June 24, 2019
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.
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."
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
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
"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
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."
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
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."
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:
(1) Read about
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.
Lessons from the Light  or Moody's
Life After Life.
(2) 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
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
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
-- 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
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."
"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.
Open to Reality
When you find
Are you silently
insisting that reality
different than it is?
easier, go faster,
or be better
Let go of the
struggle as you
open to the
reality that is.
(4) Find a
"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
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."
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.
(5) Open to
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 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.
the last sense to go," said Ring. "It's
Ring, K. (2019).
Waiting to die: A near-death researcher's
(mostly humorous) reflections on his own
endgame. Tucson, AZ: Wheatmark.
About the Author
Gillihan, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant
professor of psychology in the Psychiatry
Department at the University of
Pennsylvania. His publications include
journal articles, book chapters, and
self-guided books on cognitive behavioral
therapy (CBT) for anxiety, depression, and
related concerns. Dr. Gillihan hosts the
weekly Think Act Be podcast.
CBT Deck: 101 Practices to Improve Thoughts,
Be in the Moment & Take Action in Your Life
Gillihan, PhD, LLC