Let’s talk about death. Am I losing you? If so, you’re in good company, but I hope you might find the courage and curiosity to continue. Death and dying are not welcome topics to most Americans and many never speak of it until it directly impacts us. Being unaccustomed to such conversations, it’s no wonder this natural fact of life creates such discomfort. Fortunately our contemplative practices and skills, such as mindfulness and self-compassion, can help resource us to face our mortality with wisdom, live our lives with greater appreciation and presence, become more skillful supporters of our dying loved ones, and prepare for our own deaths in ways that decrease unnecessary suffering.
Part of our unfamiliarity with the topic of death is a matter of history. The Civil War caused mass casualties far from home, necessitating embalming as a way to preserve bodies for transport. Before this, dying, death and final preparations of the body were primarily tended to by family and friends in the home. With death happening more and more in institutions and bodies increasingly being prepared by professionals, our instinctive drive to avoid difficulty was enabled. This has had many unanticipated deleterious consequences for our collective well-being.
In addition to the rise of the death care industry and medical advances that have made a prolonged death in a facility more likely, we have our own inner defenses that help us temporarily delay developing a relationship with the inevitable. Cognitive-behavioral avoidance (CBA), is the name for a set of psychological strategies we tend to rely on to avoid unpleasant feelings and experiences. These strategies include things like distraction, worry, rumination, thought suppression, procrastination, safety and reassurance seeking, novelty and risk aversion, withdrawal and isolation. If you’re familiar with the criteria for certain mental health diagnoses, you might be struck by their correlation with symptoms of the most common mental health disorders. Though these strategies may provide short-term relief, they can make things much worse over the long term if over-relied upon. In fact, research demonstrates that CBA tends to contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
If you spend your entire life in flight from death, you are also in flight from life. – James Baldwin
It turns out that the consequences of avoidance aren’t just personal; they’re also collective. Research demonstrates that triggering mortality salience, a simple awareness by individuals that their death is inevitable (generally without deeper exploration or work toward acceptance), tends to make people less concerned about the environment and, in fact, motivates us to see ourselves as separate from the natural world. There is some speculation that death denial and anxiety help fuel our exploitation of the planet as well as our inaction against impending climate catastrophe. John Foster, in his book After Sustainability, suggests we’re all involved in a “complex culture of denial” that has allowed us to ignore the environmental catastrophe unfolding in front of our very eyes. He describes three main kinds of denial that help us rationalize inaction, making our demise even more imminent:
- Literal denial: an active ignoring of the facts (other people die, but not me)
- Interpretative denial: accepting the facts, but rejecting the meaning, instead interpreting them in a way that makes them feel less frightening (I will die, but not for a long, long time)
- Implicative denial: we accept the facts and the meaning, but suppress the psychological, political and moral implications that would lead us to take meaningful action (I will die, and it could come at any moment, but it’s out of my hands)
...all fear has an element of resistance and a leaning away from the moment. Its dynamic is not unlike that of strong desire except that fear leans backward into the last safe moment while desire leans forward toward the next possibility of satisfaction. Each lacks presence. – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
This tendency for avoidance is deeply entrenched. Terror Management Theory (TMT) developed by Ernest Becker, posits that culturally constructed world views help assuage our death anxiety by providing us with a sense we are valuable, that life has meaning and we have purpose, and that we will not be annihilated. In order to study this hypothesis, researchers triggered mortality salience in their subjects to investigate its impact on behavior. In addition to increasing symptoms of mental health disorders in individuals, mortality salience tends to also increase:
- Ethnocentrism, prejudice, and intolerance – when people have different beliefs or when our beliefs are challenged, it threatens our sense of value and meaning. Research demonstrates that when people are reminded of their unexamined mortality, they develop stronger allegiances with the in-group and greater hostility toward the out-group. Research has also shown that judges reminded of their own death were harsher in their judgments and sentences.
- Consumerism – Our accumulation of things may be an effort to assuage our fears of impermanence. Studies show that counting money temporarily assuages death anxiety in research subjects.
- Extremism and Political Disengagement – Sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) said in times of upheaval people become attracted to charismatic leaders who we think will save us (often seeing them as divinely ordained). This puts us at risk of choosing leaders based on our perception of assuaged fear, rather than on their qualifications or suitability to lead. There is also evidence that higher levels of death anxiety as measured by self-report questionnaires has a modest relationship to turning away from politics. Self-dealing individuals and organizations in the US count on our high levels of disengagement to push through candidates and legislation that support their interests.
We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Fortunately a dedicated practice of mindfulness with a healthy dose of self-compassion can help us gently explore our fears around mortality. Lawyer and mindfulness teacher Rhonda V. Magee said, “In my view, all of what we call mindfulness has, at its core, a radical invitation to come to terms with the threat of no-longer-being-here, of the reality that we will all — one day or another — die. And from that bracing perspective, figure out how better to live together in the unrepeatable moments that we have.”
One of the many healing consequences of mindfulness practice is that practitioners cultivate an approach-orientation to unavoidable difficult experiences rather than compounding suffering by struggling against what cannot be controlled. Some research is demonstrating that people who participate in group mindfulness practice engage in less CBA.
A practice of self-compassion can help resource us for approaching our fears more courageously. It helps us acknowledge our struggles with kindness and non-judgment, teaches us to treat ourself with care, and reminds us we are not alone in our experience. Some recent research demonstrated that the relationship between perceived COVID-19 threat and death anxiety was mediated by higher levels of self-compassion.
A willingness to develop a mindful and compassionate relationship with death may be one of the fundamental shifts in attitudes that is needed to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Research shows that greater mortality awareness with acceptance can lead people to place a higher priority on the needs of future generations.
So how might we cultivate death awareness with mindfulness, compassion, and acceptance? Fortunately there are increasing opportunities available to explore death in a supportive community. Death Cafes are gatherings where people gather to share food, drink tea, and engage in group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. Centers for contemplative practice such as Spirit Rock, the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion Community for Deepening Practice, and our own Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness increasingly offer courses in mortality exploration.
We can be mindful of opportunities for awe and wonder in our lives, which tend to decrease death anxiety. According to evolutionary psychologist Dacher Keltner, founder of the Greater Good Science Center, we experience awe when something vast “stretches the limits of our frame of reference”. Research suggests that awe diminishes a person’s sense of self. The “small self” is activated —the feeling of being a tiny speck in the universe, which tends to make us feel more interconnected. Awe also shifts our sense of time such that it feels more plentiful and expansive, improves mood, sense of wellbeing, and life satisfaction.
The Science of Awe white paper lists the following culturally mediated, top elicitors of awe:
- Nature – experiencing what nature has to teach us about living, relating, and dying and its life affirming qualities.
- Threat-based experiences – such as traveling alone to a new place or skydiving. “You must have shadow and light source both. Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.” — Rumi
- Spiritual or religious experiences – for example, the overview effect sparked by witnessing “Earthrise”, felt like a spiritual experience to the astronauts.
We can cultivate beneficial qualities that help us appreciate awe. People who are more open to experience according to the “Big Five” personality traits, and who are higher in humility and wisdom according to the Values in Action Inventory, tend to experience more awe in their lives because they are more tolerant of ambiguity and they already view themselves more accurately in relation to the whole.
“Awe is a lightning bolt that marks in memory those moments when the doors of perception are cleansed and we see with startling clarity what is truly important in life. Moments of awe may be the most important, transformative experiences of life” – David Elkins, Clinical Psychologist
We can also engage in self-study through books and home practices. For example, Frank Ostaseski’s five bottomless practices from his book The Five Invitations offer opportunities to participate in, or at least be present with, the fullness of our experience through the following appeals:
- Don’t wait – “Impermanence places us squarely in the here and now”. Certainly pause to reflect on what resources you may need to prepare yourself for the journey, but then take the next step of considered action as appropriate.
- Welcome everything, push away nothing – Judgments will arise, but we can set them aside so that we can “meet what is showing up at our door”. As I’ve heard many wise teachers say, “What we resist, persists” and “Pain + Resistance = Suffering”.
- Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience – Fear makes us want to hide, but we can remain open to what is already here when we learn to embrace our vulnerability. Through our practice we can develop a “strong back” and a “soft front” so that we can face the unavoidable with courage and compassion.
- Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things – Our practice helps us recognize that even amidst chaos, there is a reservoir of profound stillness deep within that is always available to us, when we learn to access it.
- Cultivate “Don’t Know” Mind – We can set aside our assumptions and allow our present moment experience be our guide. This allows us to see our situation more clearly, rather than through a veil of fear and resistance. It also allows us to embrace the mystery when faced with the unknown.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it….
– R.M. Rilke, Book of Hours
- Azarian, B. (2016). How the fear of death makes people more Right-wing. Aeon; Nov. 17.
- Kavakli, M. (2020). The mediating role of self-compassion in the relationship between perceived COVID-19 threat and death anxiety. (Turkish) J Clinical Psychiatry;23 (Supp 1):15-23)
- Niemiec, C. P., et. al. (2010). Being present in the face of existential threat: The role of trait mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010; 99 (2): 344.
- Peterson, S. A. (1985-1986). Death anxiety and politics. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 16(2), 169–174.
- Pyszczynski, T, Solomon S., & Greenberg J. (2003). In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Video Montage: Terror Management Theory Explained (19 minutes) https://youtu.be/NELC2NLC3SQ Excerpts from various talks & documentaries
- TedTalk: The Danger of Fearing Death | Richard Holm | TEDxBrookings In this emotional and authentic talk, Rick encourages a life fully-lived instead of fearing death. After a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Dr. Rick Holm faces the significant possibility of his own impending death.
- Ted Talk: Circumventing Emotional Avoidance | Michelle Maidenberg | TEDxBU Avoiding uncomfortable emotions is a human phenomenon—it prevents us from acting from our values, reaching our goals, and living the life we want. Anxiety expert Michelle Maidenberg unpacks what causes emotional avoidance and shows us what we need to do in order to effectively overcome it to facilitate conscious awareness for overall well-being.