SHAMANISM DEATH & LIFE:
Karen Kelly interviews Jonathan
Jonathan Horwitz & Karen Kelly 2006 ©
KK Perhaps you could start by saying something about how the shaman works with death in both traditional cultures and in your own practise.
JH When death comes close the shaman is someone who is called in to help people to die, and to be with them and with the family at the time of death, and later on the shaman comes to help the soul to move on to its next destination.
In many traditional cultures, people don’t separate things into boxes as much as we do. The connection between things is much more recognised than it is in our culture, and death is seen as a part of life. It seems that we in the West have a line that goes between birth at the beginning and death at the end. My understanding is that in a lot of traditional cultures it’s not so clear cut, not so separate, probably because people are much more closely acquainted with death than we are. What I mean by that is that they don’t try to avoid it like we do. Of course they don’t go looking for it, taking unnecessary risks, but they recognise its presence. And the initiation rites into adulthood often press the young person to the point where they might well wish they were dead. In our culture there is a great emphasis on being young or on looking young or trying to hold onto youth as long as possible. There’s not much of a chance of that in traditional societies where people are living thousands of miles from cosmetic shops. For them, death is not something that you can hide away. You can’t send your granny off to the nursing home to die. She dies at home.
KK It sounds like that would require the shaman to have a close understanding of death themselves
JH In some cultures the shaman is a general practitioner who takes care of a lot of needs of society, from divination to healing to being someone who moves the souls of the dead person onto the Other Side. In other cultures there are shaman specialists, who may only work with one of these jobs. And in some societies the shaman’s journey to the spirit world is called “the little death.” But because the shaman spends a certain amount of time in the world of the spirits, she or he is in a better position to help the souls of the dead on their way. The shaman is also someone who is more likely to have more exposure to the threshold experiences of life. In traditional societies, the thresholds of life - birth, initiation into adulthood, marriage, and death - are much more recognised and honoured than they are in our culture. The shaman, often having the role as ceremonial leader, is more likely to be involved in those thresholds. Because of the shaman’s ability to go the world of the spirits he is a likely person to have around.
In Western shamanism today the emphasis, when talking about shamanism and death, has been much more on the role of the shaman as conductor of souls, or psychopomp, as it is sometimes called. I’m really tired of this word psychopomp because it has nothing to do with human beings or shamanic practise. It’s an academic word. I’d say the escort or conductor of souls. But for me, in our culture, a new and challenging role for the shaman - in connection with death - is to help people to learn to face death. Nowadays people go on a workshop, learn some techniques, go home on Sunday night thinking they can work with people who are dying, people who are dead, but if they haven’t started to work with their own relationship to death, and really gotten into it, then they are going to bring that lack of depth, and perhaps deep fear of death, to the work they do for others, and that can be a disaster. I remember a few years ago there was a woman on the death course who assured the circle that she was all clear with death. Quite frankly, because of my observations of her during the past two years, I didn’t believe her. Apart of me felt like saying to her, “And what if you get home and find your nine month old son is dead?” No, I didn’t do it, but one day she’ll find out she has more work to do with death, just as I do, just as you do. We never finish learning. Shamanic work, like any spiritual work, is more than techniques.
KK So to help them to come into an awareness of death that traditional people come into naturally as a result of how they live?
JH Exactly. When I lived in Greenland one of the doctors at the hospital told me that about a third of the deaths in Greenland were either violent or by accident. Far more than in most “civilised” countries. Which is perhaps more of reflection of what it is like in areas where there is not an ambulance or helicopter to the nearest hospital. In places where the streets are not all paved, people slip and fall and die, very suddenly and quickly. Just before I came up here I was told that the son of someone I know had just died. Motorcycle accident. Just like that, 25 years old.
Our culture puts such an emphasis on death avoidance. I feel one of the jobs of shamanic practitioners in the West could be to help people come into awareness of death in a natural way. If you talk about death in our culture a lot of people think that you are ghoulish. When I came back from Vietnam I was looking through a book catalogue and I saw Elizabeth Kübler Ross’s first book on death and dying. I just turned the page immediately. I thought, “Who'd want to buy that - what a horrible idea!” I had just had an over exposure to death and I wanted to get back to ordinary reality America as fast as I could, or at least to my illusion of what that meant.
KK You had obviously had a crash course in getting to know death in Vietnam. How do you suggest that shamanic practitioners start to open their awareness to that?
JH There are a lot of ways. One thing that seemed unavoidable to me when I started to practise shamanism was that people began to come to me who were very, very ill. I didn’t feel it was my role to say to them “Hey, man, you are dying!” But at the same time, I had to say to myself that this person may be dying. So that at least I was prepared for that eventuality. One thing is to admit that death is a possibility. In fact, it’s not a possibility ø it’s an inevitability, we just don’t know when! Of course, I do not advise stuffing it down anyone else’s throat, but I have taken to reminding myself and other people that I might die at any moment.
Another way to open to death is to be aware of death around you, from the changing of the seasons to deaths of those around you, and to be together with people who are actively dying. My best friend in Vietnam died about 7 years after I cam home in a car accident. My grandmother had died 2 years before that. Then there was a kind of pause. But when I hit my forties, suddenly someone of my own age died from alcoholism, and then another died by committing suicide, and then someone died in an accident, and then my friend with a brain tumour died. The older you get the better chance you have of someone your own age dying, its all part of living. If you know someone who has a serious disease I would advise spending time around that person, not necessarily trying to heal them, but just to be with them, perhaps as a teacher for you. And who knows, maybe they’ll learn something from you, too. It’s not an easy classroom but it’s somehow very wonderful at the same time. It’s one of those paradoxes. Just before coming here I got an letter from someone who came on a course in June, whose father was very ill. In the letter, he said that his father had just died and he was there with him through his death and that it was a wonderful experience. I don’t think that even 25 years ago you would have heard so many people saying that. I think that the best possible education is to open yourself up to being with a dying person.
The other way is to open by reading some books that deal with death. Joan Halifax, who has been one of my teachers, has a tape set and soon a book called “Being With Dying”. She has been working with dying for over 30 years now. The book that she wrote with Grof called “The Human Encounter with Death” was the first book I read about being with dying. It really opened the door for me. There are a lot of good books to go to, books by Stephen Levine, Carlos Castaneda, Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Dalai Lama, or the classics like Rumi and Shakespeare. The daily newspaper, which I don’t generally recommend, can teach us a lot about death, if we stop to be with what we read, and not just read on. For example, everyday twenty-four thousand people die because of hunger. Today ø right now! Multiply that by three hundred and sixty five. Try to sit quietly and be with that.
But what was most helpful to me was actually looking at the simple reality that we cannot fix everything. I think a lot of people who begin in shamanic practice ø or any kind of healing work - want to fix everything, especially for other people. It’s a very normal place to start. But if you stay there you are missing something because there is more to life than that. We have things that need fixing in ourselves. Some of these things in ourselves can’t even be fixed but they have to be looked at and addressed and accepted.
One of these things is that we are all going to die. It’s amazing, but every now and then I meet someone who tells me that its not necessary to die. They apparently have a need to believe that. They go to great lengths trying not to die. I don’t want to spend my life trying not to die. I want to spend my life living.
KK So being able to be with your own death leads you to a richer ability to be with your own life.
JH Exactly. And the knowledge that our life now won’t go on forever and ever. I have been very lucky in my life. My health is pretty good, so far. For the first 55 years of my life it was very good. Now I have gotten to a place where I have certain aches and pains and some things just don’t work the way they used to. The inclination is to get out and train and try to fix it. And that’s a good idea, but there's a limit to what can be fixed. I have a bum knee. It’s not that bad, and I do what I can to stop it getting worse, but its not the way it was when I was twenty. Accepting that was not easy. We want to be twenty, we want to have that vigour. I don’t want my hair to fall out. But the only way to maintain that vigour until the day we die is to die young. I’m never going to be twenty again, not in this life anyway. But there is more to living that the vigour of a twenty year old, though that, too, can be a beautiful thing to behold
KK Has accepting that changed your shamanic work.
JH It’s changed my outlook on life. And I feel it’s helped me to be more understanding of other people’s issues, be they physical aches and pains, emotional ones, or spiritual ones.
KK What this brings up for me is Castaneda’s stuff about death as an advisor or teacher.
JH I guess so.. though I can’t speak for Carlos, especially now he is no longer in the land of the living, though who knows! I think it has something to do with it. If you try to ignore your death, you certainly can’t use death as an advisor. That part in Journey to Ixtlan where Don Juan tells Carlos, “You don’t have time for such crappy thoughts” is, for me, one of the most joyful passages in English literature. Like many other people I am given to having crappy thoughts. They are my crappy thoughts and they are a waste of time, unless later they teach me something. If you are aware of your own death, Don Juan said it was just over your left shoulder, it follows that the amount of crappy thoughts diminishes, and that leaves room for other things like realising where you are at that very moment.
KK What I hear you talking about is a far deeper appreciation of death as part of life than I hear from many people who talk about shamanic work with death.
JH That is why I changed the name of the course I teach about this from Shamanism Death and Dying to Shamanism, Death and Life. Death is part of life. This isn’t about “pie in the sky,” though that comes later. It was funny because the first time I taught the course with its new title, several people came up to me and said, “I don’t like the new name of the course,” and in some cases they were people who are no strangers to death. But there was one person who was about to celebrate her 80th birthday and she said, “I like the new name of the course.” She celebrated her birthday by inviting a whole bunch of people to decorate her bio-degradable coffin. She is someone who is very aware of her death and is looking forward to it in a healthy way, and wants to celebrate it while she is still around to enjoy it. She also celebrates every breath she takes. But by the end of the course everyone who had complained came up and said the new name was fitting - and good.
I think that the most important thing is to become more and more aware of your own death and to help others to become more aware of their deaths, too. One of the people on this course told me that she just doesn’t want to even think about her own death. You can’t make people do it. When I came back from Vietnam, the last thing I wanted to think about was any body’s death. And still it’s very difficult for me to drive along the highway and see a cat or a dog or a fox who has been mashed by a car, or an accident where it is clear that someone was hurt badly. It’s because we associate death with pain. Incredible pain. And there is no denying that pain either. But there is also the acceptance of it. Joan Halifax, when talking about pain and suffering, says that pain is pain and suffering is the story behind it. There is no denying the pain but there is no need to cling to the suffering, yet at the same time there is no letting go of it until it’s time to let go. Nowadays it’s very modern to say just-let-go as if it were the easiest thing in the world. But if your husband or wife or closest friend or child suddenly dies you can’t “oh-just-let-go-of-it”. There is too much there. You can prepare, in some cases, for a loved one’s death, but if they die in a accident there is no preparation. Even if you have been preparing for your own death, still it takes the time it takes. You can’t sit there clinging to it, and at the same time you can’t push it away before its ready to leave. And perhaps it never, but hopefully transforms into compassion. But for the person who dies, death is letting go of pain.
KK What do you do in your own life when you find yourself in that suffering place?
JH I ask for help. I turn to my spirit teachers and helpers and ask them for help, and also I turn to people I respect in the physical world and ask them for help as well. Because it's more than I have room for in my being - and that is where a lot of the pain is coming from. People say, “I could feel myself bursting from sorrow!” It gives the idea that you just don’t have room enough to contain all of this. So you go to friends and ask them to share the burden of your sorrow. They can’t carry it, but they can walk beside you.
KK That brings us back to where we are at the beginning where people are rarely alone in traditional societies.
JH Yes, and not only are they there for each other, but they also have well developed rituals to help them to come through those times. We have not gone totally away form those rituals in our own time. We do have baptisms and marriages and funerals. And these are times for people to express their joy and their sorrow - whatever is appropriate. I’ve always been delightfully astounded when I have been to a funeral to see how it works so deeply on people. It’s quite wonderful. My mother often remarks when she comes back from a funeral, “It was a lovely funeral,” and then she goes on to tell why. I never understood as a boy. It’s making sense to me now. In Denmark they have a tradition of grav øl or burial beer, which is when the friends get together and drink beer afterwards and talk about the one who died. And in Ireland they have the wake before the funeral with the body right there in the room. What a wonderful and terrible tradition that is, but certainly a cathartic one, and centuries old. There is no denying anything and a lot comes out.
KK Talking about this is strange because it’s very coloured for me by having this cancer scare. And there was a very short period when I really thought it might be cancer. But to have that period when it could have been, suddenly it felt like my life went on hold. I couldn’t breathe. And then I felt I had to take a look at that life.
JH But in a non-ordinary way, you did have cancer at that time. You put your life on hold. The world stopped. This possible diagnosis stopped the world for you and you had to look at your life. And the world didn’t start again until you were told it wasn’t cancer.
KK In a way it was a very freeing experience. And also horrible.
JH So think about the people who are told, “Yes, you do have cancer.” When I was out at Upaya on a week long retreat called Being with Dying, there was a bunch of women from Knoxville, Tennessee who had come together. They work at a center called Shekhinah which is a centre for women with cancer. Everyone who works there either has or has had cancer. It’s a place for women who have cancer to go or to communicate with. A lot of the retreat had to do with really facing death. When they started talking, it was clear to hear, and see, that they were very special people. When you have been living with death not just over your left shoulder but right by your nose it changes you.
My spirits started me off by preparing me in a very funny way. There was a woman on one of the first workshops I ever went to who was missing a hand. Most people tend not to look at people who don’t have a hand or whatever. My spirits told me to go up there and talk to her and ask her what happened to her hand. It was a difficult assignment, but I did it. She said, “I’m so glad that you came up and asked me. I’ve never had one.” She was born without one of her hands. She went on to say that she had just made a journey to ask why she didn’t have a hand. It was a little more than a co-incidence for us both. So after that I noticed that this kind of thing didn’t upset me any more. And so when I went home and I saw a friend of mine sitting in a wheelchair, with all his hair missing, I wasn’t afraid to go up to him and ask what was wrong. It turned out he had a brain tumour and had been told he had two weeks to live. When he found I was doing shamanic work he said, “Oh I have just been saying I need a shaman to help me. Will you help me?” We did some work together and he lived for a little but more than half a year. And that gave him time to face his death and to do the things he wanted to do before he died, so he didn’t leave with a feeling of incompleteness. So this is another thing that I think Western practitioners of shamanism can do is to help those who are dying to look at what they want to do. And they usually say I want to live. And then I say what do you want to do with your life right now, what do you want to do today and tomorrow? And maybe they have never had the chance or taken the chance to look at life like that. And that is a great gift.
I heard a wonderful story from some friends about a man they met on their travels. He was a young man in his early thirties. When he was 25 he went to the doctor who said it was cancer and sent him to a cancer specialist. The specialist said he was very close to death and advised no treatment at all. This is like the death sentence. This is it. Well apparently this guy had a lot of life spirit so he said, “If that is how it is am going to do what I want to do. I want to surf.” So he sold his house and car, quit his job and went to Baja California where they have great surf and lived on the beach as a beach bum. Time went by and the pain disappeared and he didn’t pay too much attention because, hey, the surf was up. That was seven years before my friends met him. Doing what he wanted to do with his life.
I am not saying that we should all be beach bums, but we should figure out what we want to do and do it as much as possible. In the first chapter of the book by Stephen Levine “A Year to Live” he invites the reader to imagine that they have gotten the death sentence from the doctor. You have a year to live. What are you going to do with your life? He goes on to point out that, in fact, you don’t have to pretend that you are getting the death sentence: you do not know if you are going to be alive in one year, or even tomorrow.
KK It’s a world away from something I have met sometimes - the people who think that working with death is glamorous and dangerous.
JH Soul-carrying or soul-conducting is very moving work both for the dead person and also for those left behind, and the one doing the work. Going to the “Land of the Dead” is neither glamorous nor dangerous if you follow the instructions you’ve been given. I’ve had some incredible experiences doing it, and I also have seen how much it has meant for those left behind. But it’s sort of like the icing on the cake. It’s deep, and it’s powerful, but for me, it’s not the deep work. It’s important work, but for me the real work is about life. The deep work starts with yourself, and then it goes on to the one who is actively dying, the one whose organs have stopped functioning, the one who is looking into the eyes of Death . That’s the hard work for me, the hard work of being with the dying person who does not want to die, and it continues with the people left behind, who feel maybe they don’t want to live anymore because someone has died. My experience has been that the spirits take good care of the souls who come to them. It’s harder for the those left behind. Glamorous and dangerous? No. Overwhelming? Most certainly. And all of this work around death is amazingly rewarding. It changes you, and brings you closer to life. The psychopomp journey is sort of the reward for doing the hard work, the painful work. It’s like the swim at the end of a good, hard, hot day’s work.
Originally printed in Karen Kelly’s core shamanic newsletter “Spirit Talk” issue 15, november 2001.
Many thanks to Karen Kelly and SPIRIT TALK for permission to post this interview.
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