David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
The most significant question that arises is not how we repress death, but what is it that we are trying to avoid?
The primary repression in human beings, according to Ernest Becker, is not sex (as Freud would have us believe) but death. Culture, therefore, is what "man does with his fear of impending Thanatos." If such is the context of the human dilemma, the most significant question that arises is not how we repress death, but what is it that we are trying to avoid?
The Mummy: In Pursuit of Immortality
Around two thousand B.C. it was quite clear to man what death was: it was the annihilation of the physical body. Thus, in flight from such a fate, we find Egyptian immortality projects which attempted to preserve the corporeal frame. This process was known as mummification and its great archetypeknown to monster fans around the worldwas the "mummy." What man tried to do was avoid individual extinction by keeping intact that thing which he believed housed life ... the body. The obvious problem in such a solution is that it simply did not work.
In the end, Thanatos (death) won, Eros (life via the body) lost.
But even though these first crude attempts for bodily preservation via mummification and the mummy did not work, mankind's immortality project did not cease. Ever since man began to develop a strong self-sense (according to Julian Jaynes, from about 3,000 B.C. with the advent of farming and language), which he connected with his psycho-physical vesture, he has tried to exploit in various ways the vehicle of his separate existence.
This same overriding tendency has survived to our present day. What we find in modern society, particularly in the West, is the drive to eventually master the physical body; that is, make it an instrument for optimum survival. Thus, in current DNA research there are hopes for a breakthrough in molecular engineering which will help to understand and eventually control the aging process, thereby prolonging the duration of life in the human body. By the turn of this century, we are told, medicine will have advanced far enough so that people will be able to live well over a hundred years. And beyond that horizon, years into the future, science envisions that we may have "immortal" bodiesthe equivalent of "immortal" life.
However, the word "immortality" is a misnomer. Because, quite frankly, no matter what we may do with the physical body it is in itself not immortal. We may be able to maintain it for fifteen thousand years or even extend its functions to a million plus years, but, as astrophysics quite clearly points out, in a few billion years the whole known universe will do either of two things: continually expand outwardly, resulting in an entropic situation where matter and energy reach a state of inertia; or, the cosmos will collapse in on itself taking every single life form back to an infinitesimally small point so that all life as we know it (including our "immortal" bodies) will be extinguished. Whatever the final outcome of the universe, one thing is for sure: the final score will read, Thanatos l, Eros (life via the body) 0.
The Wolfman: In Quest of Extinction
Not everyone in history, however, has felt that the extermination of the physical body meant absolute death. Rather, some saw it as a transition of consciousness from one field of manifestation to another. We find this idea predominant in the Upanishadic period of India and exquisitely drawn out years later in Tibet in the Bardo Thodol (more popularly known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead). Interestingly enough, we find in this text not a flight from death, but rather a preparation for it. What Tibetan Buddhist philosophy desires is unconditional death.
Hence, even the ascension of the soul to higher regions of awareness is regarded as samsara, more maya and illusion. All visions, all temporary heavens, even individual selves as such, are seen to be the root cause of suffering. What haunts and torments man is not a frightening and wrathful Thanatos, but not enough Thanatosan incomplete annihilation, so to say. Nirvanathe extinguishing of the flame, as Buddhists put itis real death; and that is, precisely, what the devout lama yearns for.
A classic example of this quest for extinction is found in the motion picture version of the "Wolfman." What this half-human, half-beast wants is to no longer be subject to the cycles of life, a revolution which for him reaches a terrible blood-lusting peak every full moon. What the Wolfman desires is Thanatos.
But, in the movie script, the Wolfman can only die if he is shot with a silver bullet His death wish does not come in all avenues, but only one very elusive form. This quest for extinction, as exemplified in the Wolfman, came about in the history of mankind exactly at the time that the fear of death arose: with the advent of the "self." Today, the yearning for oblivion has taken on several expressions, ranging from extreme asceticism to the possibility of a nuclear, global war. However, can man experience absolute death? Can he enjoy total extermination? Surprisingly, the answer is no.
Just as the Egyptian priest could not preserve the physical body indefinitely, neither can the Tibetan monk experience complete extinction. The reason why the monk cannot is both simple and profound: non-existence, by definition, does not exist. To experience absolute death is entirely impossible, because experience belongs to the category of consciousness and existence. No one can observe total annihilation, plainly because real death encompasses the observer, leaving neither the seer nor the seen. Non-being cannot be enjoyed because there is no one left to enjoy it. Thus, in this scenario, man's search for extinction falls short. Neither can he preserve the body forever, nor can he experience absolute death. This is the human dilemma and this is where we find ourselves.
The Paradox of Death:
The Body is Not Immortal
and Non-Existence Does Not Exist
It is really an amazing thing but most of us do not really examine death as it "is." We have stories about it, myths surrounding it, and taboos guarding it, but we do not investigate death in its naked essence.
It is really an amazing thing but most of us do not really examine death as it "is." We have stories about it, myths surrounding it, and taboos guarding it, but we do not investigate death in its naked essence. For when we truly understand what death implies we are confronted with a great paradox, a classicif confusingkoan. The human dilemma, succinctly put, is that man as a separate self cannot live forever in the physical body, but neither can he experience absolute non-existence. Thus, it is as if we were caught in a cosmic "Catch 22." Or, at least, so it seems.
What is the lesson to be learned from this clash of the archetypes, this paradox of the Mummy and the Wolfman? Only two things:
Acceptance and Transcendence. Acceptance, because although we are timelessly alive our existence is within a form; and transcendence, because that very form does not last eternally.
Therefore, man's spiritual journey is not one of extreme withdrawal towards a final exit, nor a massive attempt for bodily survival. On the contrary, it is to accept Life, Being, and Existence as it "is." And, in order to do that, man has to both accept his self and, at the same time, transcend it.
In the end, Thanatos does not conqueror Eros; the Wolfman does not defeat the Mummy (or vice versa). Instead Thanatos and Eros meet, for Immortality and Annihilation are two aspects of the same Reality, the same Whole. Their separation is man's dilemma; their union is man's enlightenment.
The Denial of Death By Ernest Becker 
Eternal Life By Hans Kung 
Die To Live By Charan Singh 
Heading Toward Omega By Kenneth Ring 
Easy Death By Da Free John 
Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition 
RADIANCE WITHOUT AN EDGE
Try this test: see if you can experientially remember when "you" were not. That is, go back in time/memory and see if you can recollect the moment when you came from unconsciousness to consciousness, from nonexistence into existence, from non-being to being. Frustrated? Cannot remember? Well, you are in very good company, since nobody can ever recall such a moment of evolutionary genesis. The fact of the matter is that it is impossible to remember the birth of your consciousness.
What is most telling about this little exercise, however, is that you can also never experience the death of your consciousness. It is literally out of the realm of experience. Hence, what we should fear about death is not the extinction of being, but the awareness of moving from one level of consciousness to another. It is life, not death, which is really quite scary.
Strange as it may seem, we are witnesses to an eternal play of consciousness: we arise, we sleep, we dream, we die. But, in the midst of it all, we continue to persist. Indeed, there is only persistence, no matter what circumstance may arise. Just like the assumed characters of our Dreams, we wage intense battles only to find that the arena we felt so certain was real was, in truth, an illusory, dependent structure, ready at any moment to disappear in a flash known as "waking up." This world is no different than the dreaming stage. The only apparent difference, mystics point out, is that it appears to be of a longer duration.
So the only constant in this peculiar process is that we continue to manifest in different regions of awareness. When we physically die nothing will change, except that we will reappear in a new drama, a new field of interplay. But, the essential mystery of life will not change. We will still be ignorant, dumbfounded, and in awe. We can pretend or pose otherwise to one another, acting as if we have an inside clue to the secret of God/Truth, but when the "new" death comes (every state of awareness has its own terminal apex) all our posturing will be exposed for naught. We may live forever, but it is not "you" or "me" which is doing the living.
We are simply witnesses to a stream of Being, which has no beginning, no middle, and no end. Radiance without an edge.