Samhain Reflection

This morning we honor our beloved dead. In Latin America, particularly Mexico, this time is known as Dia de Muertos. In the Gaellic Pagan tradition, as we have been partaking, it’s Samhain.

These traditions invite us to imagine that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead lifts and our ancestors visit us. There is more going on here than mere superstition. These practices yield spiritual and psychological insights. A Mexican boy spending the night at his uncle’s grave, as is a custom of Dia de Muertos, will gain from that experience a connection across time with his forebears.

We might be connected through social media to every acquaintance we ever since high school, and connected through our phones at all times – and yet be cut off from the web of time. Traditional cultures, with their shamans and ghosts and reincarnations, have understood intuitively something we’ve repressed.

The dead don’t die. They live on in our memory, in our hearts, in ideas and habits that we today embody even long after the source is gone from conscious memory. Of course, we remember our dead. And if you’re looking for a movie to watch this afternoon, as part of reflecting on the beloved dead, I recommend the 2017 film, “Coco.” It’s a good one to watch and rewatch at this time of year.

Samhain and dia de Muertos also remind us that each of us will soon be among the dead – and this, too, is a wholesome, enlivening, and spiritual reflection. Our lives are but brief candles, so if we would celebrate the fullness of all of life, we will honor in gratitude – indeed, relief – that the separate identity that ego so ardently believes in does not have countless ages. What is ours to do is only this short span – our three score years and ten -- more or less – maybe fourscore or fivescore. That mortality reminded Housman, that really, we have only this moment – so he chose to walk about the woodlands, to be present to the beauty that is right now.
“Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.”
Remembering death, keeping it always in mind, makes us more present to life. “What a puzzle it is,” as Mary Oliver said, “that such brevity . . . makes the world so full, so good.”

Scottish novelist, Dame Muriel Spark, writes:
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might was well live on the whites of eggs.”
German Philosopher Martin Heidegger said,
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.”
And the 16th-century French essayist, Montaigne, said,
“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.”
In that freedom of awareness of death, we finally dissolve those boundaries we construct between self and “other” – and dwelling there we realize at last the jubilee world, or harmony among all peoples, among all animals, among all things.

Larry Rosenberg writes:
“We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually.”
And Judith Lief notes:
"The best preparation is working with our state of mind now rather than thinking about exotic things we might do later when we are looking death in the eyes. It is better to learn to relate to death now, when we still have the strength and ability. In that way, when we face difficult circumstances, or at the time of death, we can rely on what we already know.”
Louise Erdrich observes:
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid a thing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.”
Maybe the transporter beam called Time will reconstitute your pattern, very slightly changed, in the next moment, and maybe it won't. Either way, the being you experience as yourself this second is gone the next second.

Why wrap so much anxiety around whether or not a very-nearly-identical replica will supersede you? Why have any anxiety whatsoever about that? When that anxiety is cleared away, seen through, recognized as stemming from delusion and dropped, then, indeed, we will know how to live.


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