V. 3. Examining the Unexamined
Therapy, self-inquiries, other practices to examine the unexamined ways
we deal with our death.
Most of us would agree with the dictum that "the unexamined life is not worth living." And yet we have usually not examined one of our most fundamental issues: how we emotionally handle our knowledge that we will eventually die. Our life is still worth living even without doing so. But it can be transformed to levels of aliveness we never dreamed possible if we examine not only how we are presently facing death, but how we might face it so as to affirm life.
Developing a daily life-affirming death awareness is most likely to lead to a transformed life if we can develop it through ongoing practices and actitivities that foster life.
In theory, we need not engage in specific practices. Reminders of death are all around us. Bringing a consciousness of life-affirming death awareness to the evening news, the story of Terri Schiavo or the death of the Pope, would ideally be sufficient to transform our lives.
Usually, though, we can only reverse a lifetime of conditioning in denial of death by engaging in specific activities that can help transform us.
In addition to the SIFT practice , we can consider:
1. Therapy - In principle, a psychotherapy that helps us surface our unconscious pain about our mortality in ways that make us more truly alive is among the post powerful, direct and effective means available of confronting our mortality. Both individual and group therapy could be of tremendous help.
Unfortunately, however, most therapists stay as far away from the subject of death as possible. When asked why, Dr. Yalom replied, "psychotherapists and psychologists are themselves in denial of death. They are not really very different in this regard than the general population." ( Irvin Yalom Interview, "A Matter Of Life And Death" ) Dr. Robert Firestone also believes that most therapists are uncomfortable dealing with painful feelings in general, as part of a general movement which is seeing psychotherapy help patients avoid their pain, e.g. by over-prescribing antidepressants, rather than learning to deal with it. ( Robert Firestone Interview, "Is Therapy Dead?" )
Whatever the explanation, the fact remains that it is difficult to find therapists experienced in developing life-affirming death awareness, though any therapy that brings us more into life can be an important step to becoming more truly alive by facing death. Primal Therapy can also be helpful, when connecting with powerful primal experiences includes our early experiences with feeling fear or anguish about death - of our parents, family and selves.
2. Self-inquiries - If we wish to examine anew how we might transform our life by facing death, exercises that specifically deal with our feelings and thoughts about our death are particularly valuable. We provide a series of such self-inquiries on this site.
3. Talking with friends and/or family - One of the most effective ways of developing a life-affirming death awareness practice is simply to talk honestly and compassionately with people we trust about our feelings about our mortality and, even more importantly, our progress in developing a practice that transforms our death-pain into love for the precious life we have.
4. Contemplation/meditation/reflection/prayer - A regular practice of contemplation, meditation, reflection and/or prayer can be enhanced by periodically focusing on the feelings that are aroused by the thought of death, feeling them fully, and consciously transforming them into an appreciation of the preciousness of life.
5. Journaling and writing - It can be useful to keep a regular journal that tracks our ability to surface, feel and transform our pain about our mortality into energy, love and action on behalf of life.
Any other writing we do - letters, fiction, reportage, book reports - can also be extremely useful in helping us surface, work with and transform our painful feelings about death into energy for lie.
6. Art - Our ability to sustain a life-affirming death awareness can be vastly helped by exposing ourselves it to the enormous body of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, movies, art and music that deal with death in a realistic manner, such as Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich or the unusual movie Wit . Works that inspire us to live more consciously by facing rather than denying our emotional pain are also useful.
Ideally, of course, we would also engage in the process of artistic creation. Our profound feelings about our mortality, and its significance for our lives, far outstrip what we can convey by normal writing. Seeking to express our feelings through poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and/or dance can dramatically enliven and inform our experience of life-affirming death awareness.