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An Experience of Aliveness

by

Fred Branfman

         My life changed dramatically during an hour or two in the summer of 1990,  as I experienced  my most extraordinary moments of aliveness since I had, four years earlier, seen my father's giant, gentle, sweet, loving, white-moustached face pass from life to death, before my eyes, slowly, over time - an experience which was to change my life forever.

This was the first time I had felt similarly alive since then. This experience occurred at 4 in the morning of a beautifully moonlit night, pacing up and down a beach in Fort Lauderdale Florida, feeling as if every cell in my body was bursting with life, experiencing waves of ecstasy.

         Clad only in a bathing suit, I experienced the deepest possible connection to all life that had come before - symbolized by the ocean; all life presently existing in the universe, -  symbolized by the uncountable grains of sand around me, each representing whole solar systems; and the mystery of all life to come, symbolized by the vast, starry heavens above.

Amidst this explosion of life, I experienced my conscious awareness as but an infinitesimally small speck of, and yet organically connected to, all of life: the 18 billion years the universe had existed, the billions of years it would continue to exist. I thought with awe of all the previous experience of life encoded in my genes.

         Gazing into the heavens I also experienced waves of aloneness, sadness and awe beyond anything I had known before. I felt, not simply realized intellectually, that I knew but an infinitesmally small portion of what humanity knew, and that what all humanity knew was but an infinitessmally small portion of what there was to know. Not only was my understanding and experience limited, but I could never know the full truth of things, not ever. The human brain simply had not evolved, and would never evolve, to the point where it could even begin to fully understand all life in the universe. We humans could not even comprehend relatively simple, physical issues, like the number of planets in our own galaxy- let alone the uncountable dimensions of consciousness in a universe that far, far, far transcended human understandings meaning and purpose.

 

I felt anguished on the one hand, to experience how ignorant I and my fellow humans were, and to really get that we would never know. But I also strangely decontracted, as if I could, finally, lay down my burden of trying so hard to understand. To accept the limitations of intellect, but in a way that opened up whole new worlds of experience beyond intellect. So little to be understood, so much to be experienced. The sadness merged with the ecstasy, producing a deep, powerful, textured encounter with life itself - not good, not bad, not happy, not sad, just life as it is. But life that energized, surged, thrived and grew, even as it saddened, humbled, troubled and frightened.

         I walked up and down that beach for hours, transported to new realms of experience that I had never before known existed.

         And the next day, suddenly, with no warning, it hit me: my previous life had ended.

         Until that moment I had been planning to return to my job in Washington. But I now realized I would upon my return close down  Rebuild America, an economic policy center I directed whose Board of Advisors included a Nobel Laureate, inventor of the semiconductor, and Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston; a future Secretary of the Treasury, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, Secretary of Labor, Vice-Presidential candidate and N.Y. Times columnist; and to which a future President had just agreed to join.

And I would set out on a spiritual and psychological journey to try and understand the unprecedented experience of life that I had just had.

         What was even more extraordinary about this moment of  aliveness was what had produced it.

         Such experiences of life — the kind of epiphanies describe by Joseph Campbell as suddenly transporting us beyond our previous categories  of good, and evil, typically result from ecstatic experiences:  deep meditation or prayer, an encounter with nature or the birth of a child, falling in love, a creative breakthough or "aha" moment.

The cause of this experience of aliveness, however, was something far different, totally unexpected, and about which I had never read nor heard: a profound encounter with death.

         Just prior to going out on the beach I had experienced the greatest anguish and pain of my life, from experiencing my deepest feelings about the fact that I will one day die. Life, in short, had flowed from death.

         We all know intellectually we will die, of course. And, as we shall explore in detail, we all learn before we can remember - between the ages of 3 and 8 - to repress and deny our painful feelings about this knowledge. I was no different until this experience when, for reasons that are still unclear to me, I surfaced a deep, repressed, subconscious anguish at knowing that my life as I know it will not continue and I may well face oblivion for all eternity.

         I had awakened from a deep sleep about 3 a.m. Half-awake, my defenses were down. Having begun Insight Meditation just eight months earlier, I had developed the habit of noting my thoughts, feelings and emotions.  I  suddenly saw a tiny fear of death arising, and watched myself immediately repress it. Something inside me said, "you know, you've been feeling that fear and repressing it your whole life. Why not do something different? See what that fear is all about. Let it come!..."

         That was my last conscious thought for the next 20-60 minutes. I was suddenly plunged into the deepest emotional pain of my life. At various points I would felt paralyzed, unable to move, suffocating, struggling for air. Terrified, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, but could not - because I was paralyzed. I continually felt as if I was burning alive, though once in a while I would start freezing and shivering. Wave after wave of physical pain, terror, anguish washed over me, endlessly. As there was no thought, there was no thought of stopping or changing it. I did not feel any control whatsoever. I was not agonizing, I was being agonized.

         After what seemed like an eternity, still not in conscious control of my body or thought, the experience changed. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, being anguished was transformed into being ecstasied. I not only felt more alive, I was experiencing levels of aliveness that I had never before known existed. The cellular sense of aliveness, experience of being open to all life, bad and good, the sense of deep peace coupled with extraordinary energy, was totally new to my experience.

         I went out on the beach, where the experience continued for several hours more.

         There were several things that struck me about this experience.

         Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I had had this experience of surfacing my feelings about my eventual death in the prime of life, long before I would have to face death. Clearly the subject of death was relevant to me from here on out, and not merely to the latter years of life as I had thought until then. It was clear that I wanted to be fully alive, to continue to live in this domain of being and not have it be a one-time experience. And it was also obvious that living this way would require surfacing my feelings about my death in a way that affirmed my life. No death, no life. From here on out I would have to understand far more about the issue of my death, an issue I had never looked at before.

         Second, although I had read Ernest Becker's classic Denial of Death and agreed intellectually that most human beings were living in denial of their own deaths, I had not applied this observation to myself. When my father had died four years earlier I had written that "I have been living as if I am not dying, which is a lie. And to live a lie is not really to live at all." But though I realized this intellectually, I had not really experienced whatever it was I was denying until now.

         Like most people  I had until this experience thought about my death as little as possible and, when the subject did arise, automatically pushed it out of my consciousness. Given the anguish I had just experienced about the thought of my own death, it was clear that I had all my life been repressing deep agonized feelings of which I was unaware. I was shocked beyond measure to realize what I had been carrying within me without even realizing it.

         Thirdly, the key to this experience was that it concerned personal death, my death. When I had experienced the other major turning-point in my life, after interviewing refugees in Laos from U.S. bombing in 1969 and realizing that ongoing U.S. bombing was killing more good, decent, innocent peasants daily, I was propelled into politics by a need to expose this crime to the world and to try and prevent the death of others from the bombing. But this exposure to mass death did not affect my own conscious awareness of my own death. Nor did the pervasive knowledge of the death of others that comes to anyone watching today's television or movies have much effect on how I lived. It was only when I finally confronted my own feelings about the fact that I will die that I experienced this new level of being.

         And fourth, I realized that now that I had surfaced my unconscious death anxiety in so profound a way, I could not go on living as I had.

         I had been fortunate during a 20-year public policy career to have engaged in a wide variety of causes I had believed in, from exposing the U.S. Secret Air War in Laos and helping lead the fight for peace in Indochina, to writing the SolarCal strategy for the State of California, to creating and helping lobby through two major State of the State initatives on the Information Revolution and Investment in People while serving as Director of Research for California Governor Jerry Brown,  to drafting the Strategic Investment Initiative for Senator Gary Hart's think tank and "Investment Economics" and "Industry-led Strategy" for Rebuild America. At that moment Rebuild America was well-funded, and could look forward to future public policy successes.

         

         But while I found such work significant, it had left me empty. The thought of continuing in politics for the next 20 yea s, without exploring the full implications of the experience I had just had, had suddenly become inconceivable. It was not so much that I decided that I would quite politics overnight to go on a search to understand what had just occurred.

        

         It was that it had been decided.

         As I began to read and talk more about the issue of death in the ensuing months I discovered something that particularly astounded me. Not only was I not alone in finding that my life was transformed by an encounter with my death-feelings, but such experiences have been reported countless times over the centuries. I was also amazed, as I mentioned my experience in countless conversations over the years, to discover how many people in all walks of lives had had similar experiences, from taxi-drivers to scholars. If such information had not come to my attention as an average educated layperson before this, it was not because it was unavailable. It was because our society-wide denial of death extends to the information indicating that it can be beneficial to face it.

         The years following this experience involved a great deal of spiritual and psychological exploration, on many levels. They included studying for years with Hungarian spiritual teacher Laszlo Honti; months of solitary meditation culminating in a 3-month silent meditation retreat in western Massachusetts; a five -month spiritual journey to India and Laos, where I worked at Mother Theresa's home for the Dying in Calcutta, meditated at Bodh Gaya where  the Buddha had been enlightened, and lived and studied in ashrams; a visit to  the Plain of Jars, a 700 year-old  Laotian society that had been destroyed by American bombs and was now being rebuilt; attending dozens of spiritual and psychological workshops of every variety; and five years of living near and studying the work of the psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone and his remarkable group of friends.

         But although I have explored many domains of spiritual and psychological experience throughout these years, my major interest has been on understanding my encounter with death and, through it, life. I felt an urgent need not only to more fully understand my experience of aliveness from facing death, but also to discover how to live in that domain more fully.

         My initial search began after moving to northern California in December 1994. After several years of deep meditation and further explorations into death awareness, I decided to form the "Meaning and Mortality" project - to encourage others to live more fully by facing death. As I had with economics, it seemed to make sense to begin by forming a Board of Advisors of people wiser than myself to generate ideas for publications, workshops, seminars and so forth. 

         It became immediately clear that finding people  to join such a project would not be easy.

         I met with Dr. Yalom, author of Existential Psychotherapy and one of the few therapists who had dealt with the issue, shortly after reading Ernest Becker's book. Inspired by Becker's work and how its resonance with my own experience, I asked Yalom where I might find the schools of therapy that agreed and opposed Becker's thesis that death was a key to understanding the human experience. "Nowhere," Yalom answered, "most psychologists don't deal with the issue either." But why not, I asked stunned. "Most psychologists are themselves in denial of death," he answered. (1)

         I also discovered, often painfully, that it was difficult to have a real discussion on the subject with most people. At one point, for example, I was contacted by an old high school friend of mine who had become a research scientist in Ohio. We had had little contact for decades when I suddenly received an email from him saying that he REALLY wanted to talk, to catch up, to share what we were both into. It took a few weeks to finally arrange the big phone call, but we succeeded and, after an initial exchange of excitement  over the fact that we were finally talking together, after all these years, he asked me to begin by describing what I was into.

         I responded that I had had an extraordinary experience of aliveness following an intense engagement with my eventual death, and that my main interest now was finding ways to live more fully by facing rather than denying death. After a few minutes he interrupted, saying anxiously, "uh, something has come up, I'll have to get back to you," and hung up.

         He never called back.

         A woman with deep spiritual interests engaged the topic over dinner with several other friends. As she realized what I had in mind, however, she grew increasingly angry. Finally, she exploded in fury: "what's the matter with you! There is no death, don't you understand that! Yes, a person dies, but we are spirit not flesh. Do you think the spirit dies? Of course, it doesn't! It just takes a new form! You must know that! Are you an idiot?"

         I was to have many such experiences, from refusal to discuss the subject to angry tirades, throughout this period of inquiry.

         Despite the resistance of most people I met to seriously discuss the subject, however, I was able to find several dozen spiritually and psychologically evolved, compassionate and wise people to join Meaning and Mortality's Board of Advisors. The Board eventually grew to include some 40 people, including Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield, Christopher Titmuss, Acharn Amaro, and Gil Fronsdale; authors Sherry Anderson, Sam Keen, and Jacob Needleman; spiritual teachers Ram Dass and Stephen Levine; death and dying experts Charles Garfield, Dale Borglum, Frank Ostaseski, and Wendy Wank; and psychologists James Bugental, Tom Greening, Stan Grof, Laszlo Honti, Kirk Schneider, Anees Sheikh,  David Spiegel, Frances Vaughan, Irvin Yalom, and Robert Firestone.

         These advisers were generous with their time, and I learned a great deal from my discussions with them. But, although it took me some time to figure out why, I did not find what I was looking for.

         Part of the issue was that many of the discussions focused on death itself. Many of our advisors had a keen interest in the issues involved in death and dying and, while I shared their interest, I did not see this as the focus of our project. My question was how to live more fully during the prime of life, not how to die well at its end. It took me some time to realize that there was a vast difference between the issues involved in dealing with eventual death while  still in the prime of life, and dealing with actual death itself at the end of life. Unconscious death anxiety, for example, plays a pervasive role throughout our lives. But it may actually diminish as it is brought to consciousness at the very end of life, to be replaced by a very different set of issues.

         And while all our advisors agreed that it was useful to look at the issue of death while still in the prime of life, most of the spiritually-oriented ones believed that the purpose or result of doing so would be to realize that death was an illusion, that soul and/or consciousness survived the death of the body. I had had similar experiences during meditation, and treasured them. But the experience of reaching new levels of aliveness by surfacing my unconscious anguish about dying was of greater interest and usefulness to me. It took me some time to realize that most of our advisors had not had a similar experience of life. Several in fact said that they had never experienced serious emotional pain about the prospect of death, and felt that feeling pain about dying was only feeding the illusion that death was real. Their main interest was to comfort people who feared death. Mine was in helping people surface their existing death-anguish in a way that transformed their lives.

         A related issue was that most of our advisors, though they agreed on the importance of the project, had a wide variety of other interests. Most of our discussions wound up focusing on these concerns. Although I found our discussions fascinating, they did not achieve the goal of giving focus and substance to the actual purpose of the Project.

         By the spring of 1997 I was feeling frustrated with the project. I did not feel there was yet a sufficient  critical mass of knowledge, experience, commitment and technique to launch it. I had learned a great deal, deepened my own experience with the issue, but it was clear that something was still missing. What most disturbed me was that I wasn't exactly sure what it was.

         And then I met Dr. Robert Firestone and found out.

          

         I had attended an event at which Dr. Richard Seiden, a Bay Area suicidologist, was introduced. I approached him and explained the basic idea of our project, asking him if he'd like to meet to explore it further. "I don't mind meeting with you," he replied, "but the person you really ought to talk with is Dr. Robert Firestone." What struck me most was the way he spoke the words "Dr. Robert Firestone". It was as if he was mentioning a revered historical figure or genius.

         Dr. Seiden said I could contact Dr. Firestone through a psychological institute in Santa Barbara, the Glendon Association, that helped educate people about his ideas. After an exchange of corrrespondance, I went to my post office box in San Francisco one day and received a large manilla envelope that was to change my life.

         Upon opening it, I discovered several videotapes. Two immediately caught my eye: one was entitled "Life, Death and Denial". The other was raw footage on the subject of "Children and Death."

         I immediately returned home and watched "Life, Death and Denial,"  with growing amazement. The video featured a group of several dozen adults, still in the prime of life, discussing their feelings about one day dying. The discussion was moderated by Robert Firestone, a man in his sixties. I was struck by the fact that the people in the video seemed unusually alive, energetic, and filled with feeling. I was even more amazed by what they were saying.

         They talked about how as children their parents had repressed any discussion of death, and how this had harmed them since they were thinking about the issue on their own anyway, and could have used help in learning to cope with their feelings. One man talked about how his sadness about dying had led him to develop a far greater appreciation for music. Another stated powerfully something I had been feeling for years but couldn't quite put into words: "This is all we've got, the feelings while we are alive. And to cut, to deny those, is to not even live in some way. I would almost make that hypothesis that feeling is awareness of death in some sense."

         Most striking to me, however, was an attractive woman who, talking about her feelings about her own death, began sobbing, saying:

         "I feel like the most painful thing for me to feel (is) loving my life, loving myself. And I feel like I can't stand that feeling because I would miss being myself so much. I feel like I can stand the loss of anybody else because I would still be myself. But I can't stand the idea of not being me any more."

         Those feelings were mine exactly. And I had never heard anyone else say them aloud.

         I then watched the second videotape, on children and death, which was even more striking. A woman psychologist was asking a series of children, under the ages of ten, to discuss their feelings about death. One child went to sleep. Others showed real feelings of pain as they discussed their concerns.

         I was thunderstruck by both videos. My journey had begun in 1990 after surfacing my anguish about my eventual death, while I was still - at age 48 - in sound health. In the seven years of searching since then I had not found people anywhere who  felt similar anguish, and also sought to use it to live more fully. Here in this video, however was a group of people, also in the prime of life, feelingfully but calmly discussing death in the way that I had been searching for.

         I was also astonished by the videos with children. In my experience most adults avoid discussing death with children like the plague. When the subject is raised, children are usually assured that they are going to heaven, and/or the subject is changed as quickly as possible . I had never heard nor seen adults seeking to encourage children to discuss rather than repress their feelings about death. It seemed not only an act of courage, but deep wisdom as well. Children's pain about death don't disappear because they are not talked about. On the contrary. They are more likley to be repressed  and/or acted out harmfully if the child does not have a way to deal with them.

         After watching the videos I immediately called Dr. Firestone's office, and arranged a meeting with him a few days later, stayed for a week, began to read his books and watch others of his videos, visited several times more, and eventually in 1999, moved to live near he and his friends.

         Robert Firestone has written 11 books at this point, covering a wide range of topics - including developing intimacy in relationships and sexuality, compassionate child-rearing,  a meaningful life, and learning to free oneself of critical inner voices. He has also made a number of original contributions to the field of psychology, particularly the concept of the "Fantasy Bond", an unconscious attachment formed by infants to their parents which has enormous implications for their lives when they become adult. (2)

         What struck me most about Firestone, however,  was not only the power and logic of his ideas. It was that he, and a close group of nearly 100 friends who have worked together closely for the past 30 years, have put these ideas into practice more than anyone else I have ever come across. (3) Firestone himself enjoys a unusually wide range of close relationships and friendships, closeness with his 12 children, and  an active life that includes successful business ventures, producing art, and captaining large ocean-going vessels. The fact that he and his friends had lived his ideas gave them far greater credibility than had they simply been words on a page. 

         Firetone's 12 books, 45 videos, and interests cover  a wide swath of life, and his work on death anxiety is but a small, though critical, part of his overall oeuvre. What he has written and said about death, however, explores how the idea of death influences how people in the prime of life live more than any other theorist I have come across.  His writings and videos explore how people's attitudes toward death profoundly influence their relationships, sexuality, child-rearing practices, work and internal experience of life.  He has also, like Ernest Becker and Irvin Yalom, written about the influence of death anxiety on such social issues as violence, crime, and suicide.

         Reading Firestone's ideas on the pervasive influence of death began to answer many of my questions. Part II of this book is a systematic presentation of these ideas, which we will not try to summarize here.

         His insights about death also began to influence my life even before I moved near he and his friends. I began to notice, for example, how I began to unconsciously pull away from my wife as we became closer. I was interested in Firestone's suggestion that this phenomenon could be due to an unconscious fear on my part of losing her. If I kept a safe distance, I was not making myself as vulnerable to her eventual loss. If I let her in, I was opening myself up to considerable more death anxiety. As I will describe in more detail later, this insight proved extremely valuable.          

        

         My learning about the issue of mortality greatly accelerated, however, when I moved from reading to day-to-day involvement with Firestone and his friends. Perhaps the most notable feature of their life together is their practice of "talks", often occurring three to four times a week, in which people share their deepest feelings about their own lives, and interact with each other unusually directly and compassionately. I was invited to attend many of these talks which, like Firestone's writings, covered most areas of life.

         I found the talks significant on many levels, particularly in helping me grow and develop as a person. But they also proved to be a fascinating laboratory for understanding how average people in the prime of life can deal with death in an open, above-board, compassionate and honest way over time.

         This group of friends does not particularly focus on death. On the contrary, their focus is on howto  enhance their experience of life by being  more vulnerable and feelingful in their relationships, child-rearing, sexuality and inner experience of life. What they have found, however, is that as they come to value their lives more, as they experience the preciousness of life, painful feelings about their eventual death naturally arise. And just as they challenge their tendencies to defend themselves against painful feelings in other areas of life, they seek to feel their emotions about death fully, discuss them openly, and integrate them into their overall experience of life.

         There is much to be said about what this unique laboratory can teach about how death-anxiety can be transformed into greater appreciation and love for life, and this book will discuss many of them before it is finished.

         But we might mention a few particularly important lessons now that are indicated by the experience of this group of friends who, from teenagers to seniors, openly discuss their feelings about their mortality on a regular basis in the course of living their lives.

         First, exposure to death itself does not automaticaly produce positive consequences.  On the contrary. When a senior member of the group died a few years ago,  the overall impact was negative. It is only when people make a conscious effort to transform their painful feelings about death into a greater appreciation of life that the impact can be positive.

         Second, simply having a forum to openly discuss painful feelings about our eventual death is extremely useful and important. Most of us in society have few outlets for expressing our fears and anguish about death. When we try to do so, we are often blocked from a full expression of our feelings either by listeners who wish to avoid the subject, or "spiritual" advice which seeks to offer comfort by denying our feelings.         

 

         Third and most importantly, however, it is possible to face our painful feelings about our death in a way that enriches our lives. Even if the vast wealth of other evidence that we shall discuss in this book did not exist, the very fact that a group of average people of all ages have regularly surfaced their most painful feelings about death in a way that has enhanced their lives for several decades now would be proof that the rest of us do not have to deny our pain about eventually dying.

         The most important part of my learning about death from Dr. Firestone and the group of friends went far beyond reading or observation, however. Over time I became a participant in the talks, and often used them to develop my own ability to surface my anguish about the idea of my death, and to seek to transform it into a greater love for, and appreciation of, life.

         This book will thus also include a description of my own personal experiences during my years with this circle of friends. Perhaps the most important occurred when I lay down and sought to release, with loud, agonizing sounds, my profound agony about the prospect of my death. These experiences took me to levels of feeling that I never knew existed, and had lasting effects on my experience of life.

         The most significant effect of these experiences has both  been to deepen and widen my experience of aliveness, continuing my transformed sense of being. I have never again touched the depths of pain, nor reached the heights of ecstasy, that I experienced on the bright night 15 years ago. But my ongoing inner work and experiences with the circle of friends have continued the adventure of transformation.

         What follows in this book, thus, is an amalgam of my own personal experiences, the ideas of Dr. Robert Firestone, the experiences of he and his friends, and samplings from the vast literature extending back over the centuries that  prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that human beings can transform their lives to unprecedented levels of reverence, appreciation and love for life if they dare face their repressed anguish about dying.


Footnotes

(1) I subsequently did find some people, including the Ernest Becker Foundation and the “Terror Management Theory” school of social psychologists, who are devoted to developing Becker's ideas.

(2) The concept of the Fantasy Bond, and its implications for transforming death anxiety into love, will be explored in some detail in Part II of this book.