Mark Twain, a brilliant observer, once said, “The fear of death follows the fear of life.” It’s common to see people cling to life at almost any cost. We assume that it’s because they love life and fear death, but as Twain pointed out, there is probably much more to the issue. We recently came across an intriguing internet article that speaks eloquently on this subject. It was based on the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying written by hospice nurse Bonnie Ware. 

As you read Ms. Ware’s list, you can’t help but notice that a recurring theme is the fear of living:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It’s no coincidence that each sentence begins with the word wish since wishing is a useless activity that gets us gets us nowhere. Sadly, when it’s too late to do much about it, we often realize at best, our life was half lived. Too often this happens because we’re afraid to look within and find out what’s most valuable to us. Instead, we give into peer pressure and “go along to get along.” We recently saw a book in the window of a FedEx shop titled, How to Make Yourself Indispensable to Your Employer.” Such a book may appear to offer sound advice but when we use it as a guide, we can easily throw our life away in service to the dictates of a society that often values us only for our ability to support its interests. Thoreau observed the result when he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Ms. Ware saw first-hand the results of living this way and points out the heavy price we pay for denying self, “Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried.”

Surprisingly, many of Ms. Ware’s patients did not understand until they were dying that these regrets were the result of their own choices, or that they had even made the choices. They didn’t stop to think that their own happiness, how much hours they worked, giving up their dreams, suppressing their feelings or neglecting their friends were all choices, choices that could be made differently.

If this life was all we had, we would be paying an extremely high price for choices we make, or fail to make that were not in our own best interests. But spiritual sages tell us something quite different:

I am not a little mortal being with bones that break, a body that will perish. I am the deathless, changeless infinite—Yogananda

Death is the temporary end to a temporary phenomenon…It is not the end, only a door into another room—Eknath Easwaran

As to your life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths, no doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before—Walt Whitman

Imagine a sheet of paper with two slits cut in it and a thin slip of paper woven through the slits. No matter which side of the paper you look at, you can see the strip of woven paper, but you can’t see the entire strip at one time. This image fits nicely with Eckhart Tolle’s explanation of life, “Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.”  Life, like the strip of paper, cannot always be seen, but it continually exists.

Although we can keep going round and round in the cycle of birth and death, living one miserable life after another appears to be little more than an exercise in futility. There is something more, something far better, but it involves the courage to look within and make different choices. ‘Death before dying’ is a theme that runs through the teachings of the world’s great sages, and it’s also a cure for the fear of life. Rumi points out:

This world is the seed-time of the Beyond. If you are lazy at seed-time, you weep at harvest, when all tears are futile. It is today, now, that we must use and profit from each breath, for each of our breaths is a treasure…spend each breath on the Path to God and never grow desperate. [italics ours]

The ‘death’ we get is created by the life we live.  A life lived in fear will lead to rebirth as another body that can’t remember its true identity and remains in fear. Or, we can use this lifetime to ‘wake up’ and realize the deathless Self. The Upanishads tell us, “Perceiving the truth, [we] become that truth; [we] pass beyond all suffering, beyond death; all the knots of [our] heart are loosed.” Life is about constant choice. When we fall in line with this world, it blocks out the truths our heart is whispering to us. When we make the choice to be courageous, look within and hear those whisperings, we find that there never has been, and never will be, anything to fear.

If one is afraid of losing anything, they have not looked into the Friend’s eyes: they have forgotten God’s promise…When your fears surrender…you will begin to experience that all existence is a teeming sea of infinite life…Stay in the dangerous life that’s yours. There you’ll meet the face that dissolves fear—Hafiz

Hope and fear are phantoms that arise from thinking of the self. When we don’t see the self as Self, what do we have to fear? —Lao Tzu

Lee and Steven Hager are the authors of several books featuring the synergy of science, spirituality and gnosis.

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