Today, I am sharing a story from when I was eight years old that to this day remains the most instructive experience in my conscious memory. It is about visceral, overwhelming fear- in particular, the fear of death- and how to neutralize it.
Fear of Death and the Sage Within
Nothing manipulates time like fear. I have no idea how long I was underwater. But during that brief eternity, I learned the most important lesson of my life.
It was the summer of 1997. I had just finished third grade and was off to a retreat.
The managers at the retreat center had appointed an ailing 80-something to manage the video equipment as well as serve as the lifeguard for the center’s swimming pool. In most of his videos, the camera was fixated on something irrelevant, like the corner of the room or the carpet, and only partway through would he correct it. He was also severely hard of hearing, so the sound on his recordings was either completely silent or deafeningly loud.
As a lifeguard, his lack of hearing and general inattention posed an obvious hazard, but nobody seemed to care. According to legend, this man was a former Olympic swimming champion who had won numerous gold medals. Now, in his old age, people continued to praise him for his past accomplishments, and he was appointed to wear swim trunks and sit by the pool.
That day, the lifeguard was donning bright orange shorts and large black sunglasses while sipping coffee under an umbrella. Then he reclined his beach chair and fell asleep. Because of his sunglasses, I did not know that he had passed out, and back then, I could barely swim. But I figured I would hold onto the wall at the deep end next to where the lifeguard was relaxing. His toenails were only five feet away from me.
Then my hands slipped off the ledge. My head plunged under the water and I flailed my arms and tried to get the lifeguard’s attention, but he was deep in slumber. The chlorine stung my eyes and I tried to hold my breath, but I could only hold on for so long. Involuntarily, I gasped, but in doing so the water rushed into my nose and throat. I was gulping the water so I would not breathe it in. In an effort to move, I slipped further down along the slanted bottom of the pool into progressively deeper water.
My sense of safety was ripped out from underneath me. Everything that had mattered until a minute earlier was now solidly irrelevant. I had always believed that someone would come to my aid. Why was it not happening for me now? It could not be real. I was so young. What sense did this make?
But nobody saw me, and nobody was coming to help. I was trying to be loud but nobody could hear me under the water. I felt helpless in a way that was indescribable. Still, I was sure that someone would come. But as time just passed.
I was sure that I was going to die.
Extreme circumstances have a way of forcing us to discard the illusions of our minds and see with perfect detachment. When we are very afraid, we naturally look for someone or something external to hold onto, some kind of comfort. But when that is not an option, we are forced to provide those feelings for ourselves. It was only in that moment that I realized that I even had the capacity to do so. What made my situation scary was not the fact that I was drowning, but the fact that I was afraid. It was really that simple.
In that moment, an internal shift happened automatically. My fears subsided and a greater wisdom took over. It was a dormant knowledge that I had never experienced before, yet felt deeply familiar. It spoke to me without words:
Don’t panic, Love. Face it. Sooner or later, this experience will be over. Just hold on until then. You can do it. No matter how painful, you have already been experiencing this for some time now, so there is nothing new to fear. I am with you.
In that moment of complete surrender, there was nothing left to fear. Whether or not I was going to die was out of my control, but that was almost irrelevant. Physically, I was the most helpless I had ever been. But nothing could touch me. Nothing could scare me. In that moment, I learned that fear is an illusion.
As soon as I had that realization, my brother pulled me out. I frowned in disbelief at the sleeping lifeguard and went right back to being a normal eight-year-old. It was not until years later that I understood the significance of that encounter.
At your core, you are a sage.
The wisdom I manifested in that moment was not something new that I conjured. It was my true nature, but I never had the opportunity to experience it because I had always been so focused on the outside world.
At the deepest level, you have all the answers you need. In the moments when you are truly alone, you will be forced to turn inwards. When you do, you will recognize how profoundly disconnected you are from yourself in your day-to-day life. Your true self, what lies beneath primal programming, is free from fear, insecurity, complexes and judgment. Reconnect with this. In doing so, you will find a place that is free from suffering.
Situations are not scary on their own. They are scary because you are afraid.
The same can be said of any emotion. A problem is only a problem because there is discomfort and resistance associated with it. There may be times when you cannot change your circumstances. This does not mean you have to suffer. In the end, what determines your quality of life is how you feel. At the deepest level, there is a part of you that is undisturbed by life’s events. It is very difficult to reach this state and even harder to operate from it. But you can achieve it by focusing inwards and being with yourself.
Whenever you feel alone, tell yourself: I am with you. Especially when you are scared.
When you have no choice but to experience a situation, do not recoil in fear. Instead, face it- because you can. Maybe you feel uncomfortable reading this. If so, recognize that your discomfort is actually fear, which stems from the belief that you are incapable of handling an experience. It comes from feeling alone and insecure. But objectively, you are capable of experiencing anything. When you say to yourself, “I am with you,” you will feel complete and secure.
Fear makes situations worse than they are.
By dramatizing a situation in your mind, it becomes dulled in real life. This is why we tend to ruminate on our fears, so that we can dull their actual sensations. But remember that the actual experience is rarely as bad as our fear predicts. Seeing fear for what it is allows you to release it. More importantly, when you are forced into a seemingly intolerable situation, you will step up to it.
If you are viscerally afraid of death or anything else, keep this in mind.
Life is just a series of experiences. When you are asleep, you do not know that you are asleep, and you do not fear waking up. When you wake up, you reflect on how thrilling or stupid or magnificent your dreams were. Dreaming is a pleasant experience because there is no fear of waking up.
What remains constant between waking and dreaming? You. So too is the case with life and death. In the moments leading up to death, you will return to yourself. When this happens, you will remember that you are infinite and your fear and suffering will dissipate. So why worry now? Do not waste your life- or any experience, for that matter- feeling consumed with fear about its end. Enjoy your life.