Ask A Dharma Teacher: Fearing Death

Tree Bud

Dear Teacher,

Hello. I stayed with your monastery several years ago. I have a question and thought it’d be good to ask a group of people who meditate so often. Is it possible for the power of meditation to overcome the fear of death? Can one accept with peace that he or she is going to die and feel peace with it instead of feeling danger? Can meditation turn off the fight or flight response? I’ve been struggling with the feeling and thoughts that I’m going to die soon and I want to know if I can get out of the feeling with meditation.

Thank you

Dear Thay, Dear Noble Community, Dear Friend on the Path,

Thank you for your deep question. I have sat with it for a long time. It sounds like you are feeling danger and fear around death. These emotions are normal and physiologically appropriate. Our bodies are designed to protect and survive in the face of threat and danger and death. Thay and the Buddha teach us to hold each difficult emotion, with the tenderness of a mother holding a crying baby and look deeply into the fear. Where did this fear come from? Is my fear appropriate in this situation? Or is there something from my past that is coloring my experience? If we can look deeply into the fear, if we come back to our breathing, if we come back to our mind and body, we can come back to the present moment and see reality in front of us. Perhaps insight will arise.

I spent several years working with children with cancer. I witnessed a lot of suffering and death. I realized I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief, not only from the passing of these incredible children I had grown to love, but with deeper grief from my childhood I had never healed. I spent several years stepping away from this career and spending time tending to this deep sadness and the fear of death. Over the years, I have listened to and embraced that 5-year-old child who also lived in fear of death growing up in a violent household. I know that I am safe now, I can protect myself, and I have a lot to be thankful for. Most importantly, I am thankful I found the practice. I have found refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.

Yes, meditation has proven to calm down the nervous system by activating the rest and digest part of our nervous system. However, people who are living a fast-paced life are often living in the fight/flight mode. When we are driving fast on the highway, we are stepping on the gas and we may have a heightened fear of crashing. However, if we are slow, mindful, and in touch with our body and the present moment, we can see the path clearly in front of us. Some of us who are used to living at a fast pace, we need help from others, the sangha, to help us slow down, come back to ourselves and strengthen those pathways of calm, peace, and solidity. Also, please be aware, for some people with a history of trauma, sitting quietly for long periods of time, alone, may even trigger difficult experiences and anxiety. If that is the case, please seek help and support and find people who can introduce you to Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness techniques so that you can feel ease and safety with the practice.

We all have the innate quality to be mindful and brave and courageous. When we are diligent in our practice, those pathways will be deeply ingrained in our mind, our bodies, and our consciousness. Thay encourages us to live each moment deeply because we never know when our time will come. I love to start my day with this gatha, “Waking up this morning I smile. 24 brand new hours before me. I vow to live each moment, fully. And to look at all beings with compassion (including myself).”

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be free from anxiety
May you be free.

A deep bow,
Dharma Teacher Juliet Hwang
True Emerald Ocean

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