The death meditation has revealed more fully to me many things, drawn my attention to:
– how much I do in my life from a sense of ‘duty’. I have let go of some events and quietly stepped back from some people already, gently, as a result of this growing understanding.
– how the ego of being a contemporary artist, yearning for recognition, is a veneer on top of a joyful practice of being a creative person. At the moment of impending death the veneer is stripped away. This is a wonderful reality check and is balancing for me. Like balancing on top of a ball, this is a precarious, ever-shifting state. I often slip into insecurity or yearning and have to do some fancy foot work to regain my balance.
– how the more I feel I will die, now, the less I fear it. There is still fear and struggle but I am very surprised that the sense of sheer terror diminishes relatively quickly.
The image above is of an artwork I made in the 1990s called Sarcophagus, a horrible piece of work in many ways, a failure, useful to contemplate when the old ego gets boisterous.
Today, when contemplating ‘what I will miss’ when I die I struggled to come up with anything! This made me realise what a stressful day or two I had experienced with work demands and family commitments. I had a clear sense of ‘what I will not miss’ – fulfilling obligations.
It was a matter of moments before, not surprisingly, I became aware of being overblown, of thinking of ‘big stuff’. Then, immediately, I found much to miss: the flowers I pass on my way to work, the plants outside, the feel of kneading bread dough, the fun of cooking.
Time to bring it all down to everyday moment by moment detail. That’s what I lose when I succumb to stress and push ahead to complete what feels like too many tasks – I stop being in the moment.
Death meditation. I will miss the physical thrill of sprinting, of laughter. I won’t miss striving, grant-writing and form-filling. I won’t miss the rat race.
Death comes and my body rots. l feel rats tugging at my body, eating it from the inside too. I don’t need this body any more. It’s ok.
It took longer (15 minutes) for me to quieten as I was so wound up. When thinking what I would not miss it was clear as a bell: anger, pain. People that are difficult and who let me down. Not surprisingly that when I thought about what I would miss it was people!! Their love, support, warmth.
This sort of mirroring or one thought being the flip-side of the previous one seems to be common in my meditations now. No idea if that’s typical or whether I may be like a record stuck in a groove.
Quickly following on from these two thoughts came the inevitable recognition that my anger came from feeling hurt- and that means I must have had expectations. As I imagined dying all anger left, a huge sadness followed, then that too passed. Then a sense of love. I kept my focus on myself reduced to a pin point of white light.
Death meditation (notes from December 2015).
It still sometimes takes me a while to quieten down at the start… Today the sections when I let go and ‘died’ from my feet up and my scalp down went smoothly until I got to the ‘bag of sugar’ sized zone in my heart area… It was hard at first to ‘be’ a small white dot of light as opposed to ‘see’ a small white dot in my mind’s eye. This is one of the challenges for me in general, to feel the meditation experience rather than only see it in my head. I am more aware now of how visually-dominant my sense of the world is. My breathing is another distraction, particularly following the instruction to pause after exhaling before each new inhale. Every time l paused I felt that I then took a deeper inhalation. Other than that my breaths were shallower and shallower. The first meditation was 10 minutes, the second 15 – I need to complete them in seven minutes in the scanner.
#7 Death meditation: notes
My death is imminent, no time for resolutions of any unfinished business with anyone, no time for goodbyes. I instantly recalled being with my father’s bold horse, a steeplechaser called Bridgedown, when he was put down. I felt as though I was right there, my face against the horse’s soft muzzle, the prick of his whiskers on my cheek. A huge feeling of sadness, quickly followed by shame. Shame not only that I stood with him, delivering him to his death, but that I was allowing my sadness to come out, that he would pick up on it and get distressed. I was back there, aged 15, stroking his neck.
I let everything but him go from my mind. Somehow, back then, I just leant into him, smiling, at his strength as a young horse, his jittery thoroughbred dance moves, his courage and almost crazy strength when galloping. I was able to step back when the vet told me, but I kept hold of the blue rope that linked me to Bridgedown and I looked him in the eye with love as they shot him. All this flashed through my mind, with images of his chestnut tail after he startled, hooves slamming once, and then fell and was dragged away as I cried. One minute he was there, the next his essence was gone, his body a lump. Like me. Like my death. There, then gone, and my body a lump. In death horse and rider are but dust, which reminded me of what it was like to look at Gunther von Hagens “Rearing Horse with Rider (2000). The horse and rider were almost as one, dead and flayed their similarities are clearer than their species’ differences.
So, I’ve been doing a Light-‐love meditation every day pretty much for 3 months now, following Zoran’s instructions. Today I tried the Light–Love meditation in short blocks of 1 minutes each, repeating the sequence several times. I’ve started meditating at work lying on my office floor as I realised that when I was very busy it was harder to do the morning and night time meditation. Having the option of meditating at work means I have less excuses not to do two a day. Plus it’s a really good thing for me in the middle of a busy day.
The one minute blocks were less difficult than I thought. I started with a two minute block to get settled then did 3 of the one minutes. The hardest part was setting my iPhone timer and then turning it off, and resetting it. It was pretty intrusive. But then I need the timer to train myself about how long a minute is, I’m too new to this to reliably gauge time accurately when meditating, and when I’m in the scanner I will need to be able to do it very consistently. After 3 months I have managed to meditate for about 7 minutes as suggested by Zoran, but it was much longer to start with. Not because I was deep into it, but because of how long it took me to get my flibberty gibbet mind to quieten down.
After a few weeks of daily meditations on death, I started to imagine/feel post-death decay during the meditation. This was disgusting at first, but surprisingly that feeling passed quickly and I imagined maggots munching their way through me and all the while a little pin point of light in my heart area, regardless of what decay was also going on right there. Other times I have rats chewing on me, bloating and putrefication… Notably, during the meditation the feeling of disgust passes quickly into acceptance. But that does not mean disgust is ‘gone’ afterwards. To make this blog I looked for maggot images and felt quite sick while doing so. Seems like I can cope with the decay during the meditation but not hold that ‘acceptance’ longer term.
Talking to other people who meditate on death, it seems that these images are to be expected. It makes extra sense to me in that that symbols and representations of decay are found in memento mori artworks (dying flowers are especially common). Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a motif of the physicality and decay associated with death, and maggots are key characters in the scenes where his writing paints pictures of his belief in the equalising effect of death and decomposition: great people and beggars both end as dust. In the 1839 painting shown above by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, the gravedigger scene from Hamlet is shown with Hamlet and Horatio and the unearthed skull of the jester, Yorick.
The meditations have extra pertinence this month for me, I’ve just had my 50th birthday and being more accepting of the physical changes of ageing, the decay-while-living would be a good thing.
In July 2014 I visited one of my collaborators, Zoran Josipovic, neuroscientist and founding director of The Nonduality Institute and he spent a day teaching me some basic meditations and then refining two for me to practice each day. These are the two I will then repeat in the MRI scanner. Zoran talked with me quite a bit about these and then he sent me some written instructions to help me remember. I keep a journal that I write brief notes in after meditating each day and I will add entries from that to the blog. Meanwhile, here are my aide memoire instructions.
a) imagining that you will die imminently,
-‐what / who would you miss the most?
-‐what would you be sad about?
-‐ angry about?
-‐ fearful of?
-‐ and happy about?
b) death simulation: letting go of the breath, let it go toward the longer exhale, let it be still after exhale briefly before next inhale as if it was your last breath, but let this happen naturally without trying to control it too much, in other words without much overbreathing.
Then let go of the body, first from the feet (both left and right) up to diaphragm, then from the top of the head to the center of the heart, then both collapsing into the center of the heart which is just a point like star, then letting go of everything, letting the body and mind die so that all there is left is awareness in a tiny point in the center of the heart (chakra; in the center of your chest).
c) abide in that awareness in the center of the heart letting all your
experiences die off.
a) imagine/feel that everything outside of you, everything in the universe, dissolves into a brilliant white light in the nature of unconditional love, so that you are held and nurtured by it and can completely leg go and be sustained by it.
b) then imagine/feel that an opening appears at the top of your head and the light pours into you, bringing healing throughout our body, descending down and filling you from top to bottom, until whole body is filled with light (thine eye shall be single eventually… JJ)
c) imagine/feel that the boundary of your body dissolves into light and that the light inside and outside is one same continuous light.
Repeat steps a, b and c with compassion, but do first compassion for yourself, then compassion for your mother, then compassion for both yourself your mother and all living being throughout space.
In terms of the length, first try a few minutes for a, b and c sections each of the 2 meditations, and then gradually extend it until you can do ~7 minutes for each section. Also try the second meditation with short blocks of 1 minutes each, repeating the sequence several times.