About 30 years ago my first serious exposure and training in meditation came from the Native American Shamanic tradition as taught by Tom Brown Jr. in the Tracker School. It was the model that I used when integrating meditation skills into my youth wilderness programs, with about ten groups and one hundred youth having gone through the process. I won’t take time here to outline the original program. If you went through it either with me or at the Tracker School, you know what I’m talking about. Others will be able to follow along without too much difficulty.
Very briefly, The Tracker meditations involved guided meditation that walked down a path, stairs and eventually through an archway to a spiritual domain. The path was the realm of the unconscious mind while the stairs and beyond had a more metaphysical focus. Tom Brown spent little time developing the skills of the path, spending most of his training time on the more spiritual skills. I found that the skills associated with the path were the easiest and most practical skills to teach, so while I still spent a lot of time on the farther reaches, I had a strong interest in developing those of the path. Not only were they more down to earth and less controversial, but they also seemed, to me at least, to form a prerequisite for the more advanced skills. Balance and harmony within one’s own mind might be a necessary foundation before examining the balance and harmony of the rest of existence. Originally you walked along the path encountering a series of clearings or stations, each of which allowed you to exercise a particular skill. Beyond a cursory explanation, I don’t remember any course material that focused on these subconscious skills.
And so in my own research and reading over the years I began to piece together additional exercises and extensions to the existing skills, trying always to remain faithful to the original teachings. From Dan Millman I learned about Huna traditions and the power of the subconscious, which was very consistent with the things Tom Brown taught. From Dr. Hal Stone I learned about Divided Self Theory, which has since been adopted by the American Zen Association as a major focus of meditation. Other people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Dan Siegel extended the value and domain of meditation even further, reaching into an integration with neuro psychology and biology.
And so, after 30 years of working with the original meditations and being afraid to violate their structure, I finally decided that I could alter them to include many of the lessons I’d learned. As I began to do that, I noticed a flow that ran through some of the new skills that I wanted to add. What follows is a description of that new structure and the associated flow.
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The heart of basic meditation is an inner stillness, uncomplicated by thoughts, emotions, judgements and physical sensation. To accomplish this we focus on breath and surrender. One of the first meditation exercises I like to use to introduce the practice is to simply count your breaths in loops of four, exclusively thinking about the counting and nothing else. When other thoughts or feelings arise, you push them aside after acknowledging them. Accept and dismiss. This is the heart of meditation. Later the counting can be replaced just by attention and awareness of breath. Guided visualizations are also used in meditations. The aim when using these is that the act of visualizing something becomes the single focus of attention, replacing breath (although the breath can be returned to at any time in order to reinforce the meditation).
When first entering the meditation I ask subjects to visualize themselves at the beginning of a familiar path, retaining this structure from the original Tracker practice. (A path and a journey is a useful archetype.) The beginning of the path can have two purposes. The first is just the basic grounding of pure meditation and the values that come with it. The second is that it is a place to do the basic meditation based on Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness meditation (the modified version of which I described in the previous entry). The beginning of the path means the journey has not begun and the meditation has not yet been involved with any sort of intention other than to experience the silence of meditation. This silence or pure meditation has its own value, often overlooked or skipped by Shamanic traditions. Never in any of the Tracker classes was this pure meditation either practised or valued. As I state in the previous entry, doing this version of the Wheel of Awareness meditation has its own benefits, and is essential in both deepening the meditative state and forming the mind body integration which will continue to trend through the other stations on the path.
The second purpose that can be employed at the beginning of the path is as a visualization staging area. In order to begin the transition of focus from breath to visualization I will often have them imagine picking up an object and experiencing that object using multiple senses. Not only what it looks like, but what it feels like, its texture and temperature, what it sounds like if you tap it, even what it smells or tastes like, if appropriate. The idea is to engage and strengthen the visualization before heading down the path.
Moving down the path to the first actual station/clearing means leaving the complete silence of the breath oriented focus and introducing some intention into the meditation. It becomes like a lucid dream, still connected to the silence, but also accepting the impulses from the subconscious in a non-judgemental way. That first station is the place of All Personal Memory (again retaining the original structure from the Tracker school). APM can have several roles in meditation. It can be a place where you retell yourself a story of an incident in your life, re-experiencing it in memory but also depicting it in words. This is particularly valuable with an emotional incident that you may have trouble accepting or understanding. By reliving it and retelling it in words, according to Dr. Siegel, it becomes integrated into various parts of the brain’s neurobiology, including the Pre Frontal Cortex, which is the rational part of the brain that makes sense of things. This is not to say that all emotional experiences need to be rationalized or reduced to rational components. What it means is that experiences need to be made available to all parts of the brain in order to best understand and learn from them. Putting the experience into words helps the brain integrate the experience more completely. (And, as I outlined in another previous entry, this is very similar to an exercise that Tom Brown suggested called Tree Preaching).
The second function of this station is a more direct connection with memories and past experiences, allowing you to revisit them and benefit from them. Examples of doing this might involve finding lost items or remembering the particulars of conversations. Using a screen on which to project your memories and thoughts is a good device here, which was used by Fool’s Crow in his shamanic visions.
The central theme of the APM station is the vividness of memories. In order to both elicit and integrate memories it is important for them to be fully vivid and multi-sensory. (In some of the more advanced uses of this station, which I’m still exploring, using it with various NLP techniques will involve the manipulation of the vividness of the memories.) The energy of the vividness of memories is then carried along to the next station on the path.
Moving down the path to the next station or clearing brings you to the place of Body Control. (This is a change from the original setup done for several reasons which will be explained later.) In Body Control, you communicate with your sub-conscious in order to get its assistance in controlling autonomic responses in your body. This can be anything from increasing body temperature and metabolism in the cold, to visualizing yourself as healthy and healed in the case of sickness or injury. I firmly believe that everything from metabolism to immune responses to phobias can be influenced by the conscious mind if it knows how to get the subconscious mind on board.
Effective communication with the subconscious mind rests on proper visualization of the outcome and empowering it with positive emotional intention. That proper visualization rests on the work done with memories in the APM station. To visualize a warm body, for example, you have to have a strong memory of a time when you were warm, drawing that memory forth to use it. When I want to be warmer, I will visualize myself standing beside a campfire or, better yet, slipping into a hot tub. In order for those visualizations to work, it is very helpful to have actually had those experiences and to be able to call on them. Memory facilitates my intended visualization of feeling warm. The skills of APM are an important foundation on which to build the visualizations of BC.
Self Healing, which was a separate station in the Tracker format, is combined with Body Control, which I don’t think Tom Brown would actually be upset with as he’d many times referred to self healing as just a form of body control. It uses the same kind of envisioning and, to my mind, the same level of intentionality.
Farther down the path, we come to the third station/clearing, which I’ve chosen to modify considerably from the original format. For lack of a better name, this is the place of Selves. As memories and intentionality combine, they create patterns of response which create the multiplicity of Selves that often rules our minds. We are not one Self, but many, having a different set of responses, attitudes and values depending on external stimuli. There is a self that tries to be responsible and another that strives to be fun-loving and wild. There is the self that is the parent and another that is the child. There is a self that is confident and another that is a critic. These, in turn, create alliances within our mind to produce Meta-selves. The Selves and the Meta-selves arise in our lives, often automatically, to rule our actions and desires. (This interpretation of mind comes from Dr. Hal Stone and a lot of Ken Wilber’s work, including the Zen applications developed by Genpo Roshi and “Big Mind”. It can also be traced back to the works of Georges Gurjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, who insisted that man was a mechanical manifestation of multiple selves way back in the beginning of the 20th Century.)
The station of Selves offers a lot of opportunities to work with these selves. By using techniques pioneered by Dr. Stone in embodying isolated selves, and learning to use them within a meditation, one can have a board meeting of selves, to discuss events or plans from multiple perspectives. One can have a conversation between one’s own Child Self and Adult Self, or between a Critical Self and a Confident Self. Just recognizing that they exist within a broader framework is often enough to create a better perspective on things. This is very similar to those old visuals of the angel sitting on a person’s right shoulder and the devil on their left shoulder, but this is more specific and individual. I have many times identified an emotional reaction to a situation as my Child Self sulking, thereby allowing me to address and hopefully resolve the situation. You can do this at a boardroom table or a court room or whatever other method of dialogue works for you.
Two additional Selves are important within this station. One is Primal Self, which was jumped over earlier on the path. Primal Self is the animalistic, lower brain function, unencumbered by higher reason. It is the one you want to bring forth when there is an emergency survival situation, or you have to build a shelter in record time, or you have to carry a person to safety even if you feel physically unable to. I like to empower the Primal Self with an animal totem (or several). Moving and reacting the way a majestic animal would can help you connect with the primal powers of your mind, which are still very much present even though we keep them chained up much of the time. Unleashing Primal Self becomes a conscious decision when it is done in this way, although Primal Self can also emerge when someone is drunk or angry, unwanted and uncontrolled. Learning to bring it forth consciously will make it much less likely to pop up in unwanted or random situations, as you learn to develop a positive relationship with it.
The other facet of this station is the Shadow Selves. One of the most important components of mindfulness and mental awareness fostered by meditation is an awareness of Shadow Selves. These are the repressed and buried selves collected through life that linger and fester within the mind, waiting for the time that it can slip in and cause trouble. When you are dealing with a situation and suddenly have an intense emotional reaction against a decision or a person, a reaction that seems disproportional to the situation an which you can’t quite figure where it came from, that is very often a Shadow trying to break out of its confines. If you do something irresponsible, out of context with your normal personality, and you are confused as to how it happened, that’s a Shadow. When you should be able to make a relationship work, but keep finding ways to sabotage it (or feel that the other person is sabotaging it), the Shadow may be putting in an appearance.
This is a huge and important area of work, pioneered by Carl Jung but brought into its own in Divided Self Theory and also in Ken Wilber’s work. There’s a lot more to be said about it than I can easily include here. But this station of Selves is definitely the right place to do a lot of the work. Shadows need to be confronted, accepted and reintegrated into the mind’s consciousness. A person who goes out and gets into trouble at wild parties may be dealing with a repressed “Wild Self” that wants to have fun, but is constantly kept in check by a more conservative or sedate set of Selves. Figuring that out, and thinking of ways for the Wild Self to manifest itself in ways that are acceptable to all or at least most of the Meta-Selves is something that can happen within a meditation.
These are the new stations on the path that I am currently using in meditation training. I like the way that it flows, with each station resting on skills practiced in the previous one. I like its richness and its ability to connect with real life problems and situations. I like that it also connects with modern neurological and brain research. It provides a whole arsenal of tools to use balancing the mind and reconnecting with all aspects of mind body and spirit. I see it as an essential prerequisite to the more spiritual tools and skills that can be found on the stairs and beyond. So many of those skills depend on Inner Vision and the kind of deep intuition which can only be found in the harmonious mind. Dan Millman and the Huna tradition actually say that one can only access the Higher Selves through the Subconscious. The Higher Selves don’t respond well to the Logical Mind. That’s an embedded part of the Tracker meditation training as well.
The final thing that I like about it is that it takes the woo factor out of meditation. Spiritual skills are controversial and often rub people the wrong way. These skills are very grounded and scientifically based. They shouldn’t grate against the rationalist or the religious. It gives skeptics a chance to familiarize themselves with meditation before approaching more controversial exercises, -if they ever do. And if they don’t, well they have still accomplished some very important things at this level.