Dancing at the Gates of the Underworld

“Celebrating the 13th Mortiversary of the best man I’ve ever known,” leapt from the glowing blue and white screen a few days before Halloween. The author was a gorgeous and stunning enigma who turned heads whenever she strode into a room, or in my case, a tipi during an all-night Native American prayer meeting. “Mortiversary?” I wondered in awe. “Oh, he’s dead!”

Then I felt the glow of shame for not getting it right away at my friend’s expense. Here was a woman honoring the life of a man who once moved her deeply by celebrating his death. From beyond the veils between worlds he continued to move and inspire her. In allowing her self to feel so moved she inspired me and my heart opened to the pain and the sadness and even the magnificence of death.

As storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade said about two years ago on a blustery November night in Port Townsend, “Welcome to the Endarkenment.” He felt the world has energetically moved away from a period of awakening, enlightenment, even bliss into a period of darkness and turmoil and chaos. It wasn’t all bad, either. Such dark times are often the cauldron of creativity and transformation. Our spirits fly away leaving our souls burrowing into dirt and filth, transforming both into rich soil.

It was Samhain, the Celtic New Year, All Hallows Eve 2011. This year it fell across a three-day weekend with October 31st falling upon a Monday with two more dark holy days following. Samhain (usually pronounced as ‘sow-win’), Feralia, Pomona, Halloween, Hallowmas and All Soul’s, Dia de los Muertas … it’s that time of the year to really celebrate Summer’s End and herald in the Endarkenment. I love how they mix and blend together like the blood and genes in our Postmodern flesh.

For the Ancient Celts their New Year was the time the veils between the worlds of this life and the next diminish even dissolve. Samhain was usually celebrated on or around the Full Moon closest to our First of November. Ghosts and spirits move among the living one more time before being scared off into the eternal Summerlands. Crops were harvested, livestock slaughtered, wild game brought in from the hunt, and great bonfires lit amid the cold Northern darkness.

Further South the Romans celebrated Feralia, their own Festival of the Dead where they gathered over graves to lay flowers and feast while sharing horrid, bloody stories. Pomona, however, emphasized harvest festivals celebrating the old Roman Goddess of fruits, gardens, and orchards. These Ancient traditions mixed and mingled in the wake of the Roman conquests.

Much later as Christianity spread across Europe from the Middle East, the Roman Catholic Church battled with Pagan religions for supremacy and won. The Catholics built churches upon Pagan temples and shrines and pushed further into the hinterlands than the Roman legions ever did. As part of their Christianization of Europe, many Pagan holidays and their traditions, including Celtic and Germanic as well as Greek and Roman, were coopted into the Roman Catholic Church, blended together, and renamed.

Samhain, Pomona, and Feralia were combined into All Hallow’s Eve, which became Halloween, set in the Gregorian solar calendar as the 31st of October. The next day, however, was Hallowmas, the hallowed mass the morning after Halloween. In Mexico Spanish Catholic ceremonies integrated into indigenous Native American traditions celebrating Death and lost loved ones. They evolved into Dia de los Muertas, or Day of the Dead, which is now mixing with Halloween in the United States as today’s Neo-Pagans reclaim the Sabbat of Samhain. The mixing of religions is not over and will continue to change over time accelerated by technology, globalization, and consumerism.

Last Saturday on Halloween weekend my wife and I sat on cushions in an all-day Vipassana, or Insight meditation retreat. We were housed on a lush, green and golden campus in what used to be a Catholic seminary now a prestigious school of naturopathic medicine. Rodney Smith, a Buddhist teacher and former monk, led the event. When I first encountered him, I immediately knew I was in the presence of a master. A tall, slender clean-shaven man in his sixties and blessed with a charismatic smile, he chuckled about Buddhism and Halloween and cross-cultural influences. Then he sat up straight and regarded us with a firm twinkle.

“To be clear,” Rodney declared, “I’m not making fun of Halloween. Halloween needs to be honored. We need to look beyond our Shadows into the darkness where we hide all the ugly, horrible things we don’t want to acknowledge and don’t want to see, all the ‘oh no, not there’ areas. We need to face our inner Hitler, our capacity to be monstrous. Our turning to face and claim our Shadow instead of pretending it doesn’t exist robs Darkness of its power and strengthens our Light.”

From a round cushion packed with buckwheat husks Rodney leads, pushes, pulls, and invites us down, down, down into the caverns of our souls.

Once a long time ago in Medieval Europe a Catholic monk went far down into a cave so he could hear the entire Earth cry, and he did. Deep down inside the darkness of the Mother he could hear the cries and screams of all humanity. It was intense. This friar gathered his robes and kept going. He walked as far he could go, way back into the hallowed caverns of Gaia’s darkest Soul. The cave closed in tight. Amid the dampness he touched only rock, mud, and grit. He felt all the women of Earth crying, the children screaming, the men sobbing. Their tears washed over him as a great flood of stinging salt. And then he realized those tears were his own.

Legends of knights facing dragons and the story of Beowulf came to my mind. Rodney, however, is no knight and not even a monk. He’s an ex-monk who in his own way sat under the Bodhi Trees and lived Dharma. All he once carried was a begging bowl. So throw away your weapons and drop your shields!

Standing down there in the dark chaos churning at the Gates of the Underworld, he flung wide his arms and lifted up his chest. With a smile, he gently revealed, “The sense of being whole is to give up all your self protection.” And I began to cry.

“Tenderness is power,” Rodney said. “The practice of tenderness opens the heart. It may take one hundred times practicing tenderness before the heart blossoms.”

Years of armored slabs crusted over old wounds slid away from my heart. Sunbeams punched through clouds and spun through a row of windows into our room. Around every man and woman danced a shadow. My spine straightened and muscles tugged my ribs apart. I felt my heart hammer and kick as if it was about to birth itself out of my chest.

Scared, I caught my self and paused. Mindful, I saw my thoughts as my thoughts and my feelings as my feelings. I have thoughts and I have feelings as I have a name. And I am not my thoughts, nor my feelings, and certainly not my name. With a deep breath I let them all go.

Yes, to be whole we must surrender to what is to embrace all of existence, the Light and the Darkness, the ugly and the beautiful, the terrifying and the joyful, the horror and the bliss, life and death. I feel the power of love, my power of love, once I faced my own inner demons with that power and chose to leave force and fear behind.

“I love you,” I once told a girlfriend of mine.

“Even the messy parts of me?” she asked.

“Yes,” I responded. “All of you, even the messy parts.”

Our relationship didn’t last as we made other choices, and I’ll always remember our exchange. Her shadow was her gift to me.

Amid so many festivities I honor the Dead whose blood and genes live on inside me and my kids as well as honor those who aren’t blood-related but help raised me as one of their own: Mom and Dad, Grandma and Granddaddy, MeMa and Pop and Grandma, all my great-greats and family friends all the way back to Africa and on to Stardust and Spirit.

It is reciprocated, as only one of my three children is my biological offspring.  She’s the eldest, and I helped deliver her in one of the greatest and messiest miracles of my life. My middle girl I took in at six weeks old when her life was a mess, too, just short of death. My youngest daughter is my stepdaughter. I also helped deliver her at birth in what proved another initiation into Life and an incredibly messy one, too. She eventually took my surname.

So I honor the shadows. I honor the blood and the mess of the living. I honor my Shadow. There are certain times such as this when I even sense the shadow of my own death. Even if I learn to extend my life a thousand more years and merge my flesh with machines, eventually my time shall come to pass over through the veils of the Dark Mother into the Summerlands of the Afterlife.

“Wherever we are in this life are our bodies,” said Rodney as he brought our Day of Mindfulness to a close. “Our bodies go wherever we go. Our bodies never leave us. We leave our bodies.”

Evening slid toward dusk and night swallowed day. Buddhist insights were followed by Pagan hunger. Dark Samhain time and skies are clear. I joined a circle of thirty people in a house of light. We shared a silent feast in honor of our departed lovers, family, and friends. We ate in silence. Rose up in prayer. Quietly strode out and down and around into an open grove of grass beneath stars and a ring of trees dropping leaves. A fire crackled in the center of our circle. Amid sacred chants and prayers for healing sickness and injuries, we weave in and out among candles. As a spiral circles ever upwards so do we neverending.

It’s now past the Witching Hour. Struck down among old boneyards are the remains of Dia de los Muertas. It’s too late now, as I’ve gone beyond where All Souls begin their joyful harvest. I’ve learned long ago not to dance with skeletons too close to the edge of graves.

“They want your candy,” I told my kids.

They gave me long looks for I did not answer the knocks upon our door. Instead I am reminded of our young guest from Vietnam and her recent description over dinner of Vietnamese funerary traditions. After one dies and is buried, a year later the surviving family members dig up the corpse and with little knives and brushes scrub the rotting old flesh from the bones so all the ghosts know there’s nothing left to reanimate. The souls of the dead feel honored and depart in peace.

When there is enough dancing and the sun hangs low in the silvery gray skies of November, only a handful of people can even remember Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot even though many thousands don the mask. No matter. Those hidden behind the skull and bones of Wall Street and bound up by labyrinthine oaths inside old, stone temples of the Federal Reserve and the City of London have their days quickened as darkness swallows their shadows. The Gates of the Underworld grinds shut, the veils vanish into the dawn, and the planet rumbles around Sol towards Winter Solstice. Standing beneath trees still ablaze with the finest Autumn glory, I remember the deepest well lies within our own hearts, and tenderness is power.


William Dudley Bass
1-2 November 2011
Seattle, Washington


Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.


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