On overcoming the fear of death

Katie Donovan and Dalton Prager — like Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, the teenagers in the 2014 film — fell in love even though they knew the other could die at any time. The real-life couple also shared a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. Adding to their drama was the fact that Katie’s doctors had directed her not to meet up with Dalton, because he had a highly contagious infection, and if she caught it, her life could be drastically shortened. She defied her doctors and went on a date with Dalton, and two years later, they married when they were both 20. Katie did catch Dalton’s infection. She died September 22. Dalton died on September 17.

Their love story captivated readers. “I’d rather have five years of being in love and just really completely happy than 20 years of not having anybody and just having nothing,” Katie said. http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/30/health/lasting-lessons-from-a-real-fault-in-our-stars-couple/index.html

Episodes like this are rare. But such acts of courage – to embrace life to the full even if it is short lived – forces us to think about our notions of death. Invariably our thoughts of death are often negative. Death is inevitable and yet it must not be too soon. We do not have a choice on death, yet we would like to delay it as far as possible. And if it were to happen we conjure up images and options of life after death in places like heaven and hell. We construct structure and regulations on the pathways to heaven and hell and how to reach one and avoid the other. Yet we know of no one who has visited heaven or hell and reported on it!

The destruction of the body, senses, vital forces, mind and the intellect are like the destruction of the leaf, flower or fruits – all evidences of the laws of nature (Brahman) at work.              Verse 560

The stone, tree, grass, paddy (unshelled rice), the husk (that covers the rice in the paddy), when burnt (due to fire, governed by the laws of nature – Brahman) become of one form – ashes. The body, senses, vital forces, mind and all other evidences of life on being consumed in the fire of knowledge become one – as evidences of laws of nature (Brahman) at work.                      Verse 563.

Birth and death are biological beginning and end of a process we call life. Since the process is one of biology, its beginning and end can be characterized through specific physical events. While we are still far from defining the exact nature of birth, death is a clear and discrete event: The moment when the heart stops pumping permanently on its own volition; when our material body gets re-united with the rest of the matter on earth; when my identity as the “self” distinct from the rest of the matter ceases to exist.

Like a car engine, which eventually wears out, we reach old age inevitably. In the case of a car engine, one can keep it going for ever through maintenance and changing parts as needed. But in the end we give up because the cost outweighs the benefits. I suppose the same goes for people as well.  May be we don’t want to confront and accept the cost/benefit of the role one plays as the old age arrives? May be it is our fear of not being useful which leads us to a disdain on old age? May be it is the support (maintenance) we may need, which one wishes to avoid or impose on others? Whatever the reason is the fear of the old age reflected as the fear of death? Is it like the story of a lion afraid of an imaginary lion, which is nothing more than its reflection in the water in a wavy pool?

What would happen if one embraces old age warmly and with welcoming arms? Will this reduce or eliminate our fear of death?

That raises the question: Whose death are we afraid of? We see death and destruction all around us. Some are close and many other incidents are far removed. We console ourselves and others. Life goes on. Then we move on. But the fear of death is specific. It is singularly attached to me, the self. As long as this identity of self as someone, individual person distinct from others exists the fear of death persists. But when one can see the self as an integral part of nature (Thath Thwam Asi) fear of death vanishes. I am part of nature, biological processes are part of nature. Death is part of nature as much as my living today and even writing this essay at this time is part of nature!

What happens when we accept the reality as it is?  “I am part of nature (Thath Thwam Asi)” becomes self-evident. The profound secret is that such self-evident truth has to be realized by one on his/her own accord. No amount of teaching, reading or external inputs will serve that purpose.

One may recite scriptures, offer sacrifices to the Holy Spirit, perform rituals and worship Gods; but until one wakes to the identity of the self with the universe (nature) liberation (freedom from the fear of birth and death) can never be attained, not even in million years!                     Verse 6

When one sees nature (Brahman) only in the forms and shapes identified as me, mine, etc. that is ignorance. This is the singular cause of what we see as birth and death. The knowledge that self as an individual is enabled by the laws of nature (Brahman) and not distinct from such laws, will burn away the effects of ignorance – such as the fear of death – down to their very roots.  Verse 47

This fear of death may also be a reflection of the fear due to attachments (bondage). I desire to see certain events or enjoy certain activities before my death. I do not wish to bother others with my ill health leading to death. I have done so much in life and I am due for all the benefits that I must enjoy before my death!

Objectivity is engagement in activities of life without attachments or bondage. Objectivity as a way of life (Sagunathvam) is also self-driven. It has to be internalized and practiced by each on his/her own accord.

Children may free their father from his debts. But no one can free him from his attachments. He must do it himself.                    Verse 52

Others can relieve the suffering from the burden of weight on one’s head; but one has to relieve the burden of attachments by oneself.                Verse 53

The sick man who takes medicines and follows the rules gets cured on one’s own accord (through the laws of nature). The medicine and the rules can come from others but the cure comes from within.       Verse 54

Neither through the practice of  Yoga (union with the self) or through analytical reasoning (Sankya – philosophy), nor by education or learning one attains liberation (freedom from the fear of death); but only through the realization that I and the Universe are one and the same (Thath Thwam Asi).      Verse 56

Note: The quotes above are from Vivekachudamani (The crown jewel of discrimination between the real and the unreal) composed by saint Sankaracharya (788 –820).

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1 Response to On overcoming the fear of death

  1. Chitra says:

    Attachments , – we are social beings and we live in the memories of good times – so the fear of losing relationships people we love especially if it is sudden or untimely.
    Loss of our own physical well being – fear of not being able to do things for ourselves.
    So it’s not death per se but fear of how our end will come .
    Subbu loved the well chosen quotes
    From various sources
    Thanks! Practice in mananam


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