Chapter 1 (cont.) 

Symbolic Death: 
Dealing with Fear and Loss

Betrayal, Trust, and Forgiveness: A guide to emotional healing and Self-renewal


Symbolic death follows purification. This stage of initiation is designed to help the initiate let go of false identities and old ways of being that are no longer appropriate or no longer serve the soul’s greatest good. One must confront and release any personal inhibitions or status quo prohibitions that impede our progress. It is instructive to recognize that our righteous resentment and desire for revenge, our denial of the positive in our betrayer, our cynical rationalizations and generalizations about others, and our depressing self-betrayal resemble the stages of mourning defined by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her landmark book On Death and Dying.5 No matter how much terminally ill individuals deny that they are dying, get angry that they are dying, rationalize or bargain with God to live, grieve, cry, or otherwise carry on, death is an imminent reality for them. The power of death is greater than the power of their defenses. Acceptance of this greater force is the fifth and final stage of the death and dying process that Kübler-Ross describes.

Death of a dream is just as poignant as death of the body. Both lead to a profound sense of loss. Each of Kübler-Ross’s stages of mourning—denial, anger, rationalization, depression, and acceptance—are akin to the instinctive reactions one might see in animals when their survival is threatened. Movement psychologist and sixth-degree black belt martial artist Stuart Heller, Ph.D., says that we are biologically wired to respond to change with an adrenal stress response—an instinctive fear reaction. In the animal world are four natural fear reactions—faint, fight, flight, and freeze.

Like the possum who faints and looks dead to a predator, humans go unconscious by denying, forgetting, or feeling confused. Heller suggests that passive-aggressive denial quickly progresses to displays of anger, as is evident when someone becomes enraged when their denial mechanisms are challenged. This anger or attack response is akin to the aggressive fight reaction of a wolverine. Like a flock of birds who take to the sky to dodge a predator, flight, as filtered through human consciousness, expresses itself as avoidance of the loss through rationalization, as when our mind runs away with an idea to avoid reality. The deer in the headlights who stands still when threatened has a freeze reaction, and in humans this shows up as sadness, crying, and depression, as when one feels stuck, heavy, or immobilized by emotions. 

Heller suggests that in martial arts, the spiritual warrior chooses to act instead of react from anger, fear, or grief. The spiritual warrior is trained to confront reality as it is, and accept death of the ego as a part of the spiritual journey of life. We can learn to recognize these reactions in ourselves and so begin to master our fear of loss. The natural fear reactions that Heller describes translate into the defense mechanisms and processes Kübler-Ross’s outlines in her five stages of mourning. We can learn to recognize these reactions in ourselves and so begin to master our fear of loss. 

  1. Denial: This defense takes the form of minimizing the effect of the betrayal, avoidance of the impact, or withdrawal from one’s betrayer. Watch for thoughts like “It happened twenty years ago, it doesn’t matter now.” “It’s my imagination. I’m making this up. I’m confused.”
  2. Anger: This defense takes many forms, including resentment, impatience, frustration, blaming and shaming, and resignation. Watch for thoughts like “How could you . . . ,” “You always . . . ,” or “You never . . .”
  3. Rationalization: This defense takes the form of righteous intellectualization, explanation, and justification of your emotional reactions. Watch for thoughts like “It’s not what you did, it’s how you did it,” “You could have . . . ,” “You should have . . . ,” “If only I’d . . . ,” or “I should have. . . .”
  4. Depression: This defense hits when the above three defenses fail to make you feel better. Feelings of grief, sadness, and deep loss

  5. are strong. Watch for thoughts like “I’m so tired of this . . .” or “When will this end?”
  6. Acceptance: Acceptance emerges as you confront life exactly as it is without adding anything to it or taking anything away from it. No

  7. matter what you say, think, or do, the betrayal happened just the way it did. At last there is no need to struggle anymore. Feelings of relief, release, peace, and resolution prevail. Watch for thoughts like “I feel grateful that . . . ,” “What a gift that . . . ,” or “I’m so relieved that. . . .”
Initiates of early mystery schools in both the East and the West were taught to master their fear of death and accompanying emotional reactions. Initiatory mystery schools understood the power of death to transform. They taught disciples that death and the emotional stages of mourning occurred whether the death was physical or symbolic. Betrayal leads to a symbolic death, and through symbolic death, innocence and naiveté die. But trust and innocence are not the same. Prior to betrayal, the innocent experiences no risk. Hillman says that trust cannot be fully realized without betrayal. Only after betrayal, when one knows the risks and trusts anyway, is true trust established. Rather than trust in the betrayer, or trust in the contracts and agreements we make to protect ourselves from future betrayals, the modern initiate learns to trust something deeper, something more essential. Betrayal presents the test: to come to trust in the life process, which prompts the modern initiate to discover the inner Self and that mystery that renews, heals, and transforms one’s experience. By making contact with their inner resources; namely, their innate wisdom, power, and courage, initiates were trained to use their intuitive and psychic senses to help them see, hear, or feel their way through the dark shadowlands of death of the ego and loss of self.
Cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien reminds us of an ancient teaching that is true today. There is only one fear, and that is the fear of a loss of self. In the greater mysteries, this loss of ego-self is a spiritual crisis that is symbolic of our experience of separation from God/Goddess, our infinite creative Source-a fear of loss of Self. Arrien says that fear of loss expresses itself cross-culturally through two seemingly opposite forms in our interpersonal relationships-fear of rejection or abandonment, and fear of engulfment or enmeshment. In either case, one can temporarily lose one’s sense of self to the fear of loss.
In your initiation, you too, move toward the acceptance of a remarkable mystery. The spiritual Self is never lost-yet it must be found. The purpose of symbolic death is to help you accept that there is an inner Source, a higher power within the psyche that brings you to and through every experience in life, including your experience of betrayal. This infinite, omniscient intelligence already knows what you need in order to heal. This is the one who will help you move beyond and through the grief of loss associated with each experience of betrayal. Using intuition, we pass beyond the death phase of initiation and start to receive new knowledge. This is the truth that sets us free-free to live fully instead of continually dying.


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