When we speak or write about death, images immediately flood your mind of caskets, funerals, flowers, candles, a lifeless body, perhaps gruesomeness, and loss. But that view is short-sighted and narrow. It is personal, as it relates to us, and we want to deny it as much as possible. In doing so, we lose the essence and magic of rebirth, and the wonders that are contained in the immediate events that follow, including our own transformation.
Naturally our own mortal death is not something to be sought, so I am writing about when e encounter death or any sort, and from a desire to illuminate the many aspects of death and rebirth that we must undergo in our journey,and some others where a holistic attitude about the cycle of life can assist us.
I’m speaking of the non-literal death,the ones that lead to transformations, both physical and in our paradigms. There are so many aspects of living that require death, of one sort or another, that if we continue to avoid them simply because they are painful, we can miss the majesty of what happens next. We can become locked in a state, or stage, of life that we need to grow out of in order to mature. Let’s start by looking at some simple symbols of death.
There may come to you a symbol of death like the skull and crossbones when he thought comes to you. Pretty standard stuff. But, what you may not know, is that this symbol was used in ancient times not to ward you off, or scare you, but to provide reflection upon life. Richard Cassaro writes that “is a reminder of the temporary nature of human life, and the inevitability of death.”
Richard continues to write that it evolved in the Middle Ages to a Latin expression: Memento Mori. This means ‘Remember that you are mortal’. In doing so, we can live fully. We also see the Latin expression of Memento Vivre to reflect the similar phrase from the opposite perspective, meaning ‘Remember to Live’.
So, the symbol that we may now associate with death was actually used to provide us with a perspective of life. Now, that’s something different. Let’s now look at life from the very beginning.
Death In Life
In giving birth, are we not transformed? Living comfortably in the belly of our mother, our lungs have never touched dry air, living instead in fluid until that time. We are transformed in traumatic fashion from a water baby to that of an air breathing baby in truly a different universe. Every single aspect of self has changed! This transformation can be seen as a death of the previous way of living, and a rebirth to a new manner of life. This, naturally, is not the only transformation we undergo throughout our life cycle.
In youth, we learn and obey as we develop our mind, until there comes a time when the desire to do for ourselves begins to rule us. We are unruly, rebellious, and must experience the ‘whys’ of life for our self. This youthful obedience gives way to exploration for the fortunate some, but for many they are forced to adulthood suddenly, through rite of passage, or circumstance. This shift is a death of innocence and the birth of adulthood.
When children leave the bosom of their protective mother to become a man, or independent woman, they strike off on a journey of their own making. Whether they like it or not, they must say goodbye to their former selves in order to expand in to the person they are inside: their true identity. Casting off the clothing and protective nature of their parents is a universal stage of life tradition that many cultures provide ceremonies for: the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, Buddhist boys initiated to temples as monks, Christian Confirmation, and so on.
When we look at the symbolic reference of death in his manner, not as mortal death, but as transformation from one stage to another, it becomes more comfortable to discuss. It is at that stage of acceptance that we start to discover a host of transformations in our own life, and in the life outside of us, in nature, that we begin to see and understand the cycle of life.
Life Cycles In Nature
In the forest, a fire is often seen as detrimental, certainly toward human life, and the animals caught within it, but for the ecosystem, it is actually quite beneficial. Fires reduce the accumulation of dry debris that store the fire’s energy potential and often to not harm the mature trees. They release nutrients into the soil that cause a bloom of new life. Ponderosa Pine seeds are one example of a forest species that has adapted favourably to post fire conditions. New growth increases the greenhouse gas uptake.
The suppression of fires has led to the increase in the stockpile of forest floor material, which in turn creates a great blaze when it does catch fire, injuring all trees in it’s wake. Similarly, in our human existence, when we hold on to the past and do not move forward in our own stages of life, we create greater potential for mental suffering.
The caterpillar to butterfly is the very symbol of transformation that we are all aware of, but there are many other insects and life forms that undergo similar shifts of existence. The silkworm to moth, tadpoles and frogs, to that of the salmon.
The mortal shells of plant and animal bodies and shells return to the soil from which they came to furnish the next generation with their essence and their nutrients. That cycle, when we see it happen in its entirety, indicates that there is a purpose for the changes we encounter. In order not to get drawn in to the stage of death, unable to break over to the other side of the experience, we need to soften our gaze and become open to the new.
Death Awakens New Life
When death is the focus of something that is part of a cycle, we lose the whole of the process and shrink our minds to but a fraction, in fear. Acceptance of the process in its fullness, and appreciation for the blessing nature that occurs at the moment after death, is an affirmation of process of nature. It widens our perspective and allows us to see beyond the mere act of death to that which lies beyond.
“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude”
Paradigm shifts are a death cycle that awaken a new world to us. We shift mentally when we realise a new way of thinking. The rapture at understanding a brand new concept gives life to a new world that we just sprang in to. We can no longer think the way we used to given the awareness of the new knowledge we possess.
Similar to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Once they ate the forbidden fruit, they we cast out. They learned of duality in the world and could no longer think they way they used to. The old selves were dead to them, and they had shifted into a new world, a new universe of existence.
When we learn something new, does it not transform us? In this transformation, how are we changed? By small amounts surely in the typical nature of our development, highlighted at times by more meaningful ‘ah-ha’ moments, but on the whole, our transformation may go largely unnoticed.
This is where myths and stories about living life come in handy. They help us define our life in terms of the history of existence of the community in which we define our self with. The rituals that are enacted relate to the myths and stories of our community, and are done so for a reason: to help us transform, to assist us with guilt, to give us a higher perspective, and to change our way of thinking or consciousness; our paradigm.
The death and rebirth stories can be seen to signify other shifts, like the way we transform away from the monkey brain, or animal instincts, to a higher consciousness. The Buddhist Chakras that lay along your spine start at the base, with the most base of instincts rising to the cosmic consciousness at the skull. This ranges from base instincts to enlightenment is purposeful in the alignment of our body. Those that achieve the awakening of consciousness can no longer go back to sleep; they die to the old self and need to build upon the new self in a rebirth.
The Wisdom in Stories
Today’s popular society has an aversion toward death, and it is easily seen in the way we avert our attention away from it in all the aspects that it happens within the stages of our own life. It is unavoidable, yet we distance ourself from it. We desire to prolong our life, for men to prolong their youth, for women to remain young, holding on the the image of something that will fade,regardless of what we do, no matter what we may want. This creates suffering, particularly in those that measure themselves by the ruler of others.
If we could bring stories of wisdom back in to our lives that are there to give help us in the journey of life, we might be better able to cope with these death and life cycles we struggle with in many parts of our life.
Myths and rituals, as Joseph Campbell talks about them from the far reaches of the entire planet, have very similar meanings. They give us a perspective on death that allows us to move forward and continue our personal growth with the knowledge that the universe is one, that we are all connected, that death is but a phase of life, and that we need not fear that which society has not accepted.
Take a moment and discover the beautiful stories about the life cycle. For any that have seen the Lion King, you may recall the beautiful song that was sung: The Circle of Life. Here we see the birth of Simba. In the Lion King we also see the death of Mufasa, Simba’s father. Why did they kill off such a regal character? I believe they did so because we have all been touched by death of a loved one, within our family or not.
We can become lost to it, wander in the turmoil it causes us, but for the rest of the people that are involved in the effect of the death, life goes on, and if we let the death change us to a mournful person incapable of transforming, it creates a greater loss than even the initial event. In the movie, Simba ultimately transforms to a leader himself, assisting the greater good of his pride and thwarting the evil Scar.
So, the lesson is this: if we let death take us over, we also die and accentuate the effect of death. If we learn from the event, accept it and revere the remaining life, we can grow from it.
One path moves us away from life, the other draws us closer.
Death is simply an extreme of the range of change that occurs in our everyday life. If we can welcome change, we can accept death, knowing that just beyond it is life of a sort that can bless us with greater understanding and personal growth. As in all transformations, this takes time to assimilate in to our life. The more we are accepting of change and of the cycle of life, the easier the transformation will become. This is the power of the myth stories, and ritual acts, that can impart the wisdom to us and ease the journey.
Funerals are a ritual. They provide an act that we say goodbye to the past and awaken to a new life, but without a wise story that threads death and life together, we can stumble in our weariness and grief.
“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure”
– J. K. Rowling
From death comes new life. We die to our water baby in birth and become an air baby, then we die to our childhood and become an adult, then our children leave us and we die to the parental focus and are reborn with a new focus, only to go through the final stage of life with a mortal death. Who knows what lies beyond that final curtain. What we can sense though all of the other lessons of the cycle of life is that it is for sure a transformation.
If we can learn one thing from all of the previous cycles in life,personally and in nature, we can see that there is always life after death. There is something there. We can rest assured that even though we can not see the visible nature of the transformation, something occurs. The energy leaves the body and must go somewhere, for it may not vanish given the laws of physics.
Death is Life
Death is not the end as we currently may view it, but simply a door to the new quantum of growth; a rebirth, if you will, to a new frame of reference. Below is an image of the Buddha Circle, representing the repetition of life and death as a cycle.
If you find yourself in the grips of a death, I hope you can start to take some comfort that although we may not see the transformation that lay beyond the immediate, there is goodness, new life, and a greater sense of self even just over the horizon. Life, surely as all the tales in all the cultures around the world indicates, does spring from death, in one way or another, and we need only understand the cycles that we grapple with in our own journey to understand this.
Aside from the personal trauma that we know so well, there is another side to death, and it is life, rebirth, and wisdom.