Our existential dilemma

“…the fear of death is rooted in an instinct for self-preservation that humans share with other species. Although we share this instinct with other species, only we are aware that death is inevitable…this combination of an instinctive drive for self-preservation with an awareness of the inevitability of death creates the potential for terror.”
Harmon-Jones et al 1997:24 – as quoted in a footnote in Perspectives on Satipattana by Ven. Analayo

This succinctly describes our existential dilemma. We know that we cannot live forever, that there was a time when we were not on the earth, and there will be a time again when we are not here. But our visceral fear of ego-death is often strong enough to block out that awareness. We spend untold energy pretending that our life will not end; that although everything around us is being born, decaying, dying and regenerating, somehow this doesn’t apply to us.

Nyer Grim Reaper cartoon

This cartoon from a recent New Yorker magazine made me laugh out loud. We train like mad to delay death (we hope), and we look over our shoulders to see if death is gaining on us. But no matter where we are, death is our close companion; it is the other side of life. Can we make peace with this companion?

By denying the fact of death (especially our own), we cut ourselves off from reality; we spend our time running away from that which can never be escaped. If we live in a distorted world where we continually seek pleasurable sensual experiences and look away from unpleasant realities, we may be inclined to behave in ways that are harmful, to ourselves and others.

One way to reduce or eliminate a terror of death is by widening our scope of concern while we live. It is possible to re-frame how we think of ourselves so that we are not the center of the world, but one locus of changing energy among billions of other, while recognizing that it’s only our own actions and reactions that we have the power to alter. This is, of course, a gradual process. It starts with taking others’ needs and hopes and fears as seriously as our own. Dukkha, the Buddha’s first noble truth, is not just about acknowledging our own feelings of pain or aversion, but seeing that our suffering is not unique; others suffer just as we do. The universality of our existential dilemma can open wide the door to compassion. It’s a start.

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Filed under Death and dying

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