Working with death in shamanism
Spirit, soul and the sacred in nature
The Wider Web of Life
Facing death is the most important initiation rite that a traditional shaman goes through, sometimes repeatedly. These initiations are not always controlled in the sense that they are part of an initiatory path with a teacher being present. Many shamanic callings come about via severe physical illnesses, trauma experiences and what we now call ’spiritual emergencies’.
Traditionally, these experiences serve a few vital purposes:
· Death becomes a teacher of the cycles of all life and is consulted as a teacher, including on how to live in the ’right way’ and die a ’good death’.
· Such experiences throw the initiate into spirit realms and intense encounters with spirits who need to be explored and connected with. Some of them, such as the spirits of the underworlds, need to be struggled and fought with and overcome. In the process the shaman gains strength and knowledge, and their old self dies. They are reborn back into the body, transformed from a ’wounded healer’ into a powerful shaman and bringing with them the knowledge and knowing of the other worlds.
· The shaman will, through the experience of dying and being reborn, learn how to overcome their survival instinct, a mastery that allows them to access and traverse the spirit worlds via out-of-body flights and also to learn about the soul’s journey into such worlds after death, which is knowledge required in their work as a psychopomp.7
Most traditional shamans, having been through death and rebirth initiations, would state that they are ’already dead’ and therefore don’t fear death because their experiences have transformed them profoundly. They now know that they are in essence spirit and that death is just another form of reality. The time of death is seen as a transition stage between lives, as the spirit essence, light soul or consciousness leaves the body and lives on in another dimension, in spirit, with the ancestors.
Initiation rituals for contemporary seekers
In contemporary shamanism there are many ways of working with death. I am not suggesting that you try them at home, so I won’t describe them in depth, just give you some information.
Initiation rites in contemporary shamanism are not frequent and rarely as profound as the ones in traditional shamanism. For most contemporary shamanic practitioners, the journey is an unfolding process that leads deeper into shamanism, with parts of the practitioner dying and others being born in the process.
Having said that, there are rites and ceremonies that include facing death, though we often have to travel to indigenous teachers to participate in them. An initiation ritual in which I participated was held in Ecuador in a sulphur cave. The build-up to it was, for me, more nerve-racking than the actual experience, as we were repeatedly told that we could literally die in that cave if our intent and connection to spirit weren’t impeccable. Not giving into fears and overcoming my survival instinct — by staying in the cave much longer than was comfortable — were the major outcomes for me.8
Another intense ceremonial rite I participated in was the ’burial of the warrior’, led by Victor Sanchez, a shamanic practitioner from the Toltec tradition in Mexico. The main focus of the ritual comes when you spend the night in a grave, covered with earth, with only a small breathing hole, the size of a tennis ball, ensuring a supply of oxygen. The burial is mainly about facing your fears and overcoming them and about renewal through spending a night deep in Mother Earth and emerging into the light at sunrise. For me this was a ’facing the fear of death’ experience, as spending a night completely covered in a dark space brought to the fore an intense fear of suffocating. It offered me a chance to trust my spirit helpers and to alleviate many fears during the preparation phase, which is done with the help of an obsidian mirror. I loved the emerging phase, experiencing utter bliss and a renewed feeling of ’coming from the sun’ as I came back out into the light.
There are also more profound trainings and apprenticeships in Africa or South America which include strong rites, the repeated ingestion of medicine plants and deep dreaming practices that focus on death and rebirth (see also chapters 13 and 14).
Generally speaking, everything that includes death and rebirth rites should only be attempted with an experienced shamanic teacher. Nevertheless, you can make a start by exploring the subject.
How you can start by yourself
Journeys and movement are nice ways to start working with the transition of the soul from the body to the other worlds. As with all profound journeys, these work best if you set them up ceremonially and really take your time.
Exercise: Journey to explore the realm after death
A good way to start is to journey to be shown the realm to which you will go when you die.
’I am going to journey to be shown the realm I will go to when I die. I ask for help from spirit guides and teachers.’
Let the journey unfold. Your spirit guides and helpers will accompany you on this journey. Often others will show up spontaneously and you might also meet loved ones who are already in the spirit world. The realm you will reach is beautiful.
Exercise: Journey to become familiar with your own physical death
This journey takes you to the point where your spirit is leaving the body and you are arriving in Bardo, the place between the worlds. You will be in spirit form and this dissociated state guarantees that physical and emotional reactions are kept to a minimum.
’I am going to journey to observe my own death, the moment my soul leaves my body. I will be in spirit form and ask my spirit allies to be with me.’
Let the journey unfold. A good learning when you journey in this way is that the moment the spirit leaves the body, death really does lose its sting and is experienced as something quite natural and sometimes astonishingly beautiful.
Dancing your last dance
As you may be aware, I personally love all dancing practices within shamanism. So I have to say that a great way to work with death is to dance your last journey, your transition journey between this world and the other. This should be done repeatedly.
Exercise: Dancing your last journey
To dance your last journey, set up the space, call in spirit and your spirit helpers and repeat your intent as you would do on any other journey, but instead of travelling in your imagination, just dance! You can use the drumming download or any powerful rhythmic music.
During the dance you might encounter memories, a range of emotions and the people you love. Specific totem animals or guides connected to death and dying might show up, as might significant people who have already left this body.
Much healing can be done within the dance and much love is always present. You express whatever you experience until you are peaceful and ready to let go. Then you dance your spirit leaving your body, which is always a very joyful experience.
The dance journey lasts as long as it takes.
I have danced this dance a few times and have often had a jaguar present — the power of the underworld. It shows up when I am fearful, but in the end retreats lovingly and kind of pleased and is replaced by light energy and bliss.
Does all this talk about death sound dark and gloomy to you? Let me assure you it is not. Work with death, rebirth and initiation rites is not advised at the beginning of your shamanic path, but when done within a shamanic setup and with the right facilitator, it is amazingly freeing. It deals with a reality for which most of us are completely unprepared. It puts things into perspective, heals many wounds, gives us insight into what happens when the soul leaves, and, according to shamanic teachings, gives us some control over the way we die, as the way we envisage it, the way we think about it and the way we desire it to occur influences how our death will manifest.