It took me years to stop thinking, but it happened in a moment.
Martial arts was about meditation when I was a kid. Meditation was a Mysterious Asian Power that only the elite could attain. Part of the promise of Kung Fu training, aside from being an ass-kicker, was being able to have those cool moments where you kneeled or sat in a neat posture, and thought magical thoughts…while some sort of magic aura glowed all around you, I guess.
Meditation was part of my training from the very first class. We learned the formal Seiza posture, (Yes, in my kung-fu class. It was a weird time.) and learned how to stand and fight from it. And we learned to breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Steady and slow. I practiced enough that I could breathe one cycle in three minutes, holding my breathe for a ten count at the end of the inhalation and again at the end of exhalation. Easily one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done.
Over the following years I learned a lot of other breathing methods. I learned about chakra points, and breathing spirals in and out of them, and many other little interesting things. The goal was always the same, no matter the breathing method…enlightenment. Not just any old enlightenment, but the big zen bang: Satori!
I got there, and it was, you know, cool. Life changing and whatever. I needed a new way to deal with things, a new kind of practice. I talked to some monks, but became aware that we saw the world through different lenses. I stopped meditating formally and started searching.
As part of my historical western martial arts training, I was looking into the mindset of a practitioner of martial arts of the time. Bob Charron used to teach some amazing workshops, and he would often stress the importance of understanding the medieval mindset. He talked about Aristotle, and mentioned a book by Frances Yates on the Art of Memory. I got a copy from the library, and read it. Aha. There were things here that looked very familiar…but deeper.
I started to research Stoicism, and discovered Cicero’s De Officiis. I found my final key in the stoic works, and the ars memoria. I found a natural way to order my mind. I started to read about Loyala and his Spiritual Exercises, and found usefulness in his structures. Everything I had searched for in Asian martial arts was to be found in the western traditions, if you read them with the right perspective.
Meditation is a valuable practice for all martial artists, and it doesn’t need any special training or traditions. The real value comes in when you reach the state of having a completely empty mind, which is to say a mind where your thoughts don’t stop, or “rise to the surface” as it were. The mental voice never really stops. It subsides to background noise…which becomes an apparent silence, akin to your own heartbeat. It’s there to listen to, but you just don’t. When you find yourself in that place, things get interesting.
Your internal voice serves to wall you off from the things around you. It makes you feel separate. With it gone, you fit better into your environment. You notice things without dwelling on what they mean, and you really start to see a lot more.
I like to look out into my front yard. Glancing out the window most days, it seems quiet and dull. Maybe a car goes by, or a neighbour walking, but mostly it’s just nothing of note. When I meditate and my mind clears out, the front yard becomes a torrent of activity. Birds fill the sky, hundreds of insects go about their business, the wind makes patterns that change constantly amongst the vegetation. Small animals appear when I would have sworn there were none in the area.
None of this just appears, it was always there. With the filters of my active brain shut down, I can see so much more.