Archive for April, 2011

How the Dragon Gets the Pearl

How the Dragon Gets the Pearl

by Jeffrey Brooks

There is no reason to believe that if you sit still a lot all your troubles will be cancelled. Buddhism doesn’t say so. There is no reason to believe that if you try to put all of your thoughts aside that something wonderful will happen.

In many Zen centers and the places under their influence this ignorance is dogma and lucid analysis is ridiculed. The promoters of this kind of nonsense will tell you that they are practicing “a tradition beyond words” and that “the map is not the journey” and your limited ideas won’t help you put an end to suffering.

But at the summit of Indian Buddhist philosophy, the culmination of a 1500 year process of insight into the words of the Buddha and the nature of reality (specifically the Yogachara and the Madhyamika Prasangika, two great streams of thought which run together and which nourished the tradition that became Zen and Ch’an and Dzogchen) what we find points toward experience beyond words. This tradition uses lucid analysis, which respects the practitioner and employs the tools of language and cognition to reveal the limits of language and cognition and to move beyond them.

Practitioners in these traditions and other closely related lines of Buddhist teaching understood the need for deep stillness in order to permit the arising of the exquisite subtlety of perception required to observe the mind in action. They weren’t just sitting there – being still, stopping thoughts, reducing stress or picturing water.

In modern Zen centers teachers talk about the uselessness of thought. But you don’t have to be a “Zen master” or even a Zen master to know the map is not the journey. Any AAA member or GPS owner can tell you that. And when these Zen masters are marketing their centers, buying buildings, applying for grants, or designing a fee structure, they seem not to question the efficacy of the linear discursive thought they deride in daily dharma talks.

They counter this observation by pointing out the fact that thought is necessary in the relative world but in the realm of the absolute, the true world, it is false and useless. They claim that the relative world – the Zen center, the members, the contributions, etc. – constitute a skillful means to further the teaching.

Yet every day, five times a day in many of these centers, they chant that samsara is nirvana, that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. That the relative is not hiding some absolute behind it but that in fact this relative world we experience as regular people is a pramana, a valid perception, and it is a valid perception that is our karma and the absolute and a co-dependent arising that is a perfect mirror of our mind, the mind of the Buddha.

Not a separate realm. Not another world. Not some glow or potentiality waiting out there somewhere to be discovered or a little Buddha inside us obscured by ignorance, but what is right here before our eyes, right now.

They chant, with the words of the Heart Sutra and the other Prajna Paramita sutras, the same words we find in the Madhyamika Karika, the same words we will read in Nagarjuna’s Wisdom, that reality does not hide, that there is one truth, as convenient as it may be from time to time, for us ordinary people to seek refuge in the conventions of the market.

If we can use logic and insight in our mind stream to buy property, build a building, recruit followers, accumulate donations and so on, then why can we not use logic to help ourselves to see how the mind functions, how language works to shift perception, to understand how seeing the suffering of endless beings can break your heart, and how this heartbreaking love becomes an irresistible motivation to get the tools we need to help take care of them and save them.

A pious pose, the right outfit, haircut, lofty affect, willful obscurity and meticulous ceremony won’t help. There is no way to just sit still and expect something good will happen as a result. It is possible to sit and stay confused. Sit and dull your mind. Sit and deepen the distortions and prejudices you first sat down with. Sit and let your life pass.

To have a real teacher you can rely on as a guide is something of inestimable value. To join a club and hope for the best may not help.

Some koans which may once have been lucid arguments are now badly translated and incomprehensible.  Once, expressed within their own cultural context, they may have been familiar ideas seen in a fresh perspective. They may have been quotes from scriptures which, it was assumed, the student had thoroughly studied, suddenly revealed to have a depth and dimension that had been invisible before. When the Diamond Sutra master featured in the Platform Sutra suddenly abandons his books for the purity of the direct perception of reality beyond words his insight is utterly predicated upon his Buddhist scholastic education. That intellectual foundation was not sufficient for liberation. But it was necessary.

Some koans may seem impenetrable, or designed to defeat apprehension by logic, to send the practitioner on a leap beyond the rational – but a leap into what?  Some have leapt into cutesy, pat answers, or drama, or pantomime or some other make believe piece of theatre that is intended to convey something that will stand for insight beyond words. And have passed their koans, receiving the teacher’s approval of their insight.

This anti-intellectual prejudice had great appeal to the sixties hippies who first attached themselves to the Japanese priests who taught in California at the beginning of the American Zen movement. Their ambitious followers quickly made plans and moved forward. They were confident and persuasive.

The appeal of their approach extends to people now who are suffering from overstimulation, the shallowness of pop culture, and the feelings of boredom, agitation, anxiety and depression which are the natural states of the modern urban mind. The refuge in simple aesthetics, stillness and order is appealing. But what is it that is appealing? Does it offer real refuge?

What do you want? What do you think makes a mature human life? What does it really take to behave decently in the midst of this world? What does it take to see deeply? To put an end to suffering? Who do you admire? How do you judge them? How do you want to live?

According to the dharma there are three ways you can know something. One is through your perception. One is through inference drawn from your perception. One is through the words of an authoritative source. We are encouraged to trust ourselves. Not to throw our judgment away – incomplete as it may be – and give away the direction of our lives, in advance, to some confident person who promises they are a teacher.

We need a good place to practice, and a community of fellow practitioners who are devoted to training is a great help. We need guidance on the way.

But we are urged when following the Buddhist path to use our judgment, our intelligence, our own wisdom to find good sources of knowledge – human and literary, in experience and phenomena – and to do the work we need to do, humbly and with sincerity.

We are frequently reminded that it is up to each of us.

It is up to you.

There is no one else in this entire universe who can do it.

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer. He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.


First for Yourself, Then for Others

First for Yourself, Then for Others

by Susan Downing

Last week I had occasion to be chatting with a woman who’s a practicing massage therapist, and who’d just recently done a weekend Reiki Level I training  with a local teacher.  I asked her how she was liking Reiki.

She tilted her head to the side, sighed and replied, “Well, that attunement really took it out of me – depression, I felt crappy….”  I told her that attunements can definitely affect us strongly, since receiving that big burst of energy makes deep healing possible.  I said that giving herself time to move through whatever her body and mind are releasing will help.

“But are you enjoying doing Reiki?” I asked, thinking this would give her something fun to talk about.  Instead, she looked almost despondent.  Again, she sighed.

“I’m having trouble integrating it into my massage work,” she explained. “It’s hard to figure out how to do both at the same time.”

“You know,” I replied, “it’s best to hold off using Reiki in a professional practice until you’ve had a chance to settle in with it yourself.  Get used to how it feels, how you like to work with it on yourself. Then, once you’re feeling confident, you can think about using it with your massage clients.”  She listened, but I’m not sure whether she took in what I was saying.

I took great care when I said this, partly because this was only the second time I’d ever had a conversation with her.  But mainly I wanted to choose my words carefully because I feel very strongly about this topic, and it wouldn’t have been fair to pour out my philosophical position on a near stranger.  So, I’ll pour it out on all of you!

It really bothered me that this student had somehow come away from her training thinking there was no reason she shouldn’t immediately begin using Reiki in a professional capacity, combined with massage.

The conventional wisdom within the Reiki field is — or at least it used to be — that Level I practitioners should use Reiki first and primarily on themselves, and then on family members or close friends.  Not on professional, paying clients.  I tell students who want to practice professionally, that they should wait until after they’ve completed Reiki II training.  But it seems that either Reiki teachers aren’t making this point to their students, or the students are disregarding it.  In recent weeks, a friend told me about a Reiki teacher she knows who works in a spa setting. This teacher gave Reiki I training to a large group of practitioners of other modalities and then immediately put them on the schedule to give Reiki sessions to clients.  Many of these practitioners feel very uncomfortable doing this.  And rightly so.

Why might newly-trained Level I practitioners  — or their teachers — assume it’s okay for them to go right out and give formal Reiki sessions to anyone they want?  Maybe it’s because Reiki students don’t have to learn about muscles the way massage therapists do, or master acupuncture points. Or because there are no hard and fast rules about where to put your hands.  Or because when we practice Reiki we are not in the business of diagnosing or trying to cure disease.  It’s true that it’s amazing simple to learn the basic technique of giving Reiki. Perhaps because of this, especially if the teacher doesn’t stress that Reiki is a practice, students can mistakenly conclude that Reiki doesn’t involved anything other than getting the technique down.  This is far from the truth.

When you’re beneath the hands of an experienced Reiki practitioner who has devoted his or her life to this practice, the potential for emotional, physical or spiritual transformation you can experience is, in my opinion, unlimited. But if you’re a Reiki practitioner, getting to the point where you can bring that to the table requires that you commit to engaging with Reiki as a practice, with humility, recognizing that when you start, in fact, you know pretty much nothing aside from the basic technique of putting your hands on someone’s body.

Although you’ve probably practiced self-Reiki in class and have maybe even done a couple of sessions on other students as part of your training, you still really have only a very limited idea of how Reiki can affect you. And that means you have have pretty much no idea how it can affect others to whom you might give Reiki.  It’s devoting yourself to developing a personal practice that will help you begin to learn all of this.  Give yourself Reiki every day — yes, every day — and you start to get a sense of how it feels to you.  You begin to realize that you can experience releases of physical and emotional tension as you practice Reiki for yourself, and you begin to understand what that can feel like. You become aware of how it can help with anxiety, insomnia, and physical pain.  You understand this because you are experiencing it yourself as your own Reiki practice deepens.

As you go through this period of getting acquainted with Reiki, you’re not just learning what Reiki does for you and how it can feel to you.  You’re also gaining experience that will help you once you do begin giving Reiki to others.  This early self-Reiki practice gives you the confidence and knowledge to be able to talk to someone else about what Reiki can do and about what they may experience as the energy flows from your hands into their body.  You can give them some idea of what to expect because you’ve felt it yourself, in your own releases and healing.

But after you’ve settled into a consistent Reiki practice for yourself, you still won’t have much experience to draw on.  That’s why, once you feel you’re stable in your own practice, I encourage you to begin giving Reiki to those closest to you: family members, good friends, but not to jump to practicing Reiki professionally. The reason I say this is that Reiki can facilitate profound releases in recipients, and people react to them in a variety of ways: some laugh, some cry, some sob, some experience pain that intensifies and then suddenly vanishes, some experience increasing antsiness, some with a history of trauma experience flashbacks.

If you’re a novice Reiki practitioner, even if you have been doing a lot of self-Reiki, responses like these can take you by surprise, and they can upset the recipient.  Now, if this happens when you’re practicing on your family members or close friends, they’ll know that you don’t know everything yet, so if they have a strong reaction, it’s not such a problem: you can contact your teacher and ask for advice or and explanation, and then give your friend some feedback.   I have these kinds of conversations with my students often. This is why I encourage students to practice on people they know well — so that everyone can get experience in a low-pressure setting.  Little by little, you’ll gain knowledge and confidence, and when questions or concerns come up, you can  ask your teacher or other experienced Reiki practitioners for advice.

But now consider a different scenario.  Let’s say you’ve moved from your Reiki I training right into doing professional sessions. Maybe you’re doing a little self-Reiki, but you haven’t established a consistent practice routine, choosing instead to put your energy into giving Reiki to others right away.   This means you will not have much sense at all of how Reiki can affect a recipient.  So it’s possible that after you’ve been doing formal Reiki work for a week or two, one of your clients could sit up after a session and says to you, “I feel like I’ve just been through the wringer.  I remembered this awful incident from when I was a kid.  What’s that all about?  Is that normal?”  If you’re an experienced practitioner, a client’s powerful response is a great opportunity, because you can help them understand what’s going on and explain how it’s part of a healing process.  And if you’re a novice working on a family member or friend, you can be honest and say, “I don’t know, but I’ll ask my teacher and then I’ll tell you what she says.”

But if you’re presenting yourself as a Reiki professional, while lacking enough experience to know how to answer your client, either you’ll admit your lack of experience and say you’ll check with someone and find out, or you’ll shrug and say, “I’m not sure.”  In either case, you’ll probably feel you’ve let the client down, and the client may mistakenly conclude the Reiki has actually caused some harm.   At the very least, they’ll leave feeling uneasy. At worst, they’ll be freaked out and never try Reiki again.

That’s a problem, because when our clients lie down on our table, they’re putting themselves both in and under our hands.  They have a right to expect us to be fully prepared to work with them, to support and guide them through whatever releases or reactions they might have during a session.   And the best way to prepare ourselves to be able to do that is to make sure that our personal Reiki practice is strong and consistent before we start working on others.

If I sound very serious about all of this, I am.  I feel that the biggest mistake novice Reiki practitioners make is to think that because they’ve had a short Level I class and done a short practice session or two, they have all they need to go out and practice on others. And one of the biggest mistakes Reiki teachers make is allowing students to believe this is the case.  Encouraging students to approach Reiki this way does everyone a disservice.  It limits students’ development as practitioners by allowing them to conclude that there’s no benefit to be gained by devoting time and energy to developing a serious personal Reiki practice.  And it does a disservice to clients by bringing them into contact with inexperienced practitioners who don’t really understand what Reiki can do or how to help clients get the most out of their sessions.

So, how can we avoid this scenario?

As teachers, we should encourage Level I students to use Reiki as much as they can — but mainly on themselves at first.  Suggest that before beginning to give Reiki to others (aside from the occasional session for family, which will really boost their confidence,) they establish a strong personal Reiki practice.   Encourage them to give themselves Reiki daily, so they can get a good sense of how the energy affects them, and what it can do for them.

I strongly believe that if you’re a beginning practitioner, what’s most important is to give yourself the time to practice Reiki regularly and enjoy it, to fall in love with it. To come to respect Reiki and all it can do for us (and, later, for others) if we treat it, right from the start, as a beautiful, powerful, profound and deeply transformative practice. A practice that can enable us — if we devote ourselves to it — to connect in a gentle, joyous, loving way with ourselves and those around us.  Mikao Usui, Reiki’s founder, described Reiki as “the secret method of inviting happiness.”  But if you skip the initial period of getting to know Reiki, you can easily end up missing out on the happiness Reiki can bring, because you are treating it as just a tool, rather than as a whole new approach to your life, one which can help joy blossom within you and those with whom you eventually share it.

It’s that joyful enthusiasm for Reiki that I didn’t sense when speaking with the new Level I practitioner last week, and which was missing in my friend’s description of those Level I students who moved directly from the classroom to the treatment room.

So, if you’re a beginning Reiki student, please do take it slow.  Let the Reiki flow through your hands and your own body; relax into it and allow the joy to arise within you. When you can do that, then’s the right time to build on your personal practice and start sharing Reiki with those closest to you, because at that point, you’ll come to those practice sessions with full of joy and enthusiasm for Reiki.  Your recipients will feel your engagement with Reiki and with them. And that is a fine foundation, both for your personal practice, and any professional Reiki sessions you may begin to do as your practice matures.

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Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

by Jeffrey Brooks

Traffic was barely moving and the street was packed form curb to curb with drivers who were not where they wanted to be. Talk about postponing joy. These guys considered it cancelled.

A car sped up. A cab stopped short. Brakes squealed. Bumpers collided. A hood crumpled. A radiator hissed.

The drivers bailed out of their cars already sweating, with tempers hotter than the walls of the oven at Ray’s Original Pizza.

But there they were. Face to face. A pace apart, shouting with outrage, spitting bullets, faces contorted and red.

One had enough. He spun forward and with a furious round house kick he brought the blade of his foot within a half inch of the chest of the motionless cabbie in front of him. The cabbie sized the guy up in a nanosecond and smacked him down to the pavement.

I recognized the technique of the kicker instantly. In his tae kwon do class, with rules requiring light or no contact, the move would have scored him a point. Here the habits he developed for skillful sparring cost him a septum.

Another incident, this one in training:

Two guys are practicing together. One is an experienced martial artist, the other just a few months into training. The experienced guy had grown up in the country, doing hard physical work every day for years, before beginning his professional career. He had the even confidence of someone who has done what he needed to do. The inexperienced guy thought the world of himself and to him the rest of the world appeared in desperate need of special ed. This guy did not want to condition his body incrementally over time. He wanted to go for it. He decided he would teach the big ox a lesson. The new guy threw a massive punch, with his whole body behind it, at the center of the chest of the experienced man. The big guy leaned a shoulder back, letting the punch slip by. The new guy’s punch connected with the stationary forearm of the experienced guy, just below the big guy’s elbow. With a pop the arm of the new guy shattered and became useless.

Consistent training in martial arts is extremely valuable. There is no way to make the most of your skills, your body, your mind or your will without consistently training and sincerely challenging yourself every time you do.

But there are extremes to be avoided in training. One is assuming that because you know a technique and that it has worked time and again under the controlled conditions of the training hall that you are somehow inoculated against attack.

Another is the temptation to artificially ‘make it real’ and give or get a permanent injury – hands, feet, knees and brain are the big ones – which lead to disability not strength. The body is not designed to take injurious forces again and again. There may come a time when the risk is required, but day after day as the injuries accumulate the result of training will be the opposite of the one you hoped to achieve.

For many of us the experience of the street and our experience in the dojo balance each other, and correct the limitations of the other. The street keeps us from getting complacent by believing that outcomes are foreordained. The dojo provides us with a constant reminder that our skills need to be practiced to stay sharp.

I was out toward the edge of a little riot, moving back toward the center where the crowd was surging. I heard a scream and saw a guy with something in his hand running away from the scream and toward me.  I told him to stop. He slowed down. There was no doubt that he had just assaulted someone and took something from them.  I could not back off and call the police. I was the police. I told him to stop right there. He did. I told him to drop it now. He did.  I could see it was not his.

He was cool. He knew he was caught. Getting the first handcuff on him was easy but as I began to move his wrists together he started to tense up and turn. His friends or people who suddenly now considered themselves to be his friends were gathering around. I had radioed in but it was hard to relate exact locations. I needed to get this guy under control immediately.

You never know in advance how this kind of thing will go. In hindsight things seem inevitable. In the moment they are entirely fluid. Writing the report later in the shift you can describe the course of events in a logical narrative, explaining what you saw and heard and your rationale for what you did. You can convey the tactics and the legal requirements in a clear and reasoned sequence. In the heat of the moment, in the midst of chaos, violence, threats of violence, distraction and stimulation overload, all you can rely on is your training and your colleagues.

That this guy had hurt someone was clear. The victim came running up after him screaming. That he would continue to do this to other people was likely – from what I saw he was familiar with how to do this and it was not his first time. Would it have been compassionate of me to let him run off and tell the girl not to be so attached to her property, that it was only money, and to get new credit cards and ID? Would it have been compassionate of me to let this guy go on to prey upon other people, people who trusted him perhaps, people who are weaker than him or vulnerable for whatever reason at the moment at which they encounters him? Would it have been compassionate of me to allow him to collect the terrible karma that would come if he continued to steal, intimidate, injure and maybe kill some innocent people? What kind of life could he expect if he were not stopped from going down this path? Couldn’t I benefit him, his victim, and all the other potential victims he might harm over the course of the evening or of his lifetime, by stopping him decisively right now?

I thought so.

So I applied my knee to a pressure point I knew how to use very well and which I hoped would stun him. It did. I quickly got the other hand cuff on and several other officers assisted me in getting him to the back of the patrol vehicle.

There have been times when it went other ways.

The phrase used in martial arts training that refers to the openness to fresh experience is called “beginner’s mind.” This concept is sometimes misunderstood as making a virtue of inexperience or of ignorance. That is not right.

The “beginner’s mind” does not presume to know the outcome of a situation. A beginner’s mind responds spontaneously to shifting conditions. It does not rely on rote or autopilot responses and expect them to automatically work.

Some western Zen practitioners have taken this phrase up as a slogan to justify their non-trying and not-training. They miss the point. And under the pressure of life and death, the very pressure they pay lip service to every day in the Zendo, that approach proves useless.

At another point in Buddhist liturgy also it famously says that “life is like a dream, an illusion…” and so on. How is it that people can miss the point of this?

Buddhism never says that life is merely a dream, merely an illusion. As if it was nothing. As if it was meaningless. Quite the contrary.

It is like them. Life is like a dream or an illusion in that like them life arises and vanishes without a trace. Like them life continually changes. Like them life is contingent on causes and conditions. And like them conditions which we think may be permanent and unchanging are instead continually shifting, requiring us to rely upon our training, to always be strong, do right, and stay focused on our purpose.

That is the mindset of a sincere beginner. It is good to keep it.

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer. He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.


The Heart of Reiki

The Heart of Reiki

by Susan Downing

It’s a lovely spring day here, and I have some some good news to share with you: Lotus Press has just given me a contract to publish The Heart of Reiki, the book I’ve been writing this winter.

I’d sent my proposal to Lotus Press because it’s known for its Reiki books – such as Frank Petter’s books, if you know them – so I’m particularly happy that they feel my book will be a good addition to their offerings.

Since September, I’ve been taking students through the practice that I’m presenting in my book.  I started out calling it a practicum, “Reiki as Spiritual Practice,” because that seems to be what Mikao Usui, Reiki’s founder, had in mind when working with his students – he wanted to help them grow spiritually.  The practice elements I began teaching my students came out of my own combined Reiki and Buddhist practice, so I really did think of it as a spiritual practice.

The way we use Reiki in this practice is very different from using Reiki as a healing modality.  Just ask my students.  They’ll tell you it took them a while to adjust to a different way of working with Reiki! As I continued working with them and began writing the book itself and my proposal, I decided to emphasize that I am teaching people to practice Reiki not with healing outcome in mind, but to facilitate their own personal or spiritual transformation. What do I mean by that?

I’ve found that the Reiki practitioners who are interested in working this way tend to identify themselves as spiritual – although they are often not connected to any church or spiritual system. They say that they feel something is missing in their spiritual practice, or that they would like to develop a spiritual practice and experience change in their lives.

What most people I work with really mean when they say this, is that they would like a way to be happier, to learn to control their negative emotions, to find a way to be kinder to those around them.  In other words, they want to transform their hearts and minds so that they can be more loving to others and so life’s ups and downs won’t take such a toll on them.  They want a practice that will enable them to experience greater happiness in their lives and share that happiness with those around them.

I myself didn’t consciously decided to start practicing this way – my Buddhist and Reiki practices gradually deepened and came together for me so that last spring I suddenly understood what Mikao Usui, Reiki’s founder, must have meant when he called Reiki “the secret method of inviting happiness.”  Through my own practice, I had discovered a way to bring deep joy into my life, and once I’d understood that this was possible, I decided I wanted to develop a way to teach Reiki practitioners – no matter what their level of training – how to use Reiki so that they, too, could experience this happiness.  That’s what I began doing in the ongoing practicum, which I now call The Heart of Reiki practicum, and this is what I present in my book.

It is my hope that the Reiki practitioners who devote themselves to the practice I offer will also come to experience the happiness that Usui Sensei knew practicing Reiki could bring, and that they will share it with everyone around them, through their healing work and in all other moments of their lives.

So, now I am busy actually finishing the manuscript, so that I can deliver it to Lotus Press.   But before I sign off and go back to that work, I want to express my gratitude to those of you who have been instrumental in helping me get this project off the ground.  Thank you to Cecelia and Fred for your dedication to the practicum work and for your trust in me; to Karen, for our many Reiki discussions and for encouraging me in this endeavor; and to Jeff, for all that you give me – your teaching, insight, guidance and support.  Many, many thanks.


Boys To Men

Boys To Men

by Jeffrey Brooks

The varieties of human experience are many but one thing all societies had in common until modern times was a way for boys to be initiated into adulthood. Sometimes this initiation is talked about in a quaint way, as if it were a ritual, as if it were something that was a mere formality to be gotten through on a special day. It was not.

Young boys looked up to the men around them and wanted to be like them. They recognized the inner qualities of strength of character and freedom, and the outer qualities of skill and physical strength. They could also sense the purpose and responsibility that these men had. The boys sensed that they could not have those qualities just by wanting to have them. They needed to develop them. That could only happen through the training and guidance of those men, and through testing under pressure.

The test would measure character and skill by placing the boy, when he was ready, in a situation that would make high demands on his strength, skill and courage, and would reveal if his determination to join the adult world – to be a man – was sufficient to get him through to complete the test without giving up or collapsing.

It was understood that if he did not pass he would not be a man.

This was a good thing. It set the standards high so the boys would grow strong, and become proud of themselves. High enough so that they would know they could meet a difficult challenge and succeed.  That they could be depended upon by the community they were entering to willingly face danger, and have the courage and skill to prevail, if the community were threatened.

The boys had a chance to show that they were willing to prepare themselves and willing to risk their lives to meet the demands that life placed on them. There was no way a pre modern people could survive without developing those qualities in men. And it was implicit in the structure of the training for manhood, the administration of the test, and the motivation in the hearts of the boys who under took it, that it was a challenge they willingly undertook, and that they did it for the sake of becoming a part of the group.

This initiation was not designed to separate them from the people they lived with. It was not done to make them different from the members of their community, or to gain entry into an elite.

It validated the community as well as the individual. It was a way of saying to the group I admire you and I am now worthy of membership. I am dependable. I am strong. I am someone who will give everything I have, focus everything I have, make myself resolute and clear and strong as I have been trained to do, and dedicate myself to serving the well-being and safety of all of you.

To work, to serve the individual and the community, the initiation must be willingly undertaken, it must provide a genuine test that pushes the limits of the young man taking it, presenting him with real danger and the risk of failure.  It must be a test of the effects of long and difficult training. That training must require the boy to change in order to meet the demands of a form required by the trainers. That form must be well-designed to foster the best qualities of the young man. The motivation of the boy taking the test has to be admission into the community, motivated by a desire to serve the people around him, accompanied by a willingness to face danger and to risk his life – to become a person that other people can depend on. That is how a genuine initiation into manhood works.

It was universal in pre modern times. It is rare now. And we see the results in weakness, decadence and confusion all around us.

Most work settings discourage initiation. Marx and Engels tried their best to valorize industrial labor, but significantly, neither had ever done any. A service job or a factory job which require little skill and provide little satisfaction degrade people and make them unhappy. They make few demands and provide no inner reward or outer accomplishment. Traditional artisan training offered many opportunities for true initiation and it still can. But most modern work does not.

The process of initiation is emulated in sports and in professional training. But it usually falls short in both arenas.

In professional training, in engineering, law, academics or medicine there is a demand made on the individuals who participate which asks them to conform to the requirements set by a group of leaders. But these trainees are entering an elite fraternity, they are not dedicated to the general well-being of the community (there may be some with that interest but through selection and training the rule is that ambition trumps kindness.)

The cultural trappings of entry into these worlds and the incentive systems in place which restrict entry and reward entry are all designed to separate the initiated from the rest of the community. These correspond to the formation of a priesthood in pre modern society. Where priesthood was conferred by merit on those who had come through the initiation process and had as its foundation selfless dedication to the well-being of the community it could work. When it was run as a separate track from the process of initiation it was doomed to cause self-serving manipulation and trouble. It still does.

The difficulties people face in these professional settings make good and powerful demands on them, and develop many good people. But they were never designed to turn boys into men and they do not.

This type of professional training does not make physical demands, develop high physical skill or deep mental focus, or place young men in physical jeopardy. As a result – in the lab, in the courtroom, in the consulting room, at home, with their friends, on the ski slopes or tennis courts – no matter how high their status, how great their wealth or how significant their achievements, these professionals generally do not form a reliable foundation of confidence in their manhood.

Athletics emulates initiation. It is necessary for boys. Like training the mind in the professions or trades it is a great thing. And like them it cannot offer a complete initiation into adulthood for most young men.

Martial arts can be used to begin the process, and it has been since the beginning of time. It can still go pretty far along the path. The reason the Marines have incorporate martial arts in the training for every Marine is not because there is a great call for hand to hand combat on the modern battlefield. It is because it creates an intelligent body and a strong mind.  Martial arts training can push the body to its limit, and put people consistently under high stress.

Properly done martial arts demands a willingness to confront interpersonal human aggression directly, developing the habit of taking the initiative when confronted, not being intimidated, and the habit of meeting the challenge presented by a committed aggressor with the determination to prevail.

There are opportunities for civilian martial arts training that are like this. But they are hard to come by. It is rare to find a martial arts dojo which will push its members to the limit in training, consistently, over the long haul. It is rare – but not unheard of – to find a martial arts dojo which will make demands on the members that will be deeply transformative. It is very unusual to find one in which the leaders care about their trainees selflessly enough to push them hard with both devotion to their maturity and the skill to achieve it.

That is because in most martial arts dojos, even ones which are run by sincere and capable instructors, with serious, devoted students, our social norms of comfort and our expectation of praise for limited achievement compromise the training environment so that if you push too hard or demand too much people cry, quit, sue or go somewhere where it is easier to get a rank.

Martial arts has a close connection to the few subcultures within our post-modern culture which retain the process of male initiation.

Military training is one of them. Law enforcement is another. These are treated as marginal subcultures in the modern world, and in many places as suspect ones. But they preserve an ethos of mental and physical training, of service and personal responsibility which were until recently accepted by all people of good will as self evident virtues and social necessities.

These ideals are indispensible and good for young men. This is an unusual idea now so I want to answer one objection in advance: military and police training do not turn boys into mindless killers. Drugs and gangs and television and envy do.

Many boys are raised without men in their lives. The older people they know may never have been initiated into adulthood. They are raised by pop media.  They come of age by partying, i.e., using illegal drugs and having sex.  Their anti-social and anti-authoritarian posture is a reflex. Their minds are disturbed by desire and anger. They feel weak. They do not know what to do.

If children are not initiated into adulthood they will stay children. They will make demands on others. They will not have the ability or the inclination to take care of others. They will indulge themselves when they can. They will ask other people to take on the role of adults and provide for their needs and their happiness. However as lifelong children their needs will never be fulfilled and they will remain unhappy. This is how our culture has been crippled by comfort.

Women in pre modern cultures also willingly took on danger and sacrificed their safety and comfort for the sake of the community. Their initiation was through childbirth and they entered the world of adult responsibility, just as warriors did, as life was placed in their hands.

The world around us has arisen as it has for reasons we may never fully know. But we do not have to leave it as it is. We can do our part by taking our responsibility seriously. By cultivating our lives – by being decent, by developing sharp awareness and clearly seeing how the lives of the people around us are unfolding. By creating the conditions in which we task ourselves with meeting the demands of a mature and fulfilled life, and by placing healthy, positive demands on the people we care for.

We all have the freedom and the power to do that. Freedom and power will come only from that.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “”  His articles and books are collected at