Death, Carrots, and the Queen of Sheba
This is the 12th in a 13-part series of essays and interviews about death, written by Cat Saunders exclusively for The New Times. Please send SASE for any reprints desired.
On May 4, 1995, I found out when I'm due to die. I've had four years to think about this, and I have ten more. In 2009, I'll "make my transition," as some people put it. Personally, I prefer the "D" word: I'll be dead in ten years.
It's perfectly okay if I live longer, and it's fine if I die tomorrow. However, my body, my dreams, and several unrelated sources all point to a 55-year life span. I trust my body and these sources so much that I must confess, I think I'm leaving in 2009.
If this sounds outrageous to you, that's okay. It is outrageous, especially when you consider our culture's pervasive denial of death. Foreknowledge of my death is outrageous to me, too, only it's outrageous in a good way, the way purple-throated orchids are outrageous, or the way oceans and orca whales and orgasms are outrageous. Life is outrageous, and death is part of life.
Most people get scared when they think about death, but I get excited. There's nothing that makes me feel more alive than contemplating death. Actually, I should probably choose a word other than contemplating, because that connotes quiet thoughts or tranquil meditations. I love the stillness and cultivate it, but my contemplations also take on wilder forms.
Sometimes I dance like a maniac when I contemplate death. Other times I dream into death while I drum myself into ecstasy. Sometimes I hold a human skull in one hand, gazing into its empty eye sockets, while I feel, with my other hand, the bony ridges of my own skull under layers of fragile, impermanent flesh.
Sometimes I chant the extraordinary Hindu death chant in homage to Lord Shiva, not because I want to conquer death, but because I want to conquer my fear of it. Although death excites me, it sometimes scares me. If it didn't scare me, it wouldn't be death!
It's easy to deceive myself about my comfort with death. After all, I feel honored to sit with people who are dying; I find the subject of death endlessly fascinating; and I face the fact of my own mortality with curiosity and awe. What about my body, though?
Don't I feel the hot rush of adrenaline shoot through my veins when a car near-misses my bicycle? If that's not pure, unadulterated fear, I don't know what is. My spirit knows that death is safe, but my body has trouble with the fact that it will end one day, just like that. This is why I must explore death in active, physical contemplation, because it's my body that needs help with death.
Paradoxically, my body also knows that death is safe, but this knowing is buried deep within my cells at the level where physical and metaphysical meet in a dance of pure energy. This knowing isn't always consciously available to me, so I have to work to remember what I already know. That's what contemplation is for me: remembering what I already know.
Death contemplation is particularly helpful, because it intensifies everything so much that it's easier to hear what I need to know. Unfortunately, I don't always remember to ask my death for help, so I stumble around in the dark, tripping on old patterns, wondering if people like me or if I look okay or some such banality, while death laughs behind my back and wonders when I will stop asking trivial questions once and for all.
On September 10, 1987, a dear friend named Deborah Smith was killed by a drunk driver. The night before she died, we talked for about an hour on the phone. I remember that Deborah kept talking about wanting to let go. She also talked about something she'd heard: It doesn't matter if you ever figure out any answers, as long as you live the question.
The next day, Deborah was dead, her heart crushed by tons of steel. I was overcome with shock and grief, and I wept for hours. At some point, I remembered my shamanic training. Since Deborah's death was sudden and accidental, her spirit might need help. She might not even know she was dead.
I journeyed shamanically in an attempt to find her soul. To my amazement, I found her spirit dancing for joy. My tears quieted immediately, and I came back from my journey, knowing all was well.
For the next two weeks, I kept drawing a heart with wings flying into the sun. Although I knew that the sun was a personal symbol for God, I didn't fully understand the drawing. All I knew was that it felt like freedom. The following spring, in 1988, the drawing became a logo, and I changed the name of my company to Heartwings Foundation. It was a fitting tribute to a woman whose compassion lived on long after her death.
Years passed, and I learned more about the winged heart when I was teaching a group of shamanic students how to do a particular journey that I learned from Sandra Ingerman, my soul retrieval mentor. The intention of the journey was to remember the purpose you were born with. To do this, you ask your shamanic animals or teachers to show you a symbol or a phrase that captures the essence of your purpose. Then you use this symbol or phrase to stay focused in everyday life, so you can make choices in alignment with your true path.
When I journeyed along with the other students, I was surprised to receive the familiar symbol of a heart flying into the sun. I liked it, but what did it have to do with my purpose? No sooner did I formulate this question than I heard the answer: LIBERATE YOUR HEART. Apparently, it doesn't matter if I write books, clean floors, or ride Harleys in the desert, as long as it helps me liberate my heart.
This may sound pathetically self-absorbed, but I trust my teachers, and I believe that if I do what I came here to do, it will benefit the whole. How this plays out is not my affair. My job is to keep my nose to the grindstone, or rather, my ear to my heart.
If this sounds easy, it isn't. How would you like it if every time you wanted to watch a movie, eat scones, or be obnoxious, you had to check in with the Universal Liberation Front? Sometimes I wish I'd gotten some straightforward purpose like "start an organization," or "paint the garage." Then I could just handle my assignment during regular office hours, and goof off the rest of the time. Instead, I get an open-ended directive that never lets me off the hook.
All day long, I must ask myself, "Will this help me liberate my heart, or won't it?" Strangely, I often get answers I don't expect. More precisely, I get answers that run contrary to everything I've been taught. What could be better for liberation than blasting old beliefs?
For instance, I'm learning that one of the most liberating things for me is, in fact, to goof off, since I'm so damn productive all the time. It's no wonder that my partner, John, is always asking me to come lay down. Hmmmmm. John is suspiciously comfortable in the horizontal position. Do you think he could be an undercover agent for the Universal Liberation Front?
No doubt my shamanic teachers know it's safe to tell me to focus on my own heart, since my idea of "relaxing" is to hang out in front of my altar, processing collective pain. It's not like they have to worry about me getting too lazy. Fat chance! On the other hand, I've always loved this line from the Tao Te Ching: "The sage does less and less until there is nothing left to be done." Maybe there's hope for me yet.
After finding out about my death timing, I kept hearing the same phrase over and over in my meditations: NO TIME TO GO FAST. Of all the things I need to learn in life, this is one of the most difficult for me. I sometimes describe myself as a "light-speed mover," as if that's admirable. Or I lament my experience of being held back by everyone and everything, as if I'm the Queen of Sheba, and how dare the universe interfere with my royal momentum?
I'm painfully aware of the arrogance of this position. If it's not arrogance, then perhaps I'm feeble-minded. How else can you explain someone who thinks she knows better than God what should happen, and when?
I'm not saying that I always think this way. I'm making progress, after all. Just before I left my counseling practice in 1997, for example, I was finally able to truly be with my clients, without trying to change them. How'd I do this? I'd pretend they were carrots, and my only job was to watch them grow.
Of course, I never told any of my clients what I was doing. However, there was a noticeable shift in them whenever I switched to carrot-watching mode, and reminded myself that they knew perfectly well how to grow without any interference (I used to call it input). Basically, I simply loved them, and this is how I loved them: by imagining them as carrots! Most importantly, I was not the gardener. I was a carrot right along with them, in the same row, in the same garden.
I wish I could feel this same level of acceptance about everyone and everything, including time. Even though I don't think I could improve on the universe, I still chomp at the bit sometimes. Now and then, I catch myself wanting what I want when I want it, as if I'm three months old. It's embarrassing! Also, the fact that this embarrasses me shows how much I still have to learn about accepting myself impatience, infantile demands, and all. If I really believed that there is no time to go fast, what would this do to my impatience with my impatience?
Once I saw a photo-essay about Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In one picture, several hardcore biker guys were riding their Harleys in a contest to see who could go slowest. It was hilarious! I knew then that they were doing exactly what I want to do, not just on a Harley, but in life. The slower I go, the more I experience.
If I get the hang of this, my friends will gather 'round after I die and say, "Bon voyage, Cat! You sure knew how to go slow!" Then, with my body safely exited, my spirit can return to lightspeed, knowing that my heart is free at last.
Special thanks to my best friend, Leslie Heizer, Ph.D., for her idea about imagining my clients as carrots in order to give them more space to grow. If you live near Colorado Springs and want a great psychotherapist, call Leslie at (719) 448-9921. You can also work with her by telephone. Tell her I sent you, and give her my love.