Avoiding death seems to be built into our DNA, and for good reason. If we were indifferent to our own death, we might act in ways that would lower our chance of surviving to pass on our genes and care for our offspring. But while our impulse toward self-preservation may be hardwired, fearing death apparently is not.
I recently interviewed Dr. Kenneth Ring, an expert on near-death experiences (NDEs) and author of the recent book, Waiting to Die: A Near-Death Researcher's (Mostly Humorous) Reflections on His Own Endgame. Ring describes himself as "now living in the epilogue" of his life.
"My life as an Active Ken in the world is over," he said, "and my life to come is not yet. I'm in an in-between zone—a kind of bardo—just waiting for the next stage to come." And while he expects his death to come in the not-so-distant future, he seems to be approaching it with a light touch and a good deal of humor.
It's clear from Ring's writings that his vicarious knowledge of NDEs has shaped his experience of "waiting to die," and his expectations for what's on the other side. After studying hundreds of accounts of NDEs, Ring is certain that "over death's horizon, there is another world awaiting us of indescribable beauty, peace, and love."
Ring suggests that the closer one has come to death, the less likely one is to fear it. In fact, the overwhelming emotional experience of those who have had NDEs is not fear but love.
Years ago I had my own experience of absolute love when I died in a dream; that encounter was enough to change my relationship with death (as I described in "What Dreams of Your Death Are Really About"). It made me believe that dying meant joining everything I love.
Death, then, is "not a dead end," Ring said. "We continue to exist in another mode of being. A great adventure really does await us. But it is impossible to describe in ordinary language."
In Life After Life, fellow NDE research pioneer Dr. Raymond Moody also describes the limits of language to capture these encounters. Those who return from NDEs "uniformly characterize their experience as ineffable, that is, 'inexpressible.'" As one individual said, "They just don't make adjectives and superlatives to describe this."
Intriguingly, many people—including Ring himself—have reported similar experiences when taking psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin. Psychedelics can also reduce the fear of death among those with a terminal illness—for the same reason, Ring suggests, that NDEs take away one's fear of death.
Ring described a profound realization of an all-encompassing love during his experiences with psychedelics. He said that through them he "was able to know without a doubt that the universe is stitched in a fabric of absolute love."
The common thread in psychedelic experiences and near-death experience, according to Ring, is "transcending the ego," where the ego is our sense of a separate "I" that judges and resists the world as it is. When we move beyond our habitual way of meeting reality through any means of altered consciousness (death or otherwise), we can experience "the beginning of true life. For when death is encountered it is not terrifying; instead, it has the face of the Beloved."
Ring's works suggest that there are things we can do to change our thoughts and feelings about death, especially if we're afraid of dying. Here are five possibilities:
Read about near-death experiences.
Ring has never had a near-death experience himself, nor has Moody, and yet both describe being profoundly changed by their study of others' NDEs. "NDEs generally have very positive transformative effects," said Ring. "Learning about them can help people become more comfortable with the prospect of their own death." I've found a shift in my own views of death as I've studied their work.
Open your mind (and heart).
You may be among the many who are skeptical that NDEs reflect anything true about what happens when we die. For example, some assert that NDEs are simply byproducts of a lack of oxygen to the brain.
But those who have had the experience themselves typically develop a very different stance toward death and the afterlife, as neurosurgeon Eben Alexander (formerly an NDE skeptic) recounted in his bestselling Proof of Heaven. Moreover, simple medical explanations cannot account for NDEs that happen among people who merely thought they were about to die (e.g., a car accident narrowly avoided), or for the "shared death experience" that I described in this earlier post.
I should note, of course, that believing in an afterlife isn't the only way to release one's fear of death—and it's possible to fear death even if you believe in a paradise on the other side. Knowledge of NDEs has benefits other than death fear reduction. "If more people had NDEs or could learn about them and absorb their wisdom," said Ring, "the world would be a better place."
In any event, it's worth considering the possibility that NDEs offer a peek at something real beyond this life—especially when that vision is of a love that surpasses human understanding.
→ What's one assumption you've made about death that may or may not be true?
One way to transcend the ego's workings doesn't require external chemicals or a brush with death. "Acceptance, which is not to be confused with passivity, is the key to living wisely," said Ring. Simply by accepting what is, we can move beyond the ego's habit of dividing the world into "for me" and "against me."
Acceptance can include accepting that parts of you will probably die before your actual death, as Ring described. He realized that "the person I used to be had already died." And although "that Ken is dead, that doesn't mean I am!"
And it doesn't mean he's not enjoying life—he clearly is. "Waiting to die doesn't have to be uncomfortable or lead one to think morbid thoughts," he explained. "It can still be fun, as I try to show in my book."
→ Use this "Open to Reality" exercise from The CBT Deck to practice acceptance today. Set a screenshot of this card as your smartphone wallpaper to remind you.
Find a purpose.
"The more you fail to experience your life fully," writes psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, "the more you will fear death.” Experiencing life fully means being engaged in things that matter to you.
Ring noted the purpose he found in his later life as he wrote Waiting to Die. "It isn't that they've merely given me something to do in my spare time," he said. "They've given me a purpose, and I hope when people—especially older people—read them, they will help to enliven their own lives, too."
Paradoxically when we have a purpose in life, we're less likely to fear death. "So live as deeply and richly as you can while you can," said Ring, "even when you're waiting to die."
→ Explore your sources of meaning and purpose with someone you love and trust.
Open to humor.
Gallows humor exists for a reason. Humor, like love, is a great antidote to fear. When we can laugh at what terrifies us, the grip of fear loosens. "Laugh in life, laugh at death—and in the face of death, if you can manage it," said Ring.
Ring is doing just that, last I heard. At 83 years old, he continues to laugh at life, including the less welcome parts. For example, he shared about a problem with urinating in which "a secondary stream runs down my left leg"; what does he say when it happens twice in a row? "Another double dribble!"
→ Look for opportunities today to laugh—even at things that might tend to scare you, and especially at yourself.
"Hearing isn't the last sense to go," said Ring. "It's humor."
To learn more about Dr. Ring and his work, visit his website.
Ring, K. (2019). Waiting to die: A near-death researcher's (mostly humorous) reflections on his own endgame. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark.