Fear of Death

A friend suffered a life-threatening injury, and spoke to me about his fear of death. I replied to him this way. I hope I will have the presence of mind to follow my own advice when my time comes – if not, I’ll die trying!

Since you ask for advice, here’s some. You identify Fear and Evil, but they are different. Evil is an abstract principle, not part of you. But Fear is an emotion that is part of you. Because the things you fear (incapacity, pain, death) are outside your conscious control, you treat the Fear itself as if it were the same. But it is not. Fear is a thought, and you can control your thoughts, with practice, by identifying and naming them as they arise (which they do in a blameless stream) and setting them aside. This takes practice, but it works. Dhammapada says, verse 1: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.” In your very vivid image you say that Fear, like salt, makes everything taste salty because you “have been pouring salt over everything.” Perhaps you remember being in love, when we pour love over everything and think only of our beloved; remember St. Lyndon Johnson, peace be upon him, who thought only of power, and everything tasted of power to him. This is what happens if you allow your thoughts to cover your whole mind. It is their nature, but it hides our nature, which is discernable between our thoughts. So my advice is: stop treating your Fear like an uncontrollable environment, like snow in a snowstorm, and begin the slow, repetitive process of identifying, naming, and putting these thoughts aside. “Fear arising,” you must say, each time. “I recognize Fear, back again. Such a nuisance.” And then let it go, until the next time it arises. Perhaps it will arise again in a few seconds. Repeat the process. Gradually your mind will become less salty.

Later I wrote to him again, as follows.

I thought you should have a more coherent explanation than I gave you about your Fear, what it is made of, and how to deal with it. There is nothing in here you don’t already know, but it helps to hear it again.

You have to deal with the Fear on two levels. On the practical level, what should you do when it comes at you unexpectedly and drives you under the covers? All our suffering, of which this is a classic textbook example, arises in our thoughts. Your Fear is a thought, it is an emotional reaction to your own mortality and impermanence. Think that through. You are impermanent, but you don’t want to be. Therefore you fear the extinction that is coming for all of us, because you want things to be different. Your attachment to the permanence of being around is the cause of your suffering.

Now when the Fear arises, you need to understand that it is not something outside yourself, even though it may feel that way. It is not even something “real,” in the sense that your injuries, for example, are real. As noted, it is a thought, an emotion (which is a kind of thought) that arises in your head just like the thought that you would enjoy a ham sandwich, or that it is a lovely (or unlovely) day, that you love your grandchildren (that’s an emotion), that the Republicans are contemptible, that your physical problems are a nuisance (a thought), that you resent them (that’s an emotion), etc etc etc.

Thoughts and emotions arise and pass away, just like everything else. They are particularly perishable and evanescent in that they are just waves within our minds. Your mind is deeper than any thought; the thoughts and emotions are wavelets and eddies that roil the surface like the waves at the beach. Roll, break, ebb, and then here comes another one. Your actual Self is noticeable between your thoughts, and can be recognized when you identify your thoughts and emotions as they arise, and name them, like this: Thought arising. Emotion arising. Fear arising. Lust arising. Replay of yesterday’s discussion. Rehearsal for what I will say at the meeting in London if I am able to go. Worry about money arising. Itch in balls arising. Annoyance with Dharma arising. And so on indefinitely.

The thing to remember is that these thoughts are just mental phenomena. They have no independent reality, and you don’t have to let them hijack your awareness and run off with it. You don’t have to chase them the way a puppy chases a stick. The second a thought occurs to you that you want to eat, or read the Iliad, or smoke a joint, or commit an act of self-abuse, or call your wife, or fear death, or whatever it is, that doesn’t mean you have to do it. It’s just what Alan Watts called talking to ourselves in our heads. So when the Fear comes, you can really just say: Fear arising. Name it; recognize it as just another wave; then let it go. This is mindfulness. Return your attention to your breath, which is not a thought and is always there as an anchor.

You can do this whenever you like – it is a way to master the constant chatter in your mind, and a way to increase your control over your thoughts, which if unsupervised will control you instead. While you are cowering under the covers is probably not the best time to think about the Fear and analyze it. It is time to turn off the car alarm and regain control of your thoughts. But when you feel better, then you do need to analyze it. Here’s the deal: we’re finite beings. Our lives are transient. Even our minds and thoughts are transient. There is nothing permanent or solid there we can rely on. This is true for everyone.buddha-fear-of-death Buddhist monks go to graveyards to meditate on impermanence. As the Dhammapada says, you are a yellow leaf. You are a slightly yellower leaf than most because of your age and your injuries, but we are all yellow leaves.

At right is a picture my brother Adam took in Thailand. Meditate on it. We arise and pass away; there is nothing to hold onto, and trying to cling to life only brings suffering!!! It doesn’t extend life even a little bit (indeed the stress and depression it causes may shorten it). Remember: it is not death that bums us out, it is wishing it were not coming. Repeat: death is not the cause of the Fear – it is trying to cling to life despite our knowledge of its irresistible impermanence. So (1) learn to recognize the Fear as a passing emotion (so it won’t overmaster you), and (2) accept your impermanence (because struggling just hurts without benefit). Not easy, I know, but not impossible either. We get better little by little, the Dhammapada says, like water filling a bucket a drop at a time. Thus I have heard.