Autumn retreat: on ancestry, death and love

autumn retreat: on ancestry, death and love

As horizontal sun beams exposed the veins of leaves and turned them into miniature translucent maps full of tiny forking paths that invited to the unknown yet welcoming and warm world of yellow shades, it was already weeks past the autumn equinox far up in North. Illusory warmth of the Indian-summer was about to leave us unprepared for the dead, cold months ahead.

Our steps softly sunk into fallen foliage. The medieval castle up the hill was unreachable and covered in shallow mist. Moments ago, we ashed a joint under a majestic ash tree, the axis mundi of our kin, where my grandfather’s ashes scattered years ago and now perhaps soaked up by the roots of this giant tree of trees or woven into humble petals of purple anemones growing in its generous shade. We were lost in our own thoughts as we walked, and the only sounds were rustling leaves and murmuring river.

I thought about my grandmother who had died years before my grandfather and had chosen the more traditional burial mode according to local trends in this century and was resting in peace at an unambitious rural graveyard among agricultural fields some three kilometers North East from the ash tree. It happened to be an area of most fertile soil and a body without a coffin buried six feet deep would have decomposed fairly soon, there might have been only a skeleton left by now. But we had a long history of burials in coffins that adds both veneration and time to our last rite of passage. So the molecules and the star-dust might still be trapped inside a neatly carved coffin as I was raking the leaves six feet above it some ten years later.

But as we walked in silence along the river, I felt a loving presence and soft light. Long after leaving the graveyard, hours after I collected the dry and shriveled linden tree leaves around the grave curb, still on may way back home, I felt the love that connected us all. Because the loving consciousness is not trapped into brain and later either kind of fertilizing compounds that continue to circulate into the nature. On our last rite of passage we leave our bodies to decay and our ego narratives to be remembered or forgotten in this conventional reality and only traces of ultimate reality are left of us.

“Consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains” said psychotherapist Bill Richards in an interview with Michael Pollack that he recalls in his book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Which was similar to the thought of “Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, who conceived of the human mind as kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to frequencies of energy and information that exist outside of it”. Using brain as an instrument to uncover the dreamlike seeing of our conventional world and training it to perceive and stay in more refined and wholesome states of consciousness is also what Buddhism suggests. With my lazy meditation practice, I will never reach the timeless and formless spheres although I still got some time left on my cushion.

But getting back to my grandma – who reclined on an embroidered cushion while reading the Christian newspaper “The Sunday Morning” most of my childhood but never went to church – I wish she was one of those lucky palliative care patients, that Pollack describes in his book. Those were people who with the help of psychedelics had both seen their sickness and death from a different perspective, free of fear and false expectations. I wish she could have foreseen the glimmering light of this autumn and next autumn, and that bright first spring beam she fuses into. I wish she could have seen the light of lights, the oneness of all before she saw it upon leaving us. It might have brought more peace to the mind while morphine eased the pain. But maybe she knew it, we never spoke about things like that and why would we have had?

That many years ago I was not anymore and yet familiar with that feeling myself. It takes time and practice to tune into other kinds of consciousness once we have dug deep and steady patterns in our default mode networks in our brains. After a while it seems obvious that it is the only existence, pure identification with the self and ego that has grown stronger the more we nurture it. But love, empathy and equanimity are more than that. And there is more to the reality than what we perceive most often with our automated senses, set to focus on survival and optimization of our resources.

The day when I held my newborn with very few survival tips and tricks, I traveled back to perceiving the world as whole and mysterious. I looked at him more in delight and excitement than love. (I was not utopian to think that I was feeling love from the first second, because the natural metamorphosis of my body took me by surprise as it is the highest act of creation we humans can ever do.) But the love came as a radiant yellow and soft light while the midwife guided me trough a touching meditation and bonding practice. I felt how it was to be somebody else and once again how it felt when the default mode network is not turned on because there is no concept of self and ego.  My consciousness switched from pure awe to expanding empathy and feelings of love and compassion. It filled my body, the room and beyond. I felt myself being born and having tiny feet that needed cute little socks to stay warm and I felt overwhelming hunger and blurred vision. That was a state of just being and not yet separated from the universe. Before and after this exceptional revelation I had tried to tune into this consciousness while meditating. And I always had enjoyed those rare moments like that autumn day, when serene nature idyll and distant whispers of a stream suggested me the right turn following the translucent map and I found myself there on that plane once again.

autumn retreat: on ancestry, death and love

We sat down before turning around and going back to the car. The air was humid and refreshing, soon would come colder mornings and the water vapor in my breath would condense into lots of tiny droplets of liquid water and ice so I could see it. It was yet to come, we still had a week or two to enjoy that the only fog around us was commercially and artificially created cigarette smoke. We left it lingering in the air as we walked back.

It was late afternoon as we drove back home one-hour North from the river, the ash tree, the grave and the castle. I watched bypassing fields and the low hanging mist as a light sfumato touch of a Renaissance painter. I thought about our mentality that is strongly influenced by the climate. The seasonal change and empty, dark period between the fallen leaves and first snow is a set and setting that has created a culture of maintaining the relationship with the deceased in a subtle but actually perceivable mode. When I did spend winters in warmer climates I was surprised that I did not feel the spirit realm knocking on my door and inviting me for a retrospection. Only high up in the mountains on a spooky Appalachian trail when covered in a bypassing cloud or sudden fog I could hear the calling.

Up in the North, once it was past the autumn equinox, it came or creeped from everywhere. With the arrival of autumn mist and inevitable disappearing of the vegetation, end of animal mating signals and bird songs, with the onset of a desaturated reality, it was easier to attune to the consciousness that allowed us to catch the frequency of spirits.  Or is the ultimate reality that shines through when the lights get dimmed? Our ancestors held a sacred time and space for the unity of present, past and future. They put meals out for the deceased and went to bed early themselves, hoping the past would bring blessings for the future. One could dismiss all those ancient customs and fortune-telling as false beliefs and nonsense, but I find that serving as a conventional form of contemplating the ultimate truths. It was a period of four weeks, a decent yearly retreat of quieting the self and tapping into the timelessness. We were right in the middle of it as the yellow light shined trough the leaves and turned them into miniature translucent maps full of tiny forking paths that invited to the unknown yet welcoming and warm world of yellow shades.

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