided the course participants with an opportunity to explore and develop appreciation for diverse worldviews.
After the course, my colleagues and I tested the impact it had had on people’s worldviews of death and the afterlife. To do so, we studied data from journals and questionnaires that we had sent participants before the training and again after the training. We gave participants two mortality-salience prompts that had been used in previous research—“What do you think will happen to your body when you die?” and “What are the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you?”—and asked them to answer these questions in their journals. By analyzing the language participants used in their journals before the course and after, we found that their views about death had changed significantly by the end of the course. Participants were less centered on their body and less focused on death, and they were less likely to use first-person pronouns in their journal writing, suggesting a reduction in their personal identification with death. They also appeared to demonstrate more insight about themselves, and their writing included fewer negative references to death as something to be feared and denied.
For example, before the course, one participant responded to the question “What are the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you?” by writing, “Fear of having regrets. Almost panic at the thought of leaving dreams and talents unfulfilled or wasted.” After the course, the same person wrote, “My spirit will be surrounded by an atmosphere of love and peace, and I will feel no real regret at what I am leaving behind.” This person experienced an overall emotional shift. The course seemed to have given her a sense of cosmic unity and a readiness for her own death.
Another participant expressed a similar shift in worldview. Before the course, he noted, “The most prominent emotion is worry that I have not accomplished all that I have set out to do. What if I haven’t done enough or have somehow been less than I was supposed to be or experience?” After the course, he wrote, “I feel excited by the prospects that I have completed my life journey and that I will be moving on to new adventures.”
Follow-up comments told us that the course had deepened some people’s perspectives about death and invited open-minded curiosity about and exploration of diverse worldviews on the afterlife. One participant noted:
Besides the fact that my beliefs feel strengthened, I have a better understanding about beliefs of other cultures and feel that I have added certain pieces to my own beliefs. . . . In particular I want to strive to approach other worldviews and my own with respect and humility. I want to continue to allow openness and space for something different to enter.
Another participant said:
My personal experiences and beliefs are real, and other people’s are real, too. It’s okay to not “know” for sure what the afterlife is like, but by sharing our views and experiences, we open the conversation in ways that still support the existence of an afterlife, regardless of variation of perspectives.
This research suggests that raising death awareness in a supportive and engaging environment can help ease people’s fears and reduce their resistance to worldviews that are outside their own, thus counteracting the cultural pathology that Becker wrote about so powerfully.
SHIFTING THE FEAR OF DEATH
The worldview transformation model predicts that engaging with worldviews beyond our own is one way of confronting death in order to transform our fear of it. Other people have faced their fear of death and shifted it to life-affirming values through their direct personal experience, their spiritual beliefs and practices, and their philosophy of life.
Embracing Death to Embrace Life
Dean Ornish is a renowned physician, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the founder and president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute. His personal story demonstrates how embracing death, rather than avoiding and fearing it, frees us to live better lives. During an interview, he told me how, when he was in college, he came very close to committing suicide.
I first got interested in doing this work really when I was an undergraduate. I was at a small, very competitive university where half the student body graduated first or second in their high school classes. It also turned out to be the school that had the highest suicide rate in the country per capita. . . .
The more I worried about doing well, the harder it became to study. And the harder it became to study, the harder it became to do well. I got into this vicious cycle where I literally couldn’t sleep for a week straight, and I got profoundly agitated. That kind of sleep deprivation alone is enough to make you a little crazy.
So I remember sitting in physics class, and I thought, “I’ll just kill myself! Why didn’t I think of that earlier? That will put an end to all of this pain.” . . . So I made plans to kill myself, and I was going to jump off a tower. [Then] I realized my parents would not be very happy. So I decided I’d get really drunk and run my car into the side of a bridge, and everyone would think I had just gotten really drunk and I wasn’t really trying to hurt myself. That would be easier. I was a little crazy, but it made perfect sense to me at the time.
This was in 1972. Meanwhile, my older sister had been studying yoga with a swami named Swami Satchidananda. He was an ecumenical teacher who had come to the US in the midsixties. . . . My parents decided to have a cocktail party for the swami—which in Dallas in 1972 was pretty weird. So he came into our home.
There’s an old spiritual teaching that “when the student is ready the teacher appears,” and that was certainly true for me. When the swami came into my parents’ living room and said, “Nothing can bring you lasting happiness,” it was really validating, because everybody else had said, “Of course, things will make you happy. Just do this and do that and don’t do that, and then you’ll be happy.” I realized that that wasn’t true, [and] here he was validating that . . . I thought I was ready to kill myself, and he was glowing, and I thought, “What’s the disconnect here?”
This meeting with Swami Satchidananda was a moment that transformed Ornish’s life. He realized that happiness and peace of mind come from within us, not from the external world. Such qualities are something we have already, and they are not something we can lose. He explained to me, “One of the great paradoxes of life [is that] we run after all these things that we think are going to make us happy and peaceful, and in the process we disturb what’s there already.”
Ornish also discovered that many spiritual practices aim to calm our bodies and minds in order to let us experience what we already have within. Compelled by these insights, Ornish decided to try meditation, acknowledging that he could always return to his initial game plan, suicide, if the spiritual practice did not work. In this meditation process, he began to get glimpses of inner peace and wellbeing. It was a gateway to personal transformation for the young man.
Because I came so close to killing myself when I was in college, because I was so profoundly depressed, I naturally started to ask questions like: What is death about? Do you just close your eyes and go to sleep? Or is it something more than that? And I began to read up on this voraciously. I began having my own experiences. When you meditate enough, you realize that we have a body, but we’re not our body. We even have a mind, but we’re not our mind. There’s something that survives death, that goes from one class to another, one body to another.
The paradox, and I’ve seen that in my own personal life, as well as in the many, many people that I’ve worked with over the last thirty-five years, is that . . . until you fully embrace death, you can’t really live fully. It’s a cliché because it’s true.
Just as he was ready to face death head-on, Ornish unexpectedly found himself embracing life. Today his work centers on helping people live in optimal health. The physician attributes his professional success to his own close encounter with death.
Ornish’s experience follows that described by the worldview transformation model: he had a profound destabilization; he had bottomed out. He then discovered a gifted teacher and began his own spiritual practice, which grounded his work as a healthcare provider and scientist. He sought to understand what he was experiencing through meditation, and what he experienced helped him to understand death. Through his own worldview shift, he found the path to living deeply.
Everything I’ve done in my professional life people thought was crazy because people thought it was impossible, but I would never have done it if I hadn’t come so close to dying earlier. . . .
When you really are interested in learning something, it tends to be more successful . . . because you don’t bring all that anxiety and fear. You’re willing to try things that other people would just think are too risky because you’ve come so close to death that you want to. When I decided to not kill myself, I wanted to live as fully as possible because I couldn’t live half a life.
Like Ornish, Noah Levine was once suicidal, longing for death most of his early life. He believed on some level that death would help him escape suffering. His father had been active in hospice work, so Levine had a familiar relationship with death. Then, over decades of Buddhist practice, Levine’s relationship to death changed “from wanting out, to actually being quite happy to be in the body.” Today, the author of Dharma Punx and Against the Stream is also a Buddhist practitioner and counselor. He teaches Buddhist meditation classes, workshops, and retreats and leads groups in juvenile halls and prisons on the role of mindfulness for living well. He has studied with many prominent teachers in both the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions.
In contemplating suicide, Levine never felt that death was “lights out.” Rather, he had an “understanding that death is just a transition from one form of existence to another, without a lot of attachment or fear about death—feeling like it is such a natural process.” A core tenet of his mindfulness involves facing death directly, acknowledging that our bodies die and are not who we really are. An important ritual within many Buddhist practices involves visiting funeral grounds to watch the bodies being cremated. He says, “Just as that body is burning, so will this one eventually. So find a place that is not this body to take refuge in a spiritual understanding.” (We will explore death-preparation practices in chapter 6.)
Today suicide is not part of the picture for Levine. His goal is to live fully and with purpose. During an interview for the transformation study, Levine underscored the certainty of death coupled with its uncertain timing. He explained that this two-fold nature of death gives him a sense of urgency that impacts how he spends his time and what he does with his life. He draws on a worldview that includes reincarnation. He explained that if you don’t do your work, you return in another body, and another, until “you’ve done what needs to be done, which mostly is freeing oneself from delusions and greed and aversion and confusion.” He continued:
The fact that I reflect on death a lot does inspire me to [spiritual] practice. And it does influence my practice of saying, “I don’t know how much time I have, so I better pay attention.” Rather than my earlier lifetime where I was kind of like, “Sure, I’d love to trade in this existence for a different one.” Now, it’s like, “Oh no, this existence is what’s a given. Here it is. I don’t want to trade it in for another one. Actually I’d like to get free, and not, you know, keep doing this cycle. I’d like to have the kind of freeing experience that the Buddha talks about—of entering the deathless and not continuing to take rebirth.
Many spiritual teachers believe that we can shift our views of who we are and that doing so offers a portal to worldview transformation. An aspect of death that causes fear is the question of personal identity: Who or what dies? Answering that question of personhood can help us to reformulate our relationship with death, says Satish Kumar. A former monk, longtime peace and environmental activist, and the editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, Kumar explained to me his worldview:
My identity, what we call small identity—like my label, my name, my nationality, my religion—doesn’t survive bodily death. These are small identities. If I am a member of the universe and a member of the earth community, and I am part and parcel of the life force, that is my identity. It is my true identity, or my primary identity.
My secondary identities are that I am an Indian. I am a certain age. I was born in the Jain religion, et cetera. All these are secondary identities. We need not be afraid of losing secondary identities.
The worldview transformation model tells us that positive transformation leads us to shift from the small “me” to an expanded “we” that connects us to something greater than ourselves. Kumar echoed this concept:
Our primary identity is that we are members of the life force. That life force continues. It’s eternal. It’s infinite. It’s dynamic.
If we become static in one body, and never die, and are afraid of dying, that means we are blocking the dynamic force that is ever changing. If we block that, the world will be a boring place.
Like Becker, Kean, Greenberg, and others, Kumar argues that people’s fear of death leads to maladaptive behaviors. It can block the process of positive worldview transformation. For him, the key to overcoming our fear of death is a worldview that heals our separation from the natural world. The ecologist describes the shift from external motivations to intrinsic motivations that may help us to identify our true nature. Expanding our sense of self and who we really are can help connect us to a broader and more transcendent reality.
We want to live forever, and because we want to live forever, we want to own, we want to possess, we want to control. Therefore, we want to own nature, we want to own the land, we want to own property, we want to own the people, and we want to own relationships. That is what destroys the normal functioning of the cosmos. Earth is a part of that cosmos. . . .
If we expand our consciousness, expand our mind, go out of this body, and understand that the whole of earth is my home, and I am an organ of the whole earth body, and that earth body is a part of the whole of cosmos, then my mind is expanding. And then, as vast mind, I touch the mind of God. That is how we can liberate ourselves and not possess this land, or this relationship, or this house, or this money. Me, me, me, and I, I, I—this kind of possessiveness will melt away. And that will be the true, deep ecology.
The greatest friend of fear is ignorance because ignorance leads to fear. . . . Remove that ignorance and you become aware that we are part of the continuum, a part of the evolving. The moment you realize that, then you are not afraid.
Embracing Our Gifts
Michael Bernard Beckwith is the founder and spiritual director of the Agape International Spiritual Center, headquartered in Los Angeles. A multicultural, transdenominational community in the New Thought–Ageless Wisdom tradition of spirituality, Agape has thousands of local members and global live streamers. The vision and mission of Agape and its ministries are grounded in the principle of being a compassionate, beneficial presence on the planet.
Beckwith shared his philosophy on how to skillfully work with the fear of death:
As we begin to birth spiritual insight, we grow in our understanding that all beings are one, that all existence is cosmically interconnected. We further realize that we possess more than enough of all that is good and perfect, including our nature of eternality. We never die, because we’ve never been born. We’re living our human incarnation; but as spiritual beings, we are part of an evolutionary continuum taking place in many dimensions.
When individuals catch that life on earth is impermanent, that their human incarnation and delivering their gifts and talents will come to a closure at some unknown time, this causes a high level of anxiety. The human ego—the sense of being a self, separate from the whole becomes very anxious about when its time will be up and makes life choices based on actuarial tables created to predict a person’s lifespan by age, as though this were the main criterion.
How much wiser it is to dismiss timeframes and make choices and decisions from a consciousness of, “What gifts and talents am I to cultivate and deliver before I leave this three-dimensional realm? While I’m here, how can I be a beneficial presence on the planet?” This form of self-inquiry vibrates at a much higher frequency than, “I’m afraid to die!”
Being in the Present
Living in the moment can offer salve for the death terror that many people experience. Brother David Steindl-Rast, whom we met in chapter 1, explained to me:
People who are dying are forced to be in the present moment because they have no more future. The closer they come, the more they have to be in the present moment. One of the aspects of Being that [psychologist Abraham] Maslow identified in the peak experience was beauty, because we are in direct contact—for a split second our little ego drops, and we forget about it—and we are in direct contact with Being.
To simply be present where you are allows the transforming power of the universe to transform you. You don’t have to do anything to grow older. That happens by itself. You don’t have to do anything to digest your food. Nature does that, and you couldn’t do it if you wanted. So you don’t really have to do anything to grow spiritually and to transform spiritually. It happens when you are not getting in the way.
What I’m saying is that when you live in the present moment, you are touching upon something that isn’t subject to time. We live in what T. S. Eliot calls “the moments in and out of time.” We know what now means, and now is not in time. It’s a little strip between the past and the future. The now is beyond time.
Lee Lipsenthal also valued living in the moment, embracing his most authentic self. He told me he felt no fear around his impending death because his way of dying wasn’t any different from the way he lived.
The beauty of what’s already been is enough. People feel that I’m brave for talking about what it’s like to be dying in a public venue. I don’t look at it as bravery; I just look at it as me, dying. This is what I do. I teach. I’m out there being with people, enjoying life, enjoying play. It’s who I am. I just happen to be dying now. This thing that is looked at as bravery or resiliency is just me dying. The “me” hasn’t changed. The physical entity is changing for sure; I’ve got lumps in my neck. But the core “me” hasn’t changed. And so this bravery resilience thing is to me, just me being with cancer. I wouldn’t know how to do it in another way.
Finding Unconditional Love
Tony Redhouse is a Native American sound healer, spiritual teacher, eagle/hoop dancer, and award winning recording artist. The creator of Native American Yoga, he is a traditional Native American practitioner and consultant to Native American communities and behavioral health organizations, where he teaches seminars on Native American culture. He is also a cancer survivor. For Redhouse, unconditional love—love without judgment—is the greatest buffer against fear, including the fear of death.
The only reason we have fear is because of judgment. . . . In our mind, there’s some type of judgment because we have not met certain criteria. We’re comparing our self with some ideal. Removing that fear, any fear, and especially the fear of death, is being able to understand unconditional love. It’s being able to embrace that. And that goes back to our self. Somebody said, love your neighbor as yourself. When I was going through medical treatment for forty-eight weeks, which involved some chemo, I looked in the mirror, and I was angry. I was upset. I was depressed. My energy level was down, I just wanted to lay under the covers and go to sleep all the time.
During that time, I finally got up, looked in the mirror and looked into my eyes for the longest time. And I said, “Tony, I love you just the way you are. Everything you’ve been through, every relationship, every failure, every heartache, every celebration, every success, I love you just the way you are. Exactly the way you are. You don’t have to change one thing. I embrace you unconditionally.”
When we can find that unconditional love that does not have any judgment, when we can embrace everything that we are in one moment, even for one second, look in a mirror, and say, “I love you just the way you are. Even with everything that you’ve been through in your life divorce, addictions, everything—I love you completely,” that wipes out the fear of death.
For physician Gerald Jampolsky, a key to healing our fear of death is love and caring. Loneliness and social isolation can lead to early deaths, and holding on to old emotional baggage may lead to suffering. Jampolsky offers Attitudinal Healing, which he explains is “a cross-cultural method of healing that helps remove self-imposed blocks such as judgment, blame, shame and self-condemnation that are in the way of experiencing lasting love, peace, and happiness.”13
People who have a life-threatening illness may be panicky and afraid of dying. This suffering can be transformed, says Jampolsky, as these people participate in a community that fosters love and forgiveness:
They’re in a group of similar people where they’re giving help as well as receiving it, and finding out “the more I give my love, the more I’m able to stay in the present.”
They’re getting out of the old paradigm that the past is going to predict the future. They’re learning to live in the moment. They’re learning to forgive, because when we don’t forgive, it creates toxins in our bodies that cause us to hurt ourselves. So we hold on to anger around someone else, and oftentimes even in the dying process medications like morphine may not be useful because the pain is still there. But if [they] open up the possibility of looking at some places where they haven’t forgiven themselves or others, all of a sudden the medicine starts to work. . . .
The purpose of our group is to practice forgiveness, not making judgments, and giving. As we give, we receive. The benefits come from really staying in the present, not asking questions that will bring about fear about what’s going to happen tomorrow, or what happens when the doctor finds my x-ray has gotten worse. Instead, [we focus on] . . . realizing that when you’re in a hospital bed and people are coming to see you, a lot of them are afraid and fearful of saying the wrong thing.
A lot of people may not be coming around to see you, and you wonder if you’re being rejected, when really they are fearful. Rather than getting upset and angry that old friends aren’t coming to see you, you send them love and begin to feel a peace and a joining, not a separation. We learn that the purpose of relationships is joining, not separation. So it’s a whole new way of living life.
Terror management theory holds the critical assumption that our fear of death lies buried beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. Both the terror of death and our heroic impulses to overcome death are linked to our worldviews. Bringing death and how we avoid our fear of it into conscious awareness can deepen our selfinquiry. As we begin to bring death out of the realm of the unspoken, we may better integrate our understanding into our everyday experience. Staying in the present helps us to be fearless. Without striving, we may get out of our own way as we face the inevitable.
Data from the experiments in social psychology and the worldview transformation model suggest that death awareness can motivate people to reprioritize their life goals and expand their self-worth and identity, prevent harm to others, and promote social harmony. By exploring our own and others’ worldviews about death, we may become more creative, innovative, and flexible about our relationships with ourselves, our community, and the world in which we live. Exploring worldviews about death becomes the base from which we can reflect on our own potential resistance to fundamental change and becomes the starting point for worldview transformation.
If we treat death as a great mystery, we may see it as an adventure and an opportunity to engage the unknown. If instead of denying death, we create a positive awareness around it, we can open to a new understanding of ourselves and others. Learning and appreciating the depths of human experience can be a doorway into our own evolution. In the next chapter, we will explore the nature of direct personal experiences of death and near-death and consider their role as catalysts for deep and lasting growth and wellbeing.
Science shows us that self-esteem can be a powerful buffer against the fear of death. In order to invite this tool into your life, begin with this simple exercise.
Sit quietly. Bring a small smile to your face. Feel the muscles in your cheeks as you hold a positive intention.
As you smile, bring to mind a positive quality or characteristic about yourself (for example, “I’m creative,” “I’m funny,” “I’m a good hugger,” “I’m smart”). Begin to breathe into this thought about your positive quality. Continue to smile as you enjoy this positive aspect of who you are and how you feel about yourself.
Take a few moments to absorb this experience and feel the goodness that washes over you. Then use your journal to record any feelings, sensations, or personal insights that arose for you.
If it feels right, share what you have discovered with a family member or friend, inviting them to reflect on their own positive qualities. In this way, you may together begin to form a caring community that can enhance your self-esteem and help transform any negative reactions you have about death.
Teaser image by hans van den berg, courtesy of Creative Commons license.