Death and Dying from a Shamanic Perspective by Jan Engels-Smith
“Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by its breathtaking moments.” Michael Vance
In shamanism, the belief that there is no death is a concept grounded in the belief of the soul existing in a never-ending process of regeneration. Our soul remembers our ancient past, engages with our current environment, and knows our future lives. We live forever and our soul is immortal.
Our existence, however, is marked by numerous transitions—both between our many lives and sometimes even within the frame of what we view as the current physical life. Emotionally and spiritually, one of our most dramatic transitions involves the leaving of this physical vessel that we currently occupy and the passing to the next realm of our eternal existence.
For many people this is understandably a traumatic moment and a transition that might be fraught with fear and anxiety, but the lessons of shamanism can provide a perspective that differs significantly from the traditional Western view of death and dying, which is characterized by the finality of an “ending.” The key to unlocking the mysteries of existence lies in the understanding of the continuity of life and the eternal nature of the soul. Mystery—that wonderful realm of what we sense is there, strive to know, and replicate in our creativity—is the defining nature of spirituality and certainly the essence of our transitional experiences. As Carl Sagan noted, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Shamanism offers a way to know the soul as an eternal shape shifter, endlessly regenerating into limitless forms—some human, some not.
One of the wonderful experiences of the shamanic practice is to see one’s existence in the context of a universe unified not just in its physical state but also in time. Time is not just a linear condition of loss and gain but a summative experience that unifies all time into a singular moment of “here, now, and forever.” The transition that the limited vision calls death, the shaman sees as one more of an infinite number of transitions in the soul’s experience. The lesson to be learned is “how to see and understand the transition we call death and to experience its mystery as a revelatory moment in our eternal existence.” In this way, we focus on the positive energies of the wonderment and beauty of existence and the promises of life.
The basic understanding of the death process from the shamanic view involves working with the souls that are transitioning and, in the process, assisting others connected with the transitioning soul to find peace in a difficult time. There are actually four things that I teach that I feel are important to bring this understanding into full view.
- First, how to help a soul as it is transitioning from its human form into its light body, which we typically call death.
- Second, how a student might learn to journey to his own death and see what his soul might decide to do and how it might behave in this process, dependent on the individual’s belief system.
- Third, how to journey to the soul of a person who has died and to find closure with that person or to ask him what he experienced in his process.
- Fourth, how to help a soul that is caught between worlds, a discarnate being that has lost the physical body but is not yet in contact with the divine—a dilemma that fear, attachment, or a non-defined belief systems can create.
In this article, I’m going to concentrate on the first lesson and I will write in the future about the other three practices.
Shamanism involves a belief that we create our reality on the earth. You might be familiar with this concept and may well have experienced the life-altering effects of changing your life by the way you choose to see your own reality. What you may not have considered is that this altering of reality through our change in attitude and energy extends into the afterlife. In other words, we create our continuing reality after our soul leaves the body. This is done through our belief system. Just as our belief system determines our current reality, it will also determine the direction and nature of our future existence.
What I have found as a shamanic practitioner is that many people do not have a very refined belief system, so there is a lot of confusion once the soul or the divine essence leaves the body. In other words, it just doesn’t know what to do. That is why in classes we take journeys to experience what our own soul will do. These journeys allow a person to look at what is in current motion or the probability of what is going to happen and then make adjustments, if they don’t like what they see.
Another thing that I find as a shamanic practitioner in the United States is that there are many lost souls, or wandering souls, that haven’t made it to the light. I personally feel that Western cultures with their hodgepodge of belief systems create this scenario. In indigenous cultures there are very distinct belief systems that the entire tribe believes in and adheres to. This not only gives the soul a template to follow but there is a collective power in that the entire tribe believes the same thing. This collective belief is like rocket fuel to the soul of the transitioning person.
For example, the Lakota people believe that the name of a person that has transitioned should not be spoken for one year. This gives the soul plenty of time to make its transition and not be called back to the planet. A memorial is done after a year to honor the person.
They also believe that the path the soul will take is through the canupa (pipe), which is the constellation that we call the Big Dipper. The Lakota believe that you will be met by your ancestors and ushered to the appropriate place. In the Celtic tradition, all souls transition during All Souls Day (November 1st). Many people dance on the graves of the deceased and sing them across to the other side. There are also rituals and ceremonies that shamans help with on this night. One such ritual is called the Wild Hunt. The Tibetans have very defined death rituals that are done to the body during its transition process that ensure safe passage of the soul to the other side.
These are just three examples out of hundreds of practices that help the soul transition safely to the other side. The important aspect of these examples is that there is a common focus and a shared belief system that concentrates the power of the many in creating a transitional passage for the eternal soul. In our Western culture, one rarely finds this compelling power generated from a collective belief and that makes it more essential that, if one’s belief system accepts the existence of an immortal soul in a unified universe, we must make an effort to understand the nature of the transition from this life and bring our energies to the process to help the one transitioning and to allow ourselves to appreciate that our loved ones are forever with us in a perfect universe.
I encourage my students to take the time to reflect and to determine what they actually believe about death and immortality. This is a very personal experience for each person. In my own family, we have discussed this as a group, not to argue about who’s right but to have an honoring of each individual’s belief system. I have actually written down our responses so if it ever happens that one of us transitions all of us left behind can envision that soul taking that path to its next phase. We will be the rocket fuel for the movement from one dimension to the next.
We will all find ourselves at some time in the presence of an individual transitioning from this life into the next existence. This exercise of sharing our thoughts regarding a passing is important for any loved one in the transition process. Bringing the energy of a positive force regarding the eternal nature of the soul can create an appreciation of our existence and the significance of our unity with the cosmos.
Conversations regarding death and dying are uncommon in our culture and the discomfort around the subject leaves a void that might be filled with negative energy or fear. In the shamanic practice, there is the possibility of creating a positive energy by recalling that mortality only references the physical body, a fragile and temporary shell, and that the true self resides in a soul that is forever in transition. This does not discount the significance of this moment in existence, for the celebration of a life well-lived demonstrates the significance of every individual in the oneness of existence and places us in the context of the universal truth that time is endless, that life is a condition of continuity, and that we are all connected in a single array of associations. Every birth, every event of life, and every death is linked endlessly in the universe’s grand design and each is but one more transition that we all share and will always be a part of.
In the recent past I have experienced the death of my father and, more recently, my mother. Each experience was painful and difficult but I learned much about the nature of our life in this moment in time. My father had been ill with cancer for some time and I had created a Transition Blanket in preparation for his imminent death. He seemed to struggle in his passing and his expression appeared pained and conflicted. When my father died, he died with an expression of horror frozen on his face. My stepmother instantly succumbed to a wrenching fear that something awful had just happened to her beloved husband on the other side and that he was now trapped in a terrible place, for eternity. She was inconsolably distraught. In my own heart, I knew how much my father had always dreaded death and his ultimate passage into unknown realms. Once this inevitable moment was upon him, it was impossible for Dad to conceal his terror any longer. I felt certain what we’d seen on my father’s face was simply a lifetime of fear at last releasing itself; though realizing this brought little solace. In my journeywork and prayers, I had imbued the blanket with love, peace, and helping spirits for his transition. When it was placed over my father, I continued my meditations of a peaceful transition for him. When the blanket was removed, his countenance was one of serenity and calm—the blanket had done its work. We do have the ability to influence the soul in its transition to its next reality.
My mother’s passing was quite different. I and my husband and her grandchildren and a friend were present in her room and the spirit was one of immense love and connection. She enjoyed the presence of what she called “my whole crew.” There was laughter and conversation about fond memories in the hours preceding her demise and the shared happiness filled the room with love. Her passing was serene and peaceful. I felt the loss of her physical presence strongly, of course, but I knew that she traveled to another place in the spirit of affection and loving relationship and that her continuing journey was perfect. My mother and I had also done pre-transition journeys and discovered that her “true love” was waiting for her on the other side. He had not incarnated in this lifetime experience so their reconnection was greatly anticipated.
Woody Allen once jokingly said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” His humorous comment defines that egocentric need that human’s have to be self-perpetuating. Mortality has always been the central dilemma of existence and religions have all focused on the question and offered many scenarios as to how we perpetuate ourselves, whether in a heavenly paradise in the afterlife or a reincarnation into other beings or a ghostly existence in perpetual suspension. Other than our seeing the universe as fragmented and ourselves as separate entities in existence, we hold no greater illusion than that our life is but a brief moment in time and then is no more.
The magnificence of the universe as revealed in the astonishing reality of a leaf glowing red in the autumn sky belies any such existential sense of meaninglessness. We exist because the cosmos wills it and we should not be so inclined to deny its perfection. As one with the universe, we should also accept our own perfection and recognize the immortality of our perfect souls.