Embrace the Ultimate Unknown – Scientific American Blog Network

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“The irony of [the human condition] is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.” —Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

“We can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.” —William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

A few years ago, I had an existential crisis. I underwent a very benign medical procedure, for which I was told that the probability of death was very low. I remember wanting to respond, “You mean not zero? You mean there’s a chance I could die?” The procedure went according to plan, but I was left with a sudden awareness of my mortality. For some strange reason, I went nearly forty years of my life without the deliberate conscious awareness that this life, at least in this body, won’t last forever. And quite frankly, the thought terrified me.

To get a grip, I read the classic book The Denial of Death by anthropologist Ernest Becker. Drawing heavily on the work of the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, Becker declares that there is a “rumble of panic underlying everything.” According to Becker, this is the result of an “existential paradox”:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life, and self-expression—and with all this yet to die.

I definitely apprehended the “rumble of panic” that Becker described, but his proposed solutions—which included taking a “leap of faith” into the “invisible mystery” of creation that has a design beyond human comprehension—offered no guidance as to how to actually live my life even if I took such a leap of faith.

Coincidentally, an opportunity fell in my lap. A friend who worked for an experimental theater company called Swim Pony was putting together an interactive game called The End. I was asked to participate, and I could assess whether playing the game led to any improvements in well-being. I signed on.

Soon after I signed up, a package arrived containing a journal, a deck of cards with evocative images on each card, and an invitation to attend a party in twenty-eight days, the location to be announced. I also received a text message that read, “Hi, I’m The End. Text me when you’re ready to play.”

Uh-oh, what had I gotten myself into here?

The entity that identified itself as “The End” explained the rules of the game to me. Each day, for twenty-eight consecutive days, I was to draw a new card, each directing I go on a quest. Then I was to reflect with The End on the lessons I learned from the experience, anything I noticed about myself as a result of the experience, and any patterns that connected the experience to cards I had already played. With that “rumble of panic,” I fully engaged.

For twenty-eight days I embarked on quests of increasing intensity and poignancy, from engaging in a guided meditation on the expansiveness of the universe, to writing my own obituary, to walking through a cemetery and noticing how I felt, to imagining the ideal day of my life and who I’d want to spend it with, to actually experiencing what it would feel like to hear that I would have only a little time left to live, to researching what I wanted to do with my body after death and which medical procedures would be OK if I were incapacitated. For twenty-eight extremely emotional days, I confronted head on—with no defenses—what it really was about death that made me so afraid.

At multiple points, I was explicitly asked to provide a personal mission statement as to why I was playing this game. At the beginning, my statement was “Because I’m scared of the ultimate unknown, but also extremely curious about it.” Halfway, I was asked if I wanted to adjust my statement based on my experiences so far, and I said, “I’d like to somehow change my default state from anxiety to curiosity. I’m a very curious person, but my default can get in the way.”

Once The End was complete, I gathered with the rest of the players at a cemetery (of course it was a cemetery) to reflect on the experience. We all agreed that the “game” was nothing short of life-changing. We understood what was most important in our lives, and while we were more aware of death than ever, we were also more aware of life than ever. When I looked at the data of all the players (including myself), it confirmed the conversations I had at the cemetery. There was a statistically significant increase in ratings from pre-game to post-game on the following aspects of well-being:

At first the data was perplexing. According to Becker and an entire line of research based on his theory, called Terror Management Theory (TMT), awareness of death should cause an increase in insecurity and defensiveness. Yet that’s not what any of us participants of The End actually experienced. Rather, we felt a renewed sense of wonder and joy for our lives and a greater focus on what we most care about. How to explain this discrepancy?

When it comes to the fear of death, I think there is much more going on than simply a fear of “absolute annihilation.” Contrary to Terror Management Theory– which recent studies show do not even replicate anyway– I don’t believe that humans evolved defenses specifically in order to cope with the existential reality of death. After all, research shows that people are often more afraid of the unknown, separation from loved ones, and eternal damnation than they are afraid of no longer existing. In fact, when given a choice between living forever alone or dying prematurely surrounded by loved ones, most people choose death.

Instead, I believe the “rumble of panic” that Ernest Becker describes arises not because of our fear of annihilation per se but because the idea of annihilation is so extremely threatening to the needs that most of us are so often preoccupied with satisfying. It’s likely that death awareness is a by-product of our uniquely developed capacities for imagination and self-awareness, and the idea of death just so happens to activate so many of our defenses. In particular, the awareness of our mortality activates our deep-seated fear of uncertainty (death is the ultimate uncertainty, after all), threatens the stability of our belonging and connection with others (death separates us from others), and threatens self-esteem, especially our narcissistic self-esteem (there’s nothing more disruptive to our incessant quest to become godly than death).

No wonder people display so many defenses when confronted with the awareness of their mortality and why, when we feel most unsafe and uncertain, we tend to shift our focus to more immediate, egoistic concerns.

But things don’t have to be this way, at least insofar as we are able to climb our way out of the insecurity trap. As Irvin Yalom notes, “Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us.” In the state of full-mindfulness of one’s existence, he says, “one marvels not about the way things are but that they are.”

In studying a number of individuals who actually confronted death, including his own psychotherapy work with terminally ill cancer patients, Yalom noticed that the experience is often highly transformative, leading to a rearrangement of life’s priorities, a sense of liberation, an enhanced sense of living in the present, a vivid appreciation and acceptance of the elemental facts of life (changing seasons, falling leaves), deeper communication with loved ones, and fewer interpersonal fears. This is from a person who survived a suicide attempt:

I was refilled with a new hope and purpose in being alive. It’s beyond most people’s comprehension. I appreciate the miracles of life—like watching a bird fly—everything is more meaningful when you come close to losing it. I experienced a feeling of unity with all things and a oneness with all people. After my psychic rebirth I also feel for everyone’s pain. Everything was clear and bright.

There are indications that such transformations are possible for anyone who has the opportunity to repeatedly confront the ultimate unknown. Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, visited Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom well-known for its Gross National Happiness—a collective index used to measure the happiness and well-being of large swaths of its citizens. In Bhutan, death and gruesome images of death are openly confronted every day, and no one, not even children, is protected from the constant awareness of mortality. There are many ways to die in Bhutan, and elaborate, lengthy rituals are performed when someone does die. As Weiner was told by one of the inhabitants of Thimphu, the capital of Bhu- tan, “You need to think about death for five minutes every day. . . . It will cure you. . . . It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”

Recent research shows that even in the psychological laboratory, when given the opportunity to reflect more deeply and personally about their mortality over a sustained period of time, people tend to show a shift toward growth-oriented values—self-acceptance, intimacy, and community feeling—and away from extrinsic, status-oriented values such as money, image, and popularity.

Three characteristics that seem to be especially predictive of growth after an extended period of death awareness are mindfulness, openness to experiences, and having a quiet ego, characteristics that are part and parcel of the B-realm of existence. Exploring your mortality with openness, curiosity, deep reflection, mindfulness, humility, and self-compassion helps you to move beyond the defenses that insecurity begets.

Of course, easier said than done! The “Deficiency Realm” human existence is a potent force. These ways of being in the world have to be continually practiced, as we are prone to slip back into defense and insecurity in the face of threats to our security as even Yalom himself found after an automobile accident: “My fundamental death anxiety thus had only a brief efflorescence before being secularized to such lesser concerns as self-esteem, fear of interpersonal rejection, or humiliation.”

At the end of the day, the best way to have a good death is to live a good life. Developmental psychologist Gary Reker and existential positive psychologist Paul Wong argue that there are depths of meaning—ranging from purely hedonic pleasure and comfort to personal growth, creativity, and self-actualization, to service to others and dedication to a larger societal or political cause, to living values that transcend individuals and encompass cosmic meaning and ultimate purpose. They contend personal meaning in life increases in proportion to commitment to higher levels of meaning.

More recent research by meaning researcher Tatjana Schnell and her colleagues has found striking support for this theory. They found that the sources of meaning in one’s life that are most strongly related to a sense of meaningfulness involve things that integrate self-actualization with transcendence, such as generativity, appreciation, inner harmony, growth, values, spirituality, creativity, care, and love. Lower down on the list are things like fun, individualism, achievement, tradition, order, and comfort.

As we shift our priorities toward higher, more integrated levels of meaning, we see a remarkable shift in our depths of meaning, facilitated by the awareness of our own mortality, as well as the development of our own full humanness.

From TRANSCEND by Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House. LLC Copyright (c) 2020 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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