Saleem: Welcome back, y’all! It’s Saleem and this is More Than A Feeling.
Saleem: You made it to Day three of the five-day Dread Project challenge….
Ashley: My name is Ashley and I live in Asheville, North Carolina.
Elizabeth: Elizabeth Alva
David: David from New York City.
Elizabeth: I dread communicating how I feel.
Ashley: I sort of dread meeting new people because I assume they're not gonna like me.
David: a sense of dread about what the future holds, because things are so unpredictable.
Listener: Getting ready in the morning, talking to my mom, checking in on my weight.
Saleem: It’s our week-long podcast challenge where we investigate ways we might feel better, even when we’re anticipating the worst.
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Saleem: We’re dropping short episodes in your feed every day this week that tackle dread in different ways. From big existential dread to everyday stuff. And all the possibilities in between. And we’re giving you one easy, often fun exercise each day to help you apply these ideas in your own life. What’s been the most fun for us, so far, is hearing how these challenges are going for you.
Jennifer: Jennifer Markovitz from Ontario, Canada
Nancy: Hi, this is Nancy Sampson from North Carolina.
Jennifer: This is Jennifer. I'm in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Saleem: Your responses to Day One of the challenge, the journaling exercise, were so insightful and relatable...
Nancy Sampson: My first experience with journaling my dread voice was that I noticed a lot of self-criticism in that voice.
Jennifer Markovitz: Today I sent a text to Dread. I said, “I've been meaning to ask, what is it that you want from me?”
Jennifer: I did my journal. I was able to be a little bit more embracing, a little bit softer, and it's like, well, yeah, of course you're here. Of course you're trying to help.
Tui: I started listening to The Dread Project, doing the exercise believing that my greatest dread was death. But now I believe that my greatest dread is meaninglessness. I’m a great procrastinator and it seems that meaninglessness is the underlying reason for my procrastination.
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Saleem: You also gave us some feedback on how this whole project is landing with you…
Rachel: I’m Rachel and I live in England. I’ve just joined The DreadProject, which I just love the title of it. It just makes me laugh. And it’s so nice hearing other people talk about their dread because sometimes it just feels as though it’s just you and everyone else is living this extremely fulfilling and happy and joyous life.
Tui: My name is Tui. I live in Scottsdale, Arizona. My one small criticism about the podcast at this point is that it feels like it's focused on younger people. I'd like to feel that older people are being included equally. We also have dread. It's just that our dread may be focused on the future for our grandchildren, as opposed to the future for ourselves. Thank you.
Saleem: Tui, thank you. I’m so glad you mentioned this. Yes. This is not just about younger folks – we’re learning that dread shows up in different ways throughout our lives.
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Saleem: Please keep sending us your responses. Some of them have been wildly creative. We got an imaginary telegram from dread, a text exchange with it. It’s amazing, keep these coming.
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Saleem: Today we’re going to a corner of the dread universe that might sound dark at first, depending on your perspective. But we’re gonna see if you still feel that way by the end. We’re gonna talk about the big one: death.
Saleem: When we were collecting your stories on dread, this one came up constantly.
Marina: My name is Marina
Andrea: Andrea Witkin
Kedar: Kedar Young.
Lisa: My name is Lisa.
Lindsey: My name is Lindsey. I am from Beavercreek, Ohio
Jonathan: Jonathan Harman. I am a senior in high school.
Saleem: You shared your dread of losing life itself…
Lisa: The biggest dread of all is death. I love my life. I don't want it to end.
Marina: General anxieties around death and dying…
Kedar: And that dread is something that's just immeasurable.
Lindsey: One of my biggest causes of dread is a early death, a traumatic death, or a death in my home by myself.
Lisa: It's an inescapable reality.
Saleem: And for some of you, it wasn't dreading your own death. It was dreading the loss of someone you love.
Jonathan: Death of someone that you care about. Like that's serious, but you don't wanna think about it…
Marina: I just sort of anticipate that people get sick and pass away.
Kedar: Just losing people.
Jonathan: Like something that I don't want to happen that I know is gonna happen - the death of my grandfather. I've always been able to talk to him and stuff. So once that's gone, like I don't know what I'm gonna do.
Saleem: You’re also dreading some everyday things you have to do because they can make you feel like you’re in mortal danger.
Lisa: I dread driving alone…
Andrea: Elevators, elevators, elevators. The idea of the door not opening is more than I can bear.
Saleem: How much, and how intensely, we struggle with our dread of death can vary a lot. It depends on our individual traits, our histories, and our present struggles. And death might be the ultimate dread. It’s one we all need to learn to manage. Because no matter what you believe happens to you after you die – death itself? It’s inescapable. So we’re going to meet an expert who says the sooner we practice facing that fact, the better.
Rachel: I've zipped a lot of people up into body bags. [laughs] Um…
Saleem: Living people?
Rachel: Yeah. Living people. Yes. Sorry. I should have clarified that. [laughs]
Saleem: That’s Dr. Rachel Menzies and despite the body bags she’s not a serial killer or creep, we promise. She's a clinical psychologist based in Sydney, Australia. And a leading expert on how fear of death affects mental health. You might remember Rachel from our kick off episode, “Welcome to the Dread Project,” where she spoke about existential dread. This rather extreme body bag thing was part of a training that Rachel gave. And her trainees were clinicians who volunteered to try it.
Rachel: Pretty much everyone who did it said that it was easier than they expected it to be. Some people said it was quite relaxing in there. That they were bracing themselves for a panic attack and actually they felt much more comfortable than they expected.
Saleem: Don’t worry, we’re obviously not suggesting that you try this one. That is not today’s challenge. But Rachel told us that when clinicians learn to confront their own mortality, they can do more for clients who struggle with fear of death. That, says Rachel, is important. Because even though our fear of death has been studied throughout history by philosophers and spiritual leaders, writers and artists…
Rachel: It's only really in the last five, ten years that it's really getting a lot of attention in clinical psychology. So for that reason, there's more and more research happening. There's more and more training happening. Learning how to treat this problem better, how to improve our treatments for it.
Saleem: And this is a good trend, because according to Rachel’s research, many mental health challenges may have their roots in death anxiety.
Rachel: The more fearful you are about death, the more fearful you are about things in general. So if you are someone who has, uh, more anxiety about death, you are gonna be more prone to things like depression, stress. Lots of the common mental health conditions that we see in clinical practice have death at the root of them. Phobias. So fears of driving, flying. OCD, where people might be compulsively washing their hands to try and prevent some kind of fatal illness. And really the key takeaway from that research was that facing the fear is the most effective way to overcome it.
Saleem: And we should just say that if death anxiety or dread about death has a serious hold on you, and it’s impeding your life, you might want to consider working with a professional who’s trained to address this issue. The Dread Project is meant as a useful exercise. But it’s no substitute for getting mental health care. For some helpful resources on coping with difficult emotions, check out the links in our show notes.
Saleem: Okay, so if facing fear of death might help us with all this dread - HOW do we do it? For example: climbing into a body bag, that’s way too advanced for me. I need something easier.
Rachel: One of the most helpful ways to do that is to start surrounding yourself with what's called memento mori, little symbolic or visual reminders to keep death at the forefront of your mind. These are things which are specifically trying to help you remember that time is finite and you know, you've only got so much of it and, and use it how you want to use it.
Saleem: The term memento mori translates to something like “remember that you have to die.” And cultures around the world have developed little death reminders for centuries, from ancient Rome to Mexico's Day of the Dead, to the texts of Buddhism and Islam. These traditions live on to this day, affecting how we think about death. Or how often we think about it. Even YOLO — you only live once — that’s a kind of memento mori. All of these death reminders are meant to help us put things in perspective.
Rachel: We can try and change our perspective on death, see it as normal and natural. So the goal I suppose is trying to find that middle ground where I can have those thoughts about death. I can accept that they're there. But I can also focus on what's in my control here. That seems to be the most effective way to overcome death. Uh, death, anxiety, not death itself. Um, that would…
Saleem: When you get that information, definitely call me… [laughter]
Saleem: The goal here is not to change how sad or sudden or tragic death can be. It’s to train ourselves to notice how normal it is. And how often it shows up in our lives — to really internalize that it’s something we all have in common.
And Rachel left us with this, too. Starting to face our own death, and the death of those we love, isn’t just about accepting something sad and grim. It’s also about recognizing how miraculous it is that we’re even here.
Rachel: We take for granted that we were always gonna be here. And so it feels like a tragedy that it's going to end one day. Richard Dawkins puts this very well when he says we are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. The chance of you being born in the first place is less than one in a billion. We've won this golden ticket to be here. And so to dread the fact that it's going to end one day is almost missing the significance of being alive in the first place.
Saleem: Inspired by Rachel’s advice we’re gonna to turn to another expert now.
Alua: Thinking about death makes me feel really, really alive constantly, cause I'm still present.
Saleem: That's Alua Arthur talking to us from Los Angeles. She’s a death doula, which is…
Alua: Somebody who does all the non-medical care and support of the dying person. And of the family or the circle of support through the process.
Saleem: Alua is also the founder of Going With Grace, an organization that trains others to work in her field. You might expect someone who spends so much time around death and dying to speak about it in hushed, somber, tones, but Alua might surprise you.
Alua: I don't know how much time I have. I want to take time to look at the hummingbirds in awe and listen to my niece laugh and look into the eyes of my beloved and feel loved.
Saleem: I asked Alua what gave her so much joy in talking about this heavy topic.
Alua Arthur: When we're talking about death, we're bringing our entire lives into focus. Talking about death to me is one of the most enlivening things. It reminds me that I'm still very present. I'm still very much here. Now how can I fill up all the edges of this very limited time I have here?
Saleem: I love this idea of thinking of life as a container to fill to the edges.
Alua Arthur: Brim! Make it bubble over!
Saleem: How do you actually get to that mindset though?
Alua Arthur: I'm not sure what happened, but I do know that I've seen a lot of it. I've been with a lot of sick people, dying people, people right after they've died. And to consider a body that once was animated with a spark of life, now just an empty vessel of tissue and bones with no life inside of it. To think that this person will make no new memories, they won't speak any more words. They won't walk anywhere ever again. Like the profound stillness in a dead body is something that is jarring. When I see that there is a finite end to life, then it encourages me to be here in it, for as long as I've got it. Yes, it's coming. But until that day, I'm gonna live. I'm gonna live.
Alua Arthur: I don't want to leave one bit of curiosity or wonder, or talent or gifts. Use it all the way up while I'm here. I just wanna be clear that I could just be talking total shit right now. And when the end of my life comes, I might be freaking out and so sad and so worried. But one of the major fears of death that I've noticed in folks is a fear of a life not fully lived. There's still things that they wanted to do or people that they wanted to be. And so if I can, while I'm living, just live that way all the time, then by the time my death comes, well, what's left? I done did it all!
Saleem: Alua was very careful to emphasize that gaining more acceptance of death does not mean erasing all dread or grief.
Alua Arthur: No. For people that want to support other people through death, I think the common misconception is that we don't have any fears of it ourselves. Or we're totally comfortable with death and dying.That's not true. It's just important that we build a personal relationship with it. I don't think it makes it any easier, but I think that it creates space for me to sit with another, to be in conversation with another, and not put my fears on them. As opposed to, you know, just listening to my dad, talk about his kidneys and how they're failing and the end of his life. And I'm like, Nah...No no, Dad, you probably will. And probably pretty soonish. And when I can accept that for my own life, it makes it a little easier for me to be able to be with him in his. And like with most things, naming it, being in conversation about it can take the sting out of it a little bit. I think it's also helpful to know that, you know, most of the existential questions people have, we all have.
Alua Arthur: Yeah. What comes after this? If anything at all? How will I know when I'm dead? A client once asked me that. He was, I don't know, like 97 or something. “How will I know when I'm dead?” I was like, “Dude, I don't know. I'm still here!”
Alua Arthur: If you find out, tell me.
Alua Arthur: Send it through the ether.
Saleem: In her work Alua uses a lot of different practices and teachings to help people confront the idea of death.
Alua Arthur: Anytime that we spend thinking about our mortality is useful. You know, anytime that we don't spend avoiding that inevitability is useful.
Saleem: I asked Alua to show me one of her favorite ways to do that so we could try it for today’s dread project challenge. She led me through what she calls “a mindfulness practice for living in relationship with the cycles of nature.” Here’s what that actually sounded like when we did it. And in a moment, we’re gonna ask you to try it, too.
Alua Arthur: Sitting at your current vantage point. Take a look around you. See what's dying or already dead. And you can just name them off to me.
Saleem: Uh, the wooden box that is stacked on top of my desk to keep this laptop upright is a dead tree.
Alua Arthur: Mm-hmm
Saleem: Since growing my pandemic hair, my hair falls in a more visible way than when it was short. I can see some dead hairs around me,
Alua Arthur: Mm-hmm
Saleem: I'm wearing a cotton shirt. Part of a plant that's no longer with us.
Alua Arthur: Hm.
Saleem: [glass clanging] I have some chai. There's both cinnamon and some tea in here. Little bit of cardamom. Those were all once alive.
Saleem: How about you? What's around you.
Alua Arthur: There's some popcorn, kettle corn on my desk. It was living corn and now it's just, [pop!] dead and dry, and delicious, I should mention. Uh, there's a light bulb right here that burnt out and died. There's a plant behind me. It's got some leaves on it that are decaying for sure. Uh, there's my body. All elements of it are in slow decay…
Saleem: And y'all, at this moment, I'm not making this up. Even our internet connection died right as we were trying to finish the exercise.
Alua Arthur: Are y’all still there? Hello?
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Saleem: Luckily, we got Alua back to finish things off.
Alua Arthur: ...the amount of things, the amount of death that we live amongst is endless. When we're willing to look and stay curious about the nature of life and death. And doing this exercise keeps reminding me about the very temporary nature of everything. And also that this is just a cycle. You know, death feeds life. Life feeds death. Over and over and over again. And my death is a part of that cycle. I am a natural thing. I am dying. I will die. Something new will come from my death. Yeah.
Saleem: So this is your dread challenge for today. At some point in the next 24 hours, wherever you are, in your home, or out on a walk – take five minutes to pause. Be right where you’re at. Start with a few deep, anchoring breaths. And then take a look around you. And really look at, and name, the things that are either dying or have died. And don’t forget to include your own body somewhere on that list. Because like Alua said:
Alua Arthur: “I am a natural thing. I am dying. I will die. Something new will come from my death.”
Saleem: Maybe when you try this out, you’ll find that contemplating death and decay can bring you a little bit of joy, too.
Alua Arthur: I do enjoy looking at my body and thinking about how gravity is working on it. Like it reminds me about how much life I've already lived. I wouldn't go back for nothing. Maybe my hair would be less gray and I’d have more collagen in my face. And honestly, I think my kneecaps have really earned the right to creak now, cause I put them through A LOT in my teenage years and my twenties. Not only was I running like six, seven, eight miles a day, I was also dancing and dropping it low. Wearing heels, like just inappropriate, just come on honey.
Saleem: You can find today’s challenge at dreadproject.com. Along with links to death-related meditations and other content you can access for free. That website, dreadproject.com, also makes it really easy for you to send us a voice memo telling us how this challenge went for you. So you can let us know. Did it feel a bit scary or sad? Was there some joy in the experience that you didn’t expect? And, like we mentioned earlier, if your dread is feeling really difficult or intense, check out the show notes or dreadproject.com for some additional resources that could help.
Thank you for being on this journey with us. Check your feed tomorrow for our next challenge. We’re gonna look at how putting time for dread on your calendar might help contain it.
Ali Mattu: The beauty about this is when those thoughts come up again, you can just say, All right, I'll deal with this during my worry time. And it helps you to feel like a little bit more in control over this stuff. It also helps you to feel like, okay, I can tolerate not giving this thought too much attention.
We will see y’all tomorrow.
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