Monday, March 27, 2006

Fear of Death

“Where does the fear of death come from?
Ignorance of the self gives fear of death. The more one learns of the self, the less fear there is of death, for then man sees only a door to pass through from one phase of life to another - and the other phase is much better. The more spiritually one lives, the less fear there is of death. The more one lives in the soul, the less hold one has upon the body. The body has fear according to the consciousness it has in itself. Man is not only dependent upon his mind for thought, but every atom of the body is to some extent conscious, and so protects itself” Hazrat Inayat Khan

A lot, perhaps most, of these articles come from conversations that I have with people and this one is no different. I seem to get my best teachings from the people around me who think I am teaching them. I have been convinced for some time that I am the one who is blessed with so many wonderful, thoughtful teachers.
In this particular case one of my friends, who purchased an advance copy of my book, happened to mention that she was reading a section where I say that the reason I began serious spiritual work was because I wanted to die consciously. She then said that death was her major fear. As we talked about it, it became clear that her fear came from the images conjured up in her childhood by the talk she heard in her church about the dangers of Hell. She said that it was probably childish and silly to feel that way but there it was. It isn’t silly. We all have childhood images of various kinds that form how we feel and act as adults. Some of them are so deep that we have no idea they are there. In my friend’s case, she was very aware of the cause of her fear but felt helpless to do anything about it. Maybe that is so, but I think that once identified a person is well on the way to healing whatever trauma was inflicted upon them. And it is a trauma, make no mistake.
It would not surprise me at all to find that the vast majority of people who rise to the top of a religious organization are bureaucrats and have never had the sort of mystical experiences that actually formed their organization, church, whatever. Part of the reason that they rise to the top is their desire to tell other people what to do. And these people have imaginations. Can you imagine the delight that they experience in realizing that their dictates form the doctrine that others are expected to believe and to teach? I can clearly remember being taught in Sunday School as a six year old, the horrors of Hell. Who would tell a six year old that they are bound for eternal damnation if they are not good? It kind of reminds me of cigarette companies being delighted at every 12 year old who tries a smoke
But what to do about this particular trauma?
I do not know that this will work for everyone but I can tell you what I did. Some years ago, when I was still quite young, in my early 30’s, I realized that I was very worried about death. So, I started thinking about all the various ways that I could die. It became a kind of habit. I would be sitting alone in my living room and I would visualize a death. It might be from hanging, or fire, or drowning, or some kind of sickness, even being tortured to death. It became a very gruesome exercise but I was determined to imagine as many ways that my body could be forced to stop operating as possible. At this point I was not so concerned with what happened after but with the event itself. This is when I slowly began to realize that there really was a continuation. I am not sure how I came to this conclusion, more early childhood training perhaps, but it was definitely there, a kind of sure knowledge. With this knowledge came something else. I discovered that I did not want to die in my sleep, I wanted to be awake for the whole thing, from the moment my body stopped, right on through that transition through the tunnel that everyone talks about, to finding out what happens after you emerge from the tunnel and what goes on after that. That is when I began to study mysticism seriously because I realized that simple doctrine and acceptance of some religious bureaucrats pronouncements was not going to work for me. I later found out that this is a normal Sufi exercise (and here I thought I invented it) which goes along with spending nights in graveyards and communing with spirit beings.
Death is a natural normal phenomena that we all must experience. Perhaps the exercise above is to harsh for you but you might find some way of coming to terms with what will happen. And another thing – this whole idea that God, the God of mercy and compassion – would condemn any soul to eternal damnation and torture – well that is just patently silly. Leave it to bitter old men to come up with something to control people.

Love & Blessings, Musawwir


Sarala said...

In my religious upbringing (Lutheran) we weren't really threatened with hell - hell was someplace REALLY bad people went, not us! We were threatened with Jesus' little black book in which he would mark plus's and minuses according to our behaviours. Sort of like a spiritual Santa Claus. It was the thought of disappointing Jesus, the rejection in the guise of his disapproval that brought us back in line.

My memories of experiencing deaths have more to do with sadness at my own loss of the person past (even most recently with my cat). And my feelings about my own death are pretty much the same - sadness about the loss of the experience of life. So much left to do. Wow, now that I've written this it sounds pretty selfish!

My hope is that I will recognize death knocking and smile with anticipation. Delighted surprise.

Anonymous said...

I was brought up without religion, one parent from a strick catholic background, one from an athiest background. As I was growing up and asked what religion would I be? I was told that it was left up to each of us children to choose our own religion when we felt we wanted to explore that area of our lives. So I think I have always been in surveillance, so to speak. What I found out for myself was that too many people were hypocrites, in their daily lives they were not practicing their religion at all, except going to their church sunday mornings. You can imagine what confusion that would give a young person without one strick religious belief. Causing more pondering on my own beliefs. So, I thought I made up my own beliefs, live honest, as wholesome and caring as I can. Of course as I got older I naturally started thinking about death. Remember, without a very religious background to guide my ideas, I could not accept a firey hell full of unhappy souls, or a blissfull heaven where angels wandered around content and happy. But, as I grew more spiritually I started to believe there would be more after death. As my spirituality grew, I can now say on a scale of 1-10, one being fearful of death and 10 being accepting of death. I think I would be about 7. As my spirituality and understanding grows I believe I will be at 10 when I need to be there. Make sense? It doesn't have to really, as long as it makes sense to me. So to each his own journey, not what someone else has dictated through fear.

Qalbi said...

All right, I can't resist any longer. This subject is important to me, because a major marker for me of my attachment to a spiritual life was a miraculous loss of fear. I don't think it was fear of death, though I called it that; for me it was a greater fear of life.

I came very close to dying a number of times in my life, starting in infancy and I have had way too much experience with the death of others, including violently from a very young age; so one might think that I would be less afraid.

The words of Murshid that you quote here have been completely true for me! I'm too tired tonight, so if it's easy could you tell me where they're from?

Today I facilitated a group and asked everyone to talk about what age they thought they'd live to be. Then I talked about how we can work with "living beyond our wildest dreams," which is a quote from AAs "Big Book." It was interesting and I was, of course, inspired by this blog.

Musawwir said...

Hi Qalbi,
The quote comes from Volume I, The Soul Whence and Whither, sub chapter "On the Fear of Death"

molly said...

I think my greatest fear of death is not my own, but the fear of separation by death of those i care for deeply, namely my children. One one hand, this sounds selfish and attachment-oriented. On the other hand, it sounds natural. Staying conscious for my own death is one of the reasons i study sufism. Right now i am reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which talks about the Tibetan Buddhist's viewpoint and description of what happens at and after death.

Abi-Ru Shirzan said...


Musawwir never shrinks from the scary topics, does he?

Like Molly, I think that the loss of a child would be the hardest loss. I try not to worry, lest my worry create reality.

As for other deaths, I was present at a gathering in which we all did the pretending to be dead exercise that Musawwir describes. One guy that I thought of as very reserved and collected, very much "in charge" of his life, completely freaked out and needed serious calming. I had no reaction at all, which was scary in its own way. I discovered that I wanted there to be some difference between my life and my death and that I was more worried about wasting my life than about my death. I also found quite a bit of nafs. A friend died suddenly last summer and there was great lamenting and carrying on for a few weeks--and now, most of the time, it seems as if he never was, has been forgotten. THAT bothered me. . .the forgetting.

Jules said...

Greetings All,
for myself i do not fear death, i see it as walking through another doorway, and i do not know what lies beyond, for i have not gone there before.
For family and friends who have been gravely ill, beyond physical help i have also welcomed the passing through this door. Although i have grieved deeply at their passing, mainly for my own loss of their physical pressence in my life.
My children however are another matter i hope that they should never pass through that door before i. Personally the greatest tragedy for me would be for a parent to have to bury their own child. This is my only fear of death.

"And all dreams, even dreams of eternal damnation are but momentary. These dreaming souls soon awaken into Paradise, fully purified and joyously praising the All-Merciful One." - Prophet Muhummad in Paradise on paridiseand hellfire.
Love and Blessings Jules