As living organisms, we, human people, see a sharp line dividing the states of life and death. It is a necessary perspective, I think, we, like all things that live, live for ourselves, live for life alone. There need be no other reason or purpose to it, to my mind. I am always reminded of the opening lines of ‘On Children’ by Kahlil Gibran;
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
We are all children, all an expressions of Life’s longing for itself. Matthew Arnold, in last lines in his poem ‘Self-Dependence’ wrote;
O air-born voice! long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in mine own heart I hear:
“Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,
Who finds himself, loses his misery!”
Each thing that lives and perceives is an expression of Life, the Cosmos whole, so it seems that the Cosmos is very busy knowing itself. Does it follow that, as it looks at death and the end of a single perspective, that can never again be known, it loses its misery?
That is a sad question. Is the nature of the Mystery one of profound grief as it understands its own demise, piece by piece? Is it equal in parts joyous and grieving? Does such a state result in the Emptiness the Buddha spoke of? One cancelling the other out with a zero remainder? Or is there a longer game afoot? In which the peaks and troughs of loss and joy rise and fall in an never ending cycle, into the eternal? I suppose that is why I call ‘it’ whole and unknowable, The Mystery.
Being possessed as we are of finite single perspectives, it seems perfectly normal that so many of us are invested in a long game eternity. Of which there seems to me to be two main theories readily understood. The first, that death is just the point at which you stop having to worry about death and continue along forever, precisely as you are with all you loved ones about, needing nothing and perfectly joyful; and the second (and really probably third and fourth), well, is a little more complicated. Obviously, it is not so clear cut, in the first place, what ‘joyous’ is to an individual varies wildly, for some it’s 72 virgins, for others, all their wives in eternal submission, for others still, little more detail than the continued adoration of the Divine, and everything imaginable in between. This style of afterlife is not really where my own thoughts lie, but rather than a detailed version of what I believe and how I arrange the Cosmos I want instead to consider why being able to detail same is important in a discussion of life and death.
Coming to terms with life and death requires a reconciliation of not just one life, and your own death, but the organisation of the Cosmos as a whole. We use a lot of religious and philosophical terms to describe vastly complex cosmologies, and we each have an idea of ontology, what is, what is not, and how what is relates to all the other things that are. Yet, I find in neo-pagan circles, communities, online and in real life (as it were), there is very little in-depth people want to discuss in terms of how they order and understand the Cosmos, Gods, and life after death. We tend to see much more regarding individual names, Odin, Hekate, Pan and the last “chat” we had with them, their preferred ritual program, and the last spell we cast, but very little regarding what kind of beings we actually think these names, ritual and spells belong to. But then, “hi, I’m an animist, pluralist, polytheist, and syncretist who practices witchcraft. How do you organise the Cosmos?” is hardly the conversation starter.
Well, I think it is. Unfortunately, there is also a habit within the community to decide what a word or thing is “for them”. “For myself” is a grand way to describe a personal practice, like describing which herb you prefer for necromancy work, or which flower you best associate with the Beloved Foremothers. “For myself” style polytheism, for example, very often denotes something other than polytheism. The same can be said for broad arrangements of the Cosmos and an understanding of the Afterlife. The afterlife can be a tricky on this score, since I think there is a lot more room for a consideration of what an individual might want to do with their’s, the Otherworlds are vast and varied, but in terms of what the Otherworlds are made of, how one gets to them, where they are, and the stuff the dead are made of, well, there’s not a whole lot of variation to be had, and much less room for “for me” thinking. At least, if we want to understand each other, and actually enter into any type of service particularly to the grieving. And I think there are two ways of thinking about this.
In the first place, as neo-pagans and witches, it is vastly important that we recognise as a group writ large, we will never have our own version of the Apostle’s Creed. It is very unlikely we will ever see (and I hope to never see it at all) the day when we actually determine the substance of the Divine, or rather, how alike in “god-stuff” the various deities of the various pantheons are. Indeed, the very notion of a “god-stuff”, a substance unknown of which gods, spirits, and even our own souls are made of, is not a necessary neo-pagan belief. And I assure you, it is quite possible to believe there is no other stuff other than what we know the universe to be made of in very mundane terms, and still believe in Gods and Spirits and Souls. Complicated though that is, entirely possible. It seems to me the strength of neo-paganism as a movement is its capacity to explore diverse spiritual beliefs and practices and actively support that growing diversity. At our best, we exemplify the communion between people who believe in a self-actualising creator being, and those who do not believe in any beings other than those things we understand in a scientific sense to live, for example. Some of us are deeply invested in the long game eternity, and there are those who are happy with what they have in life as we understand it between birth and death.
That diversity necessitates the second consideration, I believe, particularly pertinent for those of us who teach or facilitate for others; that is, does our individual belief render us useful to only those who believe similarly? I find in many contemporary spiritualists and neo-pagans either a determination to be entirely non-committal in terms of specific beliefs, or a penchant towards fundamentally Christian concepts of a transcendent ‘stuff’ and eternal place wherein only a subtle shift in the hierarchy of the divine is considered, if at all. Is this the safe road of acceptance? Is it a subtle kind of lip service in aid of popularity? Is it the truth of many contemporary spiritualists, like Eckhart Tolle, which just makes it more palatable to the masses accustomed to this style of belief? Is it simply that people do not completely understand that there are other ways of organising the Cosmos outside of mainstream belief systems? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it renders my question regarding our usefulness in terms of service to those dealing with death particularly, rather moot. But for those of us who subscribe to less mainstream cosmological ideas and philosophies, the questions is perhaps of greater importance.
The answer comes back to the individual. And specifically whether or not one’s own beliefs are necessarily right; or whether or not they are understood to exist as part, or within a complex of “ways of being”. Simpy put, those whose beliefs are necessarily right will have difficulty administering to those whose beliefs are necessarily wrong. And for those in the second camp, it is likely they have already spent many a rainy afternoon wondering whether a single belief alters the reality of the Cosmos, and what is real, and what is knowledge and what is belief… And got a headache.
Regardless, it is the noble pursuit, and there is no greater pastime than contemplating the nature of life and death, or as my friend would say “you know, life, the Universe and everything, but especially the glory and divine nature of coffee”. I had the very great luxury of teachers who were better versed than I in such matters, and I continue to be drawn to people who can articulate their belief systems in an in-depth manner. I would advocate for much more of that sort of discussion within our communities, and still favour the writings of those who have detailed these things at length, whether or not my personal beliefs are the same. (I might even do the same one day, when perhaps I have it sorted more fully.) Functionally, I think it is important; if we wish to play a role in the grief of the World, if we wish to offer our skills as mystics and spiritualists then we must be able to understand in-depth the beliefs of the individual.
I would even suggest a correlation between those who have vastly more detailed considerations of the nature of life and death outside of the mainstream beliefs, and an expressed urgency regarding the need of the neo-pagan community to be actively administering to the grieving in our communities. Indeed, for those who subscribe to more complex ideas of “being” and life and sentience, there is huge need to actively heal and engage with the loss and grief experienced in many more ways than how our mainstream society might generally associate the idea of grief. The ability to articulate from where our grieving stems serves not only the individual, but those best armed to help us through.
To know the nature of life is to best understand ourselves as children of life’s longing for itself, to be ourselves, and know ourselves in the Cosmos, and lose our misery. For neo-pagans, if we wish to engage with Life and Death for those experiencing them, we must not only be forthright in terms of our own beliefs, but have a functional understanding of the vast array of systems. We must know the other in the Cosmos to help them lose their misery.