Thinking as an escape from death: The mind’s intoxicating promises

From the moment the news of my brother’s death flooded over me last year, I began wrestling with the usual thoughts: “He was too young. It wasn’t his time. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t fair.” In the months since, though, I have often been able to resist falling into thought spirals, those intoxicating mental loops that promise to distract from the astonishing fact that life exists on a precipice, that everything, all of it, can suddenly be gone.

Thanks, in part, to Buddhism, I first began to learn about the unhelpful role my thoughts could play as a result of a few searingly bad breakups during my 20s and 30s. Back then, it was quite common for me to get caught in vicious circles of why she said or did this or that. At some point, though, I began to get better at recognizing that obsessing over factors like timing, motive, and fairness — even as the relationship was, quite evidently, crumbling — was mainly an attempt to avoid how shitty it felt to be rejected or to fall out of love. My mind had, for decades, tricked me into believing that, if only I could find a reason, understand the whats and why’s, somehow it would all be better. I’m happy to report, then, that, although I can still get lured into such self-destructive mentalized trances, I am less susceptible to my mind’s chattering attempts to distract me from existential, emotional realities, including those that are related to death.

There is a reason, of course, that that familiar egoic voice is so seductive during times of deep emotional upheaval. When it feels like the very fabric of our reality has been torn, as a result of, say, violence, injustice, cruelty, or illness, it makes sense that we might want to try to quickly regain a sense of control. To feel oneself to be utterly at the mercy of nature, other people, and time itself can, at times, seem intolerable. And so the mind stands ready, prepared to sweep in, promising all sorts of avenues of escape and relief, fantasies of revenge, searches for miracle cures, arguments for the existence of God, or maybe just endless rumination about the unfairness of it all. So, although many philosophers have defined humans in terms of our capacity for rationality, our tendency to abuse rational thought, drug-like, to escape from uncomfortable existential realities is surely an elemental aspect of who many of us are most of the time.

My mind, although it is just an average specimen, is a constant revelation to me, analyzing, associating, and problem-solving, often with impressive speed and efficacy. And I have no words to do justice to the extraordinary mental processes and products of the countless brilliant folks who occupy the world around me. I know, then, that my mind is not my enemy. But, like a friend urging me to have just one more because he does not want to drink alone, nor does it always have my best interests in view. If my mind had its way, I would probably remain so wrapped up in rehashings, speculations, and recriminations that it would never occur to me to peer into the abyss. Without those silent, spacious moments between thoughts, I could never even hope to recognize that, although what lies there is a “nothingness” of sorts, it is so abundantly full that mere thinking cannot begin to comprehend it.

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