July 22, 2013

"Death and Work" by Adrian Castro

For there to be a hero in any drama there must be an anti-hero. That which opposes the work, the fruition, the very essence of the hero. That which tries, and depending on whether a tragedy or a comedy, succeeds in eclipsing the ultimate goal of the hero. The resulting tension between the two opposing forces gives birth to the heroic act. The heroic act is to overcome that which is insurmountable-- be it evil, corruption, temptations, rain, drought, or storms. The anti-hero of our concern here is everyone's anti-hero-- death. It is more so evident in tragedies where our hero is the personification of an ideal man, a man of virtue and genius, in whose work and essence beauty is personified, and is alas overcome by death. Beauty is the river that separates this world from that world, or the above from the below. Truly man is incomplete without beauty. Beauty being bereft makes the hero's death all the more tragic.
Man can overcome vice, intolerance, tyranny, ignorance, but there is only one antagonist that man cannot overcome at least on this side of life. The belief in immortality and various forms of afterlife are a result of man's effort to overcome death. In response to this archetypal dilemma, human beings furthermore have cleverly devised casting death in a role which is not antagonistic or an anti-hero. Instead we have cast it as a great teacher, as the great leveler of man. This is itself a way of conquering the problem of death; simply by not making it a problem. If death is not fighting you, and you are not fighting it,  then it is not your enemy, but rather a teacher.  We see how it can be a teacher in the admonition, "set your house in order", for we never know when death will come calling. In this light, the fearful grasp that death has on the human psyche is no longer the dilemma to struggle against.

Death is the personification of impermanence. And the death's head and/or coffin is the archetypal symbol for it. Throughout many cultures in Latin America, Europe and the East (i.e. the religious iconography of Tibet, India) the prevalence of the death's head is a persistent reminder of the impermanence of life. These symbols appear again and again in rituals because, primarily, and despite our efforts to obviate the obvious, the struggle against impermanence and change is man's epic and archetypal struggle. It is constant and lurking at every corner. The struggle to not cling to the waves of desire and material attachments is daily. As long as man has a fear of death, he is not free.  It is through the vanquishing of the fear of death that we gain our liberation.


From the Yorùbá tradition we have a story where one of their most important heroes, a prophet by the name of Òrúnmìlà is in conflict with Death. As the story goes, Òrúnmìlà was once concerned about a dream he had the previous night. He dreamt that Death was going to visit his house dressed in all its terminal accoutrements and carrying his necrotic bloodied spiked club. When Òrúnmìlà woke that morning he immediately went to the Ifa divination oracle. Upon divination he was told that the wise awake and remain erect. That Fear and Death had also gone for divination wondering how they could have dominion over life. Òrúnmìlà was told that fear was actually what he needed to conquer. He was told to stay upright. He was told to sacrifice two hundred snails and thereafter tie the shells to a walking stick the length of his body. Òrúnmìlà was the only one of the three that did the sacrifice. He was to place this stick erect at the entrance to his house and everyday upon going to sleep and waking he was to bang the stick on the ground. The effect was a cacophonous clank that would scare the daylights out of anyone if not at least wake the dead. True to his dream, one evening Death (Ikú in Yoruba) came prancing down the front of Òrúnmìlà's house in full terminal regalia just as he was beginning to beat the sonorous walking stick. The song Òrúnmìlà was told to sing by the Ifá oracle was,

            "Oluwòwò ji odi ji Oluwòwò
            nba ri Ikú máà tè eee!"

which translates to, "The strong Ifá priest has woken, he has woken, when I see Death I will stomp him"

Death was not accustomed to hearing such defiance. And it never heard such a cacophonous sound accompanying the song. He thought to himself, "if this is Òrúnmìlà just singing before going to sleep, imagine what he will do to me when he sees me." Death immediately, and unbeknownst to Òrúnmìlà, made a turn back to his abode.

The crucial issue in the above myth is not the conquering of Death per se, but rather the subjugation of fear. It wasn't until Òrúnmìlà did the sacrifice with snails, a symbol of coolness and softness, that his heart was able to soften and cool and thus become fearless. This softness and coolness is in direct  contrast to the image we have of Death. Indeed in the story he has a rather rough and harsh demeanor. He is after all the anti-hero. It wasn't until Òrúnmìlà embodied the opposite characteristics of Death--  coolness, uprightness, fearlessness-- that Death was not able to prey upon him, that he was able to postpone his day of death.

The other interesting aspect of this story is the object with which Òrúnmìlà was able to scare off Death. It was a long (the length of Òrúnmìlà body), walking stick that made noise. It was to be used uprightly, that is, perpendicular to the ground, the abode of the dead. By ritually using the stick, which can be further understood to be a smaller version of a tree of life, or axis mundi, Òrúnmìlà declared himself, indeed imprints by the simple act of banging the ground, his presence on Earth.  He became the temporal opposite of sleep.


We are taught in so many of the ancient traditions, that it is through inner work (though usually it not called as such, in fact the work is usually deceptively materialistic) that we gain our freedom and hence our true rewards. This work must not be done with expectations, but rather for its intrinsic value. Through this arduous work, one of knowledge gained through initiation, purification, transformation we gain a gnosis of impermanence, of selflessness, we remain upright, vanquishing fear, and we are able to enter the center of our Self, the crypt of our Self. It is there where we get our rewards.

So what of the ordinary man? How can he/she do things which outlive him/her? The vast majority of great men/women throughout history are unknown. Many great men of profound depth and wisdom, who performed deeds that changed people, communities, that postponed death itself, died and not a word was uttered about them a month afterwards. Few gain accolades during their lives, and even fewer after death. By definition there are few Christs, few Buddhas, few Mohammeds. The Buddha himself was said to be the twelfth Buddha. So what of the other eleven? Who were they? The fact that we hear of few great men/women does not mean there have been few throughout human history. These are simply the destiny of each of these great figures, or providence of the Creator itself that chose to bring to the forefront of man's consciousness as symbols of man's greatness and possibilities.

"Behold now... I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to decay. Strive [towards enlightenment] with diligence!",  said the Buddha more than 2400 years ago. As human beings we are truly unique in our precious births as we uniquely have the opportunity to cultivate wisdom, virtue, seek truth, and so perform an active role in improving our lives. Of the myriad of living species there are no other on earth capable of doing this. Barring severe physical and/or mental hindrances, each human being has the capability of performing the “great work”.

In Yorùbá the word for person is ènìyàn. It is a compound word formed by è a possessive prefix, ni the verb to be, and yàn meaning to choose. Together it translates as "he/she that is chooses".  Choice is fundamental to the identity of a human being according to Yorùbá philosophy. Without going into too much detail regarding the creation of a human being, it is believed that humans choose their destinies in the spirit world before being born. It is one's Èlèdá, literally the owner of your creation, that spirit that resides in everyone, the seat of the divine within all of us, that chooses one's destiny. Once a person is born that record and memory is forgotten. Hence this is one of the central reasons followers of the Yorùbá tradition consult the Ifá oracle; as it is this divine corpus that has the ability to direct one in the direction consistent with the choices one made in the spirit world at any given moment. Of course everyone is free to follow the directives of the oracle or not. The fact that one can even choose to believe this theory is itself what makes one an ènìyàn. To choose is quintessentially human. To choose to perform is fruition.

Vocational work, when it is honest and truthful, is the seed of all societies and the root of its evolution. Just as the worker bees collaborate to build and sustain the hive, so it is through our various vocations and stations in society that it is built and sustained. Work facilitates the positive esteem of individuals.  A society whose members believe themselves worthy and productive and integral, is a society erected on a strong foundation. It is a society that will build its cultural, civic, and political institutions from the ground up. Ideally a society where a symbiotic relationship exists between the various strata, each nourished by the other. However, man cannot live by work alone!

Spiritual work, on the other hand , is performed in the most discreet, quiet, seemingly inactive way. No need to go somewhere to do it (though a sacred space helps to accomplish it). No need to wear a uniform (though regalia and iconography can help). No need to punch a time-clock (though discipline and effort are crucial). No need to have a boss (though Nature and all its laws are watching).

If a man acts only as if his father were watching him, and expecting a reward, well that man is in the end a child regardless of his age. Every action has a cause and a reaction. They say the bat of a butterfly's wing can cause a typhoon half-way across the world. What then of acts of kindness, charity, and love? There are many opportunities in life to express these qualities-- parenting, brotherhood, philanthropy, even vocational work. Many of us unfortunately fall victims to our own selfishness and expect rewards for these acts. Those of us who give to charity expect at least a government write-off. We work merely to make money, to pay bills, or at best amass a certain amount of wealth for relative comfort today or the far-off future; unaware death or impermanence can undo a lifetime's work in a day. We have many opportunities to labor, perform, act without fee or reward, simply for its own sake. Some would say it is because of  duty that we should perform such acts. But duty, when there is an expectation of reward attached to the action is no longer duty, but just what it is-- an action with an expectation of reward. In the end a selfish action predicated on a reward. This genuine attitude of duty and work are no doubt very difficult to achieve, but is nonetheless available to anyone, regardless of class, education, upbringing, etc., precisely because of our precious human birth.

We have to labor on many levels-- psychologically, spiritually, morally-- for work to be truly transcendent. But we must labor with the firm belief that our work will bear fruit in some way. We must make our labors equate a prayer. Laborare est orare! We must however be vigilant not to labor because it will bear fruit, but rather because it is best and moral and of benefit to others, ourselves, and family. There is a winding staircase that each and every one of us must climb. We can never be certain what, if death itself, is lurking around the bend on the next step. So we must be sure of our steps. Sure that they are honest and genuine. That they are of benefit in general. That they at least do not contribute to the baseness and demoralization of society. We must be sure our labors do not shred the fabric of society (unless of course it is corrupt, ignorant, and tyrannical), crumble the stones on which it rests. Most importantly we must be sure not to debase ourselves by acting callously, crudely or maliciously. We must work diligently in polishing our personal temples that others can emulate it, build upon it. So when the day arrives to call us back to our source, we can reflect back with a sense of accomplishment. It is arduous work but the best work.

About Adrian Castro

Adrian Castro is a poet, writer, and interdisciplinary artist. Born in Miami, a place which has provided fertile ground for the rhythmic Afro-Latino style in which he writes and performs. Articulating the search for a cohesive Afro-Caribbean-American identity, Castro honors myth on one hand and history on the other. He addresses the migratory experience from Africa to the Caribbean to North America, and the eventual clash of cultures. Castro creates a circular motion of theme, tone, subject matter, style, and cultural history, giving rise to a fresh illuminating archetypal poetry. 

These themes reach their climax in their declamacion – the call-and-response rhythm of performance with a whole lot of tun-tun ka-ka pulse. He is the author of Cantos to Blood & Honey,(Coffee House Press, 1997), Wise Fish: Tales in 6/8 Time,(Coffee House Press, 2005),  Handling Destiny, (Coffee House Press, 2009), and has been published in many literary anthologies. He is the recipient of a USA Knight Fellowship (2012), Cintas Fellowship (2008), the State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, NewForms Florida, the Eric Mathieu King award from the Academy of American Poets, NALAC Arts Fellowship, and several commissions from Miami Light Project and the Miami Art Museum. He has performed with many dancers and actors including Chuck Davis and African American Dance Ensemble, Heidi Duckler and Collage Dance, and Keith Antar Mason and the Hittite Empire. He has toured extensively through the U.S. and abroad. 

Castro has taught at University of Miami, Miami Dade College, and FIU as visiting professor, and/or guest lecturer. The New York Times Book Review selected Wise Fish as an editor's choice saying, "Sinuous, syncopated verses about the Caribbean melting pot." And "…even a cursory glance suggests his poems—which seem to be trying to dance off the page…would truly come alive on the stage. "Wise Fish" is a serious and seriously enjoyable contribution to our flourishing Latino literature." Adrian Castro is also an acupuncturist and herbalist.

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