I heard the owl call my name is the title of an exquisite, very short book by Margaret Craven. It is the story of a young priest who doesn’t have long to live and is sent to minister in an Indian Village in British Columbia. One of the myths and legends that the Indian people believed was that when the time of your death approached, you would hear an owl call your name.
The events of the last few months have meant the reality of death has been forced onto our conscious awareness. This has caused a lot of anxiety and fear because many people no longer have myths and legends or beliefs that enable them to live comfortably with death. In fact, it appears to me that even the medical profession have fallen into the trap of believing that death should not occur unless you are very old and even then it is barely acceptable. It is as if death is regarded as a medical failure. While their effort to keep people alive deserves applause and gratitude, at the same time, it needs to be coupled with the understanding and acceptance that death is ultimately unavoidable and is no respecter of age or person.
Last weekend my partner and I were driving on gravel roads through the forest, and as we came out towards a main road, we saw a sign for a cemetery. I like cemeteries, I don’t find them depressing at all, so we stopped and I had a meander through it. There were graves dating back to 1902. What struck us though, was how many of the graves were for children. It was a tiny cemetery, but possibly a quarter of the graves were for children.
This could be very confronting
Because of my strong beliefs, it wasn’t. I did not feel sorrow for the children, for lives apparently un-lived, because I believe that their lives were exactly long enough, their soul incarnated into that human body with the intention of living that long and no more. This world was never meant to be our permanent home. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. I did feel empathy for the sorrow of the parents and others who loved them however: I remember the fear I used to feel, that one of my sons would die.
It is not what happens that causes suffering or peace – it is our perception of what happens that causes suffering or peace. Ultimately it is our choice which we experience, but it depends entirely on our beliefs.
To be honest, a part of me doesn’t understand why more people don’t realise this. Why isn’t this taught at school? Why isn’t this understanding common knowledge? It has the power to transform lives and reduce much of the emotional suffering experienced in the world. We have a choice – we always have a choice how we perceive life and the many experiences it brings our way. This is incredibly powerful to know and implement.
We all have beliefs. We all have a worldview. It is impossible not to. Most of these beliefs are established and carved into our sub-conscious mind when we are children. This is when we are most programmable. It is also when we are the most un-discerning. These beliefs and programs directly affect our perception because we then see what we unconsciously look for. We see what fits our beliefs and programs and live out our life reinforcing them because our perceptions are biased towards doing so. And because many of our programs are imprinted on our sub-conscious minds by the culture we are brought up in – everyone else around us has similar beliefs and so they appear to be real and valid and true.
This is very evident when we look at beliefs about death.
I am not an anthropologist, but I think it is fairly safe to say that every culture of mankind throughout the ages has operated on beliefs. Looking back over time, from our current understanding, we are confident in saying that many of the beliefs were erroneous and primitive, because they were based on the knowledge available at the time (the same will one day be said of us). Mankind has always attempted to attach meaning to life. It is the way our minds are created – and we need to or life doesn’t seem worth living. A meaningless existence is a horrible existence. I have experienced very brief periods – only an hour or so at a time fortunately, when I have suddenly felt that life is meaningless and it was awful. Unfortunately, much of our meaning-making is based in unconscious beliefs.
The internet has made easily available to mankind for the first time ever, an unimaginably huge amount of information. Within seconds, we have at our fingertips, information about almost anything: science, spirituality, language, cultures, music – anything we could think of…. with an open mind, we can take our pick of any beliefs, ideas or perceptions conceived of by man. And yet… most people continue on living from the often limiting and negative beliefs that they were programmed with as a child.
Even when they are patently not serving their best interests.
Why is this?
I imagine it must be (and this was true for me), because they simply don’t realise that the life they experience is actually completely dictated by their beliefs.
They don’t realise they have a choice.
And they don’t realise that love, joy and peace are always a possibility – in every situation.
Some religions have actively taught the belief that life is hard and difficult. A struggle. Life is to be endured in the hope of a glorious reward in the afterlife. Believing this sets you up to experience precisely that – you will suffer, because you will notice the suffering more than the good times, (the ego enjoys martyrdom) – the mind will always see/experience what it believes. After I woke up, I found this belief of struggle and suffering completely incongruent with the notion of a benevolent, loving God.
Since beginning to photograph bird-life, I have been astounded to discover how many varieties of birds there are in this area. I never noticed before. Because I wasn’t looking. The mind filters out what it isn’t interested in, it has to, otherwise we would be in a permanent head spin trying to assimilate too much information. I was driving along a main road a couple of days ago and out of the corner of my eye, glimpsed something on top of a large antenna on a house on the side of a hill ahead. I wasn’t even sure, when I directed attention to it whether it was birds or part of the antenna until I got much closer. It turned out to be two Ospreys. These birds fascinate me. I had been watching them circling lazily in the air currents high in the sky about 30 minutes earlier and had no idea where they had gone to, but because my mind is now alert for birds, it noticed them on the antenna, literally out the corner of my eye. This is a more physical example of how we see what we look for. I see birds everywhere now. It is the same for everything in our life including our emotions – if we believe in suffering and pain, people as betrayers and abusers, ignorant and annoying – that is what we will unconsciously look for and that is what we will see and experience. If we believe in love and joy and peace and the intrinsic goodness and kindness of humanity, that is what we will see. This is not to say we don’t see anything else, we do, but the underlying foundation of beliefs on which our experience of life is based on will permeate through.
It is a good exercise to sit and write down how you see people and the world in general. At the basis of your perceptions is a belief driving it. If your view of people and the world doesn’t make you constantly happy, work on changing your belief.
If we believe that death is only for the old, and young people shouldn’t die – we will suffer because reality shows us otherwise.
If we believe that death is the end of everything – we will suffer. (I believe personally, that reality shows us otherwise).
If we believe that death inevitably brings sorrow and grief -we will suffer, because we will experience sorrow and grief.
If we believe that we can’t be happy without some-one – we will suffer and live out that belief.
These are beliefs, and beliefs can be changed, and our experience will then change too.
How can we know if our beliefs serve us well?
By the life we live, and how much joy, love and peace we experience.
I used to be afraid of death. I used to believe it was a tragedy when a young person died. I used to fear sorrow and grief. I used to wish that no-one would die. I no longer believe any of this.
I am not interested in Doctors opinions of the cancer in my body. Talking to my palliative specialist yesterday, she mentioned again that statistically I should have died a long time ago. I asked her what that really meant, and she said untreated (as I have been), statistically, I should have died within 2-3 years. This cancer has been in my body now for 13 years and I still have an excellent quality of life. I have no pain, plenty of energy and am generally very well. Why? I can’t say for sure, but I think it has a lot to do with my beliefs. If you believe your beliefs don’t affect your body, you have been mis-informed. Research for yourself. (Begin with Mind Over Medicine by Melissa Rankin or Molecules Of Emotion by Candace Pert).
I believe that I will only die when my soul has finished what it came into this human body to experience. It will be the exact right time for me to die. What could I ever find wrong or bad about that?
I remember when I picked Ian’s ashes up from the crematorium, and on the label it had his name and age – 49 years old, and I felt a surge of sorrow – for the first time I had the thought – that is too young to die – my old conditioned belief arising, but it was almost immediately followed by the thought – it was the perfect time for HIM to die. And peace returned.
I do not believe that any death comes at the wrong time. I do not believe that any death is meaningless. I do not believe that death is random. Whether the death is from cancer or Covid-19 or a heart attack or murder or cot death, whether the body is 2 or 30 or 90 years old, I do not believe it happens at the wrong time. This belief enables me to create meaning and acceptance – and it brings peace. Whether this belief is right or wrong, I don’t know. In the scheme of life, I am not sure that it really matters except for its effect on my life. All I know, is at this moment, it is the highest truth that I personally know about death and the result of this belief is peace therefore I feel it serves me well. It allows me to accept. It takes out sorrow and suffering and fear and leaves a space for love and peace and joy to enter. That is good enough for me right now.
This is a benevolent universe we live in, and that is probably one of the most important beliefs to develop. It has the potential to change your life – it certainly changed mine.
When the owl calls my name, and yours, it will be with perfect timing.
We can live in peace.