Unknown Artist, Dialogue of the Dead Source: www.dusttoashes.com Burning Man 2017
As we move into the winter months, the themes of death and letting go rise to the surface and enter our awareness on subtle levels. As leaves fall, plants die, shorter days give way to longer nights, animals go into hibernation, and life slowly retreats in a few final blazes of auburn leaves and wildfire, the fall air carries a sense of encroaching loss, decay, and an almost mystical feeling of wistfulness. As the Earth lets go of it's harvest and greenery, we as humans are asked to let go of our summer frolicking to face the the feelings that arise during the longer nights. We turn inwards, rest, reflect, and connect with loved ones.
In world traditions, ranging from the Mexican Day of the Dead to the Celtic Sahmain, to the Christian and Catholic variations on "All Souls Day" or "Allhallowtide," this time of year is considered the time when the veil between worlds is thinnest, and seen as a time to honor the interplay of life and death. The seemingly disparate tasks of letting go of those who have left us and also honoring the imprint and influence they've made on our daily lives is a part of traditions in these cultures around the world.
Samhain (pronounced sow-win) means ‘summers end’ in Gaelic, and is a "festival for the dead." According to Irish mythology, is a time when the 'doorways' to the Otherworld open and allow supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to enter our world. As with the Mexican ofrendas, many will make offerings on altars to celebrate Samhain or engage in cemetary visits.
American culture has no such celebration of it's own. IMHO, America's lack of rituals and acknowledgement of death is another layer of the culture's predilection to ignore the "negative, the darker, and the deeper parts of human nature. In avoiding or ignoring these more shadowy aspects of life, we lose the gifts and spiritual wisdom that come with facing our darkness, and are left with no path forward or understanding of how to make sense of and move through difficulties when those darker aspects are expressed (sometimes in overblown and almost caricature-like ways--think: current politics).
If we can instead face what Angeles Arrien calls "the descent into darkness - the unknown or undeveloped aspects of our nature...we are delivered into the mystery of our true essential being and are able to generate a new domain of freedom that is anchored in wisdom, love, and faith." As I've said in many a previous post, it is by turning towards and facing that we grow and are able to integrate parts of ourselves more wholly.
For me, this year's Day of the Dead coincided with a death in my family that had me reflect more deeply on this theme of death and how it affects our relationships. As I watched my aunt's coffin enter it's home, I felt the heat in my face as my tears welled up, heard the crying around me, and saw the tear-streamed faces of my relatives. I reflected on the finality of this transition, one of the few that we as humans are forced to accept without any possibility of negotiation. With so much of our lives spent trying to control and resist or avoid all the things we don't like, there is something graceful, unifying, and sacred about the collective surrender and forced acceptance that death brings. Death breaks down our egos, breaks open our hearts, forces us to feel our powerlessness and frailty, and implores us to know our souls a little more deeply. As death opens us, it often brings up every other wound or deep core belief about ourselves - our guilt about not being a good enough sibling or friend or lover, the darkness of death somehow shining a light on our deepest wounds and beliefs about ourselves. While death takes us to these places that we would often prefer not to go, in facing endings there is an opportunity for integration, which I will speak to here with the story of Skeleton Woman.
This year for Halloween I was Skeleton Woman, a character from Clarissa Pinkoles Estes's book "Women Who Run with the Wolves." The story is a haunting one about love and the "life/death/life" nature, which Estes describes as the ancient pattern of all nature that includes "animation, development, decline, and death, and that is always followed by reanimation." As Estes explains: "In order for humans to live and give loyalty...in this way which is most wise and most feeling, one has to go up against the very thing one fears most, [particularly in love]. ..Love does not mean a flirtation or a pursuit for simple ego pleasure but a visible bond composed of the psychic sinew of endurance, a union which prevails through bounty and austerity. In order for this kind of enduring love, one invites a third partner to the union. The third partner I call Skeleton Woman. She could also be called Lady Death."
To more deeply understand how the story of skeleton woman lives in each of our psyches it can be helpful to look through the lenses of our inner masculine (animus) and feminine nature (anima). In depth psychology, each person has both masculine and feminine essences that are always in relationship with one another inside of our psyches, seeking ultimate integration with one another through coniunctio (divine union.) The anima is the inner feminine part of a man's nature and psyche that is in touch with the subconscious and soul, and the animus is the inner masculine part of a woman's psyche. In depth psychology, the relationships we attract externally mirror the state of our inner nature, and the story of Skeleton woman illuminates these inner dynamics (and as such may also remind you of some outer dynamics you may have experienced.)
Skeleton Woman is an inuit folktale (full story as told by Estes here). An abbreviated version of the story is that a fisherman goes out fishing one night, and hooks what he thinks must be a very big fish. He reels and reels his fishing rod and suddenly at the end of his fishing rod there is a skeleton glistening in the moonlight. He panics in fear and starts rowing his boat away from the skeleton as fast as he can, gripping his fishing rod tightly (not realizing this is what keeps her chasing him.) He runs all the way home, his heart beating in fear, the skeleton chasing behind him. When he finally arrives inside he drops his fishing rod and the bones fall into an unthreatening pile on the floor. The man turns to the pile and starts to organize the bones and lay them by the fire to dry. He falls asleep and as he is dreaming, a tear streams down his face. Skeleton woman sees the tear and begins to drink from it to quench her deep thirst. When her thirst is quenched, she grabs his heart, beating it like a drum, and singing to have flesh. As she sings, her body fills with flesh and she becomes a human woman. She crawls into bed and lies down next to the fisherman, returning his heart to his body. When he wakes up, he is embracing a flesh and blood woman.
When you look at the relationship dynamics between the man and the woman in skeleton woman, you may be reminded of you and your friends' dating lives. There are many fishermen and fisherwomen out there, who, once they "catch" someone, run screaming for the hills in their mukluks wondering why this person wants to be with them and blaming the skeleton for their own personal feelings of terror.
Western psychology would chalk the patterns of chasing or running away to attachment styles (aka 4 distinct learned patterns of attachment--secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized--that originate in infancy between a child and his/her caregiver(s), and which are believed to set the tone for all future relationship interactions). In the story, Skeleton Woman would represent the anxious style, and the man the avoidant style. Buddhist philosophy would also probably look at attachment in this story, and espouse that we approach relationships with some element of detachment from our feelings--perhaps the man noticing his fear and choosing not to run from it.
Both of these theories are helpful in understanding ourselves and how to relate to one another, but I believe both of these philosophies miss the beating heart of the story - the why. Why is it so imperative for us to turn towards our feelings? Somewhere between Buddhist and Western psychology-related ideas of attachment, the lessons of death and letting go in this story teach us a deeper engagement with and understanding of our own depth and process. Skeleton Woman is about turning towards the things we fear or want to avoid so that we can become less reactive, more whole in ourselves, and ultimately more free as we face the truth about impermanence and mortality. Ultimately, each of us is seeking greater happiness, depth, and a feeling of wholeness that I can only ultimately describe as integration - integration of our dark and light nature, our light and our shadow, our joy and our sadness, our lightness and our heaviness....our life/death/life nature.
I believe the story points symbolically (through the life that comes from singing and drinking a tear) to a path of healing and becoming more securely attached and mindful not through detachment and mindfulness, but through this deeper engagement with our feeling nature. Our feelings provide the compass, the fuel and the lifeblood for a meaningful connection in relationship.
The story is an encouragement to trust this process of surrendering to and accepting the true nature of life which is change, in whatever form it takes - beautiful, ugly, chaotic, smooth, or just plain unexpected, sad or scary. It reminds us to face the truth and shed our illusions, and that true love is not possible without this journey. Estes writes, "we pretend we can love without our illusions about love dying, pretend we can go on without our superficial expectations dying...but in love, everything becomes picked apart, everything. When one commits to love, one commits to skeleton woman."
In American culture, there is a fantasy that love is about "happily ever after," and also a misguided belief that relationships should not have problems, especially at the beginning. These myths are used to justify breakups that are truly driven by one or the other partner's unwillingness to grow, and are enforced by American ego-based focus on immediate gratification and gratification of only the life nature (think Instagram, and every app or subscription service you have ever heard of.) These beliefs that relationships should be simple, easy, and always make us feel good are casually thrown around as truths, but are nothing more than fantasy, perpetuated by television, and movies. Estes explains that "the culture often encourages that we throw Skeleton Woman over the cliffs, for not only is she fearsome, it takes too long to learn her ways. A soul-less world encourages faster, quicker, thrashing about to find the one filament that seems to be the one that will burn forever and right now. However, the miracle we are seeking takes time: time to find it, time to bring it to life."
So, how can we learn her ways? Here are some of the teachings from Skeleton Woman (these phases are adapted directly from Estes's book)
Skeleton Woman's Map for Real Love: The spiritual stages of relationship
1. "Discovering another person as a kind of spiritual treasure, even though at first one may not realize what one has found."
Here, Estes talks about the importance of acknowledging how sacred a connection is. Often (as I describe in my Soul Love post), we don't recognize the treasure right in front of us because we are afraid. When we are afraid, our minds tell us that things could never work out, our body's feel scared, and our hearts' flip flop between being open and being closed.
This is the first stage in dating, which Estes explains is usually done unintentionally, to fill some kind of need for a trophy or a balm to placate our wounds. She says of those of us fishing, "their egos may be fishing for fun....the very young have values that revolve around the finding and winning of trophies, the young do not know what they are seeking, the hungry seek sustenance, and the wounded seek consolation for previous losses." Unfortunately for the unintentional fisherman, the fantasy of simply hooking a fish and not having to do any work is only a fantasy. Finding a true treasure is not simply romantic, it's scary. It's scary because it will inevitably lead us to face our skeleton, and somehow we instinctively know this. Estes explains that the fisherman "does not realize that he is bringing up the scariest treasure he will ever know, that he is bringing up more than he can yet handle...he is about to have all his powers tested. Lovers are...blind as bats."
2. "The chase and the hiding, a time of hopes and fears for both."
The second stage is where our hopes and fears really set in. In this stage, we start to viscerally feel ourselves running towards or away from the connection and have a sense that this may be driven by fear.
It is in this stage it is important to remember trust and Estes's wisdom that "the interior teacher arises when the soul not the ego is ready." This is a good reminder to trust that there is a guiding magnetic force in love that is deeper than our mind can comprehend.
When we are met with our own resistance and an equally strong pull to love and move forward, this is a time to listen to something deeper, older, more ancient, and more wise than our analytical mind. People may make up stories that support the belief that when things become tangled and frightening the end is near, or that they are being chased by someone else. But really, they have hooked their own skeleton woman, their own inner anima, and that is what they are afraid of.
3. "Untangling and understanding of the life/death/life aspects of the relationship and the development of compassion for the task."
This stage in dating is when we begin to surrender to our feelings and begin to sift through what they mean. Rather than simply running or chasing, we calm down enough to sit with what is happening and start to make sense of it. Perhaps we recognize our own patterns as we do so, or we develop a better understanding of the other person that allows us to feel less threatened by them.
In this part of the story, Skeleton Woman's collapse, her simple unattached, unwitting, silent presence touches the fisherman's heart. She has ceased all activity and all trying. She has surrendered to quiet. This allows him to calm down, his heart beat to slow, and his innate instinct tells him how to tend to her. He allows himself to turn towards and organize a messy and ugly pile of bones. Just as he turns towards the crumpled (and once-scary) skeleton, the fishermen in us can turn towards the not-so-beautiful in ourselves, the "secret hunger to be loved, our psychological inadequacies, our soul-separateness," all our vulnerabilities and insecurities.
Here, in this place, the fisherman's fear must die in order for him to love. We can ask ourselves, what must die in me in order for me to love?
4. "Relaxing into trust: the ability to rest in the presence and good will of the other"
In this stage of dating, partners must continue to cultivate the stillness that began in step three, to begin to relax and trust. The sleep in the story is a symbol of rebirth, regeneration, and surrender into safety and trust. The fisherman was calm enough to sleep in the presence of something he was previously scared of, creating an invitation. By surrendering, he allows the love and integration he was fishing for to find find him. A good reminder in this stage that Estes leaves us with is "all you are seeking is also seeking you, if you lie still, sit still it will find you," reminding us of the importance not just of the masculine actions of hunting and fishing, but also of lying still in presence.
Estes mentions the fear and skittishness that comes from having been wounded previously that causes people to defend themselves from love by acting disinterested or saying they are afraid of "being trapped" or state their claims of wanting to "be free" rather than surrendering. Of these, she says, "these are the people who let the gold slip through their fingers." The turning point is when we allow ourselves to love DESPITE our wounds, to love "even though" we feel jaded, nervous, scared, and terrified.
5. "Sharing of future dreams and past sadness, these being the beginning of healing archaic wounds with regard to love."
In this phase, we allow our inner emotions to be expressed outwardly in relationship, which allows our wounds to be healed together. The fisherman's tear is an acknowledgment of his own inner feminine and an expression of his emotional life. It calls the feminine life/death/life nature (Skeleton Woman) to come closer. The single tear represents his passion and his compassion, his humanness, his vulnerability. Estes says that the tear comes "when he allows himself to see the self-destruction he has wrought by his loss of faith in the goodness of self...he weeps because he feels his loneliness, his acute homesickness for that psychic place, for that wild knowing."
With this tear, we surrender to our existential aloneness as humans and the vulnerability that says "I admit the wound is here." In admitting our own wound, we stop asking someone else to chase us or heal us and we have a willingness to show up in our own emotions. Estes mentions that we often make the mistake of believing someone else will heal us, but in truth "no woman, no love, no attention heals such a wound, only self-compassion, only attendance to one's own wounded state."When the man cries this tear, he has come upon his pain, and he knows it when he touches it. he sees how his life has been lived protectively because of the wound. He sees what of life he has missed."
6. "The use of the heart to sing up new life."
This stage speaks to the power of the heart, the motor of our entire bodily existence. In this stage, we are asked to connect to our heart and to sing out for what we want. If we are able to vulnerably and powerfully state our needs in an authentic way through our own song (versus in a controlling way), we give the other person a chance to meet us and to connect with us in that genuine place. If we are able to do that, the male and the female each become stronger and vested with the powers and the strength of the other. Skeleton Woman's authentic cry and song for what she wants is a prayer that has the power to create life and connection.
7. "Intermingling and the dance of body and soul"
In this stage, we are able to actually unite with one another - once fears have been untangled and allayed, emotions have been tended to and expressed, and the foundation of trust and surrender is laid. Only then can we have a physical connection that also feeds our soul. The giving of the body is one of the last phases of love, and it is here that the breath, the flesh, the sound, the spirit and matter are integrated. The moral and immortal are connected. There is a spiritual union and a physical one. Here, the fisherman is skin to skin with the skeleton, a metaphor for the deepening of the relationship.
Both partners are transformed, and the strength and power of each are untangled, integrated through feeling, and shared in the heart. "He gives her the heart drum. She gives him knowledge of the most complicated rhythms and emotions imaginable." At this moment in the story, we can recognize that in order to truly love, we must kiss the frog or the hag and walk through the spiritual fire.
One of the biggest takeaways from Skeleton Woman is the transformative power of the act of facing the darker aspects of life, letting go of our resistance to reality and to feeling something in ourselves, perhaps our pain, or our fear. Our own unique flavor of relationship behavior can enable us to avoid our pain. Perhaps we cling or we act invulnerable or unattached in reaction to our own uncomfortable life/death/life feelings. Perhaps we believe these life/death/life feelings are only there because our partner is chasing us or avoiding us, instead of realizing that these feelings are our own nature and need to be faced. When we cling to another, we resist the pain of separation. When we avoid or detach in reaction to another, we are resisting the closeness and intimacy with each other and with our own truth, which leaves us detached and disconnected from ourselves as much as from the other person. The answer is in the dance of connection and disconnection in relationship. The answer is in allowing the ebb and flow between separation and closeness. The answer is in allowing ourselves to face whatever discomfort comes up while still holding space for connection with another person. This is true connection.
As humans, we need connection and bonding to survive. But we equally need to be able to release and let go when relationships need space to breathe. Life is inherently impermanent. If we try to deny this by controlling our feelings through clinging to or detaching from the relationship, we are in resistance to the natural flow of life. You may have experienced this in yourself as you try to cling to a relationship or let go of a relationship too soon. Both can be forms of trying to control your emotional experience by either overly attaching, or being overly detached….and both can be detrimental to the connection we need and crave.
Yung Pueblo describes this beautifully in his book "Inward,": Heaviness comes from hanging on tightly to emotions that were always meant to be ephemeral. We want things to last forever or we turn difficult moments into long lasting pain simply because we have not learned to let go. We have not learned that the beauty of living comes from the movement of change. Letting go does not mean that we forget and it does not mean that we give up, it just means that we are not letting our present happiness be determined by things that happened in the past or by things we wish to happen in the future."
It's important to learn to recognize, hold, and know what we value - to recognize and remember our treasure, both externally in who we love and internally in what we feel... without become identified with it in a way that creates an inflexible attachment to how relationships "should" be. It's also important to acknowledge that our deep human needs for commitment, safety, and connection are distinct from the act of attachment. We can have those needs met in relationship, sometimes. But we cannot attach ourselves to having them met by anyone or anything outside of ourselves.
All we can do is to be in the act of love, but know that we cannot control the outcome of this and we must be prepared to let go. As Estes writes, "to love means to stay with. It means to emerge from a fantasy world into a world where sustainable love is possible, face to face, bones to bones. To love means to stay when every cell says run.
A quote on the cycle of life/death/life nature:
"Anything you lose comes round in another form." - Rumi
A question for you:
Notice in yourself - where do you feel yourself reactive about a situation or attached to an outcome in relationship, and ask yourself, what would I feel if this thing that bothers me didn't turn out the way I wanted? What would I feel? Whatever that feeling is...that is what you're avoiding. Ask yourself, "What must die in order for me to love?"
And a song for you:
Lauren Korshak is a San Francisco-based Marriage and Family Therapist, Meditation Teacher, Dating & Relationship Coach, and former matchmaker. She has a BA in Psychology from University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Somatic Psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS.) In her free time, Lauren can be found dancing, meditating, adventuring outdoors, making music, and spending QT with loved ones.