Practicing Death-The Key to Enjoying Lifeby Michael E. Tymn
As I approached my 65th birthday and retirement from the work force last year, I was often asked by business associates and friends what I plan to do with all my free time. I’d tell them I intend to “practice death.”
I knew my response would draw puzzled expressions and raised eyebrows, but I would throw it out anyway in the hope that the person would ask for clarification. I enjoy talking about death almost as much as I do reading and writing about it.
Before you decide I need psychiatric help, let me call on several esteemed people to support my position.
The eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said that it is psychologically beneficial to have death as a goal toward which to strive. Mozart called death the key to unlocking the door to true happiness. Shakespeare wrote that when we are prepared for death, life is sweeter. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne said that “to practice death is to practice freedom.”
Strange ideas to most, but these great men drank deep from the fountain of wisdom and understood life’s greatest paradox—that in embracing death we can live a fuller, more enjoyable, more meaningful life.
“Death is indeed a fearful piece of brutality,” Jung offered. “There is no sense in pretending otherwise. It is brutal, not only as a physical event but far more so psychically. However, from another point of view, death appears a joyful event. In the light of eternity, it is a wedding, a mysterium conjunctionis. The soul attains, as it were, its missing half. It achieves wholeness.”
It’s difficult for most Western materialists, whether they subscribe to a religion or not, to comprehend such sage reasoning. “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human mind like nothing else,” wrote anthropologist Ernest Becker in his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death. Becker explained that to free oneself of death anxiety, nearly everyone chooses the path of repression. We bury the idea of death deep in the subconscious and then busy ourselves with our jobs, partake of pleasures, strut in our new clothes, show off our polished cars, hit little white balls into round holes, escape into fictitious stories in books, at the movies, and on television, experience vicarious thrills at sporting events, pursue material wealth, and seek a mundane security that we expect to continue indefinitely—all the while oblivious to the fact that in the great scheme of things such activities are exceedingly short-term and for the most part meaningless. Becker refers to this “secure” person as the “automatic cultural man.” He is “man confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premiums, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush.”
Becker’s automatic cultural man is a modern description of Kierkegaard’s “Philistine.” For Kierkegaard, Philistinism was man fully concerned with the trivial. Of course, if we are not completely selfish, we also involve ourselves in loving, caring for, and serving others. Those acts seem to at least partially give meaning to our lives and validate our existence, until we ask: If our loved are simply marching toward nothingness with us, what’s the point of it all?
Eventually, one day, perhaps when it becomes apparent that our days are numbered, those repressed anxieties relating to death begin welling up into the consciousness. We proceed to live our final years under a dark and increasingly foreboding shadow. For the most part, the muddled information provided by orthodox religion offers little relief, little comfort.
Becker called repression of death the enemy of mankind. Conversely, the unrepressed life can bring into birth a new way of being. Robert Jay Lifton, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology, makes the same point, stating that we must “know death” in order to live with free imagination.
As I understand it, knowing death is what Montaigne called practicing death, a term which seems to have originated with Socrates. As he put it, according to Plato, practicing death is merely pursuing philosophy “in the right way” and learning how “to face death easily.” It can also be referred to as embracing death.
The Larger Life As I see it, the key to living the unrepressed life is having a sense of immortality, a firm belief that our earthly life is part of a much larger and eternal life. Lifton points out that there are some who can derive satisfaction out of a biological sense of immortality, that there will be a “living on” through one’s progeny. There is also the creative mode, whereby one “lives on” through his or her works of art, literature, or science. However, when we begin to ask ourselves to which generation full fruition, to what end the legacy, such views seem pretty foolish and myopic.
I think the bottom line is that we must accept the survival of consciousness at death in order to free ourselves from the fetters that bind us to our culture’s negative view of death. Unfortunately, orthodox religion, especially the Judeo-Christian form, has done little to help us understand the survival of consciousness. It tells us that faith alone is all that is necessary. Yet, all the practicing Jews and Christians that I know—and I know quite a few—seem to fit into Becker’s “automatic cultural man” mold, escaping from death anxiety through the use of repression. Most of them strive to be one with their toys, rather than ONE with the Creator. Death is a monster to be feared.
To me, practicing death means moving from either skepticism or blind faith to conviction by continually searching for higher truths, cultivating an awareness of the larger life, and then being able to visualize other realms of existence. This is done through constant metaphysical study, through testing, analyzing, and discerning both ancient and modern revelation, through meditating, praying, and pondering, through seeking, serving, striving, struggling, surrendering, sacrificing, and, finally, solving and soaring.
In practicing death, one does not live in the past or the future, not even in the present. One lives in eternity, which is the only true way to live in the present as well as to live in the past, present, and future at the same time.
Practicing death does not mean locking oneself up and hiding from the rest of the world while pursuing enlightenment. It simply means putting priority on searching for Truth so that we can better love and serve our fellow humans in what time we have left. That search might not take any more than an hour a day, the time many of us spend on physical exercise to assure a particular quality of life. However, that hour a day should gradually allow us to better understand life, to savor it, to harmonize with it, to find inner peace, tranquility, and repose, to move closer to being one with the Creator, and to make a graceful transition to the world of higher vibration when the time is right.
The alternative to practicing death, as I see it, is living out one’s final years by doing not much more than growing gray, griping, groaning, groping, growling, grabbing, and grieving—the path followed by Becker’s automatic cultural man.
“Let us have nothing more in mind than death,” said Montaigne. “At every instant, let us evoke it in our imagination under all aspects. Let us wait for it everywhere.”
Mike Tymn is a freelance writer living in Depoe Bay, Oregon. He is editor of the quarterly bulletin published by the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research as well as a Trustee of that organization and its book review editor. He can be contacted at [email protected] or at (541)765-3421.