The following is from Illumination by Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., a psychologist and medical anthropologist. Villoldo has studied the healing practices of the Amazon and Inka shamans for more than 25 years. I really like this book. It is packed with wisdom. Here are excerpts from Chapter 4, “Archetypal Death and the Great Awakening.”
The Shaman understands that identifying with the observer, rather than with the emotions, is the key to freedom. The primal fear all adult humans share is the fear of death, which represents the end of the only reality we’re aware of. Perhaps it is the awareness of our death, and not the opposable thumb, that makes us distinctly human, for no other creature is aware of its own demise.
The Sudden Awakening
The great awakening occurs swiftly. . . . This awakening must be followed with the great departure and a journey to a new destiny.
To lessen the terror that arises whenever we become acutely aware of our own mortality, we have developed a marvelous capacity for denial. The denial mechanism is functioning continually.
Pain awakens the brain out of denial. . . . Eventually, we become tired of learning through pain and long to learn through joy. Joy, after all, is the best teacher.
There are two great leaps in awareness that we make during our initiation: the awakening to our mortality. . . and the awakening to our immortality.
The First Leap: Awakening to Your Mortality
To forget about our mortality we fuss about our problems endlessly, and we start to fool ourselves that by being thus engaged in the struggles of life, we’re outwitting death. Even if our problems cause us suffering, it’s nothing compared with the agony we’d feel if we were perpetually aware that the clock is winding down and Death is on its way to claim us. We’d like to believe that Death won’t find us when we’re constantly on the move and so very busy.
Another strategy for avoiding death is remaining in a state of pubescent self-absorption. This stage of adolescence is marked by an aggressive denial of one’s mortality. . . . When we’re stuck in adolescent narcissism, which can extend into our 40s and 50s, we’re convinced that we’re totally in charge of our lives despite all the evidence to the contrary.
After your first brush with death, you understand that you have a limited time here on earth and must use it wisely. . . . You recognize that you’re not going to live to be 300 years old, so you don’t postpone until tomorrow the joy that you can have today. Reflecting on the actions you’ve taken — how you’ve hurt others and been hurt yourself — and searching for life’s meaning are noble efforts that originate in this first great awakening. Shamans . . . say goodbye to their history and forgive all who have hurt them in the past. Knowing your vulnerability, you witness yourself and your actions. You are no longer absorbed in your experience and convinced that what’s happening to you in this moment is the only important thing on the planet. Really, it’s not about you.
This first awakening has to lead to the next step of your initiation, the great departure from your life as you have lived it, and to accepting the tests and challenges of the journey. . . .
There is a curse associated with becoming aware of one’s mortality and getting stuck in the knowledge that this life is finite. We begin to dwell on thoughts of how our life will end and how we’re running out of time. The mind starts obsessing over death and the end of our existence . . . . To distract ourselves, we engage in activities designed to stave off death. We get busy and we accomplish a lot. What we don’t do is slow down and become quiet. Silence, meditation and emptiness would mean staring death in the face, and that makes our primitive fear arise. Afraid of it’s spell, we quickly dash off to find another distraction.
Identify with your eternal nature — actually experience who you are beyond your ego and your job description — and the fear of death will vanish.
Recognizing your eternal nature allows you to realize that your identity won’t ever cease to exist, and the part of you that will be shed like an old skin isn’t that important anymore.
The Shaman welcomes the opportunity to gaze into the face of death, whereas most people run away in fear. . . . Eventually, the seeker would symbolically ‘die’ to his earthly existence and awaken to his nature as an infinite being at peace with God.
We have a sense of unity with all that is and ever was, a tremendous sense of awe and humility, and a dissolving of the ego. We die to the way of the flesh and are born to the way of Spirit.
The alchemists . . . were actually seeking this spiritual state of illumination, according to Carl Jung’s symbolic interpretation of alchemy. The alchemical process was thus a method of purifying the soul, ridding it of all its toxins so that it could shine brilliantly. The alchemists understood that once a person is awakened to his undying nature, experiencing it instead of just believing in it, he never loses it. Once the spell of death is broken, one is forever changed. Having found the fountain of youth, one is free of the fear of death that stalks others.
The Archetypal Death
The second awakening involves an archetypal death and resurrection that can be just as frightening as physical death.
During each initiation we experience the death of a grand myth about ourselves.
We resist archetypal death because, however painful the circumstances of our lives may be, we take comfort in their familiarity. . . . Our identity seems extremely important to us. . . . We . . . spend an enormous amount of time worrying about who we are and what our place is within the community.
Your life, like everyone’s, is going to change again and again over time. You’ll go through the various stages of life and age until you get to the point where you shed your body and the person known as you no longer exists on earth.
The shaman knows he must master the art of dying and being resurrected so that he can undergo the archetypal or sacred death again and again, creating a new life for himself when the writing on the wall says, ‘It’s time to let go of the old.’
We can’t see what’s up ahead, yet we have to give ourselves over to the process, letting go of control and our sense of who we are. It’s in our nature to endure this night, not with faith and prayer, but with panic and frantic clawing about for a light switch — and a mirror, to make sure we still are who we think we are. If we can accept that we’ll probably enter the abyss kicking, screaming, cursing, and wishing we could magically be transported back in time to the moment before we took our fall, we’ll move more quickly from resisting this change to working with it and discovering what it has to offer us.
Curing a disease doesn’t necessarily heal the soul. However, allowing the soul to travel forward into the next stage of growth often results in the body’s healing itself.
The Relationship Between Death and New Life
All deaths, all endings, are a passage to the next beginning. . . . As energy beings, we shed our bodies and let them become part of the cycle of life in the physical world while our essential self moves forward into the next state of being.
Once we understand that all death is merely a transition into a different form of life, change ceases to be so frightening. We take comfort in knowing that we’ll be resurrected, even if we have no clue what our new existence will be like.
Going into Free Fall
Archetypal death is not literal, even though it sometimes feels as if we are physically dying. This symbolic death, which is part of every initiation process, is a free fall into that abyss of the unknown. It includes the death of old ideas, of limiting beliefs that are no longer working for us, of old friendships that were never right, even of old habits such as how we dress and how we present ourselves. As a prelude to a new mythic journey, archetypal death requires abandoning old maps that once helped us to navigate our lives.
Being Reborn as a Creator
Once you experience the feelings that surface when you realize that an aspect of your life is ending, you can find a certain perfection to your life right now and see it as the clay of creation. What possibilities lie in that ball of clay?
Stripped of his identity, the initiate is free to discover who he is becoming.