Die Before you Die: The Gifts of the Death Lodge

I was grateful that timing worked out for me to be in our little desert home in the Owens Valley for the pivotal weekend of the expected chemo induced hair loss, and away from the buzz of the Bay Area, where I was going through breast cancer treatment.  “Fourteen days after your first infusion,” my oncologist in Palo Alto had told me, “you can count on it!”  My hair roots had begun to hurt a few days earlier, but it was all still there, the morning of day fourteen. Who knows, I thought, maybe – just maybe, it won’t happen to me.

But later that day, brushing my hand absentmindedly over my head while journaling on the patio, a tuft of blond hair silently floated by, touching down on the lawn for a brief moment, before the autumn breeze picked it up and chased it down the driveway. Damn!

Like most things, we can’t really imagine them until they actually happen to us. And we don’t really know what we are going to do with them until we are face to face with their physical reality. For me, that afternoon, as I was watching the first bushel of hair tumbling toward the street, it suddenly became clear that I would entrust my hair to this valley, this patch of earth that was sacred ground to me. I was going to give this loss meaning, rather than just enduring it. I would give my hair to the earth as a gift, rather than just having treatment take it from me.

In the story of the Popol Vuh, an ancient Mayan creation myth, a pair of twin heroes is summoned to fight the lords of death. The twins are courageous and smart, and manage to defy death longer than anyone else who had been summoned before them. But in the end, after various rounds of battle, the lords of death create their final and perfect trap in the form of an all-consuming fire. The twins, realizing that they can not escape this time, do the unthinkable:  they simply turn to face the engulfing flames, laughing, and stating that they had known all along it would come to this. Instead of begging for their lives, they jump straight into the fire, dying of their own accord and thus robbing the lords of death of their victory. And to everyone’s surprise, they attain eternal life, and become gods. Or so the story goes.

Whether you believe this tale or not, it is true that in every dying we are freed, and born anew. There are times where turning into the skid is essential. When we cannot hang on to what no longer is ours. When we cannot hang on to what no longer is true. There are times, when we are asked to face our greatest fears, and somehow miraculously find the courage to die to those fears, instead of dying from them. For me, this weekend was one of those times.

More hair was greeting me on my pillow the next morning, and urging me to get up and outside, and onto the trails behind our little town, alongside the mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The time was now, ready or not, my hair wasn’t going to wait. I stopped by one of the great old cottonwood trees that line the path, to make an offering and follow my nose, vulnerable, curious, and a bit tentative.

Every threshold crossing is unique but the blueprint of sacred time on the land is always the same. When we go alone and enter intentional time in the natural world, we return to a belonging that is so much older than our linear minds and we are found by something so much greater than our civilized sense of self. In nature, we can’t help but remember that life is cyclical. Here, birth and death are not separate, they live side by side, feeding one another. On the land things are what they are, and they invite us to be who we are, without make up or judgment. There is space to be, in any way that we are, in the whole spectrum of our human experience. Nothing is too much, and nothing too little. We are as welcome to bring our rage, our tears, or our confusion, as we are to bring our elation or a simple quiet happiness.

In response, we are asked only one thing: to suspend disbelief. To remember that we can ask questions into the wind and receive messages from the hoot of an owl, a rock that we trip over or a memory triggered from deep within our childhood soul. We don’t have to learn this way. We are born with it. All we have to do is scrape the layers off that are crusted upon that intelligence and remember what we have always known.

Crouching in the sparse shade of some willow by a creek crossing, a perfectly round and plum dandelion seed appeared in my view. Sailing through the morning air, it hovered for a timeless moment in perfect stillness above the running water right in front of me, before getting pulled down into the stream hard and fast, sweeping away with the current, gone in a flash, leaving me dazed. Where is it headed, I wondered? What was going to become of it? Would it grab a hold somewhere downstream? And give birth to a new plant? Would it be pulled down deep and become fish food? Or become part of a bird’s nest? All of us, plants, critters and humans alike, I realized, are asked to muster the courage to show up as fully as we can, in the dying to what was, and in the birthing of the unknown that is our future.

Seeing my hair fall made having cancer undeniably real. No longer would I carry the discrepancy of being sick inside my private self. After this weekend, I would be visibly ‘unwell.’ I would be subject to public scrutiny, and projection, naked and vulnerable. One of the women people stare at in the grocery store, no matter how hard we try to act casual, pulling our hats and caps down low over our bare heads. What was I dying to on this weekend? What needed to fall away along with my hair so that I could sail down the river into the unknown of my future with some dignity and grace? I decided to do a death lodge ceremony, using an age old practice tool that is part of my work in marking life transitions.

Death has a bad ring in the western world of today. It is kept behind closed doors and we are taught to shut it out of our consciousness to the best of our abilities. Our associations with it are dark, and most often violent.  To most of us, death is terrifying.  It smells of defeat and loss rather than transformation or homecoming.  We try to fend it off as long as we can through medical intervention, going as far as keeping vacant bodies alive with machines, sometimes against their expressed will. We bury our dead in lead lined caskets to protect our dead corpse from decay (and deny the earth the nourishment from our bones) for hundreds of years to come. Yet, with the denial of physical death also comes the loss of the emotional depth evoked by it, the repression of qualities like grief, surrender, and letting go that are so vital in birthing us anew, again and again.

It wasn’t always like this. Indigenous cultures of all origins had distinct dying practices that worked with the particular archetypes, the landscape and the myths of the lineage to help ready the individual for life’s greatest transition. To die “a good death,” to make it good with one’s people, to be at peace in the final hours has always been essential, not just for oneself but for the health of the communities. Which is why many of the old lineages had different types of death lodge ceremonies.

Back then, those who were preparing for their final crossing would maybe be staying in a separate space, a little ways away from the main village. Here, they would be cared for and could be visited by the family and community members that they were leaving behind, as well as by the spirits of their ancestors. The death lodge was a sacred space in between the worlds, a cocoon that held the transformative process of dying, a place where relationships were healed, karmic bonds were revealed, examined and, as much as possible, surrendered before physical death would occur.

But the practice of the death lodge doesn’t have to wait until our final days. In fact, it may be best if it not. There are plenty of smaller or symbolic deaths in our life we can practice with: a divorce or break-up of a love relationship, the surrender of a dream, the loss of a loved one, or a cancer diagnosis. The modern death lodge ceremony that is part of my work, is an opportunity to face our mortality, to work with loss, and forgiveness, to make it good with our lives, to find peace and acceptance so we can let go of, and die to what has been.

I spent hours by a special place at the river in ceremony. With every strand of hair that I set sailing down the stream, I bade the life I was leaving behind goodbye. Feeling my hair give made turning into my dying very real. There was so much grief, anger, and fear. It took every ounce of me to turn into my ‘unfinished business’.  Memories of my 46 years on this earth kept coming.  Grief, regret, and stories from the past that were holding me back. Beliefs that had led me astray, and pain that I had held onto for a long time.  Loved ones ‘showed up’ in my lodge as I thought of them, some expected and others not, and not-so-loved ones, like my ex-husband, came as well. Words floated up from the water and were deeply heard, tears were shed, my heart cracked open and words that I didn’t know I had were released into the flowing stream. Time stood still. The process of ‘making it good’, or as good as I could on that day simply was. When I stumbled back up the river bank hours later, I was mostly bald, with nothing but some uneven spots of fuzz left on my bare head. I was exhausted, and called my husband to pick me up and take me home.

But I was also ready. I was feeling at peace with myself and my loved ones, and I was ready to journey into the unknown abyss of the coming months of baldness and cancer treatment. I somehow had received a glimpse of what I would later call the gift greater than anything that cancer and treatment would take from me. Dying to life as I knew it then, something in me had connected with my true essence, had re-member-ed my whole self, the core at the center of this being – and exhausted as I was, I felt a freedom and a lightness that would guide me forward in ways I couldn’t even imagine at the time.

Those of us diagnosed with a serious, life threatening disease, are thrown abruptly and without our consent into the inquiry of our potential dying. However we individually cope with the news, our psyche crosses a threshold when we are diagnosed. After absorbing the initial shock, it is doing the work of the death lodge, whether we know it or not. Our viewpoint shifts, as a deep internal inquiry begins. Money, material goods and social standing seem to momentarily lose all meaning. The mundane world and petty concerns of all sorts simply shrink before our eyes.

Instead, what comes forward is the “long view” of our life, inner core values like the desire to be known and loved for the unique being that we are, the longing to live in right relationship, to leave a good legacy for our children. Our lives flash by in memory and we may feel the simple yearning to have left an impact, to be remembered by among our people. If we can mark this moment, if we can jump into the fire of our fears and face our dying, like the twins did in the ancient tale, this “remembering” of ourselves can also be a birthing into all that is yet to be. It can propel us forward, to find the one life that is ours to live.

Michael Meade says what becomes revealed at the end of a life fully lived, is the story that was trying to surface all along. The boon of cancer and other life threatening ‘curveballs’ that might be hurtling our way is that we don’t have to wait until the end. The gift that comes with the unequivocal hardship of an early brush with death is the opportunity of cleaning one’s slate early. Call it an early-bird special. If we heed this invitation, if we are brave enough to face our dying, we can’t help but come ever more fully alive, during the rest of our time on this sweet earth, no matter if for weeks, months or, blessed be, even decades to come.

I’m not sure if any of us will attain eternal life, like the twins in the story. But I do know that it is possible to live fully in every moment. Maybe it’s up to every one of us to stretch those moments into eternity.

 

Note:  References to the death lodge are in the lineage of Steven and Meredith Little who founded the School of Lost Borders where I do most of my work today.  (More information upon request)

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Remembering Our Most Essential Self: Re-Shaping the Story of Cancer

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The mythos of cancer certainly presents like a picture book dark tale:  A hostile take over of unwholesome, mutated, out of control cell growth that is quite literally aiming to kill us.  Talk about a chilling image!  Posing as an infamous evil force, cancer evokes all sorts of dark allegories for any of us receiving the dreaded three word verdict: “You have cancer”.

The attitudes and choices in how we each deal with cancer vary enormously, depending on age, gender, severity of diagnosis and so many more personal factors.  But regardless of the medical treatments we decide on, we also choose to adopt a story about our cancer: why we got it, how we live with it or through it, and what it means to us in the greater context of our lives.

Stories are essential for us.  Human psyche is hard-wired to make meaning, to myth itself, if you will.   Unbeknownst to us, throughout our lives it tries to connect the seemingly random events that mark and shape the map of our living, to trace the greater story behind it all.  Trying to reveal the mysterious and illusive design of what I will call our becomingness, for lack of a better word.  A sort of constant movement toward a greater wholeness that our soul is aching for by nature.  The mythic story that we seem born to incorporate.  The mysterious, precious and unique expression of life that is entrusted each of us.  Maybe the very reason why we are here.

The Hopi believed that in order for the sun to rise, they had to climb up to the roof of their kivas before dawn to coax it across the horizon. They actively partook in their creation story every morning by helping the sun rise into the sky with song and prayer.  Today, many of us assume that we are separate from nature and that it works independently of our actions.  No doubt, different stories result in different actions and distinctly different relationships.

The stories we carry have indeed great power.   They can make us or break us.  They can make the difference between intolerable suffering or amazing grace.  They can be medicine or poison.  Some stories of lineage and ancestry we are born into and have absorbed without ever hearing them being spoken.  Yet they live deep within our bones and inform our every move.  The stories that we don’t even know we are telling ourselves.  Those can indeed be the most dangerous ones.

But there are also healing stories, stories that inspire and transform us, empower and renew us, restore and liberate us.  Apart from stirring our deepest, darkest fears of obliteration, is it possible that cancer also offers us a healing story?  A story that frees us to heal our lives and shed old, unhealthy beliefs?   I dare to believe so.

For me, cancer struck at a time when I was in economic and emotional survival mode and my story was one of continued endurance.  As a single mom, I felt stuck at a stressful and unfulfilling job, struggling to put bread on the table and pay the rent.  I had known for a while that the life I lived was not sustainable in the long run and that things needed to change.  But try as I might I wasn’t able to get out from underneath the daily demands.  The day that I heard I had cancer, I remember, as the typical first reaction waves of terror, shock, and incredulousness were washing over me, one small voice rising from some place deep inside me, simply and quietly stating:  “Oh, so I wasn’t only imagining it.  This life is actually killing me”.

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As broad and unscientific a description, it does seem that stress is a core player in the story of cancer.  Science has now confirmed that long-term stress compromises the immune system and increases the chances of cancer.  And this seems to be true for all kinds of stress, physical, emotional, or environmental, if they are endured over a long period of time.  Short term, fight, flight and freeze responses are great life savers to meet a specific crisis, challenge or need.  The problem is, when we begin living for any length of time in what nature designed solely as a short-term crisis management.  Long term stress overloads our circuits and eventually erodes our wellbeing.

To no surprise there is mounting evidence today for a correlation between cancer and the chronic frenzy of modern life that promotes constant achievement oriented busyness.  Living in a global, and computer wired economy, life’s pace is ever relentlessly increasing.  Most of us no longer have the luxury of ‘down time’.   We are always ‘on’.  We work from anywhere, at any time.  We make phone calls while driving, and send job applications while watching our kids at the park.  In the hamster wheel of our times, things seem to constantly speed up and for many of us, feeling stressed has become a way of life.

A week after diagnosis, I saw a genetic counselor.  He described the process of cancer not so much as the premeditated destructiveness that I imagined it to be, but more as a process of forgetting one’s diversification, one’s place in the whole.  You see, cancer cells get graded by the degree of their deformation and how much they deviate from healthy cells.   The lowest grade of cancer cells is only slightly altered from its original specifics, the next level is moderately altered and so on.  Interestingly, the more deteriorated the cancer cells become, the more unspecified and rudimentary they mutate to be, the more aggressive and lethal they are.

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Hearing this, I found myself feeling some compassion for my cancer, unbeknownst to myself.  Maybe it wasn’t the bad guy it was made out to be.  Maybe those cells that had mutated in my right breast were simply breaking down under the pressure of working in survival mode for too long.  I could relate to that. Like a brewery horse, I had been leaning forward into my work load for too long, taking every day like a steep hill, with the whip always dancing over my head.  There were many times I could feel myself almost buckling under the weight, but I kept stoically putting one foot in front of another.  I didn’t feel like I had any other choice.  All I could see were the immediate and short-term needs of my children.  My worry for them overrode everything else.  Had I not also, just like those cancer cells, forgotten my place in the wholeness, in the magic and health of this amazing, much bigger life system?  Had I not atrophied myself, under the constant stress of single parenthood?  Had I not indeed become short-sided and rudimentary, having lost trust in life, and forcing myself to uphold a 24/7 production mode that only reinforced the fear cycle of worry about what would happen if I didn’t ‘function’ anymore, or needed rest, or simply snapped under the weight of it all?

If cancer was indeed telling a story of forgetting myself, and my place in the wholeness of creation, what did it mean for me to remember myself?

I never returned to my desk on the fateful day that I was diagnosed.  Instead, sick leave kicked in and I entered what would turn out to be nine months of treatment: first surgery, then chemo, and then radiation.  It was a hard time.  A really hard time.  But it was also an amazing time.  Realizing that the best I could do for my children now was to lean into my healing fully and wholeheartedly was puzzling, and juxtaposition to the self-neglect of many years.  My world was literally standing on its head.  Paradoxically being diagnosed with cancer allowed me time out, for the first time in many years.  Time to take inventory, to think things over.  Time to reevaluate and step back to see the bigger picture.  It allowed me, and also demanded of me, in the uncertainty that was ahead, to give up control, to trust that if I was only present here now, willing to be still, willing to listen to the small voice of my heart, I would find my way.

Through the various cancer treatments that followed, it was my internal inquiry, and the focus on remembering myself, that kept me going.  Where and when exactly had I fallen out of trust, had I lost faith in life and my place in the whole?  When did I begin to feel all alone in the world and without any support?  When did my existential fears reduce my outlook on life to a narrow tunnel version of survival?

Was it the divorce?  The death of the dream that I could be loved and seen for who I really was? That my children would grow up in the blessedness of a healthy family hearth?  Was it the pain of the grieving years that followed and the fear of being obliterated by the man whom I now referred to as my ex-husband?  Or was it set in motion much earlier, by the karmic formations that brought us together, or even before, by fundamental experiences in my childhood?

During the long months of treatment, debilitating as they were, I began to reconnect with my being rather than identify with my doing.   I bubbled in the cauldron of change.  Everything was up for grabs.  Not just my work but my entire life.  Accepting help was a first for me, and to this day plays a big part in my healing journey.  Realizing that ultimately I was not alone transformed the landscape of my living.  Becoming aware of and turning into my fears rather then acting from them became a new core practice.  Letting go and letting be replaced the knee jerk impulse to try to control at all cost.  Surrendering, aka dying to all that was not in alignment with my healing (instead of dying from it!) became my new mantra and has been both blessing and haunting me every day since, continuously asking me to turn into my truth and live it forward.

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Amazingly, it is the very ability of surrender, of yielding, and being willing to die for the greater good of the whole that differentiates a healthy cell from a cancer cell.  Science calls this capacity aptosis, a programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms to protect the integrity of the whole.  Healthy cells seem to identify on a broader level with the larger organism they are serving, and this connectedness and belongingness mysteriously enables them to turn into their dying when they are somehow compromised and no longer benefit the whole.  Cancer cells seem to no longer recognize, trust or feel part of the bigger life system around them, and in this isolation they atrophy into a kind of reptilian survival mode that no longer supports the very organism they were designed to serve.

Is it possible then that in order to heal our life we also need to also mend our relationship with death?  To allow it to be part of the landscape of our human experience, in much the same way that healthy cells carry aptosis as one of many tools on their belt?

Yes!  Healing our relationship with death and even befriending it, learning how to die well, is essential in learning how to live well.   Turning into our dying, is just as important for us internally, figuratively, and psychologically, as it is vital for our bodies on a cellular level.  Dying practice is indeed essential for our living.

We live in a modern-day culture of denial when it comes to death, in a time of ‘great forgetting’, where we simply pretend, for as long as we can, that death doesn’t exist.  Death is not only misunderstood, but clearly unwelcome in our culture.  We are addicted to unbridled, and infinite expansion, a one way road that leads us to a dangerous amount of overconsumption on many levels, individually as well as collectively or globally.  But death is not the enemy.  It is simply the out-breath that partners the in-breath of birth.  It is the withdrawing that allows us to come forward again, the waning that enables the next waxing.  Death restores, transforms and draws us back to the source from which we are born, if only we let it.  When did we forget that?

With chemo raging through my body like a bushfire, confronting myself with death was not an abstract concept.  I got, in my bones, that life in this body is temporary.  That I didn’t own my life and was not in control of it.  It felt like something inside me died in the heat of that cauldron, and with it the fears, and formations of my old life, fierce guardians of habit and pattern, fell away as well, giving birth to a new way of inhabiting this body and mind.

When we brush up against death, through whatever life circumstances, there is a gift offered alongside the painful edge of realizing our own finiteness, a dropping away, a cracking open, and a freedom from all preconceived ideas.  A new connection is forged to our core, our essence, to that which rests in ‘no coming, no going’, ‘no birth, no death’, the mysterious, blessed, eternal, being-ness that we are.

Trust in the greater good is vital for the health at the core of our being.  Truly meeting and healing cancer seems to ask nothing less of us then to heal any trauma that is underlying the assumption that life is a hostile environment.

During treatment, I became very aware that many of my internal patterns were about survival, at any cost, fueled by the fear of death, of impermanence, of failure, loss of control and the lurking dread of a ‘bad ending’.  Looking back now, these patterns played a major part in me ending up in the dead-end road that cancer found me on.  Some of these formations had been created way back, when I was a young child.  Whether it was the undigested trauma of my parents, both small children in Germany during the 2nd world war, or the abusive relationship with my brother, there was not a single layer of my life that wasn’t touched on in one form or another on this journey.

Make no mistake.  The healing that is set in motion when we die to our old stories is like a domino effect that will go on perpetually, affecting every single area of our lives, every layer of our complex personalities and carefully constructed identities, every memory, every perception of who we think ourselves to be; all to reveal a deeper truth that frees us to remember the unique expression of life that we each are at the source of our being.

So what happened to me after treatment?  Nine months after I was diagnosed I returned to my old office, bald and weak from treatment but with clear eyes set on new horizons, and only to clean out personal belongings from my old desk.  Lo and behold, new opportunities emerged out of the open empty space, meeting my fledgling attempt to find a new way of being in the world.  Because death inevitably gives birth to life….

To no surprise I don’t resonate much with the word ‘Survivor’.  In my heart, healing from cancer feels more like recovering from a survival mechanism gone rogue.  And as someone in recovery, I feel especially committed to partner my instinctual fear of death, with a deliberate practice of trust in the Greater.

Restoring death to its rightful place within my universe is an essential part of that healing.  Risking failure, letting go of judgment, living light and lean, allowing myself to make mistakes, letting my heart guide me rather than my rational mind, listening to the river, opening to mystery and magic, practicing defeat, living with and into the unknown are all wonderful allies and great trainers for the one fine day when it’s my turn to cross the threshold into my physical death, and dissolve into the rich broth of some new making.

Cancer, and the confrontation with death, can shift our conversation of survival to an inquiry of arriving in the grace of our living.  This shift is vital in our healing process and carries a message back into the cellular level of our beings that allows us to live from love rather then from fear.  And living from love is really what it’s all about.  It is indeed the story of our most essential self.