I often tell people that the contemplative arts are like martial arts for your mind.
Through discipline and practice, you learn to move the contours of your awareness with such grace and fluidity that otherwise ordinary motions become something extraordinary—they become an art.
This analogy is a good way to understand meditation and the Motions of Consciousness.
Just think of the contemplative traditions like individual martial arts…
- Every tradition has its own unique style, which is made up of a series of teachings and techniques.
- Every technique is learned through an exercise—a meditation—and is made up of a series of precise motions.
- These basic, anatomical movements—the Motions of Consciousness—are the fundamental building blocks from which all techniques are composed.
The martial arts analogy is also a good way to understand the annoying problems that people encounter when they adopt a spiritual practice.
Just think of the contemplative traditions like the rival schools in every martial arts movie ever made…
Every school claims to be better/tougher/more authentic than every other. They all have a direct lineage to some legendary, undefeated master. They’ve all got a resident badass who can beat up the “so-called” badasses from every other school.
And they all have some secret super-move, which “if done right, no can defend.”
Just like in the contemplative arts, these beliefs are dramatic and inspirational (in a comic-booky sort of way).
Unfortunately, they never seem to hold up in real life.
In the world of old-school martial arts, all of the Hollywood ideals that we see in the movies were assumed to be true.
Everyone knew that their art was the best, their lineage was the purest, their super-move the deadliest—and they could kick your ass to prove it!
But when organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship came along, and invited martial artists everywhere to step up and put their bravado to the test, things didn’t turn out like the old-school fighters expected…
Rather than discovering one art that could vanquish all the others, real life turned out to be a game of rock-paper-scissors.
Every art was effective in certain circumstances, but inapplicable or easily nullified in others.
And practitioners who had dedicated their entire lives to a single tradition were often crushed by their opponents because their techniques were one-dimensional.
So the competitive fighters adapted.
They branched out and augmented their arsenals with the techniques of all the great traditions.
As a result, the once-isolated arts evolved. The imaginary ideals got set aside. Students became less concerned with lineage and purity and legendary masters—and focused more on developing integrated practices that actually worked.
In modern mixed-martial-arts, there’s no real conflict between traditions.
Which isn’t to say that everyone gets along…
There are still rivalries. There are still competitive differences. There are specialized tribes and training camps.
But there are also creative collaborations. There are cross training opportunities, public displays of mutual respect, and unexpected innovations.
Nobody wastes time looking for the “best” art, because everyone is too busy exploring effective ways to combine them.
If only the world’s spiritual traditions were as open and sophisticated…
So, with this analogy in mind, let’s return to where we started.
How do you choose a path? How do you select a practice?
Some of it really does come down to personal style and preference. You want a practice that fits. One that caters to your strengths, and helps you go beyond your shortcomings.
But mostly you have to ask yourself, what is it that I am trying to do?
What experiences am I looking for?
A meditation is a technique—like a throw, or a punch, or a fancy spinning kick.
But there is no secret super-move that will solve all of your problems and defeat every opponent. (Sorry Mr. Miyagi…)
Different techniques are good for different situations.
So, just like the professional mixed-martial-artists, if you want a dynamic practice that will work in a variety of circumstances, then you need to develop a full repertoire of moves.
And that means choosing a practice based on a different set of standards…
The old-school ideal of finding the one true tradition is nothing but an inspirational fantasy.
In the real world, it’s better to train with several.
But whether you are evaluating the martial traditions—or the contemplative—you don’t choose one based on their values or beliefs.
You choose one for the moves that they can teach you.
Want to learn how to fight on the ground? Go study jiu-jitsu with the Brazilians. Need knees and elbows in a clinch? Take a trip to Thailand. Takedowns? Wrestling.
All of the above? Even better.
Likewise, if you want to learn how to Transcend and Abide, go study with the Buddhists. Up your game with Expand, Integrate and Dissociate? Do yourself a favor and visit The Monroe Institute. Ground and Immerse? Find a good therapist. (What? You didn’t think that trained awareness was an exclusively spiritual discipline did you?)
Every tradition is good at some things, and not so good at others.
So it pays to study with the traditions that are the best at what they do—and to train with individuals who have mastered the techniques you want to learn.
Which brings us back to the subject of gurus…
It’s helpful to think of gurus as experts in a particular style: the resident badasses of the individual arts.
Of course, many “gurus” are just old-school idealists—nothing but untested bravado and belief.
They got a certificate, or a blessing, or spent 10 years living in an ashram… as if any of that had anything to do with anything! (Either you’ve got the moves, or you don’t.)
But others are genuinely talented, and have important techniques that they can teach you.
So even if you can’t stand gurus… Even if they have an attitude you don’t like, or values you don’t appreciate…
Sometimes it’s worth your time and respect (and even your hard-earned money) to learn the skills a guru has to offer.
You just have to know what you’re there for…
Are you there for the worldview? Are you there for the values? Are you there for the practice?
That’s the secret about tradition: sometimes tradition doesn’t matter.
There are a million ways to meditate.
But meditation isn’t about tradition.
It’s all about the motion.
That’s why it’s so hard for beginners to choose an effective personal practice.
They’re missing the most important piece of information!
Learning to meditate is terribly confusing when you don’t know which motions the meditations produce—or which motions will facilitate your goals.
How do you know if you’re even doing it right?
How do you know if you’re not?
It gets even more confusing when you consider that some meditations don’t do anything at all!
Sometimes they’re just outdated collections of ritual and superstition. Practice them forever if you like—you’ll never move—and you’ll never get any closer to your intended destination.
This is why choosing a practice that “feels right” doesn’t work.
Instead of training the motions you need, you get stuck repeating the same technique over and over—regardless of whether it’s appropriate to the circumstances at hand.
Next opponent? Crane kick! Stressed at work? Crane kick!! Feeling lonely? Crane kick!!!
You wind up comically lopsided. And meditation becomes tedious and frustrating because you’re chosen “super-move” never seems to pan out the way you’d hoped.
But meditation isn’t inherently tedious.
It gets tedious when you are practicing the wrong motions.
Or when you don’t have all of the necessary ingredients to create the experience you really want.
It’s sad, but people spend years grinding away at partial recipes—diligently repeating one or two motions while waiting to stumble onto the rest—all while being encouraged to “just stick with it.”
What a waste…
There’s an old saying that enlightenment is an accident, and meditation makes you accident prone.
Enlightenment isn’t an accident.
But it sure feels that way when you’re only given two of the five ingredients!
In the end, it doesn’t matter which motions you are practicing. If you aren’t using all of them, your practice will always feel incomplete.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve identified with the transcendental Witness, or attained pure formlessness, or realized nondual unity, or hit any other classical milestone.
It will always feel like something is missing. Because until you develop your full range of motion, something is actually missing.
We aren’t meant to live in stasis. We’re meant to run and jump and laugh and cry and fight and fuck, and love until we burst.
And if sometimes we stop, and sit, and be mindful and serene, and feel nourished by the beauty and grace of that moment—it doesn’t mean that we’re meant to sit there forever!
That’s not who we are.
And that’s why attain and retain will never work… because even when we win, we lose.
A truly fulfilling practice is never about attainment.
It’s about freedom.
Freedom to mix and match traditions. Freedom to make our own decisions—to choose our destinations—and to move freely as the spirit moves us.
Eventually we can even free ourselves from the formal meditations that guide our fledgling steps. Free to wander—to create our own art—far from the familiar confines of the spiritual traditions.
There are an infinite number of experiences out there awaiting us; an infinite number of possibilities.
And some of them don’t have anything to do with being spiritual.
That’s where the mainstream got it right.
You can use meditation to relieve stress, be productive, stay focused, be creative, work through shadow issues, and a billion other things.
This isn’t just a spiritual practice.
It’s a life practice.
And real life will never fit within the borders of any one tradition. It will never fit inside of a prepackaged box.
There’s always another insight.
There’s always another perspective.
There are always new horizons to explore.
All we have to do is step across the threshold, and into the unknown…
Like all art, the modern martial disciplines didn’t emerge through the devoted recreations of the past.
They arose when free-thinking artists set aside their cherished assumptions. When they cut loose all the dogma and outdated beliefs that kept their traditions isolated, and bound to the insights of prior generations.
So what happens when we break the bonds that still subdue the contemplative traditions?
When we free their worldviews, from their values, from their practices—and throw in the knowledge and tools we need to change them?
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About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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