The fear of death can be painful and crippling. It can arise just before you die. But it can also haunt you daily. Fear is a basic human emotion and evolved to serve adaptive advantages–keeping us safe. But the fear reflex is often our enemy, for like many unconsciously evolved modules of mind, it operates rather indiscriminately at times. Like all evolved systems, our mental modules are often good-enough and thus full of pitfalls. So it is our challenge to transcend the non-discriminant functions of mind if we desire happiness. For our genes (which have created the mind as their slave) care not for our happiness.
The fear of death is composed of the results of several modules of mind. One is the avoidance of death, which is reasonable to a large extent. The second, however, is fear of the unknown. This too may have benefits, but many times it can be a major hindrance. Certainly it is a hindrance when we go through unavoidable transitions in life, and one could say that death is the largest unavoidable transition we will ever undergo.
Transitions offer us a chance to practice little deaths. They offer us a chance to tame the fear of the unknown within ourselves. It also allows us brilliant vision. We have many selves, and they are not only composed of ideas, emotions and habits of relating but also of our anchors in the real world such as where we live, who we spend time with and what we do. When these things change, we can feel disoriented as a new self forms. But in this transition state we can watch our minds in ways we never can when we are strongly under the spell of habitual selves. Or we could crunch into fear, close our eyes and hope for it all to end soon. I advocate the eyes-wide-open approach and learning to find pleasure in mini-deaths.
I am reminded of this tonight as I went through boxes of books to finally give-away or sell. I will be getting rid of 5 boxes of oriental medical books (most of them in Japanese), I no longer practice this medicine, nor will I in the future. I remember as I slowly came to realize I was an ex-oriental-medical doctor. Oriental Medicine was a big part of my life for 7 years as you can see by my bio. When I decided to give it up, I slowly lost all my memories of the 360 some acupuncture points with all their various uses and of the hundreds of herbs and the conditions they treated and ways of compounding them. I also lost the whole culture of the world of those who practiced that medicine. I entered Western Medicine and have not really looked back.
When I first landed in Japan from India, where I was working on a Ph.D., I spoke about the Indian Languages I knew (Hindi and Urdu) to everyone. Every time I made a mistake in Japanese, I explained my error in terms of “how it is done in Hindi”. I was not enjoying being so dumb in Japanese after I had just got some degree of competence in Hindi. But a friend took me aside one day and said, “Sabio, no one gives a shit about Hindi–this is Japan.” He was right and from that day, I just embraced Japanese and let Hindi go. I let Hindi die. I embraced the mini-death. Life was much better after that.
As a Physician Assistant I have changed fields several times. Just 8 months ago I stopped practicing Pediatric Dermatology which I had done for 3 years. My book shelf was lined with Derm books, most which I have now sold. I spent much time learning and studying. I published in Derm Journals and was a ghost writer for some speakers. Now, even after 8 months, I feel much of my Derm knowledge slipping. And now I am studying urology.
The Derm doctors I worked with will practice a lifetime of Dermatology. In three years I was probably able to experience at least 80% of what they will experience during their entire life of Derm. I also worked with a Urologist who has done Urology for 30 years, and again, within 4 years, I got a feel for about 80 % of his life experiences in Urology. So giving up the old stuff has only allowed me to live more lives in this short life.
Change of religion is a major transition. When I left Christianity, I lost all my friends and most of my acquaintances. Fortunately I did not have to face this mini-death head on, I moved cities shortly thereafter which brought gentler mini-deaths of its own. But after the move, I did feel like a new person and the new city with new friends allowed me to more fully explore that person — for which I am thankful.
I think fear of mini-deaths hold people from taking new jobs or moving cities. By practicing raw awareness and the joy of exploration during mini-deaths in your daily lives, you can slowly learn to limit the fears of large transitions — large deaths. This will broaden your pleasures and potential. I find that thinking of transitions as mini-deaths is helpful for me. For many Buddhist and Hindus, after death we are reincarnated to live yet another life and we rarely have any memories of the past life, we just carry with us our habits of relating. But in these reincarnations, usually the past life is totally forgotten. So when I have mini-deaths in this life, like changing jobs, language or cities, I think of how fun it is to have a new reincarnation and yet still being able to remember the old self. It has helped me to understand the illusory nature of self and the ability to find happiness at a level unattached to accomplishment, possessions and myths of who I am. Mind you, it is a small happiness, but every little bit helps.
- My cognitive Narratives: Views of self & beliefs
- En: the value of vibrant connections
- Ironically, 1 hour after I posted this, when talking with my son about my job, out of nowhere he asked, “Dad, when you left your jobs or moved from various houses, did it make you sad?” [he was thinking about moving] So now we are reading this post together. You see, there must be a Buddha — nothing happens by accident. (that is sarcasm, by the way – this post says why).