One thing that I find interesting to observe is the passion with which private individuals will endorse whichever social or political issue is currently en vogue. It is as if they have always believed what the media and society only started talking about yesterday. But the truth is, they haven’t. There is a kind of drift in the modern consciousness — a kind of aimlessness that latches, often near-hysterically, onto “issues.”
Like religion, spirituality, too, soaks up the modern zeitgeist. The gods no longer roar and thunder, but — channeled by their devotees — sound suspiciously like presidential candidates.
Since the worst of modernity seeps into spirituality it is rare that individuals can find initiation into any other type of thinking, whether that is Stoicism, authentic Buddhism, authentic paganism, and so on.
Yet, there are, of course, plenty of practical things we can do to defend ourselves against the excesses of modernity, including practicing a martial art, eating a healthy diet instead of junk food, and so on. Here, however, I want to focus on fortifying the mind, and how we can reconnect to more archetypal sources of inner strength.
Drawing from ancient religion, texts, initiatory guilds, martial arts practices, and so on, below are five related visualizations for the modern warrior who wants to strengthen not just his body but also his mind and spirit. Go through all of them, in each meditation session, to prepare yourself for the daily battle with yourself and with the downward-tugging forces of the modern world.
Meditation on one’s mortality is central to the ethos of warrior clans and to numerous authentic spiritual schools. Most notably, it plays a very large role in the third or “Master Mason” degree of Freemasonry. It is seen, in the figure of Jesus, on the wall of every church. And it is found in such texts as the Hagakure (The Book of the Samurai) by Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
In the Hagakure, we read, “every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”
There are several points to this practice: One, to understand that we might die at any time. A long life is not guaranteed, and a life is only worth living when one lives with full consciousness, trying to act nobly, uplifting oneself and others — especially comrades, family, friends, and others with which we are close. Two, the meditation is meant for the samurai to overcome his fear of death, and sense of self that — in the form of fear — prevents him from performing great or important deeds. Related to this, three, remembering that we are mortal helps us to make decisions. We don’t act for today or tomorrow, or for what someone might think, but for what history might think, or what we — at our last moment of life — will find important.
This may sound harsh, but there is a good contemporary example: Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple – heralded as a genius in every business school – said that remembering his mortality was “the most important tool” he had in making the “big choices in life.”
At the moment of death, will you care that you had the latest gadgets, the latest cool stuff, or sounded cool? Or that you made a fool of someone else? Or that you got something for nothing? Or that you had sex with loads of women, at the expense of forming a healthy relationship through which you could have elevated yourself? You won’t.
Visualization: Reflect upon the fact that you are mortal to rise above the petty, everyday worries and concerns that can obsess us, whether these are the views currently filling the media or the concerns of our own life. Things pass. This is what is essential: Meditate on your mortality, and meditate on who and what will matter to you at the moment of death — then focus on those in life.
The worship or remembrance of ancestors has played a large role in every successful society. It doesn’t matter what our nationality, race or ethnicity is, if we hate our ancestors, we will hate ourselves. If we respect our ancestors we will realize that our life is worth respecting too. We are them. And they are us.
Although modernity wants to forget about or even to trash the past, several tests have shown that thinking about our ancestors improves intelligence. In the first test, students were asked to think about great grandparents, 15th-century ancestors, or a recent shopping trip. The first two groups scored substantially higher than those that thought about shopping (a major concern of modern society). Researcher Peter Fischer suggests that
…our ancestors managed to overcome a multitude of personal and society problems, such as severe illnesses, wars, loss of loved ones or severe economic declines… So, when we think about them, we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities.
Don’t stop at thinking about mortality. Realize that we are all part of a long, long line or people like us, each of which were warriors in multiple different ways. Perhaps our ancestors were Samurai, Viking warriors, Zulu warriors, Hindu Kshatriya, Confucian scholars, hunters, nomads, tribespeople defending themselves against (and yet working with) the natural elements. We can’t know exactly. But we can be sure that, for tens of thousands of years at least, our ancestors fought in battles, fought off disease, hunted, loved, made friendships, formed brotherhoods, made art, made cultures, and revered their ancestors. We have inherited the possibility to do everything they did, and to improve on what they did or to create something new.
Visualization: Imagine the long line of people that it took for you to be here. Think about your ancient ancestors (perhaps twenty, thirty, forty, or even a hundred or so thousand years ago), your medieval ancestors, and more recent ancestors, grandparents, and parents. Think about the qualities they must have had — or, as in the case of parents and grandparents — that you know they had. Visualize them engaged in healthy and purposeful activities — hunting, fighting against an invading tribe, wrestling, cooking, eating healthy food communally. Understanding that their emotions are not those that come from buying products or laughing at the past, see their expressions: happiness, joy, seriousness, concentration, reverence of the Mysteries, respect for community, love of nature.
Do not focus on the negatives, only the positives. It is your choice to become conscious of the powerful qualities that you have inherited, but perhaps have not fully implemented.
An extension of the above, don’t stop with ancestors. You have been shaped for the better by numerous people in your life — old friends, former partners, teachers, instructors, comrades, etc. Think about those who truly shaped — and may still be shaping — you for the better, encouraging you to cultivate your strengths and give up your weaknesses and bad habits, giving you new, important information or insights, and so on.
Visualization: Contemplate all of the people who encouraged you, gave you new information and insights, and molded you for the better.
Then, in life, be resolved to align yourself with those who push you to be better — a better, stronger, more confident you. Who are your comrades? Where is there a feeling of fraternity, love, respect, and working together? Resolve to cultivate that.
Qualities and Skills
What skills and qualities did they help you bring out? What skills do you — or perhaps before a more troubled time, did you — have? Perhaps you are or were courageous, or make good observations, or are trustworthy, or persevere in tasks, or are good at working as a team, or in taking the initiative. What are your warrior qualities?
Skills: Do you know some kind of martial arts or physical exercise? Or meditation. Are practical and can fix things? Are artistic or musical? You probably have several skills, some large, some small. What are your warrior skills?
Visualization: Think about your warrior qualities and skills. Think about how you grew as you developed your skills. Think about how you have implemented them in different ways. (Perhaps creativity appears in you making some kind of art and in problem-solving. Or perhaps you have endurance and patience in weight-lifting and with friends who need support, etc.) See yourself exercising your qualities and skills. Call to mind those that you overlook or have not used for some time.
According to Rowland Manthorpe in the Economist‘s 1843 magazine, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy textbooks contain “some version of Epictetus’s dictum: ‘Men are disturbed not by things, but the views they take of them’.” Sweep aside the daily nagging worry of things beyond your power to change. Think, instead, about what you want to achieve, and how you can achieve it. What are your worthy aims?
Perhaps you want exercise properly, create art or some other aspect of culture that matters, live a more holistic life, work better with your team, subdue your ego, or just cultivate better friendships.
All of this your ancestors have done. They struggled, they adapted and developed, and achieved victories large and small. Think about the tens-of-thousands-of-year-long-journey of how you got here, the qualities you’ve inherited, and how you can achieve the victories you are aiming for.
Visualization: Imagine yourself achieving your goals — getting better at martial arts, finally writing that book or that blog post you’ve been meaning to, becoming a leader in some circle, and so on. Meditate on your victories to come. See yourself empowered by your ancestors near and far, known and unknown. Your victories to come are not a thing of the ego, but a self-sacrifice — an act of humility, even — to honor the very best qualities and possibilities your ancestors passed up to you.