Overcome Fear of Death

We have seen, in a previous post, that one of the most important teachings of Neville Goddard is: “You attract what you believe to be true.” This simple thought is not so easy to accept, at first, but once you understand the principles and the global vision behind it, it becomes even obvious. Yet, what about death? Does such teaching mean that if you don’t believe death to be true, you shall never die?

Well, the very problem is not death, since death does not really exist; we will widely explore this topic. The problem is our fear of death, and how to overcome fear of death. Epictetus (A.D. c. 55 – 135), the famous Greek speaking Stoic philosopher, said:

It is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.

That is, the problem is fear, not the object itself of such a fear.

Why fear of death?

Before exploring this topic, I want to tell you about my personal experience with the thought of death.

If you visit the About Me page, here in this website, you can read that “I am an architect, a writer, a publisher, and dedicated to the study of Theosophy and to spiritual quest.” But still, beside this, I am a human; and, as such – mortal. You know the famous Aristotelian syllogism:

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal

Well, I am Socrates, you are Socrates, we all are Socrates; and as such we have to face the dreadful reality of death.

You may think that I want to speak about death because I am concerned about death. That is, because of my age: being over the 50’s, I supposedly have already passed the half-way of life, and now I should be accelerating my fall into the dark valley… No, that’s not the reason. I mean, my fear is not a fresh one; as a matter of fact, it is a very ancient, rooted concern.

First of all, let me say that speaking of death is actually speaking of life. I am concerned about death because I am profoundly in love with life. You are profoundly in love with life. Actually, we want to live forever.

I still remember a clear picture of my first discovery of the ineluctability of death: I could be 10, and I had sheltered under the cover of my bed, trembling and crying as I had realized that my life should inevitably end, sooner or later.

Why should a child  be frightened by death? Have I had any up-close experience of death or serious illness? No, I had not. I would have enjoyed my parents for many years to come, and my sister has now her beautiful family, too. I had my first direct experiences of death only some years later: at 12, when my grandmother died (but naturally, and over 80’s); and then at 14, when my young cousin died of breast cancer at the age of 33. Anyway, these events occurred years later, after that precocious, frightful feeling.

Shutdown of consciousness

What is death? What was death to that frightened, trembling, crying child?

Death is the shutdown of consciousness. Fear of death is fear for my consciousness to be shut down, and never be turned on again. At least, such was my early istinctive belief, which I shared with the modern materialistic civilisation. Now my belief is quite different, but it took many years to get there.

The point is that now I understand the true reasons of my sleeping difficulty, which date back to early childhood and has never been completely defeated. At the age of 11 my mother took me to a psychiatrist because of serious insomnia that had been tormenting me (and my parents…) for some time. A little concerned, I remember that I asked my mother if the necessity of a brain check-up meant that I was mad… My mother reassured me. The psychiatrist did not find anything particular in my brain; of course since the problem was not of organic nature. The problem was my fear of death.

Effectively, what is sleep? Sleeping means stopping the brain, and stopping the brain means shutting down each and every mental activity: that is, ultimately, consciousness shutdown. Just as death. Of course, me-child did knew that next morning he would wake up and his consciousness turn on again, but… who really knows? For his unconscious, falling asleep was like dying; therefore, it was better not fall asleep, wasn’t it?

Beside sleeping troubles, I have always had a tremendous difficulty in stopping – or at least slowing down – mental activities, and relaxing the mind; always, until I began practice meditation some years ago.

Spiritual perspective of death

I was a pretty good Catholic until the age of 15, when I decided that the materialistic standpoint was best for me. I began reading Marx, Freud and other scientific matters. I deeply loved philosophy; as a matter of fact, at that time I was a sort of a skeptical philosopher. But I was so sceptical that I began to doubt my new standpoint and to doubt the doubt itself… At the age of 20, I realised that modern science is completely incapable of explaining the mind and consciousness. Consciousness, again and again, was my perpetual concern. We generally take it for granted, but what is consciousness? Actually it is one of the most astonishing, astounding, puzzling mysteries of the Universe, if we keep within the limits of the materialistic standpoint.

Thus, at the age of 20, I started reading about Gnosticism, Eastern religions, esotericism, ermetism etc. I began being fascinated by the exact opposite of the materialistic standpoint: the spiritual perspective. I began being more and more convinced about law of karma and reincarnation. It has been a long process of intellectual and spiritual maturation that led me to embrace Theosophy, where these concepts are integrated into a new global vision of the Cosmos.

This new vision has also made me understand that my fear of death probably had a karmic connexion, witnessed by my three very first-names: Loris, Domenico, Antonio, my three first-names, were the names of three uncles who I never met, because they died at a young age (30 or before) as a result of disease or accident at work. Two of them were brother of my father, while the other was brother of my mother. My parents wanted to remember their deceased brothers giving the very names of them to their first-born, me. The names are not the cause, of course, but nothing occurs by mere chance: simply, when I came into this world with a precise karmic burden, I found those parents with their stories, and those names, suitable for me. And here I am…

Actually, my fear of death has always been accompanied by an unexplicable sense of precariousness, urgency, lack of time, fear of wasting time, fear of leaving something unfinished… Unexplicable, I mean, until now; now I understand its reasons quite well.

No death no fear

Certainly, I am not the only one to have a problem with death. Indeed, we are a good number. Maybe, my personal path on the theme of death could be useful to others with the same concern. In my opinion, spiritual standpoint is the best one in order to face death and put it in its proper perspective. Then, death can be no more frightening. We will deal extensively this point of view.

A useful, enlightening reading to approach this view is No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh. The author of more than one hundred books of poetry, fiction and philosophy, Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk and one of the most beloved Buddhist teachers alive today around the world. Poet, Zen master, mystic, scholar, activist  and chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation during the Vietnam War, he was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. In this book he offers a way to regard life that addresses the fear most people have of death. His worldview transcends the physical manifestations we’re accustomed to regarding reality. Nhat Hanh says that our true being is not segmented by birth or death: it exists across space and time, manifesting only when causes and conditions are right.

Some reviews of the book here follow:

Thich Nhat Hanh always invites us to look deeply, and he does so once again in No Death, No Fear. Recognizing interconnections, Nhat Hanh brings us to beginnings, how they depend on endings, and how they are but temporary manifestations. Everything endures, he says, but in different forms. And this isn’t just a palliative to make us feel better for a while. Nhat Hanh’s philosophy of Interbeing takes the long view, challenging us to open our eyes to subtle transformations. He shows how extraordinary things happen when we are fully present with others and at peace with ourselves, both of which require openness and deep looking. In his bestselling style of easy prose, compelling anecdotes, and pragmatic advice, Nhat Hanh gradually drains the force out of grief and fear, transforming them into happiness and insightful living. Death doesn’t have to be a roadblock, and in No Death, No Fear Thich Nhat Hanh shows us the way around. — Brian Bruya

Zen master Nhat Hanh turns his hard-earned wisdom as a survivor of war, persecution, and exile to the age-old dilemma of what happens when one dies. If the greatest fear is, as he suggests, that one becomes nothing, then how is one to live with this threat of complete annihilation? Using Buddhist parables and anecdotes, Nhat Hanh offers an alternative perspective. Buddhists see birth and death as mere concepts, not manifestations of reality. When someone dies, they are still with us, just in a different form. In this view, a continuation, a connection between people and nature persists because time is understood as being circular: nothing begins; nothing ends; it just is. Nhat Hanh’s beliefs are certainly not for everyone, especially those who definitely feel most comfortable within the set rules and established doctrines of the Western traditions. Others may find his perspective on the ultimate mystery of the human condition refreshing, especially when it is expressed as calmly and matter-of-factly as Nhat Hanh expresses it. — June Sawyers

At some point in their lives, most people are haunted by the question ‘What happens after death?’ Beloved teacher, poet, and activist Thich Nhat Hanh takes this question to heart in his latest book about how to understand death and stop fearing life…His advice is founded on personal examples, and guided meditations help readers grapple with the loss of a loved one, confront their mortality, and live each day to its fullest. — Tricycle

[A] masterwork…Thich Nhat Hanh has rendered us an invaluable service by opening our hearts and minds…” — Spirituality & Health Journal

No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh, is a book which I definitely recommend.