One midsummer day in midlife, I found myself in a dark wood. It is a yew forest, nestled into a vale amid the rolling hills of southern England. Cultivated yew trees are usually clipped and trimmed, but in this ancient wildwood the trees spread their branches wide, intertwining with each other and canopying the forest into an arboreal cathedral. Their green shade is cooling and soothing on a warm summer day, while their resinous aroma is gently soporific.
Having lost the path, I sat down under a magnificent tree to rest and get my bearings. There was no sound apart from the soft burble of a little stream and the buzz of a lone bee visiting from the flowering meadows beyond. I closed my eyes to inhale the peaceful spirit of the place. As my body relaxed and my breathing slowed, I slid into a light trance.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Suddenly my eyes open again and the wood reassembles around me. The yew trees loom, softly luminous, and I sense ancient, gentle presences all around. Looking up, I am momentarily dazzled by a vision of female beauty in a diaphanous blue-green robe, her flowing hair garlanded with wild flowers. She is gazing at me benevolently.
“Ohhh … hello. Who are you?”
“I am the tutelary deity of this place. I am called Coventina, Goddess of springs, wells and duck ponds. How may I help you?”
“Well, this is a beautiful forest, but I seem to have lost my way. Where do I go from here?”
“That is an excellent question, and this is an auspicious moment to ask it. You have arrived at a crossroads in your life from where you must choose your path. This place is a nemeton, a sacred grove filled with spiritual power. The spring is flowing and you may drink of her inspiration. The sacred spring is a portal to another world that lies beyond Gaia’s realm. It is a double spring, and if you make a conscious choice your quest will be well rewarded.
“The first spring is called Lethe…”
“Lethe is the choice of cessation, non-being.”
I frown, puzzled. “But why would anyone choose not to be?”
Coventina smiles with sad compassion. “For different reasons. Some people are simply afraid of the unknown. Or they may imagine the alternatives as worse, especially those who feel they have failed to fulfil their potential or live up to their ideals. Non-being has become the default choice of your species for the afterlife. Its popularity is partly a backlash to the climate of terror created by zealous younger soul priests through their nightmarish imaginings of the pains of hell. Although many people no longer believe in hell, the meme is still deeply embedded in the ancestral memory of humanity and still has power to mutate and terrify.
“What lies beyond the event horizon of death? –
the mother of all black holes, a devouring monster who will tear you apart and crush you into oblivion? …
Or will there be light at the end of the tunnel?”
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse …
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
“However, the majority of people who drink from Lethe nowadays are weary after their labours, the challenges of life, the shocks and outrages of fickle fortune. They want nothing more than by sleep to end the lacrimae rerum: the suffering that shadows life as an embodied soul. To a tired person an eternity of rest seems the most appealing reward; and it is not to be despised as an easy option. We call this state Pax. It is peace. It is cessation of suffering. It is the deep rest that follows the unburdening of body and personality until only the soul remains. It brings forgetfulness of woe but not extinction of essence. There is in truth more and better to come, but meanwhile there is a cessation of momentum. Feel free to drink of Lethe, but be aware that this will be the end of your journey.
“Or you can drink from the second spring which is called Mnemosyne. Her waters will quench your thirst for enlightenment. Mnemosyne will lead you to the Otherworld, where you may explore all that this undiscovered country has to offer. Mnemosyne also offers the gift of memory, so you will retain a vivid impression of all you experience on your voyage. There are indeed dragons and other fabulous creatures in this world, but it is not all bad despite what you may have heard. There are many beautiful lands and interesting experiences to be had.
“Are you ready to play? Which do you choose?”
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
I briefly consider my options. Lethe has its temptations. Deep sleep is always welcome, and there are certainly memories I’d love to erase as if they’d never happened. However, curiosity is stronger than regret and I’m always up for travel and adventure, so this choice is a no-brainer. “OK, let’s go with Mnemosyne!”
Coventina smiles. “Good choice, Sybil. You will find the bardo world familiar yet disorienting, like the distant memory of a dream. But fear not! Fortune favours the bold, and adventure accelerates the soul’s evolution.
“Since you are still in mortal form, your avatar will undertake the voyage. The thread that binds her to your body and the material world will draw her back safely when your time is up. Remember, you are an honoured guest in our world, always guided and protected.
Furthermore, your meditation and shamanic training will help you remain focused and alert, however weird the experience. Just sit, breathe and relax.”
Coventina raises her arm, holding a hazel branch. She gently touches my forehead with the tip of the branch and begins chanting hypnotically in a strange language. My eyes close involuntarily, as her voice grows softer while the resinous aroma of the yew grows stronger, and again I drift off, sinking deeper.
After a timeless moment my eyes open again and Coventina reappears, her soft aura illuminating the violet air. She flourishes a golden goblet from her billowing robes and hands it to me. I dip it into the pool and quaff the liquid, which tastes zesty and invigorating. I feel light as a bird poised for flight, but instead find myself following the stream into a mossy, ferny cavern.
Emerging through the foliage, I dimly perceive a dark river stretching away into the soft darkness of the cave. My eyes barely make out the outline of a boat drawn up to the bank. In the prow sits a hooded figure whose face is well shrouded so I cannot see his features. Coventina gestures towards the encircling gloom. “The Boatman has been ferrying passengers to the further shore for a long time, and will carry you safely to your first destination. Farewell Sybil. May the blessings of wood and water be upon you on your quest.”
I clamber into the stern and sit down, waving goodbye to Coventina as she fades into the grey green of the grotto while the boat glides off smoothly down the dark river.