Meditating As A Ghost

“Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing? You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?” – Pema Chödrön

Almost twenty years ago, I had an unusual experience while falling asleep on a couch in Naropa University’s student lounge that has forever changed my meditation practice—even though, at the time, it had nothing at all to do with it.

I very rarely, if ever, take naps; nor do I fall asleep easily. However, for some reason, on this warm summer day in the middle of the university’s rush and bustle, I allowed myself to briefly slip into sleep—sort of. In this weird awake/non-awake place, I had the odd notion that I was an old woman who had died recently and now, as a ghost, was revisiting a time in my life when I felt unusually peaceful, youthful, and content.

In that moment, all of my senses felt extraordinarily, well . . . alive. The colors of the room and everyone’s clothing had suddenly taken on an almost florescent quality; the scribbling of pens and pencils on paper sounded as if students were writing directly onto my eardrums; the sun filtering in through the blinds felt like bright warm fingers, massaging my skin; and I could almost taste the cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom of the chia tea brewed daily by the student café.

Ever since, that strange experience has been indelibly stamped onto my meditation practice. What if, I thought, I had died? And what if, having been dead for a while, I had been given a precious forty-five minutes to return to my life to just sit, listen, and breathe? Would I be thinking about what I needed to accomplish that day, week, or year? Would  I be contemplating all of my relational difficulties, or wondering what I was going to eat or do after the sit?

Absolutely not. Simply experiencing my body (in whatever condition), and my glorious breath!, would be exquisite, indescribable ecstasy. I would be thrilled to be listening to the sounds all around me, even if some of them were loud and shrill. And what about my thoughts? As a ghost I could encounter them with delight, too: “Oh, it must be spring 2011, when I was worried about . . . !”

Perhaps because of my background (I’ve moved 40 different times), this technique seems to serve me well: with my eyes closed, I like to pretend that I need to figure out how old I am by sensing my body, and where I’m living now by listening to what’s around me. I don’t cling to this fantasy for long, but it does help me in the beginning—and throughout when I become lost in thought—to pay a microscopic attention to my practice.

This was especially interesting a few years ago when I lived in two different places: a small apartment in Brooklyn, NY, and a tiny farmhouse in the middle of a cattle farm in Virginia (where I live now).

In Brooklyn, I was almost constantly bombarded by the noise of my neighbors (thumping footsteps, slamming doors, blaring TVs and fights and music) and the never-ending street noise (car alarms, sirens, buses, and horns). Yet, instead of fighting this incessant racket, I embraced it by recalling my invaluable forty-five minutes of life beyond death. “Wow!,” my thought process went, “my grouchy neighbor is stomping across the ceiling! Yay! I must be in Park Slope! And, wow, listen! There’s a siren screeching down 7th Avenue! Yipee! And man, is it boiling in here! There’s the old radiator, rattling away! Perfect!”

Now, in Virginia, it’s even more enjoyable, since I’ve lived in this same house twice, in two different decades (long story.) To discern where I am, and what year or decade I’m in, I concentrate closely on every little thing: when I hear the swish and click of the cat door, I remember that we didn’t own one of those when we lived here with our old cats, so it must be our second time in this house, not our first. Or, when I hear the sound-canceling machine in the bedroom, where my husband is usually reading, I remember that we bought that in Brooklyn, so again, it must be our second time here.

And what season is it? I wonder. What is the temperature like? Is the fireplace crackling? Are the windows open? Can I smell grass and hay, or leaves, or firewood? Can I hear birds, crickets, or night frogs?

I also meticulously investigate every aspect of my body—sensing all the extra aches, pinches, and sags—and guess that I’m older now, too, but perhaps not as old as I might be if I were in my 80s or 90s. I also like to suss out the state of my mind by investigating my body: am I agitated, stressed, content? What clues are hidden there?

Whenever I use this technique, the simple act of breathing feels implausibly luxurious, each sip of air a blessing, a miracle, an incredibly rare treat. Each breeze, sound, smell, or even ache feels like bliss, too, merely because I’m alive and experiencing it. In the Majjhima Nikaya (the Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha), the Buddha explains the extraordinary preciousness of human birth. It is as rare, he said, as a blind turtle who rises from the depths of the ocean once in a hundred years, only to put its head through a wooden cattle-yoke floating on the waves.

Sometimes, when I’m practicing this way, I’m reminded of one my favorite movies, It’s A Wonderful Life, and of all the “Yay!” moments Jimmy Stewart has after he’s given another chance at life. He cries “yay!” when he sees his car crashed into a tree; shouts “Merry Christmas!” to the people attempting to jail him, and stops to kiss a broken stairway knob that had previously represented for him his poverty and intractable “stuck-ness.”

And don’t we all feel like that, most of the time: that something is amiss, or missing, in our lives, or that we could or should be doing better?

What if, right now, everything was absolutely perfect, just as it is? What if you were already astonishingly rich, simply because you exist in this world? And what if you could take this same attitude away from your meditation cushion and into your daily life, examining and treating each minute, each and every precious second for what it actually is: a rare, fleeting, never-again-retrievable moment of your life.


  1. So beautiful, Shell. Really makes you take in the moment with all your senses. Thank you for this morning's gift.
    By the way, there's a book called, For One More Day, by Mitch Albom, where he explores the idea of coming back after death for 'one more day'. Very insightful book; as is your writing.

  2. Thank you, Harriet. And thank you, too, for the excellent book recommendation. What a great concept: to be given not just forty-five minutes, but an entire DAY! of extra life. It truly makes you appreciate each moment.

  3. Inspiring, Shell. I think I'll go savor every minute of this beautiful, sunny Sunday...

  4. Shell,

    I just found your blog and I'm reading through it. This is a wonderful post. I can tell that the exercise really brings you into the present moment fully, with a ton of gratitude and careful attention. I think it's great.

    I've been poking around the web for the last few months looking for meditation blogs. I've started my own after a particularly great retreat, where I felt I simply needed to start sharing my experience. I believe there are many others who are also finding some deep peace and connection through meditation in this time and it's wonderful that we have a way to share our stories and connect.

    Great Peace!