Do you remember the first time you drove 100 miles per hour? I was 18 years old. Somewhere between Boston and New York, at about 3:00 AM on an empty stretch of highway, I floored my mom’s Mitsubishi Galant, broke 100, and held it for a half a minute or so, my heart pounding. (She’s just finding out about this now. Hi, Mom!)
During those thirty seconds, my mind decided to present me with a new thought: “It would be really easy to die right now.” Just the slightest twitch of the steering wheel was all it would take. And the weird part was, the thought didn’t come with fear so much as curiosity.
Later, as a psychology major, I reflected that perhaps this was a glimpse of the “death drive” that Freud identified – sometimes referred to by the name of the Greek angel of death: Thanatos. Over the coming years, I had more experiences of the proximity of death – and the hint of an urge to take the leap.
As I got older and acquired older friends and older patients, I began to witness humans’ fear of death. I saw people so consumed by the avoidance of death that it corrupted their experience of life. It occurred to me that getting a life is a bit like having someone hand you a lit sparkler. You can dance around with it, make patterns in the darkness, marvel at its beauty and the way it illuminates the night; or you can stand there frozen, saying, “Oh no, the sparkler is going to burn out. The sparkler is going to burn out. The sparkler is going to burn out. The sparkler is going to burn out…” until it does.
Unfortunately, I realized one day that I had joined the ranks of those who are preoccupied with sparkler burnout (i.e., death), and I saw that, for me, it began when I had children. Sure, I didn’t want the Peter game to end and I didn’t want to get dragged through some painful terminal illness, but more importantly, I didn’t want to leave my children fatherless.
At first, I thought, “So, this is the opposite of Thanatos. There is the death-drive and then there’s the fear of death.” But when I explored it further, I realized that these two drives often have the same origins: fear of the unknown, fear of loss (of oneself and the people and things one loves), fear of pain (having it and inflicting it), an unsettled relationship with life, etc.
Around that time, I participated in a course with author and speaker Hale Dwoskin, in which he directed students to bring to mind something that they fear. The first thing that came to me was cancer – dying of cancer. Then he asked gently, “Now, could you let go of wanting that to happen?”
I felt a distinct lurch in my mind as I protested, “Wanting it to happen?!” And then I noticed it – hiding the shadows – a part of me that wanted to have it and get it over with, so the fear would end. Here was the potential for both a fear of death and an attraction to it.
As I started to work through this, asking myself how I had come to be so focused on the demise of my sparkler rather than enjoying it, I realized that I already had part of my answer. Playing with the sparkler is an expression of life drive. Where had my life drive gone?!
Luckily it was still there. It was just buried under a bunch of crap. Decades of immersion in human drama had caused me, like so many others, to lose sight of the truth: The truth that a choice of perspective (a lighthearted perspective even) is always available to us. The truth that life is rich with opportunities for connection. The truth that life – regardless of the course it takes – is a gift. If I could sum up my revelation in a word, it would be remembering.
If you’re at a similar place, or just like to know yourself and “clean house” of beliefs that aren’t serving you, I recommend two strategies – making peace with death and revving up your life drive.
First, of course, some fear of death is healthy. It’s built into our nervous system, which uses fear to trigger alertness and activate survival mechanisms. It has probably saved your life multiple times, as it has mine. What I’m concerned with is not this momentary fear, but chronic fear than infringes on our experience of the present in an ongoing way.
There’s a lot to be said about death – much more than I can sum up here – so let me just offer a few of the tools that I’ve found most useful for myself and my patients.
Write about death. When you write freely about it, you become clearer on what, specifically, you’re averse to, and what triggers it. At the same time, you begin to process it. If you write repeatedly, you’ll often find a softening of strong emotions and a broadening of your perspective.
Accept the inevitable. Aside from the 7 billion humans who currently inhabit Earth, every human to come before us has died. It’s an exceedingly popular way to end life. Old people die and tiny babies die. Brave people die and scaredy cats die. You will someday join the ranks of the most impressive historical figures you can think of. It’s part of what makes life special. And it’s the way of the natural world. All things move through cycles, and one day your body will be reintegrated into the planet that birthed and sustained it.
Plan how you would like to die. You can’t usually control when or from what cause, but you can at least have a plan in place about who you’d like to have near you and what kind of environment you’d like to be in for that transition. It may not be possible to implement this plan in the end, but in the meantime, it will put your mind at ease to imagine it happening in a loving way.
Plan for what will happen after you die. Sometimes our anxiety about death comes from feeling that things won’t be taken care of properly. Making a will isn’t exactly fun, but it can be relieving. What will happen with your kids? Your assets? Your legacy? Figure it out now.
Practice mental discipline. If you find yourself often thinking purposelessly about death, catch yourself, pick up your attention, and put it on something else. Break yourself of the habit. Ask yourself whether it serves any useful purpose or just degrades your state of mind.
Watch people get old gracefully and die gracefully. There are lots of videos and books about people having good elder years and good deaths, and there are likely many people in your community who would be happy to speak to you about their dying process. Another good resource is people who work in hospice settings.
If possible, die before you die. People use this expression – die before you die – in a few different ways. One meaning is to let “die” everything that you cling to – your ego, your identities, your attachments – so they no longer represent all that you stand to lose when death occurs. Another meaning is to let die the part of you that doesn’t want to die. A third meaning is to have an experience of your death before your actual death, such as occurs in near death experiences (NDEs) and in certain shamanic ceremonies.
Read about near death experiences. Doctors Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring, often regarded as the experts on this topic, have interviewed hundreds of people who have had NDEs and they have discovered some common themes in their stories: feelings of deep peace and being surrounded by love, a reunion with deceased loved ones, a reluctance to return to life, and, after regaining consciousness, a lasting sense of gratitude and the loss of any fear of death. One of the best newer books on the subject is Proof of Heaven by a neurosurgeon named Dr. Eben Alexander. In a different genre, another acclaimed book that seeks to illuminate the death experience is Home With God in a Life that Never Ends by Neale Donald Walsh, author of the Conversations with God books.
Use EFT or other acupoint tapping methods to reduce the emotional charge you feel about death. EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is free and easy to learn – there are countless videos online about it – and it’s often an effective way to liberate yourself from negative emotions and phobias. I have seen remarkable and rapid transformations, especially around fears, with these techniques.
Learn about philosophies that assert that what we really are never dies. This concept is present in many spiritual traditions, including Native American spirituality, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even in the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I like Advaita Vedanta, but I recommend finding a path that uses language and imagery that works for you. One teacher in this tradition, Nisargadatta Maharaj, said: “The real does not die, the unreal never lived . . . . Once you know that death happens to the body and not to you, you just watch your body falling off like a discarded garment. The real you is timeless and beyond birth and death. The body will survive as long as it is needed. It is not important that it should live long.”
Maximize your life drive. Love life. Be grateful. Focus on the good. Rather than watching some depressing movie about meth and murder, watch something that inspires and uplifts you. Smile at people and look them in the eye. Hug people. Get your hands and bare feet in the earth. Swim in a natural body of water. Stretch. Push your limits. Pay attention to the seasons. Paint. Dance. Sculpt. Write. Sing. Learn. Be fascinated. Find the things that are easiest to love and fill your life with them; then take that love and stretch it, applying it to things that are more challenging to love. And, remember who you really are and what you already know.
See you on the other side,
Dr. Peter Borten