First in series of three articles
‘The effect of the death experience is to bring home at a crucial moment a radical transformation.’
– James Hillman, from Suicide and the Soul
Castaneda's Don Juan taught that ‘death is the only wise advisor we have.’ Even though Castaneda's path is fundamentally different from ‘a path of soul’ in many ways, his ideas often touch authentically into the realm of archetypal images, and so resonate with profound meaning. Whether death is our only wise advisor, may be a worthwhile enquiry. But is there not something deeply profound about the idea that death is our ‘advisor’?
It is possible that many of you reading here will feel this question to be morbid or weird. Perhaps you just laugh it off, incredulously. Or sneer dismissively at it. I invite you, instead, to pause for a moment, and consider the question. What do you think, feel, intuit or sense about it? Perhaps you have no idea what it really means? Or maybe instead, you believe you know what it means? Or perhaps you don't agree, after having thoroughly ‘heard the other side’ and having given it your considered attention?
Thing is, there is nothing intellectually, morally, and most definitely not intuitively or imaginatively, astute with the attitude that easily dismisses such questions. Our culture and all its diverse sub-cultures have many ills, and I believe such easy dismissal is often nothing but cliché. Which means it is rooted in vague cultural prejudice. It reflects beliefs and world-views that have been taken on without any clear thinking about, or feeling into, anything. Such attitudes reveal inauthenticity. As in, someone whose life, whose being, is ‘authored’ by forces external to them. Just one symptom of the decay festering in our cultural heart is a manic defence against, and deep intolerance of, death. Wiser cultures have always lived in close proximity to the reality of death.
Becoming an individual
A core meaning of ‘being an individual’, is being someone who is no longer defined by any consensus culture. In fact, taken deeper, it is someone no longer defined by anything. Period. Not even by this statement! Then, who you are, is often unpredictable and surprising to others. Our culture feels suspicious of such people. True individuals often make us feel unsafe. They fundamentally follow the drumbeats resonating via their own hearts. Even though the hearts of such individuals have usually been tempered to deeply respect the dignity of others.
Carl Jung’s entire body of work hinged around ‘the path’ he called individuation. Which really is the path of becoming an individual. Even if ‘path’ is a tricky concept here, for this is not a religion which binds one to rules. In fact, each person has to discover their own path. Even if it requires the openness to set off into the unknown.
And yet, there are certain ideas that delineate clearly necessary elements of any path that leads to greater individuality. Jung went so far as incurring the disrespect of institutional academia for his unwillingness to compromise on many such ideas. What a radical and brave thing to do! To mention but one: he situated individuation ineluctably amidst forces of both the spiritual and worldly realms. Psychology cannot be addressed separately from Theology. More to the point of this discussion, he insisted that death is a force fundamentally connected to the required ordeals of the soul that shape us into individuals.
Staying close to death
One meaning of this, is that making ‘the required ordeals of the soul’ real, requires action. This realness contrasts quite visibly with those for whom their ordeals of soul are nothing more than a quaint topic to discuss at polite dinner tables. Or a stream of free associations to be disseminated rather frivolously, in therapy. We have to stay close to the realness of death. Otherwise, we never take our ordeals to heart in a way that actually has effect in our lives. In other words, to live meaningfully, requires that we live in a way that embodies that statement we encounter in all authentic sources on soul: soul is intimately connected with death.
James Hillman’s quote above gets to the heart of the matter. Two implications stand out. Firstly, death is a process of radical transformation. Secondly, there is a crucial moment, the moment of death, when that process culminates in its effects. ‘Staying close to death,’ as a way of life, involves living in such a manner that the processes of death do their work on us, while we are alive. Then, at the crucial moment, death-as-agent-of-transformation may ‘bring home’ the potentials of these processes. Of course, in any life, there are several ‘crucial moments,’ when we go through authentic ‘death experiences’. Which always includes experiencing loss, of what in us is dying away, or what we are dying to. Including that one death when we have to let go of our physical existence.
What does it mean to ‘stay close to death?’ Perhaps obviously, it involves cultivating awareness that we are going to die. Of course, remaining rooted in this awareness constantly is asking a lot! We all have moments when we experience the mystery of truly touching the realness that ‘I will die.’ Our perspectives change. Some real wisdom comes to us. We see solutions to our problems we did not previously see. Moments of this awareness open us temporarily, sometimes profoundly, to see how our lives utterly fall short of being truly meaningful. We are imprinted with the truth that how we live actually matters. But, to simply will ourselves into this awareness continuously is not possible. That much energy is not available to consciousness. Much more is required from us.
To embody, over time, the awareness symbolised by ‘closeness to death’, requires radical lifestyle changes. Changes that inherently orient our lives so that death-as-process is activated in us. To understand how to do this, requires some insight into this idea: Death is our portal to the infinite. It is where our finite existence connects with the infinite.
Psychologically, we may experience the infinite while we are here, encased in the finite. For example, experiences of freedom are akin to experiences of the infinite. While the inevitable limitations inherent to finiteness are often felt as restrictions of freedom. Yet, limitation is required to create anything in space-time: if we don’t limit ourselves to some purpose, we flow endlessly in the experience of infinite potential, but go nowhere. Both flowing in communion with spirit, and expressing spirit creatively in matter, matters deeply to the soul.
So, death is the portal between, ‘the waterfall’ that connects above and below. Symbolically, death is the psychological process activated in us when we ‘live between the realms.’ Between the finite and the infinite. Between chaos and order. Between matter and spirit. Between what we know and what we don’t know. Conscious and unconscious. Yin and Yang. Good and evil. Self and other. Masculine and feminine. Life and death.
Touching into the infinite while we are encased in finite space-time. Remaining open to the infinity of chaos while sensitively cultivating order. Honouring the necessity for both good and evil. Truly honouring betweenness requires a different dance inside each polarity. Doing this, living between all of these polar realms at the same time, in any one moment of being, in any particular action, requires considerable skill. For our existence involves not only unity, nor only duality, but a complicated plurality. While, paying our dues to wholeness, duality and plurality, are all required. Learning to do this demands seriously dedicated whole lifetimes. No matter how ‘enlightened’ we are, for enlightenment means very little if it is not embodied.
Living this path is often distressing, filled with ‘turbulence’ and painful. But this pain and turbulence, this tension, is the natural experience of ‘dying’ while we are alive, a process inherent to any true growth. We see this biologically right from the start: e.g. a foetus’s hands are shaped through the dying away of cells. Paradoxically, the energy contained inside the turbulence and pain of this dying, is what vitalises. And this is the key that is so elusive to intellectual understanding, for it can only be understood through deep presence with bodily energies. This very tension is what makes us feel alive and filled with a sense of meaning. No matter where in our learning we are. Every moment of life truly a journey. Living constantly on the edge of our own ignorance.
Death-and-(re-)birth is one archetype: a process that only occurs where chaos and order are both intimately involved. Where we are simultaneously in the clarity of directed consciousness, and the dim twilight of receptivity that ‘hears’ the unconscious. All true sources of this lineage which aims at living soulfully, at living meaningfully, have emphasised this: soul is not spirit, nor matter, but requires that we stand with one foot in spirit, and the other in the world of matter. This ‘living between realms’ animates soul. Brings it to life. We awake to a dimension of being we knew nothing of until then. At the same time, it activates death-as-process. For, the animation of soul is intimately interwoven with the processes of death-and-rebirth.