Minding the Indigenous Mind
Rehearsing for Death
Greetings Mindful Relatives and Friends,
The Buddha said, “"Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely." In agreement, the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh declared “Live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and of service to your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home."
In this column I wish to share a story as a way to help us reflect on, and develop, a more intimate and healthy understanding of how death is always with us. And, how rehearsing for death through appropriate stories, teachings, and different mindfulness practices can help us to accept death and motivate us to live our lives in a way that demonstrates that we have much to live for.
The teachings of the Buddha, Tecumseh, and many other spiritual leaders remind us that we will eventually die as a part of the natural process of life, but long before we do, we should rehearse for death by living a noble, mindful, righteous, and long and healthy life.
Very few of us know how long we will live or how we will die. But when we are asked, we certainly have a lot of preferences and fears concerning death. For instance, a 1997 Gallup survey found that most of us want to die at home and don’t want to die a painful death; most of us are worried that we may spend some period before our death in a vegetative or incapacitated state; and most of us do not believe we will end up suffering eternally in a place such as Hell.
The poll also found that "Most Americans believe they will exist in some form after death and that the experience is positive; that they will be on a journey of some kind; will experience spiritual growth; and that the quality of existence will depend on things done in one's life and one's spiritual state at the time of death." In India death preferences are similar. A 2011 national survey of entitled, Death and Attitudes to Dying found that most people in India “Want to die in their sleep, in peace, of old age, without pain and surrounded by their family and loved ones after achieving success and after having done something worthwhile for the country.” I’m sure that most of us would want to die in ways similar to folks in India.
The fear of death is strong and many of us try not to spend too much time thinking about it. However, avoidance is not wise, given the regularity of mass murders, war, nuclear weapons and nuclear accidents, the rise of extremely drug resistant infectious diseases, rising levels of stress and environmental toxins, and unpredictable accidents and natural disasters. To calm the fear of death it is important that we spend some quality time reflecting on it; not in an anxious, fearful way, but in an open and thoughtful manner. For as the Buddha has reminded us, the lives (0urs and our loved ones) that we cherish and strive to hold on to are impermanent, fragile, and fleeting.
Sometime ago I recall hearing of how long ago our tribes engaged in a symbolic enactment of the coming of death to the villages. This death rehearsal was rather brilliant since it reminded the people that they would have a temporary existence in the world. It helped to shape the humanity of the people since it inspired greater generosity, acts of kindness and compassion, less attachment to material possessions, and wiser use of one’s limited time. There is no doubt that this practice changed the brains of the people for the better. When one does not fear death, but instead has a thoughtful, healthy understanding of it, the neural networks of self awareness and compassion, located in a newer part of the brain are activated. However, when one fears death and avoids talking about it, neural networks in the deep limbic system are turned on. This part of the brain is an older, more primitive area that is associated with fear, fight, and flight.
As I write this column, news stories across the country, and around the word, continue to report the disturbing and heartbreaking details of the massacre of children, teachers, and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary school in New Town, Connecticut. In total, Adam Lanza, shot and killed 28 people: 20 school children, six adults, his mother, and himself. While most say they never expected this awful event to happen, death by way of mass murder, as disturbing as it is, should come as no surprise since it’s been happening for quite some time.
For instance, on December 17, 2012, Mother Jones magazine published an article entitled, A Guide to Mass Shootings in America which revealed that there have been at least 62 mass murders (four or more victims) in the last 30 years. What may be most troubling is that most of the killers got their guns legally. The timeline for all mass murder deaths is from 1982 to 2012. The online story doesn’t mention how many mass murders were prevented and just short of being carried out.
There are a lot of theories why mass murders happen but truth is we don’t really know. In fact, a December 14, 2012 story in the Washington Post says “A great deal of research, however, suggests that behavioral scientists just don’t have a strong grasp on what drives mass shootings and violent rampages, or why they’ve increased in recent decades.”
After the initial shock some people are asking why such senseless acts occur. Others have already have concluded they happen because we live in a culture of violence with easy access to automatic weapons that can take many lives in an instant. However, automatic weapons have been around since the 1862 when Dr. Richard J. Gatling invented the Gatling gun. The weapon was deadly and was “successfully” used in the American Civil War, Spanish American War, and in the Plains Wars against Indigenous Peoples. The gun fired up to 200 rounds per minute and tore folks to shreds. Imagine several of these automatic weapons firing upon people. It’s ironic that Gatling said that “he created it to reduce the size of armies and so reduce the number of deaths by combat and disease, and to show how futile war is.”
In response to the New Town murders NBCNews.com reported that many parents are now buying armored backpacks for their kids to keep them safe and gun sales in some states are at record levels. My heart and prayers go out to the families and their community.
Rehearsing for Death
Indigenous Peoples intimately understood death as a constant in their lives and needed to be respected in times of wellness; even during the ceremonies of life. Death is as important as life and, therefore, must be integrated in all aspects of our daily lives. There is no escaping death. However, there is a way to live with it and develop a healthy understanding of it.
There is a story that certain members of the tribe were delegated to represent death. They would dress up and paint their bodies black, red, and white, which signaled to the people whom they were. At different periods throughout the year (maybe only once a year or maybe more) the priest in charge of this death ceremony would decide it was time for death to visit the people. He would instruct the individual that symbolically represented death to leave the village and go to a place of isolation and paint himself as death and return. It was not long before the village sentries, would spot him coming and announce that death was on his way to the people. The announcement would immediately trigger deep emotional responses and the people would begin crying, worrying, and getting angry.
As Death approached the warriors would symbolically shoot arrows at him, not the kind that could pierce him but those that were blunt. But, the warriors only shot in his direction and not deliberately at him since they knew they could not kill Death. Death continued to make his way towards the village unencumbered, while the people prayed, cried, begged the elements to intercede on their behalf, and sent mental thoughts toward him to send him away. Yet, they knew that in most instances it was difficult to turn back Death.
As Death entered the village the sounds of dogs barking, horses whinnying, and people wailing and yelling filled the air. People ran away from him; sometimes he chased them, sometimes he did not. Some of the people sat or stood unfazed by his presence and what he represented. They smiled and laughed at him and those that ran away from him. Those with incurable disease, disfigurement, and disabilities, hoping to be liberated from their suffering in this world willingly, as if meeting and old, dear friend, approached and embraced him; they themselves might be dressed and painted for their journey to the spirit world.
As death would make his way through the village he would touched those that were the most likely to die: the warriors, elders, and sickly. He finally would come upon lodges that were filled with babies and children, those least likely to die. The mothers, grandmothers, and aunties would do all in their power using prayers, smudge, and calling to their ancestors, to prevent him from entering into their lodges and touching their children.
After enough chaos had ensued, Death would leave the village and disappear into the hills and trees, and the people would gradually cease their lamentations of grief. Wise elderly men and women would go about the village to check in with others to hear how they had responded to Death’s visit. After a period of time when the villagers reached a level of calm, the rehearsal of Death would be discussed. Spiritual leaders and those that had experienced losses of family members and relatives would help others to evaluate and understand what happened. What was learned was that Death is ever-present, none are exempt from this common destiny, and the people should use the little time they had on earth in the best ways possible.
In closing, none of us really knows when Death will come and we must rehearse for it using thoughtful, mindful practices. I believe that the example above is a brilliant and important way to help ourselves, our children, and our communities gain a healthy understanding of Death.
As I finish this column on December 21, 2012, I am reminded that many people are quite anxious since they believe that the Mayans have prophesized that the world is going to end today. I am not one of these people. I do not live in fear of the world or my life ending. If I do have a fear today it is that I might not do a good enough job teaching my children about the value of reflecting on Death so that they might live their lives in the most honorable, intelligent, mindful, and courageous manner; so that they will have compassion, love, and respect for themselves, others, and all living things.
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, Neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com