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. As the Earth cleanses itself of harvest and greenery, we as humans are asked to let go of our own harvests and frolicking to face the the feelings that arise during the darker, 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 this plane while also honoring the imprint and influence they've made on our daily lives is a part of traditions 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 a therapist and healer, I know that it is by turning towards and facing all aspects of ourselves that we can finally exhale as we grow, transform, integrate, and embody ourselves more fully.
Death is one of the few transitions 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 unavoidable surrender and 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 shines a light on every other wound or deep core belief about ourselves - our guilt about not being a good enough sibling or friend or lover, our core loneliness or shame, even places of self-loathing. 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.
A few years ago for Halloween, I dressed as Skeleton Woman, a character from Clarissa Pinkoles Estes's book "Women Who Run with the Wolves." The story is a haunting tale 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...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 lens of our inner masculine (animus) and feminine nature (anima). In depth psychology, within each person there are both masculine and feminine essences that always live in relationship to one another inside of our psyches, seeking ultimate integration with one another through coniunctio, or 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 so may also remind you of some outer dynamics you have experienced.)
Skeleton Woman is an Inuit folktale (full story as told by Estes here). The short version of the story is: A fisherman goes fishing at sea one night and hooks what he thinks must be a very big fish. He reels his fishing rod as hard as he can. Suddenly, at the end of his fishing rod, he sees a skeleton glistening in the moonlight. He panics in fear of this skeleton 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 tied to him.) He runs all the way home, his heart racing in fear, the skeleton skipping along the water and chasing behind the boat.
When the fisherman finally arrives home, he drops his fishing rod and the bones fall into an lifeless pile on the floor. Finally calming down, the man turns toward the pile and begins to organize the bones, laying each bone by the fire to dry. He soon 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. 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.
There are many fishermen and fisherwomen out there, who, once they "catch" someone, run screaming for the hills in their Allbirds, perhaps thinking to themselves, as Woody Allen once famously said in Annie Hall, "I'd never join a club who'd have me as their member," or wondering why this person wants to be with them, while blaming the skeleton as the cause of 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 that originate in infancy between a child and his/her caregiver(s), and which are theorized to set the tone for adult 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 nonreactivity towards our feelings--perhaps in the way of 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 the process of living life fully. 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 - beautiful, ugly, chaotic, smooth, or just plain unexpected, sad or scary chnage. 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 are many misguided romantic templates for what relationships should be, including notions that love is about living "happily ever after," or relationships should be conflict-free, or admitting that relationships have problems means they will end. These myths are used to justify breakups that are in actuality driven by one or the other partner's unwillingness to grow. These notions are reinforced by the American obsession with immediate gratification and happiness as signs of going in the right direction. In Estes terms, this is about gratification of the life nature, without proper acknowledgment of the significance of the life nature or the death nature (think Instagram, Facebook, Tinder.) 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 images on television, social media, 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."
Read more in the original blog post here....