The essential questions to humanity have always been relatively universal. What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we feel the things we feel? What happens after we die? These same questions have spanned eras and continents, inspired philosophies and cultures, and the answers that have been proposed have been the foundation stones for our various human belief systems. But what motivates us to grasp for answers that are inevitably as ephemeral as our own very existence? What causes human beings to try to make permanent what can only ever be impermanent, to make security out of what can only ever be insecure, and to hold faith in beliefs that essentially cannot be proven?
In The Denial of Death (1974), Ernest Becker theorized that the essential motivating factor in the majority, if not all, of human actions was the denial of or the fear of death and dying. He proposed that the anxiety caused by the awareness of one’s own death literally causes deep unconscious denial and defense mechanisms that prompt a human being to grasp onto what he or she considers to have meaning in a futile attempt towards symbolic immortality. As a cultural anthropologist, Becker was influenced greatly by his exposure and experience across cultures and belief systems, and created an inclusive perspective that took into consideration that in order to answer questions as universal as those concerning the motivation for human behavior and beliefs, he would have to look at things from every point of view possible. There could not be a direction from which a good idea might not come from. What he found was a nearly universal answer to the great questions of human motivation within The Denial of Death.
Becker’s theory about death denial inspired scientists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski to propose Terror Management Theory, a scientifically verifiable hypothesis that has shown in hundreds of experiments that exposure to the idea of one’s own mortality will cause certain types of behaviors that serve to reinforce one’s own sets of belief systems that as a culture we use to brace ourselves against our own inevitable demise, often to the detriment of those that we consider to be different or a threat to those unconscious symbols of immortality (Burke, Martens, & Faucher, 2010; Maxfield, John, & Pyszczynski, 2014).
In this paper I will present a brief summarization of Becker’s Denial of Death Theory and that of Terror Management Theory, how the two present a bleak and disappointing but honest perspective of human behavior, and then will propose that the often violent and senseless acts that human beings so often engage in when faced with their own mortality and their confrontation to their existential beliefs can be replaced with a higher level of consciousness — a conscious and tolerant choice of action as opposed to a reactive and unconscious vicious lashing out or reaction against the other — and this can be practiced through the art of death meditation and purposeful mortality salience such as is practiced in various Buddhist and Yogic lineages. I will present several examples of Yogic death meditations and their various intentions and consequences as a suggestion for how humans can use the inevitable as a tool to bring greater awareness, acceptance, and peace between cultures and to one’s own life.
DENIAL OF DEATH
In a wired global village, our death attitudes are further affected by the 24-hour news coverage of natural and man-made disasters around the world, from catastrophic earthquakes to genocides. Death has invaded our living rooms in grisly detail. Our passive acceptance of the endless coverage of carnage and atrocity betrays a love-hate relationship with death: We are simultaneously repelled by its terror and seduced by its mysteries (Wong & Tomer, 2011, p. 100)
In most countries in the West, we have developed a rather disconnected and unconscious attitude towards death that fosters an unconscious denial of its inevitable approach. Our death rituals are performed with a degree of separation that even through the preservation, preparation, and embalming process of the corpse, we present our loved ones during our funerary rites as if they are only peacefully sleeping in their best attire, and not in fact, dead. Cheeks remain a rosy pink, and the skin is airbrushed with foundation makeup to disguise the bruising and coagulation of dead blood under the skin so that we don’t have to face the fact that our loved ones are indeed decomposing in front of our still very much alive and functioning eyes.
Our most common funeral ritual lasts only hours before we lay our loved ones to rest in expensive sealed coffins lined with silk, so that we can think of them as being cozy, warm, and untouched by the process of rot. The worms cannot enter. The Earth cannot swallow them up. If we visit the cemetery at all during the grieving process, it is only for a moment to lay a flower or two until next year, and we go on with our lives. Even the former traditional mourning period is no longer tolerable. Our culture dictates that we must get over it more quickly, move on faster, for there is work to be done. No time to waste. What’s done is done, and what’s dead is dead and gone forever. As a culture, we even place our elderly into group homes when we no longer have the time or concern to care for them ourselves, and by that action we even distance ourselves from the indignity of old age.
Most Westerners would argue that we rarely think about death in our daily lives, but that is a very shallow way of looking at our reality. In the United States at least, our minds are being constantly bombarded by images of death in the media, on the news, on TV, in violent video games and movies, through our complacent involvement in our governments’ incessant warmongering, through the political intention of producing neurotic fear of terrorism, by witnessing community tragedies, the near daily murder of unarmed civilians by our police force, et cetera. All of these images that we constantly see every single day implant themselves in our unconscious minds, and this fear of death and tragedy infects our very psyche in ways that affect our everyday behavior (Wong & Tomer, 2011; Becker, 1974).
If we had incarnated in another country, in another political situation, perhaps in a location that has been witness to genocide, murder, and had been ravaged by constant war, these psychological implants would be far more conscious and present in the forefront of our behavior and perception of reality. But in the US, unless we are involved with the military or live in communities where the socioeconomic status seems to almost provoke violence and death, we remain relative outsiders to the real consequences of war and the depths of depravity that it inspires in the human heart.
Ernest Becker (1974) theorized that this type of distancing from, separation with, denial of, and repression of the reality that we are self-aware beings that from a very young age become cognizant of the fact that death is an inevitability causes a deep, dark anxiety and angst to rise up from the depths of our unconscious minds that manifest as measurable symptoms and behavior patterns. According to Becker, this literal existential threat is the reason why human beings created such things as religion, culture, countries, tribes, myths, ritual, et cetera, and is the reason why we cling to the meaning that we find within these formations. The fear of death and not knowing what happens to us afterward, whether we face a void or something else, motivated us as a species to use our unique ability to intellectualize in order to make meaning of our lives in an acceptable way as a buffer to this very precarious position of our own seeming meaninglessness in the face of a very vast universe and unexplainable existence. “As a result of the existential crisis generated by this conflict…humans…deny their personal vulnerability to death by embracing that which cannot die. Specifically…social beliefs and standards that are imbued with value and that become symbolic representations of the self” (Cozzolino, Blackie, & Meyers, 2013). In Vedic and Buddhist thought, this very action is based in grasping or attachment — in Sanskrit, Parigrah — one of the three poisons of human behavior that include grasping, aversion, and denial which manifest as greed, hatred, and delusion.
TERROR MANAGEMENT THEORY
Although Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, his theory remained largely untested until Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski presented the psychological community with Terror Management Theory. The basic summarization of this theory incorporates that of Becker’s Denial of Death theory, but then adds to it that the defense mechanisms that Becker presented can be measurable and predictable due to the reflexive behavior that arises when the belief systems that one is using to foster the illusion of symbolic immortality is challenged or one is confronted with one’s mortality, such as in the case of conflict between religions, nations, politics, creation myths, trauma, war, and other experiences. As it turns out, the distal death defenses are actually measurable across cultures, genders, and belief systems (Burke, Martens, & Faucher, 2010).
In the documentary Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality (2003), Sheldon Solomon explains the type of research that he and his team conducted to really look into what the application of Becker’s theory and the question of Mortality Salience in TMT would look like in practice. “The MS hypothesis has led to hundreds of experiments to date examining whether priming people with their own mortality increases adherence to their cultural worldviews and/or self-esteem” (Burke et al., 2010). As it so happens, bringing one’s own finitude to mind, whether consciously or unconsciously, does cause one to choose behaviors that reinforce one’s belief systems, culture, and worldview even to the point of choosing a violent and defensive reaction towards those that are considered to be contrary to one’s meaning-making systems. Even if the other’s presentation of a contrary belief system seems to hold value and the possibility of being a more logical symbol, if the presentation of scientific fact renders redundant or incorrect one’s previously held religious views, “given the choice between accepting this reality or giving themselves over to illusions…the mass of human beings will choose illusion over reality, lies over truth, fiction over fact” (Liechty, 1998, p. 51).
So what happens when one is confronted with a different set of belief systems that directly contradict or undermine one’s own chosen belief systems? According to TMT, what happens is that the human being will likely suffer something called Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger, 1957) – a feeling of deep unease caused by conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that contradict one’s own – that causes one to seek psychological balance by grasping onto his or her chosen symbols of immortality and react with bias, prejudice, suppression of dissent, materialism, power maneuvering, and suspicion against the other. Considering the level of force to what now has become an existential threat to one’s basic core values and in essence what one holds as the very meaning for living at all, one may often react with mortal threats, violence, assault, or murder. If it becomes a societal threat to the immortality symbol of the nation or state, the society as a whole may react with offensive violence, war, and genocide (Burke et al. 2010). The human being has proven itself time and again throughout history to behave in this manner. We only have to look at the reaction of the United States government and citizenry after the events of 9/11 for a perfect example; look deeper into that calamity and TMT will explain the origins of the extremism behind why those attacks occurred in the first place (Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2003).
The basic impulse here is that my God is better than your God, my culture is better than yours, my creation myth is right and yours isn’t, I am more advanced and you’re still an animal, my symbols are more powerful than yours, and I am willing to fight and die for the validation of those facts. But the problem is that God, as the ultimate transference symbol “cannot be materialized, cannot be possessed, cannot even be “with us” in history, but rather stands before us as an aesthetic ideal/real construction (Liechty, 1998, p. 56). The transference symbols of immortality that we create that can be made material, such as country, culture, fame, wealth, success, and self-esteem as it relates to how well we conform to our meaning making systems, will eventually also fail us because nothing in this world is infinite, unchanging, or immortal. Anything material can be lost in an instant. No matter what we grasp onto to claw our way out of death’s grasp, we will eventually fail, and we all know it. When our material immortality symbols fail, we experience a sort of social death, overwhelming cognitive dissonance, depression, anxiety, anger, violence, fundamentalism, and defensive compensation.
DELIBERATE MORTALITY SALIENCE
The denial of death and the ways that we compensate for our mortal vulnerability are relatively unconscious behaviors. Terror Management Theory proves that human beings behave in rather unpleasant ways when we deny our inevitable demise. It also begs the question of whether the powers that be, who likely know and understand this basic psychology, are manipulating it for their own ends. What it also leads towards is the opposite question of what happens when we deliberately face ourselves with the fact of death. What are the consequences for making mortality salience a deliberate practice? Although there has been little research to prove this to be the case or that looks into cultural differences on the matter, what has been done points towards a positive affect on human behavior (Rothschild, Abdollahi, & Pyszczynski,
Philosophers have described death awareness as bittersweet, because not only is it associated with anxiety, fear, and experiential avoidance, but also with inspiration, innovation, and the drive to contribute to something greater than one’s self (Greenberg, Koole, & Pyszczynski, 2004). Eminent existential therapist Irvin Yalom wrote, “The idea of death saves us . . . [it] plunges us into more authentic life modes, and it enhances our pleasure in the living of life’’ (1980, p. 33) (as cited in Lewis, 2014).
In both Buddhist and Yogic meditative practice, there are meditations and mindfulness exercises that are meant to bring one into not only the awareness of one’s mortality, but to confront the individual with his or her regular unconscious programming in a way that objectifies one’s behavior and thought processes. One deliberately ponders one’s own death and what that means. One actively makes the effort to separate what one considers to be the self (or not-self) from the body, from one’s experiences, from one’s environment, from one’s family, et cetera, in an attempt to cultivate nonattachment to the material. This practice includes acceptance that everything changes, everyone dies, everything’s existence is dependant upon the existence of other things and therefore there is no such thing as a purely separate individual self that dies. Neither is there a purely separate individual that can be controlled once he or she is free from the types of psychological programming that can be manipulated.
“Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra, wrote that the basic causes of human suffering are fivefold: avidya (spiritual ignorance), asmita (egoism), raga (desire or attachment), dwesha (denial or aversion) and abhinivesha (fear of death or clinging to life)” (Saraswati, N.D.). Bringing death mindfulness to a meditative discipline lessens one’s suffering caused by the “three poisons” of grasping (onto one’s life and onto one’s immortality symbols), aversion (the pushing away of immortality symbols that directly contradict one’s own), and denial or ignorance (choosing to deny one’s own mortality) (Abhedananda, 1967). As it turns out, “Researchers found that mindful individuals are less susceptible than nonmindful individuals to the negative effects of MS (Niemiec et al., 2010).
The very practice of Rajayoga is meant to provide the Yogi with a path to immortality during the course of life through the attainment of self-awareness. The idea is to die before you die, so you can be free. Die before your ego, die before your idea of your Self, die before your indoctrination, die before your beliefs, die before your attachments. Then and only then will you be outside of the delusion of the mind. According to Vedanta:
Self-Knowledge, which can be attained by every human being, confers upon its possessor liberation in this very life. He does not have to wait for a future time to taste the bliss of immortality. This attainment of liberation through Self-Knowledge, while living in a physical body, is the goal of human life…. The journey to this final freedom is a solitary one – alone a person is born, alone he suffers, and alone he dies. By realizing his true Self he becomes united with all beings and things and attains to final freedom. Only then comes the end of all sorrow, all fear, all anxiety (Adiswarananda, N.D.).
YOGIC DEATH MEDITATIONS
One example of a Yogic death meditation is provided by Osho in The Book of Secrets (1974), his translation and description of the 112 Meditations of Shiva presented within the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra. In this meditation, called “Lie down as dead. Enraged in wrath, stay so,” the meditator positions him or herself in the corpse pose, Savasana, lying on the back with the arms facing palms up roughly one foot form the sides of the body and the feet roughly two feet apart. The shoulder blades are flat on the ground, with a slight arch remaining in the lower back. The tongue sits on the ridge just behind the teeth. All muscles are completely relaxed. Once perfectly aligned in this position, the meditator then does not move at all and imagines him or herself as a corpse, ignoring any desire to adjust the body. The meditator simply lies there and disconnects the consciousness from the physical form, first via sensory withdrawal, secondly by concentrating on the contemplation of death, and finally by conscious absorption – pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, the three stages of Raja Yoga.
In this meditation, various emotions and discursive thoughts will arise as one purposefully elicits mortality salience. The meditator is meant to simply allow them to arise and does not react. When one ponders one’s body as dead in this way, it is normal to feel anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, regrets, and nostalgia. The meditator is meant to feel them, be aware of them, hold space in his body for them, continue feeling them, but does not move or react physically in any way. That discipline of staying present with what one feels when one brings death mindfulness to the forefront of one’s consciousness is the beautiful point in which some have found their enlightenment. By bringing the unconscious implants concerning ones own death to conscious awareness, one releases the emotions that are connected with the event and achieves liberation (Osho, 1974, p. 69-70). According to Swami Adiswarananada:
Meditation overcomes the fear of death, which lies at the root of all fears. Fear arises when we treat the body as an end unto itself. Meditation reveals that body and mind are mere instruments of the soul for self-fulfillment, and never ends in themselves…. In meditation we die in a measured way to our old self, and simultaneously we become reborn in our new self….Meditation teaches a deepening of self-awareness, so that we realize: I am not the body” (Adiswarananda, 2003, p.8).
Swami Adiswarananda (N.D.) presents several more meditations, which serve to make death a part of everyday life in order to keep the mind in the present moment enjoyment of life as it is without allowing the mind to move to the future or past in hopes or regrets, but to really be alive in the Now. Through death meditation, the Yogi develops dispassion and an awareness of the Self, which is considered to be the only aspect of a human being that is deathless. In meditation, the Yogi passes through all levels of consciousness and achieves Videha, or becomes without body consciousness, in a sort of temporary death practice. Another technique is to continuously chant the name of God and bring the mind to the state of eternal consciousness and bliss that is Brahman. This state of mind, called Samadhi, removes all fear of death and illuminates the nature of the Self, which is that we are this same state of eternal consciousness and bliss and as such can never really be destroyed by physical death. This understanding releases the Yogi from physical attachments not only to material possessions and relationships — as he or she can clearly see that we all come from the same source and will return to the same source and that none of us will take anything material with us — but also the attachment to the physical body and to life itself (Adiswarananda, 2003)
As Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory suggest, the denial of death and the inevitable confrontation of its approach has long-ranging and often negative consequences that range from existential angst, to feelings of meaninglessness, to rage, to violence, and to war. When the denial of death sits of the murky edges of the unconscious mind, it is like a dark seed left to grow into a crooked tree. By bringing our fears to the forefront of our consciousness and developing the courage to face the unknown and the unpleasant, we give ourselves the opportunity to free ourselves from the terrible consequences of grasping onto that which cannot be caught, denying the inevitable, railing against the fate that we all share, or behaving in ways that are provoked by a mindless fear that we don’t really have an awareness of because it’s something so innate to our nature as human beings. However, as human beings, we have the capacity to use our unique cognitive abilities to discipline ourselves out of low-level behavior patterns and to learn ways that are more self-aware, more tolerant of others’ beliefs, and more compassionate to the suffering of others. Bringing acceptance and awareness to death is one such discipline.
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