October 31, 2014

Samhain: Facing Fear on the Night-Sea Journey.

Ascent from the Poling. Photograph by Dave Millhouser.

Samhain, Hallowe’en, the final harvest holiday, is the cave-opening to the darkest part of the year.

Are you ready for the journey into darkness? To plunge into the sea?

“The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos—a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.”

~ Carl Jung, The Psychology of the Transference

At this uncanny time, we confront representations of ghosts, skeletons, zombies, vampires, mummies, crones, hags—images that remind us of the fact that we are mortal. We externalize our latent fears, and even sometimes ritualize them, as we confront transformation and loss: of those we have loved, and of states of being in our lives. We create mirrors for the scariest underworld journeys, which are those within us.

So, now I would like to tell you a scary story for Samhain, of my underworld journey.

This Fall, I went for my advanced SCUBA diving certification. It required a 100-foot-deep dive—in our case, to a wrecked freighter off the North Atlantic coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

I was doing this dive not for some kind of adrenaline spike, but to improve my skills so I could be more versatile as a diver. I had to do this challenge, because the experiences I want to have lie on the other side of it.

We jumped off the boat and pull-walked ourselves headfirst down the line to the deck of the wreck, descending through layers of light, and flocks of translucent comb jellyfish. It was surreal, and somewhere along the way down, I realized, This is real. This is not a drill.

Alighting on the deck of the wrecked freighter, we tightened our weight belts, and then my instructor, Bill, signaled for us to follow him up and over the side. As I scaled down a hull covered with coral, and orange anemones, in a world of emerald-green alien light that my eyes and brain had never perceived before, I felt my rate of breathing speed up.

Maybe it was letting go of the rope that triggered it. I have never in my life experienced fear like this. In fact, if this is what fear really is, then I have never actually experienced it. I could feel a trillion tons of my potential death around me. My entire survival relied on my ability to hold a fat plastic straw between my teeth. And I could picture exactly how I would die if it came loose: flailing, suffocating, lungs filling with water. Even if my instructor jammed the regulator back into my mouth, would I have the presence of mind to exhale to clear it?

I tried to slow my breathing down, my heart. Yet every litany I tried to say, every prayer or mantra, exploded into white shards in my brain two lines in: the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. The Hail Mary. Thoughts of my family, thoughts of my cat who needs me alive to take care of him, shattered, splintered into fragments.

But I didn’t want to die. For some reason, I knew how much in that moment I wanted to live.

So I reduced my entire existence to: Breathe. Keep the regulator in your mouth. Follow Bill. Bill has Hellfire flames on the flanges of his fins, appropriate for this underworld journey. Our dive plan was to circumnavigate the freighter: when we arrived back at the rope, I was surprised at how quickly we returned, for I had lost all sense of time.

Coming up, we ascended the line methodically, hand over hand. This grounded me by giving me something to do, a simple focus for my concentration. One of my most vivid visual memories of the dive is of the white rope in front of my face, and my black neoprene-gloved hands against the pale green water. Another group of divers was descending on the same rope, and passed us in a storm of bubbles. I held on as they passed, breathing continuously. It reminded me of a passage out of the Egyptian or Tibetan Book of the Dead: “…and then you shall meet a company of souls going the opposite way.”

Once back on the boat, I went up to the bow. In the streaming sunlight, I cried. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Not just for surviving, but for the experience. I knew I had leveled up somehow.

In our world that reveres bad-ass-itude, I was the farthest thing from a badass when I was down below. What was going on in my mind was not pretty. When I was telling one friend about the experience, she said, “Good for you! You mastered your fear.” Not really. I just didn’t let my fear master me.

I will go back, both to dive deep because I choose to (and I earned it), and to the underworld when it chooses me. We all have, and will all have, our underworld seasons, our different abysses—of loss, grief, illness, injury—and that is what Samhain is about at its deepest level: to understand the wisdom of them when they arrive. It doesn’t necessarily make them easier, but you can understand their place in the pattern.

Those experiences, as terrifying as they can rightfully be, are part of being alive. (In some ways, I think, they might be the price of being fully alive, but I don’t quite understand this all the way yet.) The beautiful, rich pagan high days are archetypal. They speak not only of the seasons of life in the natural world, but of the seasons and dimensions within ourselves.

Since I surfaced from that dive, the false abysses that used to vex and intimidate me don’t anymore. I faced the real abyss, and that does not mean that I am brave, but I know what the abyss is. I know what the value of my life is. And that is what Samhain teaches us, too, just as all the high holidays do.

So I leave you with this Samhain blessing:

May you, on your journeys through the underworld, whether in ritual or reality, feel the life inside you burning brightly. May the power of that life give you the courage to meet your fear. And may every passage you experience help you love and value life all the more!


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Author: Laura Marjorie Miller

Editor: Travis May

Photo: by Dave Millhouser, Project DEEP/Cape Ann Divers.


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