Memoirs of a Samurai Yogi - 40 Years Sitting on Pandora’s Meditation Mat by Brock Noyes
I had my first boxing match at the age of ten, eventually enlisting in the martial arts where I served for over a decade. Fighting is the ultimate meditation—life and death dancing—and the punishment for inattention is swift and severe. Instead of a Zen Haiku rapping your head with a shtick, it is a warrior rolling your teeth for dice. Anything more intense is called war, and no matter how reckless I was, I had enough innate sense of street smarts to duck a certain loss. Eventually, I deserted the formal ranks of Tae Kwon Do, and entered the mercenary field of kickboxing. The bottom line was not the color of your belt, but whether you won or lost. I was good, not great, and never got knocked down. At 35 I had been training rigorously for over a decade, and had a twice-daily mediation practice during that entire time. I was cocky, happy, and spit in the face of fear.
Much to my dismay, life is marked by irony and paradox. Thus it came to pass that my persona as a twentieth century western samuraii was about to be irrevokably unmasked. At 36 I fell on my own sword, and was struck down by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which means they don’t know what it is or how to fix it. Metaphorically, I had inadvertently crossed the DMZ into enemy territory, and found myself a prisoner in my own body for a five-year sentence. A million well-intentioned roads led into dead ends, false hopes and folly. I tried every allopathic option except the knife, and every bit of alternative therapy except psychic surgery. At last the darkness started to lift when I stumbled into the portal of somatic emotional work, and in the submarine of my unconscious, the rivets popped and a dead body floated to the surface. In one haiku moment, I understood that in all those years as a samurai I had simply been shadowboxing. Eventually, I was to extricate myself from the chronic fatigue, but the cost of my freedom was living with the chronic fear that I had so relentlessly repressed.
Now in my fifties I calculate that I have sat in meditation over 35,000 times—twice a day for forty years with no break of any nature. The enormity of that number stuns me, not only for its longevity, but for the meager return on the overwhelming investment of time. But what is equally shocking is a revelation by Adyashanti that I was not really on a spiritual journey at all—I was just using focused meditation as a psychological coping strategy to suppress my unconscious. This was irony of epic proportions, and the laughter coughed into shell shock. Essentially, over one eighth of my entire waking adult lifetime has been spent in just trying to quiet myself down enough so that I could function. Put another way and dumbing it down, every 8th day I would meditate the entire waking day. What a drag!
I am not posing here as a Boddhisatva. Part of me is embarrassed, even mortified by the whole thing. Essentially, rather than being a spiritual journeyer sitting on a meditation mat, my adulthood was spent sitting right on top of Pandora’s Box, desperately trying to keep the lid closed.
There is a gift of realization to be found in all of this painful ironic personal history. This gift however—that contemporary spiritual practices are frequently just emotional coping strategies—may well be greeted with the joy of seeing a cat bring in a dead mouse.
Yoga As Psychological Strategy
My primary path for the last decade has been yoga, which is an exceptional health program: it quiets emotional angst, releases body stress, embellishes the self-image, opens energetic channels, and so forth. There are even yoga programs that explore the path of public service. Living Yoga, for example, instructs in the prisons (author is a teacher in this program). But for the most part, contemporary yoga is a service to the “self.” Check out the covers on the yoga magazines: it’s Vogue in asana—and that’s OK; there is nothing wrong with aerobayoga.
Classically, however, the purpose of traditional yoga was to prepare the body for extended periods of meditation. But really, how many of us are actually doing this? I know I can do a three-hour yoga practice with relative ease, but in a three-hour sit I can wind up psychically wailing with the demons from hell. I am so grateful for what asana does for my life! But the point is, yoga was not specifically designed to shine light on the shadow world, which seems to be the necessary next step out of ego fixation. Additionally, yoga does not typically delve into the emotional truth of the body, as constant movement deflects the deepest somatic issues. Essentially, yoga temporarily releases the stress of the body/mind rather than truly exploring it.
To address this in my own life, I created Somatic Zen, which consists of holding an individual posture for 60-75 minutes. I have cured a number of dis-eases with this practice, most recently sciatica. The caveat is, Somatic Zen can be a journey deep into the shadow land, and is most likely suited for the desperate and brave, a description for which I reluctantly qualify.
My life journey has been a life-long struggle with my own mind, relentlessly trying to manipulate it into spiritual bliss. Metaphorically, I invaded Afghanistan, a war I could not win. Irony rules, and I have discovered that my spiritual journey has been a slow disrobing of all my best clothes; what remains are old ghost shirts lurking in the back of the closet. I have no objection to the sense of self disappearing, the sooner the better really, but at this point I have discovered the truly sweet parts of myself only keep me warm for a few minutes, but the broken parts can keep me cold all day. As the general manager of my own life, it seems I have traded Babe Ruth for an aging minor league pitcher with a bad arm. There were momentary victories for sure, times when I pushed that boulder all the way to the top of the mountain, but such victories provided just a brief respite before the rock rolled back down the hill, often right over my own face. I still practice yoga and meditation every day, but it is now without any expectation of “success.” It’s more like brushing my teeth. At best I would say I have arrived in a state of unabiding wakefulness, which means I have witnessed pure consciousness, but don’t get to stay there. I flirt with the Goddess, but don’t get to kiss.
Ultimately, most of us spiritual seekers are not trying to “be here now” at all, we really want to be “up there”. From my observation, most forms of meditation and yoga are psychological strategies disguised as spirituality, and what is commonly available in the self-help world of contemporary spirituality is really a subtle massaging of the ego. If all it does is to make us feel better about ourselves, well, there is nothing wrong with that.
But if spirituality is a step into consciousness, that process requires surrendering our self, not embellishing it. When it gets really interesting, and that is a word I use with caveat emptor, is when we let go of control, and welcome whatever will arise. How many of us will just sit and abandon the pacifying strategies of breathwork, mantra, visualizations, and so forth? (See Zen, Dzochen, “Freedom From the Known” by Khrisnamurti, and “True Meditation” by Adjashanti.) At this point in my journey, I frequently work with controlled practices of yoga, Taoism, affirmations and so forth, but I often take time to just stop and let go of everything. It’s a completely different journey to relinquish control; rather than being a step into bliss and peace, I think it is more aptly characterized by “fierce grace,” and a deep sense of awe.
If we are heretical enough to reduce the common denominator of typical spiritual practices to psychological coping strategies, we should also have the decency to lower the bar on enlightenment. I was exploring the Bardo one afternoon with Robert Beatty, the head of the Portland Insight Mediation Center, and he was being disarmingly candid about a relationship issue he had been struggling with. I bluntly asked him, “All those years of meditation, and you are still dealing with this stuff? How has all this work helped you?” Mr. Beatty simply and eloquently replied, “It has allowed me to deal with life with a little more grace.” It was an insight that has resonated with me over the years, and I bow to Robert. Perhaps these small and very human moments of grace, compassion and wisdom are a far more accurate description of enlightenment than following Icarus up to the sun.
My karate teacher had this wonderful practice when we sparred. When I slipped inside his defenses, and struck a mark, he would momentarily stop the fight, bow, and recommence his attack. He viewed being hit as a gift, a reflection of his own weakness. For me, the insight—that my forty-year spiritual journey was really just shadowboxing—came as a vicious right hook I never saw coming. The extent of the gift is unapparent to me at this time, as my knees are still buckling, but I am no longer a moth beating his wings against the light. I no longer swim upstream. There is mercy in this surrender, and where I am being carried I haven’t a clue.
One long look back reveals my ego mask is pockmarked by irony. I thought I was a warrior, but I discovered a little boy who is gentle, fragile, and so I am told, sometimes sweet. I thought enlightenment was a journey transcending the human experience, only to discover that it’s about being compassionately present with what is. I thought I was a contender, but my shadow was the heavyweight champion. Nothing is what it seems! When they write my epitaph it will say, “Here lies an unknown samurai. He thought he was made of iron, but actually he was made of irony.”
It occurs to me that this article verges on the edge of indecent psychic exposure. What is the purpose of being so relentlessly and candidly self-examining? Fortunately, that purpose may be expressed in some gifts I can pass on from my Quixotic journey, so here goes.
It took me more than a decade to realize the emotional component of health, how important that is, and that there is an alternative path out of seemingly unconquerable dis-ease. I would have been ecstatic to have discovered this years earlier.
I think many of us sit on some kind of Pandora’s Box, and it’s possible that the true spiritual journey begins by opening it.
There is true beauty and grace in the surrender to the reality the mind will ever continue to spew out its labyrinth of soap opera stories and neurotic tape-loops. The alternative, going to war with your own mind, is a hell realm.
For some of us, the wounds of childhood, which periodically spurt like a neurotic stigmata, can sometimes be greeted with love and kindness, without any manic attempt to fix it!
Those of us who pose as warriors may find a greater victory in understanding we are just little boys, and the bravest journey is opening the heart.
There is a sense of “truth” in acknowledging that the self-help path so many of us walk may be a form of “spiritual materialism,” and that there is another door that opens to the vastness of nowhere. It’s not a really safe place to step, but it is truly exhilarating.
All this is not much of a halo to show for forty years on the mat, it’s more like a dunce cap. And though my journey towards enlightenment has been like watching a glacier melt, ultimately I have found some grace in a quiet sense of surrender. This should never be confused with giving up.
I have hoisted a white flag, and let it flap in the breeze like tattered prayer flags that have endured one too many winters. I no longer frantically row myself back into harbor at the inevitable onslaught of a storm, because it is so obvious that I am the storm. Frequently, in this abnegation, there isn’t a harbor in sight; it is vast, exhilarating, stony, scary, beyond my comprehension, and at times paradoxically mundane. I am a tiny mystery ship sailing into the waters of the unknown.
The Dali Lama makes this wonderful analogy, that we have as much chance of being reincarnated as a human, as a sea turtle has of swimming under water for 800 years, then randomly surfacing through the opening portal of a life preserver floating in the middle of the ocean. I have no idea what this journey means, but I have this deep abiding sense that it is sacred. And my gratitude for the momentary grace of life seems endless: clean water coming out of a faucet, the Goddess moon at Breitenbush, reconciling with the mother of my son, the car starting on a cold morning, the radiance of my lover’s aura, the laughter of a child. My role as a samurai yogi has evolved to just keep opening my heart, sometimes trembling in awe. God is everything and it’s beyond right and wrong. Fortunately, the more I edge out into the vastness—and I am way over my head as we speak—the more love spontaneously fills the void. This is where four decades on the meditation mat has brought me. I am not sure who I am, and I don’t really care.
Sometimes I think the human race is simply pole-dancing on the stage of love and hate, a bi-polar persona straight out of Pandoras’ Box that keeps us all not knowing as it poses its question. What I do know for sure though is that mercy, kindness and gratitude are the response, if not always the answer.
As I approach my sixtieth turn around the roulette wheel of Ra, let us carry this torch of light into this whirling dervish carnival of life.
Brock Noyes is the founder of Stumptown Realty, yoga teacher, musical composer, and is currently writing “Somatic Zen,” a book on the emotional component of disease and art of self-healing.