Destiny of Souls
It is through contemplation of the great mysteries that a culture reveals itself. In this workshop on Death and Beyond I was looking forward to getting to the bottom of the culture of Shamanism. As it turned out Shamanism is something of a do-it-yourself practice, so it would be just as much my inner culture that would be revealed over the weekend as the underlying perspective of the Shamanic cosmology.
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The class was small and almost entirely female. The one male participant noted that he was used to it being also one of the few, if not the only man, in his yoga class, calligraphy class and tea ceremony class. He carried his drum in a bag made specifically for drums. Another attendee showed me what she got with the Shaman Kit she ordered online. Along with the drum and sizable rawhide rattle, there was a mask that had been designed from black sheet plastic and foam, specifically to block the light while allowing the eyes to open in darkness. "I can see colors," she said. I usually just put my bucky travel pillow over my eyes, but this time I laid my billed cap over my face while resting my head on the pillow.
The teacher, also named Amanda, had grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her hands were graced with silver rings bearing large stones. A striped pink scarf livened up her brown polar fleece vest and white buttoned up shirt. She walked to the center of the room and lit the candle on the floor followed by gestures of such intention I was already transfixed. She wasted no time in getting us on our way.
The purpose of this exploration of death was twofold, she told us. First to prepare for our own death by learning the cosmological geography so we wold know where we want to go when the time comes. The second being to help others be where they would like to be following their deaths. Given these travels, death was not really a concept in the Shamanic sense. It was more a matter of soul migration. We knew about soul loss, the pieces of soul that leave a person usually during a traumatic experience. (Such soul loss can be restored through shamanic means.) Death was a soul loss of 100%.
The Shamanic practice divides the spirit world into upper and lower worlds. Reality occupies the middle world. Spirits of the dead may go to either upper or lower worlds or stick around. Or be reincarnated, Amanda told us.
My After Death Hometown
Our first journey was to find out what happened to us immediately following our own death. Where did we go? We were to journey and find out. She beat the drum for us and I could see myself simply bursting through the veil, walking onto a road of packed gravel in the open countryside, but I was wrestling with scenario, wanting to choose a death. I opted to linger a bit and look at myself lying in a bed below, but the bed held no particular credibility and I soon let it go.
On the gravel road, I was greeted by my black cat Gato for I had made such a journey before to bring his soul to the witches after he died. (That was nearly twenty years ago when I studied another discipline of spiritual magic via the divine feminine.) Gato led me through a simple iron gateway and then left me to embark on my journey alone. After much physical travel to get me in the mood, I arrived at the central square of a town full of whitewashed buildings. It was empty until a man came out a door. He was a Mexican. I asked him where I might go. He pointed to the church in the center of the square and a door in the side of the building.
I entered the church to find myself on stage before an auditorium of friends dressed in white. It occurred to me that public speaking is often considered more frightening than death, but this was not at all frightening, more like a homecoming. I was there to tell my death story. I was not to hear it right then; I was just taking the tour. Then I was outside again with a young girl beside me.
"What do people do here?" I asked her. She told me you can either review your life and put it in a box or learn new skills. I saw myself filling plastic boxes with life's crap, putting a lid on it and watching it go down an assembly line.
"What kind of skills," I asked.
"Archery, golf," she said.
"Well not really golf, but truth seeking skills with targets," she explained. I thought of all those inner tennis books developing the mind to visualize conscious intention. There were other classes too involving balancing skills to understand the body and a skydiving class to learn to work with other souls while doing sky dancing routines.
"Is it always sunny here?" I asked my tour guide.
"Well if you want to work with the weather you can go to the weather lab. That's where we help mitigate climate change," she said and took me so I could see for myself the giant greenhouse full of people, some in lab coats. They were also growing crops which would help to improve the agriculture practice on earth.
"Can you watch living people?" I asked and she took me to the observatory which looked like an airport inside. Through the big windows I saw cityscapes below.
What about intellectual pursuits?" I asked next and we entered a grand library furnished with upholstered armchairs and heavy tables. People were reading quietly. There was another building too where you could look up what happened to dead people you had known. The information was available in books that were holographic in a Harry Potter sort of way. I asked where my deceased relatives were. My Thai grandparents had already been reborn, but I saw my English grandmother dusting the interiors of one of the city buildings, my grandfather, nearby, polishing the orb at the top of the banister.
"What do people do for entertainment," I asked. "Do they go to the movies?:"
"Well sort of," she said, "There is a movie theatre, but we go to watch people's life story." I peaked into the theatre and saw a packed house with a single narrator on stage against a backdrop of moving pictures.
Back in the town center I noticed a wishing well where you could shout down, into the blackness, your requests for your next life. Getting to the next life involved parachuting out into the sky. The parachute would break away and the air turn liquid and eventually you would find yourself in the birth canal.
This visionary journey was surprisingly easy and pleasant. Our next journey would be more challenging for it involved seeking and "seeing" the hereafter for the larger public.
Destiny of Souls: The Upper World
Before embarking we were introduced to the concept of levels and were told to pay attention to the details of getting from one level to the next as we went in search of the destiny of souls. The expectation to provide a geography for the public at large inhibited me at first, but after I heard responses from the other participants I got more permission. By the third journey I saw enough to form a workable landscape. The levels laid themselves out for me in an orderly fashion.
I ascended to the upper world by my usual way of climbing up a tree. I found myself at the first level; it was a busy chaotic space, much like a train station platform, full of souls seeking their destination. The air was heavy with regret and blame, expectations of punishment, and purposeful confusion.
In the center of the platform was a spiral staircase leading to level two. There was a hushed quiet there. I stood in a long hallway looking into numerous open doorways where I glimpsed wooden desks in orderly rows, every one of them occupied by someone writing in a notebook. This was the level where souls wrote down the lessons learned from their life. I found the staircase to the right and ascended to the third level.
The carpet on Level Three was red and there was a movie usher to greet me at the top of the stairs. I was given to understand that this level was the multiplex of religious narratives. Each theatre was telling the same story of ascent to oneness using the narrative embellishments of the particular religion.
"But what about atheists?" I asked the usher.
"Well they are just going to have to come out of the closet and make it up," he said and lifted his hand in the direction of the Theatre of Existential Narratives. I peaked my head in the door; there was nothing in it but white walls. A few people wandered about. Just beyond the back wall wafted fetid smells as though from piles of excrement. Satisfied I asked him how to get to the next level and he pointed me in the direction of the elevators.
On Level Four I found myself on a ledge overlooking what looked like a maze occupied with people. They were making mandalas. Wait, how did the Tibetans rate a whole floor, I was wondering, but it was not a religious practice per se. It was simply a place for participating in a purifying exercise. Once purified you were beamed up Star Trek style from the center circle.
This brought me to Level Five. Everything on it was white; a few souls dressed in white moved purposefully about. This was the plane of oneness; everyone here was involved in a pursuit of shared purpose. Beyond that I did not go, but was told that Level Six was for special projects, especially teachers who would return to earth to assist with human transformation.
When I recounted my vision to the class, everyone laughed at the idea of special projects. It was in the recounting that I also wondered why I would ask the question I did about atheists. But my life was so filled with non-believers of all sorts it seemed to require that I address the conundrum of an atheist soul finding themselves in the afterlife.
Destiny of Souls: The Lower World
Having visited the upper world, naturally it would follow that the lower world would also have to be explored. This I did with much more liberty than I had envisioned the upper world for I had a better sense of the possibilities of the lower world. We were not to call upon our power animals for this journey, but I did see them watching me as I emerged from the tunnel. I was in a forest of tall trees; each one contained an occupied tree house.
"Why are you here?" I asked those sitting in their tree houses.
"We are here to detox from prescription drugs," they told me in unison.
"How long will that take?"
"A while. But there is a purifying river that is helpful." I walked to the edge of the trees to have a look at the river. Then asked how to get to the next level.
"There's a rabbit hole over there." A rabbit helpfully ran towards it.
"Follow that rabbit; yes the white one." I scrambled after the rabbit and soon entered an underground cave that was lavishly decorated in the style of a traditional men's club. To the left was a cardboard cutout of Alice in Wonderland. To the right a maitre d' greeted me.
"This level is for those who are obsessed with food," he explained to me and proceeded to show me the sumptuous banquet room where diners experienced the most delicious meal, each course making them feel lighter and lighter until finally they were dining on air.
"We also have a very fine collection of wine," the maitre d' wanted me to know, showing me the wine cellar.
"And what do people do after dinner?" I asked.
"Well there's the smoking room," he said opening the door into a room where a man in a smoking jacket was smoking his last cigarette. And as the evening wore on I knew the air would became clearer and clearer. It was also in this room that people engaged in philosophical conversation answering the most confounding questions to utter satisfaction.
"Then you must have a bar," I said catching on and followed the maitre d' through a door to the bar. And here it was that each drink made the drinker ever more filled with clarity of mind.
"How about a chocolate room," I requested. Indeed there was a chocolate room and I succumbed to the most delicious chocolate truffle I'd ever eaten, but I was not yet ready to give up chocolate so I did not linger.
I would not see the third level until the following day for we had come to the end of our first workshop day, but I looked forward to it with increasing excitement. That evening I joined all the other out of town participants for dinner so that I might add to my social context the lives of my fellow journeyers. I had already met, at lunch, a yoga teacher and a psychologist doing her dissertation on shamanic healing. I also met an attorney seeking a means to handle her prophetic dreams and shamanic experiences of unseen energy. There was also a Reiki practitioner and a hospice nurse with a long history of shamanic work. At dinner I met a masseuse from Mexico who had just begun her shamanic studies in her search for healing techniques. Also a personal trainer who channeled the dead; she showed us pictures of her pug in entertaining outfits. The dog was clearly loving it.
I returned early the next day eager to embark. We drummed and danced to raise the energy level then proceeded with our exploration of the lower world. I again met my maitre d' who took me to an outer hallway. I knew that the next level down was filled with water and required stripping off all my clothes. He promised he would look after them as I handed them to him. Then I lay down on the water slide. Immediately I was whooshed down to a common pool filled with lively bodies all cavorting with each other. It rather reminded me of Bath Spa and was lovely and warm. This level was devoted not so much to carnal desire, but to the exploration of every curiosity of the human form. When I'd had my fill I walked up the steps where I was blown dry by hot airstreams. I was handed a lycra body suit which I donned. Then I pushed through the revolving glass doors and jumped down a large clear tube through which I could hear choral singing and see below me a sunny landscape of pastoral fields. This was Level Four, the level where all souls harmonized together. Even if, like me, you couldn't sing; you would be able to anyway.
Once I had touched down on the landscape I found my way towards the river where awaited boats. One would take me through a tunnel to the hall of fear. In this total darkness full of creepy sounds from menacing humans, I was able to physically defend myself confidently and calmly. As I progressed through the darkness the voices became friendlier. They jumped in front of me attempting to scare me, but then would succumb to outbursts of laughter. From the dark I emerged into an office building floor full of cubicles. I stayed in the atrium area, but I could see that in each cubicle was a patient and his or her psychiatrist. Those who had suffered psychosis in their life were resolving things with their shrink, now that they no longer suffered under the psychosis. Some were giving their shrink back some of their own medicine, making them lie on the couch and reveal their childhood neurosis. It seemed only fitting, but I had no shrink to meet and continued on down a ramp to a large set of double doors.
The double doors opened to Level Six where I was greeted by a giant in a white basketball uniform (with red piping). I too am to play and we are all on the same team. In fact there is only one team because this is the level for dispelling competition. The crowd cheered and every effort is perfectly executed. After the game I followed a darkened ramp to Level Seven which is a round chamber with tall walls of protruding rock lit from below. A crowd is assembled four or five bodies deep around a glass shaft filled with fluid. Inside is a soul awaited rebirth. Then whoosh the soul shoots up in a flash of light and all the faces are visible and shining with ecstasy.
I find myself wondering what is the source of energy that pushes the soul out. Then everyone jumps up together and we are so heavy that our downward force creates the proper propulsion much like a toy air rocket. But this is just a flourish of my narrative talents. I am prone to embellishment, not leaving well enough alone. The soul could ride out just on the power of our intentions alone. More likely it was a divine force and we are basking in the wonder of this mystery.
Our teacher and the class found my description of the levels of the lower world amusing enough to laugh at some of the details beginning with the tree houses. Once I had established the theme of detoxification I could run with it all the way to rebirth. But the answers were not mine alone. I set the theme for each of my levels, some more consciously than others, but the spirits filled in the rest.
After I had come back from the lower world I wondered at my Dante like recreation of the hereafter with all the different thematic levels, but despite his great influence on my imagination when I read his books 30 years ago, I hadn't even thought of him until then. Maybe Dante was tapping into the same visionary structure that Shamans had discovered preceding him, only his muse was putting a Catholic spin on things. I was quite glad, now, to have something else to reference.
Death and Beyond: The Work of the Shaman
There are those who tend to the dying. They realize they have have a talent for it and offer themselves to the task. I have friends who became Buddhist chaplains; they feel it is a privilege to do this work and it fills them with grace. And so too, there is a place for the Shaman in this work. People die better if helped. This is an established psychological fact so says Stan Graf. Our teacher had a few suggestions for attending a dying person in a culturally Shamanic way. We might offer to play a drumming CD, guide them to visualize a beautiful place, get them to relax, let go of issues that are here. Suggest they meet an animal or helping spirit. Ask if there is someone they would like to see (on the other side). We did not need to manage their experience, just suggest, she counseled.
I am not sure I have the skills to sit with the dying. I wasn't that great with it when my father was dying; I have a few regrets. The finality of death doesn't impress me. I am not much drawn to the tragic unfolding drama of it. This is, perhaps, what comes of being raised with reincarnation as a given. But unlike my fellow Thais, I do not fear ghosts. This fear of ghosts was so prevalent in the culture that raised me, that by the age of eight, I had taken a stand about it, probably out of a no-nonsense British sensibility. The way to deal with ghosts, I declared to myself, was to talk to them without fear, ask them what they wanted.
Thus the final exercise of our workshop was a fitting follow-up to this personal history. In this psychopomp work we were to visit the scene of an accident or suicide we had heard about and look for the soul in question, then offer to take them to a place where they could be happy (if they weren't already happy where they were). We were also to ask if they wanted to go up or down. I immediately had a candidate in mind. He was a well loved community figure who had, who knows why, decided to throw himself in the path of a train. We were asked by his family not to dwell on how he died. So I was struck by the gravity of initiating such an undertaking and rose to the task largely because I knew no one else would know to do it. I felt I had to offer him the opportunity just in case he needed it.
As instructed we were to call our power animals for help and merge with them. Then travel to the scene of the death. With Bear and Mongoose by my side (I didn't quite manage the merging), we quickly made our way through time and space, aided by the fast pace of the drum. We touched down at the California Avenue train station in Palo Alto. There I saw a few souls milling about. But there was one in particular sitting on the bench in the train station shelter with his head in his hands.
"Don?" I said as I stood before him. He looked up and seemed to recognize me. I introduced myself then asked if he would walk with me. He stood up and we walked down the tracks together.
"Are you happy here?" I asked.
"No," he said. He seemed troubled, confused that he was still there.
"Would you like me to take you where you can be happy?" I asked
"Yes," he said and so the four of us walked off the tracks, across the parking lot and through the underpass to the park across the street. I kept talking to him as we walked.
I looked for a tall tree, then remembered to ask if he wanted to go up or down. He said up. He didn't seem like the lower world type, I thought. I helped him to climb on Bear's back and told him to hang on. Then the four of us climbed up to the first level. I explained to him that this was the platform for souls to find their destination. He already knew where he wanted to go. He wanted to go to the third level to the Theatre of Existential Narrative. Well that figures, I thought and led the way up.
We entered that white room and a man came towards us. They knew each other and seemed to be good friends. They hugged and Don was sobbing as the man talked to him. My animals and I sat on a ledge against the back wall of the theatre and watched. The thought entered my head that this was an old friend from a men's group Don had belonged to. I didn't know him well enough to know if he had ever belonged to one or not; the scene was unfolding of its own accord.
Don's friend asked him what he'd like to do. As he said this, a large unplanted field appeared under their feet stretching out the back wall to a middle distance. Don said he wanted to double dig the entire field. We all knew what back breaking labor that was because Don worked at Common Ground, the non-profit where we had all learned the art of double digging. But we could see that he really needed to do this work. Several more men were now in the room and they spread through the field to help him. After he had been digging for a while, his friend asked him, "Would you like to go to this place Amanda told us about?" This surprised me somewhat, especially because I knew he was talking about the weather lab which was a vision of my own personal afterlife, not the one we were in. Still none of us seemed to want Don to spend eternity double digging the field of the Theatre of Existential Narrative. He was doing it more as a penance without joy, just determination. He agreed to follow me, but only after he finished digging the field.
When it was done with everyone's help, he followed me to the level above, the Fifth level of the mandala work. It was here that the weather lab seemed to fit in and I told him about the work to help mitigate climate chaos and improve crop growing on earth. He didn't believe me at first, but he took a look around and asked people to show him how it worked. A lab assistant explained that every garden on earth began here as a vision. Then took him to look at the original vision that started Common Ground. That was good enough for Don, so he agreed to stay. My job was done. As I walked away, I turned to look back at him.
"Thank-you," he said. He was smiling with tears in his eyes; he seemed genuinely happy and grateful. He waved goodbye just as I heard the call back of the drum.
In the retelling of this journey my teacher confirmed that if the subject recognized me then it was indeed the person I sought, but it was not necessary to manage his destiny entirely. I only needed to take him to where he could be happy. I assured her that it had not been my doing what took place, that it seemed self guided. If there was any flourish of my own making it was in that last look back. That thank-you from Don, as well as his confirmation of the weather lab as real. All that was, perhaps, a gift for me. Still I would now remember Don being in a place where he could be happy doing the work of the planet.
It might well be my work, too, one day.