Depriving Death of its Victim

Originally printed in the November-December 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Conwell, Allistair. "Depriving Death  of its Victim." Quest  88.6 NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2000): pg 234-235.

By Alistair Conwell

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men: and Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
--William Shakespeare

When the Lord of Death beckons, will you go kicking, screaming and biting? Or will you calmly accept the fact that your sojourn on this physical plane has ended--for the time being at least? If the first scenario is more apt, take heart because the vast majority of people in the Western world harbor a grotesque fear of death. The medical profession has even coined the word thanatophobia, which is derived from the Greek word thanatos meaning "death," for this universal phobia.

Many people, when asked, may say they do not fear death at all, but instead fear the painful or frightening circumstances that may result in death. Articulating such a view, the comedian Woody Allen said, "I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens." But consider this: the mind cannot easily conceive of its own mortality. Sigmund Freud believed that, in our unconscious, every one of us is convinced of our own immortality (Reanney 1995).

Psychologist Gregory Zilboorg elucidates further, "If this fear [of death] were as constantly conscious, we should not be able to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort. . . . We may take it for granted that the fear of death is always present in our mental functioning. . . . No one is free of the fear of death" (Reanney 1995).

So whether one is capable of acknowledging one’s fear of death or not, arriving at some understanding of this fear is important for two reasons. Firstly, all fear, without exception, is based on ignorance; and secondly, the way we approach death is directly related with how we approach life. As Russian Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh asserts, "Death is the touchstone of our attitude to life. . . . If we are afraid of death we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks; we will spend our life in a cowardly, careful, and timid manner. It is only if we can face death, make sense of it, determine its place and our place in regard to it, that we will be able to live in a fearless way and to the fullness of our ability" (Cohn-Sherbok and Lewis 1995).

So where does our fear of death stem from?

Some scholars contend that it is something that we are taught as children. Such a view was presented in an essay entitled "Education in Thanatology," coauthored by Gary J. Grad from Columbia University and Sir Stephen V. Gullo, who wrote, "We are not born with a fear of death; we learn it from the taboos of silence and fear transmitted by our families and society as a whole" (Rogo 1990).

This view is shared by author and parapsychologist D. Scott Rogo, who writes, "Most people in Western societies fear death with a phobic terror. This lamentable situation isn’t strange since we live in a death-denying culture where death is constantly divorced from the everyday realities of life. Popular illustrations of this widespread denial don’t seem difficult to find. Death is a subject most people refuse to discuss in polite conversation, while the dying are usually shunted off to hospitals or rest homes, conveniently out of sight and out of mind from the standpoint of their relatives. We even try to shield our children from the simple reality of death on the misguided premise that we’re doing them a favor" (Rogo 1990).

Our fear of death may be linked with the concept we have of our selves, our ego-self. The late Darryl Reanney believed that three of our most common fears (vertigo, a fear of falling from a height; claustrophobia, a fear of closed spaces; and agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces) are all metaphors for our fear of death. Many thanatologists agree that the basis of our fear of death is a fear of losing our ego-self. Although some people may say that what they fear is the pain associated with death, or the indignity from a terminal illness, or the "final judgment," or losing their friends and relatives, or even the unknown, all these reasons involve a strong sense of ego-self.

Our fear of death and our denial of that fear are deeply rooted in the human psyche. Astronomer-physicist David Darling sums up this point when he observes, "We fear death for many reasons. We fear the possibility of pain because we see it in the faces of others, the agony and angst of terminal cancer. We fear death’s unpredictability, its awesome power to bring in an instant an end to everything we have lived and worked for. We fear the death of loved ones--parents, spouses and children. But above all else we fear the loss of ourselves" (Darling 1995).

So, if the basis of our thanatophobia is a fear of losing ourselves, we need to be clear about what the self really is. And, moreover, we need to understand what it is about the self that we are so terrified to part with.

The "self" referred to here is the "little" self or I-centered awareness, which is ultimately illusory and ephemeral. It is not the deathless Great Self, or the spark of the Divine inherent in all beings. This little self, in fact, creates the biggest problems for us in terms of our spiritual progress because it is this self that succeeds in blanketing the Divine Spark in a thick, seemingly impenetrable veil of darkness born of ignorance.

"I am this. I am that," we often say. But really what is that "I"? On close reflection, we find that the "I" is really no more than a collection of attachments to the experiences of life. For it is only through this "I," functioning in the physical body with its five senses, that we can experience sensual life. The "I" becomes attached to the physical body and those pleasant experiences, which it soon begins to crave. And equally soon, the "I" is repulsed by unpleasant experiences that it has endured. But these habit-forming attachments succeed in separating us from the total cosmic experience.

We are, without doubt, creatures of habit. Just reflect for a moment on all that you have done so far today, or yesterday, and it is certain that you will find that many of the things you did, said, and thought were a result of habit. Habits dictate what we eat, what we drink, where we go, how we speak, what clothes we wear, what time we go to sleep, what time we wake up, and so on. Our habits, or our attachments, are ultimately the basis for our concept of "I." And it is these attachments that bind us to the physical body. Naturally, the prospect of losing the body at death, which we have become so attached to over the course of a lifetime, must elicit fear because we will no longer have the means to feed our entrenched habits.

Asceticism is no solution to the problem of habit. A normally functioning sense of self is necessary to perform everyday duties in our homes and workplaces. But while we perform our duties to employers, families, and friends, the challenge is not to become chained to these relationships. Once chained by the bonds of attachment, we become a slave to the ego-self. And while we remain slaves of the ego-self, we will continue to harbor a fear of death.

If we can succeed in negating the ego-self, we have the opportunity to experience consciousness as it really is--not as an individualistic, selfish experience but rather as a holistic and unified awareness of inherently interdependent spiritual entities of pure consciousness. It is with this understanding and knowing that we can begin to plumb the depths of the concept of spiritual Love.

All ancient spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of Love. In the Indian tradition Love is expressed as ahimsa, or nonviolence, not only toward other humans but also toward all other creatures we share this planet with. Similarly, Jesus’ quintessential message was "Love thy neighbor." Unconditional love is perhaps the most selfless action we can perform because, while we unconditionally love something, we forget the self. And when there is no self, there is nothing that can die.

This is a message that has echoed through all religions and all ages. It is advice that many have heard but few have successfully assimilated. If it can be assimilated into our lives, then we will be truly liberated from the clutches of death. As David Darling aptly summarizes, "The message is clear: if we can learn to see through the illusion of self now, in this life, then the ‘I’ who can die no longer exists. Death is deprived of its victim, so that the basis for fear and sorrow of death is undermined. We become part of a much larger process--the totality of being--that has no start or end."


Cohn-Sherbok, Daniel, and Christopher Lewis, eds. 1995. Beyond Death: Theological and Philosophical Reflections on Life after Death. New York: St. Martin’s.

Darling, David J. 1995. After Life: In Search of Cosmic Consciousness. London: Fourth Estate.

Reanney, Darryl C. 1995. After Death: A New Future for Human Consciousness. New York: Morrow.

Rogo, D. Scott. 1990. Beyond Reality: The Role Unseen Dimensions Play in Our Lives. San Francisco: Thorsons.

Born in India, Alistair Conwell grew up in Perth, Australia, where he lives and is writing a book on the spiritual importance of death. His articles have been published in Yoga International and several Australian journals.

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