The Ultimate Taboo

(This article originally appeared in a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)


As Daoists in ancient China carefully observed the natural world, they came to identify five major energies, called the Five Elements, which preside over all the tangible and intangible  facets of our lives. They saw that the substances and dynamics that exist in nature also exist in the human realm, and they found that by treating nature as a teacher, all of the challenges of humanity could be better understood.

We can get a brief understanding of the Elements by looking at the seasons they preside over and how they affect plant life. Winter (water) is the season of dormancy. It is followed by spring (wood), the season of awakening, when new growth occurs. In summer (fire), this growth peaks and blossoms. In late summer (earth), fruits and grains ripen and can be harvested. In fall (metal), growth ceases and leaves wither and fall.

Humans go through the same cycle over the course of our lives, and also over the course of every project, and every day. In the winter of any cycle, there is dormancy and stillness. Then comes the conception of a new idea, and winter turns to spring. The idea comes to life. Plans are made and growth begins. As the idea enters its summer, its growth is at its maximum. It opens and expands like a flower. In its late summer, it yields a harvest – some tangible return for the energy invested. Eventually, in its fall, the outward evidence of its flourishing existence begins to decay. Then, in its winter, it becomes dormant or dies. Since we’re in mid-winter now, it’s a good time to explore these qualities.

Although modern humans have climate controlled environments which allow us to be largely unaffected by the weather, for the majority of our history (and for all the other species on the planet) the seasons have significantly shaped our lives. Winter in particular (except for those living in perennially warm places) has always been a season that demands preparation and fortitude. Five Element philosophy’s association of winter with dormancy and death is easy to understand when we look out on a winter landscape: bare trees, brown grass, perhaps some empty shells of nuts and seeds that were scavenged for their sustenance months ago, entombed under a crust of ice. If you don’t have a stockpile of food and something cozy to wear, you’re not likely to make it.

And so, it’s quite natural that the emotion connected with winter and the Water Element is fear. Fear, like the cold of winter, has the ability to freeze us. Have you ever noticed how rigid your body goes when you get frightened? You may even feel a cold sweat or shiver. Not only can fear freeze us in a momentary frightful kind of way, in a more insidious sense, fear can freeze or inhibit the actualization of our potential in the world. When fear is present in our lives in an unbalanced way, we hesitate to take risks, even reasonable ones. If it’s very strong, we may never leave the house. Like a frozen well, our resources become inaccessible.

Although the Water Element is associated with all forms of fear, the particular core fear that it most pertains to is the fear of death. I once attended a lecture with a spiritual teacher who insisted that death is learned – that we teach each other that we must die, and it becomes established as a program deep within us. He claimed that we can reprogram ourselves, and he told of how he had spent years avoiding anyone who might mention or remind him of death. After a while, he said, he stopped believing death was inevitable. Unfortunately, as he was doing this lecture circuit and in contact all sorts of people, he said he had picked up the belief in death again, and seemed kind of perturbed with us for this.

I think there is a particle of truth in this philosophy. That is, we do teach each other beliefs that take the life out of life, that kill our spontaneity and freedom, that put us on the sidelines of our own existence. And perhaps we even convince each other that old age should look a certain way (e.g., decrepit and senile). But this man’s story was marked by avoidance and fear; it sounded more like hiding than evolution.

In my experience, if you’re really engaged in the love of life, you’re not willing to sacrifice any of it to worry about death. Spending a life fearing its end is like lighting a sparkler and then, as it does its magic, lamenting, “Oh no, it’s going to go out! Oh no, it’s going to go out! Oh no, it’s going to go out!” until it finally goes out. What a waste of a perfectly good sparkler.

Over time, I discovered that this teacher was far from alone. There is a massive cultural denial of death. As Ken Wilber explains in Grace and Grit, the story of his wife’s battle with cancer, while our society may be repressed about sex, death is the greater repression. “Death,” he writes, “is the ultimate taboo. Mankind has tried to deny it, repress it, and avoid it.” So, if you want to make people uncomfortable at a party, take off your clothes. If you want to make them really uncomfortable, tell them you’re dying.

Our denial of death spurs many of us to push through life at a relentless pace (at least mentally, if not also physically). Not because we want to savor everything there is to experience, but because we’re running away from our mortality. To this end, we try to fill every moment with activity. We don’t let ourselves experience the stillness of winter in our cycles because it feels unproductive. We go right from one thing to the next. And we find it incredibly hard to meditate – or even to schedule the time to meditate – because it means stopping everything. Perhaps it’s what we imagine death to be like.

After more than thirty years of not feeling especially fearful of death, my daughter was born, and then I suddenly became intensely averse to dying. I felt anxious about the idea of not being around for her and my wife, and guilty about the pain they would feel if I died. This prompted me to study death and those who were close to it, with the hope of finding some insight that would alleviate my angst.

I talked to many people and heard lots of interesting viewpoints. It helped a little. And then, one day, I was speaking about enlightenment with a man who seemed very lighthearted and clear, and he said this: “The secret to liberation? To die before you die.” I felt a current move through my body, like someone woke up a circuit that hadn’t gotten electricity in years. I couldn’t tell if I was afraid or excited.

To die before you die. I had heard the expression before. It is usually attributed to Muhammad, though a similar concept exists in many Eastern spiritual philosophies. I had interpreted it, as I think most people do, to mean that in order to really “wake up” to your life, you have to let the limitations inherent in your ego, your stories, your personality, and your attachments die. And then you can just let life be whatever it is without placing restrictions, labels, expectations or judgments on it.

But that’s not the way this guy meant it. He explained that through an intense spiritual event he had experienced his own death. He truly believed his body was shutting down. He went through the process and came out the other side still alive. Very much alive. More alive than ever before. He had gotten death over with and it no longer had any grip on his psyche.

I realized that my fear of death had always been there, and decided that perhaps its arousal was an opportunity. I got interested in the experiences of people who had biologically died and then come back to life – either spontaneously or through the application of a thousand volts to the chest. Doctors Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring are often regarded as the experts on this topic, as they have interviewed hundreds of these people. And it turns out they have found some common themes in their stories: feelings of deep peace and being surrounded by love, a reunion with deceased loved ones, a reluctance to return to life, and, after regaining consciousness, a lasting sense of gratitude and the loss of any fear of death.

In A Year to Live, Stephen Levine writes about a year-long experiment in which he pretended he was going to die at the end of that year. Having spent decades working with dying people, Levine discovered that when faced with impending death, paradoxically, we often feel safe. In an interview, he explained, “When we know we can’t be hurt anymore, that we might die, we feel safe. It makes us feel unsafe too, but there is this place inside of us that feels safe, that allows us to see what holds back from life yet says it hates to lose life. We trade off more life after we are born than we do after we die.” At the end of the experiment he writes, “Preparing for death is one of the most rational and rewarding acts of a lifetime.”

I can’t say that I’m at total peace with dying – yet – but the insights of those who are more deeply acquainted with it subdued my fear and helped me bring my focus back to life. We won’t all have near-death or “dying before we die” experiences that will instantly transform our relationship with death. But we can certainly become more conscious of how we may be unwittingly allowing our survival instinct to edge our consciousness out of the sweetness of the present moment by keeping us focused on the future. If you knew you only had a short time to live, what loose ends would you want to tie up? What conflicts would you want to reconcile? Considering your willingness to spend your last moments taking care of these things, you must perceive them as hindrances to your resting in peace, eh? Why wait until death to be peaceful?


Be very well,

Dr. Peter Borten