When I was twenty-nine my kidneys were put on alert as they began to malfunction and I was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus. With lupus, anything could happen, at any time, and sometimes it did. I have a long medical trajectory, packed with all modalities of healing and a few close calls.
My body has lived beyond its means. It is scarred and patched up. It needs bigger and brighter red blood cells, more kidney function, protein, hormones and minerals. Yet the life force—my motor—is strong, and it made my body resilient as hell, like an old pair of hiking boots that you can take on a trek through any rugged terrain.
I decided, after soul searching, that in order to live, I’d have to die a little, or maybe even a lot. To die the past. To sing the sad songs so I could sing the silly and happy ones. That was the idea—out with the old, in with the new. Just like cleaning out the refrigerator and throwing out food that’s old or just no longer interesting to me.
With this mission in mind, I flew to South America for a medicine journey retreat in the mountains during my annual two-week vacation. We would do a series of rituals, including death rites, birth rites and a vision quest. I was in my forties and I thought I could muster up the bravado to do all of the above, including the death part. But just as we were about to gather for the death rites, my heart raced and I paused as I faced a gnarly truth—that metaphoric death was as chilling as the real thing. I didn’t know how to separate the two.
I was scared to die. And there I was, on a beautiful patch of mother earth, moments away from ritually “dying”. The ground was golden with dried grass and all around us were fruit trees, cactus, flowers, wild brush, and blue skies. We had built a spiral with heavy stones that held the stories of the earth. The spiral would help us identify and release old energies. But the shaman leading the ceremony had clearly said, “You must die without fear.” Otherwise, how could we be reborn?
Moments before the ceremony was about to start, I walked over to Sergio, who was nonchalantly eating fruit he was picking off a tree. He’s a massage therapist who specializes in removing fear from people’s gut, as if preparing warriors for battle. “Fear is a state of mind,” he said. I felt foolish, since I didn’t really have anything concrete to be afraid of. Maybe the fear was old drama, linked to being born with the fear that I could die at any moment? Sergio, who zoomed around congested chaotic streets on a motorcycle, who dug into people’s innards and energy fields to extract fear as if it were a bothersome burr, was so calm about the whole thing. Fear is only fear, and it has the charge that we give it, or none at all.
I popped some fruit in my mouth and got an adrenalin rush. Suddenly, I wanted to die. And fast. Why not? Death was a portal to life. If I wanted to live, then I wanted to die, right?
We formed a big circle and invoked the four directions, creating sacred space out in that idyllic and picturesque nature preserve. There was a massage table in the center, strategically placed atop ground covered with white quartz crystals. Two shamans leading the rites stood on either side of the table, with several shamans stationed near the head and foot of the table to assist energetically as needed. Each of us would lie down on the massage table, one by one, for the death rites, as others held space for us around the circle. Machi Clorinda, the medicine woman, would chant and drum, and those of us with rattles would keep the beat and sustain the energy. There were around twenty of us, and the ceremony would take several hours. We were instructed to walk into the spiral or get on top of the table as we felt called to do so.
I had my eye on that table like a kid antsy to jump on a horse and take it for a ride. I was guided by pure greed. I wanted to die. Once my decision is made, the seas must part, the path must clear. But somehow, before I even took a step, Helen had already floated onto the table.
I watched as shamans worked with their hands and used their keen vision and tracking skills to unwind each of Helen’s chakras (the body’s energetic centers). By disengaging the chakras, the luminous body (a translucent multicolored orb that surrounds and informs the physical body) is free to fly off and “die” and be energetically cleansed of the past. Shamans then launched her luminous body to the west and brought it back from the east, where it was to come back with a different imprint. Then they rewound the chakras and engaged the luminous body back to the physical body.* Helen floated off the table in a daze and headed for the spiral.
I threw myself on that massage table before anyone else could beat me to it. I was bursting with anticipation, like the day I went to the dealership to buy the first new car of my life; I got rid of my 15-year-old, beat up carcass and replaced it with a sparkling new body. Lying on my back on the table, eyes closed, I had some certainty that I was supposed to be there.
The loud music of rattles playing close to my body pulled me into a hypnotic state as shamans shattered the crust of my energy field, breaking it up into little pieces, clearing it out for me. Yes! I wanted to shout. That’s it! Help me heave it to the cosmos! Goodbye to my old boring sob stories. Farewell Useless Shit! I could feel density turning to lightness, almost immediately. I trusted every bit of that moment as shamans kept rattling and the kultrun drum kept beating. I suppose they were disengaging chakras as I’d watched earlier, but I’d given myself over to the rhythm and didn’t know exactly what was happening except that I sensed a rearrangement of my self.
I pumped my fists in the air as I felt a huge liberating whoosh that felt like Freedom. I felt victorious, like I’d won first place in a running competition. My luminous body soared back with open wings. Shamans fiddled with my chakras and I settled into my new duds. Rattles were still going when I flew off the table in a state of happiness as a winged woman. I joined the outer circle to witness the death rites of my companions. It was a continuous stream of clearing, releasing, and bringing back the new, all of it to the beat of rattles, the kultrun, and our hearts.
It was a night of a new moon and I looked up at the sky later and checked in with the cosmos. I saw an embryo forming in the heavens, shape shifting moment by moment—chef, fish, muskrat, mermaid, owl, magician, cop, condor, cartoon character, a twitching mustache, a big eye winking at me from above. I didn’t know what it all meant, but I was smiling the whole time.
The next day we did the birth rites under the spell of a warm and welcoming sun. We took off our clothes, put on a sarong and gathered in a circle around a cold-water pool. One by one, we plunged into the pool in the nude as others witnessed our “birth”. My pink, patched up and imperfect body was happy as hell in those cold waters. I swirled and danced in the pool, splashing and zooming and playing like some sort of mermaid. I was free with my body, blowing bubbles, discovering the newness as it evolved.
* The death rite process is an adaptation of rites practiced by Peruvian shamans as taught to Alberto Villoldo from the Four Winds Society. For more information about death from the shamanic perspective, see Dying Consciously http://dyingconsciously.org. Another good resource is the last chapter, “Death, Dying, and Beyond,” in the book Shaman, Healer, Sage: How to Heal Yourself and Others with the Energy Medicine of the Americas by Alberto Villoldo.
** Photos by Kamala Snow and Marcela Lobos
12 de diciembre de 2009, long beach, califas, on a cold & rainy day