Death As a Rite of Passage

Awakening to the Spirit World: The Shamanic Path of Direct Revelation - Sandra Ingerman MA, Hank Wesselman Ph.D. 2010

Death As a Rite of Passage

In traditional societies, the visionary abilities of the shaman, refined and deepened over a lifetime of practice, enable her or him to explore the spiritual realms into which we pass when we die. The shaman knows that death is not an ending, but rather a natural passage into a transcendent level of reality that occurs at the culmination of life. Their knowledge, gained through direct revelation, allows them to prepare the dying for what they may experience, thus easing their transition into the afterlife.

In today’s Western societies, doctors and psychologists have replaced the shaman as our socially sanctioned healers, and our organized priesthoods serve as our official religious practitioners. Yet most members of these professional hierarchies lack the shaman’s visionary abilities. And nowhere is this reflected more strongly than in our fear (and ignorance) of the death experience.

This has created a lot of pain and suffering for the people facing death and their families and friends. When someone starts to speak about impending death, the usual social response is, “Don’t talk like that, you are going to get well and you will be back on your feet before you know it.” Yet we are all going to go through the death experience sooner or later.

Denial that a big change is coming, and that this change is inevitable, blocks understanding. It also blocks true loving and supportive communication on all sides. As a result, many people die in a state of acute fear and anxiety, while their families and doctors try to hold them here for as long as possible. Such a dying process lacks dignity and grace—a grace that we must re-avail ourselves of through the teachings of the visionary.

According to Alberto Villoldo, Western attitudes about death make it difficult for us to find closure when someone we love dies:

In the West, we no longer remember how to die with grace and dignity. We shuttle the dying off to hospitals where death is considered a disease and extraordinary measures are taken to prolong life at all costs. Families do not know how to come to closure with the passing of a loved one. Many people die in fear, with unresolved issues, not having said the “I love you”s and “I forgive you”s that would be so healing for them and their families. We have tried to make death invisible; we think that if we ignore it long enough, it will go away.

The body knows how to die the same way it knows how to be born. We return to Spirit naturally. Nine times out of ten, we journey to the world of Spirit with ease. Similarly, nine out of ten births happen these days without complications. It is rare for someone who is dying to not make the journey to Spirit naturally, but when there is resistance, we can become earthbound. If this occurs, assistance is needed to help with the journey. Yet as a culture we have forgotten how to offer this spiritual aid.

In the Western world there are not many maps for the afterlife. Most of these maps have been drawn after brief visits during near-death experiences. The shamans of Tibet and the Americas have mapped the landscape beyond death in great detail.

So let us draw from many shamanic sources and examine the visionary perspective about death as a rite of passage. At the outset, allow us to affirm that we understand very well that different spiritual traditions have different cosmologies about where the soul travels after death, but throughout all shamanic societies there is agreement that some part of us continues to exist after we leave our earthly life.


Hank Wesselman draws on his inner scholar to offer these thoughts:

In his seminal book The Pagan Christ, Tom Harpur, an Anglican priest and theologian, reveals that the singular mystical teaching of all religions in all cultures, both ancient and modern, concerns the descent of spirit (divine light) into form—the human embodiment (incarnation).2

Harpur adds that while the sun is the source of all that is in our solar system, it is also by its light alone that we are able to see and know everything that exists. For this reason, the sun was the natural symbol in antiquity for the ultimate being, for God. Thus the radiant figure of the sun god, who is at the same time divine as well as human, was at the core of the Christ mythos found in virtually all cultures in ancient times.

In the various mythic sun gods, from Helios of Greece to Horus or Iusa (Jesus) of Egypt or Mithras of Persia, humans could perceive their own history, their destiny, and their eventual conversion at death into angels of light. All the myths, allegories, parables, rites, and fables were formulated to support this central play—that we are light embodied and destined for eternity . . . and eternity is a long time.

Harpur emphasizes this with a wonderful allegory. Like the sun setting in the west, our divine light (our immortal oversoul) divides itself, and part of it descends into the darkness of our mortal bodies at the beginning of life. There it remains within us, ensouling us as we live and learn, increase, and become more than we were. Then at life’s end, just as the sun rises daily in the east with renewed power and vigor, so our soul-light will rise again to become one with our immortal source in the afterlife.

This is the true meaning of the resurrection of Jesus, of Osiris and Horus in Egypt, and of Mithras. It is a spirituality filled with hope and power.

The visionaries of all times and all religious traditions have always understood that each of us is an embodied seed of light. The same holds true for the Polynesians. The divine breath that the Hawaiians call the “Ha” is the vehicle of transfer through which this light is gifted into us. When we take our first breath, our divinity is seeded within us. It is in this way that spirit (oversoul) breathes life into form, allowing heaven and earth to become one.

And when that life cycle comes to its conclusion, we release our last breath, and with it our light (soul) is liberated from the dying physical form. This seed of light then returns to its source, our overarching ancestral oversoul, bearing as gifts all that we have done and become during life. And what happens to it along the way is part of the great mystery of what we experience when we die.


There is a general agreement among shamans and mystics that when we die, we move out of the ordinary aspect of the everyday Middle World and into a transcendent reality—this is the dream aspect of this world, the same dream world that we access through dream every night while asleep. This is also an aspect of nonordinary reality to which we can journey—the same level in which our Sacred Garden is usually located.

According to Hank, death is a transition that takes us through several different stages:

There now exists a large body of literature about near-death experiences recorded by researchers such as Dr. Raymond Moody, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and others, and the general outline of the stages that we pass through is now known.3 The transition back from the physical to the spiritual plane of existence usually begins with a pervading sense of peace and well-being. This is often followed by feelings of surprise at finding oneself out of body and able to see and hear everything going on in the immediate vicinity of the (deceased) physical body.

There then follows a sequence in which the newly liberated soul often moves through a dark tunnel toward a blindingly bright light at the passage’s end. Often the presence of others is sensed in the passageway, and many perceive being welcomed across and into the light by some sort of greater intelligence. Sometimes these presences are perceived as relatives or friends who have already crossed over—beings who loved us in life. Sometimes they are seen as spiritual figures derived from the dying person’s belief systems such as Mary or Jesus, Moses or Mohammed, the Amitaba Buddha or the communion of saints, or the company of angels or one’s own ancestors.

With help from these transpersonal beings encountered in the passing from this world to the next, the discarnate soul journeys through the light and into the dream world of spirit. In many cultures, such as that of the Tibetans, collective wisdom about the death experience is recorded in extraordinary esoteric documents such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a literary work more than a thousand years old that reveals the Tibetans’ culturally determined perspectives on the transition from life through death.

Tibetan visionaries know that when we die, it’s like going into a dream from which we don’t wake up. And the dream that we go into is our own unique dream that we dream for ourselves. The Tibetans call these postmortem dreams the bardos, or “in-between states.”


It is understood by shamans and visionaries alike that the bardo dream states exist in the nonordinary aspect of the Middle Worlds, the same mysterious regions that we go into when we dream at night. In the Eastern mystical traditions these states are sometimes called the Kamalokas; in Judeo-Christianity they are known as Purgatory. The modern mystic and visionary explorer Robert A. Monroe calls this place The Park, a locality that serves as a waiting stage where we may get used to our new out-of-body state and where we may do our life review.4

The Tibetans say that these in-between states last for only about forty days and so The Tibetan Book of the Dead is accordingly a long prayer that may be recited over the deceased for the full forty days in order to remind the discarnate soul (who may maintain connection with his or her physical body and be able to hear all that is said) that all that he or she is experiencing in the bardos are illusions and dreams. The main job of the discarnate soul in the bardo is to remain calm and unmoved by what it may be experiencing, much like the Buddha in deep meditation.

It is during this period that the discarnate soul may be approached by many spirits, including his or her spirit guide, a godlike being of grace and profound wisdom, the keeper and teacher of their oversoul, who therefore is in partnership with the deceased. Then, with the life review accomplished, the deceased being—now a soul-spirit—ascends in the company of this higher spirit into the transcendent realities of the Upper Worlds (Heaven in Judeo-Christianity, Paradise in Islam) where it re-merges with its source and becomes one once again with its immortal soul aspect—its evolving god-self, higher self, or oversoul.


As we mentioned earlier, the cosmology of where we go after our own death varies in different shamanic/mystical traditions. Yet we offer just a couple of examples of the landscape that awaits us beyond the death of our physical bodies.

Many shamanic traditions, teaches Alberto Villoldo, believe that this landscape beyond death is like the dawning of a new world:

In the Amazon there are shamans who claim to have journeyed beyond death. Their stories are very similar to the ones told by Tibetans who have mapped the journey across thousands of years.

The first stage of merging into this landscape is the experience of the sun rising as if it were the very first day of creation. This is the dawn breaking on a cloudless morning, a state of primordial purity—immense and vast. The blackness of death, caused by the collapse of the senses, is dispelled by the light of Spirit.

At that moment, you perceive the dawn as if from the top of the world itself. Not only is the breaking dawn occurring outside you, but you simultaneously feel the sun rising in your belly, and all of creation is stirring within you. You recognize that you are one with the dawning of the light; you surrender to the luminosity around you; you are enfolded by it and become one with it. Inca legends say that we are star travelers. At this point in the dying process, we can embark on our great journey through the Milky Way.

In the second stage, the shaman recognizes his own luminous nature and is no longer identified with his or her body, but with the light. If the person fails to recognize the dawn as the awakening of consciousness, the sun continues to rise in a million dazzling colors. All of nature comes alive in a stunning display of sound and light. On this stage, the forces of nature manifest in their pure essence. Water appears as both fluid and light; the Earth itself appears as light; and all of the elements are represented in their luminosity and coalesce into balls of energy. In this stage we have a second opportunity to recognize that we are not separate from the dazzling light and the energies around us.

These two stages are where the person attains freedom and has the opportunity for their Great Awakening. If these two opportunities are missed, then everything shifts back into form, and this usually happens for most of us in a flash of light. Total and complete awakening, if not acknowledged and recognized in that eternal moment, becomes a lost opportunity, and then the next stage begins.

The next stage is the dawning of the light of awareness where the sun rises and the day breaks within you. The windstorm of death is so mighty that many people become awakened only at this stage of their journey through existence. So, death allows us to sense the totality of our being, and in this state we realize that everything around us is alive.

After this we are met by celestial beings (our spirit guides) for our life review and our return back home to the original source. Our goal is to die consciously. My mentor, don Antonio, joked to me that the purpose of all of the shaman’s training is “to learn how to get out of this life alive.”

Again, all shamanic cultures have their own way of speaking about where we go after the point of death. In truth, none of us will really know until we get there, but it helps to have guidelines. It may be, teaches Tom Cowan, that we each have our own unique experience of the death process:

“Death is the center of a long life” is an old Druid saying that continues to intrigue, and even haunt, our consciousness today.

From the earliest Upper Paleolithic graves with their elaborate grave goods and ritual lay-outs of corpses, it appears that humans have always had some sense that not everything ends with the death of the body. Over the centuries, various cultures and religious systems have worked out different explanations and descriptions of what happens after death, and I like to think that the rich diversity of opinions reflects the fact that there may well be diverse experiences awaiting us. In other words, whatever fate awaits us on the other side will not be the same for us all. Collectively, human beings have had intimations of immortality that cannot be described as one-size-fits-all. Certainly life on Earth is a unique experience for each of us; we are not all leading the same life shapes except in certain broad strokes.

Maybe life after death will be a unique experience for each of us, even though there may be some general similarities in format or structure just as our earthly life has created for us.

But in spite of the differences, there seems to be remarkable agreement that something awaits us, that death is truly the center of some larger life experience. If so, each of us incarnates a life force, which extends back before our most recent births and outward after our present bodies succumb to old age, disease, or a fatal accident.

Another way to think about this is to consider the fact that so many people have recognized a certain incompleteness in human life that results in spiritual longing and questing. Even when we live a full and happy life, we can feel that something is missing, even though we are not sure just what that is. Life feels like a quest, and we are searchers in the terrain of earthly existence for something we can’t quite name.

Dying then is a kind of un-creating in order to be re-created somewhere or sometime else and perhaps as something else to continue or complete the quest. Existence may be a kind of shapeshifting experience for us all. Perhaps we are meant to be much more than human beings, just as shamans realize when they shapeshift in nonordinary reality.

When people have near-death experiences, they often look down on their physical bodies that seem to grow diaphanous, foggy, gaseous, or misty. They look like what the living often describe as ghosts. The body seems to fade or disappear. We’ve heard this idea before in fairy tales and legends in which a person or animal “vanishes in the mist.” But it’s possible that what is actually happening is that the physical body turns into mist because the gaseous state is a type of betwixt-and-between state where the energy or life force of the body is being purified, rarified, and cleansed. When this happens in fairy tales, it often indicates the beginning of a journey into the Otherworld. When it happens in a near-death experience, it may also presage a passing into another world.

The shamanic journey is a method for exploring the realms that lie beyond our physical existence. Shamans relate what they see and hear in those realms and in so doing create patterns or structures for that Otherworld that make it familiar and acceptable to our imaginations. Journeys reassure us that the tendencies of life and death that we see in this world are turnings of the tides in which neither life nor death wins.

When poet William Wordsworth titled one of his odes “Intimations of Immortality,” he was right in step with the course of human history. We have always had those intimations, those hints, those intriguing glimpses through the misted veil that another world, or possibly many worlds, await us. And it has been an equally human characteristic to have a yearning to know what those worlds are like.


Shamans, in their essential work as healers, are able to heal both the living and the deceased. As we wrote in the beginning of this book, shamans heal the living by performing rituals for power augmentation, for soul retrieval, for illness extraction, and for depossession as well as other transpersonal healing modalities in which they are guided and assisted by their helping spirits. Shamans heal the deceased through what is called psychopomp work.

“Psychopomp” is a Greek word that literally translates as “leader or guide of souls.” In this sense, a shaman tracks the soul of a recently deceased individual, locates it, and guides it to where it is supposed to go in the afterlife.

In some circumstances, a soul gets stuck in the Middle World and so will not make the transcendent journey back to its source. This might happen in response to a traumatic or unexpected death from murder or suicide; a plane, auto, or train accident; or even a war death or a drug overdose. These are just some circumstances that can lead to a soul getting stuck in the Middle World, yet not everyone who has died in a sudden, unforeseen, or tragic manner will get stuck in this way.

In some shamanic traditions, such as those of central and northeastern Asia, it is believed that a discarnate soul may choose to maintain its integration for a long time after the death experience. The reasons for doing so vary from individual to individual. For example, the discarnate soul may feel the need to be of service to family members and descendants, or it may have strong connections with places or persons from the life just lived. Some shamanic traditions reveal that it can take four generations or up to a hundred years for an ancestor’s energy to completely disengage from this world.

In Hank’s words, this means that any of your ancestors who have passed over in the past hundred years may still be available to you—they may still be in the Middle World of dream because they have chosen to maintain their integration as a personal pattern that reflects who and what they were in life for reasons that may have something to do with you as their descendant. Ancestors have a particular concern for the well-being of their descendants, and your Sacred Garden is the perfect place to meet with them, should you choose to do so.

According to Sandra Ingerman, some recently deceased souls need the guidance of a psychopomp in understanding what is happening to them:

Sometimes the practitioner might need to convince a discarnate soul that it has in fact died, for sometimes the death of the physical body may have been so unexpected and sudden that the person might not know or understand what has happened to them. In the same vein, the shamanic practitioner might also be able to assist whole groups of people who died in a war or a catastrophe that has taken the lives of many.

When a soul is ready, the shaman journeys to locate it in the Middle Bardo Worlds and then escorts this “stuck soul” to a transcendent reality or into the company of a deceased loved one or spirit guide who will help to guide it into the afterlife.

Psychopomp work takes in-depth training that is beyond the scope of this book, yet in the next chapter we will share some practices and rituals around the death process that you may incorporate into your life and work.

From a shamanic point of view, death is not an end but a transition. In this chapter we have given you some examples of how shamans see the cosmology of death.

You can also perform a journey where you visit a helping spirit and ask it to show you where people travel after death. This will help you understand how death is a rite of passage, and it will assist you in developing your own map of life beyond death.

Hank adds that once we have found and established our Sacred Garden, it can become our bardo experience—a familiar territory in the dreaming of Nature (here) in which we can adjust to our new state—a place where our ancestors and even our spirit guide can find us, visit with us, and convey us back to where we are supposed to go in the afterlife when that time comes—back into relationship with our god-self, our oversoul, in the Upper Worlds of heaven.