Stephen Levine has an extremely in depth knowledge of the human psyche, and seems to ooze compassion in the way that he writes. Yes, there are many deep psychological concepts which are explored, which may need to be read more than once if you aren't used to such deep exploration. However, this is broken up with many beautifully engaging stories which will have you turning pages and confronting your own emotions as you follow the cases that he writes about.
If you're interested, here is the link to the amazon page: Who Dies?
So far in this series of articles on overcoming fear, we've explored how each fear can be traced to a fear of death and also, how our 'web of identity' affects the way we approach our fear. Now, let's go deeper still into the caverns of who we are and look at the source pain behind our fear of death.
Dying - whether a final death or an every day challenge to our sense of self, it confronts our identity causing us to be afraid. Thus we often cling to certain traits/identities within us when others are challenged, especially our world view and belief system. It's been shown over and over again that when reminded of our fear of death, we react generously to those who reinforce our beliefs and harshly to those who call our beliefs into question.
What causes us to behave this way?
Unity Vs, Individuality
This causes great pain to an infant, which we call separation anxiety. It is the first time we experience death in our lifetimes; a loss of identity. So, we begin to search for our own identity - what is our place in the world? And here begins the apparent conflict between the two opposing currents of love (unity consciousness) and individuality (separation). Thus a child will flip several times a day between needing to be supported and nurtured and needing to assert their independence, which of course continues into adulthood, if only in a more subtle way.
The two 'flows of consciousness' conflict because of fear - we fear to lose ourselves in unity consciousness, to lose our uniqueness, that which defines us. This is the underlying cause: the 'source pain', of our fear of death. It is the reason so many are not able to meditate deeply - to hit that point where we blend effortlessly into the vastness of the universe.
So how do we consolidate these two apparently opposing flows so that they work together in our lives, so that fear arises less and less? Well, I'm afraid there's no method I can give you. The answer lies in the opposite of method - surrender.....total and utter surrender.
Surrendering into Nothingness
We have to let the fear arise. We have to make friends with it. We have to let go of our clinging. We have to be prepared to dissolve into nothingness. It takes a deep surrender to let go of our identities. The parent, the musician, the football player, the intellectualist, the lover, the carer, the comedian, the warrior - they must all go. They have to all be thrown into the black hole of nothingness - to my knowledge there is no other way to overcome fear! We have to literally become the black hole. Emptiness.
Here's the thing - this emptiness, this nothingness. There is actually a wholeness to it. A purity of life. Some call it unconditional love. It is not really nothingness but no-thing-ness. There is no object (there is not even a subject) to cling to and produce duality. ..
...and out of this nothingness, this pure potential, comes our real uniqueness. It is not something that can be easily described, easily labelled, and therefore there is no identity with it. It is just you, pure and simple. It is felt as a kind of 'rightness' in every moment. It is not the rightness of right and wrong, this is a judgement, a duality which leads to identifying with a certain point of view. It is a spontaneous 'knowing' of how to respond to any given situation. It is beyond the mind and yet it is alignment for you and those around you, even if it makes people uncomfortable.
The Magic of the Moment
From here we begin to see how truly magical life really is. Check out this amazing short video with Alan Watts.
"So therefore, in the course of nature, once we have ceased to see the magic in the world anymore, we're no longer fulfilling natures game of being aware of itself. There's no point anymore. And so we die" - Alan Watts
Life is truly magical - the way it works, all the little miracles, the coincidences, the interactions.
How can we cultivate this feeling inside of us? We have to dive right in. Embrace the good and the bad. Find a passion, what makes you tick and do it without guilt. Dive right in. But don't cling, don't identify - our passions are simply ways of expressing our uniqueness which comes form pure potential, they are not who we are. We are the magic of the universe made incarnate.
In the first article in the series we have explored the perspective that each and every fear that we have can be ultimately traced to a fear of death, and that it is caused by our conditioning from our upbringing and our societal norms and expectations. In this article I'd like to delve deeper into the psyche so that we can explore ways of overcoming our conditioning and our fear of death.
Fear of Loosing 'Who We Are'
This is a very simplified model of a random person within society. Yet taking a closer look, we can clearly see the things we may identify with in our lives, how there can be smaller identities within them, and how they can be connected. We can also see that there are two types of identity:
All of these identities have been built up through a desire to know who we are. So, the question is who are we in all of this? Does being a Nurse, a Tennis player, a parent and a lover define who I am? Or are they simply outer scenarios in which we can express our characteristics: love, playfulness, caring, creativity. Are even these characteristics a definition of who we are? What happens when I don't feel playful or caring? Am I not me then?
It is not easy to let let go of identity, but seeing that you are identified and that the object, person or situation of identity doesn't actually define you is the first and most powerful step.
A Neuro-scientific viewpoint
Check out these two articles by Olivia Goldhill. They show us how the Buddhist perspective of ever-changing self can be linked to Neuroscientific research and that our personalities change over the course of our lives. What is interesting about this second study is that most of the research out there suggests that personality is fairly stable. However, they have all been conducted up to middle age, and this study went all the way from ages 14-77. It suggest that the bigger changes in personality begin to happen after middle age. Of course this is the period in our lives when we will have to say goodbye to many of the people, objects and situations that we have identified with. It shows how losing these things can affect who we are. We may become different people as the things that we hold dear get ripped away from us.
"People use the language of death and grief and loss whether they're talking about failing a class, breaking up with somebody, getting a scary diagnosis or burying a loved one"
- Jeanine Staples
How does embracing death all fit into this? Well, you see death is just a concept. Yes, we have our final deaths, there's no avoiding that, but we can embrace the concept of death by embracing every little death that we die along the way. In this way we don't cling, we don't become misers and we drink in the fullness, the richness of the moment, whatever that may be. Even during times of great pain or misery, there is an underlying peace, like an easiness because you are simply going with the flow.
In the 3rd article in the series 'Overcoming Fear by Embracing Death' we will look at the two opposing flows of unity and uniqueness and how these can either lead to attachment and clinging or to great inner peace and magical manifestations.
Fear of death is so prevalent in our psyches that it can be argued that it governs much of the way we think and react to our environment. It is the underlying cause of dependence on security and one-another, and drives us to cling to conditioned identities in order to give us some permanence. It is behind the idea of 'legacy', that we wish to leave a part of ourselves behind after we die, which causes us to fixate on an 'idea' rather than feeling who we are in each and every moment. In fact it is my perspective that it is possible to link ALL of our fears in some way to the fear of death. So, why is it so prevalent, what happens to us when we are conditioned this way and how can we overcome it? Here is the first in a two part series on overcoming the fear of death.
Fear of Death in Society
I have worked with a number of medical and caring professionals from doctors, nurses and paramedics to therapists, carers and social workers. And over time I have noticed that when at work, most of these professionals (especially medical ones) have a between a moderately strong to extreme fear of death, which dramatically affects the way they work. Each and every time I heard someone bring up the subject of death to a paramedic, the response, without exception was "I don't want to hear that" - This is literally what people said! In fact this has been a major influencing factor for me to go into the work that I now do - the look of relief on peoples faces when they said to me "I think I might die soon" and the response was "Okay. Talk to me about it" was quite literally life changing for me.
This is not by any means an attack on medical professionals. It is very understandable that when one comes to a job that has a primary function of preventing death, that one may see death as a 'failure', and that when confronted regularly with people dying in front of you that emotional reactions will continue to influence the way that medical practice is approached.
So, where does this conditioning come from?
From an early age, we strive to discover our unique place in the world. Through positive feedback ("That was very kind of you, well done" or "Aren't you good at drawing!") and negative feedback ("That wasn't nice!" or "why can't you be more....?") we begin to build up a web of conditioning and a picture of who we think we are. Then we go out into the world and are taught that one has to be secure to be happy. To do this, we have to provide for ourselves and our dependents, and the most secure way to to this is to get a job and a house. We see homeless people on the streets - people who have not been able to meet societies expectations - and we become afraid that that could happen to us.
Thus, we seek some form of legacy. As Ernest Becker postulates in his book, 'The Denial of Death' the function of society is to help us believe that we can transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth.
And, we don't just seek security in the physical world, but also in who we are. We like to say 'this is me'. We attach ourselves to identities, and when these identities slip away we are confronted directly with the fear of death. This is why all fear can be linked to a fear of death, because all fear is, is a reaction to a challenge to this web of identity, that we see that we may lose some part of ourselves. Fear of pain - because we identify with the body, fear of failure because it challenges our self-esteem (the desire to be 'good' at something), fear of loosing status, a job, a partner or a treasured possession - all because of an underlying fear of death. It is a fear of the unknown. It is a fear that we are not permanent. It is a fear of obliteration.
Belief in life after death can help, but the fear of death as a concept extends beyond this and affects everyone, no matter what spiritual beliefs you may have. Death is not just a state we enter at the end of our life - it manifests itself every day as something that challenges our patterns and conditioning. It is in the person who disagrees with you, it's in the mistakes that you make, it's in your lack of self confidence. It is a direct manifestation of every time you have an expectation that doesn't get met; of every time you cling to something that is comfortable and known when given the option to go forth into the unknown.
Why are we Wired this Way?
Essentially, we are caught between two opposing 'pulls' to our being. On one hand there is the desire for unity; the pull to be 'at one' with the universe, which can be called 'love'. On the other hand, there is the overwhelming need for individuality and uniqueness. It is the apparent opposition of these two forces which causes our denial of death, and thus denial of life. And, it is in this conundrum that we have the answer to the question, 'how can we overcome the fear of death?'
In the second part of the series, we'll look more closely at identity and how it plays a major role in our ability to embrace death, as well as a further explanation of the question, 'what is the self?'
My name is Richard. I love to write, and here you can find my general musings, observations and articles. Enjoy!
To stay up to date with articles follow my Facebook page
BACK TO THE SOURCE
Bringing you home