Dancing with the Dead: Two Techniques for Spiritual Rejuvenation

Dancing with the Dead: Two Techniques for Spiritual Rejuvenation August 17, 2018

After spending nearly an hour with the dead, I felt very much alive.

 

Graveyards and classical music are for me both gateways to intense regions of emotion.

And around each of them I’ve created techniques that I consider a core part of my spiritual practice.

When I engage with them correctly, I come away from my praxis with my human energies renewed. My willpower is fortified, my natural charisma returns, my confidence and resilience are rejuvenated.

And when I combine them together, they amplify one another.

Why Does Spiritual Practice Matter?

There are great emotional and psychological benefits to these practices. They can take the form of meditation, a special kinds of physical exertion like yoga or martial arts, artistic expression, or engagement with nature. Spiritual practice ought to revive our emotional cores.

But looking at the bigger picture: spiritual practice fills a crucial need that nonreligious community does not provide for but which religions do: the natural human need for spiritual experience. (For a definition of what exactly I mean by that, please take a look at my definition of spirituality. It may not be as strange as you think.)

If nonreligious worldview ever hopes to effectively compete with religion, nonbelievers must develop something that provides for all the needs that religion does. Ignoring the spiritual component of the human mind ignores a major benefit of religions, and a major reason why people continue to cling to them.

The Benefits of Graveyards

One of my spiritual techniques utilizes the charming qualities of graveyards.

Where I live, the cemeteries are quiet, beautiful, and vast. You can wander for a long time among the sloping hills, mysterious mausoleums, pine corridors, stairways, and chapels, without meeting another living soul.

When I pass into a cemetery alone, a calm settles over me. I watch the hawks hunt from the pines. The hares dash through among the stones and the bones of slower hares. The puffball mushrooms release their spores in coiling black wisps. The silence of hundreds of gravestones shush all my inner anxieties. Whatever attaches me to the trivialities of my daily existence—my work, my personal troubles, my deadlines—fall out of focus, and a clear line of sight opens up to the inevitable end of things. The final deadline comes into sight, and the panorama of my entire life unrolls in both directions. And as I survey the whole picture, I usually find the most important moment in my entire life is the present one.

I’ve found that cemeteries are good for spiritual experience for a few reasons:

You are among the dead. A natural solemnity falls over humans when we are near to death.

  1. You are among the dead. A natural solemnity falls over humans when we are near to death.
  2. You are among the living. Graveyards are full of natural life: grass, flowers, trees, birds, sometimes even fountains. Nature quite naturally spurs spirituality. And perhaps most importantly:
  3. You are alone. We are constantly performing for other people. Our thoughts, emotions, and even bodies are beholden to social norms and expectations. When we know (or even suspect) others are watching us, we stand, walk, talk, and even think differently. We unconsciously act in such a way as to avoid seeming bizarre. If you’re in public place right now, just try and burst into song, hold a conversation with the moon, or pretend to be a chimpanzee. It’s incredibly difficult in public. (Our internal censorship is so deeply ingrained it may be difficult to override even when you’re alone.) But spiritual experience is—by its nature—something strange. Being alone frees us from the inhibitions imposed by the eternal social pageant and can make spiritual experience much easier to access.

That said, any place where you can be alone, that fills you with solemnity or a sense of the “sacred,” and are near awe-inspiring natural (or urban) beauty, would be a similarly good location.

Sacred Music(s)

A second technique I frequently use involves classical music.

There is music I listen to for fun, to dance, to relax, or to work. But I also have special playlists of music that I reserve for my spiritual practice. Every time I play these works, my mind and body go quiet. My nervous system stands at attention. My heart slows. And then, as the music does its work, it begins to beat quickly.

It takes me a long time to find music that works like this on me, but once I do, I guard and cherish it. I return to it again and again, using it to quickly ascend into a state of awe. The world around me doesn’t change, but because of how it changes me, I might as well be walking under the light of some alien star.

Just as the location doesn’t have to be a graveyard, the music doesn’t have to be classical. But there are two main things classical music provides that are particularly useful for this technique:

  1. It is wordless. Wordlessness allows you to fill the music with your own meaning. You aren’t beholden to the lyrics which often force a narrow band of meaning onto the music. Exceptions would be intensely beautiful music with lyrics you can’t understand, either because they’re in another language or because they are intentionally difficult to understand (“The Host of Seraphim” by Dead Can Dance) or evocative but largely nonsensical (“Holocene” by Bon Iver).
  2. It strives for sacredness. You can find the full range of human emotions in classical music, but the sense of sacredness is particularly prominent. That’s no surprise considering the Western classical music tradition coevolved with Christian devotional music (“Canon in D” by Pachelbel, Handel’s “Messiah,” Bach’s work, and any virtually any composer’s Requiem). Many composers strive to represent the epic, the beautiful, and the religious in their work, and we can see the influence of sacred music even in the works that are not explicitly religious.

Some particularly powerful composers for me are: Arvo Pärt, Igor Stravinsky, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsokov, Max Richter, Philip Glass, Jonny Greenwood, Mussorgsky, Ravel, and others.

That said, there is nothing exclusive about classical music. I’ve found the same or similar levels of sacredness in music by Radiohead, Bon Iver, Sigur Rós, electronica, in film scores, Celtic music, Slavic women’s folk music, Mongolian throat singing, and elsewhere in the musical landscape.

Dancing in the Graveyard

Either of these methods on their own are powerful practices. But the two combined amplify one another.

Earlier this week, I went into my favorite cemetery after dark. A heavy mist was consolidating into a light drizzle. The piece of music I put on was “November” by Max Richter.

The sorrow and the triumph of this piece constantly catches me off guard.

I hear a new world dawning from an egg. It’s like rain returning the surface of Mars. It’s the Adamic surprise of life. But it’s also like a baby falling into a river. It’s also like the music that will be playing when the stars begin falling from the sky.

You might listen to the piece and have no idea what I mean. Maybe this just isn’t the right music for you. But for me, this piece ends all argument about the worth of life, the color of man’s soul, and the existence of God, and leaves me beholden to it all. “Shut up,” it says, “and gape.”

That’s how it was in the cemetery.

After “November” came a fragile piano piece from “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” And then a round of Celtic songs. By then, I was lost in the music. And, because no one is watching, I danced in the rain, I clapped, I shouted, I ran, I jumped, I even flew a little—no one was there to say I couldn’t.

By then it was raining steadily, and as I closed my eyes I felt the shape of the rain above me: as it thickened and eased, contorted and writhed.

I became fully present as the Buddhists urge: the taste of simple pasta and garlic became a delicacy. I listened to the dripping shadows of the dripping trees. I stood at the nexus of  three streets, dripping wet and smiling, wondering why I spend so much of my life at a computer instead of there: standing in the street.

When I finally came home, I was rejuvenated. I felt fresh. I was ready for the week ahead of me. I was ready for the life ahead of me. I was happy. And the aftershocks lasted for many days. I feel them faintly even now.

I urge you to try either one of these techniques. Find a place alone, find your music, and let yourself go to the space and the sound. And if you do, tell me what you find.

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  • Damien Priestly

    Graveyards are boring except for history buffs like me — who look at names and dates. Alas, I’m sure some would disagree. But…

    …Hmmm — Spiritual and “sacred” will always be in the mind of the beholder, if they are concepts that exist at all. If a place is serene…adding graves and markers does not make it more so. In fact it may even creep some people out.

    -> “If nonreligious worldview ever hopes to effectively compete with religion…”

    Nonreligious people’s views should not try to compete with religion. I guess this blog is one of the reasons why Patheos changed the old “Atheist” section to “Nonreligious”…there was a “Spirituality” section…which may have become the “New Visions” or “Contemplative” and that is where this blog belongs IMHO.

  • Jim Jones

    “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquín Rodrigo.

  • Jennny

    I don’t get any of the feelings you express from graveyards, but in the UK, I walk through more than one as I’m a wild flower buff and the untended, natural state of them makes for primroses cowslips, bluebells etc in abundance that take my breath away. In my village, the cemetery also reminds me to be grateful. 2 centuries ago, life expectancy was 40yo, men coughed their lungs up working in mines in brutal condidtions, and so many child graves. As you walk through the decades, life expectancy extends. Very very few child graves now, and most are of 80-90+ year olds.

  • Jennny

    Definitely, John Williams/Julian Bream, I play it most weeks!

  • Not every blog is geared toward the village atheist. I haven’t seen any mention of gods or the supernatural here at Daniel’s channel. Even Sam Harris thinks spirituality should be seen as separate from religions and the New Age numbnuttery that has accrued around it in our culture.

    Does every blog have to be waging the God-is-God-ain’t battle?

  • I love modern composed and experimental music, and I’ve become a fan of Arvo Pärt too. His Passio is truly epic, and shows the staggering scale of what he can build out of limited material.

    I think the repetition and length of such musical pieces are something we’re not used to dealing with anymore. The patience and attention (hell, just the free time) necessary to appreciate such music and have it take us to new places just isn’t common in our society.

    I went to a concert a couple of years ago when the FLUX quartet came to play minimalist Morton Feldman’s six-hour-long Second String Quartet at MIT. I was concerned I’d be restless and sore sitting for so long, and that my mind might wander or the discomfort might make it hard for me to enjoy the work.

    But I was riveted. I was so engrossed in the music that I didn’t so much as stand up the entire time. After a while it became so hypnotic that I felt like I was floating above the quartet, listening to the tones rising from below. By the end I was feeling bad for the performers, who used every rest in their parts to massage their aching forearms. Nevertheless, I felt like we’d gone on a journey together and had shared something rare and inexplicable.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZqNHgvlXFE

  • I’ve never heard the FLUX quartet – But i’m going to listen to it soon.

    It reminds of Max Richter’s Sleep – an 8 hour piece divided into many small sections that flow into one another, designed to be played as you sleep to accompany you through your dreams

    A fraction of it below:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMzEClKWUxc

  • Thank you Shem. well put. Part of my hope is to have this page as an example of a different kind of atheism than the stereotype of itself which it’s become. I think there’s a good reason that of the US’s 22% of nonbelievers only 3% identify as atheist.

  • LeekSoup

    I have a couple of issues with statements made in this article.

    Firstly we get “spiritual practice fills a crucial need that nonreligious community does not provide for but which religions do: the natural human need for spiritual experience.”

    I’m not convinced “spiritual experience” is a meaningful term. It’s not an emotion. Other things can provide transcendent or mystical experiences very easily. Morphine gave me one, for example. But that’s the brain affected by chemicals; it’s not actually a real thing.

    Secondly theres this: “If nonreligious worldview ever hopes to effectively compete with religion, nonbelievers must develop something that provides for all the needs that religion does.”

    Some clarification there would help. At an extreme example, some people find religion provides them with the cover they need to abuse children. Lots seem to find their need to dominate and control other people is met by religion.

    Also I find that term “nonreligious worldview” to be inaccurate. It implies that being nonreligious is a faith position, when in fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Rather than being the chosen lens I’ve adopted to look at the world through, atheism is my result of viewing the world and seeing that the religion I was indoctrinated in does not work.

    Lower down the thread someone suggested you relocate this blog to New Visions. I think you might find a receptive audience there. Making unverifiable statements about “spirituality” that “everyone needs” is no different to making unverifiable statements about Jesus of Nazareth and how everyone “needs to invite Him into your heart”.

  • Anat

    Not sure why you think Harris’ endorsement means much. Back in the day when he was a popular ‘horseman’ his position on spirituality was controversial. Now that he published more stuff many atheists consider him toxic (or at best hopelessly naive) because of his moral positions.

  • Anat

    Where are those places where one can stroll through a cemetery whenever one wants to? I know cemeteries as places with locked gates, full of tombstones touching one another with hardly any room for visible lifeforms.

  • Damien Priestly

    Yes, I guess so…And no, I don’t think it should be constant battle between theist and non-theist.

    But just what the frick is a spirit — and/or spirituality?

  • I’m not convinced “spiritual experience” is a meaningful term. It’s not an emotion. Other things can provide transcendent or mystical experiences very easily. Morphine gave me one, for example. But that’s the brain affected by chemicals; it’s not actually a real thing.

    But what personal experience isn’t the brain being affected by chemicals? By your logic, since the brain can be affected in such a way as to simulate orgasm, orgasm isn’t actually a real thing either.

    I don’t know why such an experience isn’t “a real thing.” No one here’s claiming there’s anything supernatural about it. It’s part of the reality we all share. This idea that things like planets and glaciers are real, but human experiences aren’t, is something we need to acknowledge as a bias. If we need to deny religion the ability to dehumanize us, then we have to do the same with reductionist thinking.

    I find that term “nonreligious worldview” to be inaccurate. It implies that being nonreligious is a faith position, when in fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Rather than being the chosen lens I’ve adopted to look at the world through, atheism is my result of viewing the world and seeing that the religion I was indoctrinated in does not work.

    We’re not just data processing and arriving at a worldview, we’re interpreting our experience of the world in the way that makes sense to us. It’s not a conscious, deliberate process. But we should be able to justify the way we think about life, society, and knowledge. Otherwise we’re just engaging in bad faith.

  • I’m not speaking for LeekSoup – only for myself. My concern remains that largely it feels like so many times it’s Christians manufacturing needs in people, then offering a solution to those needs. Is this need for poorly-defined “spirituality” just one of those manufactured needs? The need that “makes sense to us” might just be one of those marketing tools. If we allow religious leaders to define a paradigm and create a problem, then obviously their product is what will solve that created problem.

    How often do we hear a testimony talking up this exact situation? “Wow, guys, I TRIED EVERYTHING…. but I couldn’t find peace or whatever till I attended that church revival and discovered JESUS!” Well, yes, of course. The people who discover that religion doesn’t fill that created need, and who live lives completely free of any trappings of religion and seem to be doing just fine, speaks to how poorly it works. Food fills our hunger needs–in fact, we know which foods fill it best: foods full of fats, proteins, and “good carbs” like whole grains and vegetables. But somehow we keep reaching for sugary and salty snacks full of empty calories and then wonder why we’re not satisfied and our health is suffering. Advertising and marketing for these foods is a billion-dollar industry, maybe trillion. And yet we know quite well that it doesn’t really fulfill our real need. What IS that real need? How does it manifest, and what really fills it?

    We need to be careful how we define “spiritual needs” and what paradigms we use in addressing whatever lies behind it–because obviously, nothing supernatural does. Supernatural just means “ain’t real.” Something real lies behind those needs. Hopefully we’ll see more about that end of things. Defining it as a term would go a long way toward maybe alleviating any confusion.

  • I see what you’re saying. I agree that consumer society creates needs in us. But it seems like when people report meaningful, anomalous experiences that can’t be put into words, we explain it away with neurobabble while religious folks explain it as something that reinforces their worldview and dogma. If we refuse to acknowledge and explore a category of natural, human experience, we can’t exactly complain when hucksters spread a thick layer of new age Nutella on it and claim it as a validation of their mystical-schmistical hogwash.

    Our corporate overlords would like nothing more than for us to think that the best to which we can aspire is to be docile employees and obedient consumers. Maybe one of the needs they’ve instilled in us is the fetish of a universe so vast that we’re exempt from the idea that we or our experiences could conceivably mean anything. We’ve forgotten that the scientific project was meant to explore a universe of possibility, and we’re satisfied with using it as a factoid-generator to bash fundies.

    Your food analogy is a good one, too. Somewhere in our distant past, our taste for sweet stuff drove us to find energy sources that kept us alive. Nowadays that evolutionary vestige does us more harm than good. You and I both agree that religious belief is the same sort of anachronistic human trait, something that doesn’t fulfill our needs anymore. Each to his or her own anachronisms, though. Delusions of certainty, control, and all-encompassing order aren’t constructive, whether we use religious jargon or science words to describe them.

  • i’d respond to LeekSoup about this if i thought we’d spark an interesting discussion, but is there a human alive that doesn’t root their faith in *something?*

    i believe we all have faith (at least until we totally disconnect from humanity – at which point we’re the walking dead and will probably do a murder suicide thing)

    so for me it’s not a question of who has faith, but where is their faith placed?

    the only way to eliminate faith would be for a person to completely decode their entire view of existence? no?

  • LeekSoup

    I didn’t read the author’s use of “worldview” that way. I read it in the disparaging tone often used by religious people claiming atheism is another faith position. For me it’s not. It’s a conclusion.

    There’s no definition here of what a “spiritual experience” or a “spiritual need” is, but apparently we all should try to have the one to fulfil the other. I don’t see a difference between that and a religious evangelist insisting there’s a god-shaped hole in my life. It’s a presumption to know what’s good for people which rankles with me because it has been a long hard slog for me your break the indoctrination and conditioning about god-shaped holes.

    There’s no harm in contemplating your mortality and resolving to live a good life. If the tranquillity of a graveyard helps you do that, then great. But presuming that you have an answer to a problem you have decided everyone else has, with no evidence for that, isn’t cool.

    And you can call it spiritual practice or whatever but drugs are quicker to achieve similar effects. And because you can create the same feelings and experience through narcotics does show there is no “spiritual reality” waiting to be uncovered.

  • LeekSoup

    Hi Honey. We’ve talked before.

    I’m not sure what you mean by faith, but I think it’s possible to live without unsubstantiated belief in anything and not end up a murder-suicide or zombie. I don’t have statistics to hand but the most well-known murder-suicide cases, from Masada to Jonestown, tend to illustrate the opposite regarding the role of ‘faith’ in tragedies like that.

  • i’m saying we’re all given to unsubstantiated beliefs.

    in fact they’re prerequisite to everything.

    Every theory of meaning out there – every notion of what’s “true” or what’s “real” relies at its core on grounding assumptions, which have to be accepted on faith.

  • LeekSoup

    I don’t agree with that. I think there are ways to determine reality as opposed to wishful thinking. Medicine takes away pain but prayers don’t, for example.

  • name one.

    as soon as you can, you will have found a perfect, unassailable truth that can never be challenged, disproved or overturned.

    in other words, you’ll have found religion.

  • Well, you ignored every single word I said, so I’m returning the favor.

  • a tool to help you break out of bondage and move beyond the veil.

    the veil being the limits of our perception.

    using it effectively means training yourself to another way of thinking.

    starting with the root of all possibility and dividing from there, rather than trying to be strictly constructivist. whittling instead of building.

  • Damien Priestly

    Really, so that is what a spirit is?

    Yeah, OK…but I’ll pass.

  • no that’s what spirituality helps you do.

    go ahead and give it a miss.

    plenty of people spend their entire lives chained in Plato’s cave, and don’t seem to mind.

    personally, i think it’s damp, cramped and smelly, but you do you.

  • LeekSoup

    No, the opposite.

    I gave an example. Medicine v prayer. Specifically chemotherapy has a measured success rate. It works on a lot of cancers. It’s effectiveness is affected by various known factors like time of diagnosis. In contrast, there are no known cases of prayer curing cancer. A lot of prayers are said for people with cancer, but usually those people still sign up for chemotherapy. No matter how “faithful” they are, they know the difference between what is real and what is not.

  • i see.

    so when doctors prescribed thalidomide to pregnant women and it made horrible birth defects, that was medicine being reflective of a perfect unassailable truth?

    or do you just like “prayer” because it sets the bar so low that anything looks good by comparison?

  • Hello Damien — take a look at my post on defining spirituality where I take a look at the subject from the perspective of cognitive science, anthropology, and not any specific theology: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anotherbreedoffaith/2018/08/defining-spirituality/

  • Cemeteries are different in structure across the world. I live in New England at the moment, and the cemeteries here are mostly very spacious and beautifully maintained. What part of the world do you live in?

  • I don’t disagree with you Leek — and if you read my post about what I mean by spiritual experience I think you’ll understand where I’m coming from a bit better. (I do in fact count morphine and other mind-altering substances as part of what constitutes spirituality)

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anotherbreedoffaith/2018/08/defining-spirituality/

  • I think I should make my definition of spirituality more prominent in future posts. I do link to the article above where I define what exactly I mean by spirituality and spiritual experience, but naturally people may not have the time to click to it. – In the future, I’ll have to make a point to either give a brief definition or add in parentheses to look at this article for a clarification of what I mean by the spiritual:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anotherbreedoffaith/2018/08/defining-spirituality/

  • Anat

    I grew up in Israel, and now live in the Seattle area.From what I can tell, cemeteries here are more spacious than in Israel, but the space is used for manicured gardening, and in any case they are behind locked gates.

  • LeekSoup

    No. Thalidomide poisoning is an observable fact.

    Here’s a question – if you don’t believe facts can be established beyond being taken on faith, how do you know that Thalidomide poisoning happened?

  • i never said it wasn’t – and you’re moving the goalposts.

    medicine doesn’t always have command of the facts, or that would have never happened in the first place.

  • Anat

    So what? You act based on what you know, because there is a need for action now. And you accept that your solution might not be the absolute best one, but is the best you can think of with current available knowledge within the time available to you. No faith needed. (I’m a pessimist by nature and by choice, I don’t expect things to go right just because I tried hard and did my best. In fact I expect things to go horribly wrong more often than not, in ways I couldn’t imagine.)

  • LeekSoup

    You asked about Thalidomide poisoning. Why are you obsessed with something being an unassailable truth? (Those were your portable goalposts)

    Thalidomide is a good case study of how as facts become known medicine changes. It’s not about unassailable eternal truths. I’m not sure what you’re looking for. It feels like you want to be all mystical and question whether we can really know anything (maaan) but then you bring up a good example of how discoverable knowledge changes.

  • > I don’t agree with that. I think there are ways to determine reality

    name one.

  • LeekSoup

    Turing tests on artificial intelligence

  • how exactly, does this determine reality?

  • LeekSoup

    Distinguishes between intelligences so you can spot the human ones.

    On a milder scale, Captcha software to prove you aren’t a bot.

  • okay, so if the turing test is a reflection of reality, why bother improving on it, as several have since Turing proposed it?

    are the criticisms of his contemporaries without merit?

    and if they aren’t, who is to say someone won’t come up with a better way to determine intelligence tomorrow?

  • and on a larger point, if the subject of spirituality is so distasteful to you, why are you even here?

  • LeekSoup

    Yeah, that’s a fair question.

  • I know I’m horribly late to this party, but I just stumbled upon this post. I read it, and also the post you linked where you define what you mean by spirituality.

    The thing is, I don’t think it’s a “need” at all. It’s a thing—it’s real as you’ve defined it — but it isn’t something I need or want.

    I never felt it in a church setting when I was a believer. I don’t recall ever feeling euphoric in my life. I’ve been moved by music into a state of deep emotion, and the older I get the more likely that seems to happen, but I find that discouraging, because it’s never joy. Try to listen to the New World Symphony without crying or nearly doing so. I can’t, and it ruins the music for me! Contentment is my favorite emotion. Having deep emotions welling up inside ruins everything. And as far as I can tell, having deep emotions well up (not happy or sad, just deep) is pretty much what a spiritual experience is.

    My 2¢