Though there is a strong fear of death, there is, strangely enough, also a desire for it. Psycho-analysis has a good deal to say about this, though it is perhaps not very illuminating. But the fact remains that many people show suicidal tendencies, or even actually commit suicide, whatever be the explanation.
The Buddha in fact included this “death-wish” as the third of three kinds of craving: besides desire for sense-pleasures we find in the formula of the Second Noble Truth the desire for becoming (bhavata.nhaa) and the desire for cessation (vibhavata.nhaa). Since life is by its very nature frustrating, we can never get it on our own terms, and therefore there is an urge to be quit of the whole thing. The fallacy, of course, lies in the fact that one cannot just “step out” so easily, since death by suicide, like any other death, is followed immediately by rebirth in some plane or other — quite possibly worse than that which one had left. The traditional Christian view indeed is that suicide is a mortal sin — with the implication that it would be a case of “out of the frying-pan and into the fire.” Some psycho-analysts speak — ignorantly — of the “Nirvana-principle” in connection with the death-wish. But what we are here dealing with is not in fact the urge to true liberation, but merely an escape-reaction. Only if by insight more profound than that of the Freudians, this revulsion is followed by complete equanimity can it be turned towards the Supramundane which alone is the goal of Buddhism. This will not happen spontaneously. It should be noted that the “death-wish” here referred to is associated in Buddhism with the “heresy of annihilationism” already mentioned. In a somewhat aggressive form it can even serve to mask repressed death-fear. This would seem to explain the vehemence with which people like Dr. Ernest Jones assert the desirability of their anti-survivalist views. By way of curiosity, it may be mentioned that a distinguished biologist has gone on record as declaring that whether or not we believe in survival is entirely determined by our genes. This would seem to be pushing determinism pretty far!
Psychology of Survivalism and Anti-Survivalism
It is, of course, easy to suggest that those who believe in some form of survival are victims of wishful thinking, fantasy, and the like. And in many cases there is a good deal of truth in the allegation. But what is less often realized is the fact that the opposite situation also exists. As has been indicated, quite a number of cases can be found of a curiously fanatical and intolerant belief in “death as the end.” That this attitude masks a repressed death-fear has been suggested above. It also betrays a measure of conceit: by adopting it one appears “scientific,” “realistic,” “tough,” and so on. It may even to some extent be an assertion of one’s masculinity (disbelief in “old wives’ tales,” etc.). The fact that more women than men are churchgoers may be partly due to the fact that women in general feel less urge than men to put on this particular “act” (they have others!).
Apart from these factors, this attitude also, curiously enough, gives a certain sense of “security.” One has made up one’s mind on that particular question and can now dismiss it, and turn to other things. This enables the scientist — and the politician — to make “realistic” decisions without reference to traditional objections. Also, by excluding one whole branch of phenomena from the need for investigation, it helps to make our scientific knowledge more “neat and tidy.” Unfortunately for this type of view, however, there is a whole field of knowledge which runs directly counter to any smug mechanistic-materialistic view of the world. A wide variety of paranormal phenomena — some with direct relevance to the question of survival — are so well attested that to brush them aside is a trifle difficult. Some scientists contrive to ignore the whole lot and just go on behaving as if there were “nothing there.” A few — but a growing minority — investigate, and as a result are convinced that there is at least something “there,” however you may explain it. Others can do neither of these things, that is, they can neither ignore the whole lot nor investigate with genuine objectivity. They therefore set themselves up as “debunkers.” They set out to “expose” or “disprove” whatever they disapprove of.
The assumption is in effect that since, admittedly and obviously, there are some fraudulent mediums and so on, therefore all such people are fraudulent or at any rate deluded. Quite a number of books and articles have appeared in recent years, assiduously “debunking” various classical cases of paranormal phenomena. But genuinely impartial investigation frequently shows that, whatever may have the been the weaknesses in the reporting of these cases, the debunkers have in fact gone widely beyond all reasonable criticism and have sometimes themselves been — unconsciously no doubt — quite unscrupulous. The well-known case of “Bridey Murphey” a few years ago illustrates this. Some very confident “debunking” of this story turned out on further investigation to be quite wide of the mark. One book on hypnotism, too, pours scorn on attempts to recall past lives by this method. The author calls these “a hunk of junk” (note the emotive language), and clearly implies deliberate fraudulent suggestion by the hypnotist — a suggestion which is not only ridiculous but libelous. And the present writer once a heard a very intelligent lady psychologist say: “I’d rather believe anything than accept precognition: it would upset my entire scientific conception of the universe!” Perhaps one can even sympathize a little with this lady; nevertheless since precognition, however mysterious, is a well-attested fact, it is up to her to revise her conception of the universe.
She did, however, neatly phrase the dilemma in which a lot of scientifically trained people find themselves today.
In view of all this, it is important to be aware of the psychological motives which may underlie different attitudes to this whole problem — not only in others but in oneself. While excessive credulity and uncritical dabbling in the occult is to be deplored (and has its own serious dangers), the opposite extreme of total rejection should also be treated with more suspicion and reserve than it often gets.