A healthy consciousness of death is not a fear of death, unless you take the word “fear” in the Old English sense of “reverential awe.” In the last two thousand years, we’ve been told by Christianity that death is an enemy. The Apostle Paul claimed that death is “the last enemy,” and something that must be defeated. Of course, he was referring to a resurrection in which all of the dead would be raised again to new life. I’m not certain whether Paul was writing metaphorically or not, but there is no doubt his followers have taken this idea very literally to the point where the idea of death creates an intense atmosphere of fear in the minds of most people.
We fear death because it is the most profound mystery of our existence, and we are terrified of the unknown. This is due to the unconsciousness of death. There are those who, it is said, have experienced death while still living. These no longer fear death, but recognize it as a transition and a widening of consciousness.
Death is an abstruse metaphor that most have lost sight of. Certainly, the physicality of death is that we fall asleep forever and the animatter of our bodies is processed by Nature and redistributed to other animaterial entities, as the Anima Mundi determines. This is only the superficial meaning. As with all things, there is another side of the story that must be sought in the depths of the depths.
In a sense, we die nightly. We sleep, or, more accurately, we fall asleep. Sleep is a going-down as death is a going-down. We plunge into the Underworld, as do also the dead. Sleep is an initiation, as death is an initiation. Death and the dreams of sleep are closely intertwined. As we sleep nightly, we are becoming more and more acquainted with, and more and more conscious of, death and the Underworld. Our death-vessel is daily being prepared, for we are born to die:
Life and death come into the world together; the eyes and the sockets which hold them are born at the same moment. The moment I am born I am old enough to die. As I go on living I am dying. Death is entered continuously, not just at the moment of death as legally and medically defined. Each event in my life makes its contribution to my death, and I build my death as I go along day by day (Hillman, 59).
There is an Underworld inside us. It is to that nocturnal world we journey every night, where we commune with the beings of that world: the dead, the imaginal, the gods, et al. By simply being born into these bodies, we are forced by nature to visit this realm in sleep, and thereby acclimate ourselves with the Darkness. For, without Darkness, there can be no Light. This is the truth of initiation.
The underworld isn’t just a place of darkness and death. It only seems like that from a distance. In reality it’s the supreme place of paradox where all the opposites meet. Right at the roots of western as well as eastern mythology there’s the idea that the sun comes out of the underworld and goes back to the underworld every night. It belongs in the underworld. That’s where it has its home; where its children come from. The source of light is at home in the darkness” (Kingsley, 68).
Sleep, albeit an unconscious state, provides us with a foretaste of death and thus brings some consciousness of death. Freud said that dreams are the via regia, the royal road, to a greater knowledge of the unconscious. Truth doesn’t come from outside ourselves, but from within. The Light is in the Darkness, in the Underworld, if we would only heed it’s call and be aware as we journey down the Royal Road each night.
Hillman, James. Suicide And The Soul. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Kingsley, Peter. In The Dark Places Of Wisdom. Inverness: The Golden Sufi Center, 1999.