This article consists of three parts:
#1 – The Root of Fear of Death
#2 – Turn Unhealthy Fear into Healthy Fear through Meditation
#3 – Yin Yoga Sequence to Overcome Fear of Death
#1 – Root of Fear of Death
Even the Wise Men Fear Death
Fear and anxiety are interesting themes to work with in a meditation or yoga class. It is a theme all can relate to as most of us (if not all of us) have some kind of fear that we are struggling with. It prevents us from making the life choices that we actually know would make us most happy. Some fears are more obvious and we are conscious of them, others may be deeply buried down in our unconscious. Whether our mind is aware of them or not, our physical and energetic bodies are never ignorant: they provide a blueprint for our (un)conscious emotions and therefore are a great tool to work with. As you know, through asanas, working on our physical as well as energetic bodies we can change conditioning imprinted in the mind as well; something that you can beautifully use for your own practice as well as teaching.
Patanjali, the presumed author of the Yoga Sutras which is one of the most important texts for Raja and Hatha Yoga practitioners, already recognised how fear could keep us away from recognising our true self and the universal consciousness stating the following:
‘avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah’
(Patanjali Yoga Sutras, II.3)
The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I’, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life.
Of those he recognised that fear of death particularly is a difficult one to overcome:
‘svarasavahi vidusah api tatha arudhah abhinivesah’
(Patanjali Yoga Sutras II.9)
Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all aftlictions. It is found even in wise men
Ignorance is the Root of Fear
I then ask myself: if even wise men who sit in caves in the Himalayas struggle with fear of death, how do I, a Western woman coming from the flattest country on earth (aka the Netherlands) am supposed to overcome fear of death?? It makes me turn faithful in an instance: ‘Dear Lord, please shine a little light on me, as I am in the darkness of how to go about this.’
Ok, i’m making a joke out of this but I am actually serious. I have honestly no idea how to overcome fear of death. When i turn to the Sutras for an answer, Patanjali advises to follow a spiritual path which should be a combination of (1) arduous practice and bringing into practice (tapas) of yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama, (2) self-study (svadhyaya) by means of pratyahara and dharana, and finally (3) Isvara pranidhana which is surrendering of the individual self to the universal spirtit/consciousness/God through dhyana.
Whereas the Sutras and the eight limbed path as presented by Patanjali provide me a very powerful framework he does not discuss in more detail how to go about overcoming fear of death, or fear of spiders for that matter in a more practical way. This is where your own practice and a teacher come in. They are there to make comments, to make the old scriptures useful for you in your present condition. I have teachers from different traditions and especially one of my Tibetan Buddhist teachers has helped me great deal with understanding and ‘overcoming’ fears. He explains that fear generally comes in two forms: healthy and unhealthy fears. An example of healthy fear would be fear for getting lung cancer if you smoke cigarettes. This fear is healthy and helpful as it gives you the motivation to stop smoking. An example of unhealthy fear is fear for a spider while you know that the spider is not harmful. Now, obviously you do not always know whether a particular spider is harmful or not (yes, I did do a Google search on deadly spiders in the Dharamsala and Goa, and no, there are no harmful or deadly spiders to be found here :)) But this lack of knowledge, lack of wisdom, or usually referred in to as ignorance or avidya in Sanskrit, and is the root cause of fear.
Often we have the information available to overcome a fear. We ‘just’ need to reach out and process the information to turn it into wisdom and apply in in our lives. The problem is we are either too lazy to reach out, and/or we are stuck in conditioning believing that certain fears are natural and normal and it is our good right to remain trapped in those fears. I do understand and recognize this but honestly just do the practice and experience the lightness that comes in your life. A good example is fear of losing someone, a close relative or your loved one. It is normal right to be anxious about loosing this person? Actually this particular fear comes from not willing to truly recognise and accepting that at some point you are gonna separate, if you want it or not. The other might pass away before you, or the other way around. Or if you are still young, there surely is always a chance that you might separate. Believing that this person is the source of your happiness, the source of your existence is another often made understanding. We think we cannot live without this person. But be honest. You really can. You were born here alone and for sure had moments in your life without this person. You can survive alone. Surely the presence of the other can be very pleasant and enjoyable, but this person is just simply not keeping you alive. I have been working with many people and i am aware that this realisation is not an easy one and creates a lot of resistance as we feel like we are cheating. This is not the purpose of coming to this realisation. The purpose is to understand the reality of things, to understand our own conditioning and cause of pain and fears, overcome them and thus live more joyful and happy.