For Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means and how to experience it first hand involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this autistic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
Samhain and the Sacred Mandala
Two fascinating insights deepen our understanding of death and Samhain, which honors its sacred dimension. In one of his essays on nature poet Gary Snyder made a point I have never forgotten.
An ecosystem is a kind of mandala in which there are multiple relations that are all-powerful and instructive. Each figure in the mandala – a little mouse or bird (or little god or demon figure) – has an important position and a role to play. Though ecosystems can be described as hierarchical in terms of energy flow, from the standpoint of the whole all of its members are equal.
. . . We are all guests at the feast, and we are also the meal! All of biological nature can be seen as an enormous puja, a ceremony of offering and sharing.
As I was finishing a chapter in my forthcoming book, Faultlines, I encountered a compatible observation by Carl von Essen regarding what he called the “hunter’s trance.” Von Essen wrote
The Zen practice of shikan-taza resembles the hunter’s trance in that the mind is brought to a heightened state of awareness, intensely involved in the object of its attention. . . . Simultaneously the participant can be peculiarly detached, but centered into the ground of his being.
He added, “The hunter’s trance is thus a form of meditation, but in a dynamic and primal mode that evolved from evolutionary forces that existed millions of years ago.” Intrigued, I asked a friend, a former Zen abbot, now a Quaker, what he thought about that.
“Seems right to me” he responded.
We evolved deeply immersed within the more-than-human world. From this perspective the awareness associated with Zen meditation is primordial, and it is narrow modern egoic awareness that stands at cross-purposes to who we are. The hunter’s trance, Zen meditation, and similar practices open us up to experiencing the larger field of awareness of which we are a part and that birthed us.
Perhaps we first honed this awareness in human form through hunting. If so the “hunter’s trance” likely preceded our humanness and helped lead to it. A cat stalking its prey, am osprey seeking fish, a wolf beginning a hunt would all benefit from skikan taza. And they will not have divorced themselves from their world sufficiently for that to be an unusual kind of awareness, as we have today.
Hunting appears to be a crucial aspect of the process that made us human. At the same time predators appear to have played a primary role in the evolutionary trend towards developing finer senses, quicker minds, and ultimately self-awareness. Hunting and being hunted pushes living organisms to develop from blue-green algae to the wonderful variety of beings blessing our world today. As Snyder observed, “We are all guests at the feast, and we are also the meal!”
As a culture we walk through a sacred mandala, our lives immersed within but never seeing it, never even knowing it is there to be seen. I think Samhain celebrates the key to understanding that Mandala.
The Greatest Mystery
Samhain celebrates and honors the final turn of the Wheel of the Year, as physical life departs into that ultimate mystery on the other side of the veil. It is a journey we all will take, but upon which few are eager to embark. Yet its very inevitability within a world we experience as sacred encourages us to think deeply upon its significance.
Is death the price we pay for the experience of life, or is it something more? Adolescence is not the price we pay for childhood. It is a realm of challenge, happiness and sorrow all its own, and we carry that realm with greater or lesser awareness with us throughout our lives, as we carry our childhood.
Nor is adulthood the price we pay for adolescence. It has challenges, pleasures and sorrows quite distinct from earlier times in our lives, all united by the connecting thread that is ourselves. Throughout life we experience a process of deepening and broadening, unless at some point fatigue and fear turn our gaze away from life, erecting walls against anything new.
I am 64 now. I sign up for Medicare this month. I am not yet old (at least from MY perspective), but certainly no longer young. And living on this backside of middle age brings its own challenges, pleasures, and sorrows. From my vantage point I see a fascinating pattern to many of the sorrows we undergo in life. Often, once we have completely assimilated them, they become blessings. Very expensive blessings to be sure; but blessings none-the-less.
I scarcely have the right to tell someone deep in suffering that the day will come when they are grateful for what they endure, but I can say that for myself the worst year of my life, 2008, and the two years following when every obituary I encountered I envied, now appear as blessings. And I have heard similar stories from many others.
We co-create the story of our lives, but we are not in charge. But this co-creation is central to my next point. It also begins with a quote.
Years ago I encountered fragments of a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko written on the wall of the men’s john in the Bierstube, a college bar near the University of Kansas. Along with messages such as “You don’t buy beer, you rent it” was something quite different:
In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.
There are left books and bridges
and painted canvas and machinery.
Whose fate is to survive.
But what has gone is also not nothing:
by the rule of the game something has gone.
Not people die but worlds die in them.
Yevtushenko’s entire poem was a sad one and way too long to appear on a bathroom wall, but this fragment gave me two insights that have stayed with me ever since. First, I think Yevtushenko captured the deepest value of our individuality far more movingly and accurately than the superficial Western liberal talk about rights and ego and achievement, all the babble that reached its most incoherent expression in Ayn Rand’s novels.
And second, we create worlds. Each of us. Our lives are creative projects. Perhaps we repeat them until we have created a world we love, a world to share with others with similar or compatible visions. Religious and cultural variety becomes a blessing through which countless Summerlands, countless heavens, are ultimately manifested, the highest creations of our world’s human and perhaps other denizens.
Our challenge in life is to find and follow what speaks most intensely and truly to our hearts, for it is that which we are playing a role in creating.
Is this really what is happening?
Beats me. But a vision such as this honors this world, honors the lives of all who have lived with a meaning not only in history, but for themselves, no matter how fleeting some of their existences. It honors every spiritual vision while giving primacy to none. And it honors death as the power that has pushed all life towards greater capacities And when the time has come, enables each created world to manifest.
But is this true? I don’t know. Death is not called the Great Mystery for nothing.
But a vision like this or something like it gives meaning to countless tragedies and sufferings, is compatible with my encounters with the Gods, and opens the heart.
In a time when it is easy to fall into despair at the mendacity and stupidity of so many in positions of power in all its forms, whose actions threaten us and all that we love, it is good to remind ourselves that this turn of the Wheel is within a vaster context of many turnings, and that this context is sacred however perverse or worse some events might be when isolated from it. Given that it is sacred, there is a meaning beneath the suffering, a meaning that ultimately redeems it.
The great puja at which we eat and are eaten enables us both to create our own worlds with our loved ones, and to help continue the process that others might create theirs. Snyder’s insight is a deep one.
Increasingly I think Samhain opens the door to harvesting the richness of our lives, and perhaps staying and abiding a while within it.
PART III will be on " Death and Love"
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