Trying to Become Real,
and the Fear of Death
by David R. Loy, PhD
Freud emphasized that repression is the foundation of psychoanalysis. If something in my mind makes me uncomfortable and I do not want to cope with it, I choose to ignore or forget it. This clears the way for me to think of something else, but the price for this is that part of my psychic energy must be expended to resist the suppressed idea and keep it out of consciousness. What has been thus repressed returns to consciousness as a symptom. What is not consciously admitted into awareness erupts in obsessive ways bringing those very qualities it tried to avoid.
While Freud considered repressed sexuality as the main culprit for most of his life, towards his end, he shifted his focus to death as the primary repression.
Consciousness of death is our primary repression. The Buddhists claim that, since the self is insubstantial, the death-denial represents quite valid suspicion that “I” do not really exist.
Fear of physical death is one manifestation of the deeper fear of the death of this “I”.
Buddhism analyzes the sense-of-self into sets of impersonal mental and physical phenomena, whose interaction create the illusion of self-consciousness, i.e. that consciousness is an attribute of a self. Thus, Freud’s Oedipal complex, the never-ending project to become father of oneself, is a suitable metaphor for developing sense-of-self to become autonomous. (Note: Tangled hierarchy is another term for this.) Self-consciousness is not something self-existing but a mental construct.
The problem occurs when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself, i.e. to make itself real. The sense-of-self construct can realize itself only by objectifying itself in some fashion in the world. The ego-self is this continual attempt to objectify oneself which would amount to grasping oneself, even though that is something that consciousness cannot do.
The perpetual failure to achieve this results in the sense-of-self always having as its shadow, the feeling of lack, which it constantly tries to escape. Stated differently, the trace of nothingness in our being, of death in our life, is a feeling of lack. We experience this sense of lack as the feeling that “there is something wrong with me”. This feeling can manifest in many different ways. One way is for this anxiety to objectify into fear of something, because then it gives us something to do: to defend ourselves against feared things. Another ploy is guilt, which justifies one to organize a life of non-enjoyment.
All this stems from the core desire to become real.
Yet another consequence is to try to resolve this sense-of-lack collectively, which actually compounds the problem.
Following are four historically-conditioned forms of delusion and craving resulting from our attempts to resolve this lack: desire for fame; romantic love; the money complex; and humanity’s collective project of technological development to ground ourselves by transforming the environment as a testimony of our reality.
Fame: We strive to become real through the eyes of others, who in turn are striving to become real through still others, etc. This is despite Nagarjuna’s demonstration that such infinite regress is futile, because if there is no self-being there cannot be a dependent being either, since any dependent being would require the self-being of another. If others teach me that I am real, then the natural tendency will be to cope with my repressed sense of unreality by continually reassuring myself with the attention of other people. But no matter how appreciative others’ attention of me, I will be constrained by those perceptions. You cannot use fame without being used by it. When we differentiate between good and evil, success and failure, in order to valorize one over the other, we cannot have one without the other. Grasping one half also maintains the other, as these pairs of opposites are interdependent. So to live a “pure” life one gets preoccupied with avoiding impurity. Hope for success is equivalent to fear for failure. The more we are applauded socially, the more we feel our lack.
Romantic love: What most persons love is not the person as they are, but some idea of love. Each loves the other from the standpoint of its own self. Unhappiness results from this false reciprocity that disguises twin narcissism. The other is not experienced as they are but as an opportunity to fill up one’s own lack.
Money: Schopenhauer says that money is human happiness in abstract. He who is not able to be happy concretely sets his whole heart on money. The problem is not with money as a medium of exchange, but with the money complex that arises when money becomes desirable in itself. Money is the purest symbol. An ironic reversal takes place between means and ends: everything else gets devalued to maximize a symbolic goal that has become a fetish. We no longer believe in life but in symbols, and manipulating these symbols becomes the main goal.
Technology: Technology can be seen as our effort to overcome lack and insecurity by transforming the entire world into our own ground. We try to make ourselves real by reorganizing the whole environment so that it attests to our reality. Technology is our attempt to own the universe, but this is always frustrating because we never possess it enough to feel secure in our ownership. Technology is our attempt to objectify nature, and that which has become an object to us captures us.
Instead of nondual participation, there is a dualistic relation in which the reified sense-of-self uses objects in its vain Oedipal project to fill up its sense of lack. The tendency is towards greater objectification, which is also subjectification, since the sense-of-self is the first thing to be objectified.
Nagarjuna uses the dependence of things upon their causal relationships to refute their self-existence. Transcending this sense-of-self is not a matter of appealing to some higher thing, but realizing the interdependence of all phenomena, including the very notion of “me”. The only need is to come out of my private and delusive hiding place.
Since lack is the inescapable shadow of self, the result of repressing the intuition that I am unreal and merely a mental construct, the only way to end this lack is to end the sense of self. This means transforming the sense of myself as a self-sufficient self-consciousness separate from the objective world, into a more relational awareness that is nondual with the world. In other words, the other side of my being is the anxiety or threat of nonbeing or nothingness. The Buddhist way to resolve such bipolarities is to yield to the side that has been denied. If it is nothingness I am afraid of, the solution is to become nothing.
Meditation is becoming nothing by unlearning the sense-of-self, by absorption. Since the sense-of-self is a process of consciousness attempting to reflect back upon itself in order to grasp / ground itself, meditation is an exercise in de-reflection. Enlightenment occurs when the usually automated reflexivity of consciousness ceases, which is experienced as a letting-go.
When I am no longer striving to make myself real through things, I am actualized. When I stop trying to become something, I discover that I am everything.