The fear of death

Niagara Falls is shunyata.We all fear death. Most people don’t even allow themselves to think about it, it’s so awful, even though it’s the one thing we are all guaranteed (even taxes are optional, after all). It’s this huge, dark, unknown thing, toward which we begin hurtling as soon as we’re born. Some people strongly believe that there’s an afterlife, heaven or another lifetime, or just floating around in cosmic bliss, but it seems to me that this is simply a way to stave off the great fear. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, not really. Not, anyway, to my satisfaction. It’s occurred to me that even science will probably never be able to tell us what lies on the other side of that wall.

Some people think we should be using science and medicine to prolong our lives for thousands of years, even make us immortal. That hunger for more experience, more books, more food, is what the mind does, and when you’ve been taught your whole life that that craving, a big part of the sensation of being alive, is your real self, of course you’re terrified of letting it go. Especially when no one can really promise you that anything better will happen at the end than that you will simply go out like a candle.

I’ve lain awake at night in a cold sweat, heart pounding, overwhelmed with terror at the knowledge that one day I will cease to exist. I will never know anything again. I won’t find out what happens next. No more drinks with friends, no more really good books, no more walks in the park with the smell of flowers in the air. No more new experiences. No more really good arguments, no more passion, no more just knowing that here I am, I am breathing, I am alive. No more “I.” Not even nothingness, because you need awareness to know that there’s nothing. I’ve had to reach over and turn on the light, watch some stupid tv, do anything I can to distract myself, because there was no way to reconcile myself to this fear. This thing is going to happen to me, and it’s going to happen to you, too.

I used to picture it like going over Niagara Falls. We’re all helpless in the current, nothing to hold onto, and we can pitch over the edge into oblivion at any moment. Whether we like it or not, we’ll get there someday.

Here’s a notion you’ll come across in Buddhism if you look into it even a little bit: That there is no Self, and therefore there’s nothing to fear from death because you don’t exist anyway. I find this bald statement pretty inadequate. For sure, the longer you meditate, the better your chance of reaching the kind of insight that might take away the fear of no longer existing. You can’t be told, you have to experience this knowledge yourself. I got a little peek into this a few weeks ago, at jury duty.

Funny place for a metaphysical insight. There I was at the Criminal Courthouse, parked on a bench in the hallway, waiting to be called, or not, to serve on a jury. It’s an odd situation, not only because you don’t know whether you’ll have to serve or not, but because since everyone is called at random, nobody there is acquainted with anybody else. We are all strangers.

So I had two days to sit among strangers, watching the process, and finishing my book, which happened to be Brad Warner’s “Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality.” I don’t like to read about Buddhism, as I think it muddies my expectations, but I love his approach and strongly recommend this book as an introduction. Because he doesn’t care about “sounding like a Buddhist,” he puts things into words that even an ignorant American like me can understand. Or maybe I just get him because he was a punk, too.

I was reading what Brad has to say about the Heart Sutra. This is a piece of writing that is said to encompass the essence of what Buddha had to teach. Basically, it says that with the realization that the five skandhas are shunyata, all suffering ceases. Got that?

It’s so hard to talk about this stuff with words. English is a terrible language for it, which is why we hang on to words in Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Pali. Any words fall short – words are also shunyata, by the way – but Sanskrit probably comes closest.

Let me explain what I mean by that. There are five skandhas, which is a Sanskrit word for, it says in Wikipedia, mass or heap, something like that. “Aggregate” is a good translation. The five skandhas are:

  • Form (the material world, and our body and senses)
  • Feeling (emotion, or our reaction to form)
  • Perception (cognition)
  • Will (thoughts, ideas, opinions, decisions)
  • Consciousness (self-awareness)

The five skandhas are what make You exist. In the west we believe there’s something else underlying all of that, which is your Self, which experiences those things. In Buddhism, those five skandhas are your Self – that’s all there is. Apart from those five skandhas, you do not exist.

(I’m stealing this image from Brad) Say you have a pile of garbage. Take parts of it away one by one – the tin can, the old shoe, the banana peel. Take all the parts away. Where is your pile of garbage? It doesn’t exist. It never really existed in the first place, except as an aggregation of parts. That’s the Self.

What zazen allows to happen is that you come to see the parts for what they are, which is shunyata. Shunyata is usually translated as “empty.” Emptiness is another easily misunderstood Buddhist concept, one I’ve had a lot of trouble with. A better word might be “insubstantial.”  Take emotion, for example. Emotion is insubstantial. That doesn’t mean it’s not real; it’s just not real in the way that we think it is. It’s not a thing unto itself.

I think it was the garbage image that did it. For some reason, that resonated with me. I set the book down in my lap and just breathed.

There was hearing. There was sight. Smells happened. There was awareness of temperature, the air brushing my skin, the feeling of my ass against the bench and my clothes against my body. So, there was form – but it was not the solid world as we normally think of it. And there was nothing else. The other skandhas were not present.

And for a little while, I ceased to exist.

This little experience was totally unscary, and all too brief. There’s no risk, by the way, that the Self won’t come back. It’s a tenacious bugger. The Self comes into being when it’s reacting to something, and there’s always something to react to, even in an isolation tank. When I first started meditating, I realized that I was afraid of letting the constant chatter in my mind cease. I think I was as afraid of recognizing the insubstantiality of the Self as much as I was afraid that the thoughts might not come back. (No problem with that, by the way, as it turned out.)

What I saw on the bench that day was that my sense of being a Self is not real, not in the way I’ve been taught to think of it  That way is, in fact, pretty natural, given what we have to work with, and a very handy thing to have around. If you don’t believe that your Self is real, good luck getting a job and taking care of business. The goal is not to deny or destroy the Self; the goal is to see that there is no Self in that way to begin with, so therefore there’s no problem. The Self is the five skandhas, and they are shunyata. If I think of a good way to say that briefly in English, I’ll let you know.

Which brings me neatly back to where I started. Having begun to understand, I think, the way in which I do not exist, I fear death less. I definitely have a lot more work to do. But once there is understanding of what the Self truly is, and is not, there is understanding that all there is, is this moment. A thousand years is the same as a minute. We are each everything that there is, and therefore we never cease to exist. It’s just this particular set of sensation, emotion, cognition, will, and self-awareness that will cease. No problem.

3 Responses to “The fear of death”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    Yay! You’re back!

    Substantive response later; for now: Yay!

  2. Shanghai Slim Says:

    Are you equally mortified about sleeping?

    I’m thinking, with the possible exception of dreaming, the Self basically ceases to exist while the body sleeps, doesn’t it?

    Okay, maybe you can tolerate this “nightly death” because you are confident you will be “resurrected” the next morning. But that depends on all sorts of factors completely outside your control – and of course, many (most?) people actually do die while asleep.

    So if slipping into the risky “little death” of sleep every single day is not so terrifying, why is the “big sleep” so much more? I suspect that for most people the experience is more or less the same. That final closing of eyelids is not usually accompanied with the consciousness that it is the last.

    Now, my biggest fear is that merely suggesting this gives you chronic sleeplessness. :-0

  3. soundofrain Says:

    I have always had trouble falling asleep. Maybe that’s why. But really, that confidence that I will wake up in the morning makes kind of a huge difference! At least while I’m relatively young. Is that why older people don’t sleep as much?

    As much as I have always feared death, I would hate to be asleep and miss it. I want my last thought to be: Here we go…!

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