Tuesday 15 December 2015

Why does modern culture avoid thinking about death (and sleep)? Surely the reason is obvious

We use the word 'death' as if it has an agreed meaning, but it does not.

For mainstream modern secular culture, death merely means the complete cessation of existence - which is not a very interesting subject. So it is unsurprising that moderns do not think much about death: what is there to think about?

But death means extremely different things to different people at different times in history. For example, modern people are amazed or appalled by the Ancient Egyptian's 'obsession' with death - those mummies, pyramids, statues... their most famous title is probably The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

We wonder how and why they could be fascinated by such a subject! - it seems to us like an avoidance of life.

But of course 'death' for Egyptians was a completely different thing - it was the Dwat (also spelled Duat) which was the origin of everything, as well as the terminus of everything. It was the realm of the unseen - of essences, spirits, gods, the sleeping soul - the residence of those who had 'died' and those yet to be born.

The Dwat was reality - more real than this world: knowledge of the Dwat was power.

So, by modern standards, Ancient Egyptian 'death' was more like our idea of 'real life'. How utterly misleading to assume that death-then was like death-now.

It is not surprising that modern people avoid thinking and talking about death - modern death is a fact with implications; but really it is of little interest.

In a smaller way, the same applies to that foretaste of death - sleep. Modern Western culture is less interested in sleep than any other culture I have ever heard of; and this is utterly unsurprising since we regard sleep purely negatively. Lack of sleep can make us feel bad, and function badly - but aside from this biological 'need', sleep is of no interest.

We nowadays regard dreams as meaningless epiphenomena - or, at most, diagnostic signs of some kind of personal mental ailment. (Most of the sleep researchers have been psychiatrists!) A few people are interested in lucid dreams - but only as a kind of thrill - a private movie theatre, as it were.

But past societies (and modern non-Western societies) believed that all sorts of extremely interesting and important things happened during sleep.

We might get messages or revelations from the divine, or might spiritually travel to other places or other realities - there to have experiences impossible during waking times. Most societies have believed in prophetic dreams (indeed, unofficial folk culture still does - even in the West).

Indeed, it has not been unusual for people to regard the world of sleep as more real and more important than the waking world. There have been 'sleep specialists' - such as some types of shamans - in some societies.

So, the unimportance and uninteresting nature of death and sleep to moderns is unsurprising, given what we think they are.

And thereby modern culture has eliminated the significance of most of human life - eliminated the positive and unique value of 1/3 of our mortal existence; eliminated the significance of those who have died and our lives after deaths; eliminated the importance of the unseen and invisible.

And - having performed this hatchet job of destruction against most of existence and reality - modern people then complain that their lives are shallow and meaningless!


Clear Waters said...

I tried lucid dreaming once using binaural beats. I wasn't very successful. Back then I was looking for cheap thrills, but today I might attempt it again and look for perhaps something more. Lucidity might even allow something magnificent with regards to the Divine Realm. Dreams are such a mysterious phenomena.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mark C - I have blogged quite a lot of sleeping and dreaming - both from a biological and a 'spiritual' angle - over the years.

You could word-search on those, if you are interested.

This one was about my only experience of fully lucid dreaming:


Geraint Apted said...

Some say lucid dreaming - others say astral projection. Anybody can have a try. There are lots of instructions online, and numerous books have been written.

This is one of the best:


If anyone does try this, I'd ensure that you don't use a method described by someone who is a black magician. I mean it.

The best fictional account I have read of astral projection is "Strange Conflict" by Dennis Wheatley. I know his style is rather constipated, but the story is good. As an introduction to the astral, though fictional, this novel explains how it works, and suggests possibilities that set my imagination on fire when I was young.


ajb said...

Perhaps it would be more conceptually accurate for a Christian to say 'passes to the next life'.

Geraint Apted said...


I believe that most people who do not believe in God, and, therefore who believe in death, do not think about death, not because it isn't interesting, but because it is terrifying.

The link above spells out what it means to be an atheist if you do choose to think it through. It is grim reading. Man becomes an horrific accident of nature - a thinking being aware of its own mortality and extinction.

No wonder atheists want "to party" as much as they can, and go shopping for the next new thing. It takes their minds off the horror of an unbelieving existence.

This Christmas, we should pray hard for the atheists, and hope some see the light of God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GA - Atheists don't seem terrified of death - I wasn't when I was; but death-as-extinction does cumulatively lead to despair and nihilism.

Geraint Apted said...

I'll qualify what I said for clarity. If a normal person of average intelligence who is an atheist begins to think hard about their atheism, death for themselves and those they care for, then they feel fear. It is why most choose not to think about the subject, and instead find diversion after diversion until they have perfected their escape from the horror of their position.

The atheist scientists are an exception. They are so full of pride in their "superior knowledge" that they dismiss believers without hearing their case. It is why I prefer artists, actors, poets, sculptors, and just about anyone creative to the average scientist. There are some honourable exceptions (from the past mostly), but most scientists strike me as both shallow and stubborn. I always feel drained and ill when I have spoken to one of their kind for more than five minutes. As an Indian friend of mine says, "they are all clever dickies who know nothing".

I think I'll stop now because I can feel a rant coming on, and I don't think it is very good for one.