As a yogi, I’ve gotten accustomed to practicing death. Savasana, or corpse pose, is the period on every yoga practice, just as it will end the final sentence of each of our lives. (If you would like to read my rant on the subject, click here.) But lately I’ve been wondering if it might be equally important to practice the afterlife.
I was raised in the Methodist church in the Seattle area. I found Methodists to be more concerned with good works in this life than what comes next. Religious fervor was also pretty lukewarm in the Seattle area generally, where folks would really rather you kept your thoughts on such subjects to yourself. What I mostly gained from my childhood in the church was an appreciation for church hymns – my Mom put on her blue choir robe with its gold sash and sang in the choir for both services.
My dear friend Jeannie was raised with the specter of a fire and brimstone sort of afterlife. Her grandparents, after migrating from Oklahoma, founded a fundamentalist church, where Jeannie was taught to long for heaven and to fear hell. Lucky for us, like my Mom, she also learned to sing with the conviction she has now.
Since then, her life has evolved to embrace a more, shall we say, eclectic spirituality, that includes investigation of the paranormal. In other words, real, direct experience of phenomena that may be related to our own afterlife. This evolution of her set of beliefs has created its own set of emotional conflicts. Recently, over gelatos at Whole Foods Market, she said to me:
“It seems important to get clear on my own vision of the afterlife. Because what you believe it is, is what it will be.”
This statement, arresting as it was, stopped me in my tracks even more than it ordinarily would have, since it echoed so strongly the words of a poem recited to me that morning over breakfast. The words are from Billy Collins, though the woman who recited them to me is a poet in her own right:
“…everyone is right, as it turns out.
You go to the place you always thought you would go
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.”
The woman speaking, interestingly enough, had grown up in Oklahoma, and we had been talking about the difficulty of living there when you are different, how it seems best to keep your beliefs about the religion, and the afterlife, to yourself.
As a student of classical yoga texts, I spend a lot of time reading about karma and re-incarnation, both of which make sense to me. Since my primary teachers are Buddhist, I’ve gotten to hear a lot about the Bardo, a 49 day karmic obstacle course where your next incarnation is sorted out. But when it comes right down to it, when I look into that “lit alcove” in my head, I can’t see myself going through any of it. I can’t see much of anything at all. I guess my Methodist upbringing might still be affecting me more than I thought – I would much rather concentrate on good works in this life, and let what comes next sort itself out. Whatever it is, I figure, will come from a state of grace rather than my own doing.
My spouse, Joy, escaped the perils of being different in Oklahoma at age 19. Before that, she found protection and solace with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Native American tribe of the area. They took her under their wing, and adopted her as one of the family. After spending much of her adult life resisting the call, she is now studying shamanic practices, discovering something about herself she’s known all along – how to walk between worlds.
From my very elementary understanding of shamanic methodology, it would seem they have a very permeable perception of the afterlife. Some of us, those who are called, can visit at least the first level of death, can assist those in need, bring back guidance for the living, or just say goodbye.
What good fortune to have these mystics of the afterlife in my circle – people who are not waiting for someone else to offer them dogma on the subject, but are reaching out to touch their own, direct experience. They are nudging me to consider that the grace of what comes next is not as far away as I might think. A very slender, wispy veil separates us all from “the celestial choir…singing as if they have been doing this forever…”