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.
The project’s art-historical references are object-based Memento Mori (the Latin phrase means “Remember that you are mortal”, “Remember you will die) and Vanitas genres. These works remind viewers of their own mortality, and are epitomised by “Untitled: Model Head Life one half. Death the other”, held in the Wellcome Trust’s Permanent Collection.
Such works became popular in the seventeenth century, when most believed that earthly life was preparation for Divine Judgement, Heaven, Hell and salvation of the soul. These ideas brought death to the forefront of consciousness. Artists produced self-portraits depicting themselves holding a skull, or with a skull nearby. Vanitas is Latin for “emptiness” and alludes to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity.
In our project there is a reflexive spiral embodied by the objects that we will produce: vanitas works function to make viewer consider the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. We will take such contemplation as central to the means by which we produce the work, and the final work will literally represent such contemplation.
One of the features of realised human life is ‘embodiment’ – a sense of being fully situated within one’s bodily experience. This can be contrasted with different degrees of ‘dis-embodiment’ – a psychological dissociation from the body as the site of pain, trauma and suffering, which, in an existential analysis, can be seen as being driven by the fear of death, of the body’s impermanence.
It is this ‘situatedness in the body’ or the lack of it, that radically changes in the process of dying and death. The meditations that I will undertake can be seen from the perspective of awareness practices – key to meditation training – contemplation of death both as the impermanence of the body, and as the change in the relationship of one’s awareness of one’s body.
Our research explores changes in functional connectivity patterns in the areas of the brain known to process body awareness and sense of oneself as an embodied subject, and considers how these changes affect the dynamics between the two major networks, intrinsic and extrinsic, in the brain.
For more on this and related research, please see Zoran Josipovic’s site with links his papers.
It is not uncommon to find anatomical wax works and vanitas depicting women that are sexualised. This is less unnerving when we look at mannequins like this Victorian 1900 wax boudoir mannequin bust from France. It was made with real glass blown eyes and porcelain teeth. The long blond hair is human and implanted, as are the eyelashes and eyebrows. However, the “Anatomical Venuses” those life-sized wax anatomical models of idealized women made on the 1700s are both seductive and horrifying, arguably more horrifying because they are seductively posed and coloured.
The artist Zoe Leonard’s Anatomical Model of a Woman’s Head Crying, 1993 is one of a series of works made as she tries to capture the desire and horror expressed in these works.
“I first saw a picture of the anatomical wax model of a woman with pearls in a guidebook on Vienna. She struck a chord in me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She seemed to contain all I wanted to say at that moment, about feeling gutted, displayed. Caught as an object of desire and horror at the same time. She also seemed relevant to me in terms of medical history, a gaping example of sexism in medicine. The perversity of those pearls, that long blond hair. I went on with this work even though it is gory and depressing because the images seem to reveal so much.”–Zoe Leonard, Journal of Contemporary Art”