When Steve Jobs was dying from a terminal illness, he said, “Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent, it clears out the old to make way for the new.”
As remarkable as that kind of outlook might be, it is extremely difficult for many people to be that philosophical. It’s actually completely understandable to have anxiety around death, even though it is inevitable. The skill is to not let death anxiety hinder our day to day life.
For some of us, contemplating death can cause intense anxiety and fear. It’s why death anxiety is a recognized mental health disorder with its own name: Thanatophobia.
It’s considered a phobia if the fear arises virtually every time you think about death or the death of a loved one; if the fear persists for more than six months; or if the fear prevents you from functioning in everyday life or relationships. If this describes your anxiety, please consult a mental health professional.
Tragic circumstances can place us into profound grief, constantly reminding us about the fragility and preciousness of life. Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe spent ten years living the monastic life, and part of his training was to examine death in order to understand gratitude around life.
One of Andy’s teachers told him, “Keep death by your side.” The lesson is that there is a danger of missing out on so much if we don’t appreciate even the most ordinary of days. “Because of this,” says Andy, “we do not notice each passing moment, perhaps take others for granted and we do not appreciate the value of this precious human life. But if we live with our mortality as a daily experience, then we will live a happier and healthier life.”
In gaining a better appreciation of all the cruel twists and unknowns, we become more skilled at the “art of living”, making the most of what we have, making each moment count. In facing death, in accepting that it comes to us all one day, we not only have the opportunity to shift our perspective but to also expand our awareness around life itself.
Death anxiety has a sinister sidekick — aging anxiety. Aging is the slow march to that universal destination, on a road we start walking since the moment of our conception. Generally speaking, we’re just as averse to growing old as we are to dying. The global anti-aging market is expected to exceed $292 billion by 2025.
It’s hardly surprising that so many of us experience aging anxiety. Especially when our society constantly bombards us with images of youth and beauty. It took decades of living in the spotlight for legendary actress Sophia Loren to find peace with aging. “There is a fountain of youth,” she said. “It is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”
These aren’t the empty platitudes of just another pretty face. Where the work begins is tapping the source she mentions. One way to do this is, naturally, with meditation.
Studies show that meditation can even slow the aging process...and it’s all about our telomeres.
What are telomeres? They are protein caps on the end of each chromosome in our body. During cell division, the chromosome replicates — a process that shortens the telomeres. When they become too short, the cell can no longer divide and replicate, and this is what increases aging.
Stress ages our bodies, and meditation helps us to reduce stress so the anti-aging benefits of a consistent meditation practice are what scientists are increasingly exploring. One long-term study by the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that intensive meditation slowed a monk’s brain aging by as much as eight years.
Of course, no one is suggesting that there’s no need for face creams, vitamin supplements, and good nutrition, but meditation — combined with regular exercise and a balanced diet — can make us look and feel better.
There are guided meditations in the Headspace app that would prove useful in helping you to manage death anxiety and the fear of aging. A dedicated 30-day course, Letting Go of Stress, can help us increase our awareness around stress and negative emotions.
Research has also found that meditation improves cognitive functions, reduces anxiety and depression, and promotes positive emotions. This same study concluded that the practice of meditation may actually promote healthy aging and delay the onset of dementia. It also found that expert meditators have better-preserved brain structures than control groups of the same age.
As we ponder aging and dying, let’s not forget that with age comes wisdom and experience, often a wider circle of loved ones, and perhaps more comfort and security in our sense of self. Death and aging are a part of life. And a long life is a gift many of us don’t get to experience.
When we can reach a state where we can comfortably reflect on the inescapable truth that we are going to die at some time, then the years we are alive suddenly take on a sharper, more positive focus. And we can perhaps be motivated to live a better life with more vigor and vibrancy.
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