The Death Lodge, Part II (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute www.animas.org)
This is the second part of a four-part Musing (one per week)
Friday, October 20, 2017
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
– T. S. Eliot 
Most people enact a vision fast with an intention, or at least a need, to grieve significant losses. The death lodge is an essential preparatory practice.
A man in his mid-twenties came to grieve his father’s death that occurred when the young man was eighteen. Thomas, who himself became a father at seventeen, had many questions about what it meant to be a man. He grieved his father’s premature death, his uncertainties about his own fatherhood, and his sense of being deprived of the cultural rituals that might have helped him become a man earlier and more completely. Like everyone, his time in the death lodge included sorrow for what might have been.
Many people embark on a vision fast or on the descent to soul, more generally, in part to say good-bye to an identity they have outgrown, in a sense to attend their own funeral. Some write a eulogy for themselves, a farewell to the old story. Although the new story stirs inside them, they know the old one must first be laid to rest.
Anita, a professional and mother in her forties, came to formally mark her empty nest as her youngest entered college. She wanted to honor the end of twenty-one years of soul work, the labor of love of raising two fine young men. And then there were the two failed marriages, an alcoholic father, and a mother who died when Anita was four. In the death lodge, she also said good-bye to her way of being a psychotherapist; she knew a more creative and artistic path awaited her.
In the two years before his first vision fast, Steve, a young psychiatrist, lost his mother and brother, his career fell apart, and he at long last severed his abusive relationship with alcohol. He came to formally end his decade or more of what he called “being dead,” staggering through a lonely life of despair. In his death lodge, he finally experienced his rage at his dad for the years of brutal criticism and ridicule — and all the grief waiting in line just behind the rage.
Tom, a Harvard M.B.A. in his forties, made millions as a successful (and ruthless) corporate mercenary. He found himself with a trophy home and boat, a second ruined marriage, no idea who he really was, and his only son suicidal at the end of high school. Stunned to find himself bereft of the American dream, he came to his vision fast recognizing he and his son were facing the same crisis of meaning, one at the threshold of emancipation, the other at midlife, but both with the opportunity for true freedom. Tom, who was beginning to discover the fine human being beneath his former corporate persona, had much to surrender in his death lodge — buckets of tears and everything he once thought life was about.
* * *
In the death lodge, you loosen your grip on your former identity and world. You cut the cords, then gingerly step along the narrow ledge above the abyss, your back to the crag. At last, you turn and extend your arms against the half-truths of the old life, your fingers lightly pushing away.
To relinquish your former identity is to sacrifice the story you had been living, the one that defined you, empowered you socially — and limited you. This sacrifice captures the essence of “leaving home.”
Once you have in earnest entered the journey of soul initiation, you begin to live as if in a fugue state. Imagine: after developing an adequate and functional identity, you now have become as if amnesic, dissociated from your prior life. But, unlike the victim of amnesia, your goal is not to discover who you used to be, but rather who you really are.
Your time in the death lodge grants freedom. Untied from the past, you dwell more fully in the present, more able to savor the gifts of the world. You find yourself projecting less and seeing the world more clearly and passionately. You experience a deepened gratitude for the richness of life, for the many opportunities that await you.