How to Meditate Like a Corpse

A few weeks back, my son and I joined a protest at Hartford’s State Capitol against the building of a new 650 megawatt gas-fired power plant in Killingly, CT. If built, it would conflict directly with Connecticut’s goal of carbon neutral electricity by 2040, and make it that much harder for the US, and the world, to stop climate change, which, obviously, is not a good thing.

Climate activists ‘dying’ in front of the Connecticut State Capitol (photo by Kassi Jackson)

Part of the protest was a “die-in.” That was a first for me, and for my son, who joined me. But it wasn’t the first time we pretended to be dead. In October, as part of our weekly forest meditations, a group of us climbed to the top of Indian Hill Cemetery (an area that was part of the Wangunk’s ancestral territory and one of the last plots of land the Native American nation held) and we laid down and did a corpse meditation.

This meditation is really quite simple: you pretend you’re dead. That your body is a corpse, rotting and returning to the Earth. If that sounds strange, it shouldn’t. It happens to all of us—whether we embrace death or cringe from it—and anyone who has done yoga already has at least a bit of experience with this practice.

The final resting pose in yoga is called shavasana (or literally “corpse pose”). This could have been called sleep pose, resting pose, prone pose, or enlightenment pose, but instead it is called corpse pose. Why? Perhaps as a not-so-subtle reminder that at the end of every lifelong yoga journey the same reward is given. We die, and we re-enter the cycle of life (Hindus would mean through the karmic cycle; Gaians, in the literal sense that we return to the Earth and become building blocks for new life).

Meditating in front of human remains is one way to meditate on death, as these Buddhist monks demonstrate, the other is to become a corpse yourself (photo credit: dhammawheel.com, found here).

There is a surprising amount written on corpse meditations of different forms. Some Buddhist monks meditate in front of a dead body or carry a picture of a corpse with them and meditate on death using that photo, which according to this Washington Times article from early 2005, helped monks “deal with nightmarish tasks” of helping properly bury the hundreds of dead and decaying bodies in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

What’s interesting is that the Buddha specifically discussed death visualization. Here are his words in simplified English (from what-the-buddha-said.net):

“If a monk sees a corpse 1, 2, 3 days dead; swollen, blue and festering, thrown into cemetery, he then uses this experience regarding his own body: Verily, exactly so is also my own body. It is of the same nature!

Just so will this body become disgusting & it can never escape this fate! If a monk sees a body thrown into the cemetery, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by a variety of worms and maggots…

Two Buddhist monks observing two corpses decaying and being eaten by animals (photo of mural from TimsThailand.com)

If a monk sees a corpse reduced to a skeleton with some flesh and blood still attached to it, and held together by the sinews…

If a monk sees a cadaver; a blood-besmeared skeleton, but without any flesh, held together by the tendons as a chain of bones…

If a monk sees a carcass; just a skeleton without any flesh or blood, yet still held together by the tendons…

If a monk sees a skeleton of separated bones, scattered in a mess, here a hand bone, there a foot bone, the pelvis, spine & the skull…

If a monk sees a skeleton simply as bleached white shell-like bones…

If a monk sees bare bones thrown into the cemetery lying heaped up…

If a monk sees a stack of bones now gone rotten & turning into dust, he then applies this experience to his own body: Verily, exactly so is also my own body! It is of the very same nature. So fragile & feeble is it, it will inevitably turn into dust and it cannot ever escape this fate…

Then he lives fearless, detached, and clings to nothing in this world!”*

Non-attachment was the lesson here, which is an important one. But there is another lesson here as well: that we are all attached. Not to our mortal selves, but to Gaia. We are all part of a lifecycle that extends billions of years into the past and billions of years into the future. We should not fear death. Yes, it is the end of conscious life, which admittedly sucks, but understand that it is a natural part of life. Through this we return to Gaia and to the full cycle of life. And death is but an eyeblink long. As soon as we die, new life starts to form. The fearful part is that our consciousness is lost. But we—as differentiated, conscious humans—were never permanent, just part of the dance of life. And even in the worst case of ecological collapse, which many now fear more than their own death, life will persevere. Yes, possibly in simplified form for some millions of years, but life will continue and create something wondrous again one day.**

Playing Dead

So how does one be a corpse? This is a visualization meditation. The idea is to imagine your body, as you lie down in connection with the Earth, as a corpse—not dead, certainly not dead. In fact, it’s the birth of new life. Imagine yourself rotting: the bacteria and fungi colonizing your body, bloating and discoloring it. Consuming your flesh and organs and slowly turning you into soil, leaving just your bones behind. Trillions of cells will grow from your remains. And they will nourish the earth and be the source of even more new life. Then follow the maggots that turn into flies, who then nourish frogs and lizards, who nourish snakes and raccoons. Follow the worms, who feed the robins, who fill the hawks, who in turn eventually nourish the scavengers, fungi, and worms once again. (We all become foods for worms after all, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet mused.) Now follow the mice who nibble on your skeleton, drawing the calcium that once held you upright, into their own bones. Trace the vast network of life that extends from your corpse and understand that you are once again part of Gaia.

Playing Deader

Once when doing a group meditation around 15 years ago, the leader, while we were meditating, dropped his gong on the ground. Not by accident but as a way to make it clear that circumstances will jar us out of our meditative mind, and that part of one’s practice is about being able to return (easily) to the mindfulness one finds in meditation.

So here are two forms of a discordant corpse meditation to try once you feel comfortable with (and comfort from) the more nurturing one.

First, visualize yourself as a corpse, but this time embalmed. Filled with colorants, toxic embalming fluids, made up to appear alive—at least for the first 48 hours or so. Perhaps sealed in a nearly airtight casket. Now imagine the great effort life takes to draw you back into the cycle. The anaerobic bacteria trying to digest you, the slow entry of the casket (and plastic outer vault) of water and air and life. The poisoned critters as they try to consume you and instead eat formaldehyde. It feels like a much uglier experience—like staring at a bloated corpse photo.***

Security from what? From decaying, and returning to the life cycle? We are so confused when it comes to death. (From an ad for Doric Vaults).

Another time, imagine instead your body cremated—being burned into ash and gases. Follow the carbon dioxide and other pollutants—from your body and from the fossil fuels used to burn you—being cast into the air: soot landing on glaciers and helping to melt them; particles entering others’ lungs and damaging them; CO2 entering the oceans and acidifying them. Yes, the CO2 is also being drawn into plant life, helping them to grow—so you can visualize that too—but is that what they need right now, when CO2 levels are higher than they’ve been in the past three million years?

One reason I encourage you to imagine these discordant paths for your corpse is to prompt you to ask yourself: do I have a green burial plan for myself and my loved ones? Is it in my will if so? When death comes, it is not easy to make alternative funeral arrangements—there is an entire industry designed to prey on your vulnerability. But if we visualize “a good death” now and the not-so-good death we want to avoid, perhaps that will increase the likelihood of the good death (and our motivation to achieve one), along with helping us better understand our everlasting connection to Gaia and the cycle of life.

Finally, I’ll end with this wonderful quotation by John Muir, which reminds me, again, that death should not be hidden, should not be avoided—and that even children should engage with death—whether through a corpse meditation, a die-in, or simply in seeing it around them in nature and as loved ones pass. As Muir notes:

“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death…. Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”

*For a more thorough treatment, see stanza [6] in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.

**Perhaps in the form of intelligent giant insects, who keep the last bands of humans in check so they don’t destroy the planet again (and yes, I just watched Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind with my son—such an amazing film—and Gaian to its core).

***And that’s not even considering all the life lost in creating the fancy coffin, embalming chemicals, outer vault, and grave stone.

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