Mastery

     Mastery resists definition yet can be instantly recognized. It comes in many varieties, yet follows certain unchanging laws.  It brings rich rewards, yet is not really a goal or destination, but rather a process - a journey. We call this journey Mastery and tend to assume that it requires a special ticket available only to those born with exceptional abilities.  But Mastery isn't reserved for the super talented or only those who were fortunate enough to obtain an early start.   Mastery is available to anyone, who is willing to get on the path, and stay on it, regardless of age, sex, or previous experience.  The Masters journey can begin whenever you decide to learn any new skill.  How to touch type, how to cook, how to become a lawyer; a doctor or an accountant.  This journey will take you along a path that is both arduous and exhilarating.  It will bring to you unexpected heartaches and unexpected rewards.  You'll probably end up learning as much about yourself as the skill you are pursuing.  There's really no way around it, learning any new skill involves relatively brief bursts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline - to a plateau that is somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.  In an actual learning experience, progress is irregular.  The upward starts vary, the upward bursts vary, the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way, but the general progression is almost always the same.  To take the Masters journey you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills to attain new levels of competence - but while doing so-- and this is the inexorable fact of the journey - you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.

Loving The Plateau

     Early in life we are urged to study hard, so that we will get good grades.  We are told to get good grades so that we will graduate from high school and get into college.  We're told to graduate from high school and get into college so that we'll get a good job.  We're told to get a good job so that we can buy a house and a car. Again, we are told to do one thing, only so that we can get something else.  So we spend our life stretched on an iron rack of contingencies.   Contingencies, no question about it are important, the achievement of goals is important, but the real juice of life; whether it be sweet or bitter - is to be found not nearly so much in the products of our efforts, as in the process of living itself In how it feels to be alive.  We are taught in countless ways to value the product, the prize, the climatic moment - but even we catch the winning pass in the Superbowl, there is always tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

     If our life is a good one, a life of Mastery, most of it Will be spent on the plateau.   If not, a large part may be spent in restless destructive, ultimately self-destructive attempts to escape the plateau. The question remains where in our upbringing, our schooling, our careers are we explicitly taught to value, to enjoy; even to love the plateau - the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress.   Goals and contingencies exist in the future and the past, beyond the pale of the sensory realm.  Practice the path of Mastery, exist only in the present. You can see it, hear it, smell it, and feet it.  To love the plateau is to love the eternal now.  To enjoy the inevitable bursts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them.  To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.

Why Resolutions Fail and What to do About It

     You resolved to make a change for the better in your life, it could be any significant change, but let's say it involves getting on the path of Mastery. Developing a "regular" practice. You tell your friends about it, you put your resolution in writing, you actually make the change, it works, it feels good, you're happy about it, your friends are happy about it, your life is better, then .... you backslide. Why?  Are you some kind of "slob" who has no will power.  Not necessarily.  Backsliding is a universal experience, everyone of us resists significant change no matter whether if it's for the worst or for the better.  Our body, brain, and behavior have a built in tendency to stay the same, within rather narrow limits and to snap back when changed.   And it's a very good thing they do.  Just think about it: if your body temperature moved up and down by ten percent, you would be in BIG trouble.

     The same applies to your blood sugar level, and to a number other functions of your body.  This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change is called homeostasis.  It characterizes all self-regulating systems from a bacterium to a frog, to a human individual, to a family, to an organization, to an entire culture.   It applies to psychological states and behavior as well as to physical functions.   The simplest example of homeostasis can be found in your home heating system.   When the room temperature reaches the level that you've set the thermostat, sends an electrical signal back to the heater, turning it off thus maintaining homeostasis.   Keeping a room at the right temperature takes only one simple feedback loop.   Keeping even the simplest single cell organism alive and well, takes thousands.   And maintaining a human being, in a state of homeostasis takes billions of interweaving electrochemical signals pushing and pulsing in the brain; rushing along the nerve fibers - coursing through the bloodstream.

     Homeostasis in a social group, brings additional feedback loops into play.  Families stay stable by means of instruction, exhortation, punishment, privileges, gifts, favors, signs of approval, affection, and even by means of extremely subtle body language and facial expression.  Social groups larger than the family add various types of feedback systems.  A national culture for example is held together by the legislative process.   Law enforcement, education, the popular arts, sports and games, economic rewards, that favor certain types of activities - and by a complex web of mores that - prestige markers, celebrity role modeling, and style that relies largely on the media as a national nervous system.  Although we might think that our culture is "mad" for the new, the predominant function of all of this as with the feedback loops in your body, is the survival of things as they are.  Homeostasis doesn't distinguish between what you would call "change" for the better and "change" for the worse.   It resists ALL change.  Still, change does occur.  Individuals change, families change, organizations, and entire cultures change.  Homeostasis is reset.   Even though the process might cause a certain amount of anxiety, pain, and upset, the question is "how do you deal with homeostasis"?  How do make change for the better easier?  How do you make it last?  These questions rise to great importance when you embark on the path of Mastery.  Say that after years of "hacking" around in your career, you decide to approach it in the terms of the principles of Mastery Your whole life obviously will change, and thus you will have to deal with homeostasis.  But even if you should begin to apply Mastery to pursuits such as gardening or tennis, what might seem less than central to your existence, the effective change might ripple out to touch almost everything you do.  Realizing significantly more of your potential and almost anything can change you in many ways.   And, however much you enjoy and profit from the change you'll probably meet with homeostasis sooner or later.  You might unknowingly sabotage your own best efforts.   You might get resistance from family, friends, and co-workers.  Ultimately... you will have to decide if you really do want to spend the time and effort it takes to "get on" and "stay on the path"!  If you do, here are five guidelines that might help. While these guidelines are focused on Mastery, they could be applied to any change in your life.

1. Be aware of the way homeostasis works.

2. Be willing to negotiate with your resistance to change.

3. Develop a support system.

4. FOLLOW A REGULAR PRACTICE.

5. Dedicate your self to life-long learning.

Eliciting Energy for Mastery

     If you think you simply don't have the time, or the energy, to dedicate yourself to Mastery, consider the old adage: "if you want to get something done - ask a busy person to do it".  Over the long haul there's nothing like the path of Mastery to lead you to an energetic life.  A regular practice not only elicits energy, but "tames" it.  Without the firm underpinnings of a practice, deadlines can produce violent swings between frantic activity and collapse.   On the Masters journey you can learn to put things in perspective, to keep the flow of energy going during low moments as well as high.  You'll also learn that you can't hoard energy, you can't build it up by NOT using it!  As Fritz Pearl, founder of Gestalt Therapy used to say: "I don't want to be saved, I want to be spent"!   It might well be that all of us process enormous stores of potential energy, more than we could ever hope to use.  Adequate rest is of course, a part of the Master's journey, but unaccompanied by positive action, rest may only depress you.  It might well be in fact that much of the world's depression and discontent, and perhaps even a good share of the pervasive malaise - that leads to crime and war can be ultimately traced to our unused energy, our untapped potential People whose energy IS flowing, don't need to take a drug, commit a crime, or go to war, in order to feel fully awake and alive.   Whatever your age, your upbringing, or your education, what you are made of is - mostly unused potential.  It is your evolutionary destiny to use what is unused, to learn and keep on learning for as long as you live.  To choose this destiny, to walk the path of Mastery isn't always easy, but IT IS the ultimate human adventure.   Destinations will appear in the distance, will be achieved, and left behind, and still the path will continue - it will never end.  How to begin the journey?   You need to only take the first step.  When?  There's always Now.

Addendum:

Mastering the Commonplace

     Life is filled with opportunities for practicing the inexorable unhurried rhythm of Mastery, which focuses on process, rather than product.  Yet, which paradoxically often ends up creating more and better products in a shorter time than does the hurried, excessively goal oriented rhythm that has become the standard in our society.  Making this rhythm habitual takes practice.  Take dishwashing for example, you can perform that chore in a hurried and haphazard way, with your main goal being to get it behind you as quickly as possible.  Or, you can do it as a meditation - a dance.  If you choose this option, take a moment to compose yourself before beginning.  Briefly balance and center yourself, decide on the general sequence of your work, and then begin.  Maintain FULL awareness, of each of your movements.  Even though your hands are mostly directly involved, pay attention to the rest of your body - especially the feet, the abdomen, shoulders and back. Imagine that all of your movements are emanating from your physical center of mass, a point about an inch below your navel.  Go for efficiency, elegance, and grace in your motions.   Avoid hasty shortcuts.  Rather than thinking about getting the job finished and going on to something else, stay wholly focused - on the moment, on the task that is at hand.  Above all, don't hurry.  You might discover that by not hurrying, you'll finish the dishes sooner than would ordinarily be the case.

The odds are pretty good that you'll feel better about it at the end.

We are most humbly thankful to Mr. George Leonard for this insightful and inspiring description of Mastery.




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