Some Zen Pagan Halloween/Samhain Reflections

Some Zen Pagan Halloween/Samhain Reflections October 21, 2015

I wrote this last year and posted it at my personal blog, but it seems worth a rerun for a wider audience.

So I might be about to lose some friends with this confession, or even be accused of blasphemy, but here it goes:

I’m not really that into Halloween.

It’s not that I dislike it, mind you! I do occasionally make it out to a Halloween party or show, though since I’m not really into cosplay my “costume” is usually a selection of Renfest garb or festival finery or weird formal (like Utilikilt and tails). People ask, “so what are you supposed to be?” and I respond, “I’m me, in more interesting clothes than usual.”

Cropped from  huk_flickr, "pumpkin pie" on Flikr, (CC BY 2.0)
Cropped from huk_flickr’s photo “pumpkin pie” on Flikr, (CC BY 2.0)

This Halloween evening I didn’t go out but got to have dinner with a lovely lady who brought over a DVD of “Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht” (Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the 1922 classic silent movie), so, not too shabby. And while I’m not crafty enough to go building elaborate sets or costumes, I do get a kick out of seeing dedicated clever people come up with things like the “MechDaddy” father and baby costume.

But I haven’t been able to puzzle out a meaning for the season that takes into account both the modern American Halloween tradition and the ancient rituals around the cross-quarter day Samhain.

As a health-food-promoting vegan, handing out candy to children in danger of obesity is not something I can get excited about. (Not that there’s much trick-or-treating in my little patch of suburbia, or that I’d usually be home for it anyway. And yes, I do go around handing out chocolate — and wine! — at festivals sometimes, but that’s to adults.) As someone who runs around naked or in whatever regalia I care to at various festivals, putting on a Halloween costume isn’t such a departure from the norm to be exciting to me. I like Edgar Allan Poe and Neil Gaiman and The Walking Dead and literary horror that explores the edges of the human condition, but I don’t enjoy scary movies that splatter gore and yell “boo!” and feature characters who apparently have no interest in survival. (“Gee, I just saw a piece on the news about an escaped killer, and now I hear a noise in the basement. I think I’ll go take a look, without a flashlight or a gun or even a baseball bat.”)

The Venture Bros. had a great Halloween special a few years ago that concluded with a monologue by the character Doctor Orpheus about how Halloween is a time to try on different identities:

Halloween is the night we discover who we are. Are we people who make zombie armies? Are we those who condemn others? Or are we beautiful children in resplendent costumes collecting candy? Are our choices in costumes provocative? Do we dress up as our ideal self, or are we not ready to decide what to be? Do you see it now? We use this one enchanted night to perform the greatest feat of magic there is. We become ourselves. Halloween is the true magic. It is the night we discover who we really are.

Which is great, and if you feel that Halloween gives you an special opportunity to explore such issues, go for it. But I feel like I’ve managed to manifest a life where I get to explore such questions on an ongoing basis.

And then, though I’m no reconstructionist, as a Pagan I feel like I should also give due consideration to the ancient roots of this holiday. But as someone who does not believe in an “afterlife”, in the sense of soul or spirit that preserves individual consciousness after death, the whole “feast of the dead” thing doesn’t speak strongly to me. It’s often seen as a time to remember and commemorate ancestors, but I don’t tend to do a lot of ancestor work. I mean, my deceased ancestors for the past few generations, the only ones I have clue about, were all Catholics and it feels disrespectful to reference them in any Samhain work. (Also, honestly, I’m sort of ambivalent about some of them, though maybe that means I need to do more work to adjust that relationship.) And as an eclectic independent Pagan I don’t really have “tradition ancestors”.

And even if the bit about honoring dead ancestors resonated more deeply, I find it hard to resolve with the candy and the costumes.

So. What to do?

When I find myself lost or confused, I usually find it useful to return to first principles. What can I confidently say about this time of year?

Compared with the other quarter and cross-quarter days of the “Wheel of the Year”, Samhain, Yule, and Imbolc mark the start, center, and end of the darkest quarter of the year, the winter in agricultural reckoning.

With the leaves falling from the trees and skittering about in the wind, with the bones of trees showing through where lush greenery prevailed just weeks ago, with the first coming of frost, Samhain competes with the blooming May flowers of Beltane, the start of summer, for being the time of most dramatic change. (At least in these latitudes. If you live in warmer climes, congratulations and hush up.) We don’t need supernaturalism to see that this is a liminal time, a time of transition between the way we lived and worked in the warm, active time and the way we must live and work to survive the cold dark time. It’s a good time to reflect on the fact that things are not always as they seem on the surface, that — as the Buddha taught, IIRC — all things are impermanent, that “reality is subject to change without notice”. (I think I heard that last one from master magician Jeff McBride but I don’t know if it’s original to him.)

And as annual plants die back and perennial ones go into dormancy and appear dead, it’s natural for us to turn to thoughts of “how are we going to survive this”, and for death to take a prominent role in our thoughts. But what is death? Is it a migration of an intact consciousness, a “self”, to some other realm, that we may seek to communicate with the dead or fear their return? This does not seem to be a justifiable conclusion.

One of the strangest, but also most powerful and liberating, ideas in Buddhism is that of “emptiness” (shunyata), that nothing has a separate, self-reliant, self-contained existence but that everything depends on everything else. A wave cannot be separated from the water, an organism cannot be separated from its environment. If we were to give a complete account of a single blade of grass, we would have to take into account the soil, the rain, the sun, the man who scattered the grass seed, the truck that brought the seed, the gasoline that powered the truck, the geological and biological processes that created the oil that the gasoline was made from, all the way back to the Big Bang and all the way out to the edge of the Universe.

Applied more specifically to our lives, it’s the idea of “no-self” (anatman), that this “I” is a heap of physical and mental phenomenon and that, just as if you take the stones away from a heap there is no “heapness” left over, there is no “self” in a human being. And if there is no “self”, then what is there to either be born or to die?

(I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding for more on this idea. I also try to discuss it Why Buddha Touched the Earth.)

The “self” is so central to our thinking that it’s probably impossible to do justice to the idea of “no-self” in just a few paragraphs. But as we just noted above, this is a good time of year to consider that things are not always as they seem on the surface. So maybe it’s a good time to contemplate emptiness and no-self.

Perhaps it’s also natural at this time for us mammals to think about how we’re going to stay warm this winter, and look for other mammals to curl up with pleasantly through the cold dark months. A recent article at points out the romantic nature of early 20th century American Halloween celebrations; maybe this links to the oft-discussed trend in sexy Halloween costumes.

We might think of Beltane, the polar opposite of Samhain, as being the sexiest time of year. (“Hooray, hooray, the first of May!”) But sex, after all, is how biological organisms continue the existence of the species in spite of the death of the individual. Sex and death are intimately linked, and not just by euphemisms about “the little death”, or by stories in the mode of Romeo and Juliet. Biologists have observed that aging and death seem to have been introduced into primitive early life at the same time that sex developed.

If we’re going to think about death, and if we’re going to contemplate the dependent arising of all things, then we need to acknowledge also the red thread of passion that runs through the world.

Change and illusion, emptiness and interconnectedness, death and sex. I suppose there are the makings of a decent holiday in there. Maybe next year I’ll be able to find it.

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I’ll be briefly speaking at the Firehouse Arts & Music Meet & Greet at the Windup Space in Baltimore on October 21. If you’re local come by, there are going to be some great performers and speakers, and this new space promises to be a great project.

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