Shamans in traditional societies believe that to conquer the fear of death, one must experience it mythically. In some cultures, an initiate might be buried in the sand for several days with only a straw in his mouth to breathe through. In the Amazon, he might ingest ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic concoction designed to induce an altered state of consciousness, in which he will practice facing his death symbolically. I remember the first time I experienced this jungle brew. After I got over the nausea and had purged several times through every opening in my body, I smelled a putrid odor. I turned to my right and saw that my arm was decomposing and there were worms and maggots crawling through my flesh. I tried to scream for help, but I could not utter a sound. My mouth no longer responded to me. I was terrified as my body continued rotting before me with an overwhelming stench, until all the flesh was gone, leaving behind only the whitened bones of my skeleton. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I am dead already, this is the worst that can happen.” But I was wrong.
Next, I began to see images of all the suffering that humans have inflicted on each other throughout history. It was as if I were watching a movie that I couldn’t stop and experiencing all the feelings and sensations of every wretched act I witnessed. I had not yet learned that one can guide these experiences, literally changing channels, and I was stuck watching the channel that replayed all the atrocities people had ever committed against their fellow men and women. And then it all stopped, and there was only the night sky and a beautiful emptiness, and I heard a voice telling me that I had always existed, since before time began, and that while this was the history of humanity, it did not need to be my story. Then the voice showed me how time began, in a vivid replay of what I imagine the Big Bang of creation must have looked like. Afterward, I glanced down and saw that my body was whole once again. I was exhausted but in bliss. I had been shown that death is only a doorway into eternity and understood why this was called the great initiation.
The goal of shamanic practices like these is to decouple our consciousness from our physical body so that we can identify with a self that is eternal. In fact, in order to maintain their perspective of eternity in light of the enduring illusion that the world of the flesh is all there is, shamans regularly revisit experiences such as the one that I had in the Amazon. After the first few times, they no longer need to go through the agonizing death of their physical body, and they pop straight through into an illumined state. Then, when the moment of physical death arrives, they make the great crossing easily, without fear, as they already know the way back home.
Death can feel like the ultimate encounter with terror. You may have tasted this fear when someone died in your presence—whether it was a loved one, a person you admired from afar, or a stranger who perished in a car accident whose body you saw covered up and lying on the road as you and the other commuters drove soberly past the scene. At such moments, the mechanism of denial breaks down and we remember mortality.
Conquering the fear of death allows us to experience our power even as we’re humbled by how small we are in the greater scheme of things. It lets us dream big, even if we still have to get up at the crack of dawn every day and attend to a long list of labors before our head hits the pillow again. It’s what allows us to go forth with a sense of purpose, knowing that if this were our last day on earth, we would have spent it well. It’s what gives us the strength to simply smile when someone underestimates us and feel no need to prove them wrong. We reserve our energy for doing what matters to us, not for convincing the world that we’re very important.
When this is our way of living, death becomes a natural process. We don’t violently resist or hold on to the last breath. Our pride dissolves because we realize how small we are, and we’re humbled by our role in Creation. Fear gives way to awe and trust. When we experience the great crossing in this manner, we don’t postpone it to the last days of our life.