The Way of Halloween

October 30, 2010 § 11 Comments

This ancient holiday seems richly suggestive of what we have been exchanging about in this blog space lately, about daring to face and even touch things that scare us (rather than try to observe from a cool distance).  First a little refresher.  Halloween is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in). The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half”, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”.   I’ve come to the point in meditation and in life where I see how important it is to embrace both the dark and light aspects in myself.

I’ve come to see how mindfulness practice must involves not just awareness but an active act of acceptance, of holding, all our present experience, including anger and pain. I recently heard a Buddhist nun describe the work of holding anger and with an intention to bear witness to it with complete honesty AND a commitment to harmlessness.  For me, the action of holding always involves compassion–at times I try to hold my anger or hurt the way I’ve held my child–not analyzing it but holding it with loving care.  Some psychologists, among them Tara Brach and Marsha Linehan, talk about radical acceptance—radical meaning “root”—emphasizing our deep, innate capacity to embrace both negative and positive emotions. Acceptance in this context does not mean tolerating or rationalizing abusive or destructive behavior. It means fully acknowledging just how much pain we may be feeling at a given moment, which often leads to an easing of pain, even sometimes its transformation into joy.   Really seeing, really listening to, really accepting ourselves and others can set us free.

The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the unknown became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through.  Ancestors were honoured and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off, often by the wearing of costumes and masks. The point was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces.  Bonfires played a large part in the festivities–and there is beautiful symbolism here. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the common bonfire.  Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.  The image of lighting our fires from a common fire is extraordinarily touching to me.  A few days ago, I sat silently with friends with another friend who had just died.  How clear it was that there is something ineffable about being a human being–a spirit, a presence that animates us and leaves.  How clear it was that we nourish and support each other with our presences.

The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day, a traditional mass day of the saints (and I believe a traditional day of baptism in the Episcopal Church).   It makes sense, doesn’t it?  We must dare to sit in the thin place.  We must volunteer to die to the known and enter the unknown to know real love and life.   At my friend’s funeral, someone read a letter that Madame de Salzmann wrote that spoke of this–that it is only in the unknown that we know real love. Mysterious!

I’ve been reflecting lately on what a true way or path is, and what it means to find a way.  The more sincere I am in my questioning, the more I travel from my head to my heart, the more I feel that stepping onto a true path requires a major shift in attitude.  As counterintuitive as it seems, if we wish to be free, we must be like earthworms (a great Buddhist teacher said this, I forget his name).  We must not seek the light but dare to burrow down deep into life, into the felt sense of it, transforming the pain of it by voluntarily feeling it, voluntarily seeing it.  This is the source of illumination.  The path we must ultimately find is our own inner path–no more fear and flight–towards being with the real messy material of our lives.

There are many insights about this kind of work in Parabola’s great new “Beauty” issue–starting with the cover in which a toad seems to be discovering that he is beautiful, just as he is.  A story by Trebbe Johnson reminds us that Sir Gawain married the ugly Dame Ragnell, only to discover that his complete acceptance of her just as she was transformed her into a great beauty.  The fisherman in the Inuit tale of Skeleton Woman, pulls up a horrifying mass of bones in his net.  He wants to fling this horrible catch away–who hasn’t hauled up a catch like that!– but his humanity gets the better of him.  He takes the tortured bones to his house and carefully sets them aright.  He dares to handle this horrifying mess and handles them with great care.  They transform into a warm-blooded, sensual woman.  Active attention, active seeing, active caring–this is   the inner path to transformation.   As Trebbe writes in “Beauty”:  We have to begin the metamorphosis by transforming our own expectations of what it is possible for us to do.  We must move beyond the confines of what is safe and familiar, and even desired, and say Yes! to the scary, but compelling, possibility before us.  Or, as the contemporary schlar of myth, Roberto Calasso, puts it, it is necessary to touch the monster.  ‘The monster can pardon the hero who has killed him.  But he will never pardon the hero who would not deign to touch him.””

Dare to embrace the dark places, to touch the monster.

§ 11 Responses to The Way of Halloween

  • Nick_A says:

    Hi Tracy

    You’ve provoked a lot of thoughts in me.

    I’ll have to read the Beauty issue before better understanding its intent. As you know I am very wary of ideas becoming too “lovely.” But in the meantime I do agree with the common sense expressed as “The Terror of the Situation” and how our emotions can become the source of weakness through rather than their potential conscious purpose.

    It really depends on ones aim. If my aim is to become a nice considerate person and a good obyvatel, then considering beauty in this way is not so bad since we don’t do ourselves karmic harm. It is like Joseph Campbell’s idea of following your bliss which is really just turning in a pleasant circle that includes our hypocrisy in accordance with natural laws. It is dust to dust and for a Christian could be considered asleep in the body of Christ: the preservation of good seed.

    Yet my heart goes out to those like Simone with the need, courage, and ability to experience life in the raw. They touch the monster. They understand that beauty both indicates something far greater than themselves but also can be deceptive. Theirs is an accelerated way and far more dangerous when taken wrongly since it becomes imagined rather than consciously experienced.

    I don’t know if you received the email I sent concerning my research. While doing a google search I discovered Annie Finch. I had read a book written by her father concerning Simone Weil. She is a recognized poet and had written a poem on Samhain. Her mother’s mother referred to in the poem is her grandmother who she was close to. She’s helped me a bit and we’ve become friendly. We may appreciate the return to “home” differently but it really doesn’t matter. She is a fine person. I will post it here in respect to Halloween.

    by Annie Finch

    Annie Finch
    (The Celtic Halloween)

    In the season leaves should love,
    since it gives them leave to move
    through the wind, towards the ground
    they were watching while they hung,
    legend says there is a seam
    stitching darkness like a name.

    Now when dying grasses veil
    earth from the sky in one last pale
    wave, as autumn dies to bring
    winter back, and then the spring,
    we who die ourselves can peel
    back another kind of veil

    that hangs among us like thick smoke.
    Tonight at last I feel it shake.
    I feel the nights stretching away
    thousands long behind the days
    till they reach the darkness where
    all of me is ancestor.

    I move my hand and feel a touch
    move with me, and when I brush
    my own mind across another,
    I am with my mother’s mother.
    Sure as footsteps in my waiting
    self, I find her, and she brings

    arms that carry answers for me,
    intimate, a waiting bounty.
    “Carry me.” She leaves this trail
    through a shudder of the veil,
    and leaves, like amber where she stays,
    a gift for her perpetual gaze.

    So, if Parabola ever needs to consult a recognized authority on the “Old Ways,” try Annie.

    • tracycochran says:

      Thanks for this Nick. I haven’t received an email yet but I’m sure I will get it. Simone’s life is clearly proof that another order of beauty is possible–not lovely but life in the raw elevated and illuminated by love. Suffering transformed by being embraced.

  • Ron Starbuck says:

    Why do we love Halloween so much, why does it bring back such delightful and in some cases scary memories?

    Why do we love ghost stories and things that go bump in the night? This is a long story perhaps, but I think you’ll like it all the same. It’s two stories actually.

    Years ago, my best friend from high school and I, traveled the Saratoga Ghost in deep East Texas and saw the ghost light that is known there; we sought it out intentionally. It was a marvelous adventure and one we may retell from time to time to others, but only after a few cold beers and only at the mark of midnight. You can’t tell these stories in the daytime, you know.

    I think there is something within us that yearns for the dark at times, that always welcomes the night. There is a part of me that will miss daylight savings time, and then another part of me completely that calls for the fall of day and earlier evenings. There is a shelter I find in the evenings now as the light softly fades and darkness comes.

    To learn more about the Saratoga Ghose Road for yourself, go to this URL.

    And to learn more about the Big Thicket, see it even sounds like something from Sleeping Beauty or some other fairy tale, go to this URL.

    My Favorite Ghost Story …

    When I was an 18 year old freshmen in college, in my first experience of living away from home, I was befriended by a Vietnam Veteran. David had come back from the war in one piece, but with a wisdom and maturity beyond his years. He had a taste for very fine Scotch, and from time to time would take me out with him and his best friend Bill drinking. We were midnight drinking buddies, poets, and even philosphers; ones who were wide open to all our world had to offer. We would talk for hours, all night long in some cases, slowly sipping on the good Scotch David like so well.

    One night David told us a story about his dog Max, a white German Shepherd, who he had had since being a boy. His best friend. The story goes something like this.

    David was asleep in his bunk out in the countryside of Vietnam, in a Combat Base similar to Khe Sanh. Do you remember the news stories about Khe Sanh? It was a camp like that, very vulnerable to attacks by the Viet Cong.

    David was more than just asleep though, he was a bit stoned, very very sound to sleep. But, suddendly, as if in a dream or fresh out of a dream, he saw his dog Max standing in front of him barking out loud and running back and forth. Max clearly wanted David to get out of his bunk and come with him. David was more than perplexed and more than confused. But is was Max, it was Max, one of his very best friends as a boy.

    So, David followed Max, out of the bunker up into a combat trench, when Max jumped out the trench and went into a perfect pointing position. David couldn’t figure it out at first, until he look out at where Max was pointing and saw a light that brightened and dimmed from time to time at the edge of the jungle. After a while, through a muddled mind I imagine, it came to him that it was someone smoking a cigarette where no one should be.

    His response was to pick up his M16 and empty the magazine into the jungle, which in turn woke up his whole command. The rest of that night they stayed on high alert and well into the early morning. When it is was light enough a patrol went out to the spot, and if I remember this right, found signs that a large body of Viet Cong had been present the night before. So, it seems, that David scared them off and that Max probably saved all their lives.

    Months late, after returning home to learn that his beloved pet Max had passed away while he was serving in Viet Nam, my friend David told his parents this story. And after counting up all days, dates, and times they came to the same conclusion, that was close to the time when Max had actually died. Somehow, out the beauty and love of their relationship, their close friendship, Max was able to reach out to David and to others too, and helped them in a time of great need, and urgent need.

    Now, maybe this another urban legend, or maybe it is quite true. I can tell you this much, that at the tender age of 18, I believed every word of David’s story. I wanted to believe it, it’s a really wonderfull story. It still gives me goosebumps even today.

    So, that is my Halloween story for you this year, this day. If you think about clearly, you will see that it is story of relationships, and how we are each called into relationship with one another.

    Max knew this, when even after death, he was able to reach out to his best friend David. Do you believe it too?

    I’ve never forgotten David, or Bill, or Max, or even parts of this story, although it may change in the telling from time to time. The story and all three of them have stayed with me all through these years. I think that is because some part of ourselves at still back there listening to one another, fully engaged in the conversation and with one another, even Max is there. 😉

    We have a dog named Dominick at home, more than loveable and loyal. He is a hurricane Katrina adoptee, part Lab and part something else, nearly all black, except for a white spot or two on one of his front feet. There are times when almost looks like a Black Panther to me.

    Dominick once saved my life, but that, well that is another story for another day.

    Happy All Saints Day,


  • Ron Starbuck says:

    Tracy, I love the new Mary Olive poems in ‘Beauty.’ What a treasure she and her work are to all of us, she certainly inspires me to high levels of creativity.

  • tracycochran says:

    Hi Ron: I’m sorry for the belated response. We’ve been working like crazy preparing a fundraising letter and other stuff. I love that story about Max! My dog (black lab) Shadow died last Spring, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. I’m glad you like the poems. It’s wonderful having her as a contributor.

  • Ron Starbuck says:


    I’m glad you liked the story about Max, and I’m more than sure that Shadow is watching over you and your family still, just as Max watched over my friend David.

    A few years ago, when I was still with JPMC, I was working at home one day, telecommuting as you do now. Anyway, I went downstairs to make some tea. So, I filled up the kettle and place it on the gas stove to slowly come to a boil, and then went back to my laptop to work away.

    Some time passed, maybe five, maybe fifteen minutes, when Dominick came running upstairs with his big and heavy feet, and his cold wet nose. He was more than anxious and very insistent on getting my attention. More than once he would push his head up under my hand, like he does whenever he wants to be petted. When I looked down at him, he looked back at me with a look that was so intense that I knew something had to be wrong. Animals can express themselves emotionally, especially dogs I think. Does that makes sense to you?

    So, I reluctantly got up and went downstairs and immediately smelled the gas, it was all through the house. Evidently the electronic starter did not light the gas when I turned it on earlier.

    I immediately turned off the stove and opened all the doors and as many windows as I could to clear out the house. If Dominick had not had the presence of mind, the mindfulness, even the intelligence, if he had not been so insistent on coming to alert me, there is no telling what might have happened. Boom – no house – no me, Dominick or Cubbie our other dog.

    Whenever I think about the relationships we have formed in this life, now, I am always amazed at how interconnected we really are and how that really does impact our whole reality.

    I hope that makes sense too.

    Have a great day, it is certainly a new day following the election returns from yesterday. The world turns and changes again.



  • Hi Ron and Tracy,
    I am reminded of the book, “The Art of Racing In The Rain”, by Garth Stein.
    Have either of you read it??? It’s a story (fiction) about a dog,Enzo, and his race car master, Denny. It’s more than a story about a dog and his master.
    If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it.
    I have many, many highlights of the wise and philosophical statements made by Enzo, who believes the he will reincarnate as a human.
    It’s about relationships, life, death, and everything in between.
    I don’t have a dog or a cat, but I do believe they are intelligent beings with feelings and sensitivity. And yes, we are so interconnected!

  • Joseph Holt says:

    There are two creation myths I am aware of, Native American and Judaeo/Christian, that tell the story of two brothers. These brothers are at odds, one seeking the death of the other. The meaning of these mythological stories may not be so much a story of two different individuals, but rather the story of the inner battle each individual has within between both possibile behaviors. The beauty of each person shines through the honest acceptance of this duality of human potential and seeking the good of self and others.

  • tracycochran says:

    A very interesting insight. Thank you.

  • georgebeke says:

    Too bad about the misinformation about Halloween out there on the Internet, and how it keeps getting repeated.

    According to Macrobius (c. 420 AD), the Gates of the World Beyond lie at the intersections of the Milky Way and the Zodiac, and those intersections are by the opposite constellations Taurus and Scorpius. The Sun travels through these constellations in the spring (birth) and in the fall (death).

    The Church attempted to supplant a Roman remembrance of ancestors with its own All Saints Day (in the spring), but around the seventh century it moved this feast to the opposite place in the calendar, right by the autumn celestial gate in Scorpius (death).

    Paul of Tarsus asks in his Epistles, “Death where is thy sting?” Kids today similarly make fun of death and ghosts and monsters on Halloween, but Paul was merely echoing the astrological beliefs of the time, which put the celestial gate of death by Scorpius.

    Why would the Church put All Saints Day by the pagan Gate of Heaven? Because for more than a thousand years before, the Eleusinian Mysteries of Athens revealed a blessed afterlife to its initiates, and these Mysteries were celebrated in the fall, when Helios rode his horses through Scorpius.

    The tale of Persephone’s abduction by Hades (Death) is central to Eleusis. Death is an unbeatable personage here, with the Cave of Hades being one of the pilgrimage points. And this was all celebrated by ancient Greeks and Romans (all Roman emperors were initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, except Nero who had blood on his hands) around the time of the year that we now call Halloween.

    So enough about Samhain and “Celtic” folderol.

    The origin of Halloween lies in ancient Roman rituals and in the Greek Mysteries.

  • Nick_A says:

    Tracy wrote:

    Dare to embrace the dark places, to touch the monster.

    Maybe it isn’t so easy to recognize the monster and our attachment to its illusion of beauty is what denies the Prince from recognizing itself?

    The frog, kissed, turns into a prince.

    We all know the story. The arrogant young princess had wanted nothing to do with the slimy, splay-toed creature who showed up right after her treasured golden ball bounced into a deep well. When the frog promised to retrieve it if she would take him home with her, she airily agreed. She was a princess, used to getting what she wanted, and she had no thought of complying. Ball in hand, off she went. That evening, when the frog showed up at the castle, and demanded to eat from her plate and sleep in her bed, she turned her face in disgust. Her father, the king, however, insisted that she keep her word. Later—some say that very night, some say after days of eating and sleeping together—Frog asked for a kiss. When the princess complied or, as in an early version of the tale, when she hurled him against the wall in fury, she freed him from a spell that had been cast on him, and he turned into a handsome prince.

    What’s going on here?

    On one level, it’s easy. You can say: kindness turns ugliness into beauty. Digging deeper, Bruno Bettelheim believed that the story is a lesson about sexuality for the maturing adult; it promises that, with time and continued intimacy, disgust will fade and “we will experience a happy shock of recognition when complete closeness reveals sexuality’s true beauty.”1 True, perhaps, but the fascination in this and other stories in which ugliness, confronted, is transformed not just to beauty, but to the original beauty of the metamorphosed one, lingers on, past adolescence. Myths and fairy tales endure because they are complex and pliant. Lean into any particular spot of a myth, and the fabric, like an elaborately embroidered arras in a Shakespearean drama, will fold around you, and shape itself to your query.

    So what is the shape of beauty in tales of an ugly creature redeemed through the attentions of another?

    Just suppose for a moment that we are as Plato suggests, as if living in a cave influenced by shadows on a wall. Maybe we can be deceived by what appears as beauty. The “appearance” masks the objective reality.

    Plato and esoteric Christianity assert that the “World” governed by psychological darkness hates the light that reveals it for what it is.

    Perhaps the prince was a frog since he was still under this illusion of “appearance?” If so, when he asked to blend his rudimentary inner light with an empty appearance, he was truly hated and this rejection gave him the ability to transcend appearance and become his conscious potential.

    The arrogant young princess represents “appearance.” She wanted to use what the toad could provide. The frog couldn’t yet see behind the mask. Yet to touch her, the kiss, meant the death of the dominance of appearance. That could not be tolerated which is why she had to hurl it against the wall.

    Nothing worse than a frog beginning to smell the coffee. It is just too disruptive and ridiculous to tolerate. It must be thrown against the wall, eliminated, boiled in oil, or forced to endure some similar result of human ingenuity. From Plato’s Cave analogy:

    [Socrates] And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading The Way of Halloween at Tracy Cochran.


%d bloggers like this: