Death – the final curtain? Or the ultimate liberator? Or simply a pause between acts? No matter what our spiritual views may be, death is the one inevitability that we all have to face. Not only the ending of our own bodies, but that of our family and friends. For most, particularly in the part of the world where I’m writing, the contemplation of personal death is marginalised, pushed into the shadowy territories of old age, serious illness or sheer bad luck. We sublimate it through art or live it vicariously through news reports and media. But how many of us honestly contemplate our own death and what it might mean to us personally?
Yet the concept of death is central to many religions and traditions. The skulls which are displayed prominently in Tibetan Buddhist art and ritual are reminders of the transience of this life. The death and resurrection of Christ can be interpreted, among other things, as an encouragement to die to what we have been so that we can be reborn into the kingdom of heaven. And shamans throughout the world learn to make death a friend so that they can travel fearlessly between the spiritual and material realms. The process of facing death naturally shifts our perspective. The petty troubles that we engage with daily give way to what really matters in our lives, and beyond. Facing death naturally moves us towards a contemplation of deeper values and meanings.
Winter is a natural time of turning in, as the earth energies are quietly regenerating, and the old dies away but the new has yet to show itself. It is a time when we can most easily pull some of our own energy back inside to reflect on what may need to die in our lives to create space for new growth. This particular period in our history makes it even more pertinent that we take time to do so, as we watch old structures falling down – whether they are systems of government, banking institutions, our own careers and former lifestyles, or relationships and habits that no longer seem to be sustainable. We are being given an opportunity to more consciously let go of what needs to die in order to create new lives that will support growth and happiness.
Still, the temptation is to obstinately cling to life, even if it that may be the life of a project, career or way of being which hasn’t served us well in a long time. Having to face any kind of death can bring up a host of fears. These can be fears of not knowing what’s on the other side; fears of not knowing who we will be without it; fears of what effect it’ll have on those around us; and fear of discomfort or pain (emotional or physical).
Yet, death is as natural a part of life as birth. It surrounds us daily. There are the small cycles of life and time – the regeneration of cells in our bodies, and the birth and death of each new day. There are the slightly longer cycles – the toddler who dies to be reborn as a child, and the trees that bud, flower, leaf and then go bare again. And then there are the cycles of which we are most conscious – though when we compare the birth and death of mountains, doesn’t it give us a completely different perspective on the life cycle of us humans?
In our disconnection from the natural world and the cycles of time, we have lost our intimacy with death and the dying process. Our minds have become involved, creating fears, offering false hopes, encouraging us to keep the artificial life-support machine going on parts of our lives which perhaps might have been better allowed to die away.
As a shaman, this is the time when I like to sit outside under the stars by my fire, reflecting on the balance (or lack of it) in my own life. They say you have to lose balance sometimes to regain it, and this is just part of the natural cycle of life. The still periods of contemplation, and the dark evenings, give me the time and natural support to see more clearly what is working and what isn’t within my life. And then, coming up to the darkest period of the year, just before the return of the light at the Winter Solstice in late December, I use ceremony to release anything that needs to be allowed to die. The earth, going through its own natural death processes, is there as my ally in transmuting any energy that I release, making them available for renewed growth when the time is right.
Some of the ceremonies I use are simple, and provide powerful ways of anchoring the intention of release and cleansing. The South American shamanic despacho ceremony involves the creation of a prayer bundle, which is burnt on the fire. A sand painting can hold the energy of what needs to die, and is then scattered into nature. And a death stick used as part of a fire ceremony can be our way of focussing our intention on making peace with an ending.
There are times, though, when what is required is to die to who we were in order to allow ourselves to grow anew. Sometimes we need to go through a more complete death – a process of facing and making peace with our life exactly as it has been, and then of allowing it to die on an energetic level. This process releases the energy that has been caught up in sustaining an old way of being that is no longer serving us, that has been bound up resisting the natural flow of life and death. It allows us to grieve and acknowledge loss, but then creates a space for us to start to grow again. To do this, we need to be willing to go through a period of mourning and release, of fully saying goodbye to who we were and of starting to allow our natural intuition to draw us forward. Having a guide who can take us through that process can make the journey easier, but even without one, we have the forces of nature available to us at this time of year as our natural ally. What is most important is our willingness to die and be reborn in whatever way is necessary for us right now.
And, in the longer term, making death a more regular part of our life can anchor us back at the higher perspective of what is of real value to us in this short life-time of ours.
(I am hosting a shamanic death/rebirth ceremony on Saturday, 15th December. If you would like more information on this event, or a free ‘diy’ information sheet on the ceremonies mentioned above, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. The work can also be done as an individual session (see my website for information on appointments, etc., www.singingflute.com).
If you are facing the imminent physical death of a loved one, or possibly your own, and feel I can be of support during the period of transition, please feel free to contact me.)