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What's this Chapter?

Ch.10 - Confront Your Mortality - The Sublime


What's this Chapter's Judgment?

In the face of our inevitable mortality we can do one of two things: we can attempt to avoid the thought at all costs, clinging to the illusion that we have all the time in the world. Or we can confront this reality, accept and even embrace it, converting our consciousness of death into something positive and active. In adopting such a fearless philosophy, we gain a sense of proportion, become able to separate what is petty from what is truly important. Knowing our days are numbered, we have a sense of urgency and mission. We can appreciate life all the more for its impermanence. If we can overcome the fear of death, then there is nothing left to fear.


The Fearless Approach
With the language skills that our primitive ancestors developed, we humans became rational creatures, gaining the ability to look into the future and dominate the environment. But with this good came a bad that has caused us endless suffering - unlike any other animal, we are conscious of our mortality. This the source of all of our fears. Death represents the ultimate reality - a limit to our days and efforts in a definitive fashion. We have to face it alone behind all that we know and love - a complete separation. It is associated with physical and mental pain. To repress the thought, we must then avoid anything that reminds us of death. We therefore indulge in all kinds of fantasies and illusions, struggling to keep out of our minds any kind of hard and unavoidable reality. We cling to jobs, relationships, and comfortable positions, all to elude the feeling of separation. We grow overly conservative because any kind of risk might entail adversity, failure, or pain. We keep ourselves surrounded by others to drown out the thought of essential aloneness. We may not be consciously aware this, but in the end we expend and intense amount of psychic energy in these repressions. The fear of death does not go away; it merely returns in smaller anxieties and habits that limit our enjoyment of life.
What the fearless way to deal with mortality?

To realize that the moment we are born, we carry inside ourselves ours death. It is not some outside event that ends our days but something within us. We have only so many days to live. This amount of time is something unique to us; it is ours alone, our only true possession. If we run away from this reality by avoiding the thought of death, we are really running away from ourselves. We are denying the one thing that cannot be denied; we are living a lie.


The Fearless Approach
What does the fearless approach to dealing with our mortality require?

That you accept the fact that you have only so much time to live, and that life itself inevitably involves levels of pain and separation. By embracing this, you embrace life itself and accept everything about it. Depending on a belief in an afterlife or drowning yourself in the moment to avoid pain is to despise reality, which is to despise life itself.


The Fearless Approach
When you chose to affirm life by confronting your mortality, how does everything change? 1/3

What matters to you now is to live your days well, as fully as possible. You could choose to do this by pursuing endless pleasures, but nothing becomes boring more quickly than having to always search for new distractions. If attaining certain goals becomes your greatest source of pleasure, then your days are filled with purpose and direction, and whenever death comes, you have no regrets.


The Fearless Approach
When you chose to affirm life by confronting your mortality, how does everything change? 2/3

You do not fall into nihilistic thinking about the futility of it all, because that is a supreme waste of the brief time you have been given. You now have a way of measuring what matters in life - compared to the shortness of your days, petty battles and anxieties have no weight.


The Fearless Approach
When you chose to affirm life by confronting your mortality, how does everything change? 3/3

You have a sense of urgency and commitment - what you do you must do well, with all of your energy, not with a mind shooting off in a hundred directions.


The Fearless Approach
To accomplish this Fearless Approach is remarkably simple. It is a mater of looking inward and seeing death as something that you carry within. It is a part of you that cannot be repressed. It does not mean that you brood about it, but that you have continual awareness of a reality that you come to embrace. You convert the terrified, denial-type relationship to death into something active and positive - finally released from pettiness, useless anxieties, and fearful, timid responses.
This fearless way of approaching death originated in the ancient world, in the philosophy known as Stoicism. What is the core of Stoicism?

Learning the art of how to die, which paradoxically teaches you how to live.
As Seneca understood, to free yourself from fear you must work backward. You start with the thought of your mortality. You accept and embrace this reality. You think ahead to the inevitable moment of your death and determine to face it as bravely as possible. The more you contemplate your mortality, the less you fear it - it becomes a fact you no longer have to repress.


The Fearless Approach
What do you stand do gain by developing this Stoic attitude toward mortality?

By following this path, you know how to die well, and so you can now begin to teach yourself to live well. You will not cling to things unnecessarily. You will be strong and self-reliant, unafraid to be alone. You will have a certain lightness that comes with knowing what matters - you can laugh at what others take so seriously. The pleasures of the moment are heightened because you know their impermanence and you make the most of them. And when your time to die comes, as it will some day, you will not cringe and cry for more time, because you have lived well and have no regrets.


Keys to Fearlessness
In the past, our relationship to death was much more physical and direct. We would routinely see animals killed before our eyes - for food or sacrifices. During times of plague or natural disasters we would witness countless deaths. Graveyards were not hidden away but would occupy the center of cities or adjoin churches. People would die in their homes, surrounded by friends and families. This nearness of death increased the fear of it but also made it seem more natural, much more a part of life. To mediate this fear, religion would play a powerful and important role.
The dread of death, however, has always remained intense, and with the waning of the power of religion to soothe our anxieties, we found it necessary to create a modern solution to the problem - we would almost completely banish the physical presence of death. We do not see the animals being slaughtered for food. Cemeteries occupy outlying areas and are not part of our consciousness. In hospitals, the dying are cloistered from sight, everything made as antiseptic as possible. That we are not aware of this phenomenon is a sign of the deep repression that has taken place.
We see countless images of death in movies and in the media, but how does this have a paradoxical effect?

Death is made to seem like something abstract, nothing more than an image on the screen. It becomes something visual and spectacular, not a personal event that awaits us. We may be obsessed with death in the movies we watch, but this only makes it harder to confront our mortality.


Keys to Fearlessness
Death is made to seem like something abstract, we have almost completely banish the physical presence of death.
Banished from our conscious presence, death haunts our unconscious in the form of fears, but it also reaches our minds in the form of the Sublime. The word "sublime" comes from the Latin, meaning up to the threshold or doorway. It is a thought or experience that takes us to the threshold of death, giving us a physical intimation of this ultimate mystery, something so large and vast it eludes our powers of description. It is a reflection of death in life, but it comes in the form of something that inspires awe. To fear and avoid our mortality is debilitating; to experience it in the Sublime is therapeutic.
Children have this encounter with the Sublime quite often, particularly when confronted with something too vast and incomprehensible for their understanding - darkness, the night sky, the idea of infininty, the sense of time in millions of years, a strange sense of affinity with an animal, etc. We too have these moments in the form of any intense experience that is hard to express in words. It can come to us in moments of extreme exhaustion or exertion, when our bodies are pushed to the limit; in travel to some unusual place; or in absorbing a work of art that is too packed with ideas or images for you to process rationally. The French call an orgasm "la petite mort", or little death. How is the Sublime a kind of mental orgasm?

As the mind becomes flooded with something that is too much or too different. It is the shadow of death overlapping our conscious minds, but inspiring a sense of something vital and even ecstatic.


Keys to Fearlessness
What must you understand to get to the truth of our fear of death? 1/2

That to keep death out, we bathe our minds in banality and routines; we create the illusion that it is not around us in any form. This gives us a momentary peace, but we lose all sense of connection to something larger, to life itself. We are not really living until we come to terms with our mortality.


Keys to Fearlessness
What must you understand to get to the truth of our fear of death? 2/2

Becoming aware of the Sublime around us is a way to convert our fears into something meaningful and active, to counter the repression of our culture. The Sublime in any form tends to evoke feelings of awe and power. Through awareness of what it is, we can open our minds to the experience and actively search it out.


Keys to Fearlessness
What are the 4 sensations of a sublime moment?

-The Sense of Rebirth
-The Sense of Evanescence and Urgency
-The Sense of Awe
-The Sense of the Oceanic, The Connection to All Life


-The Sense of Rebirth
This feeling of having your soul pulled out of your body like a handkerchief is the essence of a sublime sensation. For Hemingway it could be conjured only by something extreme, by a brush with death itself. We, however, can feel the sensation and its reviving benefits in smaller doses. Whenever life feels particularly dull or confining, we can force ourselves to leave familiar ground. This could mean traveling to some particularly exotic location, attempting something physically challenging (a sea voyage or scaling a mountain), or simply embarking on a new venture in which we are not certain we can succeed. How should this lead to the Sublime Sense of Rebirth?

In each case we are experiencing a moment of powerlessness in the face of something large and overwhelming. This feeling of control slipping out of our hands, however short and slight, is a brush with death. We may not make it; we have to raise our level of effort. In the process, our minds are exposed to new sensations. When we finish the voyage or task and come to safe ground, we feel as if we are reborn. We felt that slight pull of the handkerchief; we now have a heightened appreciation for life and a desire to live it more fully.


-The Sense of Evanescence and Urgency
There are two kinds of time we can experience - the banal and the sublime variety. Describe banal time itself.

Banal time is extremely limited in scope. It consists of the present moment and stretches out to a few weeks ahead of us, occasionally farther.


-The Sense of Evanescence and Urgency
There are two kinds of time we can experience - the banal and the sublime variety. Describe our experience in banal time.

Locked in banal time, we tend to distort events - we see things as being far more important than they are, unaware that in a few weeks or a year, what stirs us all up will not matter.


-The Sense of Evanescence and Urgency
There are two kinds of time we can experience - the banal and the sublime variety. Describe Sublime time itself.

The sublime variety is an intimation of the reality of the utter vastness of time and the constant changes that are going on.


-The Sense of Evanescence and Urgency
There are two kinds of time we can experience - the banal and the sublime variety. Describe our experience in Sublime time.

It requires that we lift our heads our of the moment and engage in the kinds of meditations that obsessed Kenko. We imagine the future centuries from now or what was happening in this very spot millions of years ago. We become aware that everything is in a state of flux; nothing is permanent.


-The Sense of Evanescence and Urgency
How does contemplating sublime time have innumerable positive effects?

It makes us feel a sense of urgency to get things done now, gives us a better grasp of what really matters, and instills a heightened appreciation of the passage of time, the poignancy and beauty of all things that fade away.


-The Sense of Awe
We are creatures that live in language. Everything we think and feel is framed by words - which never really quite express reality. They are merely symbols. Throughout history, people have had all kinds of unique experiences in which they witness something that exceeds the capacity to express it in words, and this elicits a feeling of awe.
This sense of awe can be elicited by something vast or strange - endless landscapes (the sea or the desert), monuments from the distant past (the pyramids of Egypt), the unfamiliar customs of people in a foreign land. It can also be sparked by things in everyday life - for instance, focusing on the dizzying variety of animal and plant life around us (that philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote about the Sublime, felt it in holding a swallow in his hands and gazing into its eye, feeling a strange connection between the two of them.) It can be created by particular exercises in thinking. Imagine, for example, that you had always been blind and were suddenly granted sight. Everything you saw around you would seem strange and new - the freakish form of trees, the garishness of the color green. Or try imagining the earth in its actual smallness, a speck in vast space. Why should you practice these exercises?

The Sublime on this level is merely a way of looking at things in their actual strangeness. This frees you from the prison of language and routine, this artificial world we live in. Experiencing this awe on any scale is like a sudden blast of reality - therapeutic and inspiring.


-The Sense of the Oceanic, The Connection to All Life
In not confronting our mortality, we tend to entertain certain illusions about death. We believe that some deaths are more important or meaningful than others - that of a celebrity or prominent politician, for instance. We feel that some deaths are more tragic, coming too early or from some accident. The truth, however, is that death makes no such discriminaitons. It is the ultimate equalizer. It strikes rich and poor alike. For everyone, it seems to come too early and can be experienced as tragic. How should you feel the Sense of the Oceanic as a positive force?

Absorbing this reality should have a positive effect upon us all. We share the same fate with everyone; we all deserve the same degree of compassion. It is what ultimately links all of us together, and when we look at the people around us we should see their mortality as well.


-The Sense of the Oceanic, The Connection to All Life
How can this be extended further and further, into the Sublime?

Death is what links us to all living creatures as well. One organism must die so another can live. It is an endless process that we are a part of. This is what is known as an oceanic feeling - the sensation that we are not separated from the outside world but that we are part of life in all its forms. Feeling this at moments inspires an ecstatic reaction, the very opposite of morbid reflection on death.


In our normal perspective we see death as something diametrically opposed to life, a separate event that ends our days. As such, it is a thought that we must dread, avoid, and repress. But how is this idea, that is actually born out of our fear, false?

Life and death are inextricably intertwined, not separate; the one cannot exist without the other. From the moment we are born we carry our death within ourselves as a continual possibility. If we try to avoid or repress the thought, keep death on the outside, we are cutting ourselves off from life as well. If we are afraid of death, then we are afraid of life. We must turn this perspective around and face reality from within, finding a way to accept and embrace death as a part of being alive. Only from such a position can we begin to overcome the fear of our mortality, and then all of the smaller fears that plague our lives.