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How not to fear death

Updated on October 11, 2015

In the book (and later, the film) Tuesdays with Morrie, one scene in particular has always stuck out to me. Morrie mentions an old Buddhist adage of a little bird landing on his shoulder and he asks the bird, “Is today the day I’m going to die?”

We live our lives always expecting the tomorrow. Having anxiety and OCD makes one particularly prone to worrying about the future. It takes an astronomical amount of effort to ground oneself in the present, but to think of the larger picture helps. I’m not extolling some magic cure for these mental health issues because I know first-hand how effective therapy and/or medication is for them. But in coping with anxiety, mindfulness can help.

Karma isn't just about selling hippie T-shirts

To not fear death is to be satisfied that you are using your current life to accumulate good karma, so that you will have an auspicious rebirth. You may not return as a human being right away—another Buddhist adage suggests the likelihood of a human rebirth is as likely as a sea turtle rising from the ocean depths to capture a floating ring—so you need to make your current lifetime count.

It sounds very simple: good karma is accumulated by doing good things for people (compassion, lovingkindness). But that also involves holding your temper against the bad. Everyone seems to have trouble with that part, and I admit, I have a long way to go before reaching enlightenment on this front. Being a part of a marginalized group, it’s hard to forgive people who are nasty, mean, or even dangerous and violent, towards you for no reason. Forgiveness is more for yourself than them, however. It’s not good for anyone’s mental health to hold onto anger or fear for too long.

What can I say, though, I come from a place of privilege. Most people don’t have to worry about survival. That’s how being queer comes into not fearing death for me, and a lot of others in the LGBTQ community. There’s still a lot of people who would kill us on sight, if given the chance. Accepting that inevitability makes you more confident and brave to stand up for what you believe in. Like Thích Quảng Đức showed the world by self-immolating in protest of Vietnam, your body is ephemeral, but your message is eternal. Having a passion for social justice in a world that will still enforce the status quo with violence and hate allows one to lose the fear of death in favor of the greater good.

The brave monk who gave his life for his cause

Tibetan sky burial: acknowledging how the body does not last

Looking into the faces of the dead also has a tendency to reassert the importance of one’s current life. If you don’t believe in mediums, ghosts, or the paranormal, skip this part. It’s just that a lot of people do, and a lot of people can, somehow, see spirits that have passed from the physical world into that mysterious other. Their biggest emotion is regret. “Why didn’t I say what I should have to the people I love?” or “Why didn’t I enjoy my life enough?” Walking through a graveyard and seeing the pained faces of people who are supposed to be at rest is enough to convince anybody that you need to appreciate the life you have more.

James Van Praagh explains

Another thing is that by living the gothic lifestyle, death is on your mind a lot, so it’s no longer scary. If you’re into horror, or true crime murder stories, or creepypastas, or are just drawn to macabre, dreary, haunted places, you get a sense that death is always all around us, all the time. It becomes less a thing of dread and more an accepted part of life.

Buddhism says all of these things, and more. They did, after all, write a book explaining the steps to being dead. Life is only half of the adventure. There are realms, worlds, sights, and experiences beyond what we know sitting here in our bodies. For all we try to understand what happens after death, we still don’t know exactly what goes on. It sounds exciting, doesn’t it? We in our Western culture go about it all wrong. We run from death, we shield our eyes, we fear it, and we loathe it. You might be saying at this point, “This author’s probably never lost anyone before,” and that would not be the case. Loss is not what I’m talking about. There are no easy answers to bereavement and grief. But if we can more fully accept that our loved ones are not gone, just transformed into another state, and that we very well may be conscious and interact with them again someday, then we can take the scare out of death quite easily.

Start looking at life and death not as two independent, opposite things, but more as two interwoven energies that shape our thoughts, words, and deeds. And if you ever stop and think of the thin line between our world and the next, don’t be afraid, and don’t despair. We’re all headed there eventually, so stop dwelling on the gloom and doom of death and start embracing the riches of life.

Coming from a Buddhist goth who can see the dead, this is the best advice you’re going to get.

Fearing death vs. embracing spirit

Do you believe in life after death?

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