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Dancing directly with the holy terror of death

Ever since teaching a course on the Buddhist four reminders in February this year, I’ve been dancing with the holy terror around death. I chant the Four Reminders every morning as part of my practice and those earthy Tibetan phrases push my nose into the terrific aspects of being alive. (Terrific being the adjective from terror in this case.) The second one runs like this:

Remembering that death is real and comes without warning, / Recalling that this body will become a corpse, / Knowing that my chance to practice dharma is brief, / I undertake this practice.

And each one of those lines electrifies me in a different way each time I say them.

One morning I might be very alive to fact that this body of mine will go through the dying process. That’s terrific. Or I might be really aware of how dissociated I am from that fact. Or I can feel completely inspired to practice and practice with a passion, knowing that I might kark it the next day.

Our dog, Floyd, whose kidneys have packed up and who is slowly fading away.

Like all of us, I have a complex interlayered relationship with death. My childhood had a lot of second-hand death in it with my mother’s parents dying a year either side of my birth. But oddly, I was never afraid of dying and my experiences on Ayahuasca in the Noughties brought me more comfort about the life beyond this body. Maybe that’s a form of dissociation though,  I know that this is part of my make-up.

I am, for example, keenly aware that I have shut down around other people’s grief in the past and I sometimes I suspect that I might be simply tidying death into a safe mental box…

That is all changing with the death of one of our dogs, Floyd, whose kidneys have packed up and who is slowly fading away.

The reality of death in the midst of a day-to-day family is, of course, much more painful but also more ‘terrific’. There are so many threads: reflecting on his imponderable absence when he’s gone; wondering how our other dog will cope; worrying that I might feel too much or not enough. And, of course, there is the flashlight reflected back on my own mortality.

When a mortal stumbles across a God or a Goddess then their heart is shaken by overwhelming terror

This is why facing the ‘holy terror’ of death in the reminder is so tonic. Western culture ties itself in agonising knots to deny the reality of death. We indulge in myriad neurotic activities to push that stark, looming fact out of our awareness. Drinking, working, worrying, thinking: all these anxious activities fill up the space till death and then BAM! it’s too late to really lean into the holy terror.

This idea of terror being holy comes from the Greeks. When a mortal stumbles across a God or a Goddess then their heart is shaken by overwhelming terror – but the terror is also the gateway to being transformed by the pure power of the deity. Similarly, when we lean into the ‘terrific reality’ of non-existence then something energising and life-enhancing is released. I couldn’t define what it is but I can definitely say that it is not neurotic.

Bhutanese wisdom: thinking of death five times a day makes you happy

A lovely friend of mine sent me a link when he found out I was pondering these subjects. It’s an app from America called – delightfully, – We Croak. The app is premised on the Bhutanese wisdom that thinking of death five times a day makes you happy. So my phone obligingly sends me a text throughout the day saying, ‘Remember, you’re going to die’ and then directs me to a pungent quote to reinforce that idea.

I’m not sure who collates the quotes but they’re very beautiful. Snippets from Rilke, from Joan Didion, from The Merck Manual for the Dying and from various medical texts. I think my two favourites to date are:

Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic, (W.H. Auden)


Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of lesser happiness are passing by. (Elizabeth Bishop)

Listen to me talking more on the positive terror of death

I’ve excerpted the chunk of the Spa Road course that dealt with this 2nd Reminder as a podcast. You might like to listen to it, it’s only 10 minutes long… Or you can check out my favourite We Croak quotes in the Library

I’d love to know your thoughts about death. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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