The Death Lodge, Part 1 (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute www.animas.org)
This is the first part of a four-part Musing (one per week)
Friday, October 13, 2017
A candidate for soul initiation knows what she has taken on. She’s preparing to die in order to be reborn. She must abandon her old home to set out for her new home. She longs for the journey but is understandably terrified by the prospect. To help her approach the edge, her guides might suggest some time in the “death lodge.” 
The death lodge is a symbolic and/or literal place, separate from the ongoing life of the community, to which the Wanderer retires to say good-bye to what her life has been. She may dwell there a full month or more, or, during the course of a year, an hour or two every day, or several long weekends. Some of her death lodge work will take place in the cauldron of her imagination and emotions, while at other times it will occur face-to-face with friends, family, and lovers. She will wrap up unfinished emotional and worldly business to help release herself from her past.
In her death lodge, she will see that the life she is leaving has contained both joy and pain, success and failure, love and the absence of love. Some of the central people in her life have played the roles of villains or victims, others of heroes. No matter. Now all the paths of possibilities within her former life are going to converge at a single inevitable point up ahead: the ending of her old way of belonging to the world.
In the death lodge she will say good-bye to her accustomed ways of loving and hating, to the places that have felt most like home, to the social roles that gave her pleasure and self-definition, to the organizations and institutions that both shaped and limited her growth, and also to her parents or caregivers who birthed her and raised her and who will soon, in a way, be losing a daughter.
She might choose to end her involvement with some people, places, and roles. In other cases, she might only need to shift her relationship to them. Although she must surrender her old way of belonging to the world, she need not violate sacred contracts. Some contracts might have to be renewed at a deeper level. It is essential she does not fool herself: embarking on the underworld journey is not a legitimate justification for abdicating preexisting agreements or responsibilities to others.
Whether ending or shifting relationships, she will feel and express her gratitude, love, forgiveness, her good-byes. She will say the difficult and important things previously unsaid. She may or may not visit with each person in the flesh, but she will certainly have many poignant and emotional encounters.
If her parents were not criminally abusive, she will forgive them for not being who she wanted them to be. If they are still alive, she will attempt this in person. This may be the most important and difficult part of her death lodge. She knows by now no parents are perfect nurturers and all have their own wounds. She knows that surrendering her former identity requires her to heal her own wounds to the point she no longer harbors the fantasy that her human parents will somehow become perfect (or merely healthy or responsible) or that she will find someone else — a lover or therapist — to be her perfect parent. As in her Loyal Soldier work, she must learn to relate to herself as a healthy parent to a child.
In her death lodge, the Wanderer also mourns. She grieves her personal losses and the collective losses of war, race or gender oppression, environmental destruction, community and family disintegration, or spiritual emptiness. Not only does she cease to push the painful memories away but she invites them into her lodge and looks them in the eye. She allows her body to be seized by those griefs, surrendering to the gestures, postures, and cries of sorrow. She grieves in order to let her heart open fully again. She knows at the bottom of those grief waters lies a treasure, the source of her greater life. David Whyte writes:
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
Each of us has been, at times, the one who stood above a dark well and “wished for something else” — namely, that we ourselves wouldn’t have to descend into the waters of grief, that our wishes would come true without our having to suffer in the process. During the descent to soul, we surrender our comfortable lives above the waters. We enter depths so dark we fear we will die, and in a way, we will.