Overcoming the Fear of Death

Recently, I happened to counsel a person diagnosed with a terminal illness. Having read my books, she claimed that while she was “moved” by “the depth of wisdom” in my articles and books, she found them to be very “impractical.” Even though she knew full well that death was her ultimate destination, she was overwhelmed by the very fear of dying. “Who knows what happens after death?” she said. The idea of uncertainty after death was causing greater pain to her than the pain caused by her illness. 

Recently, I happened to counsel (see Vedic Leadership Counselling™)a person diagnosed with a terminal illness. Having read my books, she claimed that while she was “moved” by “the depth of wisdom” in my articles and books, she found them to be very “impractical.” Even though she knew full well that death was her ultimate destination, she was overwhelmed by the very fear of dying. “Who knows what happens after death?” she said. The idea of uncertainty after death was causing greater pain to her than the pain caused by her illness.

How can someone who has lived a fairly healthy life, never hospitalized, give comfort to a person who is fighting a terminal illness and make her embrace death, fearlessly? I asked for some time to formulate a way to help her out.

I started re-reading Yoga Vashistha, the grand old Vedic Sanskrit classic, part of the magnum opus Valmiki’s Ramayana. According to Valmiki, after embarking on a long and tiresome pilgrimage ‪‎Rama, the then Crown Prince of Ayodhya, found himself disillusioned with the world. He was overwhelmed by the pains of the people he met during his travel and found the world around him to be gruesome. He was not sure why the world and life were so “unfair.” He had so many questions which every time he tried to answer them himself landed him in an abyss of confusion. The ones close to him weren’t of any help. Eventually, his enthusiasm in his duties fell steeply, causing great concern to his father and King of ‪Ayodhya – ‪Dasharatha. The concerned king sought help from his ‪Rajaguru, Vashistha. ‪YogaVashistha is the name of the very document which contains the complete record of the dialogue between Rama and Vashistha.

Reading through this timeless classic, I saw how effortlessly Rishi Vashistha enlightens Rama besides helping him find that perpetual peace. Vashistha says no lies, nor does he use any delusional tactics to trick the young prince. He presents the truth. He does it by introducing Rama to his true self.

We often confuse our true Self with our body, mind, or something connected with it – like name, profession, status, and the like. The greatest teaching of Yoga Vashistha was to identify our true self. He suggests how we are neither the body nor the mind.

“How can you be the body, O Rama? The body you had when you were a child, toddler, and now a teenager is different!” Vashistha says, adding “How could you be your Mind, either? For that unsteady and ever swaying mind changes its state faster than the body? Besides, when you are deep asleep, where is that mind? Your true self transcends the cells in the body and thoughts of the mind as well the mind itself. It is verily timeless.”

Our True Self is called Aatmana or Atman in all the Vedic texts. Vedic Sanskrit word Aatmana comprises of two distinct words, Aat meaning Beyond and Mana meaning Mind. Aatmana is verily our true self, which is Beyond the Mind.

The mind is the key element; it is because of the mind that we feel the pain and pleasure. It is the mind which is the ultimate enjoyer. You can even trick a mind into seeing pleasure as pain and pain as pleasure. If we confuse our true self with the mind, the delusion of mind becomes our own.

“It is the mind that sees, feels, and experiences things, O Rama; you are eternally in bliss. Meditate on this truth that you are neither the body nor the mind, and you shall experience the perpetual bliss…” Vashistha declares.

I was certain that if I could convince my counselee that it was her mind and not herself that was facing the pains, it would help. So, I dutifully conveyed this idea to her.

“But what about the afterlife?” she was worried, “What if I am to go to hell and suffer the eternal pain? What if the devil is to make me suffer eternally?” she asked in a horrific tone.

She was certain that someday, like all living beings, she has to die. Her fear of death was because in the faith, which promises “hell” if you do and do not do something. And since she had done such things, the fear of unknown death was way too overwhelming. Probably beyond the physical pain.

“Start taking deep breaths, my friend,” I asked her.

“Now, steadily focus on your breathing. And breathe deeply.”

She did just that.

“Think of nothing, be focused on every ounce of air you breathe in and out… keep doing this until I ask you to stop…”

She dutifully followed my order for precisely five minutes until I asked her to stop.

“Keep your eyes closed and recollect that moment in time when you were happy…”

When she nodded, I asked, “Now tell me, are you feeling the same level of happiness you felt at that very moment?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Now tell me which part of you is happy?”

“My Mind,”

“Does your body feel any of that happiness…?” I asked.

“I am not sure, but I guess it feels better…” she said.

“Now remember the worst thing to have happened to you,”

“It’s painful, I do not want to do that!” she declared a while after trying.

“Not a problem, now keep your eyes closed… tell me how your body was when you recollected those two contrasting instances from your past?”

“I guess I feel similar feelings within my body what I felt in mind.”

“So, your memories stored in your brain (body) can make your mind feel and incur the same feelings on the body. Correct?”

“I guess so!”

“Now try to remember that moment in time when you were in a state of deep sleep. When you had no dreams, no idea of your name, profession, family, whatsoever!”

“It’s been a long time, but I guess when I was young, I slept like a log of wood.”

“Wonderful! Now tell me, can you recollect that feeling?”

“Not sure…”

“But was that better or worse than happiness?”

“I guess much better…”

“You see when your mind is absent body feels nothing. What your mind feels your body feel the same. So, when your mind is absent, you feel only the bliss. Bliss! Absolute bliss! That’s who you are. That is what will happen to you at death!”

She was shocked. “How can you be so sure?” she retorted.

“What else could happen? When you die, your body is buried right here on earth. Without the body, there can be no mind. And without the mind and body, there can be no pain. Death is a state of transcending pain and pleasure; returning to your true self.”

She took a while, trying to find a contradictory scenario. After a couple of days, she wrote me back thanking me, suggesting that my words were “of great help.” Unknown to the fact that I had only translated and, probably, rearranged the words which came from those great many Rishis and Rishikas.

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