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Fear of Dying

I’m often struck by how many patients report that they have a fear of dying; sometimes this is quite unrelated to what they are coming for treatment for, but they feel it is important to mention it, it being an important part of their life and how they experience themselves. Some people feel this fear whenever they get even a small illness, for others it is just there in the background of their life.

On the one hand I tend to interpret this as being due to deficiency of the Shen. Shen is the organ in Chinese Medicine which corresponds roughly with the Kidneys; and is associated with fear. If there is some weakness in our Shen, we are likely to experience a more than normal amount of fear. Similarly the Shen are spoken of as the ‘root of life’, they are the origin of our vitality and individuality. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore once said, “I know that I shall love death, because I have loved life.”; so, perhaps, if we have strong Shen Qi, we are strongly and fully alive, and we do not fear death. These patients then need their Shen Qi strengthening, with acupuncture, herbal medicine, appropriate exercise and diet and so on.

On the other hand, fear of dying is normal. No one wants to die. And not only is it normal, it can be a gateway to a fuller and richer life. I’m fond of what the ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus said:

“Don’t you know that all human ills and mean-spiritedness and cowardice arise not from death, but from fear of death? Against this fortify yourself. Direct all your discourses, readings and exercises thereto. And then you will find that by this alone are men made free.”

So I don’t think we should shy away from our fear of death, but rather seek ways of overcoming that fear. Chinese medicine treatment may help as mentioned above; but in the modern world we are fortunate enough to have access to a whole host of ways of overcoming the fear of death. For example, there are the teachings of ancient philosophers like Epictetus, and then there are the meditative traditions on the East. Zen Buddhist meditation practice, for instance, certainly leads to a state of freedom from fear, including fear of death and dying; which was why it was taken up by many of the samurai. In this context I often remember this story about the abbot of a Japanese Zen monastery which was situated in a place which was overrun by a rampaging army. All the monks fled to the hills, but the abbot wasn’t going anywhere. The general of the army, storming into the monastery, was a bit put out to find this old man who didn’t seem in the slight bit bothered by him and his troops, and not the slightest bit afraid of them either. So, he strode up to the abbot, drew his sword, and declared. “Old man, don’t you realise that you are face to face with someone who can run you through without blinking an eye!” To which the abbot replied calmly, “Well, don’t you realise that you are face to face with someone who can be run through without blinking an eye!” At which point the general, who it turns out wasn’t entirely stupid, realised he was on the presence of someone who had reaped the fruit of a lot of years of intense meditation practice, and politely withdrew. We might think this is far fetched, but the point is that the fear of death is something which can be faced and overcome – but not by avoiding it, or, perhaps, too much influenced by the superficiality of modern culture, by thinking it abnormal.

Written by Vimalaprabha

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