How Stoicism Helped Me Conquer the Fear of Death
A while ago I had a deep existential crisis revolving around the thought – and especially the fear – of death.
The terror that arouse within my mind at the mere thought of being finally at some point annihilated accompanied me since childhood and once in a while it crawled out of the corner I had banished it into. Death, or rather being dead, that black never ending void I pictured it to be, was the worst thing I was able to imagine.
About two years ago I was alone for a few weeks. My girlfriend was out of the country, I had just recently moved out of a shared apartment into my own, had the time free from work or study, and generally am a rather reclusive person. In summary I had quite some time to spend alone to which I usually look forward. But not that time. The weeks before I already had these existential thoughts about life and death and the meaninglessness of it all spiking up occasionally. I tried to conquer it by reading Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphos” which didn’t quite work out.
I had gone through a decade of philosophical and spiritual disappointments ranging from Vedanta, Buddhism to Taoism, Western Magick, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and quantum woo woo. To me none of these were intellectually satisfying or brought about major deal-breakers in terms of their practical application as a philosophy of life. So I settled with a skeptical atheist mindset two years prior. Finally I was alone and the more time passed the more intense the thoughts about life and death surfaced in my mind. Having no distraction around I soon found myself totally immersed in them – desperately trying to find a solution to the anxiety they created. There had to be an answer. Something. I mean, literally millions, billions of people had been going through existence. Someone would have had to leave some advice on how to deal with it properly I could use.
Then, one night, I was totally overwhelmed by my obsession with death. The crisis had peaked and I sat crying in my apartment. Sobbing for hours, running around in circles, panicking at the thought of dissolving into nothingness. I thought, “That’s it, dude. You messed it up. Why did you have to go there? There’s no way back now.” But then I took all my courage together to have a last look at mankind’s thoughts on the matter. I must have overlooked something. So I fired up google and tried every combination of keywords I could think of that might reveal an answer to my question of how to confront my own mortality.
It took a while but then something appeared on my screen that caught my attention. There it said: “Should anyone mourn the deceased, then he must also mourn the unborn.”
“Mhm. Clever.”, I thought to myself. Where is that from? Some dude called Montaigne from the 16th century quoting another dead dude. The title of the essay this was from: “That to study Philosophy is to learn to die”. Actually exactly what I was looking for. I just hoped that finally there was something in there. “Please not some puffed-up guy writing fancy thoughts. I can’t deal with that now.” I really had to pull myself together to force me through that text. But as I did I had one epiphany after the other and soon I found myself getting calmer. So I read it again. And again. And again. I read that essay at least five times that night. And then again first thing in the morning. And the next day. It was my medicine. Better than anything I had come across. Ever.
So after fighting back the terror it was time to build upon that. I wanted to find out who these guys were that came up with all this. There had to be a system to it. So I did some research and found out about cognitive therapies that allegedly were building upon some Greek philosophers. All right, I thought, I know about psychology (having studied that subject for some time), I trust science. Let’s try out that approach. Probably that will be more geared toward practical application than the old texts. And it hopefully wouldn’t have any ideological baggage or belief-systems tied to it.
I ordered a copy of Albert Ellis’ “A Guide to Rational Living”. It was a huge eye-opener to me. Things started to fall into place. I realized that for decades I had looked at the world through a perspective that had to cause me trouble. I was hooked. I reread it and then applied some of the techniques that Ellis described. After a few months of feeling much better altogether I had another look at the sources and started to read them instead. Seneca was the first author I stuck with. About a year later I had a look for online forums dealing with Stoicism and even registered at facebook just to take part in the Stoicism group there – because outside of that there didn’t seem to be much else.
There I learned about more and more sources and secondary texts and practices concerning Stoic philosophy, soaked it all up and cooked up my own practice from it. I had already been meditating for years with some interruptions and thought it would the time to take up that habit once again.
Naturally one of the central subjects I am and was most interested in is the Stoic view on death. The premeditation of death hence became my daily morning ritual and so a few months ago I realized that my fear of death and non-existence had waned immensely. A few weeks prior to writing this, after repeated reading of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” I even feel quite comfortable with the idea of dying.
Now it seems to me that life and death are both similarly just expression of the same ever lasting change that the logos brings about within the cosmos. As the change of the elements created everything I needed to become the person that now has this short experience of being alive – I, too have to dissolve to pass that energy on to other things and creatures that will then take my place.
And what is this “me” anyway that I am so afraid of losing? Isn’t it just a spark of the big thing we call the universe? One thing, one being maybe, expressed in an infinite fractal of which I am a part? Won’t “I” be part of it after I die? Is it of any importance?
What is important is to live a life according to the rules of that universe. To just accept the things that I can’t understand nor change. Like death. I kinda understand it, I think. But I won’t be able to change it. Life and death happen on all levels, in every dimension: Things come into being and dissolve. The very definition of life is change. Without change, no growth, no perception, no sight, no taste, would be possible. Without change and hence death, even eating a plain slice of bread is impossible. The grain gives its life for me. I eat it and eventually die. And I give my energy and the components that make up my body back to the universe.
Everything is borrowed, Epictetus tells us. And indeed it is. When we lose someone – they are returned to the giver, the universe. And so we, too – are handed back over into the hands of the logos.
I don’t cramp in fear anymore by the thought of it. Actually I find it really natural, really. It’s the way things go. Everyone and everything obeys nature’s commands in this regard. To become sad or upset is both futile and ignorant.
“Who are you to accuse nature of her doings? Doings that brought you about? That feed you? That provide you with that very experience you call life?” I guess, I would be an idiot. And I don’t just say it. I mean it. And in these rare moments on my meditation-cushion, I even feel it. And I have to confess, that that is the greatest freedom I have yet come across: To see the beauty and simplicity in all of this.
So, yeah. I find that change of perspective I went through quite amazing and just wanted to share it in order to maybe inspire someone to try it out, too.
All that is left to do is to leave it at that and end this dilettante rendition of my short journey into Stoicism with a big “Thank you” to all the people who supplied me with their thoughts and helped me get and stay on this path.
About the author: Dale Cooper is a pseudonym.