I first wrote this post for last year's Pagan Blog Project. It has been so popular that I thought I would repost it for this year.
If you want to read about my most recent dismemberment, check out F is for Facing my Fears
Death. It is inevitable and unavoidable.
I heard a story once about a man's encounter with Death. The man was in the market one morning when he saw Death staring at him. Fearing for his life, the man bought a horse and rode out of town as fast as it would carry him. Eventually, the horse would go no farther, and the man had to continue on foot. Late that night, weary and exhausted, the man became aware of another presence on the road. It was Death. Unable to run any further, the man turned to Death and asked "Why did you look at me so strangely this morning?" Death replied, "I was confused. I knew we had an appointment here tonight and I wondered how you would make it." Then Death collected the man's life.
For believers in reincarnation, death is a natural part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It is a change that all living brings must eventually go through. It is our egos that fear death. When our bodies die, our souls live on and reincarnate in new bodies. Our egos, however, do not. They fear the loss of identity that comes with death. To conquer our fear of death we must first conquer our ego. Every tradition has some form of initiation designed to force the initiate to assert control over the ego and face his or her mortality.
Those who practice shamanism eventually experience what is called shamanic dismemberment. During this process, a spirit, or group of spirits, destroy the journeyer's "body". It is then remade. This is a type of initiatory experience that simulates death and rebirth. Shaman's will experience this multiple times over the course of their lives. By the time they grow old, a shaman's familiarity with death, partly through this experience, allows them to meet Death as an old friend instead of fearing it as an enemy.
A shaman that I studied with briefly conducted an exercise. She had everyone pair up and do a journey for their partner. Because there were an odd number of us, she partnered with one of us. The woman who journeyed for the shaman said that the spirits told her that the shaman was going to die. The shaman laughed and said, "They are always telling me that." She then went on to explain the dismemberment process and told us that was what the spirits were referring to.
It was not long after that I had my first experience of shamanic dismemberment. In my journey I met a spirit with the body of a man and the head of a jaguar at the top of a Mesoamerican pyramid. He instructed me to lie down on the altar in front of him, which I did. Then he ripped out my heart and ate it. He replaced the heart with one made of a neon blue light, but the flesh around it smothered the light. He breathed out a swarm of insects that completely devoured my body. When they fell away, I had a new body made of the same blue light. When I returned to my body I felt a sense of empowerment, like something inside me had been cleansed. Since then I have also been eaten by wild animals and ripped apart by a horde of zombies.
Death is a part of the natural process. It is a consequence that follows the choice to be born. However you choose to deal with it, it is something that you will have to face sooner or later.