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Preconception – Martial Magic

Prof Chris Goto-Jones investigates the warrior as an inspirational image for mindfulness.
So following on from the models of the scientist and the monk, in this session we’re going to consider the example of the warrior as an aspirational icon in modern societies and especially how the features of this classical ideal might be associated with mindfulness today. In fact, quite a few people, especially younger people, become interested in mindfulness because of this perceived connection between it and the martial arts. The character of the spirit warrior or warrior monk has been common in literature and popular culture throughout history in various parts of the world.
But for recent generations, this model is perhaps best exemplified by the Jedi Knight who sits in quiet meditation quieting his mind to listen for the living force around him or perhaps by our friend the mythical ninja. In many cultures, the warrior as spiritual hero represents an ideal of psychic integrity. Rather than being a thoughtless or arbitrary agent of violence, this warrior represents the human aspiration towards disciplined control over our attention, awareness, and emotional state. Indeed the warrior emerges as the most extreme and accomplished version of this ideal since his or her psychic integrity is tested and actually cultivated in extremis in the face of danger, violence, and death.
In the end, part of the warrior’s integrity resides in his or her abandonment of their sense of self. Their actions must be in the service of a greater good. Not the result of personal desires, instrumental reason, or ego-driven volition. Their disciplined self-control and self-deprivation become a radical form of selflessness, which ultimately resembles a spiritual accomplishment. Hence, somewhat like our monk in the last session, the ninja seems to embody an alternative moral order in which our attachments to material goods and even to our emotional states themselves are seen as essentially flawed and decadent and degenerate.
When we live our lives caught up in the rat race of everydayness, chasing possessions and indulging our emotions, we are simply failing to act with adequate discipline, attention, and awareness. We’re behaving in a manner unsuited to our basic integrity. Hence, the warrior represents our aspiration to be better people by being less concerned with objects and desires and more concerned with cultivating a disciplined sense of selflessness. So what does this mean in practice? Well, in practice, it means something like this.
The model of the warrior teaches us that instead of spending our time indulging our whims and desires for pleasure and luxury which soften our resolve and undermine our integrity, we should instead spend our time and energy cultivating our discipline by deliberately depriving ourselves of those things that we might want. Instead of lounging on the couch, vegetating in front of the television, or dozing on the beach, we should instead spend our time cultivating our minds and bodies through rigorous programs of meditation and yoga and the martial arts such that we approach something like mastery of our selves.
Like the monk then, the ninja here is a model of devotion and commitment in a society that is characterized by indulgence, weakness of will, frivolity, and fickleness. The ideal of the warrior calls upon us to reflect on our mortality and on our lives as a constant process of confronting and overcoming death. The warrior ideal asserts that we would be better people if we were able constantly to hold in our attention the possibility that this moment right now might be our very last. Hence, the discipline of the ninja manifests not only in tremendous physical skill and competence, not only in selflessness of conduct but also in the ability to maintain a radically present moment, awareness.
Put together, these features make the ninja calm and tranquil in the face of suffering, adversity, and danger, even in the face of death itself. Now, as this course develops, we will see how this classical ideal of the warrior shares a number of important features with the environment of mindfulness today. And for some people, the association between the cultivation of mindfulness and the cultivation of discipline and integrity in the present moment is very strong. Indeed, as we’ll see in modules three and four, these associations are not limited to the application of mindfulness in military contexts, although they are found there too, but rather are very general.
In fact, we might recognize at least the following three popular preconceptions about mindfulness today which seemed to emerge from this model. First, we’re talking about the practice of mindfulness as austere, disciplined, and unforgiving. Requiring practitioners to hold perfect, sometimes tortuous postures for long periods until it hurts and then to carry on after it hurts as well. People who enjoy mindfulness, therefore, are just not doing it right. We might identify this preconception as the problem of discipline, which can work to attract or repel people with different aesthetic tastes and dispositions and which seriously challenges the permissive and compassionate tone of much mindfulness training that goes on today.
The second is that the practice of mindfulness involves the cultivation of esoteric powers such as levitation or superhuman fighting abilities like energy balls or force powers. Mindfulness makes us spontaneously aware of what’s going on in our surroundings and thus makes us able to respond instantaneously to anything that happens around us. Hence, practicing mindfulness also means practicing physical disciplines such as yoga, qigong, or the martial arts. Now, we might identify this preconception as the problem of magic, which can work to attract certain people who will end up probably being rather disappointed and to scare off other people who simply don’t want to be associated with esoteric practices even though these practices probably have no place in modern mindfulness.
The contagious power of this preconception can be seen in all kinds of places, but perhaps most famously in the ideas of the U.S. Army’s infamous first Earth Battalion in the 1970s. And the third preconception is that the practice of mindfulness is centrally concerned with the death of the self. Not only in the sense that it cultivates a distinctly present moment focus and hence causes the falling away of emotional investments, but also in the sense that it confronts us with mortality itself by preparing us for encounters with death.
We might identify this preconception as the problem of the self which is closely related to issues that we’ll discuss in the next session about the fear of a type of intimacy between mindfulness and mindlessness. And it’s also related to the problem of secularism that we explored in the last session. Now, one of the distinctions of the problem itself here though is the way in which it moves our discourse away from therapeutic issues altogether and suggests that mindfulness is really a form of existential pursuit. And as we’ll see later, this is a pervasive anxiety in the field.
So I hope this little sketch of the ninja as a spiritual hero has helped us to recognize some popular preconceptions and assumptions about mindfulness today. Like the monk from our last session, our friend, the ninja, will stick around with us and help us out during the rest of this course. In our next session though, we’re going to turn our attention to a different kind of spiritual model. This time a model of a nightmare rather than a dream. We’re going to look at the case of the zombie.

In this video, I consider the preconception of the Monk or Ninja. The character of the spirit warrior or warrior monk has been common in literature and popular culture throughout history in various parts of the world. I discuss their perceived relation with mindfulness in this video.

Is this a preconception that you or someone you know holds or relates to? What is your favourite warrior monk or ninja?

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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