Practice: Vehicles vs Parts

“You wanna get through this? Do as I say.”
– Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

I’ve been trying to find a way to bring the Road Warrior gimp with the double-necked flaming guitar into my meditation teaching, and I think I finally have it.

Imagine a post-Apocalyptic landscape filled with careening hot rods, all kitted out with various high performance stylings, and all of them moving in the same direction. Let’s call this direction “human fulfillment,” a rather vague notion that of course will look different depending on the person, but is nevertheless there for many of us as a kind of loose aspiration.

In this metaphor, our armada of vehicles represent the world’s contemplative and personal growth practices. They are all, very roughly, about personal and collective freedom, whether they focus on ultimate ends, or on immediate challenges and opportunities. They are also all quite beautiful in their freakish diversity and exoticism. Can we celebrate them? Yes we can.

We have the Yogic fire-breathing Namaste monster truck, with great flowing red streamers and a team of flexible acrobats up top flashing the landscape with their bony downward dogs. We have the spooky Zen hover craft, floating high above the action, occasionally dispensing a brisk keisaku thwack when its driver gets sleepy. We have a Sufi flying carpet (undulating with devotional dervishes), a Catholic chain of bubble campers (strung one behind the other like a line of rosary beads), and, lest we forget, the boring Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction delivery van (stripped of colour, but it does get decent gas mileage).

There are dozens of these traditions, and, if we parse them apart by practice technique, the number of vehicles expands into the tens of thousands. We can also include Western humanistic, artistic and psychotherapeutic traditions, all of whom are interested in the question of the good life, and all of whom have their own thoughts and procedures and protocols.

And actually, we can expand this number even further, because, in a sense, every human being is really their own practice tradition in waiting. That is, there’s a way of taking exactly who you are and what you love and turning it into a deliberate customized practice, with all the deep benefits practice can confer. There are endless ways of committing ourselves in this strange adventure called life.

So … what is your vehicle? If you’re not sure, no problem – you can build one. You just need the right parts.

What Parts?

There are many potential ones, obviously – we are complex creatures with many proclivities and capacities. I’m interested in three parts in particular: a steering system, a windshield, and good old-fashioned engine grease.

The steering system is concentration – our capacity to stay with an action or direction, which leads to more flow and  stability and peace.

The windshield is clarity – the skill of discernment, of bringing new subtleties into experience, which leads to insight and awareness.

Finally, the engine grease is equanimity, the skill of frictionless non-interference, which allows us to be present to the world exactly as it is. Equanimity is the precondition for real connection and grounding, to say nothing of intelligent and effective action in the world.

When all three of these parts work together, we create the groundwork for love, the ultimate emergent part that ennobles all vehicles. I’ve written a little more about these parts in a companion essay: “What is a Practice, Anyway?’

The ambitious claim I want to make in this post is that, insofar as any practice technique is successful in a deep sense, it will always have at least two of these pieces (the steering system and the grease), and often all three. The vehicles themselves may look wildly different – one might look like meditating on your breath, another like feeling energy in a Qi Gong sequence, and a third like looking through a telescope at the stars. Endless forms most beautiful. And form does matter – in all kinds of ways, particularly in matters of taste. But we are more concerned with function here.

When I encounter a practice – when I encounter a practitioner, of any kind, from artist to meditator to philosopher – these parts are what I wonder about. Where and how does this person build concentration, and clarity, and especially (because it is the most subtle and misunderstood) equanimity?

I bring all this up because it’s both the backbone of what I teach (courtesy of my teacher Shinzen Young), and because it’s the direction I’m going in a new workshop and book, co-authored with my pal Julianna Raye, provisionally entitled How to Teach Meditation: A Guide for Everyone.

The book’s thesis is not that everyone should either have or teach a sitting meditation practice. It is, rather, that everyone should have a rudimentary understanding of the role of concentration, clarity and equanimity in both practice (whatever vehicle you build), and in life. Just as every human being – every parent, caregiver, teacher and friend – should have a rudimentary understanding of the value of a healthy diet and physical exercise.

So it’s about unpacking the central skills of meditation, in order to help people find a way not only to apply them to their unique nervous systems, but also to help others do the same. When we do the latter, not only does our own practice accelerate, but we begin to lay the groundwork for a world where everyone cares for everyone else’s mental, emotional and spiritual health. That’s a world I want to live in.

This can be done in a way that’s sensible and inclusive and fun, without the precious ‘Behold I Am the Teacher’ vibe that creeps out so many non-spiritual types. It can even be done with a flaming double-necked air guitar of existential radness – because, well, why not? Air guitar is a practice too. With enough equanimity, you may learn you’re actually playing for everyone.

END

PS – My vehicle is a pedal bike.

And speaking of kids, I’m having a ridiculously fun time writing and voicing imagination-infused meditations for youngsters aged 6 – 12, with my communications guru pal Kirsten Chase. You can listen to some here. We want to make a YouTube channel for them, and are looking for smart partners and investors to make it happen. If you have ideas, contact Kidevolve here.