Transcend Your Fear of Death
By Forrest Rivers
****Originally published on the mindfulword.org
One day, sooner or later, we are all going to die. Like every human being, as the inevitability of our own death dawns, we will be presented with two paths to follow.
We can choose the first and heavily traveled road of clinging to our own egoistic notions, sensory desires and worldly pleasures in the face of Yama, the King of Death. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we can push away the imminence of our body’s expiration and cling to the transient nature of our physical reality.
This choice will only wind up creating more needless suffering, because just as the Buddha taught, everything in our physical realm is impermanent and fleeting.
Fortunately, for our own sense of well-being, we can also choose the second and more lightly traveled road of embracing our physical demise by surrendering to the wondrous passage of form—returning to the Formless, the Void, the One.
Instead of continually running from death’s haunting shadow, we have the power to meet The Spirit of Death at its own doorstep, with our hearts wide open to what IS and will soon become.
Rather than lament the existential fact that we really have no control over the time and manner of our own passing, we can choose to become death’s supreme inquisitor and ask it all the questions that we intuitively already know the answers to.
Imagine the possibilities, upon learning of the Universe’s ability to bring us all to an awareness of the breathtaking unity that exists within one cycle of birth and death. Death does not have to be a painful and frightening process. We can use this ultimate transition for our own inner healing and self-growth.
Adopt a healthy perspective on death and dying
Over the years, it has become a living truth to me that we are more than our bodies. I have come to strongly believe that when we die, some spiritual essence of who we are transcends the act of death and the decay of the body. Exactly where we go remains one of the greatest existential mysteries.
Similar to both the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs on reincarnation, I intuitively feel that each of us has taken countless births as males and females, as rich and poor, as oppressor and oppressed, and even as moral do-gooders and rapacious sinners. It is possible, as Tibetan Buddhists believe, that we have even taken animal forms in our previous incarnations.
Perhaps, the Universe’s grand intention for reincarnation is for us all to steadily build toward a full consciousness of who we truly are through the many experiences lived and lessons learned from each incarnation. Buddhists might call this awareness ‘nirvana,’ Hindus ‘self-realization’ and Christian mystics ‘Christ consciousness,’ but the same idea is implied. Through each passing incarnation, we move closer and closer to realizing our total union with the Imperishable Tao.
Indeed, adopting such a perspective on our own deaths relieves us of our existential anxieties and brings us infinite comfort that when our bodies die, the truest essence of who we are does not.
Preparing for your own death
There is no better way to overcome your fear of death than by actively preparing for it through formal spiritual practices like working with the dying and meditation.
Stephen Levine, a late and influential meditation teacher, spent countless years working with people who were, as the Hindus say, close to “dropping their bodies”. His experiences led him to write a profound and groundbreaking book titled, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if It Were Your Last.
In drawing on his work with the Living/Dying Project, a non-profit he helped co-found that fosters a loving space for the terminally ill to die consciously, Levine showed how adopting the perspective that each day could be your last reduces anxiety and fills life with more meaning.
Ram Dass, the late pioneer of cosmic consciousness and the author of the seminal book, Be Here Now, was a contemporary of Levine who also spent considerable time working with the Living/Dying Project. In numerous books and recorded lectures, he recounts his many years of devoted care for the dying as the most profound spiritual work that he did on himself.
According to this beloved saint, the more one consciously works with those who are dying, the less they come to fear their own death. He was fond of teaching that if you can learn to “keep your heart open in hell,” through embracing the painful emotions that watching another die engenders, then the opportunity to transcend your own fear of death arises. Once this occurs, one is then able to gain a deeper perspective of the eternal nature of the deathless self.
Finally, in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, monks partake in regular mindfulness meditation exercises on their own deaths (this practice is called Maranasati). The central aim of these contemplative sessions is to cultivate a deeper awareness and acceptance of death.
Eventually, after years of this practice, monks become so comfortable with the absolute and impermanent nature of their physical reality that they are able to transcend this greatest of existential fears altogether, and live the remainder of their lives with greater joy and compassion. In turn, living a more joyous, as well as a more compassionate life are the two most sought-after goals of all spiritual seeking.
Transcend your fear of death and enter the boundless realms of everlasting peace!