This is the fourth part of a four-part Musing (one per week)
November 3, 2017
The confrontation with death is an unrivaled perspective enhancer. In the company of death, most desires of adolescence and the first adulthood fall away. What are the deepest longings that remain? What are the surviving intentions with which you might enter your second (soul-initiated) adulthood? The confrontation with death will empty you of everything but that kernel of love in your heart and your sincerest questions. It is in such a state of emptiness and openness that we hope to approach the central mysteries of our life.
As a Wanderer, it is a good practice to look Death in the eye. Contemplate your unavoidable aging and inevitable demise, “the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat,” as David Whyte puts it. You might, for example, look carefully at photographs of decaying bodies, of human and other skeletons, of people dying of horrible and wasting diseases or starvation, of autopsied cadavers and funeral pyres.
You might make it a practice to imagine your own aged, diseased, or mortally wounded body. Remind yourself regularly that you, too, like all flesh, will one day leave behind your body and all else, and that it will happen on a day very much like this one, maybe in a place, if you are fortunate, like the place where you are this very moment, with or without the presence of the other people who are with you now. Visualize your own earth burial, sky burial, fire burial, and/or water burial.
During your wandering time, you might visit cemeteries, mortuaries, crematoriums, or charnels and sit there for hours or days and really look and listen and feel and breathe the thick air in those places. You might learn the traditional and sacred practices of those who prepare a body for burial or cremation.
Perhaps you will volunteer for hospice and spend hours gazing into the eyes of those who lie at death’s door, your heart stretching ever wider, both your eyes and your companion’s peering over the edge of life’s cliff. In hospice, you will witness the dying process, life ebbing away, and the moment of death itself. You will see people die well and not so well. You will see how families deal with death or refuse to deal with it. You will see some people embrace their deaths and celebrate their lives, and others die bitter and angry, never having acknowledged they were dying.
Discuss death with your guides and fellow Wanderers. Sit in councils specifically dedicated to talk of death. While alone, wonder about death, wander with it, wrestle with it. Feel its presence, both emotionally and physically. Ask yourself and others questions about death and share your feelings and speculations. Along with Mary Oliver, rhetorically ask, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
Should you suffer the loss of a loved one, permit the force of that death to transform you with its weight, fully feeling and expressing the immense grief, allowing it to irrevocably alter the world and your place in it. And should your people suffer an unthinkable loss at the hands of others (as on September 11, 2001), surrender to your anger and grief, but also look for the enemy of life within, the elements of self not in alignment with life. Find where death lives inside.
When you progress from one stage of life to another, celebrate the promises and possibilities of the new, but do not shirk from grieving the little deaths inevitably accompanying these shifts — the death of youth, unrealized dreams, cherished hopes, bedrock illusions.
Gradually, you will come to live in the light of death, not morbidly but with an increasingly joyful appreciation for this moment, and your presence in it. You will cling less and less to who you are and how you are and become more attuned to your destiny, with allegiance to neither your social past nor the current accommodations of your personality.
As Carlos Castaneda was taught by his teacher, the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan, ask death to be your ally, to remind you, especially at times of difficult choices, what is important in the face of your mortality. Imagine death as ever present, accompanying you everywhere just out of sight behind your left shoulder.
In these ways, make peace with your mortality. One day you will find you are not so attached to your life being just one certain way. Then you will be better prepared to converse with soul and its outrageous requests for radical change.
With any soulcraft practice, the Wanderer seeks to put his ego in a double bind, a checkmate that makes it impossible to continue the old story. Confronting the inevitability and ever presence of his death loosens his grip on his routines, dislodges his old way of obtaining his bearings, ushers him to the threshold beyond which lies the unknown. Horrified, he discovers he must give up everything in order to get what he really wants, with no guarantee of success or even of surviving his quest.
He is like a dog playing fetch when someone suddenly throws the stick into a bonfire. Stunned, the dog stares into the flames with big eyes. The soul wants the Wanderer to jump into that fire. The Wanderer’s deepest instinct for survival is counterbalanced by his passion for the quest. What will he do?
By confronting the truths held by death, the Wanderer gradually relinquishes his illusion of immortality and finds himself with a new hope for the world. He sees all things must change to evolve. He sees that death and impermanence provide hope for an evolving universe.
Adapted from Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library, 2003).