This is no small thing. While it's fairly common knowledge that fear of death is a huge issue for most of humanity, that conceptual understanding changes little. There are so many beliefs, emotions, and biological triggers that are intertwined with the fear of death that the issue is submerged into the subconscious and is difficult to root out. At the very biological and instinctual level, we are built to flee, fight, or otherwise avoid anything that gets associated with the body's death. This often includes pain and potential injury.
I separate the fear of pain from the fear of death even though, for many people, the fear of pain is part of the bigger fear of death. But there are many other times where the pain of living becomes so bad to people that they'd prefer death. I am not advocating suicide in any way; I am simply illustrating the difference in the two issues. A lot of people go to great lengths to avoid any kind of perceived emotional and physical pain, and in many regards, emotional pain is physical. Our emotions really are different changes in our biochemistry. A lot of dopamine is what most people call love. A lot of cortisol is more or less what people call fear. Sure, it's way more complicated than that. I am simply pointing to the importance of biology in how it defines a lot of how we feel about ourselves. If we are to find real freedom in our human lives, we have to honor and respect many biological truths. Those truths include that in time, the body will grow weaker and infirm, and ultimately, each of us will die. If you can come to peace with those truths, then you open the doors to truly thrive while you are alive.
So let's talk about the road to acceptance of the body's decline and demise.
No sooner than you accept what you have, then you find that your body is not a static creation, either. Many people have an immortality dream. They think they can just be in a twenty-something body their whole lives, but that is not how it is. The body continues to shift and change, and most of those changes after a certain point are towards decline. Things break down. Things heal more slowly. The physical things that once were easy get harder. This is all natural and normal to human existence, but somehow people in Western Culture attempt to forget this. Instead, they try to cling on to certain physical abilities or deny their new physical needs. This kind of self-denial creates more and more suffering, and that can ultimately lead to more serious physical issues, ailments, and breakdowns. In avoiding the truth and trying to avoid the pain of physical decline, people then create pain and suffering. This is the irony of our illusions.
Accepting the Body's Frailty and PainPain is part of human life. It is simply a way that our bodies tell us that something is in need of our attention. It is fundamentally a communication tool. If you did not have pain receptors in your hand, you might not realize that you are burning yourself on the stove. Because you can't feel this reality, the burn can get worse and worse. Pain actually can save you from more serious pain if you learn how to listen to it.
Most of our psychological pain, however, is made up. This where we spend a lot of time working on the spiritual path, and this is one of the primary focuses of this blog post. The more you can let go of the psychological belief that you can always have the same healthy body and live forever, the more tuned into the present moment you will be. As I said earlier, lots of people know what I've said conceptually, yet they don't really believe it. That leads people to taking actions that don't support and honor the body. Even some spiritual paths can be quite extreme in denying the body and physical realities as way towards an idealized spiritual purity (fasting too much is one example). So there tends to be a lot of confusion about how to mindfully be with these truths even in spiritual communities.
But step one is all about acceptance. The body experiences pain. The body will change and decline. With those changes and the declining of health, new choices and changes must be made to find optimum health in that moment.
The Shifting Paradigm of Optimum HealthOptimum health at sixteen years of age is different than at sixty years of age. Once again, I am sure you know this, yet we seem to ignore such a fundamental human truth. The spiritual path always asks us to fully accept ourselves as we are, and this includes the body. The better you get at listening to your body, the better you can adjust your sleep cycles, eating habits, exercise regimen, meditations, and other things to find that inner optimum balance. When we don't do this, we create greater suffering for ourselves.
I've even seen how people torture their own bodies in meditation. Instead of appreciating where they are physically, they sit in meditations for long periods of time with screaming pain in their bodies to achieve some spiritual state or "do what they're supposed to." Being in excruciating physical pain during meditation will not help enlighten you. Instead, enduring this pain makes meditation an endurance sport rather than a space of relaxation and deeper opening. I'm sure someone has had a revelation or two in such a condition, but it is not necessary and often damaging. And anything that damages the body is not mindful.
In your later years, you may need more yoga to prepare the body for extended sitting to address the body's needs. You may also intersperse standing or lying down into your meditation. These are simple, practical things to do to honor your body and continue your meditation. In your twenties, you probably have tons of plasticity in the body, so you can simply stop and meditate with little pain in the body. In your sixties or seventies, the situation has changed, and you must learn to appreciate that shift to embrace meditation as it suits you in this current moment.
There are numerous ways that things shift, and meditation is just one example. But in changing to appreciate your physical needs, you can find the right balance in your daily life. Ultimately, your optimum health really is something that only you can know internally. No one can tell you what that is. You simply have to trust any given moment and allow yourself to change to suit the needs of this present moment.
The Many Death Threats You ReceiveStrangely enough, we threaten ourselves with death threats all the time. They are so masked with reasons and beliefs that you don't realize that you are doing this. People don't feel good about themselves all the time and are afraid of what would happen if they don't do the right things. This is essentially a hidden fear of death and also a hidden fear of pain. Our sense of impending disaster tends to be particularly strong when it comes to jobs. People associate money and survival very closely together, so if some people even perceive a little threat to their job security, this deeper fear of dying jumps into action. This makes people aggressive, self-deprecating, and whatever else the particular individual has been taught to do to defend his/herself.
For example, many people are scared of performance reviews because of this reason. Maybe they don't say they're scared. Maybe they say they're nervous, which is just another term for fear. But what is there to fear here from a little feedback? Let's explore this with a little hypothetical question and answer.
"I'm afraid of my performance review."
"I don't want to get a bad review."
"Because then I might get demoted."
Why is that an issue?
"Because I may make less money."
"I need money, and if I do too badly, I might get fired."
You can always get another job.
Usually at this point, someone will deflect the argument or stop talking. We are amazingly good at not wanting to investigate or beliefs. But let's pretend this individual is particularly honest.
"Well, I am afraid I might not be able to get another job." (This is absurd in a lot of situations, although I am sure there are towns where there are fewer opportunities. Even then, there are almost always a lot more options than people realize).
And what happens if you can't get another job.
"I won't be able to afford living."
If you can't afford living then what?
"I'll die cold and alone on the street."
Okay, that last one is a leap ahead in logic and a little dramatic. But it illustrates how quickly we get into survival issues. In many respects, we really are afraid of dying cold and alone in the street somewhere when you really unmask your ego. If we weren't so deeply afraid of pain and dying, then a performance review would really not trigger much of anything.
The Ego Is Trying to Keep you SafeThe fundamental role of our egos is to keep us safe. This sense of safety or unsafety is fundamentally a primal mindset. This is how the animal inside of us thinks. The most basic part of the brain functions in that survival mindset. It's just what it does, and it was necessary in earlier levels of evolution when we had no other cognitive function available to deal with threats to our life and physical well-being. As such, almost every aspect of life breaks down into a safe/unsafe mindset. If you really delve inwards, you'll be surprised at how much of your thinking about yourself revolves around safe or unsafe.
I encourage you to do so too. Journal about all the things that you believe are safe and those things that are unsafe. Don't let your beliefs hide in the dark recesses of the mind. Bring them out onto the page and into the light. You may be surprised how much of your beliefs are ultimately tied to your sense of physical safety even when no physical threat exists.
The ego is built off this survival mechanism. It is the house on top of this primal foundation, and it is defined by that foundation. Thus, accepting your death and physical fragility (because these bodies can be surprisingly fragile at times) is a way to help turn that switch off in an important way. As we drop into deeper states of relaxation, we are teaching our bodies not to function in these old ways. We are teaching the ego self to not perceive so many threats, and ultimately, we are learning to see no part of life as threatening. We are learning to be at peace with physical harm because it is a reality of this world.
Learning to Respond Mindfully to DangerThis doesn't mean we can't respond to physically dangerous situations. Actually, most of our instinctual reactions aren't smart in situations that are threatening. That's a big reason that soldiers go through intense physical training. The military tries to co-opt the fight mechanism so that a soldier's training kicks in as the reaction rather than another primal reaction. Putting aside whether war is right or wrong, soldiers who all react differently under stress would turn things into total chaos with some people fighting, others running, others freezing, and maybe a few fainting (and it still happens even with all the training that soldiers under go).
Without dealing with our deeper fears, we can make dangerous situations even worse through our primal reactions. Sometimes freezing up is the worst thing we can do, but if that is someone's primary primal fear response, then that's what their fear of death and harm will cause them to do. If we're actually in a physically dangerous situation like someone pointing a gun at you in downtown Oakland, we can be very erratic right when we need to be able to use all of our cognitive abilities to deal with the situation. And while I hope none of you are in dire situations on any regular basis, the ego and primal body needs to be retrained so that we have full cognitive abilities all the time. We need to be free of our fears of death and pain.
Breathing Into FearsAs you continue to breathe into your fears, you will see how most of them eventually connect down to these two root fears. Thus, the more you can focus on the fear of death and the fear of pain, the more you can begin to do a deeper re-writing of the old biological codes. This is no small thing, and as I've said before, you can't think your way to not being afraid of death and pain. But all the tools that I discuss on this blog are supports to help you dig through all the other fears to sit with the core issues at work. It's not a small thing to be free of the fears of death and of pain. Just imagine it if this feels too outlandish. Think about the pure freedom of living if there's no concern about death or pain. This isn't unmindful, and it doesn't mean intentionally putting yourself in harms way because you think God will protect you. That's pure nonsense.
The Animal Within: Retraining the Primal Instinctual Body
What I am talking about is pointing to how much we limit our lives to avoid potential threats of pain or death all the time from social situations to traveling to new place to the jobs we choose and everything in between. We are so used to limiting ourselves that we don't even know we do it until we turn our attention inwards and start breathing into fears rather than masking them, avoiding them, or numbing them. The deeper you go, the more horribly uncomfortable these fears become. I think most people are deeply hardwired to want to live, but as I said, these fears don't actually help you to live. They help you to limit things in an attempt to avoid dangers to your life. For some people, they find themselves so limited that they're caged in on all sides with no room to move...no room to fly.
Breaking out of the Cage of FearAccepting your body's mortality and frailty lets you fly. It lets you fly at any age by accepting whatever your physical limitations are and accepting that you don't have long to live in this world. Even if we live to be a 100 years, that time is over in a blink of an eye, and you can't get it back. Too many people are waiting on the spiritual path. They're waiting for it to be safe. They're waiting for others to do their work so that they'll have friends or community. They're waiting for a perfect soulmate. They're waiting for their kids to grow up. They're waiting for it to make economic sense, and all the while, life is passing by. For some, life will be over before they ever start living.
So facing these deep ingrained fears is about choosing today. It is about deciding to live. It is about learning, at long last, how to fly.