How much do you think about death? I don’t mean suicide, I mean how much do you think about the fact that you will eventually and inevitably die? Most people would answer that they don’t think about death much at all. But then, why am I stressing the importance of death awareness all through my work?
In my episode about the denial of death, I explained how the knowledge of your own mortality secretly controls most aspects of your life from the background. Death is like an invisible puppeteer who pulls your strings from behind the curtain, giving your actions motivation and your life a direction.
The reason why you can’t see him, is because you don’t want to. You’re afraid even to look at him, and if you somehow catch a glimpse, you immediately turn your head away in disgust or disbelief. The truth is that death is constantly in the back of your mind, but almost never in your conscious thoughts.
How can I prove this? I don’t have to, because a handful of psychologists already did it before me. In the last couple of decades, they carried out hundreds of experiments measuring the effects of death awareness on our actions, choices and behaviors. To learn more about their findings, please watch the episode titled “What is Terror Management Theory?”.
Here, I will call your attention to only one glaringly obvious point. It’s not hard to see that the primary motivation of all human beings is survival, while the secondary is reproduction. But surviving and escaping death is the very same thing, seen from two opposite perspectives. And procreation is nothing else than an effort to bypass death on the level of the species.
However, there’s a huge difference between escaping and denying death. The problem is that as a human, you don’t just want to avoid death, you want to avoid even the thought of death, which creates all sorts of problems, including psychological, cultural and social ones.
Just like any other animal, you are hardcoded with a basic survival instinct, you want to go on living no matter what. But unlike other animals, you are also aware that this is not possible, because you can deduct with your logical mind that just like everybody and everything else, you too will die. The thirst for immortality is basically an over-functioning survival instinct.
We can say then, that all conscious and unconscious thoughts ultimately lead back to the primary motivation of survival. But as the question of survival arises, so does its impossibility and futility. But you don’t like that, you don’t want to see the ugly side of the truth.
So, even though you are reminded of death all the time, even though escaping it is the primary mission of your life, even though all your thoughts lead back to this topic, you’re still saying that you don’t think much about death at all. How can this be?
Well, you may not think about it consciously, but I can guarantee you that it affects you unconsciously beyond your comprehension. Almost everything you do, you do it to deny, defeat or transcend death. Your whole personality is just a coping mechanism, a psychological defense system against the awareness of your mortality.
There are two primary ways you defend yourself from the thought of death: direct and indirect or conscious and unconscious. Researchers in this field also called them proximal and distal defenses, because the first is used when death is in proximity, and the second when the thought is already in a safe distance.
No matter how much you strive to protect yourself from the thought of death, it appears in your consciousness time and time again. This is actually the second stage on the death awareness scale I created, when the repressed fear of death suddenly arises. You can either let it free and move to the next stage, but most often than not, you will decide to simply repress it again.
To make the disturbing thought of death go away, you normally turn to some kind of proximal defense. This can either be repression, rationalization, distraction or procrastination. No matter the method, the goal is always the same: to push the thought into the subconscious.
Once it’s there, and the immediate mental treath subsided, you turn to the so-called distal defenses to keep it away from resurfacing again. These more unconscious techniques seem unrelated to death, but are intricately connected to it. They include boosting your self-esteem, putting your faith in your cultural values or a chosen religion, and other hidden ways of literally or symbolically achieving immortality.
Proximal and distal defenses work hand-in-hand to shield you psychologically, and their effectiveness explains why you normally don’t think about death. But you have to pay a very high price for this superficial peace of mind. Their strength is also their weakness. While they protect you from the pain, they also barricade you from the truth of who you are.
Let me explain this point with a short analogy. Imagine that you are floating on the vast ocean of life on a safety boat. As life contains death, you think that without the boat, you would simply drown. You want to be on the ocean of life, yet you’re afraid to immerse yourself in its depths. Instead, you live your whole life just on the surface, fearing for your life, desperately trying to survive, isolated on your tiny boat from the rest of existence.
The boat represents your ego, your personality or your self-esteem. This is your primary, or your distal defense I mentioned before. You distance yourself from the ocean of death, and most of the time, you manage to stay dry. But when there’s a storm, or when your boat gets a leak, you have to act swiftly, and your proximal defenses kick in.
You take a bucket, and start pouring out the water, in other words the immediate thoughts of death, as quickly as possible. When things get normal again, you can continue relying on your boat, that is until it eventually sinks into the ocean anyway.
But by doing this, you waste your whole life, you miss the depths of existence, when you will end up in the ocean anyway. Before you kick the bucket, kick the bucket out of the boat, and jump into the ocean. Don’t try to escape the thought of death, embrace it consciously. Death is the last thing you want to, but the first thing you ought to think about.
If you want to know more about death from a spiritual but down to earth perspective, you should read my book: The Power of Death. Click on the link below, and get it now! I’m deadly serious.