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Returning to the Source:
Because I worked in the hospice movement for almost two decades providing spiritual, physical, and emotional care to those in the dying-rebirthing process, I saw a relationship between my work and that of the initiates of the Greater Mysteries that they experienced at Eleusis in Greece. This is a reflection of inner contemplation on the circular cycles of the soul through these mysterious and mystical circles of truth and that of the life and death-rebirth process. I believe that the Greater Mysteries reflected and presented such an inward challenge to the initiates and those today who are in the dying-rebirth process. Intermittently throughout I give examples of some of the people I have worked with in hospice to further illustrate my understanding of the relationship between the two. (All the names of individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.)
When considering this premise, I was reminded of a funeral of a friend and of how the initiates might understand the Great Mother of Life and the Great Mother of Death-Rebirth as one in the same deity. This journey therefore, begins with my journal reflection of my friend Jann’s soul transition to unite with the Greater Soul of the Divine or Great Spirit in the Native American tradition, especially that of the Northern Native Americans in New Mexico.
I knew Jann for almost twenty years, for she was the mother of a good friend of mine. She was from San Juan Pueblo and had married a man from Taos Pueblo. The first meeting we had together was at Taos Pueblo. At our meeting, Jann, her daughter and I attended a special reception and dinner for outstanding women in the community of which Jann was one. She was a remarkable woman, well educated with a college degree and spoke of the importance of Native Americans receiving an education. She discussed with me of women’s rights, Native rights, the political climate in New Mexico at the time, and abortion among other things. I remember thinking what a wonderful woman she was. I spoke with her and saw her many times over the years and then she was diagnosed with cancer. She received chemotherapy, physical therapy, and continued to run her shop, which was an outlet for native people’s art on the Pueblo. It looked for a while that she would be in total remission from the cancer, but that turned out not be the case. The cancer returned and for the last three months of her life she suffered physically and then finally, peacefully, made her passage.
After Jann’s death there was a funeral mass at the Christian Church on San Juan Pueblo. This was very different than any funeral mass I had ever attended. The church was filled with all the members of San Juan Pueblo and every relative from Taos Pueblo. All of them had come to celebrate her passage. The local Christian priest conducted the mass, but there were also holy men and women who performed varied and scared native rituals, songs, and prayers. Because of the language difference, I was unable to understand what they were saying, yet, it left me with a reference for Jann’s spirit.
After the mass, Jann’s sons and husband carried her body, not in a box, but her body, which was covered with colorful scared shawls, flowers and different herbs, to the sacred Pueblo burial grounds. This touched me deeply because I think when we put someone in a box, we tend to forget that we are indeed part of the earth, and made of the same elements and matter that the earth is. Here more prayers, songs, and sacred rituals were performed. Then her body was placed in the ground after which people, first her family, were asked by the shaman to say good wishes for her journey. The shaman then asked everyone not to be in sorrow because now she was with the Spirits and any sorrow or ill thoughts would hinder her journey, for her spirit would want to stay with the living otherwise. Each person then took a handful of dirt, lifted it to their lips, kissing it, and said a prayer for her sacred journey. This whole process was wonderful, for it not only said that one’s soul lifted unto the Great Spirit who awaits our arrival, but that one will go on to help the community and the cosmos upon death and be reborn into another existence.
After her burial everyone first went to her uncle’s house. Here, in the living room, were many chairs and people praying in a quiet atmosphere full of reverence and thanksgiving. At all times present was a holy man or woman praying. He or she had been praying and singing sacred songs and chants for Jann since they had heard she was in the dying process. Once in the house, one would sit in a chair and pray in whatever way they felt comfortable for her safe passage to the Great Spirit and give thanks for her life and contributions to the tribe during life and for the coming contributions in rebirth through death. Such praying could last one-half an hour to all day or even go into the night. After praying, people went across the street to another relative’s house. The Pueblo women had been cooking the entire previous day all of Jann’s favorite foods to celebrate her life and rebirth. The house was filled with the delicious smells of posolé, home made bread, chili, tortillas, cakes and cookies. We were served with the greatest respect and honor. I could not help but feel her presence within the room, which was filled with joy and love.
Here is the Pueblo Prayer that was enclose with a card we received at the funeral, it also contained a beautiful picture of her.
This celebration of the death-rebirth process is totally different from the traditional Western religious concept of death. Here death was seen more as a continuation on a path to God, the Great Spirit. People were full of joy for her journey and at times, even appeared happy. Everyone present understood that Jann was going to unite with the Spirits and would be a representative of the tribe. Even though some only knew her briefly or very little at all, they still knew that she was their representative and would now work for the Spirit in different ways, maybe even as a cloud bringing rain to their crops. It was all seen as circular, as moving and generating harmony and peace for the tribe.
In Western society, we tend to look at death from a distance if at all. We all know that death is inevitable, yet we tend to act as if we were immortal beings, living but never dying. Otto Rank’s insightful observation stressed, “humanity’s perpetual need for assurance of eternal survival for his self”. (Feifel) Such an insightful observation expresses Western humanity’s fear of the unknown (death) and its continual love affaire with life.
We are afraid to look at transcending death or going to another level of existence, of rebirth, as Jann and the Pueblo people did. We want to live on through our children, or if we have no children, then through our work to perpetuate ourselves as immortal. Even science has made great strides and effort in research to elongate the life span of the individual in society, “every effort is a point to be made by materialistically inclined medical science to postpone, and thereby to interfere with, the death process”. (Lee) Greater public awareness and pressure is also helping to bring better food with less or no pesticides to our tables and grocery stores with organic products. The list could go on and on with ways that we have attempted to postpone death and perpetuate life. Because of society’s continuous shelving of death, society and the individual has become more and more fearful of the inevitable. We have become a society that sees death as evil and something to fear, “rather than a rite of passage between two dimensions in the sense that the Egyptians imagine it”. (Baring)
Our sense of immortality is perpetuated by the religious traditions of today’s Western society. The accepted religious presumption that a soul will be judged as good or evil after death, to be in heaven or hell for all eternity, brings more fear into the individual’s and society’s inner-self and psyche. Even though many great religious teaching and teachers attempt to help us see otherwise, God was made an enemy of death.
We have sentenced our elderly and eliminated them from everyday life situations hiding them away in homes for the aged, convalescent homes, or they are left alone at home to ponder their fear by themselves. Because of this concept, they contemplate a meaningless life, one of waiting for death to “come for them” and to snatch life and their loved ones away, leaving them instilled with a sense of deep seated fear of the unknown. Their lives are seen as less valuable and unimportant and,
Many times I have gone to just be a companion and physical assistant to an elderly person so that they did not have to be alone. Often times, they would express their loneliness and talk about how their family had abandoned them, or discuss their poor financial situation, among other things, but inevitably they would also speak about their fears of death and after-life.
One woman that I visited was often in a semi-comatose state, although she would “come out” from time to time and could have a normal conversation. She was so instilled with fear, so terrified of dying, and what would happen after her physical reality was no longer, that during the last hours of her life she refused to lay down, but instead held onto the railings of the hospital bed in sheer total fear of the inevitable—as if in a last attempt to hold onto life. When here body made it entirely impossible for her to hold on to the railings, she laid down and finally let go and was in complete peace before she died. In the end the “mystery” of it all took over, and in the end no one could help her because she had such deep fear of her ultimate enemy—death.
Most people today in the West have never seen a death or been part of the death/change process, much less even thought about their own and the process of change or rebirth. Therefore, death has become so alienated from us and such a mystery to us in our society that we now have courses, books, lectures, and even celebrities and gurus to tell us how, when, where, and what will happen to us in the death/change process. One can surmise that death thus has become part of a dualist perspective with that of life. This premise is ingrained in our psyches because of the patriarchal perspective, one that is fearful of the ultimate mysteries of birth, life, death, and rebirth. “Instead of giving to the other or being part of the other, i.e., death as part of life or life as part of death, they exist in total conflict with each other.” (Lee)
One can also speculate that fear of the Goddess traditions by the patriarchal structure, and the onset of the Sky God as “Other”, i.e., one who is not part of and contained within all things—as a tradition that brings apprehension and trepidation to those in society. This fear of the mystery of death-rebirth in turn leads to fear of each other and all that is sacred. It perpetuates the good/evil syndrome that is so prevalent in society today, not just in churches, but government, schools, business; in other words, our society is immersed in the dualism of good and evil today.
Only those who have been able to go beyond such reality are considered almost above and beyond everyday “normal” experiences of such dualism. These individuals are often considered highly spiritual and considered to have a deeper understanding of the Ultimate realms of truth and the dualistic nature of good and evil, thus surpassing such dualism whenever possible. Yet, those who are not considered highly spiritual but have religious experiences are often deemed as invalid and are usually suspected as having illusions, hallucinations, dreams, or reactions to high stress situations, or worst of all, the person is considered to have a severe mental illness—rather than a spiritual emergence or spiritual emergency.
During the last weeks of his life, Bill had many visions and often saw bright light surrounding his bed or the room he was in. His visions were of loved ones, others who had gone before him, and of what he called angels. Bill felt that all of them had come to talk to him about his life and his transition. He was a world famous architect who had during his lifetime a reputation for being offensive, indignant, ungrateful, and disrespectful towards others, which left him without friendships or anyone close to him. At first his attitude made it very difficult for me to work with him, that is, until he saw the visions of light and these “beings” that spoke to him. When the angels came to speak to him, he completely changed and became one of the most loving men I have ever met. Yet, if he had been in hospital or a convalescent home for the elderly, he most likely would have been diagnosed as mentally ill. Bill’s experience changed his view of life and how he envisioned after-life to be. Those last few weeks were for him, the most peaceful, loving and gratifying in his life. He was so full of love and gratitude and acceptance of his rebirthing process that he was about to go through, that he exclaimed, “I can’t wait to see what was in store for me next!”
Sally, who was in her late eighties and completely enmeshed in Christianity, also heard voices and saw visions. She, on the other hand, had seen them as emissaries of Jesus who, “is waiting for me to take me to God and the Promised Land”. She was not so much afraid of dying, but of the judgment that was awaiting her at her death. Her large extended family were also devout Christians who sat with her day and night and prayed the rosary with here until her death.
Both of these individuals were very fortunate to have people around them who supported and believed in their journey and the manifestations they experienced in their visions. Both had been brought up in the Judaic-Christian tradition with the fear of good and evil, yet because of their visions and experiences with the Light, their deaths were more acceptable to and for them. Sally still had some fears, yet she felt that she had been a good Christian woman who raised her children in the ways that the church had established and believed strongly that she would be accepted into heaven.
In Western religious belief systems one experiences religion through different symbolic expression, deliberate affirmation—i.e., intention, myth, story, and ritual. Yet, these ways of experiencing religion do not usually change and are not considered, for most, as part of their secular lives. Yet for most ancient Greeks, except those who experienced the Greater Mysteries, religion was experienced differently:
Those Greeks who participated in the Greater Mysteries, just as my Pueblo friends, envisioned everything as part of an extended circular continuance that was/is highly spiritual in nature. This is demonstrated in their belief structure with the agricultural and vegetation cycles of birth, life, death, and then again onto/into new life, thus giving society and the participants concrete physical evidence and insight into the fact that spiritual renewal in the world of nature was also a possibility for them. Through their identification with nature and, “through identification with the divine spirit that controls these phenomena, the devotee is enabled to share a risen life”. (Smart) Through symbol, myth, ritual, story, and intention, the initiate affirms the understanding that they are all part of the whole, the ultimate reality, the Great Spirit, or the One and becomes part of the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth. Here one begins to open up to the possibilities that life and death are truly one phenomena. They are somehow linked together in an incredible mystical mystery which is beyond our normal comprehension, yet acceptable in and through our own experiences of life, as Aristotle, “emphasized that the initiate does not learn (mathein) something but is made to experience (pathein) the Mysteries and change his or her state of mind”. (Foley) Khan considers such mystery as leading one to a greater understanding of self and into the infinite beyond afterlife:
I, myself, had a near-death experience (NDE) on September 21, 1986, which completely altered my perception of the beyond, death, and rebirth. In the pagan religion, this is considered a Holy Day, and joined with the fact that I was bitten three times by a black widow spider and died three times; it was also an initiation for me into the mysteries of death-rebirth. Without going into all the details, I experienced a keen awareness of Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, or the One. For me, life and death are no longer separate, but are circular and genuinely are experienced by me as one phenomenon. In my experience, I was on the ‘other side’, yet still on ‘this side’ of reality-life, death-rebirth—at the same time. I was connected with and because of a ‘silver cord’ above and out of my body, and although I had more of an intellectual knowledge of the pain in my body, I did not feel it. From this experience I truly have a different outlook on life and death, one that helps me to look with more compassion and understanding, one that I envision that was like one the initiates at Eleusis might have brought with them after their experience into the Greater Mysteries which helped them to see life, death, and rebirth in a thoroughly different perspective. Khan takes us further into the understanding of the Greater Mysteries and the insights gained, “. . . once the sight has become keen, there is no further instruction needed. One gets insight into the hidden laws of nature, all things seem to speak to the seer of their character, nature and secret. This realization removes the boundary between life and death”. (Khan)
A similar outlook was demonstrated to me during the first years of my practice. I assisted Tommy, an eight-year-old boy, who was dying of leukemia. He went through many changes during the last year of his life and his friends had all but disappeared because his illness made it difficult for him to play any more. He was confined to bed most of the time and had to rely on others for most of his physical needs. During this time he thought a lot about life and death. He told me one day that he had decided he was ready to die because he felt things would be better in the next life and that he would like to come back sometime and help out others if he could. He believed in the premise of good and evil, but for some reason he had not considered that he would be judged upon his death—only that it would be better than how he was experiencing life as it was for him.
This phenomenon can be expressed in the following graphic:
This graphic represents vegetation and its movements through the birth, life, death, and rebirth cycles of existence, yet it could also easily represent the cycles of the soul through such movements of change from one truth to the next. As vegetation, it also represents the biological association with the Greater Mother’s womb who gives birth to all and receives us back upon death where we return to the Source of divine actuality. Estes speaks of this mystery when she discusses how women are associated with death and the inner process we all must go through as women:
Young also speaks to this proposal and adds that women were often thought of as free from death:
The graphic can also be understood as representing death as not an ending, but rather as circular where a new beginning of existence is always taking place, similar to the one that is significantly expressed in the Pueblo prayer after Jann’s death. It exemplifies the interplay between death and life, that change (or rebirth) is what is truly happening, rather than either death or life:
In this view, both are important to and exist because of each other for there is no dualism, life/death are not seen as opposites conflicting or in disharmony with each other, but rather as giving value, affirmation, quality, and worth, eradicating the twofold perspective. It also can assist one with the annihilation of good and evil, at least as far as death and life are concerned.
One can further speculate on why the initiates would envision greater prospects in life and in death as well. “Reliable ancient testimony tells us that the Mysteries guaranteed a better life and a different and probably better fate after death”. (Foley) This premise also gives greater understanding to why the initiated considered those who were un-initiated as less fortunate and whom the envisioned as suffering in and because of both life and death. “The mysteries were held to remove the fear of death and to give assurance of the survival of the departed. Those who had been initiated were believed to be happy after death, while others led a dismal life hereafter, clinging to their graves.” (Khan)
One might even presume that the initiates were similar, after initiation, to the Egyptians who were filled with high expectations, trust, and confidence with their inquiry and conception of death. Their religious beliefs assumed a better, more altruistic and benevolent perspective on death. “Egyptians were not filled with terror and despair at the prospect of death, but with the hope that they might enter the fields of paradise.” (Baring) This field of paradise is reminiscent of the one that both Tommy and Sally spoke about, one where their journey would be safe and be a better existence than the life they were living in the present.
Here Kerenyi’s understanding of the initiate experience of birth through death is given deeper understanding and can be readily conceived as a substantial hypothesis for the initiates during their initiation process. Kerenyi submits the prospect that
During my own NDE, which was spoken of previously, I experienced a great blazing Light, one that is more intense and brighter than that of the sun. Although I did not experience it as heat, it was completely engulfing, a supernatural infernal that changed my existence forever. Bill and Sally, who were not familiar with NDE’s, but at their own time of death, also experienced it. I have also seen, many times, great Light emanating from people just before and after their death. Along with this experience of Light often is the smell of roses or the sound of music. This phenomena is not present as often before or after most deaths and there is no way of knowing when and if any of this will happen.
One woman who I was caring for was dying and I went to fetch her husband, who was a highly educated and famous author. When he came into the room he saw the Light and heard a certain jazz piece that was a favorite of his wife. After looking around the room for a radio or some way in which the music could be heard (there was none), and looking for the origin of the light, he attempted to confirm with me if what he was experiencing was reality, or something he was experiencing because of his grief. Of course I couldn’t say what type of reality it was, but I did confirm with him the existence of the music and the Light, for I also saw and heard it. This was wonderful for him because it left him with less fear of death and he was able to ‘let go’ of his wife in a more compassionate, loving way.
This experience of fire or the great Light is an experience of one’s inward, internal awareness arising to an ultimate sense of the supernatural, metaphysical, and miraculous understand of the Ultimate, the Divine, the Absolute, or in the case of the initiates, the Goddess Reality. In other words, they experienced a new kind of consciousness, a new and different way of being and perceiving that was dramatically different from their ordinary consciousness in which the initiated could recognize, with insight, a distinctly new perspective on life and death. The “darkness” of their lives had now become their “light” in such brilliance that it changed their view of reality and afterlife, “the paradox is that the light is the darkness, and the darkness is the light”. (Stace) This phenomenon is intensely and deeply felt and, “is accompanied by a feeling of deep peace or a certainty that the soul is immortal, or a comprehension of a supernatural kind”. (Elaide)
This light was blinding, completely engulfing and was perceived as Divinely consummating a supernatural infernal that shone into the depths of their total existence. Through and because of this incredible experience they transcended their ordinary understanding of death.
Eliade goes on further to give more of a deeper understanding of Light that is present in all things, although he is specifically speaking of human beings, he is discussing the Shekina or the divine light.
This to many of us today would be described as a spiritual emergence or even to some as a mystical experience. One in which perceptions are changed, and death is viewed as an immortal reality. This is quite remarkable for it did not just happen to one individual, but on the contrary, happened to many people. One could presumably conceive that this process, through the initiatory ritual, as
This altered state of consciousness was most likely brought about by the fact that they fasted and participated in special sacrifices for nine days before drinking the sacred Kykeon, for, “anyone wishing to be initiated at Eleusis had to drink it”. (Kereni.40) In addition, the initiates participated in long periods of dancing and walked miles after and during their nine days of fasting. Foley also implies that sometime during these liminal experiences, i.e., of being betwixt and between—alive yet not death—dead yet not alive—the initiates may have engaged in contemplation of the divine.
Such contemplation or other different methods such as meditation, mantra, concentration, or different breathing practices can bring one to an altered state of consciousness, which often leads to a sense of peace and blessedness. These are often considered trance-like states or can lead to trance-like states and altered states of consciousness, but the same type of state can be accomplished by almost anyone.
Trance allows one to go beyond the reality of our everyday experience and into another dimension of understanding, one that allows us to use our senses in different ways and be open to the higher realms of another reality. It can bring about a transition, a transcendence of our understanding of death and rebirth and our sense of immortality. It can give one a new understanding of unity and goes beyond our understanding of death for it is, “so intense that in it time and death disappear”. (Feifel)
Such transcendence appears to have been felt by the initiates and they faced death through and because of their transcendental state believing that they would have a better life and afterlife because of it.
The Greater Mysteries, as a religion, gave them a new kind of awareness and enlightenment that was manifested in their experience and everyday lives.
One can understand why the Greater Mysteries were so powerful for the initiates when one looks at the image of death in early Greece.
After their experience, the initiates were changed forever and began to see the possibility of their spiritual renewal, the possibility of death and rebirth without fear, much like that of Bill and Tommy. They could also begin to understand that death and life are part of one reality and begin to consider their souls as a true transition from birth to birth to rebirth to rebirth, thus eliminating the fear of death. Because they had experienced the world of the Spirit, the Divine Presence, the Great Mother Goddess—they had an enlightened comprehension of the supernatural in all its realities. They now knew, through their ritual experiences, that one does indeed suffer, but in the end, a sense of renewal, joy, and blessings are the outcome.
If more people in Western society experienced such rituals as they did in the Eleusinian Mysteries, then there is a possibility that they would not have such deep seeded fears of death and the rebirthing process. Through the experience of the Divine and seeing themselves as Divine beings, they may even come to an understanding that we all are Divine beings. For new seeds of hope, love, and compassion can be planted in anyone’s heart. Thus leading to greater love, compassion, and understanding in the world towards all of existence through a greater understand of rebirth.
I would like to leave you with a poem written by an initiate in the Sufi tradition and a quote from Inayat Khan. The poem of death expresses the understanding of rebirth and the accepted belief of the Native Americans that were discussed at the beginning.
Last updated 17 February 2014
| © Copyright 2011 Jauhara Care