Confronting Death with an Open, Mindful Attitude
Can mindfulness neutralize our fear of death and dying?
Posted February 21, 2011
For 3 straight months, with the kids asleep, my wife and I snuck downstairs to watch at least one episode of Six Feet Under. From 2001-2005, Six Feet Under was the first show to delve into the muddy, painful issues surrounding death. In the very first scene of the pilot, the father of the main characters dies in a car wreck and every subsequent episode begins with the story of a random person's death. Sometimes they are bizarre (a man slowly backs his car out of the driveway, sticks his hand out the door to grab the newspaper and falls out while the car continues descending, driving over his neck). Sometimes they are morbidly playful (a woman drinks heavily with friends in a limo, opens the sun roof and with screams of joy, outstretched hands, and closed eyes is decapitated by a low hanging traffic light). Besides being provocative, the show sought to change the way viewers confront death. When it comes to sex, drugs, and violence, we are a society of exhibitionists. When it comes to death, we are repressed. My daily dose of Six Feet Under was therapeutic, helping me develop a cozier relationship with a prior enemy.
Death can be terrifying. Recognizing that death is inescapable and unpredictable makes us incredibly vulnerable. This disrupts our instinct to remain a living, breathing organism. So what do we do? We try to manage this terror. Generally, when reminded of our mortality, when the potential to experience existential anxiety is heightened, we are extremely defensive. Like little kids who nearly suffocate under blanket protection to fend off the monster in the closet, the first thing we try to do is purge any death-related thoughts or feelings from our mind. We try to think about something else, stuff our face with Cheez Doodles, anything to gain some composure. Only one problem. Ever try to ignore a cockroach that skittered across the bedroom and return to sleep? Doesn't work so well.
Because avoiding the issue is rather ineffective, our death-related thoughts continue to infect us. But unfortunately, we don't know that there is a mental virus pushing and pulling us around in all sorts of strange ways. On the fringes of conscious awareness, we try another attempt to ward off death anxiety. We violently defend beliefs and practices that provide a sense of stability and meaning in our lives. It might be patriotic fervor for our country, connection to people of a similar gender or racial group, or faith in God. Thinking about these beliefs, and the people that share them, allow us to feel accepted and meaningful. By viewing ourselves as valuable members of similar-minded groups, we connect ourselves to a permanent reality that will persist long after we die. We will die before our gender, race, or religious group does (give or take a nuclear holocaust). Clinging to our "culture worldview" gives us a sense of symbolic immortality! I know this sounds weirds but by defending the groups that we identify with, we have a second strategy to manage the fear of death (when attempts at suppressing and avoiding thoughts of death fails). But there is an ugly side effect to this psychological suture.
A common way in which we defend our cultural worldview is to praise people with similar beliefs and act aggressive toward people from different groups with different beliefs. Essentially, we become intolerant and abusive. There are hundreds of scientific experiments to demonstrate this phenomena. When people are reminded that death is impending, White people asked to read about a crime committed by another person give harsher penalties for Black compared with White defendants. Being reminded of their mortality increases racist tendencies. Right now you should be thinking of a number of alternative explanations. Please know that researchers continue to show that these defensive, hostile reactions toward people with different worldviews can't be explained by how distressed we feel about thinking about death, our self-esteem, our political attitudes, etc.
As someone who studies psychological strengths and well-being, I wasn't content knowing how evil humans can become when confronting death. My colleagues and I wondered what might prevent these defensive, intolerant reactions from occurring. We stumbled upon the idea that mindfulness might provide a form of psychological immunity. Mindfulness can be defined as gently focusing attention on what is happening in the present moment with a receptive, open attitude. Mindfulness is a sexy topic and there is no shortage of Tibetian monks gracing the covers of major magazines (and even funkier, more interesting monks). We wanted to study what happens when mindfulness and the terror of death collide. A grudge match between humanity and death. If mindful people are more willing to explore whatever happens in the present, even if it uncomfortable, will they show less defensiveness when their sense of self is threatened by a confrontation with their own mortality?
Based on the results of 7 different experiments, the answer appears to be yes. When reminded about their death and asked to write about what will happen when their bodies decompose (in grisly detail), less mindful people showed an intense dislike for foreigners that mention what's wrong with the United States (pro-U.S. bias), greater prejudice against Black managers who discriminated against a White employee in a promotion decision (pro-White bias), and harsher penalties for social transgressions such as prostitution, marital infidelities, and drug use by physicians that led to surgical mishaps. Across these various situations, mindful people showed a lack of defensiveness toward people that didn't share their worldview. For instance, mindful people did not show preferential treatment for foreigners that had positive comments about the United States (focusing on the quality of ideas, not the birthplace of writers), or people of the same race (White racists were treated the same as Black racists). Mindful people were diplomatic and tolerant regardless of whether they were prompted to think about their slow, systematic decline toward obliteration.
at do mindful people do that allows them to confront death in a non-defensive manner? What we found was that when asked to deeply contemplate their death, mindful people spent more time writing (as opposed to avoiding) and used more death-related words when reflecting on the experience. This suggests that a greater openness to processing the threat of death allows compassion and fairness to reign. In this laboratory staged battle, mindfulness alters the power that death holds over us. Pretty cool.
When we are unable to confront death, it's amazing how we become hateful and aggressive without any awareness into our actions. Think about who you despised after watching the planes crash into the twin towers (people that didn't look like you? think like you?). Who would have thought that being mindfully aware and curious could help us gain control over our own brain. In these unpredictable, uncertain times with too much hatred and violence what the world needs now are some open, curious people. For starters, let's get the 63 episodes of Six Feet Under to as many people as possible. I know quite a few politicians, judges, and journalists who could use a refesher course on biases...
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and more recently, Designing Positive Psychology. For more about his public speaking and research go to www.toddkashdan.com or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena
I have no financial stake in HBO or Six Feet Under, just a huge, huge fan. For information about the science, download (go to 2nd page):
Niemiec, C.P., Brown, K.W., Kashdan, T.B., Cozzolino, P.J., Breen, W., Levesque, C., & Ryan, R.M. (2010). Being present in the face of existential threat: The role of trait mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 344-365.
Kashdan, T.B., Afram, A., Brown, K.W., Birnbeck, M., & Drvoshanov, M., (in press). Curiosity enhances the role of mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to existential threat. Personality and Individual Differences [soon to be available here]