Fear of Death: A Powerful Antidote

posted Jun 24, 2012, 12:51 PM by James Stoertz

Clyde drove 150 miles to attend my workshop, "Death and Dying: An Eastern Perspective.  “Laughter, music, and family noise had filled his house for four decades.  The house quieted down when the children left to start families of their own. Then his wife died and overnight the home he had loved became a cemetery-no music, no laughter, no one to fix breakfast, wash his clothes, make the bed, or ask how he felt.

"So this is death, I began to think.  Living death.  Walking from room to room like a zombie, I thought about real death.  What would it be like?  Life, snuffed out in an instant like a candle. The flame burns for a moment.  Then, nothing.  Only darkness.  That scares me, the thought of the final end of it all. I tried to stop thinking of it.  I even went to parties at the senior citizens' center.  But the thought of death never left the back of my mind.  Now it's more than a thought.  Now I'm caught in the grip of fear, scared of the instant when it will suddenly be all over. "

Darshani:  Often our fears come as blessings in disguise.  Let me share a true story of someone who had the same fear.

When Sri Ramana Maharshi was sixteen years old, he was struck one day by a violent fear of death. The fear was inexplicable because he was not ill.  Yet he heard himself think, "I am going to die! I'm going to die.  The thought of a doctor never occurred to him because he was not sick.  So overpowering was his fear of death that it drove his mind inwards.  "Death has come," he told himself.  "What does it mean?"

He lay on the floor and stretched his limbs out stiffly as though rigor mortis had set in.  He imitated a corpse in every way he could.  He held his breath and thought, “Now this body is dead.  Soon it will be carried stiff to the cremation ground, burnt and reduced to ashes.  But with the death of this body, am I dead?" he asked himself.  "Is the body ‘I’?"

Suddenly, he felt the full force of the "I," totally apart from his body.  "Oh!" he exclaimed' "l am not the body!  I am the spirit that transcends it.  Now I know!  The body dies, but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death.  That means that I am the deathless Spirit."  Those words flashed through him as living truth that he perceived directly, even without thought.  His "I" was far more real than his body.  In that split instant, his fear of death vanished forever, and his absorption in the Self continued unbroken for the rest of his life.

Fear stems from alienation from the Self or God through false identification with the body.  Death always frightens people who think they are the body.  Yet death never affects the Self.  Disintegration occurs only in the five elements that constitute the gross body-earth (hardness), water (liquidity), fire (heat), air (movement), and ether (space). We step out of these gross elements much as we would step out of a worn-out garment.

Knowing this intellectually is one thing; experiencing it is another.  I suggest that you begin spiritual practices with daily study and deep reflection on the scripture Self-Knowledge (Atma Bodha) by Sri Adi Shankaracharya, and on the words of Sri Ramana Maharshi.  Invite friends to your home, ones who suffer as you do from the agonizing fear of death, and share the readings with them.  In that way, you will make the best use of the space and time available to you.  When you sense an inner desire to meditate, ask a good yoga teacher for guidance.  Meditation can take you beyond body consciousness.  It can lead you to the experience of yourself as boundless spirit.

Clyde:  I thought that only monks had experience like that.

Darshani:  Anyone who yearns for it, and works for it, can have it.  In the book Cosmic Consciousness Dr. Richard Bucke records transcendental experiences of people like Bacon, Blake, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Swedenborg, Spinoza, and others. They were not monks; yet among their common spiritual experiences were an all-embracing light, the sense of immortality, and an instantaneous loss of fear.

For the fear of death, no antidote has more power than the knowledge of who we really are.