Zen Tracking

By | August 6, 2013

Tracking is in our blood. It is the first skill we practice — find mother, find the breast. We track instinctively, because tracking is as old as animal life itself — picture an Amoeba seeking a Virus to engulf or a Snail searching for a bed of succulent Algae. We are designed to track — the set of our eyes, the shape of our legs and the way our brain functions have evolved to make us more efficient Trackers. As Humans we were Trackers before we were anything else; it was our first profession. When we hear the Voice of the Track, even for the first time, a familiar feeling comes alive deep inside, as though we were experiencing a deja vu.

As with our Ancestors, Native (foraging-hunting) People are tracking throughout the day. Whether gathering firewood, looking for berries, or hunting, the Native is employing the skills of the Tracker. Although not as obviously tracking, we who live the Civilized Way are also continuously employed in the tracking profession. Shopping, driving, surfing the Internet — all are manifestations of the Tracker within, all employ the same innate, intuitive abilities.

This innateness is reflected in my response to someone who once asked me to help follow the track of an animal: “Why waste the time? I feel inside where she is; we can just go directly there.”  Like the mother who often knows the whereabouts of her children even though she may not see them, so does the Native frequently know the location and involvement of his unseen animal kin. So when tracking he may not need to study visible sign of the track. Rather, he hears the lingering spirit voice of the animal, which he can often sense even though animal has long passed by. This is called Native, or Zen, tracking. Zen is plainly defined as “essence”; Zen tracking is connecting with the essence, or heart, of the track.

A Native connects with the Zen of the track because he knows that the animal he wishes to track is not just, or only, the animal he sees. The animal is a ripple in the wind, the color in a blade of grass. She is last summer’s drought and autumn’s bountiful acorn crop and the way the Hills roll into the Bogs. She is tomorrow’s pups and yesterday’s carcass. She is the fiber of her nest and the spirit of the animals she hunts. She is the reflection in our eye, she is the shadow we cast. Whether she hears it or not, her heart jumps to the stone we accidentally kick, and her mind catches the thoughts we dare think. In communing with this Zen of the animal, the Tracker can know her unseen, ethereal self and gain a feel for her moods and temperaments, and thus be able to track her more effectively.

If  he does not know these things, he does not know her. If he does not know her, he can only track her as one would search for a commodity on a store shelf.

This “searching for a commodity” approach is the common contemporary way of tracking. Developed for law enforcement and military use and subsequently adopted by nature hobbyists and hunters, it relies upon the study of animal traits and sign (footprint, broken twigs, shed hair, etc.). I call it the technical approach.

Let me tell you how I learned to track, as I think it will help in the understanding of the two tracking approaches and how they came to exist. Perhaps my story will also help soften the distinction between the two that some hold, as the Zen approach has a technical aspect as well, and the technical approach evolved from the Zen. The difference, from my perspective, is more a matter of emphasis. After all, the tracking ability in each of us is intrinsic and springs from the common Ancestral Well.

When I was younger I had the honor of living with a pack of semi-domestic Wolves. They trained me as a Tracker, and then allowed me to track with them. Like the Aboriginal Person, they are natural Zen Trackers. They move within the Greater Movement of the track, with their heads up and attuned to everything else around them. Like the Aborigine, their faces would be to the ground but occasionally. What they taught me of track analysis was what could be picked up at a glance, while on the move.

While I was living with the Wolves I yet had two of my Alaskan Sled Dogs. Watching them track side-by-side was a revelation to me, because their techniques were quite different. The Dogs would often track with their “noses set to the ground” in classic hound fashion. They do so because we have bred them to be incomplete Wolves — to have accentuated abilities such as sight, running, or smelling, leaving their other abilities underdeveloped. This has pulled them out of Balance; no longer are they complete unto themselves. So when functioning within the mode of their hyper ability they tend to become oblivious to their surroundings. This makes it difficult for them to hear the Voice, so they seldom flow within the Greater Movement of the track.

Later in life, after I became exposed to technical tracking, I came to realize that Civilized People had bred their Dogs to track as they do, perhaps so that their Dogs would be compatible with them as hunting companions. (The Aborigine, like Wolf, is a Tracker complete unto himself, so seldom tracks with a Dog.)

In the same way that the technical aspects of a Wolf’s tracking have been exaggerated in the Dog, the technical aspects of a Native Person’s tracking have been exaggerated in the modern approach.

Native Trackers are Zen Trackers. Through my involvement with Eastern philosophies, which I was drawn to because within them survives some of the Ancestral Way, I came to realize that the Native tracking way was also known as Zen. Before the dawn of Western Civilization, Zen tracking was all that existed.

The Zen, or living essence, of the track is gained not by study of the track — it is deeper than that, bigger than that. To know the life of something one must become it. This “becoming” cannot be captured by study because the tracking intuition already lies within. Study is little more needed than a mother needs it to know her child. Also, the Zen Tracker requires the clear vision that comes from direct contact with life, so he must learn by the most direct and experiential means possible. Practice and the use of his entire being as an instrument bring him the clear realization of the track as it actually exists. This unfolds through meditative focus, envisionment and intuition rather than by study. Years ago a Native Elder helped me understand this difference in approach when he pointed out that he sees Civilized People learning by science, whereas his People learn by listening.

The means of learning is most important because it becomes the means of tracking. If we learn by study, we will track by study; if we learn by becoming the track, we will track by becoming the track. Abstractions — texts, diagrams, formulas, computer programs — may help with the technical facet of the art, but in using them we risk them becoming the art. So study is employed in the Zen approach only when it is a part of the approach and not the approach itself.

The Abstractions of study give a distorted view of what it is to be a Native Tracker, and they limit the tracking experience in the same way that a Dog is limited in relation to a Wolf. And abstractions cannot capture or convey the ethereal, intuitive aspects of tracking that the Native primarily relies upon.

As a learning tool, observation carries some of the same risk as study. It objectifies tracking by separating the Tracker from the Tracked. In that sense, observation is study. The Native prefers immersion — becoming and shadowing the animal, to learn her Voice. As with study, observation yet has its place if it be a part of the learning process rather than the learning process.

All this considered, let us remember that a component of Zen tracking is technical; it is the emphasis on that aspect, rather than the aspect itself, that causes limitation in tracking.

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