What started as a weeklong study of the tarot’s major arcana – or in everyday speak ‘the big mysteries’ – turned out to be a two week meditation on Death. I had originally intended to post weekly and well I guess that too had to fade. In the words the poet Ikkyū:
Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity
The universe has dark and light, entrust oneself to change
One time, shade the eyes and gaze afar at the road of heaven.
Which one might argue is the unifying wisdom of the tarot.
Life-death-rebirth. This passed year, personally, has been one of major upheaval. In all areas: career, finances, health, identity, relationships ending, family losses. For various reasons I’ve been training less, physically, and I feel my body completely restructuring. Now that’s a trip!
Someone mentioned to me a while ago that I may need to go through a grieving process and I was sort of like, “Why?!” And when I named last week that in some way I have been dying, it completely floored me. But what really knocked me out was that Death was coming through as something that was for me and not against me. Death as friend. Death as mentor. Death as adviser.
Then I got the news that my Granddad was going in for heart surgery, and well you can imagine, that was a lot! After some complications, he’s doing well and stable.
So what I ended up doing is sitting with my own death. Through a process from Arnold Mindell’s book “The Shaman’s Body.”
Drop your personal history and use death as an adviser. To begin, describe yourself: Who are you normally?
What have you been doing?
Working as a dancer. Partied last night. Largely unemployed. Tattooing folks. Spending a lot of time reading cards and doing my spiritual work. I’ve been trying to get out of dance and move into something else. I spend a lot of the day sitting, occasionally getting up to do some physical training.
From what kind of family do you come?
An evangelical Christian British family. Nuclear family: Mum, Dad, brother, sister, pets. Other relatives have always lived far away. Though my paternal Grandparents moved to the same town during my teenage years.
Describe your gender, race, religion, profession, and nationality.
I am seen by the state as male but feel myself to be non-binary. I am white British, but wish my ancestors had never come up with the terms ‘white’ and ‘black.’ Rather, I am pale-skinned. A recent DNA test revealed my ancestry (at least 500 years back) to be British, Irish, French, German and Scandinavian. However there is some shame about being British 1) because it’s not exotic and 2) because of all the suffering we have caused and still cause. I am a witch; weaving the traditions that come across my forwards path. Learning what my particular spirituality is. Hmmm. Okay. I have been working as a dancer but am trying to have a more eclectic career track.
How do you see your body?
I appreciate my body in many way, it’s flexibility and general state of health. But in many ways I don’t like it. Wishing that everything were bigger and skin clearer. I see my body as average, athletic, but blemished.
Is it weak or strong, ugly or beautiful?
Good-looking but not awe-striking. Good enough. Weak, sensitive, receptive. But strong in some ways. Definitely resilient. I have thought of myself as ugly frequently.
Are you successful, or not?
Other people have seen me as successful, in terms of following your dreams etc. And in that sense, I agree. I have been fortunate enough to do that. I have enough. And I have what I need. In fact, I’m truly grateful for that. But I feel like I still have more to accomplish.
Go into a fantasy you have had about your death. Describe how you imagine death coming to you.
I imagine that I will die at 80, hopefully 90, in my sleep. Peacefully and still of sharp mind. Pavle (my partner) will have gone, only a couple of moments before me – or we could even die sleeping side-by-side. That would be the most beautiful. In our bed. Both having lived such full lives. Our kids will have felt it coming; as have we. And we will have set up a ritual together with lots of art-making and sharing, telling stories and poems together. Crying with joy. And the deepest, purest sadness at the mystery. We will not be afraid, but in pure unknowing. And by morning, as the sun rises, we will be gone. And Pavle and I will hover above our bodies, to see our children and grandchildren paradoxically laugh and cry. We will kiss their heads. They will feel it and we will be on our way to explore the stars. To meet our ancestors and the lights. Be on planets like Saturn. Pavle will be able to live in his psychedelic logic and I will be able to live like a lotus on water.
Experiment with letting this fantasy of death take over. Let go of your ordinary identity you described in the beginning of this exercise. Imagine why death might want this identity to die.
Death – this beautiful white cloud? – might want the identity previously described to die so that I can be free to live the life fully and joyfully that would lead up to such a satisfying and peaceful death. Yes. Yes. Indeed. Indeed. Death wants me to cut away the grease and mould to live a life unfettered. So that when death comes, I can say, “Yes, I’m ready to go. I did everything.” Hmmm…
What part of you is meant to die, so to speak?
My skin. My attitude towards it. The tension in my joints. And the tension beneath my skull. I am ready to shed a layer, literally.
To shed old ideas about death and what is coming. The colour of death is white, not black. And can be the seeping into harmony with all that is. It is not necessarily something to be afraid of.
To let go of trying to figure out. I keep thinking of the Zen Centre. With every sentence I write. Hmm. That brought me into the darkness of my body – my internal space.
Imagine and enjoy, if possible, the detachment that comes from death.
I do enjoy the detachment that comes from death. It’s cooler, calmer, more humid than the unfeelingness of the banker [a fantasy from a previous exercise]. It’s detachment with feeling. Rather than numb isolation. … It’s lovely.
Imagine and experience living the freedom of your death in life, in the moment, at work, in relationships, and in the world.
Makes me want to go take a shower now.
To finish off, I would like to note that I do not prescribe to the belief that ‘life is about death’ or that Death is THE great mystery of life. One of the beautiful things I am learning to reflect on through the tarot is that it is but one of twenty-two. And it does not come at the end. It’s in the middle.
Death appears in the thick of life.
– translation of Ikkyū is Sonja Arntzen’s from “Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology”
– image is my own