How often do you think about your existence? I don’t know about you, but I think about death a lot. I think about life too, and it’s these moments that feel like true reality to me. When I was going into second grade I had my first “awakening experience”. Part of this experience was blissful awareness of my own existence and part of it was awareness that my existence would one day cease as I know it and change form. I suddenly considered the aging process and became more closely attuned to what it’s like to live in a human body.
We are always taking in the thousands of stimulations around: every distant sound, light hitting every nearby object, the feeling of our beating hearts and weight of our bodies, etc. Many of these we’ve learned to ignore in order to function and perform tasks. In the same way we don’t need to consciously think about digesting our lunch or perceive subtle temperature changes in the room because we’re talking, working, and living our lives, our sense of what it really feels like to be alive fades.
I imagine lots of people avoid thinking about death because it’s sad or scary. They also might be unwilling because they have a solid faith about what happens or that it’s uncontrollable so there’s no point in waisting any more time thinking about it. Other people may be stalked by death if someone close to them has died or if a terminal illness puts them on a fast track. We hear the cliches that death is a part of life, life is short, you only live once (YOLO), and seize the day. Many people who have had near-death experiences will talk about how they appreciate life so much more. Does thinking about death change the way you live?
First, I’d like to address life a bit. There are all sorts of ways for us to feel a rush of being alive. The feeling is just as invigorating whether we seek it through adrenaline activities or if you masterfully tune into your body and deepest sense of self in a meditation. Some people feel most alive when they’ve overcome a challenge or achieved an accomplishment like climbing a mountain. I feel most alive when I’m traveling to a place I’ve never been before or riding in the car with the windows down. I find that more often this aliveness feeling surfaces, and it’s because I’m learning to pay more attention, to pause and sense the world with new wonder.
This mindfulness practice involves taking in the world from the perspective of a child, a child who doesn’t yet know the names and functions of items around them. To experience and sense life as if it were all new revives a spark of curiosity, and this revival increases levels of happiness and gratitude for life.
Each year on my birthday my yoga teacher who trained me to teach yoga always wishes me Precious Human Birth. This is a Buddhist idea that awareness of being alive and the deepest gratitude for it is one of the highest realizations you can achieve as a human. This is timely too, because each birthday brings an existential crisis of sorts for me. It’s not so much the dread of getting older, but a heightened awareness of…existing. What I’m learning (and what is essentially the purpose of this post) is to change the perceived sensations of these feelings. Rather than feed the panic of my death anxiety and existential thoughts, I try to allow it to inform me more of what it’s like to live.
Of course, whenever I think about discussions on life, its meaning, and accepting the forces of nature, I’m reminded of Mufasa explaining the circle of life to Simba in The Lion King. The circle to me is an important element here because, as we know, it has no end. I think of life and death not as opposites, but instead birth and death as opposites. This may be partially because I believe in reincarnation, that the energy of our consciousness is not destroyed with our body’s decomposition but is rebirthed or repurposed. Life becomes a new form of life. To me, our energy returns to its true form, which depending on the day you ask me, I’ll say either the larger “force” collective consciousness, or among the stars. That is my version of “afterlife.”
Also, because I watched Fantastic Fungi (highly recommend), I understand how the decomposition of our bodies or all life is “digested” by mushrooms and fungi. This digestive system is a larger, planet scale version of ours and demonstrates life becoming new life. Anyway, my point here is that all parts of ourselves, physical and energetic, revolve in a birth/death cycle. I think that we see life and death as the opposites because that’s all we know or remember, and we in human forms cannot fully comprehend what it is to be anything other than human.
This is why spiritual awakening experiences and out of body experiences may offer some insight to what consciousness really is or what it feels like to let go of our perception of humanism. Embodiment, however, is an important component to ease death anxiety, and I’ll get back to that. These ideas about what it’s like to die have stuck with me because of both my own research driven by curiosity to diminish my death anxiety and my experiences of ceremonially dying as a shamanic initiation.
When training to practice shamanism, perhaps among of the most transformative experiences were my symbolic deaths. There were two separate circumstances. For the first I felt my “spirit” hover over my body. I didn’t realize until afterwards that I could clearly see my feet as if my eyes were open, but they were closed the whole time. As I drifted further and further away all I could see were stars. It was dark with twinkling lights and all-vibrating. It was distant, liberating, and calm.
The other time was more visual. My body felt like it was floating down a gentle river, and I saw a purple dragonfly land on the grassy bank beside me. Both times when I returned I was very emotional. It really felt like I left and came back! It has been almost enough for me to embrace my eventual, actual death. …And I want to be buried in a mushroom suit!
The fear of the unknown, uncertain, and uncontrollable are big reasons for having death anxiety, but they aren’t the only reasons. Some people are more nervous about how life goes on, or they just want to be remembered. Other people might have an ever-growing list of things they want to do and fear they won’t have enough time to complete it. Maybe it’s more about being afraid of changes. Or it’s a fear for the people we love.
What do you think happens at death? What other thoughts and sensations come up for you when you think about it? Does it change your perception of time? Recently I’ve researched potential methods for alleviating death anxiety. Recognizing or even inducing spiritual awakening experiences is a way to feel better about both living and dying. These kinds of experiences often feel like ego transcendence which could be a way to familiarize yourself with letting go.
I’ve mentioned in the dreams post that some Buddhist traditions will practice dream yoga to prepare for death. Dream yoga involves training yourself to lucid dream, and apparently the consciousness state attained while doing yoga in a dream is practice for the transition of death. There are ways to approach fears as well that might be applied as needed.
Also, I’ve mentioned in my post about psychedelics that studies have found doses aid death anxiety in terminally ill people. These experiences are transformative, so in a symbolic sense it is death to who you once were and rebirth. Tuning into these symbolic growth cycles in our lives is a way for us to approach actual death in a similar manner.
Although awakening experiences, ego transcendence, and consciousness expansion may be helpful, it’s equally important to stay embodied. To be embodied is to be grounded, which is often something left behind by people who wish to elevate themselves spiritually. Sometimes we focus too hard on developing one part of ourselves that other aspects don’t receive enough attention. Someone working on developing spiritually might have trouble socially, or someone working on their emotional health might accidentally neglect their physical health. So, remember to balance!
Psychologist Jorge Ferrer talks about embodied spirituality and how dissociating with the body can limit the different kinds of spiritual experiences possible. He mentions engagement of sexual energies can enliven consciousness.
Know that I’m not pushing immortality with my birth and death ideas, nor am I suggesting I have answers to the unknown. This is merely to question the perception of death and what it’s like to engage with the concept. I believe different states of consciousness might mimic the death experience which could provide some relief to those of us who feel uneasy about the inevitable. If we are willing to be open and evolve through discovery and curiosity, we humans may enrich both our living and dying experiences.
Go exist! If you like this page, please share it.
Reference: Embodied spirituality with Jorge Ferrer (2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjnUGBA_cVc.