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