Traditionally in the East, when an individual felt and responded to a spiritual calling, he or she became a disciple of a master or guru and dedicated him or herself wholeheartedly to a spiritual practice. He or she totally withdrew from the world and gave up all their worldly possessions. They lived only for their spiritual practice from that time forward.
But times have changed, and the world has changed. The East has become largely westernized, and here in the West we have finally opened the door to eastern thought and spiritual practice. Thus in our day we have witnessed a blending of East and West that is unparalleled and long overdue. On a practical level western governing and economic systems have been embraced in the East based on their freedom and durability, while simultaneously many western spiritual aspirants have come to recognize the great value inherent the ancient eastern spiritual practices. But unlike the traditional eastern approach of total dedication, most westerners have adopted their own version of eastern practice—one that fits better with their prevailing western lifestyle. In other words, instead of total dedication most westerners attempt to fit their spiritual practice in with their existing lifestyle and thereby have the best of both worlds.
There is only one problem with this modern western spiritual approach. Most of us tend to be so busy working jobs and raising families that our spiritual practice sometimes gets shuffled to the back burner and neglected. Our schedules are literally packed full with obligations, duties, and social involvements—all of which seem inviolably prioritized. We have all been taught the great virtue of being responsible with our time and taking care of ourselves, and therefore spiritual practice takes on the quality of a secondary, even indulgent pursuit. We deem it valuable and beneficial, but finding the time and energy to pursue it and still be a responsible adult can be a little tricky.
But for many in the East spiritual practice has always been considered a number one priority. And culturally speaking, this has also been viewed as a perfectly legitimate and responsible life choice. In the East spiritual practice is a way of life, while in the West it tends to be more like a hobby. In the East spiritual practice is meant to, and often does, alter one’s worldview, while in the West it is meant only to impart side benefits to us, such as peace of mind, health of body, etc. Here in the West our approach is to stay in control and relegate our spiritual practice to its appropriate niche in our lives, while in the East it is not uncommon for a spiritual aspirant to give up all control and let their practice dictate their priorities.
Interestingly, the ancient eastern mystics who founded the science of yoga seemed to have foreseen the world developments and cultural influences of our day. Thus the spiritual practice they advocated and codified included many practical elements—elements that allow one to practice without a total commitment of time and energy. As yoga unfolded, it became like a magnificent tree—one with many varied and fruitful branches. These branches allowed the yogi to hone in on a particular path that best suited them and to work with his or her human attributes rather than repress them. The practitioner was taught to use his or her body, breath, and voice in the service of intensive spiritual practice. And in this way one could actually learn to live in a meditative state at all times.
This idea may seem a little farfetched and lofty to us here in the West with our busy lifestyles and myriad of distractions. But the eastern mystics knew better. They saw meditation as being not so much a technique as a state of consciousness. In other words, in order to enter the meditative state one did not need to sit a certain way or recite a certain mantra; one only needed to be focused and aware to such a degree that one’s mind was stilled and transported into the spiritual realm. And amazingly, they discovered that such focus and awareness could be achieved through many diverse means—means that applied primarily to the human body.
In our western Judeo-Christian culture the human body has gotten a pretty bad rap. It has been looked upon as the foremost vehicle of temptation and sin. According to this view spirit and body are not only incompatible; they are, in fact, two dualistic extremes, with spirit being good and body being evil. But the founders of yoga saw things in an entirely different light. Instead of condemning the body they put forth a prominent branch called Hatha Yoga—a branch that specifically uses the body to focus consciousness. Their vision was essentially one of meditation through movement.
How does meditation through movement work? Whenever our bodies move, a physical sensation is created—one which then sends a signal to our mind and is treated with varying degrees of awareness. In other words, some movements that register in our mind are overlooked as insignificant and thereby remain unconscious, while others are too strong to ignore. That is why Hatha Yoga involves stretches that can be both difficult and intensive. The idea is that the sensations from those stretches would be too strong to ignore. Moreover, if they are too strong to ignore, then our awareness will rise up and take front stage, thereby causing our mind to be relegated to its rightful place in our psyche. This is what makes the mind slow down and become quiet.
Many of us here in the West have missed this intended goal of Hatha Yoga. Instead of valuing its meditative properties we have taken up this yogic branch strictly as a form of physical exercise. But to the eastern mystics physical exercise was far down on their list of intended benefits. Rather to them meditation was not only the key to this spiritual practice; it was the key to all spiritual practice. Therefore every branch of yoga was actually meant to lead us into the meditative state.
When looked at in this light it is logical to assume that other physical activities could also become vehicles that lead us into the meditative state. Yoga asanas may be specifically tailored for this purpose, but essentially any movement of our body can achieve the same result. How can this be? Because the key to entering the meditative state is the rising up of our conscious awareness and the relegating of mind to its rightful place. Thus movements that we normally do not associate with meditation can cause this same dynamic to be released. The key is to become acutely aware of the sensations that a movement produces and thereby allow our consciousness to take command of our psyche. This will, in turn, strengthen our conscious awareness and free us up to be able to practice meditation at any time and in any situation wherein our physical body moves.
Of course, for those of us who are not yet spiritual masters, some movements will be more effective than others for achieving this. Hatha yoga will in all likelihood continue to be our most effective form of meditation through movement, but as our conscious awareness deepens, we may find other forms of movement work well also. The following are a few examples.
Another branch of yoga called Pranayama is a highly effective form of meditation through movement. It focuses primarily on the breath. But again, many practice Pranayama without fully understanding its potential benefits. For not only does working with our breath bring increased blood flow and a biological change in our oxygen levels, it also is an effective practice for focusing our conscious awareness. The reason for this is that, like Hatha Yoga, it is a repetitive physical movement that registers sensations in our mind.
Another wonderful but sometimes overlooked form of meditation through movement is interpretive dance—that is, the creative movement of our body in response to musical sounds and rhythms. Again, the same principle holds true here. When dancing, instead of abandoning yourself to the unconscious effect that music has on your body, try to become intently conscious of the sensations that the movements of dance bring. This can be a very life-affirming and liberating pursuit, especially for us here in the West that have bought into the lie that the body is sinful and needs to be repressed. In dance, the body finds a powerful healing release from the kind of repressive wrong thinking that can lead to sickness, lameness, and even death.
The martial art Tai Chi is another excellent form of meditation through movement. Though it uses no outside stimulus such as music to infuse the body with movement and sensation, Tai Chi has its own source of bodily impetus: the Chi. This is the silent flow of creative life energy that pulsates throughout our universe at all times. So in order to practice Tai Chi one not only needs to employ conscious awareness of the movements and sensations it produces; they also need to be a very good listener. For the Chi is all around us but like the wind, it is completely silent.
What is the one common thread that connects all of these divergent activities? They each use the physical body to achieve a meditative state. This is a very interesting phenomenon, given that we here in the West were taught that our body could not possibly be used for a spiritual purpose. Clearly, the ancient eastern masters saw things differently. They saw that the body was not only a very effective spiritual vehicle; it was for us human beings one of our greatest gifts. That is why we were created with physical bodies. Everything in creation is meant to serve and facilitate consciousness evolution and expansion, and the human body is no exception to this rule. If we did not have bodies, an entire world of movement and sensation would be lost to us. We also would have no breath and no voice.
Of course, the body also has its rightful place in our psyche, and the wrongful elevation of it is what leads to temptation and sin. Thus when practicing meditation through movement we must always relegate both body and mind in submission to consciousness.
The great spiritual masters were not concerned with the body or the mind. They were concerned foremost with the human faculty of spiritual consciousness. For, it is this faculty that sets us apart from every other creature in the known universe. Many other creatures have bodies and minds, but we alone have spiritual consciousness.
Meditation is all about consciousness expansion and elevation. Therefore every spiritual practice has meditation as both its foundation and goal, and every facet of human life can be a meditation when the expansion of consciousness is involved. This is how we transform our raw animalistic humanness into an eternal vessel of spiritual light. It is also how mankind will become the ultimate force that ushers in a New Age for our planet. In that day the human body will be seen as one of our greatest assets and friends. For it will then be recognized that the body was given to us for the foremost purpose of facilitating our consciousness evolution.