Samhain: Feast of the Dead

Tonight is the Pagan festival of Samhain, more commonly celebrated as Halloween. At Samhain Pagans celebrate our ancestors & beloved dead. It also offers an opportunity to meditate on our mortality, a fundamental aspect of embodiment which arguably makes life worth living. We work hard to keep thoughts of death out of our minds and the care of the dead – once a final act of love – is now professionalized.

As usual, people dressed up as ghosts and ghouls roam my local high street. But there’s an edge to the celebrations this year as the reality of death feels closer. I suspect the glowing plastic skulls and scary/comic make-up are an attempt to manage our anxiety about the last taboo – death. I wonder what Heidegger would make of it all? He urged us to acknowledge death to avoid the fall into a meaningless life (Heidegger, 1962).

A couple of years ago I was wandering along Brighton beach just before Samhain. Thoughts of death were with me then, as now: I remembered some of my own beloved dead and pondered my mortality. As if in reply, I came across a swathe of feathers, strewn like a shroud on the stony beach.

This is all that remains of some seabird, probably killed by a predator not long before. I sat on the stones and watched as the feathers blew away in the wind, one by one

The moment of now

Many years ago I saw a talk by the American photographer Duane Michals. Michals rarely works with a single image, preferring to create short sequences of pictures that question our conventional understanding of reality. Michals created a characteristically intense moment in his presentation when he repeated one word about seven times in a way that emphasized its essence: Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now!

For those few seconds I was entirely in the moment. It was an unforgettable experience. All this was long before Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, but they highlight the same mode of consciousness.

The Illuminated Man, Duane Michals

I work with that moment of now every morning during my meditation practice. Some days I can truly be in the now for a while – really being with my breath – and it’s an extraordinary experience. There is a timeless calm. But the ‘monkey mind’ doesn’t sit still for long and in the next moment there’s some commentary running again.

I’ve found it very helpful to approach watching my breath with the same attitude of attention as I adopt with a psychotherapy client. When I’m with a client I work to be completely present. What is happening right here right now? If I can be with my breath that way, then I become present to myself, to this moment, to now.

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

But sometimes I get caught up in the striving. After my meditation I’ll judge my practice: How much of the time was I present? How persistent was my monkey mind? I might conclude that ‘Today was better/worse than yesterday.’

John Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). Just such a moment came today, in the midst of an otherwise quite ordinary Wednesday, and it made me realize that meditation isn’t about achieving something – less monkey mind or more ‘timeless calm’. It’s the practice that matters, not the result. Moment-to-moment awareness – being in the now – emerges slowly from practice. The realization that now is all there is comes like a strangers smile, unbidden and unexpected.

Liminal space

I found myself at my sit spot at dusk yesterday evening. The sun had already pretty much set; the sky was a deep, almost purple, blue and the Park was slowly sliding into shadow.

A few birds were still singing when I first arrived. As time passed, a few became two and then fell to a single song high in the tree opposite. It was a complex and beautiful song. Perhaps birdsong always is like that but becomes revealed when framed by silence. And then the song stopped.

That silence felt powerful, but I couldn’t work out why. Was the end of the song a metaphor for the end of the Summer or even of death? Both have been in my consciousness recently. Somehow I knew it wasn’t simply a resonant metaphor, but I still couldn’t understand why that place at that moment felt so significant.

I was back there at dusk today and again heard the last bird song. This time I got it; it was a moment of transition that a created a liminal space.

Cave mouths and mountain tops are liminal spaces, as is the seashore, especially where the waves claim the land and then recede. The Celts call them ‘thin places’, places where boundaries meet. Permaculture emphasises the importance of places where two eco-systems meet. Such boundaries,which it calls ‘edges’ are especially abundant and diverse.

Liminal space emerges from time too. The Pagan wheel of the year is marked by festivals that celebrate liminal moments: Samhain, Winter Solstice and Beltane to name a few. What is it about liminal space that is so powerful? That question remains vitally alive: Although Victor Turner discussed the role of the the liminal in ritual he didn’t explain it. I have a feeling it’s related to the uncanny, but that simply makes it all the more mysterious!

Imbolc: The Pulse of the Seasons

February 2nd is the Pagan festival of Imbolc, and to celebrate I went for a long walk in the countryside. Imbolc is the time of ‘the quickening of the year’ when the first signs of the coming Spring appear, & many Pagans honour Brigid, the great Celtic Mother Goddess. Some Pagans are quite particular about the date that they celebrate the festivals, but many, including me, go with the day that feels right. It was UK Shaman Gordon MacLellan that really got me thinking about this. Rather than following the traditional dates of the Pagan Wheel of the Year, Gordon senses the “changing pulse” of the seasons (Harris, 2008). Gordon seems to be using a “bodily sensed knowledge” which Gendlin calls a “felt sense” (Gendlin, 1981) and it’s that same felt sense of change that guides me to the time to celebrate.

I’ve done this same walk at various times of the year, but this particular Imbolc there was something in the woods and fields that felt particularly powerful. I was walking across a barren muddy field patterned with the stubble of dead stalks. A cold wind was blowing and the Sun sat low in the sky.

Trees at dawn

Suddenly I felt a tingling as a wave of energy flowed up my body from the land. As I looked at the dark earth, I had a mental image of the virile stems of the growing crop I’d seen in that very spot last Summer. In fact it was much more than an mental image; it was a powerful felt sense of the fecundity of the land. The fullness of the ripe crop in Summer and the dark quietude of the sleeping land in Winter were simultaneously present the quickening of Imbolc : it was if I could sense the whole cycle of the seasons in one moment.