By Deepak Chopra, MD
Fear is a powerful force, nowhere more so than when it comes to death and dying. By comparison, the solutions for solving other fears seem useless. You cannot test your fear; you cannot feel it and move on anyway. There is little reason to trust other people who seem to have no such fear. They have no more valid experience of dying than any other person who is alive.
It is reported that near-death experiences leave survivors without any fear of death, because they have seen the other side and found it unfearful. But near-death experiences, although highly publicized, are rare, even among patients who have died on the table in the emergency room, generally from a heart attack, and been resuscitated. You can take hope from their anecdotal stories—and millions do—but the information remains second-hand.
Fear of death is unique in the hold it has over us, and we spend our lives hiding or suppressing it. The prospect of not existing seems too overwhelming to face. But in one respect, despite its uniqueness, the fear of death can be faced and dismantled. There is a cure that is available to anyone. It consists of exposing death as an illusion,
This is the last solution people seek, in all probability, because death looks so real, and the sight of a corpse is frightening and disturbing to most of us. Instead of bringing our fear of death to light, we feel too emotional to begin. But overcoming your emotions puts the cart before the horse. Our fear and revulsion didn’t arise by themselves; they are the coating, as it were, that surrounds the core of illusion, an after-effect rather than the cause.
We can trace the cause backwards by dissecting the illusion in stages, beginning with the top layer and working toward the source of the fear that gave rise to everything else, as follows:
- When my body dies, I die.
- I am my body.
- I reside inside my body and need it to survive.
- Death is the opposite of life.
- Death is non-existence.
- Nothing is worse than non-existence.
As you can see, fear of death is a layered belief system; it isn’t a simple belief. To overcome this fear each layer must be dismantled, which means exposing the belief as false and processing the emotions tangled up in the belief. Taken one step at a time, the process of dismantling isn’t difficult. The difficulty arises when we try to attack fear of death all at once. That tactic is doomed, given how many false ideas are woven together inside our fear.
Let me show how the dismantling process works by briefly confronting each layer of fear.
- When my body dies, I die. This idea has only an emotional basis, generally rooted in childhood when a pet dies and our parents are at a loss to console us. This lack of consolation goes viral, we might say, as the years bring more experience of death. The rational mind knows that there is no data from the brain of a dead person, no credible witnessing beyond the grave, and so on. So this idea can be put on the shelf as unproven and unprovable.
- I am my body. This idea is actually just an assumption. One can just as easily say, “I am my mind.” Since the whole difficulty concerns the question of whether the mind dies with the body, it does no good to claim as a fact that you are your body. The current belief in neuroscience is that the mind arises from the brain, so if the brain dies, the mind is extinguished. But there is no proof that the brain produces the mind, and much evidence that it doesn’t, since no one has been able to show that the quite ordinary atoms and molecules that constitute a brain cell ever learned to think.
- I reside inside my body and need it to survive. This idea is somewhat different from the first two ideas, because it isn’t an assumption but a misperception. We learned as children to perceive the world “out there” from a position “in here.” But perception is unreliable until it is examined. When you cut your finger, the pain is perceived in the finger when we know logically that the sensation is actually processed in the brain. You can scan your body up and down quite easily, and you can scan the world around you just as easily. This implies that perception isn’t trapped “in here.” The possibility that perception has no fixed location helps to dismantle the misperception that “in here” and “out there” are opposites.
- Death is the opposite of life. It is clear that all created forms come and go. Thoughts arise and fade. The body you have includes trillions of cells that were not present when you were two years old. This all points to a simple reality: creation is in flux. Change is constant, and therefore a continuum. What we term death is a concept by which we attempt to fix arbitrary boundaries in a continuum that has no such boundaries. It is false to say that a heart or brain cell is alive while the atoms inside it are dead. The whole thing is purely a mental construct that we created and therefore can uncreate.
- Death is non-existence. Now we are getting close to the seed or source of the whole illusion. To say and feel that someone who has died no longer exists is a frightening prospect. But we don’t actually know what non-existence is. Our only connection to not existing is by thinking about it, and thinking by definition exists. Likewise, if we equate non-existence with the extinguishing of consciousness, our only connection is to think about having no consciousness, which is a conscious thought. It is impossible to frame any acceptable reality to non-existence except within the domain of existence, and for a human being, existence must be conscious.
- Nothing is worse than non-existence. Finally we get at the core illusion, the one thing fear depends upon when it comes to death. Being aware that we exist and are conscious, we don’t want those things to vanish. In fact, such a vanishing act seems to occur every night when we go to sleep, but all that really happens is that we lose our personal point of view when we sleep. A personal point of view is the product of a separate “I” that identifies with everyday experience, and everyday experience is filtered through mental activity.
But clearly mental activity isn’t the mind, just as the miles on a speedometer isn’t a car. The car and the mind both move, but they don’t have to in order to exist. Silent mind can easily be experienced. There is a silent gap between any two thoughts or sensations.
The experience of silent mind, sleep, and simply tuning out for a moment isn’t fearful in the slightest. These experiences are not even close to non-existence. In fact, non-existence cannot be experienced, since by definition you have to exist to have any experience.
Once you realize that non-existence cannot be experienced, with or without a physical body, there is nothing to fear. However vividly you imagine a fire-breathing dragon, it can’t arouse true fear. An elaborate fiction can be built around dragons, but entering their imaginative domain is a choice, and ultimately we know the choice is pure imagination. The same holds true when we choose to enter the domain where death is the ultimate fear. Once you pierce the mask of illusion, you can choose to exit the domain where this fear exists, and then you are free.