A modern witch celebrates the cycle of life and death at the confluence of cultures

— This time of year, a bruja, or witch, practices central Mexican Indigenous rituals and modern pagan ones, both honoring the Earth and “us as individuals as part of nature.” But the holidays of the Day of the Dead and Samhain are not the same.

The Rev. Laura Gonzalez poses after teaching about Day of the Dead at a bookstore in Chicago in 2019.

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As Americans of all faiths prepare for Halloween with costumes and candy or the Day of the Dead with food and flowers, the pagan community is also preparing for its holiday celebrating death and rebirth.

Samhain is the third and final harvest festival of the pagan Wheel of the Year, as the holiday calendar is known in many Earth-based religions.

“(Modern) Pagans have incorporated the seasonal concern with the dead in a holy day that celebrates the cyclicity of life, death, and rebirth,” writes folklorist and pagan scholar Sabina Magliocco in her book “Witching Culture.” 

Not unlike the Day of the Dead and Halloween, Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “Sow-en”) includes feasting and honoring one’s ancestors, though those celebrating Samhain are likely to add some divination. Based largely on Irish folk religion, it is a time when the divide between the physical and spiritual worlds are believed to be thin.

The Rev. Laura González, who is a practicing witch and a pagan educator and podcaster in Chicago, celebrates all three. “(My practice) is a hodgepodge,” she laughs.

The Rev. Laura Gonzalez celebrating Tlaxochimaco 2022 in Little Village, Chicago. Courtesy photo
The Rev. Laura Gonzalez celebrating Tlaxochimaco 2022 in Little Village, Chicago.

González merges modern paganism with Mexican traditions, including practices indigenous to central Mexico, where she is from. “At their core, modern paganism and these indigenous practices both honor the Earth,” she said. Nature reverence is essential, she said, to her spiritual path.

“Let me describe to you what happens in my life,” González said in a phone interview. On Oct. 1, the decorations go up for Halloween, a purely secular holiday for her. Then, around Oct. 27, she sets up a Day of the Dead altar to honor deceased relatives, as most Mexicans do about this time, she said. “My mother died on Oct. 27, 2011. I believe it was her last wink to me,” said González.

Since then, González has been honoring her mother with bread and coffee but has also made it her mission to teach others about the Day of the Dead and its origins. She teaches those traditions as well as modern paganism both locally and over the internet at the pagan distance-learning Fraternidad de la Diosa in Chihuahua, Mexico.

On Samhain, González always hosts a small ritual for her Pagan students and participates in Samhain celebrations, either as an attendee or organizer. Some years she travels to Wisconsin to be with fellow members of the Wiccan church Circle Sanctuary.

Samhain is traditionally honored on Oct. 31, but some pagans celebrate it Nov. 6 or 7, an astrologically calculated date. Regardless, group celebrations must often yield to modern schedules, and González said she will celebrate an early Samhain this year.

“My (Samhain) celebration is for the ancestors and for the Earth going into slumber — the Goddess goes to sleep,” González said. She likes to focus her ritual on modern pagan trailblazers, often referred to as “the mighty dead,” rather than on her relatives, which she honors on the Day of the Dead.

González’s central Mexican indigenous practice and her modern pagan practice, rooted in  northern Mexico and the United States, “are very similar,” she added, both honoring the Earth and “us as individuals as part of nature,” something she believes has been lost in modern Day of the Dead traditions. However, she quickly added, “Indigenous practices are not pagan.”

Growing up in Mexico City, González was surrounded by mainstream Mexican culture, with Day of the Dead festivals and altars. As she was exposed to the Indigenous traditions that are still woven through Mexican culture, she explained, she began to study folk magic and traditions, as well as “Native philosophies.”

The Day of the Dead, she said, “is the ultimate syncretic holiday,” a merger of the European-based Catholic traditions with Indigenous beliefs and celebrations. “The practices brought to Mexico by the Catholic colonizers were filled with pagan DNA,” she said. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day contain remnants of traditional Samhain and other older beliefs, she noted.

“These colonizers came to a land filled — filled — with skulls and its imagery,” she said, which must have been frightening and somewhat of a culture shock, she added.

An altar during Tlaxochimaco 2022 commemorations in Little Village, Chicago. Courtesy photo
An altar during Tlaxochimaco 2022 commemorations in Chicago.

González is now actively participating in the revival of the Indigenous traditions as a teacher and celebrant. The Indigenous holiday, she said, is a 40-day celebration. The first 20 days is called Tlaxochimaco, or the birth of flowers, and the second is Xoco Huetzi, or the fall of the fruit.

“We all are flowers,” she explained. We grow, flower, bloom and then become fruit. Eventually falling and becoming seed, and the cycle continues. The Aztecs “used this mythology to describe life and life cycles,” she said.

“But there are people who do not make it to fruit. They die young,” González explained. These people are honored during Tlaxochimaco.

During Xoco Huetzi, celebrations are held to honor those who have made it to old age before passing. Both festivals traditionally involve dancing, she said, which is considered an offering to the dead. 

The 40-day celebration was eventually condensed into two days aligning with the colonizers’ Catholic traditions, she said, becoming the modern Day of the Dead celebration, a holiday that is quickly becoming as popular north of the Mexican border as Halloween is.

While González is not offended by purely secular Halloween celebrations, even with its classic depiction of witches, she struggles with the growing commercialization of the Day of the Dead. “I know what I am, and I know what I celebrate,” she said, speaking of Halloween. “I find it funny that the wise woman has been made into something scary.”

What does offend her is people dressed as sugar skulls. “It’s a double-edged sword,” González said. “It’s a source of pride knowing the world loves our culture,” she said. However, she added, “You love our culture, you love our music, you love our food, you love our traditions, you love our aesthetics, you love our parties and holidays, you love all of that, but you don’t love us.”

Complete Article HERE!

‘A Last Act of Intimate Kindness’

I had barely seen my brother in decades, but when time was short, he let me in.

By Michelle Friedman

The message I had dreaded for years appeared on my phone: “Looking to find the sister of my patient, Jay Friedman.”

My ensuing phone conversation with the doctor brought ominous news. My 65-year-old brother, Jay, had advanced pancreatic cancer. He and I grew up together in Divine Corners, N.Y., a hamlet in the Catskills, raised by secular Holocaust survivor parents who stumbled into raising chickens. Their histories, coupled with the isolation and poverty of the farm, rendered my father brutal, especially to his only son.

I am the only family member with whom Jay maintained contact for the last three decades. Over that time, we communicated exclusively through email and cards I sent to a post office box. Despite working a quarter century in I.T. for the local school system, my brother did not own a cellphone. His doctor found my number via Google.

Jay was admitted to a fancy Seattle hospital where I called him via the landline next to his bed. His voice sounded weak, plaintive.

“Jay, I’ll come,” I said. “Let me be with you.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “My house is a mess.”

“I can stay in a hotel.”

“I’ll let you know.”

I panicked. I knew the prognosis was dire, but my brother’s lonely life cast an even darker shadow.

The hospital discharged Jay with a bag hanging from his chest to drain bile from his tumor-blocked liver. A few days later the doctor called again. Jay wanted my help.

I caught a flight to Seattle, picked up a rental car and drove around Puget Sound to a town in Kitsap County. Before entering Jay’s house, I muttered an ad hoc prayer for strength. Following the sounds of his weak voice through the maze of papers, boxes and computer parts, I found my brother lying on the couch. The disease had consumed him, leaving his body whittled, skeletal. Only Jay’s voice sounded familiar, a gravelly baritone.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I’m sorry I was snappy over the phone.”

The blanket wrapping my brother was full of holes. A brown crust covered his kitchen floor and counters. Jay drank tea with lemon in the one glass he possessed. Not owning a kettle, he boiled water in an old pot.

I brewed tea and baked a piece of chicken. After a few sips of liquid and child-size bites of food, Jay felt full. He slowly climbed the stairs to the single bed in his bedroom. The sheets hadn’t been changed in months. All I found in the closet was a cotton duvet cover that I recognized from the farm where we grew up. The faint smell of the detergent and crisp lines from our mother’s iron told me Jay had never used it.

Retreating to a Best Western hotel two miles away gave me guilty relief. It was no palace, but it was clean and orderly.

In the morning, the doctor outlined my brother’s stark medical options. Surgery was out. Jay could pursue radiation or chemotherapy, but neither was likely to yield much in terms of quantity or quality of life.

Jay made his choice in seconds — no aggressive medical intervention. The focus shifted to palliative care at home.

He didn’t have much time, weeks. How was I to start a conversation with him about his death? I knew he took pride in his money management and had saved a lot (though I had no idea then how surprisingly much), so that’s where I started.

“Jay, have you thought about what you want to do with your money?”

“Yes, I’ve thought about this a lot. I want to give it to Planned Parenthood.”

“All of it?”

“Yes.”

His calm answer startled and pleased me. Throughout our decades of sparse contact, Jay stayed vague when it came to his personal opinions.

“Jay, that’s amazing! How did you come to this decision?”

“There are too many people in the world, and I believe that people should have autonomy over their own bodies.”

I sat in silence thinking about my brother’s autonomy, the little boy overwhelmed by our rageful father, the awkward teenager who wanted to join the Navy to get away but lacked nerve. My practical mind kicked in. “Jay, do you know a lawyer?”

Once again, he surprised me. “Yeah. One of the teachers I know went to law school at night. He’s a good guy.”

Jay had no contact information for the lawyer, but I found him through the school. He answered my text within minutes and got to work preparing the necessary papers.

By the next day, Jay could no longer crawl up and down the stairs and spent most of his time in his bedroom. We moved the mattress to the floor in case he rolled off during the night. I pleaded with hospice to fast-track Jay onto their service, and soon a nurse arrived and taught me how to dose the medication: morphine for pain, Haldol for nausea and Lorazepam for anxiety. Each floated in a medicine-dropper-topped bottle so that liquid relief could be applied to the inside of the patient’s cheek.

Jay’s condition deteriorated quickly, and I no longer retreated to the Best Western. My first night in Jay’s house, I slept downstairs on the sofa. The next night, I worried that I wouldn’t hear his whimpers, so I moved to the floor next to his mattress. My younger brother’s vulnerability pierced me; he was the innocent little boy on the farm who trusted me. I cried, silently.

When he no longer ate or drank, I repurposed a medicine dropper to drip orange juice and seltzer onto his parched lips.

The lawyer met privately with Jay and later told me of his firm wish to be cremated.

A clutch grabbed my heart. Jewish law, which I follow, prohibits cremation. “Can I at least get Jay’s ashes so that I can bury them according to our faith?”

“Yes. I think that will be OK.”

“We haven’t talked about this, but I’m wondering if you are part of a religious tradition?”

“I am. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

His answer bolstered me, given what I was about to request.

“Can I ask you one more favor?”

“Sure.”

“When the time comes, I want to do a Jewish ritual washing for Jay. It’s called a tahara. It means purification. I’ll need help; it’s too hard to do alone.”

“Of course. Call me when you need me.”

The days passed in a kind of waking dream. Jay talked on and off, disclosing struggles of all kinds. He liked hearing stories about Divine Corners, how we played in the snow and explored the brook behind the coops. I emptied his drainage bag and changed his adult diapers.

“This is disgusting,” he said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m here for you. There’s nothing else I want to do.”

As our mother did when we had fevers as children, I gave Jay a sponge bath and changed his worn pajamas to a clean set.

Jay quietly slipped away. He told me that his dream was to buy a house on a lake with a few acres of land.

“That’s such a nice idea, Jay,” I said. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

And then I made a plea I knew people have uttered for millenniums. “Send me a sign, Jay. Please send me a sign from the other side.”

Early Thursday morning I woke up inches from my brother to find him gone. No labored breathing, no death rattle. His skin had cooled, his limbs stiffened.

When the sky was fully lit, I called his friend, and we performed the tahara. We removed Jay’s pajamas, removed the drain and bag, all the while using a clean sheet to keep his frame covered and dignified. I repurposed the battered teapot to pour water over his body, starting with his head and moving to his feet. We toweled him dry, dressed him in long underwear and wrapped him in the duvet cover from our childhood farm. The work felt tender, holy, a last act of intimate kindness.

The mortuary people came and removed Jay’s body. At 6 o’clock I boarded the van for the airport. Only one other person got on, a white-haired woman in a sweater set. I saw that she bid a sorrowful farewell to the man seeing her off. She sat a few rows behind me. Drizzle and traffic caused delays, but our elfin driver navigated the trip and asked us which terminals we needed.

“American,” she said, turning mournfully in my direction. “It’s a sad trip. My brother is dying of brain cancer in Florida.”

“United,” I said, and to her: “I just left after taking care of my brother, who died this morning. I hope you get there in time.”

We reached across the aisle and held hands. Jay had made good on his sign.

Complete Article HERE!

Volunteering for a Jewish burial society showed me how to live a more sacred life

The work of a Chevra Kadisha is done without promotion or fanfare, and is solely for the benefit of the deceased

By Hannah Lebovits

The first time I touched a dead body was in a sanitized room inside a Dallas funeral home. I was stationed next to Ana’s toenails, with a small toothpick and a Q-tip. While firmly holding onto her foot, I silently cleaned away any dead skin, dirt or debris that might be found under her nails or between her toes.

Though Ana’s primary residence was several hours from the city, and she was not affiliated with any local synagogues, a burial plot in Dallas had her name on it. In Dallas, Ana’s family requested a Jewish burial service, including a plain, pine coffin and a ritual cleansing. The funeral home alerted the local Chevra Kadisha, the organization that prepares bodies in accordance with Jewish law, to perform the tahara or purification rituals, and, along with four other women, I volunteered.

Jewish death and Jewish life seem vastly different to me since joining the Chevra. Jewish life gets more and more public every day. Last year, an online Jewish organization paid for prime advertisement space in Times Square to fight antisemitism. Netflix offers Jewish experiences on demand, including the nuanced, scripted “Shtisel,” and the unabashed, reality-TV show “My Unorthodox Life.” Meanwhile, on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, one can find countless accounts dedicated to informing the public about Jewish life and interfaith experiences.

Yet, while Jewish life seems to be increasingly visible, Jewish death rituals remain private, intimate and authentic. Narcissism and self-promotion are left at the entrance to the funeral home. Inside the tahara room, individual opinions, personal comfort and even your schedule are entirely secondary to the needs of the deceased. The experience is calming and comforting specifically because it is not about you. It’s a lesson for all of us who consider ourselves to be representatives of and in service to Jewish life.

If we can take a few moments to disconnect from the noise and selfishness of everyday living and instead focus on accountability — particularly in our interactions with those who may never repay us — we can maintain a certain purity of action in living an authentic Jewish life.

Prior to walking into the tahara room, I helped to prepare the casket. The first thing we realized, upon opening the box, was that there were not enough wood shavings to properly prepare her casket. Ana’s head was to be propped up on a pillow filled with wood shavings, and her body to lie on a sheet covering an arched bed filled with more wood shavings. We laid out the burial shrouds across the aron (casket) and waited for a funeral home manager to find more of this important material, but no additional wood could be found.

We asked her to keep some on hand for the future, set up what we had and hurried into the tahara room, unwilling to make the body wait for even another second.

After cleaning Ana’s nails and checking her body for any open wounds, I picked up a pot full of water. Starting with Ana’s hair, I poured the water from the pot onto her body as another member of the Chevra Kadisha washed her with a simple white linen cloth. We made our way down the right side of her body as another pair of women did the same on the left. Her body was cold to the touch.

Towels covered her body, and we lifted those towels only to reach a specific spot. Once the area was cleaned of any residual dirt or blood, we covered it again. Any bleeding that we had found during the process would be collected and buried in the casket with her.

I watched as her head remained elevated the entire time. Ana could be seen yet she herself could not see, and as such, we kept her face and eyes covered, out of respect.

Before washing Ana, I washed my own hands. In line with the ritual practice, I poured water from a cup onto my right hand, making sure the water spread from my wrist to the ends of my fingers. Then, I did the same for the left hand. I repeated this three times, in silence. After Ana’s body was cleaned, we washed again, replaced our gloves and filled three more buckets with water.

Ideally, Ana’s body would be entirely submerged in a mikvah. However, since that is not feasible in our community, we are required to pour water in a manner that will ensure that the flow does not stop, simulating a complete immersion. Ana’s body was completely uncovered as three women poured the buckets of water over her, beginning with her head and ending with her feet, making sure that the flow from the bucket was continuous. After the three women poured, we all proclaimed Ana’s purity, and one woman read the prayers. We then immediately covered and dried Ana’s body and began to dress her in burial shrouds.

Local traditions vary across places as different leaders (the “Rosha”) will follow specific customs they’ve been taught and have found to work. The practices followed by our Chevra include specific outlined rituals, local traditions and tikkunim, or “perfections.” A tikkun is a practice that assists in the performance of the ritual and serves as a reminder to the members of the Chevra that they must treat the body — which once held the soul and is now in transition — with the utmost respect.

One tikkun our Chevra keeps is placing a sign with the deceased’s Hebrew name in the tahara room, so that there is no time lost waiting to recall the name as we say the prayers. While dressing Ana, we turned the garments slightly inside out so that Ana’s body would not have to be moved more than necessary as we pulled them up her body — another tikkun we performed.

Complete Article HERE!

What Comes After Death?

— Clinicians can help young patients integrate existing belief systems to process grief

By Rebecca Morse, PhD, MA

I once attended a funeral during which the guests were invited to take a flower from atop a young mother’s casket as a memento. A little boy, her son, was being held by his father. He had been remarkably quiet throughout the funeral and interment process up to this point. Then, I began watching him, watch them. He was looking from the line of people to the casket, to his father, to the line of people, to the casket, to his father. He was starting to fidget. And suddenly, amid the silence, he asked his father “Daddy! Why are they taking mommy’s flowers? They are the lastest she’ll ever have?!”

The purpose of this story? To emphasize that this little boy, with only a handful of years on this earth, who couldn’t possibly have a full, contextual understanding of death, on some minute yet significant level got it. His mother would never get more flowers. At least, none she would be able to appreciate.

Last month, I wrote about how medical professionals should always provide honest and fact-based information when talking to pediatric patients about dying. Yet the question remains: What comes after death?

Children may not ask questions indicative of an existential crisis. They often ask very practical questions: What happens after we die? What will happen to me after I die? Is there a heaven? We must educate those who work with and around children: kids live in a world where death exists and we don’t help them if we don’t tell them, help scaffold their understanding, and better their ability to process difficult emotions.

Having established that children understand more than we recognize, how do we, as health professionals, discuss what comes next? First, the pragmatic recommendations: When discussing anything with a child, it’s best to ensure that the parents or legal guardians know what you will be sharing and why. Second, it’s critical to be mindful of culture. Depending on the family’s background there may be constraints or considerations integral to their belief system. And although the goal is transparency and honesty, to establish a trusting relationship with the child, it doesn’t help if the healthcare professionals and guardians are at odds with one another.

It can also be helpful to ask the child what they know already. What have they learned from their family? What does the child think? Children are remarkable observers. They “science” the world around them; correlation does imply causation to them. So, knowing and being able to understand their existing framework or cognitive schema(s) will help guide you in what to say. Even a child as young as 3 or 4 years old can make correlational connections, as did the young child in my story.

In my thanatology courses on children and death, I often require students to watch the movie “Ponette.” It’s a perfect example of what not to do. As each adult and older child gives Ponette different responses after her mother dies, she now must navigate conflicting narratives. And none of it makes sense to Ponette, who is engaging in a very healthy grief response: seeking proximity to her deceased mother and wanting to find ways to communicate with her spirit.

When discussing the afterlife and what comes next with kids, if you know the family’s belief or faith you can work with, not against, what the child has already internalized as their working model for their assumptive world. It’s not our place to undermine the child’s trust in their parents or guardians, or to question what the family has taught the child.

So, what might this look like in a clinical setting?

Step 1: Be honest about what you don’t know first-hand. Unless you are Frankenstein’s monster, it’s safe to assume you haven’t been dead yourself or returned from the grave. It’s okay to tell a child that you don’t know. In terms of sharing what you believe, there may be limitations on what you may or may not share based on professional ethical or legal guidelines, in addition to the need to respect the legal and moral rights of the parents.

Step 2: Ask. This is a good opportunity to ask the child what they believe. A child doesn’t need us to have all the answers. Children need a secure attachment base, and to know they can trust the adults in their world. Regardless of the child’s faith of origin (meaning their caregiver’s or cultural belief system that they are still internalizing), they need consistency in messaging, and their caregivers serve as a primary attachment figure. This can be challenging when the child or family has a different belief system than your own. This is where spiritual cultural humility is imperative; never undermine faith just because you don’t share it (e.g., thanatologists dealing with difference). By finding out what the client feels is salient, we can help them process their emotions around it.

Step 3: Help the child learn to label their emotions. Research has demonstrated that when parents have a more extensive vocabulary for emotion-related words, their children are more advanced in both their social and emotional development. Lev Vygotsky, an early developmentalist, was particularly interested in how we can structure learning in children; he posited that a child’s ability to learn and reach their potential is not limited as much by their own abilities, as it is by the ability of the “teacher” or more expert peer to “scaffold” learning. When children can have their emotion-related expressive language scaffolded (meaning built up or supported by a more experienced person), they show better emotional self-regulation. One final tip: children process through play, so don’t be surprised if they engage in imaginary playacting or games to practice what they are learning and to develop self-regulation. It’s perfectly normal if one moment they are crying or distressed and then minutes later they are laughing and silly. Children may also practice social scripts around loss through make-believe interactions with imaginary friends — this is healthy and adaptive as they are learning to adapt to their new world.

Talking with children about death is one of the most challenging things grown-ups must do. I know many parents who would much rather discuss sex than death and dying. Oftentimes, it may fall on healthcare professionals to provide support. Similar to discussing dying with a child, when discussing what comes after death it’s important to keep in mind the child’s cognitive ability, offer honesty titrated in language they can understand, and remember that grief may manifest itself in different ways such as upset tummies, headaches, irritability, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns.

Moral of the story? The best thing we can do to help children deal with death is to lean into those difficult discussions, work within their existing understanding, and allow them to process at their own pace.

Complete Article HERE!

How Death Gives Meaning to Our Lives

In her new book, Alive Until You’re Dead, Susan Moon helps us confront our fears around death and shows us why we should be grateful for our own mortality.

Susan Moon’s new book, Alive Until You’re Dead, is out now with Shambhala Publications.

by Alison Spiegel

The subtitle of writer and lay Zen teacher Susan Moon’s latest book may be “Notes on the Home Stretch,” but the wisdom on aging, and more to the point, death, in Alive Until You’re Dead is important for readers of any age. Weaving in personal stories, many about confronting the deaths of close friends, Moon turns her lived experience into tributes and guidance for facing mortality. She also brings a lightness to the subject that so many people fear above all else, but that Moon says actually brings meaning to our lives. Tricycle caught up with Moon to hear more about the intention and writing process of the book, and for further advice on facing death at any stage of life.

Why did you want to write Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch? I wanted to write about my ongoing concern with what it means to be mortal and the idea that our condition of mortality and impermanence, which we are constantly fighting against, actually gives us life. Death is very hard and painful but it’s also what gives meaning to our lives. I really wanted to talk about how we actually can be grateful for our mortality, and that the fact that we’re going to die gives us the opportunity to make our life meaningful.

You wrote this book during the pandemic. How did that unique time impact your work? I think of it as my pandemic book, in a sense, because the pandemic provided me time and space and simplicity of life to write. I’ve been on writing retreats, I’ve been to writers’ residencies, and weirdly, this horrible tragedy was also kind of a perfect writer’s retreat for me. But at the same time, I think all the tragedy and fear added to the relevance of my subject in a way. I have to add that I’m grateful to my sister and brother-in-law who live with me and who supported and encouraged me as this was going on.

Early in the book, in a story about a friend of yours who died in the hospital after suffering a stroke, you say that “the Grim Reaper metaphor is all wrong.” Can you explain what you mean by that? Death is not one separate thing that’s coming after us. In Buddhism, birth and death are kind of conceived as a hyphenated thing. Life is the realm of birth and death, and there’s a sense that before we were born into this body, and after we leave this body, there’s this other realm of the absolute, which is a mystery to us. People often worry about what will happen to them after they die, but we never think about where we came from before we were born. We don’t even think about that as a parallel thing. 

Though you don’t shy away from the hard parts of aging, you also describe the upsides. Referencing a dharma brother who gave a memorable talk at Berkeley Zen Center, you write, “In his old age, it came naturally to him to put himself aside and not think about what he needed all the time.” How have you experienced this? It’s about letting go of self clinging. I’m not building a life anymore so there’s some freedom there to attend to the needs of others, like my own children and grandchildren. How can I just be present with loved ones? I love the example in that essay when the man said when he was playing with his grandson, and they would build a tower, his grandson would knock it over again and again, and they would just laugh and build it again. You don’t have to worry about building a tower that stays up.

But letting go of self-clinging is appropriate for anyone at any stage of life. If you’re grasping for your own happiness at the expense of others, that’s not going to bring you happiness. I really feel that the path to joy is to let go of self-clinging in whatever way you can, and I think Buddhist practice has been helpful for me in that. But there’s many other routes, like being in community and continually remembering that we’re all in this together, we’re all interconnected, and your happiness isn’t separate from anybody else’s happiness.

“The fact that we’re going to die gives us the opportunity to make our life meaningful.”

Throughout the book you reference beautiful moments with your grandchildren, who you connected with frequently over Zoom during the pandemic. These stories speak for themselves, but you also talk about the term “grandmother mind.” Can you explain what that means? It’s connected to letting go of clinging. Dogen uses the phrase when he tells a young male monk, who is different from a grandmother in every possible respect, that he won’t be able to have a mind of compassion and be a true Buddist practitioner unless he can develop “grandmother mind.” Dogen is speaking, I believe, about what he calls “the mind of great compassion.” So it’s that spirit, but I think as I’m using it, it’s also about a certain kind of love. If you’re not one of the grandparents who are raising your own grandchildren—an amazing thing that a lot of people are doing—and you’re able to just be a grandparent and not be responsible for all the hard parts, the kind of love that you can have for your grandchildren is unencumbered, unconditional. I see “grandmother mind” as an obligation to apply that feeling to all children. All of us need to have “grandmother mind” about children.

On the subject of death, you say, “When I deliberately consider my own death, I feel more alive,” and you offer some contemplations on death. Could you describe one of them? One that pops into my head—it’s not harder or easier, or more important or anything—is walking in cemeteries. To walk in a cemetery, and to actually look at the gravestones, read the names and think of all these people who have died, to look at the dates and think about the generations, gives me a sense of how there’s a flow of time and generations. For some reason I’m comforted by the thought that I am a leaf in the generations of leaves that keep turning over. I’m part of the turning over. There are many people who were born and died before me and hopefully there will be many who are born and die after me. I’m just one person and I’m not all that important. It’s just amazingly fortunate that I should be walking there, alive and looking at some bird singing in a tree, and life is going on. It’s the same feeling I get from looking at the stars in the sky and thinking of the vastness of the universe, or by reading about physics or cosmology. It’s the idea that there’s this vastness of time and that my life is just a little blink, and I don’t even know what part of the great cosmic consciousness my life is, but it’s a miracle that I have this consciousness in this one little tiny person on the planet. Here I am, and what a great miracle.

Do you think it’s wise or essential to prepare for death? What about preparing for the death of loved ones? When I think about it as a practice myself I resist it because it feels unnecessarily harsh. But should we prepare for the greatest moments of suffering? What I realized when I was writing this book—and I realized it before when thinking about my own loved ones, and particularly my children—is that accepting my own death is a hard job, but accepting that the people I love will die is even harder. Having people leave you is terrible, and then the worst possible fear of all would be to have your children die. I can’t imagine anything worse. I remember when I first became a mother, all of a sudden when I read the newspaper and the war in Vietnam was going on, I would see these pictures of children in the war and the whole thing took on a different meaning. It was much more personal to me, and it became unbearable. It’s the same even now, when I think about the war in Ukraine and the children there.

I think preparing for the death of loved ones is something that one can do. You can prepare for the death of somebody who is old, where the death won’t be such a tragedy. You can just try to appreciate the person and have so much gratitude for this person being in your life. You can try to help them see that their life has been full and rich and help them find some peace. And for children, take as much joy as possible in what’s going on. Don’t let fear rob you of your joy.

I also think that we can trust that sometimes people who are dying find a way to accept what’s happening. Maybe they’re in pain, maybe they want to be released, but it’s important to know that while your pain and your loss is so real and acute, you don’t have to take on their suffering, because you don’t really know what they’re suffering is.

A friend of mine, who I loved very dearly, died of cancer in 2018. I miss her terribly. She was a Buddhist, and she knew she was dying for quite a long time. At first she was still functioning well and then she needed to care, and I was one of the people who took turns to help her at home, making meals for her and things like that. Then she was in some pain and I said, “How do you do this? How do you tolerate this?” She said, “I just say to myself, ‘This is how it is right now.’” This is how it is right now. That became a kind of mantra for me that I bring into a lot of other situations in my life. It’s about being present in the moment, accepting things as they are and then moving from there. It’s not resigning yourself, but being present with things before you go on to the next thing. It’s knowing, thanks to impermanence, that things won’t stay this way, for better or worse. I think that is very helpful.

Complete Article HERE!

Sitting shiva and los nueve días

— The parallels between Jewish and Latino Catholic mourning

The Latin American practice of los nueve días is in many ways almost identical to that of shiva.

By Amanda Rozon

When I told my father I’d be writing about the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, he nodded with a clever smile, as if he was about to let me in on an exclusive piece of information.

“We do that too, you know,” he said. “We” being Dominicans.

As it turns out, Jews aren’t the only group that practices consecutive days of prayer and mourning after a death.

Catholics in many Latin American countries, prominently including Mexico and the Dominican Republic, practice los nueve días or novenario — nine days of mourning, named for nove, the Latin word for nine. It’s a practice in many ways almost identical to that of shiva — the Hebrew word for seven — the Jewish custom of mourning a death communally for seven days.

And like many who follow the traditions of shiva, many who practice novenario have plenty of opinions about how to observe the custom correctly.

My father, for one, holds deep resentments toward those who take los nueve días as an opportunity to party. He would not describe himself as spiritual or religious in any way, but he believes the dead should be respected. And if you show up to a novenario for fun and festivities, in his opinion, then you’d better have just stayed home.

Sharon Rose Goldtzvik, who wrote about shiva for the Forward this year, shared a similar reflection from her mother on sitting shiva. “We are not there for the food. We are not there to catch up with our friends. We are there for a specific purpose: to comfort the mourners,” she wrote.

That last part, my father said, is, in his experience, lost on some.

As Jews do, Catholic Latinos start the mourning process the moment the dead are buried. But when someone is buried varies between the two religions.

Jewish law holds that the dead should be buried no more than 24 hours after death, although today, the strictness with which that mandate is observed varies by denomination. So a shiva might and often does begin shortly after death. But because the Catholic church prefers that the deceased’s body be present for the funeral mass, their burial may take days.

For the nine days that follow that burial, things look very similar to shiva.

Family and loved ones gather at the deceased’s home to offer support, both spiritual and material. The long hours are spent remembering the dead, praying, sharing stories and lamenting the loss.

If the mourners are more well off, you show up empty-handed, bringing only emotional support. If the family has little money to spend on refreshments, everyone pitches in.

Members of Joaquina Chavez’s family in 2018 Puebla, Mexico, holding a final prayer for two deceased relatives.

Joaquina Chavez, who immigrated from Puebla, Mexico, to the United States as a teen in the late 1970s and now lives in Woodside, Queens, New York, says los nueve días is especially precious for Mexicans living away from their home country, since many families transport the deceased back to Mexico to be buried. The long period of communal mourning following that burial gives them an opportunity to come together with family members and friends whom they haven’t seen in years, sometimes decades.

“It’s also a time when people in my town forget about politics and issues and congregate and just pray for the family and the dead together,” she said, speaking in Spanish.

One key difference between shiva and los nueve días: While Jews often literally sit shiva — using low stools or pillows to symbolize feeling low in their grief and to be close to the departed — in a crucial part of the mourning ritual, Latino Catholics walk.

On the first day of mourning, a cross is erected next to an altar in the family home that the family will carry to the deceased’s final resting place on the last day, symbolizing the long journey the departed will take to divinity, and their family’s efforts to help get them there.

An altar decorated with pictures and offerings for the departed that remained erect in Chavez’s home for the nine days following the passing of her sister and brother-in-law.

In the nine days leading up to that final passage, ofrendas, or offerings, are also placed at the base of that altar, to be cleared up when the period ends. These can be small gifts one wishes to send off with the deceased — rosaries in vivid colors, fresh flowers and fruit to brighten up an otherwise dreary occasion.

Finally, for those who practice novenario, the mourning period always ends in a feast. In the Dominican Republic, a cow is traditionally killed to feed a crowd. By this point, word has spread across the town, and all are welcome. Whether you knew the deceased or not, no one is turned away.

Despite my father’s caution against a festive novernario, he was moved to tears describing the scene of those in his small hometown between two mountains, many of whom had little money for food, sitting around a fire pit and eating together — lending strength in numbers to help a family grieve.

In Mexico, the feast is also part of the ritual, although it can look different. In her experience, Chavez said, at gatherings before the final feast, the table is laid with “tostados, tamales, tacos, something small to offer.” But on the last day, she said “we make their” — the departed’s — “favorite meal to share with everyone.” In these last crucial steps, the transfer from the hands of loved ones to the hands of God is marked.

In both mourning traditions, this time of communal mourning can give a grieving family the strength to go back to work and to their daily lives. By leaning on each other, they share the burden of loss so it is not too heavy on any one person, they believe, leaving both the soul of the deceased and the spirit of the living intact.

In sum, it’s a way to tell one another that they’re not alone.

Complete Article HERE!

The psychedelic drug that could explain our belief in life after death

Scientists have discovered DMT, the Class A hallucinogenic, naturally occurs in the body, and may contain a clue to what happens when we die and why people see fairies

By Caroline Christie

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is the most powerful hallucinogenic drug around. The class A psychedelic is so potent that under the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances its manufacture is strictly for scientific research and medical use and any international trade is very closely monitored. But it also naturally occurs in the human body. Now a Senior Psychologist at Greenwich University, Dr. David Luke, is trying to undercover a link between DMT and ‘near death experiences’ to explain elves, tunnels of light and centuries old folklore. On July 8th he’ll talk about his research at an event in conjunction with SciArt collaboration Art Necro at The Book Club in London.

Tell me about yourself

I am a psychologist at the University of Greenwich and I teach a course on the psychology on the exceptional human experience, which looks at extraordinary phenomenon of human beings. It’s all about mythical experiences, psychedelic experiences, personal paranormal experiences, mysticism, spiritual experiences, those sorts of things.

I do research on altered states of consciousness and exceptional human experiences, including psychedelics, medication, hypnosis as altered states and the experiences people have in the states such as out of body experiences, possession, telepathy, and clairvoyance – all your usual stuff.

How did you end up focusing on DMT?

I’m interested in DMT is because of my interest in psychedelics and the phenomenology of psychedelic use. DMT is of particular interest because it’s an extremely powerful psychedelic substance. But what’s more interesting than that, is that DMT naturally occurs in many plants, animals and in humans. It’s endogenous, meaning it’s made within the human body. So it’s more than just a natural plant psychedelic – it’s in us. That makes it extremely curious.

Wait – we naturally produce DMT? Why?

We don’t really know. It was first isolated as a chemical about 100 years ago in various plants. For example in ayahuasca, (a hallucinogenic brew from South America) the other chemicals that were isolated in a plant were named telepathine because users reported telepathic experiences. DMT was later found to be naturally occurring in the human body, found in large quantities in the cerebral spinal fluid. It’s thought to be produced in the lungs and in the eye. It’s also speculated, but not proven, that it’s made in the pineal gland.

What’s the pineal gland?

The pineal gland is a weird organ. During the daytime it produces serotonin, which we know keeps us happy and buoyant, and at night the serotonin gets converted into melatonin. It’s also thought that the gland produces DMT, which is converted from serotonin because they’re similar, it just an enzyme that converts it. The gland is part of the brain’s structure, situated just outside in the spinal fluid in a cavity. It’s really interesting. Why would we have an extremely strong psychedelic substance being produced in our brains? What is its ordinary function in humans? It’s not very well understood, largely because there’s not much done into it. The initial speculation thought that it was perhaps responsible for psychosis, in that people with schizophrenia may have an overproduction of DMT. There was some research conducted into it in the 1960s, but that didn’t get any consistent findings. So that idea was abandoned. Shortly after that, the research with humans stopped because psychedelics became illegal. It didn’t really stop people from taking them, but it did stop researchers from reaching the affect in humans.

Recently, research has begun again. A pioneering medical doctor in the 1990’s called Rick Strassman , started injecting people with DMT as part of a medical research project. About 50 to 60 participants were given high doses and they reported some extremely bizarre phenomena. Approximately half of the participants on a high dose reported being in other worlds and encountering sentient entities, i.e. beings of an intelligent nature which appeared to be other than themselves. The experience was so powerful that participants were convinced of the reality of experience with these other beings. It poses some very interesting questions.

What do these beings look like?

The beings themselves took on various forms. Sometimes they took on the form of little elves or imps or dwarves, sometimes they’re omniscient deities, other times they’re angelic beings. But they’re specifically not humans. Rick Strassman also speculated that the DMT experience had a lot of similarities with what we know about the near death experience.

How is being on DMT similar to having a near death experience?

The near death experience is a type of experience syndrome, whereby people perceive themselves to be near death or in danger of dying. Typical experiences include the sensation of leaving the body, entering into a tunnel of light and flashbacks of their lives. People typically meet some kind of being, sometimes a deceased relative or a powerful other, like an angelic being. The being will tell them it’s not their time to die and that they should return. Then the person who’s having the experience will return back to their body. Sometimes it coincides with them being resuscitated if they are having a genuine near death experience, like a cardiac arrest.

Research has suggested that there is an overlap between that experience and the experience people have when on DMT. In that there’s often encounters with beings, out of body experience, life changing experience, which is often said of near death experiences. But there are dissimilarities as well.

Why are these experiences particular to DMT?

That’s a five and half million dollar question. It’s not well understood. Why do people have this reoccurring theme of apparently sentient entities? It could be that it’s a hallucinatory experience, and for some reason DMT triggers the sense of encountering another being. Or perhaps it’s a misfiring of the brain’s neural network that’s reasonable for those kinds of experiences ordinary.

But it’s curious that the experience occurs in the absence of any kind of objective sentient being in the presence of the person. The other thing is that people quite adamantly testify to the reality of the experience. They say it’s more real than this world. Although we can explain it as a neurochemical misfiring, people who have the experience typically feel dissatisfied with that explanation because it feels so real. But to say it’s a hallucination isn’t satisfactory either.

Hallucination is a bit of a waste basket term for odd experiences we don’t really understand or can’t explain. It’s just a label really.

What’s even more baffling is that people seemingly independently have similar types of encounters. They may not know about other people’s experiences of little people, elves, gnomes or dwarves.

We’ve found reports of them right back to the very first DMT experiments conducted by a psychiatrist in Hungary during the 1950’s. He first tested it on himself and then gave it to his colleague.They all reported the same thing.

My colleagues and I think these experiences aren’t culturally mediated. This is when people are primed to expect something i.e. elves and dwarves and so on, because they’ve heard about it. We think people have been having these experiences on DMT naively, ever since it was first isolated and taken by humans. There’s something about DMT itself which cultivates these experiences. We’re just not sure how or why.

So why do you think DMT is present in the human body?

Rick Strassman tried to use it as a way of explaining the near death experience. He suggested that what happens when you have a near death experience is that your brain releases its store of DMT into the brain and it’s this chemical release that gives the experience.

No one has done a particularly thorough job of mapping the classic near death experience to the classic DMT experience. People have attempted crude compassions but no one has looked at it closely. When you do there are some overlaps but there are a lot of differences.

Although the DMT experience broadly contains all the elements of a near death experience, near death experiences are not like DMT ones. You have the experience of being out of the body or a tunnel of light, like you have with DMT, but there are things we find in the DMT experience that we don’t find in the near death one, such as geometric patterns and alien and bizarre experiences, whereas near death ones are typically very earthly.

What’s more Interesting is if you look at the folklore in literature around 100 years ago. People documented verbal accounts of people who had experiences with pixies. Typically in the folklore literature there were most often associated with spirits of the dead, which has some alliances with the idea of DMT being related to near death experiences. How and why that is, that’s anyone’s guess really.

Are we close to finding any answers?

Scientifically it’s somewhat tricky. I’ve been researching in this area for about 10 or 15 years. DMT struck me as being extremely curious because there’s no other psychedelic we know of that naturally occurs in the human body. I mean the human neural system has endocannabinoids which are related to cannabis THC, but there’s a big difference between that and the presence of DMT.

What’s the role of DMT in the body and why do people have such extraordinary intense and bizarre experiences when they take it? Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be. That’s a quite ambitious speculation from a scientific perspective. Because you can’t really know what happens after death.

Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be.

Current mainstream scientific thinking is that the brain dies and consciousness ceases. New research and evidence is beginning to challenge that. If you’re looking at the near death experience research that’s going on, people are reporting having experiences of conciseness and conscious awareness even when there’s no apparent brain activity. When the heart stops beating for about 20-30 seconds, all brain activity that we can detect stops because the brain is starved of oxygen.

In theatre operations when people have had their heart stopped and the blood drained from their brain have reported conscious experience throughout the whole procedure, sometimes lasting an hour or more, during which there is no brain activity that we can detect. This challenges the notion that you can have no consciousness experience without brain activity. Now we can’t be certain that they’re actually having a consciousness experience, because we can’t be sure it’s taking place at the same time as their stops working. They could just conflate the experience when they recover brain activity. Or it could be that there are some parts of the brain that we can’t detect, which still remain active. But there’s no evidence for that. So we’re in peculiar territory here, scientifically speaking.

Do you think we’ll ever be able to test for signs of consciousness after death?

We always like to think we’ll have a better understating in the future and science does tend to progress but it’s quite a tricky area. Experimentally it’s very difficult. We’re not in a position to experimentally put people into a death state and see what happens. Although we can take note of people who have surgical procedure and are put into a state of clinical death.

We don’t even know if DMT exists in the pineal glands. We have discovered it in the pineal glands of rats, which are anatomically similar to humans. So there is possibility but we have yet to discover what the pineal glands’ actually function is. It seems to be important as a neurological transmitter on certain, little understood, nerotransmitter sites in the brain. It also seems to have important indications in the immune system. But the question remains why we have an extremely potent psychedelic chemical floating around in the human body. Can this account for spontaneous mythical and spiritual experiences?

Complete Article HERE!