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the fear of death

by Nick Edge

When a person dies, there arises this doubt: 
‘He still exists’ say some; ‘he does not’ say others.
 I want you to teach me the truth.

This is the third boon that Nachiketa asks of Yama, Lord of Death, in the Katha Upanishad. This is also the question that has driven me, and countless others, to search for answers.

From a young age I can remember being very aware of the fact that one day I would cease to exist, and this filled me with an overwhelming sense of fear. In a society that effectively denies death by keeping it behind closed doors and out of sight, those who look for answers can often feel frustrated and lost, not knowing where to turn. 

However we are not the first to ask these questions and fortunately those that have gone before us have left many clear pointers to help us on our path.

Yoga has long recognized that death, and the fear of death, are realities that have to be faced with openness and courage while we are still alive. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, counts the fear of death as one of the five kleshas. The kleshas are obstacles, or afflictions of mind, that keep us from seeing the true nature of our being. They are as follows:  

  • Avidya – Ignorance of the truth of what we are.
  • Asmita – the identification with the small ‘i’ or me.
  • Raga – the desire for pleasure or pleasant experiences.
  • Dwesha – the aversion to pain or unpleasantness.
  • Abhinivesha – the fear of death; desire for life.

Yoga does not offer to wave a magic wand to make death, or the fear of it, disappear. What it does teach us is that through continued practice and self-inquiry we may loosen the grip of ignorance, avidya, and false identification, asmita, which so occupy our minds. When we perceive the truth of our being, avidya is dissolved and the house of cards built upon it falls. The fear of the annihilation of ‘me’ along with the other bonds of ignorance no longer have any foundation or substance. 

Ottoman tombs

This is no easy task. (Even Yama, in response to Nachiketa’s question above, responds that “the secret of death is hard to know” and asks that Nachiketa request some other boon.) It will require our total commitment, and the process at times will be challenging and uncomfortable. Our assumptions and concepts of what we think we are will be challenged, and as these become less solid we will no doubt experience resistance and discomfort. We have spent so long investing in and upholding our ignorance that, clearly, to remove this ignorance will also demand time and energy. We can expect nothing less. If we use our fear of death as the motivation, it can be the impetus that drives us to search for and uncover the truth. 

Death is a certainty. Try as we might, we can neither ignore death nor our fear of it. We can either turn to face it or we suppress our fears and create further obstacles to our full acceptance of life.

In the Katha Upanishad, Yama implores us to go deeper to help answer our questions:

“Get Up! Wake Up! Seek the guidance of an Illumined teacher and realize the Self.” 

If we are honest with ourselves, to quote Swami Nishchalananda, ‘we have nothing to lose.’ 

Article courtesy of Mandala Yoga Ashram


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