I chuckle at a story from the Zen philosopher Alan Watts:
There is a conversation at an English dinner party. The hostess started up the question of death. She asked the various guests what they thought was going to happen to them when they die.
Some thought about reincarnation, others thought about different planes of being. Some thought of being a spirit of God as a continued part of this world. The only one who had yet to answer was Sir Roderick, a devout and pious man of the Church of England.
The hostess asked Sir Roderick what he thought. He said in his booming and powerful English accent, “Ohhh I’m perfectly certain I shall go to Heaven, and enjoy everlasting bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t indulge in such a depressing conversation.”
I always laugh when I think of this.
Watts summarizes that death in the Western world is a real problem. We’ve devised a culture fundamentally resisting death. We hush it up and resist it. We pretend it hasn’t happened.
In late September while I was living in NYC, someone set off a bomb in the Chelsea neighborhood on 23rd St. About 30 people were injured. No one died.
It was a 2 miles from where I lived. Luckily, I was in New Jersey that night with the girl I was dating. I could have very easily been walking on that street as the bomb went off.
That thought makes me shudder. So does the emergency landing when there was a fire on my plane 6 years ago – you can read about here.
I feel that fear of death is the root of all other fears. It’s the cause of fear of the unknown, of loss, of missing out and of failure.
Mastering fear of death is something I hear about. I hear the Zen phrase “die before you die,” and it intrigues me. I think I understand it.
To me, it means accepting that death will come. It means letting go of the ego’s attachment to the body, to be able to accept impermanence. This can allow for more peace in the present moment because worrying about death will not prevent death. But worrying about death will certainly prevent my peace now.
So I try to be mindful of death. I try to remind myself it will come, without worrying about when it will come.
Easier said than done.
2 days after the bombing, I walked on 23rd St in Chelsea. Next to a row of green dumpers on the street, I stood at the exact spot where bomb went off.
I shuddered again. I haven’t learned how to die before I die yet. I hope to one day.