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Fear of Dying, the End of Self-Improvement, and More


I was asked to respond to a series of questions for an article on conscious dying. These were the questions and my responses:

1) What does “conscious dying” mean to you?

It’s not a term I use, and I suppose it can mean different things to different people. Some people in spiritual circles have a strong belief that it is very important to be fully conscious at the moment of death, and some people refuse palliative measures such as morphine as a result. I do not have that belief. I don’t think there is any right or wrong (or spiritual or unspiritual) way to die. I wrote this book (Death: The End of Self-Improvement) in part because I see a lot of denial around aging and dying, and a lot of spiritual ideas about how we “should” die. I wanted to bring aging and dying into the light and wake us up to both the gritty reality and the real beauty of this whole process of disintegration—really be open to the whole of it. If that’s what is meant by conscious living and dying, then I’m all for it. But if it means some idea about how we “should die,” then that isn’t what I would mean. I’m all for palliative care, and during the painful parts of my cancer treatment, I didn’t have any spiritual belief that I “should” be “fully present” and “mindfully aware” “all the time.” While that kind of aware presence certainly happened and was helpful, I was also quite happy to take pain meds and watch movies at times to take my attention away from the pain.

 2) By titling your book Death: The End of Self-Improvement, what point are you making?

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, the great Indian sage, said it best: “Like the worms in the cow dung, the moment the cow dung dries, they are finished, however much progress they have made.”

I find that quote from Nisargadatta quite delightful. He isn’t holding on to anything perishable. Some might find his words horrifying, but only if they believe they are separate from the whole and are desperately trying to hold on to what cannot be held. Many people don’t like being compared to worms in cow dung, but when we finally let go of our pretentions, we discover that on the level of form,  we are perishing from moment to moment, and there is actually no one to protect or defend. It is all one magnificent and seamless whole—humans, worms, cow dung—all of it appearances empty of substance, but totally alive—all of it equally this same unnamable intelligence-energy, infinite potentiality, radiant presence or whatever you want to call it.

Most people seem to find my book title humorous, as I intended, and they frequently laugh when they hear it, laughing with what I sense is a kind of relief and joy. Finally, the title suggests, we can let go of this burdensome project of endlessly fixing and improving ourselves, which has become an obsession in our culture. Of course, as I clarify in the book, I’m not disparaging genuine transformation or intelligent problem-solving. By self-improvement, I’m pointing to the kind of future-oriented, perfectionistic, ego-driven, unending effort to fix “me” that comes out of a deep-seated belief that we are somehow deficient and never quite good enough.

3) Why are people terrified of dying?

We have an instinctual, biological fear of death that is part of our survival system. This is what moves us to jump out of the way of a speeding bus. But what we’re talking about here is the psychological fear of death. I often compare that psychological fear to the fear people used to have about sailing off the edge of the Earth. It’s based on a misunderstanding of how reality is, and it’s 100% imagination. There are many different variations of that psychological fear.

People who believe in a personal afterlife, which I do not, are afraid of going to hell or being reincarnated in some terrible life-form or some miserable situation. Or they imagine that death will be like being buried alive—they will still be fully conscious but unable to reach their loved ones or turn on the inner TV and see what happens next in their movie of waking life (The Story of Me).

People who have lost touch with the whole and whose lives are centered entirely around the sense of being a separate egoic individual are afraid of that individual existence coming to an end. But in fact, that seemingly separate, encapsulated, personal self has always been nothing more than a mirage-like creation of smoke and mirrors. But when that phantom self seems real and seems to be “who I truly am,” people are afraid of “me” disappearing. Or sometimes, there is a fear of permanently losing consciousness, of no longer existing as this aware presence.

And yet, every night in deep sleep, the person disappears, and even the first impersonal sense of aware presence (the I AM) disappears completely. No one is left over in deep sleep to miss any of this or to worry about not waking up. The worrier, the controller, the judge, the imaginary self is gone along with all of its apparent problems. And this disappearance is quite enjoyable and refreshing.

And in deep sleep and (I would imagine) in death, when even the I AM has disappeared, something remains, something that is unborn and undying, something that is not a “thing” at all, for it is the wholeness or the no-thing-ness (or aliveness) of everything. This emptiness or wholeness has been called primordial awareness, intelligence-energy, God, unicity, the Self, and various other names, but it is subtler and more ungraspable than any name can capture, for “it” is not an “it” at all. It-less-ness is the water in every wave.

Some people are afraid of dying in the “wrong way,” ruining their self-image by not dying gracefully or “correctly.” The fact that they might lose control of their bowels and bladder, or be demented or screaming in pain terrifies them. They are invested in an idea of being dignified and in control. Aging and dying can strip all that away in an instant. So if your self-image depends on all of that, this collapse is a very scary prospect.

Some people are afraid of dying “too soon,” before they have accomplished enough or done what they think they “should” do in life. They fear that they will have been “a failure,” that they will have “ruined their lives” or “missed the boat.” They fear dying before they have attained enlightenment, made a fortune, found true love or whatever they have been seeking. And yet, this presence (or present experiencing) never resolves in any final way. It is infinitely changing shape, and yet it never moves away from the timeless immediacy of Here-Now.  

Some people are afraid of the pain and suffering before death, and some are simply afraid of the unknown. And indeed, no one knows for sure what it will be like to die.

I imagine that death will be like going to sleep at night or going under anesthesia—conscious experiencing will end, the sense of aware presence will disappear, and no one will be leftover to miss all of this. And yet, life itself—the whole—will continue, for the whole is unborn and unending.

But whatever we imagine death will be like, it is imagination. We are imagining a future that does not actually exist here and now.

4) Why is the dying process so potentially transformative?

As I say in my book, “When the future disappears, we are brought home to the immediacy that we may have avoided all our lives.” With no future left to fantasize about, the focus of attention may finally be fully on right NOW, the only place where our life ever actually IS. Really getting that “this is it,” there may be a sudden recognition of the absolute preciousness and wonder of every simple ordinary thing, and of the people around us, just as they are, with all their flaws and foibles. Old grudges and resentments often  melt away and love shines through. All the things which may have been part of our self-image (independence, physical strength, cognitive sharpness, good appearance, and so on) have either disappeared or are rapidly collapsing, which invites the discovery that none of that really mattered, that what we truly or more fundamentally are is not dependent on any of that.

When I had cancer (from which I recovered, but it was serious and could have been the end), I was deeply moved and transformed by the love and care I received. My mother, in her last years, became ever-more luminous and filled with gratitude, and she said repeatedly, “It’s so freeing to realize that nothing really matters.” She didn’t say that nihilistically or callously—it seemed to come out of the falling away of an unnecessary burden she had carried all her life of saving the world (all our opinions, projects and certainties that seem so important). She was letting it all go, and that was clearly delightful and freeing.

5) What kinds of practices or exercises can people do in order to become more comfortable with death?

I’m not an enthusiast for result-oriented practices or exercises. What I invite is a waking up to right here, right now—just this, as it is. Perhaps in response to this question, I would suggest starting right where we are, and not resisting the feeling of being uncomfortable if that is what is showing up. Allowing the fear and the discomfort, and really investigating what it’s made out of—seeing the thoughts, feeling the sensations—just this. Simple awareness is what dissolves psychological suffering and truly transforms us, not will-power and effort.

The most helpful thing I’ve found in any challenging situation is allowing everything to be as it is, not resisting it, dropping out of the thought-story about it and giving open attention to the bare sensory actuality instead. That, and recognizing that everything is a seamless whole, and that whatever shows up is this undivided seamlessness doing what it does. None of it is personal. Pain and painful circumstances are part of life, but we suffer over them unnecessarily because of the ways we think about it all—judging it, taking it personally, resisting it.

By giving open attention to life, we can notice that death is a natural part of life, that it is actually happening moment to moment, that impermanence is so thorough-going that no persisting things (including you and me as we conceive of ourselves) ever actually form to even be impermanent. In that recognition, the psychological fear of death naturally dissolves.

6) What’s the greatest gift that one can give to a loved one who is dying?

I would say the greatest gift is your love and presence. Simply being with them. Being present. Listening to them. Being sensitive to what they want. You can ask them beforehand what they might want as they are dying. Some might want music or hearing some text, some might prefer silence; some might want family and friends with them, others might prefer to be with only one person, or they might even want to be alone. People often die when their loved ones leave the room. Touch is often welcome, but for some people, it might not be. Being sensitive to what they want rather than imposing your ideas for a “good death” is important. Giving them permission to die is often important—letting them know that you will be okay, that it’s okay for them to go, that you love them. But mainly, I would say, simply be present, listen, follow your heart, trust the process. Everything else will follow from that. There’s no right or wrong way. What seems like a terrible mistake may be the perfect thing. My mother died when I left her bedside to drive another person who had been there home. My father died when my mother was out of the house and he was home alone. Some deaths are messy, some are peaceful. Whatever happens is okay.

I read once that Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi said, “Enlightenment is not dying a good death. Enlightenment is not needing to die a good death.” 

 7) Can one die a conscious death without spiritual beliefs or experiences?

I’m not sure what is meant by “a conscious death.” Or what is meant by “spiritual.” The spirituality that interests me is not about either beliefs or special experiences. It’s about right here, right now, and in my view, everything is spiritual. If the question is whether someone who is not in any way overtly spiritual, or someone who does not consider themselves spiritual, can be fully present here and now (including while dying and/or at the moment of death), then certainly that is possible.

8) Any other thoughts or comments?

A few excerpts from Death: The End of Self-Improvement:

Aging and dying, like awakening, are a great stripping process, a process of subtraction. Everything we have identified with gradually disintegrates—our bodies, cognitive skills, memory, ability to function independently. Eventually, everything perceivable and conceivable disappears.

Am I saying that nothing survives death? Actually, I’m suggesting that there are no separate and persisting ‘things’ to begin with, either to be born or to die. All apparent forms—people, tables, chairs, atoms, quarks, planets, dogs, cats, consciousness, energy—are mental concepts reified and abstracted out of a seamless and boundless actuality that does not begin or end, for it is ever-present Here-Now. And whatever this boundless actuality is, it seems to have infinite viewpoints from which it can be seen, and infinite layers of density, from the most apparently solid to the most ephemeral and subtle. Ultimately, there is no way to say what this indivisible wholeness is. No label, concept or formulation—whether scientific or metaphysical—can capture the living actuality….

Waking up is like dying. Dying to the past. Dying to the known. Dying to all your thoughts, ideas and beliefs. Dying to who and what you think you are. Dying to all hope of something better. Dying to everything. Dying even to any idea or experience of no-thing-ness or liberation. Letting go of every attempt to hold on, to control, to survive as anything in particular. Losing everything that can be lost and discovering what remains….

I was very close to my mother, loved her dearly with all my heart, and yet, I can honestly say that her death and everything leading up to it was one of the most profoundly liberating and beautiful experiences of my life.  And in a funny way, even though I am terrified at times of what may lie ahead, I am also excited about this new adventure of growing old and vanishing completely.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2021 --

This was written for use in a publication. Please do not re-post it elsewhere. Thank you!

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