I was a freak for old Kung Fu movies back in the ’80s. The word “cheesy” doesn’t come close to describing their wondrously exotic clichés. I loved them for their lack of cumbersome plot lines, the kick-ass fight scene choreography, and the incense-infused undertones of Eastern mysticism.
Those unassuming stories of Shaolin monks and their escapades inspired my early ideas around the rewards of spiritual discipline. Cultivating a meditation practice always figured prominently in the character arcs of the young warriors. They would mercilessly train their bodies and minds in some invincible style of Kung Fu, usually to get revenge for the brutal murder of their teacher (or friend, or father, or brother).
Being a young man with a self-image problem, I was magnetically drawn to the deep and reverberating spiritual power those monks carried. I fantasized about developing the subtle balance of definitive steel wisdom with the gentle and delicate poise portrayed in the films. I wanted to wield that kind of numinous strength, to brandish those mysterious forces that underlie our universe.
I held onto visions of those transcendent champions when I began to learn how to meditate, hoping to develop their extraordinary, mystical chops. I envisioned meditation as a gateway to enchanted inner-worlds where cosmic wisdom would rain down like springtime cherry blossoms.
So, you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that, instead of cosmic journeys in the astral realms, the formal practice of sitting meditation turned out to be nothing more than becoming still and doing nothing.
I had found a six-week meditation class that met at a local holistic learning center. At the beginning of the first class, the teacher, Lori, a former hippy and Zen Buddhist, said, “There is nothing special about meditation. It’s the simplest thing in the world! Just follow your breath with your awareness, then you are meditating!” That seemed simple enough and it’s what I tried to do, to follow my breath with awareness. But in the back of my mind, I kept waiting for lightning bolts of otherworldly realization.
I not only hoped for fast spiritual insight from the practice of meditation, I also figured it would be an effortless activity. After all, it was just sitting. But it turned out that becoming still, doing nothing and quietly maintaining the awareness of my breath for longer than thirty seconds was pretty much impossible. It usually took less than a few cycles of breathing before my mind was snatched off the bank of mindful awareness and trapped in some stream of thinking, indiscriminately carried along on the currents of my internal dialogue.
It seemed I was basically sitting still just to engage in directionless mental meandering. It was hard not to question the value of meditation practice in those early weeks, hard to keep with it. But Lori, who seemed much wiser and spiritually awake than I, said it was the best way to secure happiness, greater wisdom, and inner-peace in life. “Living a meditative life is the most skillful way to live!” she had said. So, I stuck with it.
Lori wasn’t one for grand explanations. She was more focused on the doing. But feeling my frustration over becoming consistently “stuck” in my internal dialogue and losing focus on my breathing, she offered me this: “You are actually engaged in a great learning!” she said. “It’s important to realize how difficult it is to maintain that focused awareness for any length of time. It’s hard to believe that our focused, meditative mind is our natural state of being. Mind wandering and being trapped by our incessant internal dialogue seems so natural to us, but it’s anything but natural.”
“The first layer of learning in meditation is to realize how far we have strayed from our natural selves. Once you understand how much mind wandering filters your perceptions of the world, you can begin to understand the value in dismantling those filters, and engage the world in a much more authentic way, without getting stuck in the internal running commentary. Then you can begin to experience the grandeur and glorious mystery of life as it truly is!”
It has taken many years to understand the wisdom of my first teacher’s words. Through years of practice, I have been able to confirm that engaging the world with a meditative mind is our natural state of being. And a meditative mind is nothing more than a mind free from the habit of identifying with our mental filters of constant internal dialogue; the uninformed judgments, debilitating opinions and labels, and shackling beliefs that prohibit an authentic and honest worldview, anchored in the present moment.
My mind still wanders, but practicing the art of meditation has introduced me to a more still and spacious aspect of myself referred to by many as the witnessing presence. Thoughts float by, but I am frequently able to remain on the bank of mindfulness and allow them to pass. I no longer need to identify with them and they no longer have to color my world.
A meditative mind experiences the world as it truly is. And the world is so much more wondrous than any perceptual filters would allow us to know. And so are we! Living in that still and spacious world and beginning to understand who that witnessing presence is, who we truly are, is skillful living at its best!
And a fun fact is that I can order DVD copies of most of those movies I had loved thirty-five years ago for about five bucks each.
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