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.]
I enjoy your perspective and always appreciate reading your essays. Keep going.
Posted by: cadeveo | March 05, 2007 at 11:11 PM
I have also had the feeling of panic when the full impact of the concept of 'forever non-existing' after death is realized. It is a feeling like no other and can be life-changing. Being tossed to lions couldn't have scared me more.
I first had it as a teenager and my personal coping response was to become a party animal, to have all the fun I could have right now for as long as it lasted. To hell with school, I'm going surfing. To hell with homework, I'm going to get stoned with my girlfriend.
I think this experience is common and people's response to it varies. Some become very ambitious, hoping to make a big impact in life and build something either materially or in the realm of ideas that will outlast their lifespan and give them some sense immortality. But after 60 trillion years or so, tall buildings, massive fortunes, generations of descendants, works of art or writing...they all will be long gone and forgotten...not even dust. And that will be just the beginning of eternity within the concept of linear time. Some respond simply by immersing themselves in their drug of choice.
Many cope with religion. I don't think people are as naive as it appears. Deep down, they all have doubts that there could be a God, a savior, a heaven, an afterlife, but they want to believe, they NEED to believe. So they put on the blinders and carry on hoping that somehow it is real.
In my case, I eventually got involved with various yogic and mystic paths. They seemed more rational than faith in some religion (although some of these paths definitely resemble religions), because they give you a vision and something active to do to achieve your salvation beyond just going to church or mosque and blindly believing what the robed character in the pulpit is telling you.
Now, think of this. If there really is 'time' in the sense that we conceive of it...a line of sequential events that carry on forever into the future. This line must also extend sequentially forever into the past. Forget Einstein and his curved space relativity theories. Even if there is nothing, time passes. There just isn't anyone to know it. So, if this line goes forever into the past, how could your moment of being ever have come to exist?
You see, what you really are is this awareness now. Not the content of awareness, but the awareness within which the creation appears. Your body, your thoughts, your perceptions which 'die', conceptual sequentiality, all pass within this awareness. But this awareness is no thing in itself. It has no form, color or name. It is unborn, unknowable and not subject to the concept of time. It is what you were before you were born and what you will be after. It is here now and can never be anyplace else.
Where do you go when you die? Right here. Right now. That's where. And what will be here now?
In the same way that we have varied experiences in this life, the content of the awareness will vary after this body disappears. It may be heaven, hell, angels, astral planes, white light, your favorite dog, or another form or "rebirth", but the awareness remains. It may be the primordial luminous 'Void' spoken of by sages since time immemorial, but chances are phenomena will continue to appear.
Don't worry. Be happy.
Posted by: Tucson Bob | March 06, 2007 at 09:09 AM
Does they thinks that the soul-eating evermore is imperceptible to the now awareness, precious? Is it that a tweak of our time idea moves us out of never? We hides beneath our clever ignorance? The maw yet awaits...
Feeling non-existence? Can't be done.
Happy to be? All meaning, no sense.
When you are only afraid of fear, you have but pricked the surface. R A Wilson quothe, "Chapel Perilous, like the mysterious entity called "I," cannot be located in the space-time continuum; it is weightless, odorless, tastless and undetectable by ordinary instruments. Indeed, like the Ego, it is even possible to deny that it is there. And yet, even more like the Ego, once you are inside it, there doesn't seem to be any way to ever get out again, until you suddenly discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought."
Intellect is opposition! Being and non-being arise simultaneously!
Does it eats itself? Oughtn't it?
Posted by: Edward | March 06, 2007 at 03:25 PM
Nothingness... by very definition... does not exist. So what's to fear?
The wisdom of your comment twas all so right on... and reflects my own sentiment as well.
I was more or less going to say precisely the same thing... but then you've done such a beautiful job, nothing more need be said.
Posted by: tao | March 07, 2007 at 01:34 AM
Tucson Bob, Tao, Edward;
The Awareness is the Infinite? Then, the Consciousness is the Finite?
I'm still not clear regarding the two words.
I know a word can have many definitions. Likewise, a definition can be attached to many different words. I am trying to find some common agreement on the above words, usage and defintion.
This no big deal. However, if there is some feedback, I would appreciate some.
Posted by: Roger | March 07, 2007 at 06:10 AM
Lewis Thomas notes: "Coral polyps are biologically self-conscious. If you place polyps of the same genetic line together, touching each other, they will fuse and become a single polyp, but if the lines are different, one will reject the other."
Etymologically, "aware" is watchful; "conscious" is knowing. These are the condition of the polyp: from the viewpoint of the infinite, hasn't the polyp always known? From the viewpoint of the finite, isn't that individual polyp ready now?
In these terms, it is easy to aver that there are no religious repercussions, laughable to think the polyp does not suffer some existential angst over this identity challenge. There's no proof, of course, but there's really no need: import the set "possible polyp worlds" into the set "infinite worlds," and you have the basis for religious belief based on, (and this is important,) a mathematical structure: if it possible that there is a personal god, coral polyps pray.
And it is ironic that they pray to Agni.
Posted by: Edward | March 07, 2007 at 08:00 AM
As you say, it is hard to accurately express something intuitive/non-conceptual with words.
I would like to attempt to clarify what I said above: "...what you really are is this awareness now. Not the content of awareness, but the awareness within which the creation appears."
This would imply that the creation (phenomena) and this consciousness/awareness we're talking about are two things or somehow separate.
One could say that the universe (creation) is 'I'. But it would not be correct to say that 'I' am the universe. What is the difference you say? It is the difference between subject and object. The universe is not the subject of 'I'. This 'I' is not an object at all, it is no 'thing' at all.
What we are is not an entity or object. We are not anything to be known. Stop regarding the universe and yourself as an object. Look in the right direction where there is no direction at all, where there is no 'thing' to measured from any 'where'.
Like I said. It's tough to put an intuitive perception into words. I may have just dug a deeper hole that will just lead to more questions.
It is as it is. Now !
Posted by: Tucson Bob | March 07, 2007 at 08:25 AM
High Anxiety is not unusual and be caused by
a malfunctioning of mechanism in the brain that requlate proper chemical balance.
Prozac has been very successful in treating
anxiety like has been discribed.
Posted by: John | March 07, 2007 at 11:39 AM
That's a damn lie. You don't know what the hell you are talking about. You are seriously misinformed and/or brainwashed. Go peddle your pharmaceutical drug company agenda somewhere else.
For your information, Prozac has caused far more problems than solutions. Prozac is bad news, all the way around.
Posted by: tao | March 07, 2007 at 12:45 PM
Toe, you seem to be a little agitated.
Prozac, and it's derivitives has help many thousands of people.
Perhaps it may help you.
Posted by: John | March 07, 2007 at 07:59 PM
Has it been been 60 trillion years already.?
Seems like just yesterday.
Posted by: John | March 07, 2007 at 08:12 PM
its only FUCKING SAND @#$%^@^ AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
Posted by: Sam Kinnison | March 09, 2007 at 06:51 AM