Designing the Mind

Conquering Death

Overcoming the Fear of Mortality with Epicurus, Socrates, and Hume

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Not too long ago, my mom’s father, and my last living grandparent, passed away. He was nearly ninety, so it wasn’t too unexpected, and he wasn’t someone I was close with emotionally or saw very often.

But I always felt a certain kind of connection with him. He was highly rational, independent, introverted, and obsessive about his passions (in his case, woodworking, math, and reading nonfiction). He spent most of his time going on walks and volunteering to build things for local charities and churches.

Despite our distance, I had always found myself to be extremely similar to him. It demonstrates the power of genetics that he turned out to have had the same psycho-philosophical interests and read many of the same books I had been drawn to. We had a few good conversations about Eckhart Tolle and existential risk toward the end of his life.

Oddly enough, I noticed just before that he had applied to be in Mindform. I didn’t even know he was on the email list, but I sent him an email personally inviting him to the community, which he probably never saw.

He didn’t tell anyone in the family that his kidneys were failing, but he had been informed that his health would be declining rapidly from here. So he got everything in order, went out into his yard one last time, and took his life. When I heard this news, my reaction probably isn’t what you would expect. I was relieved. It sounds tragic, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the best-case scenario.

This was a man who had always lived courageously on his own terms. It would have seemed at odds with his life if he had not gone out on his own terms. He didn’t give up or resign – he simply recognized that as a ninety-year-old with failing kidneys, his time had come.

And based on his philosophical background, I imagine it was actually a rather peaceful experience for him. He probably wasn’t trembling and wishing he had just a bit more time.

I think he conquered death – overcame the anxiety and emotional agony that transforms this neutral and natural phenomenon into a terror for so many people. I believe I have conquered death in this sense as well, and with the help of philosophy, you can conquer it too.

“If you die before you die, You won’t die when you die.”

– Inscription at St. Paul’s Monastery

Psychitects – I’ve been told I need to create more fun and engaging content, so I figured, why not spend fifteen minutes talking about the inevitable demise of everyone watching this?

Today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite topic. Actually, death is a pretty fascinating topic for me. I frequently remind myself that I’m gradually inching toward death, sometimes just by catching a glimpse of my hairline in the mirror, but sometimes in deliberate preparation for that inevitable day.

Most people avoid thinking about death whenever possible, and experience fear and dread when they are reminded of it. But psychedelic drugs have been found highly effective for helping people face death. People who are terminally ill and filled with crippling fear are transformed by psychedelic experiences with shocking consistency.

I don’t think these chemicals shut off some kind of “death anxiety” valve in the brain. I think they transform the fear by teaching us something about the nature of life and death – something that no chemical is required to learn.

I believe I have completely overcome the fear and anxiety of death at this point. I actually had an experience a few years ago where I laid down in a cemetery on a beautiful day, imagined I was taking my last breath, and became completely content with this fact.

I will say that I do have a bit of an aversion to dying with ideas or insights still in my head. If someone were about to kill me today, I think I would want to respond “It’s cool, but can I just finish writing this book real quick?

It’s easy to say we’re at peace with death before our time has come. But what about when we’re actually on our deathbed? Can we really face it with equanimity? There is an excellent Aeon article that details the death of philosopher David Hume. It says:

Socrates died by drinking hemlock, condemned to death by the people of Athens. Albert Camus met his end in a car that wrapped itself around a tree at high speed. Nietzsche collapsed into insanity after weeping over a beaten horse. Posterity loves a tragic end, which is one reason why the cult of David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher the West has ever produced, never took off.

It says that Hume died ‘quite free from anxiety, impatience, or low spirits, and passed his time very well with the assistance of amusing books.’ The doctor who was with him as he died reported that he ‘continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness… He died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’

It certainly seems possible to die with levity and equanimity, but which perspectives and psychological algorithms can get us to this point?


The Good Death: Stoicism on Death and Suicide

Many of us are familiar with Stoic views on death. They practiced “negative visualization,” the practice of mentally preparing for “bad” outcomes so as not to be caught off guard by them if they occur. And their reminder of mortality, or memento mori, was the ultimate negative visualization.

It involves simply reminding yourself regularly that you will not live forever. That you could go at any moment, and hence should live your life with intention. And the fact that I have been vigilant and spent my years intentionally is a big part of why I’m not concerned about dying.

The Stoics thought death was “indifferent,” but they believed we should all pursue a “good death,” just as we should pursue a good life. Donald Robertson writes:

The most important aspect of the good death is the fact that it’s approached with wisdom and virtuous intentions, rather than the actual consequences for other people, which are largely in the hands of fate. Even someone who dies in obscurity can have a ‘good death’, if she can meet her fate with dignity and courage.

He even points out that suicide could be a wise and rational way to die under the right circumstances:

Many people face an old age in which the continuation of their life, through worsening physical frailty and illness, becomes a very serious moral dilemma… Stoic Ethics, unlike some religions, does not consider suicide to be inherently wrong. What matter are the judgments and intentions on which it’s based. It would be wrong for someone to take their own life because of unhealthy or irrational ‘passions’, meaning suicide caused by pathological depression would be wrong. However, in some cases suicide may be rational, if the decision is made ‘in sound mind’ and wisely.

Before ending his life, my grandfather adamantly requested that there not be a funeral. He wrote a check for the approximate price of his own cremation and requested that his ashes be thrown in the nearest ditch.

It sounds a bit disturbing, but I see it as an embrace of this naturalistic view – this idea that death is indifferent. In some ways, the ceremonious treatment we normally give to death – the mourning funerals, the sentimental sprinkling of ashes – they all give mortality more meaning than it deserves.

Our cultural traditions around death impose an interpretation that death is tragic and agonizing. But this interpretation is optional, and we can achieve much greater peace during our lives if we abandon it.


Nothing to Us: Epicureanism on Death

One of the mental hangups that maintains the fear of death is the fallacy that it is a kind of “scary experience.” But when we closely examine death, we can see that it is not an experience at all. None of us will ever “experience” death, because where you are, death is not; where death is, you are not.

Epicurus, who believed that the fear of death was the chief anxiety that keeps us from peace, made this point very clear:

Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness… Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror; for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are no terrors for them in ceasing to live.

– Epicurus, Principal Doctrines

In keeping with this idea that death is nothing to us, I have realized that a number of ideas on mortality actually glorify it more than it warrants. I don’t agree, for example, with Ernest Becker’s idea that the anxiety of death or its denial represents the root of our suffering.

You don’t immediately transcend all forms of suffering when you learn to be at peace with death. And most human suffering would persist, even if we were all immortal.

Similarly, I don’t agree with the idea that “death is what gives life meaning,” which is often given as a consolation for mortality. Again, life would still feel meaningful if we did not die. A quick thought-experiment about taking an immortality pill can demonstrate this.

Death is not the great source of suffering or the giver of meaning. Death is nothing to us.


A Laughing Matter: Taoism on Death

Taoism has much to say about death as well. As I have said before, Taoism views playfulness as the appropriate attitude toward life, and every ostensible bad thing is merely a laughing matter for a Taoist sage, even death. One of my favorite excerpts on Taoism:

Having realized what I really am, I can face all that may come with laughing equanimity, never sure that a change for the so-called worse (including death) will not turn out to be a change for the so-called better. If it does not turn out that way, that’s fine too, for a realized Taoist is too wise to take opposites such as better or worse at all seriously.

– John Blofeld, introduction to The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain

They realized that life did not have to be this serious affair. When you fully confront and realize how easily it could all end, you unlock the ability to view life with true levity and humor.

Pervasive Impermanence: Buddhism on Death

Tibetan Buddhism affirms the importance of contemplating death before it arrives, making it a nearly universal principle of philosophy. Though we may not feel inclined to think about depressing topics, turning death from unthinkable to “thinkable” is an essential part of living a joyful life.

Eleventh-century Buddhist scholar Atisha’s proposed several contemplations on death:

  1. Death is inevitable.
  2. Our life span is decreasing continuously.
  3. Death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it.
  4. Human life expectancy is uncertain.
  5. There are many causes of death.
  6. The human body is fragile and vulnerable.
  7. At the time of death, our material resources are not of use to us.
  8. Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.
  9. Our own body cannot help us at the time of our death.

Here is an additional contemplation of impermanence and death offered by Karmapa, the current head of one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Karmapa then turned to the second thought, death and impermanence. The fact that we are born, he explained, means that we will die; the two arise in dependence one on another. We could say in brief that birth has the nature of death. “Hearing this,” he said, “many people could think it is something negative, but I think it is positive. Impermanence means that things are changing moment to moment. It indicates that with each moment, we have a new opportunity.” Tibetan Buddhism has numerous explanations about death and the experience of it, such as how the three kayas manifest, the Karmapa remarked, so we can have an idea of what happens, which relaxes and calms our mind. Some people think that death will bring suffering, and to prepare they must meditate on suffering. But this is not necessarily the case. If we have made our lives deeply meaningful, death does not bring suffering.


How to Conquer the Death of Others

This is where it gets really challenging. Perhaps we can reach a point at which we fully accept our own death, but accepting the death of those we love? Losing a parent, a close friend, or worst of all, a child, are among the most agonizing experiences in life.

The most powerful cure for grief I have come across only works once you have fully accepted and integrated your own mortality. If you have done this, then engage in this thought experiment:

Imagine that the world is about to end – an asteroid is headed for earth, and it’s so close you can visibly see it getting larger. You, and everyone else on the planet, are about to die.

As this is happening, you happen to be in a hospital with your brother, who was in an accident and is now in critical condition. Just a few moments before the asteroid hits, you see that your brother has flatlined.

Under normal circumstances, this would be the time to grieve. To mourn this loss and wish he wasn’t gone, before returning to life without him.

But in this case, he died seconds before the rest of all life on earth would die. If he had suddenly recovered from the accident, he only would have had a few seconds before dying of another cause with the rest of us. Most crucially, you only have seconds left before your own life is over.

There’s simply no reason to stop and be sad about the loss of your brother when your own death is just moments away. No point in spending your last seconds in grief when, for all intents and purposes, you’re basically dying at the same time.

Though (slightly) exaggerated, this is essentially the condition we’re all in. We, and everyone we know, have only a few seconds of relative time on this planet. Some people, like our parents, will probably die a few seconds before we will. Others, like our children, will most likely die a few seconds after.

But when our own death is so close, can we really afford to spend much of it grieving? In just a blink of an eye, our own life will have passed by.

And anytime someone close to me dies, or I start worrying that they might, this idea reminds me that I don’t have to grieve or worry, and doing so will do me no good. I only have a few seconds left in my own life, so why not enjoy them?

Are you afraid of death? Which mental tools have you used to overcome the fear of death or the grief of loss?

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