I got an email from someone who'd read my "Death and the primal fear of non-existence." She said:
I completely understand where you are coming from. I have been having the very similar thoughts more recently.
It completely numbs me up. I often need to choke/scream out aloud to bring myself back to sanity.
These days I sometimes fear the thought of having that feeling even.
I was wondering whether you have developed a coping mechanism? Or can share anything else with me about how it is/has been affecting you.
I am very much looking forward to your response. I haven't been able to completely relate to anyone else who is as overwhelmed as I am about these thoughts of non-existence.
Here's my open letter back to her:
My friend in fearing non-existence, the first (and maybe most important) thing I want to say to you is bravo! Pat yourself on your trembling back. Embrace your shivering self.
Really. I'm not making light of the panic you've been feeling. I'm just suggesting that you deserve kudos for looking into the depths that most people shy away from.
I realize this isn't of your own doing, in a sense. I mean, the thoughts you've been having about dying and not existing, forever, spring from a source beyond your conscious self.
If you're like me, the thoughts about death that you're able to share with others arise from an unsharable experience. You're looking into a void of non-being that shakes you to the core. Nothingness can do that. It penetrates every defense.
As crazy as this may sound, from my perspective you're fortunate. So am I. We've had glimpses of an ultimate reality. Most people live their lives firmly within the bounds of the familiar. You've peered over the edge of everyday existence.
And what you saw scared you. Understandably.
But here's the thing: that experience is yours, just as my experience is mine. It is real, since it exists. Yet it isn't part of the fabric of objective reality in the way that the computer I'm typing these words with is. Using my mind, I can't make my computer disappear. However, fear is much more malleable.
Understanding that, I've been learning to cope with my own primal fear of non-existence. Well, "cope" sounds too negative. "Embrace" is more like it. I'm grateful for the soul-shuddering anticipation of death that I've had. It's given me the opportunity to live more vividly.
It may well be that this life is all there is. After death, finis. The end. If that's the case, I want to make the most of the moments that I have left. By contrast, people who believe in eternal life, or a lengthy afterlife in some heavenly paradise, are partly here and partly there.
Their imaginings of what awaits them beyond get mixed up with what is here, now. I don't want that to happen to me. So I try to use my glimpse of nothingness as motivation to embrace more fully the everything I'm currently aware of.
I still sleepwalk through life more than I should. But feeling death's fingernails on my spine makes me more awake than I would be otherwise. For that, I'm grateful.
I spend some time every day meditating. Basically, I try to die. Not physically, mentally. I want to get as close as possible to what I fear the most: not existing as the person I am now. I've found that the terror of non-existence is strongest when I fear the fear.
When I say, "bring it on," whatever or whoever is responsible for the terror I've felt holds it back. Kind of strange. But not really. Like most fears, running away enlivens the threat. Staring it down makes it shrink away.
This doesn't have to be an aggressive posture. Sometimes I speak to non-existence in more of a "teach me" tone. Looking into the primal emptiness that each of us is familiar with, I sense that it's both highly repellent and highly attractive.
Religion, mysticism, and philosophy are worlds apart from the raw experience of what's been numbing you. And at times in my life, me. Words can't help us. I've been told by well-meaning friends, "Why be afraid of death when you won't be around after you die?"
I appreciate their intention to soothe. However, I've found that the light of reasonable words, no matter how bright, doesn't touch the darkness lying on the other side of my last breath. I'll enter it alone when I die, and I've got to deal with the anticipation of it in my own fashion while I'm alive.
You too. So all I'm doing here is sharing how I've been dealing with my fear of death. Your way might be very different from mine. Trust your heart. Don't hesitate to go where you're drawn, even if you're the only one on that path.
That said, I'll close by reiterating what has worked best for me: putting out a welcome mat for what I wish would never show up at my door.
Death comes for us all. I can either peek through the curtains of my life with fear and trembling or say to my eventual visitor, "Let's get acquainted as best we can now." For I'm pretty sure that if I could rehearse some mini-dying, the maxi-dying of my final performance will go more smoothly.
Sitting quietly in my meditation closet, I enjoy closing my eyes and simply saying to myself, "I am." Or, when the saying has run its course, even more simply experiencing non-verbally what those two words point to.
I try to leave aside all the descriptors that could be added to "I am… ." A man. An American. An agnostic. A husband. A father. A blogger. A Tai Chi student. A person who muses about death and the primal fear of non-existence.
Somehow, the less I feel myself to be, the more being I seem to feel. Whether this points to some sort of survival after death, I don't know. Naturally, I hope so.
Regardless, I know that "I am" for the moment. How many moments more, I don't know. That's not up to me. As a song I remember from the '50s said, "What will be, will be." Yes.
I'm grateful that I've been able to have the experience of being. Anything.
I could not have been at all. Which would have meant that I never would have had to worry about dying. But I'm happy to trade that worry for living my fifty-eight years.
Today I saw two Canadian geese land on the lake that I walk our dog around most afternoons. They flew low over our heads, honking. Fluttering down onto the water, they started in on what might have been some sort of goose mating dance.
Beats me. I'd never seen anything quite like it before. One goose would flap its way along the surface, honking like crazy. Then the other would catch up to it, echoing its cry. And so they went across the lake, water splashing, engaged in early spring goose living.
I felt a tear begin to form. A tear of gratitude. I too was alive. And able to be part of life.
For a moment, that was enough.
It may well be, for every moment that is enough.
[Next day update: In the course of completing a compilation of Church of the Churchless posts, I just came across "I'm alive. Wow!" It echoes what I was trying to say at the end here, perhaps more clearly.]