|Rohit Rath, flickr|
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born,
and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
There's nothing we can do to eliminate fear and death from our lives. They are there, and whether we want it or not, we have to deal with them. Some have advocated for bringing them to the forefront and making sure that we regularly, consciously remind ourselves of their existence. Think of Hamlet's skull.
Let's thus start from the premise that we must face our fears. And who else but Thich Nhat Hanh to teach us how to apply mindfulness to that endeavor? (Quotes in italics.)
Fear is a mental formation; it is made of several elements, including the element of ignorance.
Yes, yes, and yes. When was the last time you were afraid of something you knew and understood well? Once we free ourselves from ignorance, we free ourselves from fear. We also free ourselves from other negative emotions that fear can disguise as: preconceptions, anger, hatred.
Hence the need to gain knowledge on sources of fear:
Through knowledge and insight, we gain emancipation. We cannot have insight if we don't practice looking deeply.
And the first step to looking deeply is... yes, you guessed right: mindful breathing.
Mindful breathing brings us close to our mental formations as they manifest within ourselves. Sometimes fear manifests, and our mindful breathing brings us back to our fear so that we can embrace it. We look deeply into the nature of our fear to recognize ourselves with it. If we do well, we can calm our fear, look deeply into it, and discover its true nature. Insight into our fear helps us transform it. This is true with all mental formations - such as anger, despair, agitation, and restlessness.
Our first reaction is usually to run away from our fears and their source, but it might be wiser to address them:
Embracing the unpleasant, painful feelings, you calm them and touch what is underneath - the base of that unpleasant feeling, that pain.
If you try to run away, instead of confronting or embracing your ill-being, you will not look deeply into its nature and will never have the chance to see a way out. That is why you should hold your suffering tenderly and closely, looking directly into it, to discover its true nature and find a way out.
Many of us do not want to go home to ourselves. We are afraid. There is a lot of internal suffering and conflict that we want to avoid. We complain that we don't have time to live, but we try to kill our free time by not going back to ourselves. We escape by turning on the television or picking up a novel or magazine; we go out for a drive.
Going home mindfully, we can talk to our wounded child within using the following mantra: "Darling, I have come to you. I am here for you. I embrace you in my arms. I am sorry that I left you alone for a long time."
THE - INEVITABLE - FEAR OF DEATH
When you think of it, most fears can be faced. But what about the fear of death? How can we deal with the fact that we are finite, mortal... that we have an expiry date? Is there anything more ironic than being granted consciousness of self... only to lose it completely when we pass? What's more, knowledge won't save us in this case: no one has ever come back from the other side to tell us what it's like!
|Ray Ordinario, flickr|
Here are some insights on how to handle the difficult reality of our own death:
1) Live in the present moment, and make sure you don't have regrets
Because life and reality are impermanent, we feel insecure. I think the teaching on living deeply in the present moment is what we have to learn and practice to face this feeling of insecurity. We have to handle the present moment well. We live deeply in the present moment so that in the future we will have no regrets.
2) Recognize the role suffering plays
Happiness cannot be separated from suffering. Happiness is clear and strong only against the backdrop of suffering. If we have not known hunger, we cannot fully realize the happiness of having something to eat.
In that perspective, perhaps death plays a role: it's the backdrop to life. Knowing life will end can help us enjoy it to the fullest.
3) Don't let your perceptions override logic
Birth and death are perceptions, not reality. We know that something cannot come from nothing, and someone cannot come from no one. Something cannot be reduced to nothing; being cannot be reduced to nonbeing.
We have the notions of coming and going. Where do I come from and where am I going? This is a difficult question. According to the teaching of nirvana, we come from nowhere and we go nowhere. We manifest when conditions are sufficient. When conditions are no longer sufficient, we no longer have the perception that we exist.
Nothing in there says that we will disappear for good!
4) Don't get caught thinking the physical realm is the only one. And breathe!
Breathing in, I know this body is not me. Breathing out, I know that I am more than this physical body. I am not caught in thinking of this body as myself.
How do you handle your fears?
Have you ever faced and overcome a big one?
How do you live with the knowledge that you will die?