Why Death Is The Key To Life

The philosopher William James describes our denial of death, or the recognition of our mortality, as the “Worm at the core”; the driving factor for most, if not all, of our actions in life.

On realising our own mortality, we immediately seek a way to deny it, primarily by trying to achieve immortality, either literal or symbolic.

Still-Life with a Skull.Philippe de Champagne. 1671

But maybe the key to addressing our finiteness is not in trying to achieve immortality but in experiencing death during our lives, and not after it.

But how?

For millennia those who have thought deeply about our finitude consistently remind us to reflect on our mortality.

‘Momento Mori’ - Remember You Too will Die. 

The stoics, particularly Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, frequently wrote that remembering death is one of the key ways to embrace the shortness and value of life.

It is why many philosophers’ portraits have a skull on their desks—a constant reminder of their mortality. I have kept a skull on my desk for years as a daily reminder.

William Michael Harnett - Memento Mori, "To This Favour" 1879.

We hear this refrain of reflecting on death, over and over again, throughout the ages. In Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ he writes “, Every third thought shall be my grave.”

Frequently meditating on death can serve as a potent reminder of the shortness of life.

On its brevity.

For all of us.

Not just reflecting on those who have died.

But more so for those of us who still are alive.

It can bring into sharp focus the things in life that truly matter. And allow us the perspective to let the less important aspects of our life fade away and not cause us emotional turmoil.

But to think about death is not to experience it.

To think of the thrill of a roller coaster ride can never do justice to the visceral feelings that the real version elicits.

So how do we experience death before we die?

Maybe the Ancient Greeks knew.

Above the entrance to St Paul’s monastery in Mount Athos in Greece reads the inscription:

"If you die before you die, then you won't die when you die."

This quotation refers to the exclusive ritual of Ancient Greece known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Those reported to have participated in this secret ceremony included Plato, Marcus Aurelius and Caesar Augustus.

As part of a 23-day ritual involving fasting, marching, chanting and sleep deprivation, the participants consumed a secret drink called kykeon. The exact ingredients of this ceremonial drink remain a mystery, but it is thought to have contained some form of hallucinogen.

The purpose of consuming such a mixture was to allow the participants to experience death. And in doing so, they lessen their fear of death and allow themselves to engage more fully with life.

As the philosopher Cicero wrote of his experience:

"Nothing is higher than these mysteries...they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope".

Were the participants of this ritual really dying?

Not a biological death.

But maybe a death of the ‘self’.

Of what we as individuals refer to as ‘I’—the ego.

Maybe the body did not die, but the concept of it did.

This is referred to as ‘ego death’, the complete loss of subjective self-identity.

Various religious traditions and scholars have described similar concepts. Muslim Sufis call it fana or ‘annihilation’, while Jewish kabbalists termed it 'the kiss of death’.

The term ego death is originally a Buddhist concept which was also described as the ‘great death’ as opposed to physical death, which was called the ‘small death’. The term ego death was also used by the controversial Harvard LSD researcher Timothy Leary, who described it as

“complete transcendence − beyond words, beyond spacetime, beyond self. There are no visions, no sense of self, no thoughts. There are only pure awareness and ecstatic freedom."

The experience of ego death has been described with a range of psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms), LSD, 5MEO-DMT and Ayahuasca. The use of such compounds has had a resurgence of interest in recent years.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have demonstrated that using psilocybin in cancer patients can decrease depression and anxiety and increase assessments of quality of life, life meaning, and optimism. Most importantly, psilocybin showed reductions in death anxiety1.

Additional work by Roland Griffith's group at Johns Hopkins has shown that those who consumed psilocybin rated the encounter as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives, akin to the birth of a child or the death of a parent2.

Hallucinogenic drugs have been used for millennia across almost all cultures. From the shamans of South America using Ayahuasca to the druids of Ireland using psilocybin, their role in traditional ceremonies has been an integral part of cultural rituals for thousands of years.

So Nietzsche may have been correct when he wrote:

“One must pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while still alive.”

Maybe we have to die before we die, so we don’t die when we die.

In the words of Richard Alpert:

“one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate is to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, and to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.”

Not All Upside

Although such experiences of transcendence and ego death are appealing, there is a reason to also tread carefully in this territory.

Psychedelic ‘parties’ are increasingly common among recreational ‘psychonauts’ looking to explore the inner depths of their cognitive universe. But as Carl Jung once noted:

“Beware of unearned wisdom”.

These potent substances certainly hold great promise, but their inappropriate use is not advised. Recreational users are almost certainly exposed to the psychedelic light show of these hallucinogens, but without the appropriate set, setting and guides, the real utility is likely lost.

There is a reason the Eleusinian Mysteries were part of a highly selected for 23-day ritual of chanting, fasting, sleep deprivation and ceremonial ritual. Bearing witness to the outer recesses of your mind may be illuminating, but without the appropriate context, its true impact is likely blunted or even dangerous.

And if death transcendence is the goal, I expect this is something not to be taken on casually on any random Saturday evening with a group of people you may or may not even know.

Additionally, for those who have walked this path, some have suffered the ill effects of psychedelics called the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. A description used by the researcher Willoughby Britton which has been described as:

"falling into the Pit of the Void."

Some suffer the torment of a ‘bad trip’ as described by the neuroscientist Sam Harris as such:

“Have you ever travelled, beyond all mere metaphors, to the Mountain of Shame and stayed for a thousand years? I do not recommend it.”

Even in the knowledge of the ‘bad trips’ and encounters with the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, I am confident that the use of such compounds will likely be of great value in the future. When used appropriately.

The context of that ‘appropriateness’ is likely still to be determined in a contemporary setting.

Regardless of your opinion on such approaches, there is little doubt that these ‘ego death’ experiences are life-changing.

And if they can be used to experience death before our final hour, then they are likely to be of tremendous value given the lengths we go to deny our mortality.

Whether we ever choose to experiment with these substances is a question we each have to answer.

But the challenge of facing our mortality is not something we can avoid.

The question is how we choose to confront it.

Willingly, or suddenly when that day finally arrives.


Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. J Psychopharmacol. 2016 Dec;30(12):1181-1197.


Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. J Psychopharmacol. 2008 Aug;22(6):621-32.

When You Are Ready Here Is How I Can Help You.

The Heart Health Formula Is Everything I Have Learned About Heart Disease Prevention Over The Last 20 Years About.

This is the formula for preventing heart disease and living longer.

Click on the button below to learn more.

Tell Me More

The Real Secret Of Why Blue Zones Have Exceptional Longevity

How to Define Exercise Zones for Optimal Workout Efficiency. The Es...

Five Simple Tests You Can Do At Home To See How Long You Will Live.


Prevent Heart Disease. Live Longer. 

Join 20K+ Others On My Free Weekly Email For Actionable Insights.