Perhaps you could start by saying something about how the shaman
works with death in both traditional cultures and in your
JH When death comes close
the shaman is someone who is called in to help people to die,
and to be with them and with the family at the time of death,
and later on the shaman comes to help the soul to move on to
its next destination.
In many traditional cultures, people donít separate things into
boxes as much as we do. The connection between things
is much more recognised than it is in our culture, and death
is seen as a part of life. It seems that we in the West
have a line that goes between birth at the beginning and
death at the end. My understanding is that in a lot of
traditional cultures itís not so clear cut, not so separate,
probably because people are much more closely acquainted with
death than we are. What I mean by that is that they donít
try to avoid it like we do. Of course they donít go looking
for it, taking unnecessary risks, but they recognise its presence.
And the initiation rites into adulthood often press the young
person to the point where they might well wish they were dead.
In our culture there is a great emphasis on being young or on
looking young or trying to hold onto youth as long as possible.
Thereís not much of a chance of that in traditional societies
where people are living thousands of miles from cosmetic shops.
For them, death is not something that you can hide away. You
canít send your granny off to the nursing home to die. She dies
KK It sounds like that
would require the shaman to have a close understanding of death
JH In some cultures the
shaman is a general practitioner who takes care of a lot of
needs of society, from divination to healing to being someone
who moves the souls of the dead person onto the Other Side.
In other cultures there are shaman specialists, who may only
work with one of these jobs. And in some societies the shamanís
journey to the spirit world is called ďthe little death.Ē But
because the shaman spends a certain amount of time in the world
of the spirits, she or he is in a better position to help the
souls of the dead on their way. The shaman is also someone
who is more likely to have more exposure to the threshold experiences
of life. In traditional societies, the thresholds of life
- birth, initiation into adulthood, marriage, and death - are
much more recognised and honoured than they are in our culture.
The shaman, often having the role as ceremonial leader, is more
likely to be involved in those thresholds. Because of
the shamanís ability to go the world of the spirits he is a
likely person to have around.
Western shamanism today the emphasis, when talking about shamanism
and death, has been much more on the role of the shaman
as conductor of souls, or psychopomp, as it is sometimes called.
Iím really tired of this word psychopomp because it has nothing
to do with human beings or shamanic practise. Itís an academic
word. Iíd say the escort or conductor of souls.
But for me, in our culture, a new and challenging role for the
shaman - in connection with death - is to help people to learn
to face death. Nowadays people go on a workshop, learn some
techniques, go home on Sunday night thinking they can work with
people who are dying, people who are dead, but if they havenít
started to work with their own relationship to death, and really
gotten into it, then they are going to bring that lack of depth,
and perhaps deep fear of death, to the work they do for others,
and that can be a disaster. I remember a few years ago there
was a woman on the death course who assured the circle that
she was all clear with death. Quite frankly, because of my observations
of her during the past two years, I didnít believe her. Apart
of me felt like saying to her, ďAnd what if you get home and
find your nine month old son is dead?Ē No, I didnít do it, but
one day sheíll find out she has more work to do with death,
just as I do, just as you do. We never finish learning. Shamanic
work, like any spiritual work, is more than techniques.
So to help them to come into an awareness of death that traditional
people come into naturally as a result of how they live?
JH Exactly. When I lived
in Greenland one of the doctors at the hospital told me that
about a third of the deaths in Greenland were either violent
or by accident. Far more than in most ďcivilisedĒ countries.
Which is perhaps more of reflection of what it is like in areas
where there is not an ambulance or helicopter to the nearest
hospital. In places where the streets are not all paved,
people slip and fall and die, very suddenly and quickly.
Just before I came up here I was told that the son of someone
I know had just died. Motorcycle accident. Just like that,
25 years old.
Our culture puts such an emphasis on death avoidance. I feel
one of the jobs of shamanic practitioners in the West could
be to help people come into awareness of death in a natural
way. If you talk about death in our culture a lot of people
think that you are ghoulish. When I came back from Vietnam
I was looking through a book catalogue and I saw Elizabeth KŁbler
Rossís first book on death and dying. I just turned the
page immediately. I thought, ďWho'd want to buy
that - what a horrible idea!Ē I had just had an over exposure
to death and I wanted to get back to ordinary reality America
as fast as I could, or at least to my illusion of what that
KK You had obviously
had a crash course in getting to know death in Vietnam.
How do you suggest that shamanic practitioners start to open
their awareness to that?
JH There are a lot of ways.
One thing that seemed unavoidable to me when I started to practise
shamanism was that people began to come to me who were very,
very ill. I didnít feel it was my role to say to them
ďHey, man, you are dying!Ē But at the same time, I had to say
to myself that this person may be dying. So that at least
I was prepared for that eventuality. One thing is to admit
that death is a possibility. In fact, itís not a possibility
Ý itís an inevitability, we just donít know when! Of course,
I do not advise stuffing it down anyone elseís throat,
but I have taken to reminding myself and other people that I
might die at any moment.
Another way to open to death is to be aware of death around
you, from the changing of the seasons to deaths of those around
you, and to be together with people who are actively dying.
My best friend in Vietnam died about 7 years after I cam home
in a car accident. My grandmother had died 2 years before
that. Then there was a kind of pause. But when I
hit my forties, suddenly someone of my own age died from alcoholism,
and then another died by committing suicide, and then someone
died in an accident, and then my friend with a brain tumour
died. The older you get the better chance you have of
someone your own age dying, its all part of living. If you know
someone who has a serious disease I would advise spending time
around that person, not necessarily trying to heal them, but
just to be with them, perhaps as a teacher for you. And who
knows, maybe theyíll learn something from you, too. Itís
not an easy classroom but itís somehow very wonderful at the
same time. Itís one of those paradoxes. Just before
coming here I got an letter from someone who came on a course
in June, whose father was very ill. In the letter, he
said that his father had just died and he was there with him
through his death and that it was a wonderful experience.
I donít think that even 25 years ago you would have heard so
many people saying that. I think that the best possible
education is to open yourself up to being with a dying person.
The other way is to open by reading some books that deal with
death. Joan Halifax, who has been one of my teachers,
has a tape set and soon a book called ďBeing With DyingĒ.
She has been working with dying for over 30 years now.
The book that she wrote with Grof called ďThe Human Encounter
with DeathĒ was the first book I read about being with dying.
It really opened the door for me. There are a lot of good
books to go to, books by Stephen Levine, Carlos Castaneda, Ram
Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Dalai Lama, or the classics like
Rumi and Shakespeare. The daily newspaper, which I donít generally
recommend, can teach us a lot about death, if we stop to be
with what we read, and not just read on. For example, everyday
twenty-four thousand people die because of hunger. Today Ý right
now! Multiply that by three hundred and sixty five. Try to sit
quietly and be with that.
But what was most helpful to me was actually looking at the
simple reality that we cannot fix everything. I think
a lot of people who begin in shamanic practice Ý or any kind
of healing work - want to fix everything, especially for other
people. Itís a very normal place to start. But if you stay there
you are missing something because there is more to life than
that. We have things that need fixing in ourselves. Some
of these things in ourselves canít even be fixed but they have
to be looked at and addressed and accepted.
One of these things is that we are all going to die. Itís
amazing, but every now and then I meet someone who tells me
that its not necessary to die. They apparently have a
need to believe that. They go to great lengths trying
not to die. I donít want to spend my life trying not to
die. I want to spend my life living.
KK So being able to be
with your own death leads you to a richer ability to be
with your own life.
JH Exactly. And the knowledge
that our life now wonít go on forever and ever. I have
been very lucky in my life. My health is pretty good,
so far. For the first 55 years of my life it was very
good. Now I have gotten to a place where I have certain
aches and pains and some things just donít work the way they
used to. The inclination is to get out and train and try to
fix it. And thatís a good idea, but there's a limit to
what can be fixed. I have a bum knee. Itís not that
bad, and I do what I can to stop it getting worse, but its not
the way it was when I was twenty. Accepting that was not easy.
We want to be twenty, we want to have that vigour. I donít
want my hair to fall out. But the only way to maintain that
vigour until the day we die is to die young. Iím never
going to be twenty again, not in this life anyway. But there
is more to living that the vigour of a twenty year old, though
that, too, can be a beautiful thing to behold
KK Has accepting that
changed your shamanic work.
JH Itís changed my outlook
on life. And I feel itís helped me to be more understanding
of other peopleís issues, be they physical aches and pains,
emotional ones, or spiritual ones.
KK What this brings up
for me is Castanedaís stuff about death as an advisor or teacher.
JH I guess so.. though I
canít speak for Carlos, especially now he is no longer in the
land of the living, though who knows! I think it has something
to do with it. If you try to ignore your death, you certainly
canít use death as an advisor. That part in Journey to
Ixtlan where Don Juan tells Carlos, ďYou donít have time for
such crappy thoughtsĒ is, for me, one of the most joyful passages
in English literature. Like many other people I am given
to having crappy thoughts. They are my crappy thoughts
and they are a waste of time, unless later they teach me something.
If you are aware of your own death, Don Juan said it was just
over your left shoulder, it follows that the amount of
crappy thoughts diminishes, and that leaves room for other things
like realising where you are at that very moment.
What I hear you talking about is a far deeper appreciation of
death as part of life than I hear from many people who talk
about shamanic work with death.
JH That is why I changed
the name of the course I teach about this from Shamanism Death
and Dying to Shamanism, Death and Life. Death is part
of life. This isnít about ďpie in the sky,Ē though that comes
later. It was funny because the first time I taught the course
with its new title, several people came up to me and said, ďI
donít like the new name of the course,Ē and in some cases they
were people who are no strangers to death. But there was one
person who was about to celebrate her 80th birthday and she
said, ďI like the new name of the course.Ē She celebrated
her birthday by inviting a whole bunch of people to decorate
her bio-degradable coffin. She is someone who is very aware
of her death and is looking forward to it in a healthy way,
and wants to celebrate it while she is still around to enjoy
it. She also celebrates every breath she takes. But by
the end of the course everyone who had complained came up and
said the new name was fitting - and good.
I think that the most important thing is to become more and
more aware of your own death and to help others to become more
aware of their deaths, too. One of the people on this course
told me that she just doesnít want to even think about her own
death. You canít make people do it. When I came
back from Vietnam, the last thing I wanted to think about was
any bodyís death. And still itís very difficult for
me to drive along the highway and see a cat or a dog or a fox
who has been mashed by a car, or an accident where it is clear
that someone was hurt badly. Itís because we associate
death with pain. Incredible pain. And there is no denying
that pain either. But there is also the acceptance of
it. Joan Halifax, when talking about pain and suffering,
says that pain is pain and suffering is the story behind
it. There is no denying the pain but there is no need
to cling to the suffering, yet at the same time there is no
letting go of it until itís time to let go. Nowadays itís
very modern to say just-let-go as if it were the easiest thing
in the world. But if your husband or wife or closest friend
or child suddenly dies you canít ďoh-just-let-go-of-itĒ.
There is too much there. You can prepare, in some cases,
for a loved oneís death, but if they die in a accident there
is no preparation. Even if you have been preparing for your
own death, still it takes the time it takes. You canít
sit there clinging to it, and at the same time you canít push
it away before its ready to leave. And perhaps it never, but
hopefully transforms into compassion. But for the person who
dies, death is letting go of pain.
KK What do you do in
your own life when you find yourself in that suffering place?
JH I ask for help.
I turn to my spirit teachers and helpers and ask them for help,
and also I turn to people I respect in the physical world and
ask them for help as well. Because it's more than I have
room for in my being - and that is where a lot of the pain is
coming from. People say, ďI could feel myself bursting
from sorrow!Ē It gives the idea that you just donít
have room enough to contain all of this. So you go to
friends and ask them to share the burden of your sorrow.
They canít carry it, but they can walk beside you.
KK That brings us back
to where we are at the beginning where people are rarely alone
in traditional societies.
JH Yes, and not only are
they there for each other, but they also have well developed
rituals to help them to come through those times. We have
not gone totally away form those rituals in our own time.
We do have baptisms and marriages and funerals. And these
are times for people to express their joy and their sorrow -
whatever is appropriate. Iíve always been delightfully
astounded when I have been to a funeral to see how it works
so deeply on people. Itís quite wonderful. My mother often
remarks when she comes back from a funeral, ďIt was a lovely
funeral,Ē and then she goes on to tell why. I never understood
as a boy. Itís making sense to me now. In Denmark they have
a tradition of grav Ýl or burial beer, which is when the friends
get together and drink beer afterwards and talk about the one
who died. And in Ireland they have the wake before the
funeral with the body right there in the room. What a wonderful
and terrible tradition that is, but certainly a cathartic one,
and centuries old. There is no denying anything and a lot comes
Talking about this is strange because itís very coloured for
me by having this cancer scare. And there was a very short period
when I really thought it might be cancer. But to have that period
when it could have been, suddenly it felt like my life went
on hold. I couldnít breathe. And then I felt I had
to take a look at that life.
JH But in a non-ordinary
way, you did have cancer at that time. You put your life
on hold. The world stopped. This possible diagnosis stopped
the world for you and you had to look at your life. And
the world didnít start again until you were told it wasnít cancer.
KK In a way it was a very
freeing experience. And also horrible.
JH So think about the people
who are told, ďYes, you do have cancer.Ē When I was out
at Upaya on a week long retreat called Being with Dying,
there was a bunch of women from Knoxville, Tennessee who had
come together. They work at a center called Shekhinah
which is a centre for women with cancer. Everyone who works
there either has or has had cancer. Itís a place for women who
have cancer to go or to communicate with.
A lot of the retreat had to do with really facing death.
When they started talking, it was clear to hear, and see, that
they were very special people. When you have been living with
death not just over your left shoulder but right by your nose
it changes you.
My spirits started me off by preparing me in a very funny way.
There was a woman on one of the first workshops I ever went
to who was missing a hand. Most people tend not to look
at people who donít have a hand or whatever. My spirits told
me to go up there and talk to her and ask her what happened
to her hand. It was a difficult assignment, but I did
it. She said, ďIím so glad that you came up and asked
me. Iíve never had one.Ē She was born without one of her
hands. She went on to say that she had just made a journey to
ask why she didnít have a hand. It was a little more than
a co-incidence for us both. So after that I noticed that
this kind of thing didnít upset me any more. And so when
I went home and I saw a friend of mine sitting in a wheelchair,
with all his hair missing, I wasnít afraid to go up to him and
ask what was wrong. It turned out he had a brain tumour
and had been told he had two weeks to live. When he found
I was doing shamanic work he said, ďOh I have just been saying
I need a shaman to help me. Will you help me?Ē We
did some work together and he lived for a little but more than
half a year. And that gave him time to face his death and to
do the things he wanted to do before he died, so he didnít
leave with a feeling of incompleteness. So this is another
thing that I think Western practitioners of shamanism can do
is to help those who are dying to look at what they want to
do. And they usually say I want to live. And then
I say what do you want to do with your life right now, what
do you want to do today and tomorrow? And maybe they have
never had the chance or taken the chance to look at life like
that. And that is a great gift.
I heard a wonderful story from some friends about a man they
met on their travels. He was a young man in his early
thirties. When he was 25 he went to the doctor who said it was
cancer and sent him to a cancer specialist. The specialist said
he was very close to death and advised no treatment at all.
This is like the death sentence. This is it. Well
apparently this guy had a lot of life spirit so he said, ďIf
that is how it is am going to do what I want to do. I
want to surf.Ē So he sold his house and car, quit his
job and went to Baja California where they have great surf and
lived on the beach as a beach bum. Time went by and the pain
disappeared and he didnít pay too much attention because, hey,
the surf was up. That was seven years before my friends
met him. Doing what he wanted to do with his life.
I am not saying that we should all be beach bums, but we should
figure out what we want to do and do it as much as possible.
In the first chapter of the book by Stephen Levine ďA Year to
LiveĒ he invites the reader to imagine that they have gotten
the death sentence from the doctor. You have a year to
live. What are you going to do with your life? He goes on to
point out that, in fact, you donít have to pretend that you
are getting the death sentence: you do not know if you are going
to be alive in one year, or even tomorrow.
KK Itís a world away
from something I have met sometimes - the people who think that
working with death is glamorous and dangerous.
JH Soul-carrying or soul-conducting
is very moving work both for the dead person and also for those
left behind, and the one doing the work. Going to the ďLand
of the DeadĒ is neither glamorous nor dangerous if you follow
the instructions youíve been given. Iíve had some incredible
experiences doing it, and I also have seen how much it has meant
for those left behind. But itís sort of like the icing
on the cake. Itís deep, and itís powerful, but for me, itís
not the deep work. Itís important work, but for me the real
work is about life. The deep work starts with yourself,
and then it goes on to the one who is actively dying, the one
whose organs have stopped functioning, the one who is looking
into the eyes of Death . Thatís the hard work for me, the hard
work of being with the dying person who does not want to die,
and it continues with the people left behind, who feel
maybe they donít want to live anymore because someone has died.
My experience has been that the spirits take good care of the
souls who come to them. Itís harder for the those left behind.
Glamorous and dangerous? No. Overwhelming? Most
certainly. And all of this work around death is amazingly rewarding.
It changes you, and brings you closer to life. The psychopomp
journey is sort of the reward for doing the hard work, the painful
work. Itís like the swim at the end of a good, hard, hot
Originally printed in Karen Kellyís
core shamanic newsletter ďSpirit TalkĒ issue 15, november 2001.
Many thanks to Karen Kelly and
SPIRIT TALK for permission
to post this interview.
 Center for Women With Cancer - firstname.lastname@example.org