Samhain. The time of no time, the time of the ancestors, the time of the wild hunt. The time when darkness blankets the land, the frost covers the landscape, and many things die. Here in the hemisphere, this signals the end of the fall months and the beginning of the long and dark cold of the winter. I always feel like Samhain is when we get our first hard frost. The first frost cuts through the land, tearing through tender annuals like tomatoes and basil, freezing the tips of the last of the aster and goldenrod, and hastening the annual dropping of the leaves. It leaves a wake of brown and death in its stead, and signals clearly that summer is over and winter is soon to come.
In my first post on this series (Receptivity at the Fall Equinox), I made the case that the traditional Wheel of the Year and its themes were developed and enacted under very different conditions than our present age. The Holocene, a period of climate stability, allowed the rise of agriculture, agrarian traditions, and basic assumptions about being able to put forth an effort and reap rewards. Some of the themes present in the traditional wheel of the year simply don’t fit the present age–the age of the Anthropocene. This is where fires, floods, droughts, severe storms, and rising seas threaten our homes and livelihoods. Where animals, fish, birds, and insects are under severe threat from human-driven activity. Where traditional–and balanced–relationships with the land have been severed. And where each of us has to cultivate a new set of resilient skills to successfully navigate the coming age. Thus, I argue, we need new approaches to celebrating our traditional wheel that emphasize the skills and vision that will help us not only navigate the continuing crisis but also help us bring forth a better future for our descendants and all life.
Today’s theme is releasing or letting go. While this is is a theme that some have explored at Samhain in the past, I want to shed some new light on it, given this current age.
In Traditional Western Herbalism, stagnation is one of the worst things that can happen to the human body. A stagnant condition is a place where disease festers, where the body breaks down, and where the body loses tone and strength. Stagnation is infection, it is dysfunction, and it is disease. It is the same in our mental lives: stagnant conditions are those that lock us into unproductive patterns: repeated focuses on trauma, living in the past, not allowing ourselves to get out of problematic thought patterns. The key is processing and then releasing this so we can grow again.
Stagnation is also the opposite of what occurs throughout nature. Nature is always adapting, always evolving, always changing to meet the present age. We can see this from the fossil records of ages past. Animals, plants, insects, fish–all life has learned to continually adapt and evolve, taking on new behaviors, new physiology, and new forms to adapt to changing conditions on this planet. I point, for example, to the adaptations that Raccoons have made to live in city environments all around the world as a recent example of how adaptable and resilient nature is. If nature is disrupted through fire, flood, or human activity–it begins to regrow immediately. If left to grow, it will go through many adaptations before coming to its current climax environment (which where I live, is often an oak-hickory forest!)
In addition to our individual experience, the other area that we can explore with regards to the Anthropocene is the cultural narratives that bind us–myths that are creating a kind of cultural stagnation. We know there is a global problem, but the myths and systems in place at present mind us to the same tired and repeated pattern. One set of myths that have been broadly identified is the “myth of progress”, or the idea that civilization is forever moving forward in a growth-at-all-costs paradigm. I don’t think this myth has the power it used to have, say, 10 years ago, but it’s still something deeply embedded in us that absolutely has to be let go of if we are going to thrive in the future and build a new age. Here in the United States, a related driving myth is the American Dream (which is believed by pretty much no one under the age of 30 who grew up in the USA). Another common myth is the idea that you as a human are disconnected from nature, or maybe, that you can only harm the living earth. A final myth is that technology will somehow save us from this climate crisis, that we can simply invent a better technology so we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing…These myths have power; they encourage us to see the world from a certain perspective that keeps us as just cogs in the larger machine of progress and industrialization. But the truth is, the machine is failing, and the best thing we can do is distance ourselves from that machine–and that distancing starts with interrogating these myths. And certainly, we have a lot to interrogate at present.
This, the first step towards resiliency and adaptability–two critical skills for this present and coming age–are being willing to let go of those things that no longer serve us. To recognize when it is time to acknowledge, move on, and heal from that which has bound us to and in the past.
Letting Go Activities for Samhain: Shadow Work and ritual
So let’s look at how this letting go work at Samhain might happen. I’m not going to lie–what I’m outlining here is extremely difficult work. Work that takes years, disentangling work where we examine ourselves, our relationship to others, and the core of our understanding of the world. There are two steps to letting go–shadow work and ritual release.
Shadow Work: Understanding the Unconscious and Collective Unconscious
Jung’s extensive writings in philosophy and psychology explored the role of the unconscious and the consciousness within individuals as well as broader collectives, and it is well worth delving into if you are going to do this work. On the most basic level, our consciousness is everything we are clearly aware of, while the unconscious is everything that is not. Jung also recognizes that there is a collective unconscious, the realm of the driving myths and archetypes of any culture or age. The unconscious has tremendous power and often drives our actions, decisions, and beliefs and yet, for many, is a vast and unexplored region.
Shadow work, as a whole, represents that work that we do to understand our own unconscious–including our darker nature–and come to terms with it. It involves us carefully examining our own assumptions, subconscious and semi-conscious actions, the ways in which we respond or hurt, and all the semi-invisible stuff we carry with us. There are parts of us that are shaped by our past experiences. Understanding ourselves and our darker natures is a lifetime of study, but we can certainly do good work in this direction with dedicated effort. You have to fund a productive way into this work, and you have to be willing to change and understand yourself. One of the methods that I have been taught and that has been very effective is to understand your darker nature–what is within yourself. This is the stuff where you often act subconsciously in response to something–when you feel hurt, or you compare yourself to others. You can also look back on behaviors that you did that hurt others, particularly those that you did subconsciously or without even thinking about it. And then consider where those things are rooted in–and what you can do to mitigate or understand this self better.
Shadow work in the age of the Anthropocene should also examine our relationship to the collective unconscious, those big narratives, and myths that guide much of what we think and believe about the world. Culturally-focused shadow work involves really starting to disentangle the cultural narratives the have driven this world to the brink of ecological collapse. This is not easy work; some of which I have outlined above.
Thus, when we think about letting go, any of these things might be helpful, particularly in the context of this age:
- Letting go of the cultural assumptions that guide us
- Letting go of assumptions about how we can use nature, take from nature, or own nature
- Letting go of assumptions about humans’ relationship with nature (e.g. I can only do less harm or less bad)
- Letting go of the expectations about what our lives could be; the lies culture and corporations told us
- Letting go of external understandings of what we “should” do and who we “should be”
- Letting go of expectations of others
- Letting go of old pain and deep wounds; finding power in forgiveness and moving on
This work can be done through meditations, talking with others we trust, journaling, and just a lot of self-observation and evaluation. Take one small piece at a time: examine yourself, your past behaviors (particularly those that you did “without thinking” and then later asked yourself,”why did I do that?”), deep-rooted insecurities and emotions, and see where you arrive at. A lot of this work happens in a cycle–you do a certain amount, and then you rest and do other things for a while, and then you come back later and deepen your understanding over time.
Elemental Letting Go/Releasing Ritual
Once you’ve done some of the above, you can also consider ritual means for releasing. Letting go rituals are generally pretty straightforward-first, charging an object that will help you release, and then, actually releasing it in some way through ritual means (a fire/air ritual, an earth ritual or a water ritual). You can actually design a ritual that is tied to a particular element. Step one is to have some object that represents what you want to let go of. This object is focused on, where you meditate or direct the unwanted feelings/assumptions/emotions into the object. The object is then released and nature is allowed to do her healing work. So let’s look at three versions of this:
The Air/Fire Releasing Ritual
You can perform an air/fire ritual in a few different ways. One way is to open a ritual space and start by writing down what you want to release beforehand, crumpling that up, and then building a fire around those materials. Then, you light the fire, let it burn down, and the work is done. In an alternative, you would prepare a fire and then open your ritual space. Light your fire, then cast your releasing materials into the fire and let it burn down. This is useful for group activities, where everyone is going to be releasing whatever they feel the need to release. In either case, you light the fire, allow the powerful energies of fire and air to help you let go, and move forward.
A Water releasing ritual
Water is another good method for releasing and letting go. Ideally, you want either a large body of water (a big lake, an ocean) or a moving body of water (like a river). Begin by making an offering to the body of water, and see if it is willing to accept from you things for release (if not, offer gratitude and find another body of water). Now, find a stone or a stick along the edge of that water, and pour into it the emotions/feelings/experiences that you want to release. Take your time in doing this. Speak our intentions for this work aloud as you do this. When it feels “full”, fling it into the body of water as far as you can. Consider a verbal release (like a shout), as you release this. Then, thank the body of water and turn your back and walk away.
An earth releasing ritual
Earth is a final method for releasing and letting go. Ideally, you will want somewhere that is not your own home/land for this; or some place far from your home. Use your intuition to find an appropriate place. Begin by asking permission of the earth to help you with your releasing work; make an offering and offer gratitude. If you have an affirmative, continue, and if not, find a different spot and ask again. Once you have found your spot, dig a small hole, working hard not to disrupt anything that is already living there. Take a stone, stick, or other object (that is safe to put into the land), and hold the object in your hands. Pour all that you want to let go of in the object. Speak your intentions aloud, and take all the time you need to do this. Finally, place the object in the hole and cover it up. Thank the earth again, and then walk away and do not look back.
Letting Go to Writing a New Story
Letting go is a critically important part of moving forward with a new vision and story for the future–a vision of a healed world in balance with the living earth. Thus, Samhain helps us to let go of that which no longer serves us, and that which hinders our ability to move forward, grow, and heal. Letting go is powerful work, and can be done at all levels: physical, mental, emotional, cultural, and spiritual. And I think it’s really necessary to work for us as we seek to develop resiliency, adaptability and embrace the change and challenge that is before us.
Once you let go, you see things from a new perspective. Your judgment is less clouded by your own internal narratives nor those of the broader collective unconscious. You are free to vision a new world, a better present for yourself and your loved ones, and most importantly–a bright future for all of the earth’s inhabitants and our descendants. That, my dear readers, is worth striving for.
PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging. I’ll return before the Winter Solstice to resume again! :).