In the light of what has been happening in the world these past couple of weeks, I have been wondering, not for the first time, about how the warrior spirit can be brought to bear on a Buddhist meditation practice. Are the two incompatible? I have written recently about the difficult moral conflict between taking life, on the one hand, and on the other acting to protect it from those who would wantonly attack it. But what I’m talking about here is something different. It’s more about inner warrior energy than warrior action in the world.
I have worked a good deal with this energy in recent years. I have become familiar with it both internally, learning to recognize and direct it in my own life as a man; and in group work with many of my fellow men, in pursuit of its appropriate use in the contemporary world, where warrior energy is all too often misunderstood and misapplied. We inherit it from our forefathers, but chucking spears around leads to disastrous consequences in a world of sophisticated weaponry and fraught relationships between nations. A glance around the world is sufficient to confirm the truth of this axiom.
It’s in this context that I recall sitting in a question and answer session with Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Than Geoff) with our sangha in Laguna Beach. At the time, I was dealing with a great deal of sadness over the approaching death of a good friend of many years, a still-young woman, a gifted artist, a beautiful and vital human being whose body was now racked by rapidly metastasizing cancer. This friend was foremost in my mind in the metta practice with which I always start my daily sit. As I told Than Geoff, I was agonizing over the feeling that sitting on my cushion and sending out goodwill and compassion to my friend seemed like a feeble gesture, given the enormity of what was happening to her.
Than Geoff offered me his most benign of smiles. “Why not,” he asked, “try meditating less feebly.”
Well, that hit home. Reflecting on what his suggestion might mean in terms of actual practice, it came to me that the opposite of “feeble” might be “fierce.” But how to put fierce meditation into practice?
I decided that it had in part to do with the breath. There are many ways, as Than Geoff himself frequently points out, of taking the breath in and letting it out. I began to experiment with the idea of doing it fiercely and discovered that, yes, indeed, the breath can be fierce. Which does not mean that it has to be loud, or particularly deep, or hot and heavy. It’s the intention that counts. I discovered not only that I could bring warrior intention to the breath, but also that the warrior intention brought with it a whole new possibility of focus and concentration.
Next, with this intention in mind, I started directing that familiar warrior energy to different parts of the body as I worked through the scanning process I have learned as an aid to concentration. I found that, during my sit, a simple message from the brain would allow me to tighten the muscles—or even simply to envision them tightening—in each part as I brought the attention to it: the lower abdomen, the upper abdomen, the solar plexus, the flanks, the chest and neck, the face, the top of the head and down the back, then each of the legs in turn, and each of the arms down through the fingertips…
The result of these discoveries was to bring me to a whole new level of practice. I had reached a plateau, where it had become all too easy to find myself just, well, sitting there and breathing. The combination of warrior intention and the actual exercise of muscular warrior energy in the body brought a new intensity of focus to my practice, and a new sense of accomplishment. And I hasten to add that I believe its benefits are available not just to people of my gender; warrior energy is not the exclusive province of men. I believe that women, too, can find this energy within them if they care to look for it, and that they too can bring it usefully to bear on their practice and in their lives. It just needs to be directed with circumspection and discrimination, because—as I suggested earlier—the consequences of its misuse are dire.
When properly understood and properly directed for the benefit of oneself and others, though, the warrior spirit can be a powerful source of concentrated and productive energy.