Fear Of Death & The Art Of Non-attachment

Human Skull
Fear of death is entirely natural. The person with no anxieties whatsoever about death is probably delusional. Healthy non-attachment is neither repression nor denial of experience…

 

 

 

FEAR OF DEATH & THE ART OF NON-ATTACHMENT

Healthy non-attachment is neither repression nor denial of experience.

For example, I’ve never not had a sense of self, of existing as an entity same but different from other human beings. Yet I’ve also learned to examine this habitual belief in “myself”.

Normally I think of this body and mind as “my body” and “my mind”, to be used and abused as I please. In most day-to-day situations, thinking of the body and mind as “mine” (i.e. attachment) is a habit that motivates action.

But I also know “my body” as an integrated system of organs and cells and biochemical compounds, all functioning independently of “my will” and sustaining a community of countless microbial life forms. Likewise “my mind” – an integrated system of ever-changing thoughts and feelings and awarenesses, all coming and going regardless of “my will”.

I can attempt to hold body and mind together for as long as possible with a regime of exercise, meditation, diet, hygiene, and by choosing to co-operate or compete with other human beings in order to acquire sufficient water, food, shelter, clothing, medicines, etc. But however much will I exert, injury and sickness and mental impairment cannot be prevented indefinitely and “my death” will inevitably occur sooner or later.

Knowing just that much loosens any attachment to the idea of my owning a perfect body and mind and softens any arising aversion, anger, or sorrow whenever something appears to be “wrong” with “me.”

Non-attachment to the experience of living is not the same as denial or repression of thoughts and feelings, however, and the person with no anxieties whatsoever about death is probably delusional. Attitudes to death among western dwellers in particular (many who are unlikely to have seen a real dead body, or a real dying person succumbing to physical agonies and mental turmoil) often seem to me to be ill-informed and irresponsible.

One of my frequent meditations is to imagine being told I have just a few months left to live and to contemplate my feelings. How comforting is it to know that the constituents of “my body” (atoms, molecules, etc) and “my mind” (sensations, perceptions, emotions, aspirations, etc) have already been recycled (i.e. appropriated and made into a self-identity) by countless other sentient beings past and present and will continue to be recycled long after “my death” by countless future sentient beings?  What regrets would I have? How am I likely to be remembered by others when I am dead and gone?

Frequent repetition of this exercise reminds me of what still remains undone in “my life”. The anxiety of knowing that “my time” is running out spurs me on to tie up the remaining loose ends. I’m not talking about ticking off some arbitrary “bucket list” of thrills – I’m talking about paying attention to any recurring nagging thoughts and feelings, heeding the message and taking appropriate action. Doing whatever remains to be done helps soften my aversion to the inevitability of terminal decline or sudden death.

“‘I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ …
“‘I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.’ …
“‘I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.’ …
“‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.’ …
“‘I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.’ …
“These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.”The Buddha [1]

Fear of death is entirely natural. The person with no anxieties whatsoever about death is probably delusional. Healthy non-attachment is neither repression nor denial of experience.

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Notes

[1]  ‘Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation’ (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

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