Meditation and The Denial of Death

We humans are complex creatures. We cling to this experience that we call life seemingly like no other animal. That’s not to say other animals go merrily to their demise. No, many will scratch, claw or bite their way to live a little longer. What I’m talking about is the fact we are the only animals who are aware of our imminent death. So then, what can be done about it? I will elaborate on some ideas later.

The denial of death is a pervasive part of the human condition and there’s some research that’s been done in the area. Most notably by Sheldon Solomon, a social psychologist at Skidmore College (look him up for more info) who was originally inspired by the Ernest Becker book of the same name – ‘The Denial of Death’. I live in Australia, Sheldon lives in The United States of America, both are what are referred to as “death denying” cultures. If you are living in a western country, it is likely you too are living in one. So, what does this actually mean?

Almost all western societies are considered to be death-denying cultures. In general, we do not like to think about, talk about, or acknowledge death as an inevitable reality. While logically we understand that we will all die someday, it is generally a topic that is uncomfortable, and swept under the rug. Which, in-turn, creatures a type of perpetual boogie man always lingering in the background, as we constantly spend our lives distracting ourselves from the inevitable. To die is literally the most natural part of the human condition. Why is this a bad thing?

Lets think about the apathetic nature that most modern humans are consumed by. Should I get up, attack the day, go after my goals and try to make something of myself? Meh, maybe later. Should I start that new hobby I’ve always wanted to get into? Yawn, when I can be bothered… What about travelling and doing something adventurous in order to really make me feel alive? Nope, I’ll do that when I’m older.

Well, what would we do if we knew we only had a week to live? Do you think you’d procrastinate or delay doing the things you really wanted to do? Of course not. Having the idea that you will die one day, and actually that day could be today, liberates you from the apathy that most are consumed by. If you allow it to, that is.

The problem I see for most modern, westernised humans, is a cultural one. We are raised to fear death, as if it’s some sort of horrible end to the story and we must just tuck it away, until it grabs us from behind the curtain at ninety years old. This creates lots of issues with how people tumble toward their own death. As well as provide care for their elderly loved ones and the inevitable grieving process. Wouldn’t you want your loved ones to know you went into your final goodnight with as much peace and with as little fear as possible?

I personally find it a humbling thought experiment. After all, even the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius famously had someone follow him around whispering in his ear “remember you must die” or “momento mori” and he was a far more important man than I. So then, what can we do to incorporate the concept of death into our lives?

Whilst I believe a cultural shift is needed to truly integrate death back into our society, one tool I firmly believe can be of use is meditation. Even if we ignore the multitude of mental health benefits one can experience from a regular meditation practice, one of the best ways the ancient technique can be used is to build an acceptance routine. To sit quietly with ones thoughts in a specifically tailored way. One method is to instigate the thoughts that usually trigger you, the ones you run from, and sit with them. Accept the feelings that arise, don’t resist, just say hello and view them for what they are. Allow the flow of thoughts and feelings to wash over you. The more we spend time with these feelings and thoughts, the less they will bother us. There are many other more logic based ways to incorporate the philosophical understanding associated with death acceptance into ones life, this option is more about the acceptance of ones thoughts and feelings.

Now, of course meditation is not some panacea and if you’re experiencing some truly acute stress related to this topic that is affecting your quality of life, please take it up with a professional. If not, and you think you would benefit from not being as scared of the inevitable ride out of this experience, give it a go.

If you’re reading this I hope you live a long, happy, healthy, less scared life and as always feel free to comment, like or share this post.

Until next time.

❤ M L Wood


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