Confronting taboos: death and the afterlife, American-style

It is one of those unspoken social contracts that Americans won’t say anything to each other that might indicate any doubt that life as we know it will continue.

If you dare to bring up the subject of climate change, with its attendant erratic weather, major storms, sea-level rises, wildfires and crop losses, people roll their eyes and change the subject.

If you voice any doubt that the economy—local, national and global—will recover, you are dismissed as a negative Pollyanna, and again, the subject is changed.

If you were, just hypothetically, to express the opinion that our increasing reliance on digital technology might have the quality of an unhealthy addiction, and to worry aloud at the effect that all that unrelenting screen time is having on the current generation of tiny tots, you are dismissed as a raving Luddite.

Nobody talks about the fact that both of our political parties are thoroughly corrupt, and our Supreme Court even more so.

No one mentions the disappointment so many of us feel with President Obama, who has proven himself incapable of effectively standing up to Beltway politics—if indeed that was ever his goal.

We are living through a massive period of collective denial of social and physical reality, with no exit in sight from the crazy funhouse we inhabit, with its motto, “Everything is going to be OK” blazoned on every door.

It’s about time we accepted the fact that everything is not going to be OK.

Not by a long shot.

I have been a little bit quieter than usual this past month, with my attention turned to the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, but I have been paying attention nonetheless to what’s going on in the world.

The elephants of Africa are under siege and conservationists are now using the E-word to describe their future.

American bees are dying off at record rates due to pesticide poisoning, which is now not only killing the adults, but also the larva of the bee colonies.

The ice at the poles continues to melt at an accelerated rate, while down in Australia it was by far the hottest summer on record.

Just this week, record rainfall brought flooding to Argentina that killed scores of people.

There will be no escape from the severe weather that our degenerating climate system will wreak upon all of us.

As retiring climate scientist James Hansen has testified over and over, we are already at the tipping point from which there will be no return to what was “normal” for the past 10,000 years.

I totally understand the impetus to denial, because really, what can any of us do about all this?

What should we be doing?

Marching on Washington DC?  Setting up survivalist camps in the wilderness?  Sabotaging pipelines and coal-fired power plants?  Buying hybrid vehicles and solar panels?

Damned if I know.

I am on a list-serve that broadcasts a newsletter written by Alex Kochkin, who focuses more on the spiritual side of our current crisis on Earth.  Kochkin insists that we should not be wasting time worrying about the physical issues here on the planet, but instead should be focusing our attention on getting ready for our transition into the spiritual realm—in other words, for death.

Kochkin predicts that there will be a massive die-off of humanity in the coming years, but he casts this in positive terms, as a necessary cleansing that will enable the Earth to reboot and start on yet another spiritual and evolutionary journey.

Believing firmly in a nonphysical afterlife, he is unafraid of death.

This is so counter-cultural that it gives me pause.

Unafraid of death?  Really?

Our culture is so fixated on avoiding death at all costs that it is hard to wrench my mind around to another way of seeing things.

11857232-life-after-death-religious-concept-illustrationWhat if death were just a transition to another (non-physical) stage of existence?

What if it were in fact the best thing that could happen to our planet if the majority of human beings transitioned out of physical existence?

What if the tenacity with which we Americans hold on to our lives was entirely misplaced?

What if instead of focusing all of our technical and intellectual know-how on physical survival, we began to focus on learning more about the non-physical realms that we have so far relegated to the backward precincts of religion, New Age quackery, and woo-woo tales of near-death experiences?

There is a noticeable trend in popular culture reflecting an uptick in interest in explorations of the spiritual/non-physical dimensions.  From Harry Potter to Twilight and beyond, we have a fascination with stories that can take us beyond the bounds of ordinary physical reality.

So strong is the cultural taboo on discussing this seriously that it is hard for me to push the “publish” button and let this blog post out in the world.

But another part of me rebels and is just done with listening to the soothing murmur of the mainstream: don’t worry, dear, everything is going to be OK….

No, everything is not going to be OK.  Just like the elephants and the bees and the polar bears, human beings are going to face a massive die-off due to the changes in our climate system, and soon.

It is that, above all else, that we should be preparing ourselves for.  How? I am not sure.  But one thing is certain: insisting that all will be well, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is just silly and delusional.

It’s time to wake up.

Call to Action in Dark Times

This time of year in New England is cold and dark: short days and long, starry nights.  As the planet wheels towards the winter solstice, human beings, for thousands of years, have huddled around fires and turned to storytelling as a bridge back to warmth and the coming of springtime.

It’s no different now, except that now most of us burn oil for our heat, and hang up strings of electric lights to symbolize the return to light.  We watch movies, read books or play video games instead of listening to clan storytellers.

In America, as in much of the world, the dominant religious stories of this time of year have to do with keeping hope and faith alive in dark times.  Jews remember, with the lighting of the Menorah candles, the preservation of their faith in the 2nd century BCE, after the destruction of the Second Temple; Christians celebrate miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer who would bring the word of God to the people.

All of the traditional religious stories document a continuing human saga of light against dark, with light representing life and good energy, while dark represents death and possible danger.

More contemporary mystics also point to human life as a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

Rudolf Steiner, for example, the influential psychic who reported many out-of-body experiences where he made direct contact with metaphysical beings, routinely talks about angels and demons in his copious writings, with angels representing the good forces of light and life, and demons being the dark forces of destruction.  Freud too, in a more secular register, described Eros and Thanatos as primal human drives that align along the same lines: light/life/love, dark/death/hatred.

Is there something to all this?

In a scientific age, it’s hard to write with a straight face about angels and demons.  We are trained to see them as figures of speech, metaphors for empirically definable natural phenomena.  To whit: Human beings tell stories about angels and miraculous births at the darkest time of year as a metaphorical way of talking about the winter solstice and the return to light.

Yes.  But there have always been persistent voices telling us that this is not just metaphorical.  That there really are forces of dark that are destructive and forces of light that represent goodness, and that human beings, as the most self-aware sentient beings on the planet, are able to recognize the grand struggle between Good and Evil playing out in our psyches, and on our battlefields.

For instance, take Derrick Jensen‘s latest book, Dreams, in which he talks about his growing belief that there are metaphysical realms that human beings access in dreams, and that in the dream world there are “sides”: the side of life and the side of death and destruction.  As humans, we have a choice, Jensen says; we can choose which gods to worship, those who represent the life-giving energies of the planet, or those who represent the blood-sucking zombies that are leading us down the capitalist/imperialist road to doom.

Even further out along the spectrum of contemporary metaphysical thinkers is Alex Kochkin, who has been sending out dispatches through email and Web for some time now, warning that the end times are coming.  One could mistake Kochkin for an Armageddon-spouting Christian fundamentalist, except that, like Jensen and Steiner, he has no religious scaffolding framing his ideas.

All of these thinkers agree with indigenous shamans the world over that there is much more to human beings than our physical bodies, and that we can interact with higher powers through individual psychic work–paying attention to our dreams, meditating, being open to the realms of human consciousness where, they say, we can connect with what Steiner called “higher worlds.”

Alex Kochkin: “”You” are the result of a portion of your larger being extending something of itself into this level of density. In this case, it is a human bio-vehicle that comes equipped with basic firmware and an operating system. Flawed as the whole package may be, it is still a viable and valuable way for individuations of The All of Creation to reach into its own deepest recesses, even those that have become overwhelmed by the disease of the Dark.”

Derrick Jensen gives the “disease of the Dark” more concrete names: capitalism, imperialism, and the science that justifies and extends the reach of these destructive ideologies that have, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, been rapidly reducing bio-diversity and inexorably altering our eco-system.

Jensen recalls the Aztec sacrifices to their gods, and speculates that we too are unthinkingly making sacrifices to our contemporary gods of Science and Capitalism.

This is an idea that one of my mentors, Rigoberta Menchu, suggested years ago, talking about how destructive the Euramerican ideologies and technologies have been to the natural world and indigenous peoples: “I often wonder why people criticize the Aztecs for offering human sacrifices to their gods when they never mention how many sons of this America, Abia Yala, have been sacrificed over five hundred years to the god Capital,” Menchu said in her second testimonial, Crossing Borders.

Whether or not there are “higher powers” involved in the life-and-death battles we are seeing played out at ever-accelerating speed in these dark times, it is true that we human beings are the ones with the power to change the course of events we have set in motion.  The fish and the birds and the great bears cannot change what is happening to their environments because of human short-sightedness and greed.  The ancient forests that have stood for thousands of years cannot withstand the bulldozer and the chain saw.  The river that has flowed for eons cannot resist the concrete dam.

Only we have the power of reversing the “disease of the Dark.”  If there are higher powers involved, they are not going to do it for us–they will only work through us.

Which stories are we listening to now as we huddle around our mechanical fires?  The old stories of dominion and destruction, “manifest destiny” and technological prowess leading to “progress” have held sway long enough.  It’s time to listen to stories that are older and wiser than the Judeo-Christian myths, stories that remind us of our deep connection to the natural world that sustains us.

Let every candle lit this solstice season be a call to action on behalf of the life energies of this planet.  And then, let us act, before it’s too late.

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