Twin Roads to Mastery

Things go better if we’re clear at the outset.

This is a meditation on mastery—not a claim to it. I’m still trying to spell it correctly. But, after watching and judging many, many practitioners for more time than I want to admit, I’ve come to the conclusion that mastery has two paths.

If you find that there are more, go right ahead with my blessing, see what happens, then report back.

The First Path
My first martial style, though technically not a Kung Fu style (even though, in those days, we were calling it “Chinese Kenpo”) is a perfect example. It consisted—theoretically at least—of, literally, hundreds of precise movements. Onto these movements were then heaped more and more variations and alterations until something inside your mind shifted. This path follows the idea that layers upon layers of technical precision will push you to a moment of realization—seeing in an unexpected flash, like the chill that comes when you solve a puzzle—and shift you towards new methods of moving. From that point on, you react more spontaneously, mixing and matching movements freely and wildly, but never again poorly.

Another Path
In the other, even more traditional method, you begin with movements that are relatively wispy (as in Tai Chi and some other styles) then allow time for these moves to coalesce into power and precision. This is the route up the other side of the hill, from soft to hard. (People see these two paths and sometimes call them “Internal/External.” Actually “soft/hard” would be more accurate.) In this method, a Wuji practitioner, for instance, would keep culling more and more exactitude and purpose from a previously soft form, but his or her ability would manifest in applications that would not pre-determine—and, in fact, might surprise—the pracitioner herself. This kind of training is often sensed, even at close combat range, as a feeling of comfort.

This bifurcation does not explain all the difficulties of reaching for mastery but it does point out some rough spots and reasons for failure.

Trouble Along the Path
As good as they are, each of these paths has at least one major booby-trap. The first, or “expertise,” approach can promise a high level of skill as a reward for long hours and much work. But often this path becomes impossible for the skilled hand to abandon, or even to just enter a new zone. The technical acquistion itself may lead him to think he’s started down the ‘softer’ road, but a moment’s perusal commonly shows that he is locked into a few patterns, and not nearly exhausting the abundance of his possibilities.

From the opposite side, the “soft” approach can be like climbing out of quicksand. Everything is so pleasant, so round, so—well—soft that you forget to strive, and building hard upon soft foundations can be frustratingly difficult.  The soporific results can be seen even in Tai Chi players of decades who have yet to accept the next logical task to raise the level of their art.

Learning to Abandon
Some people actually compound their obstacles. If you are deeply into either journey, it can prove very difficult to jump across from one path to the other; and you risk giving up what skill or comfort you might possess. Of course, if you only have a month’s training, there’s no harm; this is still considered the shopping phase. If you are advanced, however, you should sincerely consider. Some people try it and it successfully pushes them to mastery. Nonetheless, since each path is complete in itself, containing hard and soft, you should look at your own path for completion before switching to the other.

art_mastery3The Difficulty of Softness
Of the two methods, if you are coming from softness it may be more difficult because it probably took you so long to leave the path of strength and strain. As you approach mastery and automatically revisit the demands of training for power (even though this phase is entirely different) it can be an unpleasant déjà vu. This time, you have to acknowledge that the new level of improvement reveals more effect, less isolated practice, more partner work and interactive patterns. The natural process draws you out of the soft shell you have created. And, if you keep an eye on your integrity, you may find mastery has come to you, if not effortlessly at least deeply and thoroughly.

One Last Note
If your skill level is high, you may gain the possibility of effortless movement, spontaneous action and—most important— that distanced serenity, even in the middle of what most people would think is too much happening in too little time. To the devoted student, these skills are tempting and that temptation helps to pull them to the realization they seek.

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