Death is the greatest catalyst for change. I invite you to think about that. The closer one feels death’s long spindly fingers beckoning you toward a new infinity, the more seriously and focused one experiences this precious life. I have heard people cavalierly say they are not afraid of death. My good friend use to say that. I use to say it too. Four years ago my friend was stuck with breast cancer. In all humility and with death knocking at her door, she acknowledged her bravado had been subdued, and indeed, she did not want to die, and had tremendous fear about leaving this place for the unknown. When death touches us, we are changed. As I get older, and my youthful indestructible and immortal feelings give way to inevitability, priorities change.
“I think a focus on mortality is a useful thing to have…. You should always know your time is very limited, and that you are lucky to live in a time and a place where you can be healthy until you are 60 as I was. Most people in history have not even had a chance to hope for a thing like that.”
For this reason, death, the fear of death and an awareness of our mortality, is a recommended component of a powerful initiation ritual. I remember sitting in a Native American sweat lodge with 20 other men, pitch black, all feeling the fear of death as the stifling heat from the steam of water poured over red hot rocks enveloped us. Having participated in several hundred such rituals, I have learned a few things.
First, I must be clear that some part of me is going to die during the ritual. It is important that I choose what that is and speak it aloud. Second, some new part of me is going to be birthed. As a result, I will experience a transformation. For example, during one of my first initiation rituals, my goal was to mitigate my fear of living with an open heart. I was terrified of being vulnerable and sharing myself. I was afraid of being hurt. During the ritual, I felt that profound hurt, and then it was lifted. In its place, a more authentic and real me showed up, capable of greater love and self-expression. It was a glorious moment in my life. This was the beginning of an ascent into my inner life, no longer looking outside of myself for my satisfaction, but rather looking within to understand and know who I was an who I was not.
In 2004, I undertook to create a powerful three-day men’s event to speed up this inward search, which would provide an immense opportunity for men to experience a transformation. I researched the term, initiation ritual, and discovered a wide variety of practices from all over the globe. Some I deemed too intense for my liking. One tribe in Africa creates a pair of gloves with live toxic bullet ant stingers on the inside lining. The initiate must wear the gloves for a period of 10 minutes, the bullet ants stinging the entire time, and he then must endure the impact of the toxin and the pain of the stings for the next 24 hours. To be deemed a warrior in this village, a young man must endure said ritual 20 times. I passed on that idea.
During my research, I read the book Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Some. In his book, Some introduced me to a few of the initiation rituals of the Dagara tribe in Africa. I became particularly interested in the burial ritual. In this ritual, the young boys who were to be initiated into manhood dug a hole in the ground. The hole could either be horizontal, like a traditional burial site, or vertical, so the boy could stand in the hole, and then dirt was added up to his neck. In either case, the boy was stuck in the ground up to his neck, unable to free himself of his own accord.
About this same time, I discovered a book called The Shamanic Way of the Bee. This book chronicles the relationship between an initiate and an apprentice. The mentor and those of his group studied and revered the honeybee. The book is a discourse on the value of living one’s life in accordance with the ways of the honeybee. It is a fascinating read, and I recall being fully engaged through and through. Unbelievably, at the end of the book, the initiate leads the apprentice through yet another burial ritual (you wouldn’t think there were so many burial rituals!). This ritual is far more intense than the Dagara ritual. In the honeybee ritual, the initiate is laid flat in a deep hole in the ground, and then set up with a tube at his mouth to breathe, and some beeswax to cover his ears, eyes, and nose. Then the dirt is placed on top of his body, completely filling the hole. The participant has no choice but to lie still over night, unable to speak, move or free himself until dug up the following morning. Just the thought of this ritual sends shivers up my spine. Here is an excerpt:
… “I felt her wrap me in her dark wings, and in the presence of death I saw my life: how petty I had been in my actions, what a judge I was of others, my arrogance, my indifference, my cynicism, and my pride. I was filled with regrets for wasting so much precious time, for putting off so much to a nonexistent tomorrow.”
I searched amongst my network and found just one person that had undertaken a burial ritual. He reported that it was a difficult experience, very challenging, and well worth the effort. Next, I decided to do the ritual myself in order to test its efficacy. I dug a seven foot by four foot hole in the ground, about four feet deep, in my back yard. I lit my sage stick and smudged the area, prepared my candle, wrapped myself in a blanket with my arms at my side, and climbed into the hole. A friend assisted me into the hole and also carefully shoveled the dirt on me, paying close attention to the proximity of the shovel to my head.
It is quite a sensation to be buried alive. I felt the earth being scooped on me. It is a surreal moment. At first it is OK. Then I noticed the incredible weight of the earth and still it felt like it was OK. Then I tried to move my foot and nothing. It was as if I was in a solid piece of concrete. I had no idea just how heavy and form fitting the earth would be. My heart started racing as I couldn’t find any way out. I told my friend that there was enough earth on my legs as I couldn’t move them at all. In addition to my panic about not being able to move my body, I also began to fear about the end of this process, and would I be able to dig myself out. With what little trust I still had, and after some tears, I took some deep breaths and worked to center myself and remember I was simply in a hole in the earth. But it sure didn’t feel like that. It felt like death and no control and a free fall into oblivion. I failed to make it through the night on my first attempt.
My perception was very heightened and acute during the ritual. I did feel very small. I was on the level of insects and weeds. I delighted to see a little bug fly past my eyes, his wings catching the last bit of daylight, and then landing on a shrub not two feet from me. Did you know that when a hummingbird buzzes by, it is very loud? I also soon realized I didn’t have use of my hands. I got an itch on my nose, or felt a bug on my neck, and I was unable to scratch. Instead, I shook my head, or scrunched up my face, to alleviate the little irritants. I was nothing more than a bowling ball with eyes sitting on the ground.
The burial ritual is very beautiful in that it simplifies things. We are asked in the ritual to imagine that our life had ended. How would you feel if you did not have a tomorrow? As I sat there in Mother Earth, alone with my self for 12 hours, I began to ponder what was important and what was a waste of time in my life. The burial ritual made that distinction very clear. People were important. Things were not. I also put a focus on those things in my life, that if I did not do, I would feel deep regret. World travel was on that list. Writing my first book was on that list. Being a good Dad was on that list. Doing more men’s events was on that list. These feelings all erupted out of my close proximity to death.
On my second attempt at the burial ritual, I did make it through the night. I made friends with my pain, the plants, the insects, and the slow moving stars in the sky. I was still in the ground when glorious sunlight hit my face. Ah, what a feeling to experience the sun and its warmth after a long cold night in exile. I had asked to have George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun played for me just as the sun broke over the horizon. It was a moment I will never forget!
As a result of sharing my experience with my band of brothers, men asked me if they could participate in a burial ritual. I created an event called The Bridge, and men paid me to bury them alive. You may ask yourself, why would a man want to be buried alive? Let me give you my three best answers:
Men Love Challenges
We do! When men see something that looks challenging, most men want in. When a man hears about the burial ritual, he instinctively asks himself, “Could I do that? Could I make it through a night?” When I hear about something, and I am not sure I can do it, then I want to do it and give it a go, just to see if I can. I heard an interview with actor Mark Walberg, and he said something that stuck me as true: “Most guys just want to be in the game, not sitting on the sidelines watching.” This ritual put me and every man who did it, in a very special game. Truly it was a game of life and death.
Men Crave Self Knowledge
Every man I have ever known has a profound depth to his being. We think. We figure things out. In general, women are more feeling based creatures. Men are more thought based creatures. We men want to know just what this life experience is all about. Why are we here? What is my purpose? As Walt Whitman famously said:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Consequently, when we have an opportunity to put ourselves is a situation that will be a catalyst for wisdom and self knowledge, many men will jump at the chance. We want the multitudes of which Whitman speaks. Being buried in the ground is a profound transcendental experience. Since your arms are by your side and the weight of the earth so great, you are not able to move. You are, in fact, helpless. It requires dramatic surrender, and supreme peace of mind. The men were witnessed and cared for throughout the night by the other men. The bats were flying about. The full moon was there to keep everyone company. And the journey of each man’s soul was rich, multi layered and textured.
Men Are Drawn To The Flame
We men have a love affair with the unknown. Many men enjoy the feeling of fear, trepidation, of dancing with uncertainty. I refer to this as living at my edge. It is not comfortable, but very enlivening. We brothers feel most alive when we are extremely challenged.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
No one wants to live in quiet desperation. Therefore an opportunity to participate in a life altering, rigorous, physically demanding experience such as a burial ritual is very attractive. When a man does not know if he is up for the task, that is a good sign he is ready to undertake the task. The possibility of real failure is where men find the juice of life. It is not the sure thing we want. We fear and want the unknown and the wisdom that comes with the experience.
I stopped doing the burial ritual events 2 years ago. It was too difficult for most men. Being that close to death brought up deep old wounds. I set my sights on travel and writing. Still, the memories of those events are as strong and potent as any memories I have. Men were real. All the social facades dropped off in the face of a night in the earth. It was a privilege to be with courageous men in that vulnerable state, holding space while they dealt with their own mortality and sorted out their priorities in life. It was very gratifying to see men humbled and focused on what was important, and painfully clear on what was not. Death, thank you for your profound alchemy. Life just wouldn’t be the same without you.
Photo credit: Flickr/Viola