I just love that word. Say it with me now: psychopomp! Okay now that we’ve satisfied that urge, let’s radically embrace it. But first … just what the heck is a psychopomp? Conventionally, a psychopomp is an afterlife mentor, a kind of spirit guide to help us get the lay of the after-land. The Greeks were big on psychopomps. Think Morpheus, the shaper of dreams and Thanatos, the demon of death.
When we spend time hanging around people at the beginnings and endings of life, these kinds of exceptional human figures and notions become regular topics for discussion, and not by accident. Rather, unless you’re world-renown physicist Stephen Hawking and don’t believe in imagination, immersing our consciousness in birth and death transitions tends to change it, often to an expansive degree. In such worlds psychopomps seem like perfectly reasonable entities to consider and discuss with genuine curiosity.
Like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, psychopomps may only exist in the afterlife matrix if you sincerely believe in them. Thinking makes them so. Perhaps. It’s certainly worth holding as an Open Question. Holding such possibilities lightly with Don’t Know Mind often makes for good science. And unlike Stephen Hawking, many children report direct experiences of such entities if we parents don’t freak out and socialize them away from such awareness. In fact, Melvin Morse, a neuro-pediatrician has spent much of his professional life investigating hundreds of such reports.
Have You Hugged Your Psychopomp Today?
What I’m more interested in however, are the psychopomps who show up to help guide us through the death-rebirth stages that we all go through over and over again while embodied in the same bag o’ skin in this lifetime. You know what I’m talking about. Call them stages, or transitions or crises (they often grow to that energetic size when we repeatedly deny and turn away from and don’t listen to their increasingly insistent call). Think of those who help guide us through such recurring transitions as living psychopomps. However you think of them, when they show up they can radically change our neural network. Not to mention our neurocardiology.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of many books, notably The Biology of Transcendence and The Magical Child, had a living psychopomp show up for him one day in the form of a photograph. Someone sent him a photo of Baba Muktananda, suggesting Pearce might want to become one of Baba’s students. He promptly tossed the photo in the wastebasket. Unable to get the image of Muktananda’s face out of his mind, he later retrieved the photo and at that moment was visited with a full-blown kundalini experience. Pearce went on to become a devoted follower of Muktananda, his living psychopomp for many years.
So that’s Reason Two to embrace a living psychopomp: they can radically engage and open us to life’s energies and possibilities, experiences that might not otherwise be available to us.
Living psychopomps can also provide valuable life direction. In my mid-twenties a Sufi Master issued a directive to me during what turned out to be a profoundly teachable moment. In an effort to deal with my own demons, I was considering a career in psychology and one day he said simply: “Provide shelter for people.” From that moment on I fully committed to a career as a housebuilder, a decision I’ve never regretted. I’ve taken up psychology and neuroscience as avocations to keep me distracted and out of trouble in my advancing age (most serious construction accidents happen to builders from stress at the end of their careers!). But even now, doing volunteer building and home repairs keeps me connected to the local community in healthy, useful ways. While psychology and social neuroscience for parents keeps me ever intellectually and emotionally curious.
Preschooling a Psychopomp
Children, our own and other people’s, often serve as powerful living psychopomps, sometimes bringing hard lessons with them, lessons that can last a lifetime. If anyone doubts this, turn down your Denial Dials. The emotional attachments – cathexis in Freudspeak – that we inevitably have with our children amplify many of the places in us yearning for healing integration. Children can be profound life psychopomps when we and they are working skillfully – which for them means simply being children. Kids continually show us our growing edges – those places that yearn to have us stretch out beyond ourselves – and move a bit in the direction of psychological and spiritual maturity. Having such guides willing to offer themselves up for the benefit of our own endless growth, how precious and loving and worth embracing is that?