In a blog post written last year, I wrote about my contemplations on the Samhain tide of the year, touching upon the nature of death and the Otherworld.
As the darkness closes in with earlier nights and later mornings, thoughts and feelings seek out the lessons to be learnt in the growing dark, where boundaries fall away and where we know nothing at all. Walking through the garden at sunset, shuffling though the fallen beech leaves, greeting my cat at her gravesite (who passed away last Yule), watching as my garden plants return the energy to their roots, I am surrounded by death as much as I am surrounded by life.
Thoughts inescapably turn to death during the Samhain tide, where in Druidry it is recognised and not shuffled away, never to be spoken of in conversation, turning it “morbid” or filled with superstition that the mention death will bring. Death comes to us all, whether we talk about it or not. Might as well talk about it.
My first thoughts turn towards the concept of the Otherworld. Many within Druidry believe in such a place, or places, where our soul goes to rest, to party, to do whatever it is we believe it does, perhaps before we reincarnate. While I do believe in reincarnation, my belief is much more simplistic that this.
More and more I come to realise that, at least for me, there is only this world. There is no Otherworld. There is no veil between the worlds, for there is only this world. And what a wonderful, awe-inspiring world, filled with gods and ancestors and life and death.
The belief in reincarnation, that our soul lives on to occupy another body at a certain time either in the future or in the past, is based upon the belief that there is a place where our soul goes when we die. For me, there is no such thing as “away”. We cannot throw our garbage “away”. We cannot be “away” with the faeries. Our souls cannot go to a resting place before coming back to this world. There is only this world. Let me elaborate.
Using nature as my teacher, I look deeply at how death occurs, the process and the stories that unfold. Death is all around us, from the earth we walk on that is made up of millions of dead things, to the death that we ourselves create with our very existence. Life is also all around us, things coming into being and growing, being nurtured and nurturing in turn. When something dies, it returns back to the soil, to transform into another way of life. Essentially, for me this is what reincarnation is all about. Changing our form. When I die, my body will be devoured by bacteria and worms, become plant food and be drawn up through the roots of trees to be exhaled into the deepening twilight. This is change, this is reincarnation, becoming incarnate in another form, becoming incarnate in a legion of other forms.
My body is made up of a similar legion of other forms, dating back to when we were all just star stuff. Everything on this planet has an original ancestor of star material, and whatever came before stars. My body is made up of living things and dead things. In my bones are stars, in my blood is iron from the hills where I grew up. All these things are living through me, and will continue to live even when I die to be expressed in a different form. They don’t go anywhere but right here.
The human crisis of self-awareness has led to a clinging of the ego which convinces us that without the idea of a separate identity, a sense of self, an “I am” we are simply lost in complete annihilation upon death – that we cease to be. Screaming for attention, it feeds upon the fear and insecurity that the knowledge of our own deaths bring in the darkness. A few religions, philosophies and spiritualities overcome this fear, learning how to transcend the ego, to let it go in order to become one again with the universe. As a Druid and Pagan, this feels right to me, for this leads to a life that is completely integrated with the natural world around us. It drops the illusion of barriers between us and the environment, and allows for full immersion into the present moment where we can be awake and aware to every shimmering drop of existence.
Yet in modern paganism the focus is usually on the “I”, the personal transformation into a better being and a better Pagan, to search for the truth of our souls and to live that truth honourably in accordance with our tradition. Self-actualisation is a big thing, not only in Paganism but also around the world. Based on concepts of the self, a return to the self and coming into our own power, we work on our selves constantly. This in itself is not a bad thing, but for me it needs to go one step further. We have to look inside our selves to understand the nature of the self, and then we can be rid of it. Emma Restall Orr discussed this in a very poignant essay, “After Paganism”, in Moon Books’ Essays in Contemporary Paganism (2013).
Many would query the validity of this, as for them the be all and end all is their sense of self, what they can do and what they have achieved in the world. Without this sense of self, would they be able to make their dreams come true, to work for political and environmental causes, to further their own desires and needs?
While I do not, as yet, have an answer to this question, it is still one that is worthwhile in the asking. I truly believe that we can, at least for moments, perhaps days or weeks, months or even years to drop that sense of self in order to integrate fully with the world. When we have, we can come back to the world with a sense of self that is not separate, that observes but does not judge, that is wakeful and aware without needing to fight for its own existence.
Returning to the subject of death and dying, if we have sufficiently come to terms with the notion that the self is not separate, and that there is no need for an individuated self to exist then when we die, we simply return to the earth. That spark that is human consciousness, that allows us to think about life and death and the self, that too returns to the earth. I seriously question whether humans are the only beings on the planet with the capability of questioning on these subjects, for it my belief that we simply have not been able to language this with other species, out of ignorance or human arrogance, or perhaps both.
Everything returns to the earth. Everything. My consciousness will seep into the soil even as my blood and bones, hair and nails. In this, complete and utter integration will occur, a reincarnation into a myriad of forms. My songs will blow with the wind. My eyes will be in the heads of flowers. My heart will be deep in the darkness of the soil. I will not leave, I will forever be here, in this world, in a multitude of forms. The ego “I” that I speak of will be long gone, released willingly into the night, but the sefless “I” will still be here.
There is comfort in this, in the knowledge that when we die, we don’t go anywhere. The ancestors are always with us, everywhere. Everything that has ever lived and ever died is still here, in another form, whether pebble or mountain, horse or mouse. You can’t create something out of nothing. You can evolve, but that’s a different story – our story is one that is shared universally.
Some would say my thinking is based upon a materialistic view of the world, however, when everything is inspirited, when everything has a consciousness that is not separate, there can be no question that it is wholly animistic. It’s not just the case of “the worm crawls in, the worm crawls out, the worm plays pinochle on your snout” – there IS more to it. Death is not stopping. Death, or dying, is an event that takes place – it is not a “forever”. Death is not the opposite to life – the opposite of death is birth, a singular event. Life has no opposite.
If there is no opposite, then there is no need for other worlds. Everything is right here, right now. The gods of nature are all around us, in the sunshine and in the rain, in the air that we breathe, in the storm and in the drought. So too are the ancestors, our ancient ancestors and our grandmothers who all are letting go of their stories into the soil, to be told again in other forms.
I realise that my words may not be in tune with the majority of Pagans, however, they are spoken with the utmost respect. And in the darkness I breathe, deeply, until there is no longer anyone breathing.
Yes! As a non-theist and sceptic myself, I’ve never agreed with the concept of a disembodied soul that floats off into an afterlife when we die, but your take on ‘reincarnation’ is one I can get behind. We are made from the atoms of dead stars and the molecules and DNA of generations of deceased ancestors, human and non-human and when we die, our bodies break down and become the building blocks for other life-forms. I’m really quite moved to know that this naturalist, animist viewpoint is accepted within Druidry. Thank you for providing an alternative to the literal belief in an ‘otherworld’.
Hi Ryan – thank you for your kind words. This alternative is based on my personal Druidry, and I have no idea whether or not the majority of other Druids would agree. But each to their own path in the dark, tangled woods of Druidry! 🙂
This sounds very ‘Zen’! The Self is an illusion, which our ego feeds upon. The dying to self, is really a letting go and realising that we are nothing. Heaven and Hell, reward and punishment, are ways to control our behaviour. As you say, we are but stardust! We have been here from the beginning and will remain, in some form or other, until the end. I’m not so sure that our consciousness ends at bodily death, but neither do I think that we are floating about in the ether. Rather that a collective consciousness may exist, which may at times influence our individual consciousness. I was born at this time of the year and inexplicably it is my favourite time! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for your comments! And happy birthday. x
Lovely thought in this article. i totally agree
Thanks you, Dianne. x
The Druids themselves taught that the soul is immortal and passes from one body to the next after death. They also intervened with denizens of the Otherworld so I think it very likely that spirit continues to inhabit a body somewhere.
Indeed, but which Druids are we talking about here? From what period in time? And by whose account is this information taken – the Romans, the Greeks? So much to consider – it’s my feeling that this way of thinking goes back further in time than “Classical” Druidry… x
The idea of the soul being immortal was commented upon by classical historians as early as the 3rd century CE and was still being taught in the Irish traditions and schools for at least another 1,000 years.
The concepts of immortal souls and reincarnation is as old as the ideas of there being Druids. Even the gods were said to have been Druids.
Only human can be doubtful and aware of her thoughts and actions. That is why we could live intelligently and happily with consciousness. It is the thoughtful post. I love it. : )
Thank you, Jade. I’m not so sure that only humans can be aware of their thoughts and actions though – I do wonder if we simply haven’t been able to language this with other species to find out how they feel, what they feel, etc. x
This is such a moving piece! I appreciate your thoughts and find them comforting, enliving and thought provoking. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us. What a wonderful pre Sahmain read. What a beautifully freeing reminder of detachment of self and the cycle of life….in the very acceptance of death.
Thank you again for sharing.
Hi Lelah, you’re very welcome! It IS a very thought provoking time of year, isn’t it? x
Although my view of the “afterlife” and reincarnation differ from yours, I enjoyed your post. It was well thought out and even though I don’t share the concept, I love learning about other paths, the hows and whys.
Thank you so much, W.E – that’s very kind. I too love learning about different paths, and I’m always wondering and thinking about the hows and whys. 🙂
Your words really resonate with me. My spiritual path is largely influenced by Zen Buddhism, but Nature-oriented philosophies are very close to my heart as well. While I find a lot of inspiration in Druidry, I too have problems with the concept of the Otherworld as another plane of existence. For me, it´s more the realm in the mind where the imagination lives and stories and myths spring from, not a place for people to go when they die. “Life has no opposite” – How beautiful to be wholly at home in this world, through all changes and transformations! It reminds me of the poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die. “
Hi Siveda – yes, that poem of M. E Frye really encapsulates it beautifully! x
A moving and thought-sparking piece. My experience in its broadest sense teaches me differently, so as a consequence I come out at at another place on the issue of what happens upon death and where we are located after we die. That said, I accept that the material of me is of the matter of the cosmos and the earth and the me stuff does does return to join the matter of the planet — I originally typed mater! But there is the more-than-material-me, the insubstantial me-ness that has an ongoing journey.
The concept of an afterlife and reincarnation are very real problems when used as an excuse to behave in ways that are neither honourable nor life enhancing/cherishing/valuing. Whatever our understanding we are should live in ways that do not diminish the lives of others, no qualifiers here on who the others might be, to the greatest extent in our particular circumstances.
You have delved into the matter deeply and come to the place in your understanding where are comfortable and at peace. All in all that is the most important thing. This is an important contribution to the discussion amongst Druids, Pagans and others about the nature of the self, of being and becoming.
Yes indeed – reincarnation is not an excuse to slack off spiritually and ethically 🙂 Just as a promise of heaven, or any other sort of afterlife should never take precendence over what we are doing in this moment, right now. x
Joanna, hello, I have just started reading your blog. Your take on reincarnation reminds me of Sean O Duinn’s description of Neart in his book Where Three Streams Meet, which he describes as an essence of a living thing which moves through all other things as it lives, dies, and breaks down, to be reformed and reanimated both in and as new beings. I think it is a lovely idea.
Aside from the literal and the natural, I take a poetic view of the otherworld and reincarnation myself. The animating essence of life enters beings at birth and leaves them at death; from where it comes and to whence it goes is the Otherworld, the other side of incarnation, full of spirit and poetry and music, and is the Well to which all return, to be refreshed. Just as prose and poetry come from different fonts, so do things worldly and spiritual, although when the spiritual is found in the ordinary, then we walk in both worlds simultaneously.
Beautiful – thanks for sharing, Erin! x