One of the delights of blogging is the openness of readers’ questions. And because the questions here have been so good, to an astonishing extent (at least to me) I have responded by publically dissecting the deepest slam to my psyche, my NDE and the issues that came with it, both for me and for the field of near-death studies. Most recently it was Tomas, seconded by others, who came right out with the big question: Are you afraid of death?
I sent an immediate reply—“No, I don’t think so. For a more satisfactory answer, watch for a post in the next week or so.”
Hah. Wrong. Oh, so wrong!
Weeks have passed since Tomas’s inquiry and my blithe reply, and day after day I have sat at my computer with nothing happening except an alarming amount of Candy Crush. That can mean one of several things, none of which is that I actually enjoy Candy Crush. That kind of stupefaction means either that I actually have nothing to say and should make a quick and apologetic getaway; or that something is bubbling away in my subconscious, which will make itself known in due time; or that I really, really don’t want to go to wherever the topic is. This time, I suspect it’s a bit of all three.
Why has it taken me so long to write what might have been a one-paragraph post but that has developed into a full response? Why all that Candy Crush? Because I didn’t really want to look hard enough at the question to know my genuine answer. I simply didn’t want to think about it. A snappy one-liner is easy enough, but I realized it short-changes people who ask sincere questions—so the price for me of giving an honest and adequate answer is that I’ve had to think, and for you, that you’ve had to wait. And you will probably have noticed that even now, when I am trying to write the blasted post, I’ve been dragging my feet with an over-long introduction. Tomas and the rest of you have been remarkably patient long enough. So, here goes.
Am I afraid of death? Of course. At least in part—though likely not in the expected way—I am afraid of death, as is every sentient creature. Only for the most mystical-experience-gifted is this possibly untrue, and I suspect that even they, in bleak times, have some quavers about what lies across the line. Why? What is it about death that is so implacably disturbing?
What I discovered, part 1
Anyone who has spent time with people who have had a near-death experience or with the literature of near-death studies knows that the overwhelming majority of reported NDE accounts are of transfiguring events—at the very least pleasant and often glorious—that leave their participants fearless at the thought of death. The experiencers may still feel apprehensive about the process of getting there, but they are convinced by their own subjective knowledge that death itself will be indescribably beautiful. They know this with such certitude that is almost unshakable, so strong that one experiencer I know seriously berated a grief-stricken friend (also an NDEr) who was mourning the death of her husband of forty-plus years: Rejoice! the other experiencer demanded.
For the rest of humankind, there has never been such sweet certainty. Those of us less NDE-privileged, hearing of such loss of fear, tend to think ourselves somehow inferior, as if we had unwittingly failed a test of character or faith. Yet fear of death has abided, a constant presence across all of human history; and even one-celled organisms, although they have not written about their perceptions, retreat from life-threatening situations so promptly that we are assured they, too, share our aversion. Perhaps we anthropomorphize when we think that paramecia are afraid of death, but they, like us, certainly do not go out to welcome it.
It was the thought of paramecia that helped crystalize my thinking about this post. I have a very clear memory of watching one-celled creatures through my high school biology microscope, and realizing with awe that they were aware! When approached, they retreated; when poked, they fled! They resisted a threat to life. The more I thought about that recently, it became clear that there are different levels to what I believe is the general fear of death, though at least three do not involve actual death at all but are anticipatory.
Anticipations of death
Instinctual avoidance of death
If in the tiniest and least-brained of living creatures, there is an immediate reaction against death, who do we think we are, to make such a big deal of our own? At the instinctual level, whether or not the impetus is actually fear, we share the generic avoidance of death. Bolstering this notion is this quote, just discovered, by the great transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart (my hero); “If you’re a human being, you’ve got a nervous system and body with built-in functions and limitations. Fear of death is one of those, it’s ‘preprogrammed,’ as it were, from the ‘factory.’”
Why should there be such an instinct? It occurs to me that out of all the billions of galaxies with who-knows-how-many potentially life-supporting planets, we know of only a single miniscule spot in the entire universe that sustains physical, conscious life. Is the function of our recoil really about death, or is it about the importance of safeguarding that life itself, like the tiny green shoot in the movie Wall-E, the only one from which to rebuild a world?
It seems to me that our recoil stands as a recognition that behind our intellectually developed moral and legal arguments and religious commandments, there is a deeper principle protecting the very fact that life Is. That Is can be interpreted as the ultimate miracle.
Despite the consume-or-be-consumed nature of existence on this planet, where death is essential, natural, and inevitable, life is. We share with every bean sprout and paramecium the instinct to pull away from extinction. The instinct may represent, not fear but the affirmation of life itself. “I am that I am,” said Yahweh to Moses. Apocryphal or factual, as may be, all Being shares in that.
Fifty-three years ago this August, I had an experience that would reshape my life. It was not a pleasant experience, and it did not eliminate my fear of death. In fact, although it included nothing like demons or physical torment, and although it never occurred to me then or later that I had died, the event left me with a horror of a negating something that was “out there,” and that would be waiting for me when I did die.
In the moments of that experience, there was an “I”—the ordinary sense of myself—being told that my life—which was mine but in some way distinguishable from the “I”—did not exist and indeed had never existed as the “I” believed. My self, my reality, were not real. (The idea that the “I” was simply consciousness was not part of that conversation nor of my interpretation until years later. It’s hard, now, to explain that the word “consciousness” was not part of my ordinary thinking as it is today; but then it was a term far in the future.)
What was most tangible about the event itself was what I would later call the “instant Holocaust,” information that everything I knew and loved was not real, that my babies, my family, grass, robins, ice cream, peaches, Earth itself, were not real—and my belief that if they were not real, they had been obliterated and there was no home to return to. God was nowhere in evidence, though was perhaps hidden over by the horizon; nothing existed but the infinite Void, and the circles which had moved on, and my sense of floating, or being somehow suspended, utterly alone in immensity.
More than twenty years later I first recognized that “holocaust” as an experience of what actual death involves, a totality of leaving-behind. So, though to this day I do not believe I died, I know first-hand how death may involve not fear but overwhelming, incapacitating grief, not only of those left behind. The question is whether in actual death enough of personal consciousness remains to do the grieving; for if so, that is reason enough to fear.
Here again, NDErs report no such sense of painful separation, no longings to return, only joy at being wherever that elsewhere may be. I lean heavily on their words.
I won’t really be too surprised if I regain consciousness. On the other hand, I will be very surprised if ‘I’ regain consciousness.
In a Psychology Today column a few years back, physician Alex Lickerman wrote candidly, “Whenever I’ve tried wrapping my mind around the concept of my own demise—truly envisioned the world continuing on without me, the essence of what I am utterly gone forever—I’ve unearthed a fear so overwhelming my mind has been turned aside as if my imagination and the idea of my own end were two magnets of identical polarity, unwilling to meet no matter how hard I tried to make them.”
Makes me wonder if he played Candy Crush at those times.
The terror is palpable and recognizable, but it is not fear of death but a fear entirely this side of the line. It is the personalized, self-directed version of the previous bereavement issue, the despairing cry of ego. The notion of releasing all claim to self as the ultimate spiritual endeavor is what makes Buddhism so difficult for most Westerners to comprehend. (See my extended discussion of this in Chapter 9 of Dancing Past the Dark, “Widening the Horizon: East and West, thinking the way we do.”)
Another observation on afterlife and the release of self, more nuanced, comes again from Charlie Tart, whose work on states of consciousness has been foundational, and who knows better than most the persuasive evidence of some kind of continuation after death:
“After 25 years of studying this, I have come to two conclusions. One is that, as I die, after a period of confusion and fear, I won’t really be too surprised if I regain consciousness. On the other hand, I will be very surprised if ‘I’ regain consciousness.”
Tart is Western, has spent most of his long academic career studying such things, and has been studying Vispassana mindfulness meditation for years to reach that conclusion. For those of us less well prepared to let ego diminish and dissipate, there seems nothing for it but to endure our anxiety. It’s not an easy matter, one way or another.
None of this so far has addressed what I recognize as the question behind the question: “What about hell? You had a really disturbing NDE; are you afraid of hell?” As this piece is already very long for a blog post, and I have sworn to myelf to put it out tonight, I will undertake that answer in Part 2. It is already in process, and my goal is to get it to you in days rather than weeks. And no Candy Crush this time!