Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Art of Meditation and Integral Spiritual Practice (and a little something to do with MMA)

     This morning, I got out of bed and practiced what would commonly be called "insight meditation."  I followed my breath for about ten minutes.  For another ten minutes I "witnessed" whatever came into my mode of awareness—be it the birds chirping outside my window, the thoughts that came fleetingly into my mind, the sensation of my hands upon my knees, or the t.v. that could be faintly heard downstairs—without getting caught up in these things.
     Tonight during my evening meditation session, I will practice "just sitting," or "shikantaza" as it is called in Zen meditation.  When I practice this, I will just be.  No breath to follow, no Witness with which to observe the world.  Just being.  And then—at some point—not even that.  Only pure Nondual Awareness—if it has to be described as anything.
     But here's the thing:  I practice insight meditation, but I am not a Theravada buddhist.  I practice "just sitting" but I am not a Zen buddhist, either.  In fact, I love Buddhism, but I am not really what one would call a Buddhist.
     I am an integralist, if I have to be called or labeled something.  Okay, so maybe an Integral Zen Christian.  Or maybe an Integral Buddhist/Vedanta/Christian.  Or maybe even an Integral devotional nondualist.  But those are just words pointing toward what I am (and hopefully leading me toward what I Am)—but the words, as we know, are not the real thing.
     And so, I am an Integralist.
     I take what works in meditation—what really works in leading me toward One Taste, toward Nondual Awareness; what really points me toward my True Nature, my original face before the Big Bang—and I discard the rest.  And that's integral, for me.
     Perhaps some "traditionalists" are calling foul, at this point.  A lot of followers of traditional Christianity, Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and Sufism (among others) would tell you that you can't just "mix n' match" different contemplative practices and hope for some great be-all, end-all result.  And you know what?  A lot of those traditionalists are correct.
     But we're not talking about just "mixing n' matching" here.  We're talking about taking the good stuff from the traditions and only using that which makes a real difference on the cushion (or in the chair, or driving down the road; meditation, you know, doesn't just have to be done in your own personal shrine at the house).

     I'm going to sidestep now and talk about a current phenomena that has a lot of carryover, I think, to Integral Spiritual Practice.  (And I'm not going to really get into integral philosophy.  I am a mystic at heart—no getting around it—and so I am always going to take the mystical angle when it comes to all things integral.  I will leave the integral philosophizing to the philosophers.)  You might not think that this phenomena has much to do with Integral Spiritual Practice, but I think it does.  (At least, in a roundabout sort of way.)
     The phenomena I'm talking about is mixed martial arts—or MMA for short.  If you haven't been into traditional martial arts for many years, as I have been, then you probably don't understand just how much of an impact MMA has had on the martial arts community.  Before MMA came along, no one (literally) had any clue which martial art was the best.  There was always a lot of debate over whether karate-do was better than tae kwon do, or jiu-jitsu better than judo.  But that is just what it was—debate.  A lot of traditional karate-do practitioners back then, for instance, really thought that they had the best martial art.  Many were positive that they could step into an alley or a ring with any other martial artist and come away victorious.  Sorry, but they can no longer think that.  No way.  No how.  MMA practitioners will—to be quite blunt—whip everyone else's ass.
     MMA has made it possible for guys (and gals) to become devastatingly powerful, fast, and knowledgeable in all aspects of the fighting game.  And it does this in a very short period of time.  Train in MMA for a year, and you will be a way better fighter than a 10 year veteran of traditional tae kwon do.
     MMA made this possible because of the kind of martial arts they train in.  MMA practitioners don't just mix n' match whatever they see fit from the traditional martial arts.  If they did this, then they would end up with a style no better—in fact, probably worse—than the traditional martial arts.  No, what they do is take the stuff that works, that really works in a combat situation.  (Are you beginning to see the correlation between this and Integral Spiritual Practice?)  They take the stand-up fighting of boxing and muay thai.  They take the ground fighting of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling.  And they become bona fide bad-asses.
     They don't waste their time with the practices from traditional martial arts that don't work—the hours of "traditional basics" in traditional stances or the training of katas and forms.  They know that stuff will not help them in the ring or in the cage.
     By that same token, as integral practitioners we can take meditation practices—and other contemplative practices—from the various wisdom traditions that really work, and we can discard the rest.  We can rest in formless awareness using "just sitting."  We can cultivate compassion by using the tonglen practices of Tibetan Buddhism.  We can discover our True Nature, our unborn, undying Self by practicing self-inquiry from the advaita tradition.  Or we can rest in the Divine Presence that gives birth to all these things and to which all these things return by practicing centering prayer from the Christian tradition.  And we can do all these things in a serious manner, by discarding such things as new-age narcissism or belief in a mythical sky god.
     Here's something about modern day MMA, however, and here's something that the integralists need to learn: MMA has a couple of issues.  The first is that they have thrown away the "spiritual" side of the martial arts.  And, to quote a zen swordsman, "martial arts without philosophy and spirituality is nothing more than brutality."
     In Integral Spirituality, we don't need to throw out the more "spiritual" aspects of the traditions, such as ritual and devotion toward God.  These serve their purpose very well.  (I'm talking, here, about meditation practice, where we need some ritual and some devotion when we sit down to meditate, but this applies to other aspects of Integral, as well.)
     The second issue with MMA is that many of the fighters have no background in "traditional" martial arts.  (This might seem to go against what I've been saying, but let me explain.)  When you come across a fighter in MMA who does have a long training history in a traditional martial art—such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu or muay thai—watch out!  These guys are the best of the best.
     To be truly integral, we need to do the same thing.  We need to take the practices that work, really work, and stick with them.  But we also need a firm footing in one of the traditional wisdom traditions—be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, you name it.  And, of course, there's nothing wrong with having a firm footing in more than one of the wisdom traditions.  Just don't mix n' match as you please.

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