Fear of Death

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune

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Maybe it was the same person posting to multiple facebook groups (I don’t think so), but this morning I saw a theme among the facebookers: fear of death. I didn’t see fear of pain, but fear of nothingness. Nonexistence. Voidness. A fear of having no more experience.

This same fear has plagued me since I was ~13. I am now 31. I have developed a few ways of looking at this that have brought great relief. With compassion for those who’ve felt this pain, I want to share how I look at the situation now– with a perspective heavily influenced by Buddha’s teachings.

This is a huge topic! Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. There is no way I can begin to discuss all the things that swirl around the scary topic. And, because its so raw, it is hard for me to think clearly about it.

But, here is my attempt. Enjoy!


A quick list of points:

  1. Fear is your problem, not death.
  2. “Death” was invented by Life to allow for more evolutionary flexibility (the first organisms didn’t have set lifetimes).
    1. With constantly shifting external conditions, a species will benefit by dropping off the older versions because the newer versions are more likely to have produced a genetic variant which will help it survive in the new environment.
    2. So, we can be thankful for this because there are limited resources. Without death, the outdated versions would be hogging resources that could be utilized by the newer, better equipped, generations.
  3. Fear can and should be overcome.
  4. With correct practice, you can overcome fear.
  5. Having overcome fear, there is no fear of death.
  6. Without fear of death, there is that much less stress in your happy life.

Break it Down

Fear is your problem. What can you actually know about the afterlife?

Let’s see.

  • Your body will disintegrate.
    • Your brain is responsible for the coordination of your nervous system, and therefore, of your experience of reality. We experience the world through the brain’s interpretation of information received through the sense-doors. When the brain is gone, how will new sense perceptions be received and interpreted? What will receive the sense perception and interpret it when there is no more brain to do its neuronal magic?
      • This actually relates to an interesting dilemma. Does the brain create or facilitate the activity of consciousness? It obviously plays a huge role in allowing consciousness to interact with the ‘external’ field of potential and actuality, but is the brain really the creator of consciousness? Or, perhaps, just some kind of receiver?
        • Various accounts of near death experiences are quite interesting indeed. Seems that consciousness could exist beyond brain. But still, consciousness without brain/body has no sense-doors and no way of interacting with the physical world (as far as I can tell), without taking birth again.
    • Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and intellect will disintegrate. These are the sense-doors. As previously mentioned, the brain will have no input/output, even if it were to survive in a jar… without the sense-doors, and without the floods of hormones across the body, tense muscles, the beating of the heart, clammy hands, etc.. what good would the brain be? A brain in a jar feels no emotion.

According to my appraisal, seems that all we can really know is that this body will disintegrate. It will get reabsorbed into the big circle of life. Beyond that, without knowing more about the nature of consciousness, there is not much to say.

Understand the Nature of Fear.

So, if fear is really the problem, seems that it would be beneficial to learn more about fear itself. What is fear as it relates to body, feeling, mind, and mental qualities? I don’t want to tell you. Go ponder it someday. The insights attained will, in themselves, be relieving.

Understand Anatta.

Seriously consider the miracles of interdependence.

Look around at the wild feedback loops of infinite complexity.

Consider the harmonious and chaotic complexity existing within your own body and mind.

Notice where partitions are imagined, notice where boundaries are drawn.

Me and you. Light and dark. Yes and no. Here and there. Big and small.

Understand that all concepts of things as isolated, self-sustaining, self-crystals are ultimately just variously decorated delusions.

All things are things only in relation to other things. Understand nonself and you will realize that your idea of who you are is just another idea. Death is the end of an idea.

Your idea of death is just another idea, born of a false perception (self exists). Your idea of birth is just another idea, born of a false perception (self exists). Drop those, and you see no-birth, no-death. You see that the ideas of ‘birth’ (from nothing, something becomes) and ‘death’ (something becomes nothing) cannot be true. Remember what they said about ‘the conservation of matter and energy’? Nothing is created or destroyed. It cannot be.

Please don’t get caught up in ‘nonself’

This can be a big deal for some people. They will say: “Of course I have a self.” or “I think therefore I am.” Great. Yes. That is true. You are right. Practically.

Practically, you have a self– your parents recognize you from birth until maturity– they recognize you as a person, a self. So yes. There is this practical self.

But, ultimately, no– no such thing exists. “Selves” and “Things” are convenient boundaries drawn by discriminative mind as it seeks to continue its existence through space and time. All things are made of other things. All selves are made of other selves. Atoms flow in and out of your body all the time, you are a dissipative structure, you exist because you change, your structure is born of dissipation. So wild!

But, on the other, don’t be ridiculous and run around pretending you don’t exist and therefore you don’t have any problems. This flies in the face of Buddha’s First Noble Truth. Dukkha does exist. Where the discriminative mind (the lankavatara sutra calls it ‘false-imagination’) is active, there is dukkha– where the discrimination ceases, this is Nirvana. To the materialists, Nirvana is cessation. To the priests, the eternalists, it is the ego’s eternal bliss. To the stream-entered it is neither of these and it cannot be sullied with petty words.

A Great Talk

**Update.

After watching this video, I have had many shifts in view. Things are strange. Stranger than they seem.

Also, reality is not reality:
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/04/the-illusion-of-reality/479559/

Some conclusions.

Hopefully, some of this rambling has been helpful to someone.

Ultimately, each person has to confront this strange conundrum for themselves. Like, why do we even exist in the first place? Seems cruel, but then I wonder, why do I call it cruel?

Life is pretty awesome! The force that brought me here, I am thankful, grateful, that force has put me here to have these experiences. Whatever. I didn’t choose then, and I probably won’t get to choose my own death. That force, I think I trust it, I like life– I trust that force to do something cool with death, too. 😉

Many blessings.
Much love.

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