Samhain, Death and Dying

Raven’s Hollowby Wyldraven © Wyldraven 2011- 2014

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.

Death, Reincarnation and Impermanence

I haven’t sung for a while now. Sometimes when you’re sad or grieving, your body and soul just don’t want to sing.

Thankfully, I have friends and family who have been wonderful, who make me laugh and cry with tears of laughter alongside my tears of unhappiness. Both forms of tears are equally valid, and equally necessary during the time that you grieve.

Having spent the last few weeks thinking about death, I felt that I could now share some ideas with you that I have had about it.  I have been terribly upset at the loss of a very good friend, whom I will never see again.  There is a hole in my life where she used to be, and I still find myself looking for her after all these weeks. Good friends are deeply treasured, and a true blessing.

Meditating upon the nature of death, I have come to the same realisation that Alanis Morrissette came to in her song, “Thank You”.  At one point in the lyrics she states “How about not equating death with stopping”.  I have taken comfort in these words over the last few decades, but never really considered them deeply within my own soul – they were a kind hand on my shoulder from someone who empathises. Now I see the totality of the statement, with a little insight from the Buddhist notion of impermanence and the Druid views of both awen and animism.

The Buddhist view of life is that everything is impermanent, therefore we should try to not cling to anything, even our sense of self, with too much energy. Looking closer at this idea, we see that we are constantly changing, in our ideas, our opinions, our way of life, and we are not the same person we were, say 10 years ago. On a more physical level, we are also constantly changing, sloughing off old skin, our hair growing, our bodies changing shape as we grow older.  Clinging to one thing leads to suffering – if we simply accept that change is a part of life then our suffering will be reduced.

Meditating up on this over the last week, some core truths have sprung up for me that have helped with my suffering.

We are all made up of energy, energy that is in constant motion.  This energy did not spring out into being – you cannot get something from nothing.  This energy is in constant change and flux, according to the environment and circumstances it finds itself in.  Therefore, a Zen koan suddenly made sense to me: “What was the face you wore, before you were born?”

I realised that had never been born.  When we think of being born, we think of suddenly coming into being, but we have already been existing since the dawn of time. It is only our form that has changed with the millennia.  Can we really pinpoint the time we were born, or created? Is creation when egg meets sperm? I am contained in the blood of my father’s fathers and my mother’s mothers as well – can there be a cut-off point? I am the genetic result of thousands of ancestors – where do they end and I begin?  Thinking more laterally as well, I am made up of some of the minerals found in stars and galaxies far away. My blood contains water that I have drunk from all over the world in my lifetime. In this water is life and death of legion of beings. Where do I begin?

In Druidry, many Druids are also animists, believing in the inherent value of all things, whatever their form.  Nothing is more valid or worth more than another thing – they are simply existing in various forms that we perceive throughout our lifetime.  This worldview incorporates the smallest atom to the largest mountain.

If I cannot pinpoint the time when I began to exist, then there cannot be a point in time when I die.  I shall simply change form, the energy running on different currents and in different patterns. Thinking about my friend, I was blessed to know her in her most recent physical form for years, which was always changing anyway.  She has not died, per se – energy cannot simply cease to be.  We often think of death as annihilation. It cannot be so – energy moves but cannot be destroyed.  And so, her current form is undergoing a different process of change. The accepted concept of birth may find its opposite in death, but the term life has no opposite.

What happens to our souls when we die, if we believe in souls, is still the great mystery. But what I’ve come to realise is that at the very least, we can take inspiration from the physical and perhaps also apply that to the idea of the soul as well.  The physical form has now been returned to the earth, decomposing through the process of bacteria and other creatures that are working to change the physical form.  But the energy is still there, being changed into millions of different forms in the circumstance.  Flesh is being eaten by worms and turned into rich soil. That rich soil will feed the plants atop her grave. Those plants will release oxygen into the atmosphere. That oxygen will be breathed by all manner of creatures, or even combine with hydrogen to form water. So, my friend is there, in her grave, but she is also in the plants, in the air, in the clouds, in the water, and inside me.  Her physical form has changed, but it was always changing anyway. Impermanence.

Once I gained this insight, my suffering was eased somewhat.  Not only for the loss of her in my life, but also my own fears of death.  There is no such thing as stopping. Death is not annihilation. It is simply a process, like birth is, into a different and ever-changing physical form. Whether the soul follows some parts in this process is up for question – I like to think so.

Perhaps this is what reincarnation is all about.  The nature of change, the nature of being. Perhaps I have simply been looking at reincarnation too literally.  Reincarnation is simply the new physical form something takes when the circumstances are favourable to its existence. Myself included.

My friend is still here, for she can never go away.  All that has ever been is still here, in some form or another.  We can take comfort in that and ease our own suffering. We can take inspiration from that and live our lives in accordance with it, allowing us to not just to go with the flow, but to be the flow itself, whether that is of the river, the wind, our bloodlines, the Tao or the awen itself.

Thank you, dear friend, for the inspiration and the teaching.  You have taught me so much over the years, and I look forward to still many lessons to come.

Reposted from my blog at SageWoman: