“Meditations on Death Should be Performed Daily,” and Why you Should Fear, Fear

What does your mortality have to do with leadership?

Intellectual studies in western culture, often frame self-improvement in sterile, peace-loving terms, shunning any sense of mortality and hostility framing them as outdated, barbaric, manipulative, and unfair. Self-help always fails ignores the single most powerful motivational tool. Death.

“The problem for us is that we are trained and prepared for peace, and we are not at all prepared for what confronts us in the real world—war,”

– Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

Concentrating on one’s death is no reason to act forcefully, lashing out in foul moods or behaving in an otherwise outwardly immoral or unprofessional fashion. It is the reason to elevate yourself, achieve objectivity and conscientiousness in the moment (Tsunetomo., 2002) .

Fear is Good for You

Today’s culture is in a constant struggle (unconsciously or not) to keep death at bay, pushing it out of our individual and collective consciousness. This all-encompassing fear of death has created a culture that shuns age, wisdom, education, reflection, the intensity to achieve something above yourself. That fear makes one easily led astray by those who (with their self-interests in mind) will harness this ignorance of fear’s effects and our collective inability to face and accept it for their ends.

A fear-based approach works. Measured exposure to fears can inoculate you, but if nothing threatening actually happens, the fear dissipates. Therefore you must work continuously with a variety of methods to maintain an inoculated level of preparedness and motivation. General Patton knew this well, saying that “discipline must be a habit so ingrained that it is stronger than the excitement of battle or the fear of death.” Fear therefore should be seen as your most valuable and informative emotion.

Manifestations of Fear

Fear reaction starts in the brain and spreads through the body to make adjustments for the best defense, or flight reaction. The fear response starts in an almond-shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobe part of the brain called the amygdala and is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of the stimuli – how much something stands out to us (Javanbakht, Saab, 2017) .

For example, the amygdala activates whenever we see an emotional human face and is more pronounced with anger or fear. A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system. (Javanbakht, Saab, 2017) .

We all know that fear is a basic human emotion, a visceral survival mechanism commonly shared with the rest of the natural world. The emotion is your mind and bodies response to a perceived threat that include physical reactions, sweating, increased heart rate, and high adrenaline levels that make us extremely alert.

This leads to bodily changes that prepare us to be more efficient in a danger: The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the lungs bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flows with streams of increased glucose to the skeletal muscles. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down. (Javanbakht, Saab, 2017) .
In evolutionary terms this response is referred to as a primitive defense response or a, “defense cascade,” of or as a, “primitive emotional states—coordinated patterns of motor-autonomic-sensory response—that are available to be automatically activated in the context of danger,” (Kozlowska, Walker, McLean, and Carrive) . The initial awareness and response can further intensify the psychological cognitive awareness that creates a feedback loop of ever increasing physical, and potentially overwhelming responses that manifest as anxiety with a daunting list of symptoms: sweating, trembling, hot flushes or chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, a choking sensation, rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), pain or tightness in the chest, a sensation of butterflies in the stomach, nausea, headaches and dizziness, feeling faint, numbness or pins and needles, dry mouth, a need to go to the toilet, ringing in your ears, confusion or disorientation. All of it is overwhelming list that with prolonged exposure can feed an ever-growing level of daily anxiety. Those responses in the brain also shares much of the architecture and chemical processes as many positive emotions we perceive as a fun or exciting, and further complicate how we approach a useful application.

A part of the brain called the hippocampus is closely connected with the amygdala. Coupled with the prefrontal cortex, also called the executive function, help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of a contextual nature, which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real.

“The clear anticipation of one’s end provides a person with a solid measure for the relative importance of things: it puts the self as well as the world into their proper perspective.”

– Jorn K. Bramann, Ph.D.

Terror Management Theory

Terror management theory (TMT) is a proposal of the work of Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski proposes a duality of fear through the instinct for self-preservation and the conscious realization of the inevitability of death and the utter unpredictably it brings. The proponent authors of the theory believe the ensuing terror(anxiety) of death is (can be) managed through mental diversions. Activities such as exercise, eating, sleep, sexual activity, and the many forms of escapist entertainment, chemical and technological dependency .

TMT and Self-Esteem. The involvement of culture and society is a crucial part of the TMT and posites the determination an individual’s self-esteem. The cultural solutions is often addressed through forms of deity and faith based religions that offer immortality or a life after death. Clearly fear “influences human thinking and behavior,” of “death anxiety [that] drives people to adopt worldviews that protect their self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability and allow them to believe that they play an important role in a meaningful world. Some of these views lead to troubling actions,” (PT, 2020) .

Whether you read Hagakure, academic journals, or fictional novels, every level of the world’s cultures and histories informs you that a mental intensity upon one’s death is vital to achievement in life. Corporate “warriors” in the U.S. of the 1970s and ’80s might have espoused similarities as they looked to Sun Tzu for success in directions of strategy. But one can consider them as failures simply because of their short-sighted nature and their inability to grasp Sun Tzu in an applicable context as part of a greater philosophical whole that cannot be understood in ignorance of mortal fear.

“First, you have to know, not fear, know that someday you are going to die. Until you know that, you have no sense of urgency. You think you have all the time in the world to do amazing things, but you may not live to see that particular someday.”

-Loosely quoted from Chucks Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Reading Hagakure, it informs the reader that going so far as to “consider oneself as dead” through mental and physical practice will bring the them to see life clearly, understand[ing] matters small and great and how they fit into their life and the world around them,” (Tsunetomo., 2002) . It demonstrates that consistent practice creates perspective, stoicism and mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper “toward equanimity,” so that even when confronted by challenge, diversity or even idiocy, you will be unaffected and without frustrations or foul mood (Tsunetomo., 2002), and as Bramann said, “never fazed by untoward events.”

In adopting such a fearless philosophy, we gain a sense of proportion, become able to separate what is petty from what is truly important. Knowing our days to be numbered, we have a sense of urgency and mission. We can appreciate life all the more for its impermanence.

-50 Cent and Robert Greene, The 50th Law

Confront Your Mortality

If you wish to succeed as a modern leader, consider yourself as dead. The healthy fear of death and its inevitability is the single greatest and ultimate motivator above all others. It crystalizes a sense of purpose, the challenge of inevitability that only your death can bring you. Feeling, knowing, and accepting the challenge that your time is limited and otherwise wasted if you do not make the best of every moment. Making every meal the greatest you have ever had, every new day the most beautiful of your life…simply because you are still alive.

In the face of your inevitable mortality we can do one of two things. Attempt to avoid the thought at all costs, clinging to the illusion that you have all the time in the world. Or confront this reality, accept and even embrace it. Converting our consciousness of death into something positive and active – if we can overcome the fear of death, then there is nothing left to fear (Greene, R., 50 Cent, 2009) .

Helpful Links – Getting Started

Why you should define your fears instead of your goals – A Ted Talk by Tim Ferriss

Fear Setting: A Checklist Template for Defining Your Fears – Marvin Russell, Medium


Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308–318. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.58.2.308

Greene, R., (2007). The 33 Strategies of War. Joost Elffers Books, Penguin Group.

Greene, R., 50 Cent, (2009). The 50th Law. Harper Studios, Harper Collins.

Hur, J., Smith, J.F., DeYoung, K.A., Anderson, A.S., Kuang, J., Kim, H.C., Tillman, R.M., Kuhn, M., Fox, A., & Shackman, A. (2020). Anxiety and the neurobiology of temporally uncertain threat anticipation. Retreived on October, 2 2020 from https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.25.964734v4.full

Javanbakht, Arash., Saab, Linda. (2017). What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear. The Conversation. . Retreived on October, 5 2020 from https://theconversation.com/the-science-of-fright-why-we-love-to-be-scared-85885?xid=PS_smithsonian

Jonas, E., & Fischer, P. (2006). Terror management and religion: evidence that intrinsic religiousness mitigates worldview defense following mortality salience. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91(3), 553–567. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.91.3.553

Kozlowska, Kasia MBBS, FRANZCP, PhD; Walker, Peter BSc Psych, MPsychol; McLean, Loyola MBBS, FRANZCP, PhD; Carrive, Pascal PhD. (2015) . Fear and the Defense Cascade, Harvard Review of Psychiatry: July/August 2015 – Volume 23 – Issue 4 – p 263-287 doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000065. Retrieved on September, 18 2020, from: https://journals.lww.com/hrpjournal/Fulltext/2015/07000/Fear_and_the_Defense_Cascade__Clinical.3.aspx

PT, Author Unknown, (2020) . Terror Management Theory. Psychology Today. Retrieved on September 30, 2020 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/terror-management-theory

Palahniuk, Chuck (February 1999). Survivor. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-04702-4.

Tsunetomo, Y., (2002). Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Wilson, William Scott (trans.). Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-4-7700-2916-4.

Notes and Reading






“What we call chaos is just a pattern we haven’t yet recognized.” -Chuck Palahiniuk, Survivor

Notes and exerpts from: Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effects of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview

– Two major sources of threat to the cultural worldview component of the buffer. First constantly reminded of their vulnerability and mortality.

– Second – diverse array of beliefs and values that are encountered provide a reminder that one’s worldview may not be valid in any absolute sense.

– People need to believe that one and only one conception of reality is ultimately correct, the existence of conceptions at variance with their own implies that someone must be mistaken – the existence of others with different worldviews therefore increases the individual’s need for validation of his or her own worldview.

– Mortality salience encourages unfavorable treatment of a moral transgressor (a prostitute) and favorable treatment of a heroic individual.

– According to terror management theory, heroes validate the cultural worldview by upholding cherished values.

– Study 1: One very common source of differences between people that has been recurrently linked to prejudice, conflict, and hostility is that of religious belief and affiliation. Throughout history, armed conflicts, ranging from minor skirmishes to full-scale wars, have been waged between the proponents of various religious conceptions of reality.

– Using the criterion that to be used in a sub-scale, an item had to load .50 or better on the same factor for both targets, one sub-scale included the five designated negative stereotypical traits (snobbish, obnoxious, arrogant, manipulative, and stingy) and the trait “spineless.” To form a negative Jewish stereotype index, these six items were therefore summed and divided by six, with a high number representing a negative stereotype.

– According to terror management theory, beliefs about the nature of reality serve to buffer the anxiety that results from awareness of human vulnerability and mortality.

– Conclusions: Beyond these theoretical issues, the practical significance of our findings is clear. Mortality salience appears to increase in group favoritism, rejection of those who are different, and authoritarian tendencies. This suggests that whenever events heighten mortality salience (e.g., newspaper accounts of catastrophes or violence in inter-group and inter-individual conflicts), in-group solidarity, out-group derogation, nationalism, religious extremism, prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance of deviance are likely to escalate. More generally, the findings are consistent with the oft-stated contention (e.g., Adorno et al.,1950; Allport, 1954; Becker, 1975) that prejudice and hostility toward those who are different may be one particularly costly means of coping with fears and insecurities.

– Adorno, X, Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

– Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

– Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York: Free Press.

Note: Self awareness of fear will help you identity when others use fear based manipulation as a weapon.

Note: This essay has been published in many forms to this point. Each one an evolutionary step in understanding the clear agency of fear. The citation is of recent work prior to this current publication is not an attempt to say we got there first…but it’s used because of the easy and precise language used to convey the idea as well as to demonstrate the legitimacy that furthers the proof of concept this essay encourages and models.

Note: The fear circuit is seen across invertebrate species. If evolutions has lead humans to this point…the fear circuit (and subsequent modulation of it) may be the primary tool to the critical evolutionary path for the human species. Therefore, modern man should continue to appreciate its use and how it got us here..ignoring it, failing to utilize it may be at our own peril.

Note: “In evolutionary terms.” The fear circuit is seen across invertebrate species. If evolutions has lead humans to this point…the fear circuit (and subsequent modulation of it) may be the primary tool to the critical evolutionary path for the human species. Therefore, modern man should continue to appreciate its use and how it got us here…ignoring it, failing to utilize it may be at our own peril.

Note: “Primitive emotional states.” I think the description of fear as primitive has not served the use of the emotion well in modern time since it is seen as less than and therefore does not get the consideration as a powerful tool that it deserves.

Note: “Symptoms.” Similar to the use of “Primitive,” we use symptoms…yes in the literal sense they are, but does that prime a negative response?

Note: “Help the brain interpret the perceived threat.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGVIJSW0Y3k, Thinking about her comments on being lead by the science

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