Practice of the Week
Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.
adapted from Rebecca James Hecking, The Sustainable Soul
We die. We must. Without death, there would simply be no room for new life. Further, death and decay are integral to life itself. The leaves that fall in autumn provide nutrients for the green shoots that emerge in the spring. Predator devours prey. The dance of "I eat you, you eat me” goes on. Thousands of neurons in a newborn's brain die in order for others to form connections. Without these cell deaths, the child's development would be impaired. Even deaths that seem “unnatural” are part of the cycle. The fox finds the mother rabbit's burrow. The baby zebra ends up in the lion's mouth. The eggs grow cold from exposure and never hatch. The fawn cannot find enough to eat. In the not-so distant past, human children commonly died before age five. It may not be easy or pretty but it is inevitable. Death, like life, simply is.
Even on the grandest scale of all, death is integral. Every atom in your body had its beginnings inside a massive ancient star that exploded. On the early Earth, the evolution of new complex forms of life that ultimately led to the evolution of humanity necessitated the death or extinction of other forms. Life flows onward, creating and expanding anew -- and so does death. Death flows onward, cleansing, clearing, recycling, providing the raw materials for life processes. Death cannot exist without life, nor life without death. They are so intimately intertwined that they are really best considered as one process. This one life-and-death process is one of continual transformation. We—and everything else that exists—are always in the process of being, becoming, dissolving, evolving, transforming.
On the ocean of being, an individual life is one wave. We ripple over the ocean until we peter out or run aground, but we are never separated from the larger whole.
1. Transformation. Clear your altar, and collect items for two categories: alive and formerly alive. “Alive” might include a potted plant or a small fish tank. “Formerly alive” might include feathers, bones, dried leaves, or seashells. Arrange them to suit you, and leave them in place for a week or so. Spend some time daily at your altar considering the following:
How are your alive items in the process of transforming into something not alive?
How are your formerly alive items in the process of transforming into something alive?
On what sort of timescale might these transformations play out -- weeks, years, centuries?
2. Imagine Your Own Funeral. (Note: if you are depressed or have struggled with thoughts of suicide, consult a mental health professional before doing this exercise, or just skip it entirely.) Imagine what your funeral will be like. In your journal, explore how you wish it would be and how you would like to be remembered by family and friends. In your imagination, is it a quiet memorial or a rowdy wake? Is there any particular music playing or poems someone is reading? Who is there? If you wish, consider pre-planning services offered by many funeral homes. You can plan, pay for, and make choices for your own funeral. This would help ensure that your wishes are carried out, and also spare family members from having to make these decisions during their time of grief.
3. Life Cycle Project. This is an ongoing project that will take many months. Throughout this time, reflect on the process in your journal. Follow the life cycle of a plant from seed to seed. Choose an easy-to-grow flowering annual plant, such as a marigold or zinnia. Pick a variety that is relatively short and suitable for growing in a pot, in case you need to move it indoors for frost protection. Plant your seed in a pot. As you do so, mindfully consider the seed as a metaphor for the life/death/rebirth transformation cycle. Water it, tend it, place it in a sunny location, and watch it grow. When it flowers, don't "deadhead” it by removing the blooms to encourage more blooms. Instead, allow the plant to complete its natural life cycle. Monitor it as it goes to seed, and eventually dies. Allow it to completely transform by simply leaving it in its pot, and observe as the plant gradually becomes part of the soil itself, ready to grow the next generation. (Some of the seeds may sprout into that next generation, and you can observe all over again.)
Examining the Culture. Our contemporary culture denies death, and tries to postpone it as long as possible regardless of the quality of life. Share experiences related to how our culture handles serious illness, impending death, funeral rituals, and grief. Share openly and honestly, but respectfully, realizing that although we share a culture, our individual stories and experiences are unique.
Questions for Group Conversation:
- Is there such a thing as a "good death"? If so, describe it.
- How might reframing the concepts of life and death into the broader concept of transformation alter how we think about them?
- How can a nature-based, deep-time perspective help us through the grieving process? Can it be blended into traditional religious beliefs? If so, how? If not, why?
- Consider the entire life/death/transformation cycle from the perspective of a mountain, a town, a civilization/culture, a language, a bacterium, an insect, or any other entity. Be sure to place them in the larger context of the story of the universe.
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