Memento mori – invitations to reflect on our own mortality – have been common throughout history. Two ancient traditions that made reflection on death central to their paths are Buddhism and Stoicism. For both, the starting point is the fact that our normal perceptions of value are deeply flawed, as we are constantly craving or loathing things that in reality are unimportant. The Buddhist texts offer a neat list of these: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. The Stoics had a word for them, which translates as ‘indifferents’. The things that we are so keen to pursue – wealth, material possessions, sense pleasures, comfort, success, people’s approval, romantic love and so on – are bound to disappoint and distract us from what really matters, which is our ethical and spiritual progress.
But arguing that we shouldn’t spend our lives seeking those things is not enough. The urges are strong and engrained in us, and both traditions knew it takes more than reason to begin to shake them. It takes sustained reflection on vivid and even shocking imagery to make the point on a more visceral level. This is where death meditations come in.
One of the most striking examples of this is the meditation on corpses presented in the Buddhist Satipatthana Sutta. In ancient India, corpses were left out in ‘charnel grounds’, and people would have had the opportunity to observe the various stages of decomposition. The text is nothing if not thorough, describing in some detail ‘a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter … being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or various kinds of worms’, eventually turning into ‘bones rotten and crumbling to dust’. On observing this, the monk reminds himself that ‘This body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’
Reminders of death are everywhere in the Stoic literature, albeit generally less graphic. The nearest the Stoics come to such detailed descriptions is with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: ‘Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. Or that everything was born to die.’ He is also concise and to the point in his assessment of human life, which is ‘brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.’
Epictetus advises to keep death always at the front of our minds: ‘Day by day you must keep before your eyes death and exile, and everything that seems terrible, but death above all; and then you will never have any abject thought, or desire anything beyond due measure.’
These reflections are meant to alert us to the fact that the things we find attractive and desirable are ‘shiny on the outside, but on the inside are pitiful’, as Seneca put it. Practices that instigate detachment from the things of the world are a preparation for death in the sense that the recognition that they are not important should make it easier to accept that soon enough we will not be around to enjoy them.
The ancients knew that such practices should be handled with care. Their intention was to elicit equanimity, not aversion. The Buddha warns that if a meditation of this kind were to evoke loathing, the monk should switch to a different one. To illustrate this, one discourse reports the case of a group of monks who engage so enthusiastically with contemplating the unattractiveness of the body that a number of them end up killing themselves. On finding out what happened, the Buddha decides to teach the survivors the more soothing practice of mindfulness instead.
As the Buddha advised, we need to be alert to the possibility that death meditation could be detrimental if we overdo it, or do it in the wrong spirit or state of mind. But why do it at all, if we’re not Buddhists or Stoics? Not everyone is convinced that preparing for death is a good idea. In ‘On Physiognomy’ (1580), Michel de Montaigne muses that it’s a bit like putting on a fur coat in summer because we’ll need it at Christmas: ‘It is certain that most preparations for death have caused more torment than undergoing it.’ Why weigh ourselves down with thoughts of our demise when we can choose to enjoy life and leave the end to take care of itself?
While that is an appealing perspective, there are reasons to keep mortality towards the front of our minds. According to the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun (2008), the fear of death is with us all the time, whether we realise it or not. Even if we are not racked with it, death anxiety sneaks into our life in many disguises. It is what causes us to distract ourselves through the pursuit of wealth and status, for instance, or seek comfort through merging with another, or a cause. But such denial ‘always exacts a price – narrowing our inner life, blurring our vision, blunting our rationality. Ultimately self-deception catches up with us.’
Sometimes, we are shaken out of our denial by a great crisis, such as terminal illness or bereavement, or by another significant life event. Unexpectedly, Yalom argues, such experiences can evoke a sense of awakening, leading to a dropping away of trivial concerns, to reprioritising what matters in life and a heightened perception of the beauty around us: ‘[T]hough the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.’
But we needn’t wait for pivotal experiences, says Yalom. By confronting our finitude through therapy, or reflection on death, a lasting shift in perception can arise. Yes, the process might evoke some anxiety, but ultimately it is worth it, as it can make our life richer and more vibrant.
By highlighting the fact that time is short, death meditation can help us to put things in perspective and appreciate the present more. It can remind us that the things we get so worked up about are not worth it – our appearance, career, how our achievements compare with those of our peers, the satisfaction of material desires, disputes with neighbours and tradespeople. Marcus Aurelius draws out this aspect of it well: ‘think of the list of people who had to be pried away from life. What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six feet under.’
Death can happen at any time, as Seneca is fond of reminding us: ‘There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you, so you must wait for death at every point.’ But this thought need not lead us to brood on the unsatisfactory quality of the human condition. Instead, it can open the way to a deep acceptance of it, together with the awareness that we had better make the most of what we have here and now. This is no glib hedonism, but a bittersweet recognition that any joy in life is always and necessarily intermingled with death and transience.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
The meditation-and-the-brain research has been rolling in steadily for a number of years now, with new studies coming out just about every week to illustrate some new benefit of meditation. Or, rather, some ancient benefit that is just now being confirmed with fMRI or EEG. The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the “me” centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. Below are some of the most exciting studies to come out in the last few years and show that meditation really does produce measurable changes in our most important organ. Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.
Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain
Last week, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”
Meditation Reduces Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center”
One of the most interesting studies in the last few years, carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, though its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.
Its Effects Rival Antidepressants for Depression, Anxiety
A review study last year at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. If this sounds low, keep in mind that the effect size for antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation sound pretty good. Meditation is, after all an active form of brain training. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.” Meditation isn’t a magic bullet for depression, as no treatment is, but it’s one of the tools that may help manage symptoms.
Meditation May Lead to Volume Changes in Key Areas of the Brain
In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress – and these changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well. In fact, a follow-up study by Lazar’s team found that after meditation training, changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal were also linked to improvements in how participants said they felt — i.e., their psychological well-being. So for anyone who says that activated blobs in the brain don’t necessarily mean anything, our subjective experience – improved mood and well-being – does indeed seem to be shifted through meditation as well.
Just a Few Days of Training Improves Concentration and Attention
Having problems concentrating isn’t just a kid thing – it affects millions of grown-ups as well, with an ADD diagnosis or not. Interestingly but not surprisingly, one of the central benefits of meditation is that it improves attention and concentration: One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE. In fact, the increase in score was equivalent to 16 percentile points, which is nothing to sneeze at. Since the strong focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is one of the central aims of meditation, it’s not so surprising that meditation should help people’s cognitive skills on the job, too – but it’s nice to have science confirm it. And everyone can use a little extra assistance on standardized tests.
Meditation Reduces Anxiety — and Social Anxiety
A lot of people start meditating for its benefits in stress reduction, and there’s lots of good evidence to support this rationale. There’s a whole newer sub-genre of meditation, mentioned earlier, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness (now available all over the country), that aims to reduce a person’s stress level, physically and mentally. Studies have shown its benefits in reducing anxiety, even years after the initial 8-week course. Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation, in contrast to attending to the breath only, can reduce anxiety – and that these changes seem to be mediated through the brain regions associated with those self-referential (“me-centered”) thoughts. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to help people with social anxiety disorder: a Stanford University team found that MBSR brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety.
Meditation Can Help with Addiction
A growing number of studies has shown that, given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain, meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction. One study, for example, pitted mindfulness training against the American Lung Association’s freedom from smoking (FFS) program, and found that people who learned mindfulness were many times more likely to have quit smoking by the end of the training, and at 17 weeks follow-up, than those in the conventional treatment. This may be because meditation helps people “decouple” the state of craving from the act of smoking, so the one doesn’t always have to lead to the other, but rather you fully experience and ride out the “wave” of craving, until it passes. Other research has found that mindfulness training, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) can be helpful in treating other forms of addiction.
Short Meditation Breaks Can Help Kids in School
For developing brains, meditation has as much as or perhaps even more promise than it has for adults. There’s been increasing interest from educators and researchers in bringing meditation and yoga to school kids, who are dealing with the usual stressors inside school, and oftentimes additional stress and trauma outside school. Some schools have starting implementing meditation into their daily schedules, and with good effect: One district in San Francisco started a twice daily meditation program in some of its high-risk schools – and saw suspensions decrease, and GPAs and attendance increase. Studies have confirmed the cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation for schoolchildren, but more work will probably need to be done before it gains more widespread acceptance.
Worth a Try?
Meditation is not a panacea, but there’s certainly a lot of evidence that it may do some good for those who practice it regularly. Everyone from Anderson Cooper and congressman Tim Ryan to companies like GoogleGOOGL -1.17% and AppleAAPL +0.38% and TargetTGT +0.76% are integrating meditation into their schedules. And its benefits seem to be felt after a relatively short amount of practice. Some researchers have cautioned that meditation can lead to ill effects under certain circumstances (known as the “dark night” phenomenon), but for most people – especially if you have a good teacher – meditation is beneficial, rather than harmful. It’s certainly worth a shot: If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening (or both), rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, or at least paying attention to your thoughts and letting them go without reacting to them. If the research is right, just a few minutes of meditation may make a big difference.
But now stories of disturbing experiences and psychological damage from meditation are coming to light. Borrowing a phrase from the Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross, these experiences are being called “a dark night of the soul.” In this article I want to address the “dark night” phenomenon and discuss what is happening from a Buddhist perspective.
The Power of Meditation
Although meditation has been marketed in the West as a kind of relaxation technique, that is actually not what it is in a spiritual context. Buddhists meditate to wake up (see enlightenment). The traditional Buddhist meditation practices are powerful techniques developed over millennia that can reveal to us who we really are and how we are connected to the rest of the cosmos throughout space and time.
Stress reduction is just a side effect.
Indeed, as a spiritual practice meditation is sometimes anything but relaxing. The traditional practices have a way of reaching deep into the psyche and bringing dark and painful things about ourselves into awareness. For a person seeking enlightenment this is considered necessary; for someone just trying to de-stress, maybe not.
These deep psychological effects have been well documented for centuries, although the old commentaries may not describe them in terms a western psychologist would recognize. A skilled dharma teacher knows how to guide students through these experiences. Unfortunately, there’s still a shortage of skilled dharma teachers in the West.
The Dark Night Project
You can find many articles on the Web about the Dark Night Project, run by a psychology professor named Dr. Willoughby Britton (see, for example, an article on The Atlantic website by Tomas Rocha, “The Dark Knight of the Soul“). Britton runs a kind of refuge for people recovering from bad meditation experiences and is also working to “document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices,” the article says.
As a long-time Zen student there is nothing in this or other articles about the Dark Night Project that particularly surprises me. Indeed, many of the experiences described are common ones Zen teachers explicitly warn about and which in a monastic setting would be recognized and worked through. But through a combination of improper preparation and incompetent or no guidance, people’s lives actually were wrecked.
What Can Go Wrong?
First, let’s be clear that in a spiritual practice, an unpleasant experience is not necessarily bad, and a blissful one is not necessarily good. My first Zen teacher used to refer to meditative bliss as “the cave of hell,” for example, because people want to stay there forever and feel let down when the bliss fades. All passing mental states, including bliss, are dukkha.
At the same time, mystics of many religious traditions have described the not-at-all blissful “dark night of the soul” experience and recognized it was a necessary phase of their particular spiritual journey, not something to be avoided.
But sometimes painful meditation experiences are harmful. A lot of damage can be done when people are pushed into deep states of meditative absorption before they are ready for example. In a proper monastic setting students get one-on-one time with a teacher who knows them and their particular spiritual challenges personally. Meditation practices may be prescribed for the student, like medicine, that are appropriate for his or her stage of development.
Unfortunately, in a lot of western retreat experiences everyone gets the same instruction with little or no individual guidance. And if everyone is being pushed into having some satori-palooza, ready or not, this is dangerous. Whatever is clanking about in your id needs to be properly processed, and this can take time.
Visions, Pits of Emptiness and Dukkha Nanas
It’s also common for meditation to cause hallucinations of all sorts, especially during retreats. In Japanese Zen hallucinations are called makyo, or “devil’s cave” — even if the hallucinations are pretty — and students are forewarned to not attach importance to them. A student plagued by visions and other sensory misfirings may be making an effort but not focusing correctly.
The “pit of emptiness” is something Zen students fall into occasionally. This is hard to explain, but it is usually described as a one-sided experience of sunyata in which there is just nothing, and the student remains stuck there. Such an experience is considered to be a serious spiritual sickness that must be worked through with great care. This is not something likely to happen to a casual mediator or a beginner student.
A nana is a mental phenomenon. It is also used to mean something like “insight knowledge.” The early Pali scriptures describe many “nanas” or insights, pleasant and unpleasant, one passes through on the way to enlightenment. The several “dukkha nanas” are insights into misery, but we can’t stop being miserable until we thoroughly understand misery. Passing through a dukkha nana stage is a kind of dark night of the soul.
Particularly if you are recovering from a recent severe trauma or a deep clinical depression, for example, meditation may feel too raw and intense, like rubbing sandpaper on a wound. If that’s the case, stop, and take it up again when you’re feeling better. Don’t push it just because someone else says it’s good for you.
I hope this discussion does not deter you from meditating but rather helps you make more sensible meditation choices. I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between mindfulness therapy and mindfulness or other meditations as spiritual practice. I don’t recommend intensive retreats unless you are prepared to commit to a spiritual practice, for example. Be clear which one you are doing. And if you are working with a teacher or therapist, which is highly recommended, make sure that person is clear which one you are doing also.
“Sitting fixedly, think of not thinking. How do you think of not thinking? Nonthinking. This is the art of zazen.”
– Dōgen Zenji
“Let your intuition dissolve your reason. Stop thinking entirely. Do not think about not thinking. Do not think about nonthinking. Become aware of your present surroundings. Listen to the life in your heartbeat. Let go and allow the moment to consume you.”