I was inspired to get to know death from every possible angle. This would not be my first foray into this subject, as my vulnerability work with clients has for years entailed a significant element of death in the form of the disintegration of ego, a temporary release from the heavy conditioning that holds us as prisoners of our subconscious. I have and continue to study the topic through my travels in India, observations of funerals in Varanasi, studies with spiritual masters, and my own so-called extreme sporting activities, all of which I have written about on various occasions. And so, I was feeling a responsibility to understand death more deeply in light of my new endeavors, studies, journey, call it what you may. As luck would have it, I soon heard of someone offering living burial experiences on Koh Phangan, in Thailand.
Sasha, a Russian girl with lots of skill in the matter, was offering the experience of digging a human-sized hole in the sand on the beach for the journeyer to get “buried” in for a few minutes. A rig made of a snorkeling or gas mask was used for breathing while the tip of the hose would remain on the surface of the ground. Sasha did not necessarily describe what she was offering as burials per se, she said it all depends on the journeyer. She explained that some saw it as sensory deprivation or a relaxation- type of experience, some imagined themselves as the root of a tree, others wanted to connect to the earth element, and still others were simply adventurous. When I asked how it usually goes emotionally, she said that it varies a great deal: some people find it boring and some have panic attacks, with a whole range of possible scenarios in between these two extremes. As I conceived it, this was to be a living burial for me and so I asked about the ritual work. Sasha explained that she offers clients a safe technical execution of the process, but that everyone designs their own journeys or rituals according to their own needs. Fair enough, I figured.
It all sounded reasonable to me and I simply summoned a couple of friends to support me during the process. One of them, Kate, happend to have been contemplating Goddess Dhumavati during those days. Dhumavati is a Goddess who represents old age, poverty, frustration, helplessness, and despair. Isn’t it amazing the way Hindus find sacred qualities and wisdom in all aspects of life, even those that we consider ugly? Dhumavati teaches mortals Surrender before handing them over to Kali, the final dissolution by time and death. By destroying our illusions, Kali takes us to Shiva, the Divine Consciousness, the Ultimate Reality, the Void…. Kate felt inspired to watch me during this burial, as the burial presents an opportunity to meet one’s fears, doubts, and despair and to feel what it’s like to face helplessness and death. As Kate shared this about Dhumavati with me, it felt very timely, as I had wanted to try this experience for similar reasons in my ambition to become a better death doula and death educator. Up until that point, I had only associated death with Kali the destroyer and creator, I didn’t consider that there might be a whole fascinating stage before one reaches her. And so it turned out that Dhumavati was the central figure in my burial adventure.
We arrived at a beautiful beach in sunset, with very few people around and stunning views and the sounds of waves. I was in a good mood and felt totally emotionally unprepared to be buried. In fact, I was in denial. It all seemed like children’s games. Sasha was making it look very easy as she had done it many times, for herself and for others. She was used to much more radical practices involving flesh hook suspension, which sounded too intense to me. I started digging my own grave and found it rather amusing. The Phangan sand felt light and my gathered friends were making jokes. The air was a perfect temperature, the water was blue and the sand was white - nothing could possibly go wrong. Finally, I got some help with the digging so that I could take a break and begin to meditate to prepare myself for the journey. While I was meditating, I began to feel uneasy. I kept my eyes open as I looked into this freshly dug grave. A perfect grave in the sand, exactly my size. Something felt very finite about it: the view of a grave triggers very intense associations of depressing cemeteries, mourning people with covered heads, tears, feelings of the meaninglessness of all achievements, sorrow for all unaccomplished dreams, dirt, ugliness, misery, despair, helplessness. In short, Dhumavati, just as she is described. After I meditated and felt ready (well, at least I thought so), I descended into the grave. Sasha helped me to put on a snorkeling mask which kind of resembled a gas mask with a hose. Then she grabbed a shovel to start throwing sand on top of my legs, slowly moving up my body.
That was when I realized what was going on: I’m being buried alive. My brain knew that I’m safe, but this didn’t help. My personality became split into very distinct mind and emotional parts, and these two aspects of myself clearly weren’t getting along too well. Panic began to move through my body, I wanted to fight for my survival. I began to notice how, in the course of the internal dialogue, the smart mind suggested that, after all, I’ve BASE jumped, I’ve dived deep into the bottom of the ocean, and so now I can definitely handle some sand on top of my body, what’s the problem? But the body began to shake and I asked Sasha to slow down. It was overwhelming. My heart was now beating so fast, and my breath became both very deep and very fast, simultaneously. Tears of desperation began to flow, I felt myself in an altered state, helpless, doomed to be destroyed. I knew I needed help but I didn’t know what to ask for. Sasha said: “it’s all good, it’s only a thin layer of sand, children do it to each other,” and Sasha herself had gone much deeper underground in her own burial without any struggles, she reminded me, but all I could hear was that my emotions were being completely disregarded. It felt as though I was being told that my emotions are silly and that I shouldn't feel like this. Memories were triggered. I am a little child and I need to get a vaccine shot, and I’m terrified, as though I’m about to be executed. My caregivers are looking at me, annoyed. Really? Come on! Childbirth is 1000 times more painful, this is just a little needle…. Nobody cares how I feel. Lying there, crushed by the sand--Sasha was able to cover half my body before I called for a break--I felt lonely and isolated. It was clear that my feelings could not adjust to my mental commands, they had a life of their own. My reptilian brain was now running the show. I couldn’t just choose to surrender. I was powerless… My survival mechanism was too strong. And then I heard Kate's Voice: “it’s all good, my love, I know how hard it is. I’m here with you,” her voice reached my dimension. She could feel me energetically and this felt so nourishing and supportive that my body relaxed. I was able to tell Sasha to go on, and she started to throw more sand on my chest and arms, it felt heavy. My heart started beating quickly again, and it became harder to breathe because of the pressure of the sand. She finally said - open your eyes! I realized that my facemask is the only thing that was still not covered by sand and that she wanted me to see the moment of blackout… She threw sand on top of my mask.
It became dark. It felt so cruel. I instantly felt like I’m just casually killed by some maniac, who is so disconnected from my feelings, from my aliveness, that she is just there to crush me like a little bug… This was not your everyday (“oh he left me for another woman”) kind of suffering, but a much more primal kind. Waves of genocides, inquisitions, and medieval tortures passed through me, a raw wave of human suffering unfolded within me. I wasn’t physically in pain, but the suffering that went through me felt much stronger than bodily pain. It felt unbearably devastating. These poor souls who lost their lives, suffocated in gas chambers, killed mercilessly for no reason, with absolutely nobody feeling any care or compassion for them. I cried as I felt their horror, their heaviness, their panic. “Why,” came their desperate inquiry, “where is the divine principle in all this,” right before the final blackout. Time no longer felt linear, I was sinking further into desperation, fear, hopelessness. I felt overwhelmed again, my body wanted to move and fight for survival. I felt more sand keep falling on my body and watched my mind as it directed my body not to panic, it was a difficult struggle. Being held fast in bonds, nowhere to go, no possibility of transcendence, is devastating. All I could do was hope for Grace to come, for some resolution, for some clarity. Or for some final blackout. I was clearly failing to find the strength to bear it or to wait for any sort of a happy ending with my human will alone. But nothing came. It just became harder and harder. I felt miserable.
On a physical level, it was dark and warm. Inside that darkness, I observed as I’d go through an ever-accelerating vicious circle: as panic would approach, I would begin to cry, my body would want to shake but be unable to because of the sand, and my lungs would demand heavy gasps of air. As it became harder and harder to expand my diaphragm under the heavy weight of the sand, I would feel even more anxiety and my lungs would demand still more air. Finally, my body’s reflexes took over and I got my arms and my face out from under the sand. Sasha reacted: “you got three minutes.” It felt devastating to hear. That’s all you have to say, I thought. All these inner processes, all these timeless struggles, this intense journey through time… your “three minutes” don’t do any of it even the slightest justice! I felt so lonely. I cried and cried. Sasha finally suggested that I go for a walk or swim in the ocean. I agreed: it felt sufficient.
My friends helped me to get out of my ‘grave,’ they all stared at me without saying a word, and I didn’t feel ready to communicate either. I went to the beach to sit near the ocean. I still felt as though I was in an altered state when Kate approached me. She held my hand as I suddenly felt truly seen. Tears started pouring down my face as I looked at her. She said that she was so impressed with my courage to go into my fears. Right at that moment I caught sight of my habitual perfectionist, the one who strives to be “the hero” by nullifying all of my achievements, as it spoke: “well, Sasha said that some people in St Petersburg like to be left buried overnight, under a thick layer of dirt, without supervision, these must be heroes…” Kate strongly interrupted me: “Don’t you dare devalue what you just went through! These people are not heroes, they’re just numb, that’s why they can easily do it. You are amazing for being so open to feeling this so deeply, and to be able to fully live through such a challenging experience. It’s not about showing off as a hero externally, it’s about being able to fearlessly dive deep within. You are the hero, and don't you ever devalue yourself!” She helped me to catch that heavily conditioned “strive to be a superwoman” within myself, and help me to clearly see that it was my conditioning, the way I was brought up, to achieve the highest possible external accomplishments. It’s not a true voice, this I know now, and I felt relieved to get this reminder - not to give importance to the superficial need for achievement. I didn’t do 20 minutes as I had planned, I only did 3 before calling my safeword but the insights I gained are priceless.
How often in life had I not been compassionate towards myself, how often had I completely disregarded some powerful inner work or outer achievements, believing the harsh judgements of my mind that I’m not good enough, that others are way better and that I have to do more. Now what I’d really like is to have a Kate within myself, so that I might evaluate life from a whole different vantage point… To measure my self-worth not by external heroic achievements but by love, authenticity and compassion. I had been looking for these externally, but now I know to search for them within. Ironically, it took a contemplation of death to make me so fiercely aware of what truly matters in life.