Saturday, February 09, 2008
A Perscription For Joy
“Keep Death before your eyes.” It's a common enough spiritual injunction. But the point of meditating on death is not to feel solemn or gloomy. It is a prescription for joy.
Like many spiritual practices that seem dour – to those who haven’t tried them – this is but one more, deceptively simple and very effective means of achieving what we seek: happiness, freedom, peace, and love of our neighbors. And we don’t have to become saints, first, either. Even my kind of never-remotely-perfect practice can bring us ordinary folks increased happiness, etc. - right now, in this life, as who we already are.
Recently a couple of psychologists have thrown their experimental weight behind this effect.
In Psychological Science (18: 984-990), Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumeister published the results of experiments to explore “coping strategies” when faced with mortality. Their paper is called, From Terror to Joy: Automatic Tuning to Positive Affective Information Following Mortality Salience. (oh, my!) For a lay explanation see ScienceDaily.
Volunteers meditated on dying and being dead. (Of course, if you happen to remember dying, as I do, you may think of the release of death as a bursting fountain of joyful light.)
A control group meditated on excruciating dental work. (Ack! Who wouldn’t find death happier?)
Anyway, both sets of volunteers then took word tests designed to tap into their emotions. One example was completing the word “jo_”. Those who got to meditate on death were significantly more likely to pick a happy word like “joy,” while the controls picked a neutral word like, “job.” There were also word associations like choosing to pair “puppy” with either “beetle” or “parade.” The death folks more often choose happier associations, like “parade.”
So. Volunteers preoccupied with death weren't gloomy. They weren’t even neutral. Instead they showed joyful, emotional associations (at least compared to folks meditating on icky pain).
The psychologists suggest this means the brain involuntarily activates pleasurable memories in order to cope with trauma or threats. (The findings also explain why “a delay is often necessary to produce effects in line with terror management theory” – hmmmm.)
Being empiricists, of course the psychologists describe this brain response as coping with a bad, not as a creative, spiritual good. And maybe they are right. Perhaps this evolved as a coping strategy. But we can still opportunistically take advantage and use it as a tool for positive, spiritual development.
(This is common in evolution. The new can only be got by remaking the already-in-existence. So things that evolved for one use are often developed for another… Like the standing-upright work our spines are adapted to do - 'though they are a very poor design for it. Trouble is, we and our spines evolved from fish (and before that, a segmented worm-critter). Our spines remake a backbone first evolved for flexible swimming - the body buoyed up in water and everything hanging down. No wonder I hurt after fifty-odd years of gravity grinding one bone another. Ouch!)
Anyway, there you have it: “keep death before your eyes” and experience joy.
...'Though I must admit the practice of letting go, as in death, releasing the grasp of possessions - of body, mind and personality... that ain't always pretty.