The Recapitulation: Dying Before You Die

You have probably all heard say: at the moment of death, your entire life flashes before your eyes.

What you may not have heard say (for it is not often reported as such) is, that it flashes before your eyes in the reverse order of your life’s events… backwards; unraveling like a ball of wool. That’s a most arcane, but not insignificant, detail.

It’s called “the recapitulation”. That’s the term used, in any event, by the shamans of ancient Mexico as recounted to Castaneda by his teacher don Juan. And the shamans of ancient Mexico reasoned that they could consciously and deliberately use this recapitulation at the moment of death as an ingenius method to surrender up the selfhood or ego-consciousness in order to overcome the limits of the human form. That is to say, to learn to die before you die and thus free awareness from the mortal coil well in advance of physical death.

In theory it sounds plausible. In any case, Castaneda and the other apprentices were required to practice the recapitulation — to sit for very long periods of time recollecting the events of their lives in detail, and backwards in the reverse order of their occurrence. This recollecting of the events of life was to be accompanied by an apparently ritual gesture of the breath, exhaling from right to left, performed to indicate that the memory was also being let go, or perhaps literally “blown away”.

The assumption behind the recapitulation (if assumption it is) is that what we might call “awareness-at-large-in-the-universe” — the “dark sea of awareness” — was principally interested in experience. Consciousness is the “food” of this awareness (also called “the Eagle”) — the means by which it comes to know itself and its potentialities. And it finds human consciousness particularly savory in that respect.

Now, this is not such a bizarre notion. Many physicists today believe that this is fundamentally an energetic universe, and that this energy is aware and even self-aware and intentional. The theoretical physicist Amit Goswami comes to mind here in his book The Self-Aware Universe.

The shamans reasoned that the recapitulation at the moment of death was “the Eagle” claiming its rightful food — the personal awareness. They reasoned that the requirements of “the Eagle” would be met and satisfied if personal experience were offered up as a substitute for awareness, which is what the recapitulation intends. It is the practice of dying before you die in which the human form, in the shape of the record of personal experience, is offered up as food for the Eagle. In offering up personal experience, as the practice of dying before you die, the implicit awareness that we are would be emancipated from the matrix of the human form, and achieving this fluidity, the shaman would “dart past the Eagle to be free”.

I must say, it is an intriguing explanation for the oft-mentioned experience of the recapitulation. But what interests me about the deliberate practice of the recapitulation in the way described by Castaneda is its potential for self-overcoming. By objectifying the personal experience in this way, we are really objectifying the ego-consciousness in the form of personal experience and detaching ourselves from it. The recapitulation is, in effect, the spirit’s exhalation of the human form. And in offering up the ego-consciousness as food for the Eagle that means, shedding the human form. The recapitulation is “letting go” in the fullest sense.

The recapitulation seems like an arduous practice, and outside of Castaneda I have not heard of it done in quite such a deliberate and disciplined way in other traditions, perhaps because it seems such a Herculean effort. By contrast, I recall the story of a Buddhist monk who grew quite frustrated with his meditation practices and finally settled upon a very simple mantra which he used with his breathing: “Let go”. This proved effective, and he apparently achieved the same result.

The point is: shedding the human form isn’t the disaster it’s usually made out to be. For one type of human, it’s the most desirable thing imaginable. To cite Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor again: “: “My spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria”. Or Rumi, “I found true being in non-being, so I wove my selfhood into nothingness”.

I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.

Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.

 Now, one last word on this recapitulation, both at the moment of death and as practiced by the seers of ancient Mexico: it seems to be connected with what some call “the akashic record”. The akashic record is described as follows (this from Alice Bailey from Light of the Soul, as cited here)

“The akashic record is like an immense photographic film, registering all the desires and earth experiences of our planet. Those who perceive it will see pictured thereon: The life experiences of every human being since time began, the reactions to experience of the entire animal kingdom, the aggregation of the thought-forms of a karmic nature (based on desire) of every human unit throughout time. Herein lies the great deception of the records. Only a trained occultist can distinguish between actual experience and those astral pictures created by imagination and keen desire.”

There is, in fact, corroboration of the existence of this akashic “library”, as it were,  from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which he witnessed in “vision” and couched in the symbols and language of alchemy, complete with reference to an “Eagle”.

I was in a Printing house in Hell & saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.
In the first chamber was a Dragon-Man, clearing away the rubbish from a cave’s mouth; within, a number of Dragons were hollowing the cave.
In the second chamber was a Viper folding round the rock & the cave, and others adorning it with gold silver and precious stones.
In the third chamber was an Eagle with wings and feathers of air: he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite, around were numbers of Eagle like men, who built palaces in the immense cliffs.
In the fourth chamber were Lions of flaming fire raging around & melting the metals into living fluids.
In the fifth chamber were Unnam’d forms, which cast the metals into the expanse.
There they were reciev’d by Men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books & were arranged in libraries.

This “Printing House” and “library” of Hell would appear to be the same akashic archive described by others — an indelible record of all the world’s experience since the world began.

One last thing — a curiosity about “the Eagle” and of human awareness as the Eagle’s food: last night I was reading an interesting article about an old documentary film that has been recovered and restored in Canada. It is a century old. It was originally entitled In The Land of the Headhunters (renamed now In the Land of the War Canoes) and was about the Kwakiutl people of the West Coast of British Columbia. A still from the film caught my attention. It shows the doorway to a lodge in the shape of a raven’s beak, perhaps to remind people that they are, indeed, “food”

Into the Raven's Beak

Into the Raven’s Beak




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