Saturday, November 5, 2016

Death, Anxiety and Death Anxiety

Most of my life I have wanted to die. When I believed in God, I wanted to go to heaven sooner than later. Living was too hard. Living was too painful. Living felt like a punishment. Most days, I did my best to live my life as God wanted me to, because I wanted to go to Him sooner than later.

I no longer believe in God, but as my son says, I do believe that god is probably Mother Earth. I still live like a Christian. Or Catholic. Or Buddhist. I just don’t call myself by those names. I live a moral life. I live an ethical life. But I still find myself in massive pain.

Death has always been the last resort of comfort, painlessness and a relief from being human. I knew I was going to die someday, and hoped it would be sooner than later. Death was a friend who was waiting for me with softness, cool warmth, lightness and dignity.

But in the last years something changed.

I remember when I was seventeen I had a conversation with my friend Sookjin. I said something like, “I am living because I cannot die.” She responded with “I am living because I was born.” Almost thirty five years later this conversation is still with me. For the last 50 years I have been walking away from birth. Walking away from ignorance, walking away from helplessness, walking away from being dependent. I walked with meaning and vigor as I was determined to become strong, intelligent, and independent. Something about the 50 years old milestone has me now walking towards death. Not the glorious peacefulness of death. But the messy process of getting to death. If walking away from birth was about gaining, walking towards death feels like losing something. Death in the abstract was peaceful. Getting to the destination of death in reality is as messy as life. Death is barreling down in slow motion. Death was supposed to be my liberation. I am confronted with having to live until I get there. In the last few years, I have been holding my breath for death to come. And in doing so I created more pain. Because I stopped living. Waiting for death is not proper living.

In order to understand the mystery of my pain I have searched for and found many sources of insight, wisdom and comfort. One of them is an interview that Krista Tippett has with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and teacher, on her podcast “On Being.” At one point, Ms. Tippett asks Brother Steindl-Rast how we can deal with gratitude in the mist of anxiety and fear. Brother Steindl-Rast goes on to explain the difference between anxiety and fear:

MS. TIPPETT: We have to acknowledge our anxiety, but we must not fear?

BR. STEINDL-RAST: Not fear. There is a great difference. See, anxiety, or anxious, being anxious, this word comes from a root that means “narrowness,” and choking, and the original anxiety is our birth anxiety. We all come into this world through this very uncomfortable process of being born, unless you happen to be a cesarean baby. It’s really a life-and-death struggle for both the mother and the child. And that is the original, the prototype, of anxiety. At that time, we do it fearlessly, because fear is the resistance against this anxiety. See? If you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die in the womb. Or your mother dies.

I have anxiety. I have massive anxiety. Everyday when I drive to work I have to remind myself I am not driving into a war zone. When I have to open up my email account, I expect a bomb to go off. When I leave my house I expect a firing squad. None of these things are true, but my brain tells me these lies. I have been wanting to carve out the anxiety and throw it away in the ocean, bury it with the landfills, burn it into hell, free it into the heavens. And yet, like my puppy who forever wants to be next to me, my anxiety is by my side, hugging my leg, nipping at my ankles if I walk away.

When I heard Brother Steindl-Rast explain the difference between anxiety and fear, it was as if the clouds opened up after two years of rain. Anxiety: if you go with it, it brings you into birth. If you resist it, you die. As scary as it is, I have to walk through anxiety. Maybe this is like walking through fire.

I started meditation. I am using the app Headspace. On day two or three, the app showed me an animation about watching thoughts versus chasing thoughts in the context of meditation. ( It explains the difference between watching your thoughts go by and chasing your thoughts down. All this time, I was chasing my thoughts down to the bitter end, thinking that I was honoring myself. Thinking that it was a critical part of being an intelligent human being. Critical thinking has its place and time, but mindfully ignoring, (watching) the buzz of the brain has great merits also. The binary idea of “not doing anything=being lazy” is being washed away.

I just finished listening to one of my favorite authors and teachers of all time, Irvin Yalom and his book “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.” He tells us numerous stories of how people are paralyzed by death anxiety and how they have worked to move through it. I did not know there was a thing called death anxiety. I was putting pain on a scale and balancing it off with the goal of death. I can get through living or I can live. Having a word, a concept, a definition of what you are experiencing is an empowering experience. It gives it context, it gives it a home, it gives it parents, and so you are not so lonely anymore. You are connected to the rest of humanity instead of being set aside alone in a desert with no water.

I am still haunted by the reality of the messy death. There is cancer and alzheimer’s in my family. I find myself wishing for cancer instead of alzheimer’s. In the face of the seemingly inevitableness of cancer, alzheimer’s, dementia or some other fatal, painful disease, I looked into death with dignity and found “Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking (VSED).”

Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking (VSED): To voluntarily stop eating and drinking means to refuse all food and liquids, including those taken through a feeding tube, with the understanding that doing so will hasten death. This is an option for people with terminal or life-limiting diseases who feel that with VSED their dying will not be prolonged. The US Supreme Court has affirmed the right of a competent individual to refuse medical therapies and this includes food and fluids. This choice is also commonly accepted in the medical community. (

The care takers (doctors, nurses, hospice workers) who have had experience with VSED give it an average rating of 8 on a scale from 1-9, 1 being a messy death, and 9 being a peaceful death. Finding this option is comforting. I am not a victim of life, nor of pain, nor of disease. I do not know that I will ever exercise my right to Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking. But it is a great relief to me that I have found a “get out of jail free” card if I need one.

On the outside, I have a great, most privileged life. My life partner is my best friend, my teacher, my earth, my rain, my sunshine. I have a son that bewilders me with joy and love I never knew I had inside of me. I have family, friends and students that move me deeply with their courage, hope and struggles. I still struggle with pain. I have been holding my breath for death. I am learning how to live the rest of my life. By watching mindfully the water, the sky, the wind, the trees, the thoughts, the pain, the anxiety, the fear. I watch it go by. As it ebbs and flows. By breathing. By listening. I am going to live and not wait for death. I will honor the breath I have right now.

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