I wrote last year about my five fears of dying. They included four familiar ones—fear of pain and fears of letting go of my life and my ego—along with a mysterious one that I could describe only as the fear that when I die “the rest of the universe will end also.” This fear is not severe or continuous—it comes in flashes—but it is recurring and I’ve been trying to understand it better. I don’t know if others have this experience and I haven’t read that they do, but I think I’m probably not alone in feeling irrationally that my death will in some way threaten things or people beyond myself.
These flashes of annihilation come at me seemingly out of nowhere. My gut tightens and there is an instant of blur and panic until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of a frightening memory from childhood or like the imagining of a car crash. The odd thing is that the sudden blankness sometimes includes my surroundings along with me. Maybe it is like being in a completely dark room and losing your sense of where the furniture is, then of which wall is where, and finally losing for a moment even your sense of being in a room.
Sometimes the surroundings that dissolve are everything, the entire universe, in all directions. Sometimes, though, what seems to disappear is just me—that is, my past and the fact that I ever existed. As if there never was a Brock Haussamen. In either case, whether it’s my self or the universe that disappears, the feeling is of a hole, an absence, that is larger than my self. Grim, but brief.
As far as I can figure out this sensation, the basis for it is that my knowledge of both myself and the universe is all packed inside my head, so when the inevitability of death comes at me, my disappearance seems to include the disappearance of all the things I know about.
I’m reminded of children who believe that when they close their eyes, they become invisible. Their loss of vision prompts them to believe that others can’t see them and so their own body has in effect disappeared. In my case, imagining myself dead means imagining I can no longer perceive anything which in turn prompts the eerie sense that everything has disappeared. As adults we trust that the world persists without our keeping an eye on it 24 hours a day. But when we imagine ourselves gone, the trust goes with it and anything else can be sucked into the black hole.
I have strategies now for easing such panicky moments. Sometimes I remind myself of people who have passed away and how steadily, inspite of sadness, those who knew them have carried on. During the last few days, two elderly friends have died. Despite the grief of those who knew them, it is a rock-solid sure thing that our own lives are continuing, for now.
This simple continuity reassures me more than it used to. I breathe easier. A death, no matter how great the loss, does no damage to existence itself. Nor to the chain of life. Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs. The world is as full of animation as it is of disintegration, life and death turning together constantly.
Have you heard of Douglas Harding? He has written at least one book about similar effects … such as being headless. Sounds strange at first … but the way its described makes some sense in the realm of human consciousness. I had occasion to sail with him once when I was a young man and while he was exploring these frontiers. Quite interesting. I’ve enjoyed many of your postings here. Email me privately if you’d like to.
Thanks for mentioning Harding. I’ll look at his books. And I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the posts here.
Thanks for reading!
I’m sure we can agree a permanent belief that the universe also ends when we die is incompatible with what logic we possess; as you say, we see friends die, we read of the rich and famous dying, and in every monument and every page of all history books we see death. We walk through graveyards – and we walk out, we still exist.
Don’t think too much about death – death has been our constant companion, no matter what we may pretend. Look around any room and you’ll see he is everywhere; since the days our parents warded him off, to the times we flirted with him in sports cars or jumping from airplanes. Preoccupied with birth and all the new and latest we ignored him in comfortable suburbia, but once the body starts to wither, we invite him nearer, study his features, and find his embrace a welcome relief. Edison was said to have uttered his last words to his wife: “it is very beautiful..” Is death such a villain, to bring an end to suffering? Must we magnify him into the Destroyer of Worlds?
I’ve had to prepare for him, especially after I blacked out before Christmas: I felt my muscles all go limp, and cried out in alarm – dropping a tumbler which shattered into a hundred pieces, then falling on the shards. It looked like a crime scene! I was sure the end was near. A brain tumour near the carotid artery was responsible. But even after that, he kept his distance, allowing the love of my partner to heal and carry me through. What more can we ask of a friend?
In our “civilised” world we are so fearful of dying, absurdly so. Doctors plug us into machinery and force us into the life of a cabbage rather than face dreadful death. People want cryogenics, virtual reality, transplanted heads and all manner of hideous ideas rather than face the simple truth that the body was born to die. As for our consciousness, that is another story!
To me death has been very patient, foregoing satisfaction, sure in the knowledge that the last dance is his. No lover has ever been so patient. Be reassured that in passing we join an infinitely greater number than we leave behind!
It’s Michelangelo’s words I treasure most, not because he was an artist, which was incidental, but because he was an overcomer of impossible hurdles, a hardened realist, a man who loved life and used it to the absolute limit, and a great thinker:
“If life hath pleased us, then death, from the hand of the same master, should not displease us.”
Your episode is chilling and your view of death as patient feels very right to me. The more I’ve read and thought about death, the slightly less grim it seems, though it remains an assault on our impulses to stay alive. I think we can learn from noting the varieties of life and death elsewhere in nature–on the wizened pine trees that have lived for 5000 years, on the bacteria that clone themselves and live forever, in insects that live for a few days. Death is no monolithic reaper.
As a person who accepts A Course in Miracles’ teaching that projection makes perception, I am doubtful that all that much changes when I die. I find a certain burden in having an individual identity and wouldn’t mind joining in the life stream of All-That-Is. Unfortunately, I fear I have too many unresolved issues that will have to be played out in an individual physical form.
I’d agree with that. My experiences with ghosts and a poltergeist, my friends and family who have had similar experiences, my encounters with psychics and mystics who were genuinely able to see into the beyond, the research of those who studiend near death experiences, the well documented cases of children who remember previous lives – a common occurrence in India, it was found, during the time of the British occupation – and of course the more familiar experiences of other-worldly dreams, of the future and of those who passed on, which seem more real than our own reality, all convince me that our “dying” is another state of life, and a very beautiful one at that.
This view is backed up by the written experiences of mystics in various forms but all intelligently and memorably laid out for us during the most recent ages of evolution – say, 2,500 years. The combined weight of evidence is really overwhelming, but, like Opera – if you don’t like it, you can make sure you ain’t gonna hear it!
I particularly like your last sentence because, as you point out, there is evidence for other lives, which we call past and future. One scientist–I believe it was David Bohm–called investigators who ignored all this evidence as fundamentalists of science.