For part 1 of this series we explored the ancient traditions of Halloween and how recalling them can help us to gain a holistic and balanced relationship with death in our lives, while part 2 explored some practical techniques for achieving this. For this part, we will look at specific ways for dealing with death in your life.
Birth and Death
The ancient British Samhain, from which Halloween is derived, falls on the day directly in between the September Equinox and the December Solstice. On this day in the Northern Hemisphere, the balance of light and darkness in the hours of sunlight in the day begins to tip significantly more towards darkness, and many traditional societies of this region celebrated it as the first day of winter. Part 1 of this series coincided with this celebration, a time when many contemplate death as part of the cycle of life, and honour those who had gone before. Though “Halloween” has come to be interpreted differently in many modern English-speaking societies, this practice is still common in other festivals around the world, such as the Japanese “Obon” (3) or Mexican “Dia de los Muertos” (4).
Now we have come around from the ancestor-honouring roots of Halloween, past the next so-called “quarter-day” of ancient solar calendars; the time in between the December Solstice and the March Equinox, when the balance of light and darkness begins to tip once more. This time (around February 2nd) in the ancient culture of the British Isles is known as ‘Imbolc’, the beginning of spring, and is associated with planting seeds and new life.
This article is about relationships to death so it may seem strange to begin by discussing birth; however, we can see that birth is the counterpart to death and in recognising them as part of the same process we can perhaps more easily connect ourselves to the continuous process of birth and death which is our global ecosystem. As philosopher Alan Watts said,
“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.” (7)
We can take these symbols to inspire us, wherever we live in the world, to use this time not only for literally planting seeds but for honouring those parts of our lives to which we are ‘giving birth’; whether it is new plans or projects, or simply new parts of ourselves.
Letting go Through Sorrow
Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison was inspired by traditional societies (6) and, as we looked at in part 2, when dealing with death we can also take inspiration from some of these, such as with the Tibetan Buddhist practice of guiding dying souls through the intermediary world or ‘bardo’; which has been translated into contemporary language and settings by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner. Exploring the techniques outlined in their book (based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) can be a very effective way to accept your own death and to practice letting go of your own idea of self in order to prepare for it (for more on this see part 2).
Practising letting go of attachment to your own body is one thing; but what about when loved ones around us pass on? The death of someone we love is a time of rawness and emotion; however, as many writers have explored, the expression of authentic raw emotion is not necessarily accepted in modern society.
Ecopsychotherapist Francis Weller explores this idea further. He says that, of all human emotions, the one which is most repressed in modern society, (especially in his birth-culture of the USA), is that of grief:
“Grief is subversive, undermining our society’s quiet agreement that we will behave and be in control of our emotions” (7).
Grief can be a natural expression of loss and pain, which can take us to the depths of ourselves. To Weller (7) and others (see for example 8), reaching those depths is a key part of maintaining a holistic and balanced psyche: only by opening those parts of ourselves which connect to sadness can we connect to true joy; and beyond.
“We are remade in times of grief, broken apart and reassembled…It finds us and reminds us of this temporary gift we have been given, these few sweet breaths we call life.” (7)
Grief in an Age of Death
According to some studies, over 500 plant species have become extinct in the past 300 years as a direct result of human activity (9). Between 3.5 billion and 7 billion trees are cut down every year, mainly for land clearing for agriculture (10). The resultant loss of habitat represents death to untold numbers of creatures. Meanwhile, humans continue to fight and kill one another in many places. If grief is indeed an essential part of accepting death in order to continue life, then the grief for all of these deaths should be being expressed on a daily basis. But one of the things we seem to have lost in many modern societies is our connection to the lives of other people and beings (7, 11).
Regaining this connection is part of Weller’s (and my own) work. If we can find ways to not only know intellectually, but to actually feel these connections; to remember that all living beings are alive in the same way as ourselves and to honour that living, breathing web of the ecosystem of which we are a part, we can perhaps as Weller says be a part of “restoring the “Soul of the World” (7). This is not necessarily a spiritual idea. By “reanimating” the landscape around us we can understand how we as humans, on a community and personal level, are affecting the world, and only from there can we begin to move towards more balanced and respectful relationships than the ones which exist currently.
Holding Pain and Sorrow
Connecting to deep currents of grief within us and expressing them can be long and painful. It may also be confusing to find that we are holding grief within ourselves which is not directly related to loss in our personal lives, but is our body’s reaction to the loss of living beings in the wider ecosystem.
The importance of regularly coming together in community and expressing pain and sorrow, as well as ecstasy and other emotions, in a safely held space, is something which seems to be recognised implicitly by many traditional societies (5, 9) and which is slowly being reintegrated now by many practitioners.
Weller holds “grief rituals” where participants can express their grief, both individual and shared, within a setting where they do not have any other commitments, and with a facilitator to “hold space” so that they feel comfortable expressing their deeper selves. As with Mollison, and with Leary, Alpert and Metzner, Weller is also inspired by traditional societies, such as the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert, who regularly hold healing rituals “to care for the needs of the people” (7), or the Navajo of what is now called North America, who see healing as “a ritual of restoring balance, a return to beauty…It is through beauty that all relations are maintained, and it is when beauty is lost or forgotten that someone gets ill.” (7)
Taking Steps Towards Understanding
Rituals of renewal can help us to remember that death is a part of life, and to accept and feel the grief that comes with any loss, in order to more deeply understand ourselves and our own lives.
Having an understanding person or group of people would be the key to successfully achieving this, through a so-called “empathic holding environment” (8). Through community we can find freedom; if we do not have such a holding environment it is perhaps safer to wait until we do, rather than risk being misunderstood.
One way to slowly begin encouraging such understanding is through holding of community events such as the “Death Cafes” (12) spoken of in part 2. Speaking about these issues may well be the first step towards becoming wiling to participate in such a committed activity as a grief ritual or similar practice.
Connecting to the Ecosystem Beyond Death
This article explores some ways in which we can express the emotions associated with the deaths of others in a safe and healthy way.
In finding community connections with other humans who are willing to witness and hold space for our grief and other emotions, we can also regain those connections to the other living beings within our ecosystem which we perhaps forgot we were a part of, and thus connect to the ever-evolving cycles of birth, decay, death, and regeneration which make up this existence.
We can also consider how we can physically participate in such cycles, even beyond our own death. The next and final part of this article series will look at some ways in which we can achieve this.
- Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Death part 1: A Reflection on Natural Cycles’. Permaculture News, 4/11/19. https://pridev1.wpengine.com/2019/11/04/permaculture-and-death-part-1-halloween-and-permaculture/ – retrieved 15/2/20
2. Ashwanden, C, 2020. ‘Permaculture and Death part 2: Holistic Practices for Dealing with Death and Dying’. Permaculture News, 3/1/20. https://pridev1.wpengine.com/2020/01/03/permaculture-and-death-part-2-death-cafe/ – retrieved 15/2/20
3.Shingon International Buuddhist Institute, 2020. “What is Obon?” http://www.shingon.org/library/archive/Obon.html – retrieved 15/2/20
4. Cordova, R, 2014. “Day of the Dead History: Ritual Dates back 3000 years and is still evolving”. AZ Network, 24/9/14. https://www.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/holidays/day-of-the-dead/2014/09/24/day-of-the-dead-history/16174911/ – retrieved 15/2/20
9. Carrington, D, 2019. ‘‘Frightening’ number of plant extinctions found in global survey’. Guardian, 10/6/19. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/10/frightening-number-of-plant-extinctions-found-in-global-survey – retrieved 15/2/20
10. Rainforest Alliance Network, 2020. “How Many Trees Are Cut Down Every Year?” https://www.ran.org/the-understory/how_many_trees_are_cut_down_every_year/ – retrieved 15/2/20
12. Death Cafe, 2019. ‘What is Death Cafe?’ https://deathcafe.com/what – retrieved 15/2/20