This ancient holiday seems richly suggestive of what we have been exchanging about in this blog space lately, about daring to face and even touch things that scare us (rather than try to observe from a cool distance). First a little refresher. Halloween is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in). The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”. I’ve come to the point in meditation and in life where I see how important it is to embrace both the dark and light aspects in myself.
I’ve come to see how mindfulness practice must involves not just awareness but an active act of acceptance, of holding, all our present experience, including anger and pain. I recently heard a Buddhist nun describe the work of holding anger and with an intention to bear witness to it with complete honesty AND a commitment to harmlessness. For me, the action of holding always involves compassion–at times I try to hold my anger or hurt the way I’ve held my child–not analyzing it but holding it with loving care. Some psychologists, among them Tara Brach and Marsha Linehan, talk about radical acceptance—radical meaning “root”—emphasizing our deep, innate capacity to embrace both negative and positive emotions. Acceptance in this context does not mean tolerating or rationalizing abusive or destructive behavior. It means fully acknowledging just how much pain we may be feeling at a given moment, which often leads to an easing of pain, even sometimes its transformation into joy. Really seeing, really listening to, really accepting ourselves and others can set us free.
The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the unknown became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. Ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off, often by the wearing of costumes and masks. The point was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities–and there is beautiful symbolism here. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the common bonfire. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual. The image of lighting our fires from a common fire is extraordinarily touching to me. A few days ago, I sat silently with friends with another friend who had just died. How clear it was that there is something ineffable about being a human being–a spirit, a presence that animates us and leaves. How clear it was that we nourish and support each other with our presences.
The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day, a traditional mass day of the saints (and I believe a traditional day of baptism in the Episcopal Church). It makes sense, doesn’t it? We must dare to sit in the thin place. We must volunteer to die to the known and enter the unknown to know real love and life. At my friend’s funeral, someone read a letter that Madame de Salzmann wrote that spoke of this–that it is only in the unknown that we know real love. Mysterious!
I’ve been reflecting lately on what a true way or path is, and what it means to find a way. The more sincere I am in my questioning, the more I travel from my head to my heart, the more I feel that stepping onto a true path requires a major shift in attitude. As counterintuitive as it seems, if we wish to be free, we must be like earthworms (a great Buddhist teacher said this, I forget his name). We must not seek the light but dare to burrow down deep into life, into the felt sense of it, transforming the pain of it by voluntarily feeling it, voluntarily seeing it. This is the source of illumination. The path we must ultimately find is our own inner path–no more fear and flight–towards being with the real messy material of our lives.
There are many insights about this kind of work in Parabola’s great new “Beauty” issue–starting with the cover in which a toad seems to be discovering that he is beautiful, just as he is. A story by Trebbe Johnson reminds us that Sir Gawain married the ugly Dame Ragnell, only to discover that his complete acceptance of her just as she was transformed her into a great beauty. The fisherman in the Inuit tale of Skeleton Woman, pulls up a horrifying mass of bones in his net. He wants to fling this horrible catch away–who hasn’t hauled up a catch like that!– but his humanity gets the better of him. He takes the tortured bones to his house and carefully sets them aright. He dares to handle this horrifying mess and handles them with great care. They transform into a warm-blooded, sensual woman. Active attention, active seeing, active caring–this is the inner path to transformation. As Trebbe writes in “Beauty”: We have to begin the metamorphosis by transforming our own expectations of what it is possible for us to do. We must move beyond the confines of what is safe and familiar, and even desired, and say Yes! to the scary, but compelling, possibility before us. Or, as the contemporary schlar of myth, Roberto Calasso, puts it, it is necessary to touch the monster. ‘The monster can pardon the hero who has killed him. But he will never pardon the hero who would not deign to touch him.””
Dare to embrace the dark places, to touch the monster.