Posted by Michael Finkelstein | October 22nd, 2010
This week, many Americans are choosing costumes and candy in preparation for Halloween. While this day of fun and amusement has its value, in other parts of the world the day after stands in rather sharp contrast to the tricks and the treats of the 31st. On November 1st, Mexican culture begins its celebration of The Day of the Dead, a holiday when deceased loved ones are invited back to the earth through a series of rituals. For many, this may seem like a morbid alternative, however, I would suggest we think of the extraordinary nature of this day from another perspective.
On The Day of the Dead, the living visit graveyards and dance with the souls of their loved ones who have died. This ritual may sound depressing to some people, but if looked at in a different way, this relationship with the dead is very beautiful. It allows us to maintain a connection with them and with death, while reassuring the living that when we die, we are not forgotten. Once again, I feel we can learn by exploring the rituals and practices of other people. I find that as citizens of a culture that aims to protect us from pain and suffering to such an extent, we wind up disconnected from practices that actually help us through difficult challenges that we will inevitably confront. To the point, I’m not sure we are very well prepared to face death in particular. Let’s examine this further:
How do you feel about death? Is it frightening? Sad? A horrible experience? In general, our society has a very negative perspective on death. However, as we can see by this example of the Mexican’s Day of the Dead, there are other cultures that do not fear death and literally embrace it. It is interesting to me that this holiday, irrespective of cultural adaptation, that places death in the forefront happens to also coincide with this season of letting go.
I would submit that by facing death in this ritualized, communal way, the Mexicans have found a solution to the anxiety that would otherwise dominate their feelings towards it. As a result, they have in place a practice which allows them to keep their focus on living. Again, whether or not you would wish to celebrate this day as they do in Mexico, it does reveal that there is a choice in how we relate to death. While we cannot simply eliminate our cultural bias about death, we can acknowledge that we have been “trained” to fear death, and therefore, if we chose, we could alternatively learn to better accept it. We can choose to do those things that help us overcome our fear. We can train our minds to focus elsewhere. Confronting our fear of mortality actually enhances our quality of life. It frees us to live in the moment and celebrate our blessings.
Indeed, to live skillfully, we must prepare for the eventuality of loss and death. While challenging and potentially unpleasant, if we don’t, we risk crashing when something happens.
Perhaps, as you carve your pumpkin, you will think of your relatives and friends who have passed on and invite them to the party within your heart. It would be a nice beginning.