So I was talking to a friend yesterday about this Blog and death in general, as you do. We both agreed that somehow commitment, or rather the fear of it, is somehow linked to a fear of death. This brought up a mixture of uncomfortable feelings for me and It was then she asked me if I had ever heard of Terror Management Theory. I have to be honest and say the first thought that crossed my mind was ‘no – but I think the US Foreign Office might have’?
It turns out that Terror Management Theory or TMT is a social psychology concept first introduced into the world in 1973 by Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of non-fiction ‘The Denial of Death’. In his book apparently, Becker postulates that almost all human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. “The terror of absolute annihilation creates such a profound—albeit subconscious—anxiety in people that they spend their lives attempting to make sense of it”. It basically describes a simple conflict between wanting to live and having the self-awareness that death is unavoidable. From this, the theory goes on, our self-esteem (what drives us to create symbols of immortality) and worldviews (which include Religion) are the only defence against the potential terror created by mortality awareness.
Okay so this is all pretty heavy duty for a Friday morning I know but bear with me. The thing is I’m not convinced that human beings have always been afraid of death. The Egyptians didn’t even have a word for it…the Greeks and Romans? I remember reading books about warriors who wanted to die in battle as it was a great glory. For these ancient cultures death was simply moving from one room to another wasn’t it, nothing frightening about that surely?
Well Becker would probably argue that’s because subconsciously TMT was at work. The afterlife, Nirvana and Valhalla were all constructed to alleviate the sheer terror of mortality. This makes sense. There is another way to look at it all however. In his brilliant book “The Secret History of the World” Jonathan Black tries to paint a picture of ancient, classical life…a world in which the wind wasn’t an act of god for example but literally was a god…where everything in the ‘material’ world was imbued with it’s own life: a mythology and spirit. It’s almost impossible for us to perceive this now but Black argues in those days life and the experience of being alive was literally less material… as we evolved under the influence of Saturn however (Saturn was made sacred to Cronos by both Greeks and Romans) humankind became literally heavier and more attached to our physical form. This is nowhere better symbolized than the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden…and eternal life. The postlapserian experience for humankind therefore is one of fear of death for no longer are we immortal spirit but mortal body, hence the symbolic shame of physical nakedness.
This makes sense to me. I think like most children, I scared myself by repeating the word ‘forever’ after my Grandfather passed away in attempt to try and get a feel for ‘eternity’. It’s a game all kids play at some point. I couldn’t do it for long, it became terrifying and you get tired after a while anyway…
“If the doors of perception are cleansed
Everything would appear….. as it is, infinite.”
For me the only experience I have ever had of something like might closely resemble or express the concept of the infinite is when I meditate, it’s only then that I can sense or begin to feel something beyond my physical form that is perhaps timeless and formless. It would be fair to say that I’m not an expert (i.e. very disciplined) and my practise would only be scratching the surface of what it is possible to experience but this is where I part ways from the terror managers, because for me that feeling or sense is very difficult to describe. That’s why I love meditation: it’s the essence of spiritual experience and yet transcends culture and religion (the things Becker sees as our defences against the terror of mortality). Meditation is a deeply personal journey, it doesn’t offer the promise of an afterlife or immortality in any way but simply a sense of the abundant truth of life and consciousness or mind; the now. I can’t tell you what meditation will give you but I know what it can take away: fear, anxiety, compulsion.
We love a beginning and an end but for me meditation connects with me the truth; that this spirit or mind is all there is and ever has been for ever and ever and ever…
No words can describe it
No example can point to it
Samsara does not make it worse
Nirvana does not make it better
It has never been born
It has never ceased
It has never been liberated
It has never been deluded
It has never existed
It has never been nonexistent
It has no limits at all
It does not fall into any kind of category