Contemplating Fear & Mortality
By Alex King-Harris
“A very peace-filled man approached me recently and shared that a song of mine titled “Full of You” had been the last thing his dying mother heard, that it was a deep and powerful medicine and helped her pass with ease. It brought tears to both our eyes and we shared a strong moment of gratitude and a deep embrace.”
I’m by no means a master of stress reduction. In fact I’m writing this because for many years I’ve suffered, and continue to suffer from anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and self-defeating thoughts that run on repeat throughout many of my days.
Yet my initial training as a yogic sound healer 20 years ago was in cancer therapy, where I helped individuals and their families gracefully face death and all that comes with it. It was a powerful time for me and I learned some deep lessons about fear and death that I’d like to share. Even though I still suffer, these two pieces of insight do help and bring me hope that I can heal.
The historical practice of setting new goals and intentions at the new year can for me feel like going on an annual honeymoon. The romance and excitement of new habits can elicit a warm glow of fresh energy. Yet despite my best intentions, I often find myself reverting into undesired habits once the glow of the new year fades into the horizon; replaced by our mundane, daily stressors.
Community, mindfulness, breath, yoga and good music all go a long way to helping build resilience to stress, but it’s amazing how fear can push me back into old coping patterns that no longer serve me. Once those habits resurface, I often then begin to judge myself for doing the things I don’t want to do. This in turn reduces my resilience to stress by depleting my mind and body simultaneously, literally starving them of what they need to thrive.
Finding an alliance, or an alternate relationship to fear is one option that can shift my ability to maintain a successful lifestyle amidst high stress environments.
One strategy I found recently was created by Tim Ferris, based on Stoic philosophy, He delivered an amazing Ted Talk about how he turned his somewhat bleak reality (which looked like suffering from an anxiety disorder, bi-polar disorder, and severe depression) into a successful career and life overall.
He did this by facing his fears and developing strategies to deal with the worst possible outcomes. This kind of approach may not work for everyone, but it at least deals more concretely with thoughts and habits that overtime can weaken or cripple us. Many people (myself included) often spend tremendous amounts of time and energy worrying about what might happen, rather than strategizing and moving past their worst fears.
If you want to take my resiliency practice another level deeper, I spend time contemplating my mortality. I will die, and my time on this planet is exceedingly short. Our culture’s lack of connection with death is a key reason why I suffer so much, and why I’ve become numb to the world around me. Few people want to face this reality, and I often find that I lack the compassion and wisdom to see beyond our fear of it. Death is an important and vital part of the life cycle – otherwise nothing new can be born. The fact that we die is a truth that most people avoid contemplating until faced with its inevitability. Instead, like their worst fears, we sometimes spend time worrying anxiously about it without ever truly understanding and accepting what death is all about; understanding impermanence and relinquishing control.
In the words of the Dalai Lama in Advice of Dying:
“It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained. It is meaningful since, based on it, important effects can be accomplished.”
The Tibetans were especially gifted in developing profound practices for mindful, conscious death. Realizing how brief our lives truly are brings us the precious gift of treasuring each and every breath we take. If you’re curious to learn more, here are some further insights on Tibetan Buddhism’s view of death and a mindful approach to the contemplation of the life cycle.
In my experience, we are given some of the greatest challenges in life as fuel for discovering our deepest strengths. What is required is the evolution of time tested tools to assist in helping us adapt to an ever changing world.