Hedge Riding: The Art of the Hedge Witch

Walking the Path of the Hedge Witch and the Hedge Druid, Learning the Craft and the Art of Hedge Riding

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Death, Impermanence and Reincarnation

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.

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 Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 30 years. She has written many books, including The Path of the Hedge Witch: Simple, Natural Magic and the Art of Hedge Riding, as well as The Book of Hedge Druidry: A Complete Guide for the Solitary Seeker. Find her channels on social media at YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.


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