The Accidental Shaman: Journeys with Plant Teachers and Other Spirit Allies - Howard G. Charing 2017
The Continuum of Life
We often wonder: “How will I be when I die?” The answer to that is that whatever state of mind we are in now, whatever kind of person we are now, that’s what we will be like at the moment of death, if we do not change. This is why it is so absolutely important to use this lifetime to purify our mind-stream, and so our basic being and character, while we can.
In our culture, death is regarded as dark, mysterious, and fearful. In many respects, discussing death and dying is not only regarded as morbid but also as taboo. Of course, the paradox is that death is the single experience that will happen with undeniable certainty to each and every one of us. Typically, we skirt the matter until one day we come face to face with this quintessential personal and inevitable circumstance. Ancient cultures did not regard death as an enemy, but rather dared to make it an ally.
How we experience death is in many ways dependent on how we live our lives. Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, puts it succinctly, “Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected.”1
Those who have had near-death experiences invariably regard this singular experience as a transformative event in their lives. The common thread of these experiences is gaining the awareness that life, albeit in another form, continues.
So this is the essential core of the teachings about death in many spiritual traditions. It is primarily about life and how we can intensify the experience, bringing meaning and purpose into our life. Just the awareness that death does not signify the end of consciousness but is more of a passage in an incalculably vast journey offers a profound serenity and peace of mind.
It is ultimately about daring to live fearlessly from the center of one’s truth, to challenge and defeat the tendency to inertia, fear of life, and premature old age. In the words of the Peruvian shaman Don Eduardo Calderon, “A shaman is someone who is already dead and thus has no fear of death or life.”2 Sometimes a life-threatening crisis is what calls a person to the way of the shaman. From this perspective, death is not perceived as the enemy of life. The real adversary is inertia.
I have faced imminent death twice in my life. I knew that I was going to die. Both of these events irrevocably changed my life. The first was the elevator crash, and the second was so sublime, it was my greatest test. I faced my greatest fear, not of death but of oblivion, and it was my greatest healing.
I was also born dead; I remember my actual birth and the very first words spoken. I was presumed dead, so the surgeon performed the procedure to remove a dead fetus by Caesarean section. After I was extracted and obviously not dead, he said in astonishment, “It’s alive!” I also recalled the particular smell of the maternity room; it had the distasteful pungent odor of the old type of oil solvent-based gloss paint. When I asked my mother about my birth, she was stunned. “How do you know?” Yet she verified everything and felt comfortable in telling me more about the circumstances surrounding my birth. She also added that the operating theater had just been repainted and had an overpowering stench.
According to medical science, this memory is not possible, as the cerebral cortex (the specific part of the brain that stores permanent memories) is not yet formed at birth. From the matter-creates-mind materialistic paradigm, it is simply out of the question. So how could I remember my birth? Where was I at the time? The memories and life experience, as I proposed earlier, are not stored in the physical brain; they are part of the soul fabric, the fibers and filaments that form our biogeometric structure. The analogy that the brain functions as a television receiver that decodes invisible electromagnetic signals into a visible image is crude and reinforces the notion of a fragmented reality. The brain-consciousness connection is a synergism, the product of an interaction between different systems that together create a whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. This is a holistic perspective, as opposed to the dualistic view that human consciousness and the cosmos are separate. This is the enduring ontological question: Did consciousness exist before matter such that matter extends from consciousness, or does matter produce consciousness? The latter is the predominant view of the reductionist Cartesian view that pervades medical science to an extent that the whole of the body system is fragmented into distinct specializations, such as endocrinology, cardiology, gastroenterology, gynecology, hepatology, and so on. Holistic practitioners and shamans view the physical, emotional, and mental spheres not as discrete compartmentalized systems, but as an integral whole. So how did the reductionist worldview arise?
On the night of November 10, 1619, the French philosopher René Descartes, then a mercenary soldier, had a dream during the siege of Ulm in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. As he described in his journal, a giant winged angel appeared and said, “The conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number.”3 This message transformed his life and led him to develop the rationalist philosophy now known as Cartesian dualism. This is the concept that body and mind are separate and that human beings—and all natural phenomena—are merely physical entities. In this philosophy, consciousness is an irrelevant, superfluous concept. Of course, the great paradox is that modern science stems from the intervention of a supernatural being.
This dualistic perspective is prevalent in our thinking. I watched the brilliant BBC documentary “The Hidden Life of the Cell” in the series Our Secret Universe. In the past ten years, scientists have been able to witness what once seemed impossible: the world inside a human cell. Professor Steve Jones of University College in London, who introduced the program, said, “When I was a student, the idea that we could burrow deep inside a human cell was unthinkable. The more we learn about the universe the simpler it seems, but the cell isn’t like that. The more we find out the more complicated things get.” I thought, “That’s interesting. . . . This implies that the human cell is not a part of the universe.”
In traditional wisdom and knowledge, life is a continuum that does not end at the moment of death. One of the most important traditional tasks of the seer, shaman, or medicine man or woman is to assist either people who are dying or the spirits of those who have died to make the transition into the Great Domain of consciousness. This body of practice is known as psychopomp work, from the Greek word psychopompos, which literally means “conductor of souls.” In Greek mythology, the god Hermes served as the escort for the dead into the afterlife. This concept of a guide or intermediary between the living and the dead is a collective theme found in most religions, spiritual traditions, and mythologies.
Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, reveals a deep understanding of the cosmology in which we live. An essential part of Tibetan spirituality is the state of awareness at the boundary of life and death.