From Faculty & Friends: Isa Gucciardi

What is death from the perspective of your tradition?

It is important to note that when we speak about a ‘shamanic worldview’ we are talking about the relationship to reality shared by cultures across the world. It is important to remember that because I am speaking so broadly, my statements may apply to one tradition more than another. Shamanism is the oldest form of spirituality. Shamanic traditions, in one form or another, are the centerpiece of the majority of cultures that have ever existed.  Although shamanic practices differ in form from culture to culture, their essence is more or less the same. Shamans are the priests, the healers, the educators, the psychopomps (those who guide the souls of the dead), and the mediators of their communities. In their various roles, they help their community members mediate the relationship between life and death. They create and lead ceremonies to commemorate people’s passing and counsel those who are left behind. In the role of psychopomp, the shaman assists those who are dying as they move from the realms of the living into the realms of the dead.

In his book about the Australian Aboriginal experience, Voices of the First Day, Robert Lawlor offers a statement regarding Aboriginal views about death which are reflective of a larger, more general shamanic worldview.  He says, “Death, in the Aboriginal view, is not a termination or a dislocation from this world to another; rather it is a shift of the center of one’s consciousness to invisible, subjective layers that are substrate to, and involved within, the natural world of mind and matter.” 

There is a lot to try and comprehend in this statement. This is because the shamanic worldview in general, and the relationship between life and death within it in particular, is so foreign to western notions regarding these matters. We must shift internally in order to understand what he is saying. And we must shift internally in order to understand the shamanic orientation to the world. The Earth herself is at the center of this orientation. In shamanic practice, there is a deep sense of union with the Earth. Shamans strive to know all her expressions and recognize her as a guide toward wholeness and integration. Ultimately, this wholeness and integration is expressed in the relationship between life and death. From the most deeply articulated shamanic perspective, there is no difference between life and death. Death is not, as western cultures posit, an empty chasm with no connection to life. Life and death are woven together and are both part of an inseparable whole. 

What key text, verse, or poem offers insight or clarity around the experience of death?

Death, as seen through the lens of the shamanic worldview, is well expressed in the Yokuts prayer:

My words are tied in one

With the great mountains

With the great rocks

With the great trees,

In one with my body

And my heart.

Do you all help me

With supernatural power?

And you, Day

And you, Night!

All of you see me

One with this world.

The Yokuts people are Native Americans, native to central California. They, like other shamanic cultures, share traditions of initiation which are designed to help familiarize the initiate with the mysteries of their lives, including the confrontation with death. In shamanic cultures, initiation rituals and ceremonies are conducted to provide this education. Initiations themselves are intimately tied with change. They bring the initiate from one state of being into a new state of being. Initiations accomplish this task by putting the initiate through a series of experiencesthat challenge them in particular ways and bring them into new ways of thinking and being. The initiate must meet these challenges and overcome any obstacles that present themselves in order for initiations to succeed in bringing about these changes in a coherent way. Initiates are guided by elders, wisdom keepers and older shamanic practitioners in these processes. 

In most shamanic traditions, the initiations around birth and death are considered to be the most important. One of the focal points of these initiations is to create conditions so the spirit of the initiate can learn to move at will between the world of the seen and the world of the unseen. In order to do this, initiates must engage in practices that heal and integrate the body, mind, and spirit during life. When this task is accomplished, the spirit can shift more easily into the world of the unseen at the time of death. Shamans learn to do this – and they learn to help others do this as well.  This is the essence of the shamanic path. 

How has an experience of death in your life informed your teaching?

One of the ways in which shamans are plunged into initiations around death is to actually have a near-death experience. It is not at all uncommon for someone to be called to the path of the shaman through this kind of experience. In traditional settings, seasoned shamanic practitioners might surround the person emerging out of such an experience and set them on a path toward training in the broader requirements of shamanic practice. This was the case with me. I have, in fact, had several near-death experiences over the course of my lifetime.  I don’t talk about the particulars of these experiences, and I rarely mention that they have been part of my formation as a shamanic practitioner. But these experiences are absolutely fundamental to my call to the shamanic path because I have been plunged so utterly into the heart of the natural world as a result of my spirit being separated from my body. When this has happened, I have encountered the deeply compassionate, unperturbable spirits of the plants and of the Earth who cared for me during death and returned me to life. They have continued to guard over me every step of my life and teach me through every stage of my development. They are my primary teachers. Their priorities are my life’s priorities. 

Like them, one of my priorities in this lifetime is to teach. As a shamanic teacher, my first task is to initiate students into the numinous world of the unseen powers of the earth so they can have their own encounter with these remarkable forces on their own terms and in their own way. The doors my near-death experiences have opened to this way of seeing can also be opened by other means. These include the doors of the shamanic journey, the ingestion of psychotropic plants, dreams, death itself, and other methods that alter the usual conscious-     mind state of awareness. The conscious-mind state of awareness, where most westerners tend to focus, generally filters out the larger reality of the shamanic worldview.  In my teaching, I open the doors to this worldview by introducing students to an alternative way of seeing through the shamanic journey. This is a process where the state of consciousness shifts in response to rhythmic sound. As this shift occurs, the filters of the conscious mind weaken. Westerners often need an intermediary to help them understand the nature of the reality that opens beyond those filters. This is a service I can provide.   

As a teacher, I help students develop trust in the normally unseen natural forces that reveal themselves through the journey. I help them recognize how these forces communicate and help them see that they are meeting the student exactly where they need to be met. I help them see how these forces, which can be called guides, helping spirits, or teachers, can help the student transform what needs to be transformed within them to heal the pain that calls them to the work. There is much work to do with every student, and I have developed a curriculum through the work of the Foundation of the Sacred Stream which escorts each student through the path of their pain into the path of their heart and into wholeness. I do for my students what my inner guides have done for me with as much seriousness, joy, sense of responsibility, and love as they have shown me.