There is a two-sided misconception around the practices of people who achieve excellence or mastery in their field. We tend to think that they either spent thousands of boring hours, trudging through dull details in mindless drills of repetition. Or that they are massively gifted and find it all incredibly easy as if divine inspiration were tirelessly guiding their effortless discovery of dazzling prowess.
Both these notions are a little absurd, dreamt up by the fragile ego’s fear and vanity. The problem is that when people who possess masterful skills talk about their journey, they can appear to describe it in ways that align to some degree with one of these two accounts. Sometimes the same person describes it in either way depending on who they are talking to or the time when they are asked. So which is it? Do they use aspects of both sides? I believe not! It is simply very difficult to talk about the reality of effective practice towards mastery without veering into one of these accepted paradigms. This is because this reality seems paradoxical and language handles paradox with difficulty.
The dark side
They are plausible accounts sometimes… If a student’s deep, inner force of talent is strong enough to generate instant impressive skills, a very arrogant ego may claim ownership and cross to the dark side. But such narcissistic individuals inevitably fall short of their potential and as such are not on the path to mastery.
Another equally narcissistic individual may attribute their skills purely to their ability to keep their nose to the grindstone and deny any deeper intuitive talent. But again, this inevitably lures them from the path. The true middle way of ideal practice makes use of neither boring trudge nor blind, effortless talent. To see how this is possible, we must first understand what mastery is…
Mastery is a journey not a destination
I was a child prodigy on the piano and I have honed my pianistic craft tirelessly my whole life. I admit that I have some serious skills that are very uncommon but I still feel like a beginner. I can’t call myself a master, it sounds overblown and grandiose; I’m actually an eternal student.
So mastery is a path not a destination. Of course, you can have dreams and goals that fuel your inspiration to practice with dedication but the journey itself is the key. We practise for the joy of practice and not for the results it brings.
Curiosity, Wonder and Awe
The background state of a student of mastery is awe and wonder. Such a powerful, profound curiosity that sustains itself is never bored nor does it shirk structure and discipline. Endless fascination naturally motivates detailed, iterative practice which develops skill in a fractal-like, evolutionary way. Always inspired to sift, refine and discover more means that you practice in a seemingly paradoxical state of disciplined focus whilst being plugged into something utterly free and magical.
This state is not made from two things mixed together. It is not an exotic cocktail or an unstable, explosive compound. It is a state where to be so absorbed by repetitious detail and structure IS the magic. And it is always a joy! No matter how boring and repetitious it may appear to an outsider looking in, this kind of practice is addictively pleasurable!
Dedicated and inspired, humble and disciplined, the student of mastery practices for love. And so do the best teachers, who aim to provide their students with the tools they need in their practice. I prefer the word ‘toys’: tools are for work but toys are for play. The best practice is done like a child fully absorbed in creative play, perhaps in a sandpit or building castles with their blocks. A master teacher wishes for the student to gain autonomy and doesn’t criticise their interpretative choices but encourages them to say or create whatever they want to with greater clarity and precision by helping them become increasingly adept at handling the tools. A master teacher therefore empowers students and demands not obedience but enquiry, not correct execution but playful experimentation and not results but deep focus or a state of flow.
Is it necessary to teach humility? Perhaps we must in those rare cases where the intuitive skills are very strong and there are clear indications of arrogance. But most students only require gently checking to stop them from trying to impress. Arrogance doesn’t work for most normal human beings, anyway: the moment we start to be impressed by ourselves is the moment we crash and burn; so it is self-limiting and requires no dressing down of the student.
Discipline not criticism
Master teachers are nevertheless extremely rigorous. Discipline and structure have nothing to do with criticising, demoralising, breaking or shaming a student. Such sadly common approaches are counter-productive as they destroy confidence. Confidence in its true sense is actually faith. Developing real faith requires that the student tests, questions and tries to apply the tools and techniques provided by the teacher. Only through testing can faith arise. The student must have confidence in the teacher, in what is being taught and, most importantly of all, in themselves. Building this unshakeable trust is of the essence!
The moment when the path to mastery opens up for the student is a magical one. The student recognises their unlimited potential, is overjoyed by the deep simplicity, beauty and truth of the way and is filled with irrepressible curiosity, awe and wonder. This is the spirit of mastery.