Dr. Natalie Dyer
May 31, 2022
Death is a stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to die before you die
—and find that there is no death.
– Eckhart Tolle
The fear of death is universal and yet it is often ignored. This avoidance is understandable, why would we want to think of such “terrible” things? But the fear is slowly walking behind us in the shadows, like Death himself, ready to touch us at any moment. It is waiting patiently to take us into the void, pulling us from every attachment and identity of this life. Maybe we are finally faced with our fear of death when a loved one passes away, or when we become very ill. These difficult experiences can be an act of grace if we use them to our benefit.
The reality is we all must pass through the gates of death. So, what can we do to conquer the fear of death earlier in our life to save us from suffering later? Well, we must die before we die. Authentically facing your death will lead to your ultimate liberation and acquaint you with enlightenment or self-realization. There are many ways of dying before you die, and I will touch on a few of them here.
Journeying Near Death
The most obvious way of dying before you die is to, well, die before you die. I am referring to near death experiences (NDEs), which occur when someone is very close to death or dies and comes back to life, either spontaneously or through cardiopulmonary resuscitation.1
Common characteristics of an NDE include having an out-of-body experience, feelings of peace and joy, passing through a region of darkness or a dark tunnel, seeing an otherworldly realm of great beauty, reunion with deceased relatives and friends, encountering an unusually bright light, sometimes experienced as a “Being of Light” that radiates completes acceptance and unconditional love; seeing and reliving major and incidental events of one’s life; sensing a border beyond which the experiencer cannot go; and ultimately returning to the physical body, oftentimes involuntarily.2 There is also a clear memory of the experience and a conviction that the experience is more real than ordinary waking consciousness.
People who have had NDEs are radically transformed from the experience in a positive way. They now see that life is like a game, a collective dream to experience hide and seek with our own Self, and that universal love is part of this ultimate reality. Death is then seen as a liberation instead of a tragic end. NDEs frequently lead to a profound and permanent transformation. After the NDE, there is a renewed appreciation for life and a heightened sense of purpose; increased spirituality; enhanced compassion for other people; less competitiveness and materialism; and you guessed it—reduced fear of death. 2
While NDEs may lead to abolished fear of death and self-realization, it is not the easiest path, and it is not something that can be elicited, nor would that ever be recommended! So, let’s explore some other, more gentler ways of dying before you die.
Who Are You?
A direct path to dying before you die is to know thy Self. Self-inquiry is a powerful process of recognizing the true Self through the persistent attention to the inner awareness of “I” or “I am”. Also known as jñāna yoga, the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi termed this practice self-inquiry. Questions such as “who am I?” are central to this approach with the goal of self-realization.
The Self is known by many names in different cultures, such as Buddha nature, Brahman, Christ Consciousness, or the Tao. It is the timeless witness, the pure awareness which is untouched by experience. It is the same consciousness that was there when we were born, the same consciousness right now, and it will be the same consciousness at our hour of death. It is always Here, Now.
Life is like a movie or a play that we often get deeply absorbed in, to the point of forgetting who we are. This is ok and a natural tendency, but it will inevitably lead to suffering, especially if we are attached to our role, such as our job, personality, possessions, or status. When we drop these roles, our personal history, our attachments, even our goals and hopes for the future, and merge as the Self, we practice dying. The wonderful thing about self-inquiry is not only does it reduce or even abolish our fear of death, but it is also blissfully liberating. When the deathless Self is rediscovered, there are no worries or attachment to the transient, only peace and universal love. We see life as a fleeting, yet beautiful experience. We see everything in full colour and appreciate the miraculous nature of life and this temporary experience.
If we want to prevent suffering, and be able to handle challenging experiences, knowing our true nature is a game-changer. It is like coming to the surface and taking a breath of air after holding one’s breath under water. It is like peeking behind the curtain of this play and remerging as the real you. We inevitably get pulled back into the mind’s projections and the temporary forms and fluctuations of life, but maintaining an anchor as the true Self is the key.
A Mushroom for Your Fears
Another, recently popular way to “die before you die” is through plant medicine and psychedelic use. Recent years has seen a revival of psychedelic research, following a ban in the 1980s. One way that psychedelics have been studied is for dealing with fear of death for those with terminal illness. My former student Spencer Wheeler and I conducted a systematic review of psychedelic-assistant psychotherapy studies for mental health.3 We identified 6 studies at that time that investigated the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic component of psilocybin mushrooms, for death anxiety. The results of these studies are encouraging, with on average, about 80% of participants showing clinically significant improvements in anxiety. They also reported greater self-compassion, love, acceptance of death, and a new appreciation for life.
Why do psychedelics cause a reduced fear of death? A shift in attention and perception. Ego death or dissolution is the experiences of disidentifying as a separate subject and a merging of consciousness with a greater whole.4 The personal self, its history, and persona are no longer identified as the true self. When ego death occurs during a psychedelic experience, the therapeutic effect of the psychedelic can be stronger. It is important to let go during the course of ego death for the experience to be more positive. If this stripping away of the false self is resisted, one could have a “bad trip”.
The default mode network (DMN) is a largescale resting state brain network active during mind wandering and rumination, with the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and angular gyrus associated with the subjective sense of self. Studies have shown that when ego death occurs during psilocybin use, the integrity of the DMN is modulated5,6 and this seems to be a key mechanism mediating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.
Like NDEs, if properly integrated and in the right setting, psychedelic-induced ego death is a positively transformative experience for which the benefits last many years.
Many Paths Lead to One
Suffering is the path to enlightenment, and lucky for us, life is full of opportunities to suffer. If we experience ample suffering, we might be fortunate enough to pop out of the dream of our false identity altogether. The truth of who we are has been tested for millennia through the sages, bodhisattvas, and the experiences of everyday people. But the truth of our timelessness is so incredible, that some people think it is fantasy or wishful thinking. This is the ego mind working to preserve itself. The truth cannot be known by the mind, but by the heart, by the soul, for it is beyond mental constructs and must be experienced to be known. Regardless of the approach or path, it takes bravery to face death, and the reward for such bravery is unending joy, bliss, and freedom.
1. Trent NL, Beauregard M. Near-death experiences in cardiac arrest: Implications for the concept of non-local mind. Archives of Clinical Psychiatry (São Paulo). 2013;40(5):197-202.
2. Greyson B, Williams Kelly E, Kelly EF. Explanatory models for near-death experiences. In: Holden JM, Greyson B, James D, editors. The handbook of near-death experiences: thirty years of investigation. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO; 2009. p. 213-34.
3. Wheeler SW, Dyer NL. A systematic review of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for mental health: An evaluation of the current wave of research and suggestions for the future. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. 2020;7(3):279.
4. Millière R. Looking for the self: Phenomenology, neurophysiology and philosophical significance of drug-induced ego dissolution. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2017;11:245. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00245
5. Carhart-Harris RL, Erritzoe D, Williams TM, etc. Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012;109:2138–2143. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1119598109
6. Carhart-Harris RL, Leech R, Erritzoe D, Williams TM, etc. Functional connectivity measures after psilocybin inform a novel hypothesis of early psychosis. Schizophrenia Bulletin. 2013;39:1343–1351. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbs117