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The Soul of Therapy

Having Just the Right Amount of Death Awareness

Photo Credit: Getty/Dacia Doroff

How much should we think about death? What’s too little or too much? “I try to stop figuring out if I believe in life after death and get back to believing in life before death.”

Q: I know that remembering I am going to die is important to living a good life, but lately I’ve become obsessed with death. I’m getting older and I see lots of people younger than me in the obituaries. I also have some health problems. I’m worrying about death too much and it’s getting in the way of just living. Can you help me with this?

Swiss philosopher Henri Frédéric Amiel wrote: “To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” His words, I hope, can at least give you a sense that your struggle with aging and death awareness is both deeply personal and universal.

I like the title of Irvin Yalom’s book Staring at the Sun. It’s about doing psychotherapy with patients who get too fixated on death awareness. I remember helping my mother, shortly before she died, view a solar eclipse through a welding mask. The sun is crucial to all life, but we know staring at it can bring harm quickly. The same is true of death awareness.

On the other hand, Martin Heidegger’s philosophy was about how failing to live with enough death awareness leads to an inauthentic “they” life (what are “they” doing, what will “they” think) instead of an authentic “I” life. He believed death awareness is a necessary ingredient of authentic living. It seems we need to find the Goldilocks zone of death awareness: not too much, not too little, just the right amount.

This, of course, is impossible for us to achieve with perfection, so at any given moment we’re likely in the too much or too little chair. The more common mistake is to live with too little death awareness and go through life preoccupied with things that will not seem to matter much in the end.

The inevitability of death is one of the great mysteries that gives rise to the spiritual impulse in human beings. Religions attempt to help us with it. Christianity posits heaven and hell. Hinduism and some versions of Buddhism tell us we’re reincarnated many times. Some people reject religious answers and live without any clear answers about death. Others believe we live on only in the people and work we leave behind when we die.

The death question invites me time and again back to William James’ idea that we are free to choose answers to great metaphysical questions that lead to our best lives without knowing with certainty that we have the right answer. It sounds like your current way of being with the reality of death is interfering with you trying to live your best life. I encourage you to see this as a spiritual cognitive therapy challenge. When death awareness rises up in you, ask yourself repeatedly: Can I cultivate a way of thinking about death that allows death awareness to be more like looking at a peaceful sunset than staring at the sun in mid-afternoon?

I’ve often struggled between the belief I was raised with—that my individual soul will survive after death—and the idea that my small-i consciousness is like a drop that will dissipate in the Large-I Ocean when I die. A drop of water is definitely lost when it falls into the Ocean, but the molecules in the drop remain. Maybe our consciousness in this life is just a molecule of the Great Ocean of Consciousness, not even a whole drop (which contains about a trillion trillion molecules!).

Perhaps something of our individual molecule self remains even as we rejoin the Ocean through death. Thousands of near-death experience reports from around the world, in which many people report being greeted by loved ones, suggest that this is at least not unreasonable to entertain. Physicists tell us light is both a particle and a wave. Perhaps we are both a molecule of consciousness and the Ocean, not one or the other.

When I catch myself staring at the sun, I try to stop figuring out if I believe in life after death and get back to believing in life before death. This usually means letting the death question go and immersing myself again in a life of passion and purpose.

Here is a nested meditation I wrote that addresses my own ongoing effort to find a life-enhancing way of thinking about death. I offer it with the hope it might be of some help to you.

Sunsets teach me again and again.

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Sunsets teach me again and again

that letting go can be a tranquil work.

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Sunsets teach me again and again

that letting go can be a tranquil work

of art—the light slipping away so quietly, gently.

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Sunsets teach me again and again

that letting go can be a tranquil work

of art—the light slipping away so quietly. Gently

comes the end when offered no resistance.

From Now is Where God Lives © 2018 by Kevin Anderson


Keep reading about coping with death: “Love After Death.”


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