Ah! Ok, so I think I’m understanding now where you’re coming from.
In addition to the above, I only feel I must also point out that the fourth Right Effort is more broadly the effort to preserve whatever wholesome states of mind have arisen. So if, for example, you’re a mostly generous person, you should treasure and safeguard that quality, even when others may question it.
Just as we tend to “look away” from death, it can also be very challenging for people to look at their good qualities objectively. It somehow feels narcissistic or proud, but the Buddha encouraged us to recall our own generosity: both as a way of preserving it and as a way of “leading upwards”
But, to narrow in specifically on the recollections of death and frightful things which you mention here, there are many techniques still usable today. I can’t tell you what situations might trigger your fear and dread, but perhaps I can share a few examples from my own life:
When I was a child, I remember being gripped all night with a terror. I realized that I would die. Life isn’t a game, and death isn’t some abstract puzzle. I realized that, whatever I thought about death, I was, surely, going to experience it myself.
Many times in the years and decades since that night, I have occasionally, when in an existential mood, retraced that line of inquiry. Leading my mind back to that abyss again and again, I slowly became familiar with the territory. I began to witness how my life, my relationships, and philosophy affected the landscape around that uncomfortable truth.
Some time after taking on the eight precepts and becoming “homeless”, I spent most of a day and night in a cemetery in NYC.
It was a beautiful and peaceful respite from the business of the city, which I could still hear a few hundred yards away, but couldn’t see due to the cloister of chapels and walls surrounding the graveyard. As the hours ticked by, my mind settled and I felt how strangely beautiful it was to have nowhere to go and nothing to do.
And then it rained.
It was a cold evening, but not dangerously cold, so I decided to simply keep at meditating.
The animal part of my brain was indignant at being denied the opportunity to seek shelter, but my determination was strong. “These corpses don’t mind the rain. Why do you?” I asked my body.
That single question reverberated for a long time. I knew, intellectually, it wasn’t dangerous. It was simply cold and not even that cold. And yet it was deeply disturbing to be alone and wet and cold and scared.
“Because I don’t want to die” came the bare, honest reply.
Compassion welled up inside me and I held that, that is to say, myself… “I know… I know…”
One day, a few months in as an anagarika at my current monastery (in Thailand), I decided to blow off some steam and go for a hike. I walked around the mountain, to a back area I’d only been to once before and found some beautiful granite. I quickly eye-balled it as about a 5-7 or 5-8: easily doable without equipment.
At the top, I was rewarded with a spectacular view and a surprise: a couple abandoned monastic buildings. How odd! So these were the “?” labeled buildings on the monastery map!
I was in the middle of rummaging through some stacks of moldy books (looking for any that might be worth saving), when I heard someone behind me. “What you doing?!” an old Thai monk bellowed.
I nearly shat myself.
“Kao toad kap!” I said with wide eyes as I lept up, the only Thai I knew. As soon as I saw the fire in this unknown monk’s eyes I simply bolted. All that pursued me, though, were a string of angry words in a mix of Thai and English.
I ran down through the jungle (finding the normal path down) and just focused on what was the right thing to do next.
Back at the main temple, I told the whole story and confessed my trespassing to the senior monk in charge and expressed my willingness to accept whatever punishment he felt due. He listened and eventually simply shook his head, instructing me not to go poking around again — a condition I readily agreed to before bowing out and back to my hut.
The next day, another monk present for that discussion pulled me aside with a serious look. “Alex! Yesterday, when you were confessing, how were you not scared?"
I blinked. “Scared of what?”