Monday, 28 October 2019

Samhain and The Many Necessary Deaths

The wheel of the year turns, what was up is now down. The apples and many of the leaves are fallen, every kind of seed is lying on the ground, it's cold, and there's that ever flowing wet. If  you don't live in the gentle green of the British Isles this might sound like a very unappealing thing, but it's gorgeous, my favourite time of year. Even in the pouring rain there is something utterly magical about the slow unleaving of the land, how the skeletal shapes of granite and branch emerge from the yellows and golds of once photosynthesised light. There is so much elegance in this slow death dance.


Samhain is for remembering the dead. It's the time of the year when the veil between this world and the other is thin; so thin we can perhaps see through it, so thin our ancestors can perhaps return to us, just for the night, just for a short chat. As ever the Western Mind has made this time of year, this celebration of death and the dead, all about itself. We have forgotten that there is so much more to life than that which is human. We have forgotten to remember All the dead, and we seem to have completely forgotten that death is the prerequisite for life - in the ever turning cycle of being.


How exquisite and excruciating would it be if we remembered all the dead, not just the heartbreaking ones - all those species we have brought to extinction - but also all those previously living beings who have nourished us in a myriad of different ways, upon whose lives our own depend. Imagine if we acknowledged the life-death-life cycle as one in which we will all play a part, instead of hiding our eyes in phones and quietly expecting immortality or perhaps eternal youth. What if we could join in the morning songs of the blackbird as she sings her gratitude to another new day... Instead of sticking our figurative fingers into our already plugged ears in order not to hear the keening of Life itself as we saunter along without so much as a thank you. At this time when the veil is thin, we have the opportunity to offer both our grief and our gratitude for the gift of our life, and to change the story, mend the weave, paint a new picture for the coming year.


Only following death can there be rebirth - and for me that's the very necessary work of the season; to allow what needs to die within me its death. And then in the darkness between Samhain and Imbolc to gestate all those beautiful seeds of what I hope will grow. It is no coincidence that this is a fire festival; fire is our oldest ally in this work of death, clearing away, burning away that which is no longer alive. The fires of purification may be painful, but they are vital, and if we forget to undergo them then we will accidentally carry what's dead into this gestation and it will pollute what we bring to birth.


We mostly live within a myth of separation, believing ourselves to be separate from the sacred body of the earth, from the rest of nature, separate from the other creatures, separate from each other, even separate from our own bodies. The cult of the mind has us firmly in it's grasp and we are terrified by the magnitude of the grief we might experience if we re-connect. We fill the emptiness that we feel from that loss of connection with the 'stuff' our consumer society tells us will make us happy, or if not happy then at least successful, which by its measure means yet more stuff. And so the wheel of acquisition goes round. We buy a shiny thing, we throw it out, we buy another - the cycle is unavoidably present everywhere we look. What used to be a pattern of harvest has become a pattern of purchase, but we're no longer making wonderful regenerative compost within which to grow next year's seeds, we're creating land-fill.


There is a Zen saying (I believe) that says "all sickness is homesickness". This makes perfect sense to me. If we could come home to ourselves, to our relationships, remember that our bodies are made of the same thing as the whole of the rest of creation, come home to our place on our Earth, among the family of creature relations (human and otherwise), come home to Earth herself - to remember reciprocity, to remember our manners. How beautiful the world is when we remember reciprocity, gratitude, remember that life is a gift and nothing can be taken for granted.


In the dark dreaming of this time betwix and between, at the dying of the old year, before the birthing of the new, we have the opportunity to go through the fire, let go of all our illusions of separation, re-member ourselves. It may hurt, but it's healing pain, being re-woven into Life.


Perhaps we can make ourselves a basket, to fill with new seeds, new dreams for a new/old way of being human. New stories for a re-vivified life, which can only come from the death of the way we are now.



Perhaps the 'things' we aspire to could be those of which Rilke writes so poignantly -

How surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the strongest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing -
each stone, blossom, child -
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth's' intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

Rainer Maria Rilke  - Book of Hours 11, 16







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