Last week, I watched a film by Patrick Shen called Flight from Death, the Quest for Immortality. The documentary is narrated by Gabriel Byrne. This potentially downer of a film is based on the books and teachings of Ernest Becker.
Dr. Becker, a cultural anthropologist and interdisciplinary scientific thinker and writer, came to the realization that psychological inquiry inevitably comes to a dead end beyond which belief systems must be invoked to satisfy the human psyche.
Because of his breadth of vision and avoidance of social science pigeonholes, Becker was an academic outcast in the last decade of his life.
It was only with the award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his book, Denial of Death that his enormous contributions began to be recognized. This was about two months after his own death from cancer at the age of 49.
The second half of his magnum opus, Escape from Evil (1975) developed the social and cultural implications of the concepts explored in the earlier book and is an equally important and brilliant companion volume.
According to most existential psychoanalysts, our primary repression is not sexuality, but death. Although fear of death is necessary for self-preservation, it must be repressed for us to function with any degree of psychological comfort.
Over the past two decades a trio of experimental social psychologists has amassed a large body of empirical evidence substantiating the universal inflexible motive of death denial as advanced by Becker.
According to Becker, "everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness."
I had to watch the movie several times. Mostly because I kept falling asleep.
What most impressed me is the body of empirical evidence that is substantiating Becker’s premise.
In one test, judges were unconsciously flashed fear of death signals. The judges who had their fear of death increased in this manner, handed out sentences that were twice as severe.
There seems to be a lot of evidence now that supports the notion that much of humankind’s despicable behavior can be linked to this repression of the fear of death. Much of our anger, much our hatred, much of our tribal natures, our ability to kill, our ability to behave terribly in groups, can be linked to the repressed fear of death.
The premise is fairly straightforward.
We all know we are going to die and so we repress it.
Most of us use our church, our work, sports, our children, fast cars, whatever we can think of, to try to manage it, ignore it, and/or of course repress it.
But, the Buddhist in you knows that if you look at death squarely and honestly, it can become an ally instead of an unconscious dragon.
Contemplating death gives us strength because it liberates our fear.
Shaman teach their initiates to keep death on their shoulder.
Some Buddhist keep a scull on their meditation table.
I have always called it the Gorilla.
He is there. In the bushes. Waiting. Peaking.
Somedays I see him dancing in the speckled light.
I’m too chicken to ask him to dance.
But I’m learning the movements.
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