Awareness of human mortality arose some 150,000 years ago. In that extremely short span of evolutionary time, humans have fashioned a single basic mechanism through which they deal with the existential death anxieties this awareness has evoked— denial.
Denial is effected through a wide range of mental mechanisms and physical actions, many of which go unrecognized. While denial can be adaptive in limited use, excessive use is more common and is emotionally costly.
Denial is the root of such diverse actions as breaking rules, violating frames and boundaries, manic celebrations, directing violence against others, attempting to gain extraordinary wealth and power—and more.
These pursuits are often activated by a death-related trauma, and while they may lead to constructive actions, more often than not, they lead to actions that are damaging to self and others.
The fear of death is very common. Throughout human history, people have been concerned and preoccupied with the idea of death and dying. This can happen for several reasons, including your age, your religion, your level of anxiety, the experience of loss, and so on. For example, during certain transitional phases in your life, you may be more prone to having a fear of death.
People may have a deeper preoccupation with death in the ages 4-6, 10-12, 17-24, and 35-55. Scholars have long philosophized about the prospect of death.
According to the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, death can be a source of fear for people precisely because it is that which “comes to us from the outside and transforms us into the outside.” The process of death, therefore, represents to us the most radical unknown dimension imaginable (or, in a sense, unimaginable).
As Sartre points out, death has the potential to transform our living bodies back into the non-human realm from which they initially emerged.
Fear of death, affects millions of people worldwide. For some people, it can produce anxiety and/or obsessional thoughts. In another sense, it is the possibility of encountering something beyond what is already known.
This can be especially true for people who are nearing the end of life, as uncertainties around the death process can multiply as the reality of death becomes more imminent.
In order to become more comfortable with the unknown end of life, you need to understand your phobia and work to overcome its hold on you.
Life is optional, every problem we face has a way out but we choose to continue living. Living with death in a healthy way makes life exponentially more vibrant, everything we experience is a an extra bonus, not a flat minimum. Let the fear work through and ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that will happen today?” Today you are alive, so go and live.
Individuals progress through a series of crises as they grow older. Once an individual reaches the latest stages of life, they reach the level known as “ego integrity”. Ego Integrity is when one comes to terms with their life and accepts it.
It was also suggested that when a person reaches the stage of late adulthood they become involved in a thorough overview of their life to date.
When one can find meaning or purpose in their life, they have reached the integrity stage. In opposition, when an individual views their life as a series of failed and missed opportunities, then they do not reach the ego integrity stage.
Elders that have attained this stage of ego integrity are believed to exhibit less of an influence from death anxiety.
Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, on the one hand showed death as something conclusively determined, in the sense that it is inevitable for every human being, while on the other hand, it unmasks its indeterminate nature via the truth that one never knows when or how death is going to come.
Heidegger does not engage in speculation about whether being after death is possible. He argues that all human existence is embedded in time: past, present, future, and when considering the future, we encounter the notion of death.
This then creates angst. Angst can create a clear understanding in one that death is a possible mode of existence, which Heidegger described as “clearing”. Thus, angst can lead to a freedom about existence, but only if we can stop denying our mortality.
Humans develop meanings and associate them with objects and events in their environment, provoking certain emotions within an individual. People tend to develop personal meanings of death which could accordingly be negative or positive for the individual.
If they are positive, then the consequences of those meanings can be comforting (for example, ideas of a rippling effect left on those still alive).
If negative they can cause emotional turmoil. Depending on the certain meaning one has associated with death, the consequences will vary accordingly whether they are negative or positive meanings.
Human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.
Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning.
Thus, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, by focusing our attention mainly on our symbolic selves.
This symbolic self-focus takes the form of an individual’s “immortality project” (or “causa sui project”), which is essentially a symbolic belief-system that ensures oneself is believed superior to physical reality.
By successfully living under the terms of the immortality project, people feel they can become heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die as compared to their physical body.
This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, and are significant in the grand scheme of things.
Becker argues that the arbitrariness of human-invented immortality projects makes them naturally prone to conflict. When one immortality project conflicts with another, it is essentially an accusation of ‘wrongness of life’, and so sets the context for both aggressive and defensive behavior.
Each party will want to prove its belief system is superior, a better way of life. Thus these immortality projects are considered a fundamental driver of human conflict, such as in wars, bigotry, genocide, and racism.
From this premise, mental illness is described as opposite, dysfunctional extremes in one’s relationship with their own immortality project. At one extreme, people experiencing depression have the sense that their immortality project is failing.
They either begin to think the immortality project is false, or feel unable to successfully be a hero in terms of that immortality project. As a result, they are consistently reminded of their mortality, biological body, and feelings of worthlessness.
At the other extreme, Becker describes schizophrenia as being when someone becomes so obsessed with their personal immortality project that they altogether deny the nature of all other realities.
The schizophrenic creates their own internal, mental reality in which they define and control all purposes, truths, and meanings. This makes them pure heroes, living in a mental reality that is taken as superior to both physical and cultural realities.
Like the schizophrenic, creative and artistic individuals deny both physical reality and culturally-endorsed immortality projects, expressing a need to create their own reality. The primary difference is that creative individuals have talents that allow them to create and express a reality that others may appreciate, rather than simply constructing an internal, mental reality.
Another theme running throughout the book is that humanity’s traditional “hero-systems”, such as religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason. Science attempts to serve as an immortality project, something that Becker believes it can never do, because it is unable to provide agreeable, absolute meanings to human life. The book states that we need new convincing “illusions” that enable us to feel heroic in ways that are agreeable.
From above written we can conclude, that throughout history, there has been an applied effort to deal with this eternal question.
It also offers no great solution to it. It becomes obvious that the solution must within its narration, inevitably be, both emotionally and intelectually satisfactory.
“When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings”. Sogyal Rinpoche, Buddhist monk
Trascending death anxiety within the context of Unity paradigm
It is said that language has created the basis for existential death anxiety through communicative and behavioral changes.
Other factors include an awareness of the distinction between self and others, a full sense of personal identity, and the ability to anticipate the future.
Based on the above mentioned factors, responsible for death anxiety, the concept of death exists only in our symbolic linguistic representations. In fact no one has never experienced death, since no one was there to observe it.
For sure we lack linguistic terms to describe it properly, but as everything else, it is in our grasp to decide how to perceive it. It is our perception of it and how we relate to it, that defines all our future actions. Below dualistic language lays ground for more holistic understanding.
Existence vs non-existence
One could pose the following questions: “Would you rather have this existence you are experiencing it, the body, the mind, the perception you have, or … would you like not to be born at all and have no knowledge of either experience of existence or experience of non-existence?”
Since by existing, we inevitably stumble upon the concept of non-existence. So we might conclude this experiment in a logical way … anything or any experience of life is better then non-existence, better than not existing in the first place.
The perceived non-existence is a gift of polarizaton, since how do you know you are alive in the first place, if there is no concept to compare it to. The main ingredient of creating bored “zombie” style life with no zest and energy and enthusiasm is actually the denial or being unable or unwilling to imagine the symbolics of non – existence.
The “zombie“ mode is based on denial of the opposite to existence … the non-existence. A famous quote from Carlos Castaneda goes: “When you need an answer, look over your left shoulder and ask your death for advice.”
It is a tool to complete the narration of what life means, a tool to conclude the painting we picture about our meaning of our sentient experience. On the other side of this event horizon lies the wisdom of perceiving this duality and loop it back into every second of our existence. In this way, you can experience life as super magical and give meaning to each moment, develop true compassion to all living beings, develop your own sense of unity with all.
We need to treat the symbols and gift of non-existence with reverence, and with gratitude, almost religiously. Living with the awareness that every moment is precious.
Without this symbolic awareness, our lives would have had less urgency. Without it, our lives would have less or no meaning.
Without it, we inevitably forget that we are all the same, that we are all one. This awareness can bring the best in us. Denial of it leads to stagnated personal growth and completely disinterested view on your own existence.
Finite vs infinite existence
We might also think in term of having more options, live forever in same form or live in this form for finite amount of time. While it is almost inevitable to imagine that living forever seems in all instances the pinacle of boredom, at some point there is nothing new for life to offer, nothing to be fascinated about, the existence starts to repeat itself, even more so when approaching infinity.
And you are in this forever life that you don’t have a chance to turn off, there is no escape, no alternative options, no other grand endings. It is just an infinite existence. We might agree it sounds frightening, optionless and to some degree even depressing.
Finite existence seems to offer best of the both options, offers awareness of both and lay ground for possibility to create meaning to experience. Infinite existence is inherently devoid of any meaning, without any sense of urgency to create meaning to experiences.
You are here and you are now, in this moment, aware that you are aware. You can approach it quite differently. You can perceive it as nothing special, a mere imposed upon you reality that you are a helpless victim of it. It is easy to do so, many of us end up caught in this linguisticly created symbolic perception, the victim mode.
The basics of Flow paradigm revolves around the empowerment that realization of our perceptions being an elaborate illusion is actually our samurai sword, a tool at our disposal to build an entirely new paradigm on it.
The empowerment starts at the same point, at the same junction that also brings about the victim mode of perception. If you belive this reality is fixed, unchangeable, that you are somehow a fixed entity caught up in your own set of imposed realities around you, you are going to inevitably trip into narration of yourself as a utterly helpless.
Living as a creator takes into account, that the basics of our perception is an illusion and that this illusion can be completely reprogrammed based on our own activity of altering our perception. This is not denial, this is not an escape, but an opportunity to use the gift of being aware of our own existence into our own hands and leap toward the next step in our evolution.
For a moment in time, we become our own creators.
When we accept the simple fact that everything we perceive is an illusion, we become the masters of it, we can actually exercise our birthright to create our own narration. But first, one must understand where this empowerment comes from. In essence this is what masters like Buddha preached, at least what concerns the basics of reality.
Now we are about to embark on the next step, the step that gives us the possibility to experience freedoms and abilities we have not been able to envision till now.
When we are in flow all of this anxieties seize to exist, vanish. And this doesn’t mean in escapist kind of way. There just isn’t anyone there to process it, the parts of our brain that force an illusion of separation upon us, are now silenced and you are able to perceive unity and being one with everything. The perception of non-existence changes, since you are able to understand that
you are in totality part of everything.
While conscious experience that you get in flow gives you an impression that every moment in focus can last forever.
You can bend and stretch perception of time as you wish. In flow you get the feeling that there is way more than enough time to experience this reality. If you imagine that each moment being fully present means an enormous increase in perception of what is going on around you, you come to an agreement that life isn’t that short at all. Why then most of us waste it away so blatantly?
In flow we also experience alignment with the environmental flow, flow of totality. This experience leads to understanding that the borders and limits of yourself are stretched in and out of totality and the illusion of separation with the totality is transcended.
This characteristics of transpersonal transcendence of illusion of separated self is what makes flow experience crucial in overcoming this linguistically induced mental trap. Feeling of being one with everything, with the flow of totality from which you have emerged from, is the only way to eliminate perceived illusions of the death of self and a way to live a life with a sense of awe, curiosity and transcendental fulfillment.
We are becoming our own creators, our own ontological gods. Both individually and as civilization.
“Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
Matrix movie quote