“Death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
The neurons in your brain work like billions of little batteries in a network. They receive a collection of neurotransmitters (mostly glutamate) from thousands and thousands of other batteries and then build a sufficient charge to generate electrical signals which they then fire on down the line. But if the signal isn’t sufficiently strong – too few batteries turned on at once, or too many batteries generating a canceling negative charge – they fail to keep the energy flow going. They’re kind of like the light switch in the room you’re reading this blog in. If you fail to flip the switch with enough force to fully raise it, the light won’t go on. It’s the strength of this signaling that neuroscientists can use technology to measure. But there are all kinds of things going on in your brain that current tech can’t measure.
One of those things we can’t measure with current technology is how awareness of death underlies much of the activity that unconsciously drives our brain’s and body’s electrical signaling. And yet, wiser people than me have suggested that indeed it does (think: every major spiritual teacher from time immemorial). If that’s so, then what is there for us and our brains to do about it?
I have met a number of people (mostly physically abused, and mostly men) who claim that they have little or no fear of death. Such a declaration is always suspect to me, since I know that what we think cognitively and what our brains and bodies can actually process in any overwhelming moment are often not even close to a match. Along those lines I’m reminded of a story told by Zen Mountain Monastery teacher John Daido Loori. One day he and his own teacher were discussing fear of death and the role of meditation practice in helping to overcome that fear. “I have completely overcome the fear of death,” Loori confidently declared. At which point his meditation teacher jumped up and knocked Loori to the floor and began strangling him in earnest. Loori’s cognitive brain structures may have thought he had overcome his fear of death, but his body put up such a violent struggle that it sent the teacher flying across the room in its efforts to obtain the oxygen necessary to remain alive.
The One Unexpected Thing
So, if we can’t actually think ourselves over the fear of death, what might we be able to do? One approach I have taken for much of my life is to sidle on over towards death. To examine it up close and personal, kind of indirectly. Not the way monks practice in India – sitting all night in cemeteries, or meditating for days on end before the burning bodies floating on ghats down the Ganges River. No. The way I turn towards death is per my own personal prescription. What my brain and body are able to manage in the doses I’m able to take.
So, for example, when I first began grief counseling, I specifically requested I not be assigned people with life-threatening illnesses. I only wanted to meet with surviving loved ones. I recognized and honored my own emotional limits. Then, after a number of years, as I became increasingly comfortable and perhaps a little skillful hanging out with grieving folks, I requested clients who were the living loved ones of people who were actively journeying down the end-of-life trajectory. Only then, when I thought I might be ready, did I request an actively dying client. It was a young man in the end stages of leukemia (we always remember our first time). But I turned out not to be as ready as I thought I was: I spent most of our single session distracted and dissociated. Fortunately, there was little personal penalty for simply not being ready.
So, if I wasn’t ready then, and I’m still not ready now, what am I doing to get more ready? One thing I do is research and read a lot in the “death literature.” I have a whole bookcase in my office dedicated to death and dying titles. Here’s a piece I read recently that I especially like from behavioral neuroscientist, Kate Jeffreys:
Death is what makes this cyclical renewal and steady advance in organisms possible. Discovered by living things millions of years ago, aging and death permit a species to grow and flourish. Because natural selection ensures that the child-who-survives-to-reproduce is better than the parent (albeit infinitesimally so, for that is how evolution works), it is better for many species that the parent step out of the way and allow its (superior) child to succeed in its place. Put more simply, death stops a parent from competing with its children and grandchildren for the same limited resources. So important is death that we have, wired into our genes, a self-destruct senescence program that shuts down operations once we have successfully reproduced, so that we eventually die, leaving our children—the fresher, newer, shinier versions of ourselves—to carry on with the best of what we have given them: the best genes, the best art, and the best ideas. Four billion years of death has served us well.
So, death appears to be the natural order of things and reading and research in the death literature can be a positive help. Here’s a bonus thing I do which you might want to consider – I work hard to get over myself. Here’s an interesting study describing just how that might actually become accomplished in my brain. Turns out that getting over ourselves is like many other things in our lives: it requires learning and ongoing practice. It’s such learning and practice which ends up measurably changing the brain, and it does so apparently in very specific areas. The area of the brain that seems to correlate most strongly with both narcissism and selflessness is our old friend the Cingulate Cortex – a kind of bridge structure between our emotional centers and our cognitive cortex. It’s the highlighted structure in the illustration on the left. The primary difference structurally, between self-centeredness and selflessness in our brain is which part of the Cingulate Cortex has developed the most neural fibers capable of transmitting Big Charge. The ass end of the Cingulate Cortex (posterior or PCC) lights up big-time when narcissism is in full flower; and the front part (anterior or ACC) shines brilliantly when selflessness is leading the charge. Selflessness correlates with diminished concern for the self. As self-concern diminishes, my current best sense is: so does concern over the demise of the container which contains that self. As that process continues to unfold, usually when I least expect it, I periodically find myself joyfully afforded … Glimpse After Glimpse.