We are all going to die. Yet, many of us live our lives as if this mortal inevitability will happen to everyone else but us. It would seem that for Western culture, denial and suppression are the hallmarks of how we tend to orient ourselves on the topic of mortality. Death is something that happens to everyone else, and we seem to live out each day as if death is going to happen at some point down the long road of a long and healthy life. The Director Woody Allen once said “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. This attitude towards contemplating death as something to be feared or avoided (Becker, 1973) is a common one in the West, in spite of the reality that we all must face our own inevitable mortality at some point. Although thinking about our own death can often seem morbid and depressing, studies have shown that considering one’s own mortality has many positive benefits for the living. The positive effects of contemplating, embracing and even coming close to dying, such is during a Near Death Experience, can have profound and often long-lasting and even permanent transformational effects. The notion that contemplating death as a positive, even necessary, component of a good life, and fearing death is pointless is also not a new one. At least as far back as Plato (428-348 B.C.E), Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E) and Epictetus (55-135 B.C.E) we have philosophical references (see Prologue) to the pointlessness of fearing death and how ultimately our fear of death is mistaken and irrational since we go out of existence when we die and will not be able to experience it (Olsen, n.d.).
“Death may be the greatest of all human blessings” ~ Socrates (469-399 B.C.E)
Although early Greek philosophers were drawing attention to the pointlessness of fearing death and the value of reconciling with one’s mortality, it may not have been until the works of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross were published that Western culture began to seriously consider how we thought about death. When Death and Dying was published in 1969, Kübler-Ross raised public consciousness on the process of dying and the stages of grief which many people experience not only as they face their own mortality, but during many kinds of personal or emotional losses. Although the book is not without controversy, Death and Dying certainly had an impact on how we think about death and helped to begin the conversations we have today on dying, palliative care, how to die gracefully and the topic of this paper – can contemplating, or coming close to death, transform or improve life?
“To be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows what one does not know. No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to man; but people dread it as though they were certain it is the greatest evil.” ~ Plato (428-348 B.C.E)
Terror Management Theory
Before delving directly into the heart of the question raised in this paper – can contemplating death be a positive and transformative experience for life? – we need to consider some basic drivers thought to be behind most human behavior. In Becker’s 1973 book The Denial of Death, he argues that for the most part, most human behavior is motivated either by ignoring, or attempting to avoid, one’s inevitable death. This avoidance or denial of one’s mortality stems from a subconscious anxiety around the realization that at some point, we will die. We all have a natural instinct to survive, yet we also possess the cognitive skills to recognize that at some point we will ultimately fail in this self-preservation task. Subsequently a sort of existential anxiety results when we try to maintain both of these realizations and much of our subconscious behaviors are then directed at resolving this anxiety or dissonance.
“Why should I fear death? If I am, then death is not. If Death is, then I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?” ~ Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E)
This notion that many human behaviors are motivated by a fear of death is also the foundation behind a popular model in social psychology known as terror management theory (TMT; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1997). TMT follows on Becker’s work by investigating and testing models which may provide evidence for the types of behaviors which are intended to mitigate the existential anxiety which results from the fear of death. TMT proposes that the fundamental mitigating factors for reconciling the anxiety associated with contemplating death comes from (a) maintaining faith in and association with a cultural worldview or belief system and (b) bolstering self-esteem by living up to ethical and other standards associated with that particular cultural worldview (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1997). By living up to the standards and beliefs of a particular cultural worldview – which may include social, legal, religious or moral codes of conduct – individuals bolster a sense of personal value and self-esteem.
The psychological model behind alignment with these cultural worldviews designed to reconcile the fear of death, is that they provide a “constructed symbolic conception of reality that imbues life with order, permanence, and stability; a set of standards through which individuals can attain a sense of personal value” (Pyszczynski & Greenberg & Solomon, 1999. P.836). The sense of personal value which derives from the belief that one is fully aligned with a particular worldview, bolsters self-esteem and according to TMT, reduces the existential anxiety associated with the knowledge of one’s mortality (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1997).
But the primary and underlying purpose behind these “constructed symbolic conceptions of reality” (Pyszczynski & Greenberg & Solomon, 1999. P.836), is that they provide a sense of immortality “through the development of death-denying cultural belief systems” (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg & Solomon, 2000, p. 201). This sense of immortality can be literal such as believing in a religious afterlife or reincarnation, or they can be symbolic and based on some form of legacy left behind through fame, contributions to science, art or literature, as well as being connected to something bigger than themselves that will out-live them such as their community, work or family.
The message to take away from this section is that people are subconsciously motivated by a fear of death which creates a state of existential anxiety when it comes up against our instinctual drive for self-preservation. One of the ways in which we deal with this existential anxiety is to uphold worldviews and cultural beliefs which are bigger than us and more importantly, outlive us, affording us either a literal (Heaven, reincarnation etc) or symbolic (legacy, achievements, heirs, reputation etc) immortality. The question that remains however, is how does a fear of death, or reminders of death, provide a catalyst for a transformational experience and a better life? This is where we move into more abstract psychological principles related to “meaning” and “purpose” as drivers for transformation.
Death and Meaning
Another aspect of our human deliberations on death which may be unique in the animal kingdom is how it relates to the way we ascribe “meaning and “purpose” to our lives. Although all animals carry instinctual drives to survive and avoid death, it may only be human’s that possess the capacity, or need, to contemplate the “meaning” or “purpose” of their lives in light of our inevitable death. Some of the questions we may ask ourselves around “meaning” as we consider our own death might include; will my consciousness survive my death?; what was the purpose or meaning of my life?; did I live a ‘good’ life?, and so on. These types of questions about “meaning” and “purpose”, asked many different ways, reflect a desire to balance recognition of our own immanent death, with the need to believe in some sort of continuity or symbolic immortality, a recognition that their contributions in this world will carry on after they die (Heine et al, 2006; Vail et al, 2012). This desire to ensure that we have lived a “meaningful life”, along with our contributions to the world, is what creates a “sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life that endures beyond the physical self” (Routledge, Ostafin & Rutjens, 2010), and is what creates a sense of symbolic immortality.
“Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed” ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama
In a previous section, the terror management theory TMT of Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (1997) was presented which proposes that most human behaviors are motivated by a fear of death. And knowledge of one’s mortality combined with the desire to live, creates anxiety or dissonance which we then seek to alleviate. In order to mitigate the anxiety or dissonance that contemplating one’s mortality may cause, people often construct or maintain various cultural, religious or other world-views which provide them with a connection to something which endures beyond their own life (Routledge, Ostafin & Rutjens, 2010). The comfort or solace is provided when one feels that their self, consciousness or even just their legacy, reputations or contributions to the world in other ways, will live on after their death.
As an extension of the TMT, Heine, Proulx, & Vohs ( 2006) propose the Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM) whereby people are thought to construct meaning-frameworks representing relationships between people, places objects and ideas, as a defense against existential anxiety. Recall that TMT posits a theory whereby we seek out cultural worldviews and beliefs which outlive us to provide either a literal or symbolic immortality in order to fend of the existential anxiety stemming from the fear of death. The MMM proposes that the underlying motivation for these worldviews which provide certainty, cultural affiliation, self-esteem and immortality stem from a common underlying drive to relate objects and events to each other in meaningful ways (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006).
“Whoever rightly understands and celebrates death, at the same time magnifies life’’ ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
The development of these meaning-frameworks are thought to be motivated by the same domains or factors in the TMT. Domains such as the need for certainty, cultural affiliations or belonging, self-esteem and literal/symbolic immortality. For instance, one of the examples given by Heine et al, is around mortality. If a person receives a reminder of their own mortality, this information can shatter the perceived relationship between self and the external world, leading to a revision of their meaning-frameworks. In other words a re-evaluation of what is important in one’s life and possibly shifting goals, behavior’s and focus towards alternative pursuits and meaning-frameworks which will bolster their meaning of self. Keeping in mind that the original cause of the anxiety – reminder of one’s mortality – is not actually resolved. Rather, this process will “allow the individual to focus attention on another framework that does not suffer from a perceived anomaly” (Heine et al., 2006, p. 93). Basically the MMM is a psychological and existential process of distracting our attention on death, by focusing on other domains in our life which bolster our sense of value, meaning and self-worth.
So whether we increase our associations with cultural groups or different world-views (Vail & Juhl, 2015); Vail et al., 2012), bolster our self-esteem by living up to ethical and other standards associated with a world-view (Routledge et al., 2010), or increasing focus towards activates which reinforce a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives (Heine et al., 2006), contemplating our own death appears to evoke numerous positive outcomes in many areas and the “the reality of death may promote a sense of meaning in life” (King, Hicks & Abdelkhalik, 2009, p. 1462).
Direct Reminders of Death
For those of us (author included) who have had first-hand experiences with directly facing their own mortality, either by actually coming close to physical death or the momentary perception of inevitable death such as during a mountaineering fall, the experience is most often transformational in many ways. For many people, these Near Death Experiences (NDE) produce a “radical change in life-quality” (Wren-Lewis, 1994, p. 108) which goes well beyond simply being happy they avoided death. Material possessions take on less importance (Blackmore, 1996) and although everyday pursuits and interests remain after such an experience, according to Wren-Lewis (1994) people who experience NDE’s are
…no longer bothered to pursue any of them, nor much worried when such desires aren’t met, since in the new consciousness, satisfaction is the basic essence of existence itself, not the result of desire-gratification. (p. 111)
In facing his own mortality Bergen (2010) reflected on his thoughts and attempts to consider his own death from two perspectives which he referred to as a “hedging” philosophy since he is trying to reconcile facing his own mortality by considering both possible outcomes of his death in the belief that one of them must be correct: death as either a process of extinction, or death as a process of transition. In his personal deliberations, Bergen (2010) concedes that since his pre-life state and post-death state are likely to be the same, he will be no worse off after he dies than before he was born, so what’s there to worry about?
For Bergen (2010), the most valuable or cogent reason he came to for not objecting to his own death, was based on “how fully and meaningfully [his] life had been lived” (p. 51). Bergen engaged this process of acceptance through a review of his life and by writing his own detailed obituary where he withheld the rules of modesty in order to honestly reflect on his life’s work and accomplishments in order to judge the worth, meaning and purpose of his life. Through this intellectual process of life-reflection, Bergen (2010) concluded that “I can die in the comforting knowledge that I did not waste my life and that it has been a full and fulfilled one” (p. 52). Reflecting on his past life and considering his accomplishments (Bergen (2010) concluded he had no regrets and in facing his own mortality, he would “be able to face it [death] with more ease and greater acceptance than I thought possible” (p. 53)
“For any culture which is primarily concerned with meaning, the study of death – the only certainty that life holds for us – must be central, for an understanding of death is the key to liberation in life” (Stanislav Grof)
When considering his own death as a possible transition where some aspect of himself carries on, Bergen (2010) reflects on the continuity of his existence through the books and papers he has authored, the influence of his genes as they were passed on through his children and grandchildren and the memories his loved ones will hold after he has passed on. As discussed previously, these personal reflections on “symbolic immortality” by Bergen have also been found to be one of the cognitive coping mechanisms people use to attribute “meaning” in their lives (Heine, Proulx & Vohs, 2006)) as well as reconciling the anxiety or “terror” associated with contemplating death (Vail & Juhl, 2012; Routledge, Ostafin & Rutjens, 2010).
Overall, these studies into NDE’s and terminal illness suggest that those who come to close to the brink of death experience a renewed appreciation for life, a shift in one’s goals and priorities towards less materialistic and more community-based or intrinsic goals, increased motivation for physical health, an acceptance of death (Vail, 2015; Vail & Juhl, 2012; Routledge, Ostafin & Rutjens, 2010; Bergen, 2010; Blackmore, 1996; Lu, 2005) as well as increased feelings of gratitude (Frais et al. 2011) and meaning (Lu, 2005).
Buddhism, Ego-Extinction and Death
No discussion on the topic of death and its role in improving life (or an afterlife) would be complete without some discussion about Tibetan Buddhism. Few traditions have a longer or more comprehensive approach to death and dying than Tibetan Buddhists. Along with identifying hundreds of ways of dying, four ways of preparing graves and over 80 ways to tame “evil spirits”, Tibetan Buddhists also place a great deal of importance on the value of contemplating and meditating on death as a means to finding value and purpose in life and alleviating fear of death (Tsomo, 2001).
One of the first and most important principles in Buddhism is the recognition of the impermanence of life and this is often one of the first mediations that beginning meditators are taught in the Buddhist traditions and often involves visualization of “…one’s own rotting corpse and the dissolution of body and mind at the time of death engenders insight into the impermanence of life” (Tsomo, 2001, p. 153). Although the intent behind these Tibetan Buddhist meditations and rituals around death are based on the belief that a person’s consciousness carries on after death to be “re-born” in another physical form and infused with the karmic history from the past life, these death and corpse meditations are also a means to simply prepare one for a peaceful ending to life.
Another important principle in all forms of Buddhism is the belief that the self, the ego, is illusory. If we re-phrase the fear of death as a fear of the loss of self or ego, then according to Buddhist’s, the loss of self or ego in death is really the loss of nothing at all, therefore nothing to fear.
Garfield (1975) took this ego-extinction idea as the basis behind our fear of death and performed three experiments to determine if ego-diminishment through altered states of consciousness influenced fear of death. The subjects Garfield (1975) used for his ego-diminishment studies included (1) psychedelic drug users, (2) Zen meditators and (3) Tibetan Buddhists. What he found was that in all three categories of altered-states which diminished awareness of, and identification with, ego, there was a “consequent reduction of the individual’s level of death-fear” (p.165).
Although this section may not appear consistent with the topic of contemplations on death evoking transformational experiences for life, the underlying psychological drive behind the positive behavioral changes and increased life satisfaction previously shown to result from contemplating death, are all based on a fundamental fear of death or self/ego extinction. Therefore, according to the research of Garfield (1975), Zen (and other) meditation practices, as well as psychedelic drug use, can be seen as supplementary consciousness-altering methods to enhance the life experience through a “process of ‘training in ego-death’ which is largely responsible for the decreased level of death-fear…” (p.166).
Although it might appear natural, or “normal” to think of death as a bad thing, or even just thinking about death as morbid and bleak, many philosophers, spiritual and religious traditions, and now social and psychological scientists, have argued that there are many positive and even transformational benefits to contemplating death. Whether we are indirectly reminded of our own mortality consciously or subconsciously, the studies cited in this paper demonstrate that an increased awareness of death can inspire a re-evaluation of values (King, Hicks & Abdelkhalik, 2009); induce pro-social behaviors and a healthier lifestyle (Vail etc); refocus our activities towards pursuits which bolster meaning (Lu,2005; King 2009, Heine 2006; Byock, 2002), community involvement and self-esteem (Vail & Juhl, 2015; Vail et al. 2012), increase gratitude (Frais et al., 2011) as well as reduce emphasis on material possessions and other extrinsic sources of self-esteem (Blackmore, 1996; Routledge, Ostafin & Juhl, 2010; Pyszczynski et al. 2004).
When it comes to being directly reminded of death, such as through a Near Death Experience (Wren-Lewis, 1994) or terminal illness (Berger, 2010, Lu, 2005), the effects are even more pronounced and appear to induce a “heightened awareness of one’s mortality [which] can lead to living a more authentic and meaningful life” (Lu, 2005, p.34), as well as a greater sense of well-being where life is experienced as being much more free “from the conflicts, anxieties and stresses attendant upon the illusion of separate self” (Wren-Lewis, p. 111).
So in answer to our initial question at the start of this paper, “can contemplating, or coming close to death, transform or improve life?”, the answer would appear to be unequivocally yes.
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