Last night I had another of my Holy shit! I'm going to die and not exist forever! moments. I wrote about these disturbing experiences six years ago in "Death and the primal fear of non-existence."
I’ve come face to face with not-existing. It’s scary. Really scary. I’ve never experienced anything scarier. I can call it “fear,” but it’s more than that. Worse than that. Regular fear arises when something bad is happening or could happen.
But primal fear is looking into the maw of nothing happening to you, because there will be no you around for anything to happen to. Do you get the difference? I hope so. I don’t know if I can describe it any more clearly.
This experience has come to me about a dozen times. Mostly while I’m going to sleep. Occasionally in meditation. It isn’t something that I can bring about on my own. It isn’t a thought; it isn’t an emotion; it isn’t a perception. It’s as if a curtain covering non-existence opens for a moment, giving me a peek into a nothingness that is absolute.
Because I’m not there. I mean, I’m obviously there at the moment, looking into the depths of not-existing for eternity. Yet what I feel all the way down to the marrow of my being is what it means to live for a time and then to not live for all the rest of time.
This time it was a turtle's fault.
The 11 o'clock local news had a segment about a large sea turtle that washed ashore, looking decidedly dead. But it wasn't. If I recall correctly, a CT scan was used to look through the turtle's shell and figure out what was wrong with it.
Unbidden and uncontrollably, one of those Holy shit! realizations washed over me as the news team went on to another story.
I'm going to die eventually. Just like the turtle is. No more living. No more anything. This life is it. All there will ever be. No matter how much I love life, no matter how much I want to keep on living, death is going to throw me into non-existence. Forever. Me gone. All gone. For eternity.
Not exactly cheery bedtime thoughts. As I was brushing my teeth, the unfairness of it all seemed so obvious.
Here I am, alive. I'm a human being who can envision his own death. I enjoy life, but it's slipping away by the day, the hour, the minute, the second. I'm 63 fucking years old! My lifelong experiencing of one-thing-after-the-other is going to come to an abrupt halt with a final thing: the instant of my death. After that... nothing. Not even the awareness of nothing.
After waking up this morning, I felt pretty much normal again. Aware of death, of course, yet immersed in the living of life. Thankfully. But the primal fear I'd experienced last night was still lingering closer to the surface of my consciousness than it usually is.
Throughout the day I kept thinking...
About how religious people are able to easily envision an afterlife that isn't a viable post-death reassurance for me anymore. About how illogical my fear of non-existence is, since there's as little reason to worry about not existing as there is of falling into deep sleep: if I'm unconscious, there's no fear, no worry, no anything.
It dawned on me that (1) not being afraid of dying because of a certainty about life after death has a lot in common with (2) being afraid of dying because of a certainty about non-existence after death. The commmonality is... certainty.
Of course, the odds are with (2), non-existence. Billions upon billions of humans have died with no sign of their continued existence. Evidence of life after death is extremely meager, almost, well, non-existent.
Still, anything is possible. Since no one knows what lies on the other side of death, there's room for uncertainty. (See my "Scientific quasi-remedies for a fear of death.")
Believers in life after death don't know that for sure. Believers in non-existence after death don't know that for sure. Nobody knows! Nobody. Not with certainty. And therein lies a viable way of dealing with death: acknowledge that it's an unknown, and focus on the known. Living, here and now.
This morning I was drawn to read a few chapters in Pema Chodron's "The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times." Often I'm turned off by Zen books that are overly Buddhist'y, edging into dogmatic religiosity. But I liked what Chodon said about The In-Between State.
It takes some training to equate complete letting-go with comfort. But in fact "nothing to hold on to" is the root of happiness. There's a sense of freedom when we accept that we're not in control. Pointing ourselves toward what we would most like to avoid makes our barriers and shields permeable.
This may lead to a don't-know-what-to-do kind of feeling, a sense of being caught in-between. On the one hand, we're completely fed up with seeking comfort from what we can eat, drink, smoke, or couple with. We're also fed up with beliefs, ideas, and "isms" of all kinds. But on the other hand we wish it were true that outer comfort could bring lasting happiness.
...When we find ourselves in a place of discomfort and fear, when we're in a dispute, when the doctor says we need tests to see what's wrong, we'll find that we want to blame, to take sides, to stand our ground. We feel we must have some resolution. We want to hold our familiar view.
...That's why we're encouraged to spend our whole lives training with uncertainty, ambiguity, insecurity. To stay in the middle prepares us to meet the unknown without fear; it prepares us to face both our life and our death.
...We gradually discover that we are big enough to hold something that is neither lie nor truth, neither pure nor impure, neither bad nor good. But first we have to appreciate the richness of the groundless state and hang in there.
...Resting here completely -- steadfastly experiencing the clarity of the present moment -- is called enlightenment.