Conquering the Fear of Oblivion (in 15 minutes)

By Bernardo Kastrup

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Most people fear death. And amongst those, most do so because death seems to entail oblivion, the end of everything we are. In this brief essay, I want to help you follow your own direct experience to realize that, whatever death may be, it isn’t the end of you; not even of a part of you. This realization, in my view, is fairly simple to achieve and I personally don’t include it in my list of critical existential questions. But our mainstream cultural narrative has created a false monster here that distracts most people from the real questions. So let me try to make a contribution towards changing this distorted state of affairs. What follows requires no spiritual background, belief, knowledge or skill; indeed, it doesn’t require anything other than sincerity and attentive introspection for about 15 minutes. It focuses solely on your direct experience of your own being, without addressing thought-oriented philosophical questions. For the latter, I recommend Part III of my latest book More Than Allegory, wherein a series of dialogues addresses all the relevant points in a coherent, logical manner. So my proposal is this: as you read what follows below, park your thoughts for a few minutes. Only thereafter, go to More Than Allegory so to give yourself intellectual permission to embrace the direct realization you are about to have.

Try to read what follows in a quiet place, without distractions like people walking or chatting around you. No need for any special preparation, just try to remain undisturbed for a few minutes. Allow yourself to focus inward, on your own inner experience, as opposed to external stimuli. Once you are ready, let’s start.

Have you noticed that you experience yourself to be the same being since as early as you can remember? My first memory is a brief flash of my first birthday. I was sitting on a bed surrounded by colorful toys. I still remember the slight apprehension I had about a huge green elephant at the edge of the bed. In my experience, that one-year-old toddler was me. Yet, nothing about him has remained the same: not a single atom of his body is likely to have remained in mine since then. His thoughts, fears and desires have nothing to do with mine today. His appearance has surely changed completely. The pattern of his genes may have remained largely the same, but that doesn’t explain why I still identify myself with him. After all, people with a twin sibling don’t feel that they are their sibling, do they? So you see, there’s nothing one can pin down about that one-year-old toddler that could explain this continuing sense of identity. Yet, I have a crystal-clear, unambiguous sense that he indeed was me.

If you search your own memories and feelings, you will notice the same. There is nothing you can pin down about the infant, the child, the teenager or the young adult you once were that has remained intact in you today. Everything about them has changed: their bodies, appearance, feelings, dreams, thoughts, opinions, everything. Yet, you viscerally believe, even know, that they were you. If you now inquire a little deeper within yourself, you will notice that the only thing that has remained intact is the felt sense of “I” behind them all, which is still the same felt sense of “I” you experience today. Make a little pause right now and confirm this for yourself. Don’t look for anything you can point at, or give words to, in order to pin down this felt sense of “I.” You can only feel it, not define it, for it is that which does all the defining. Can you see how that sense, and that sense alone, is the real you?

This “I” has never left and has never changed throughout your life, although everything else did. This “I” is the only constant and it can’t, thus, be explained in terms of anything else, for everything else did change. Clearly, the real you isn’t your body, thoughts, opinions, emotions, etc. The real you is this constant “I” that has witnessed the body, thoughts, opinions, emotions, etc., as they changed throughout your life. Don’t let thoughts creep in and make you lose touch with our line of inquiry here; keep your attention on your own felt sense of being for now.

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These experiences provide a mirror to the witness that you are. Life and world are a symbolic mirror for that which experiences them (I explain this philosophically, and at length, in More Than Allegory). The problem is that, at some point before puberty, you began to look at some of the images in this mirror and say: “That’s me!” You began to point at these experiences and think that you are them. In a thought-dominated culture such as our own, conceived identity usurped your felt identity. The result is entirely equivalent to a person staring into a mirror and proclaiming herself to be an image in the mirror. But if I broke the mirror, the witness of the images would remain intact, without a scratch, wouldn’t she? I can’t hurt or kill a person simply by breaking the mirror she is looking at.

Death is the melting away of the mirror. Yet you are not, and have never been, an image in the mirror. That you think you are is just that: a thought. When the mirror dissolves, you remain intact. Nothing about you goes away or is lost.

Human beings are the only animals that know the mirror will eventually dissolve. And because we, absurdly, think that we are an image in the mirror, we derive great anxiety from this knowledge. As death approaches, the mirror begins to crumple and crack. Staring in horror at the increasingly distorted, mangled images in it, we think we are losing ourselves bit by bit. We think we are vanishing. But again, we are the ones looking at the mirror, not an image in it. Amnesic of this fact, we grasp at illusions and try to hold ‘ourselves’ together. Naturally, this is futile. We go nowhere after the mirror vanishes. We remain right where we were all along, being exactly what we have been all along.

Anxiety about oblivion vanishes if this is truly understood. We know then that the mirror has ever only been a folded-in configuration of ourselves, meant to allow us to see ourselves in some way, which eventually unfolds so we can again rest in pure being. The truth of the matter is that we are all condemned to the vertigo of eternity.

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