Ravi Mohan's Blog
Monday, September 19, 2005
Meditations on Mastery: Ethics and Transformation
I just finished reading George Leonard's book, Mastery . I've heard a lot of praise for this book and it is well justified. This is one of those rare books that seem very simple and obvious but then it grows on you and you find yourself spinning your own lessons out of it. Most people who comment on the book emphasize that it teaches you to "love the plateau", in other words to keep on the path of practice even in the absence of any visible progress. So it does, but others have spoken on this so I won't. Instead , I will focus on something I learned from it. In Chapter 11 (Tools For Mastery ), Leonard says "Acknowledge,but don't indulge your Dark Side" . He goes on to say ... "...(We have a lot of)energy locked up in the submerged part of our personality, in what Carl Jung calls "the Shadow" ... (Poet and StoryTeller Robert Bly says), 'A young child can be visualized as a lively ball of Energy that radiates in all directions. But the child's parents don't like certain parts of this ball. In order to keep the parents's love, the child puts the parts of him they don't like in an invisible bag he draws around him...Then our teachers have their say 'Good Children don't get angry over such little things', So we take our anger and put it in the bag.' By age twenty, he (Bly) says , only a thin slice of our original energy is left". This is a metaphor that makes sense to me. The image of people who glimmer with pale flickers of uncertain light, while dragging along a huge invisible bag that thrums with "forbidden" energy but is firmly locked, is fascinating because throughout my life I have been fascinated with the notion of why(with exceptions) good people are so ineffective. The people who get ahead and get things done are very worldly wise and know how to manipulate the systems around them and thus "play the game". But at the end of a lot of this game playing they find that their efforts have been meaningless and the rewards of what they gain are not as satisfying as they hoped. Thus politicans are very effective in the world but very very few of them are nice people, and few of them live meaningful lives or die content. On the other hand are those who have a lot of idealism and caring but are stunningly ineffective in life. These folks have all the right ideas of what the world should be like but seem unable to move the world from here to there and are dismissed (rightly so) by the "players of the game" as insignificant or "idealistic". . Thus on the one hand we have people who have an excellent sense of direction but no power, and on the other, people who have (or know how to get) power but are not clear on what to do with the power and end up either preserving the status quo, or worse changing it to a one of increased Tyranny and Evil. The myths of our age show these archetypes very clearly. Thus in "The Lord Of the Rings", (I speak of the book version, the movies are a pale shadow ), the Dark Lord, Sauron, is impossible to defeat at the height of his power. Even with the loss of his Ring Of Power, he is frighteningly effective in drawing to himself massive armies (dwarfing anything the "good guys" can manage) and even his subordinates (The Nazgul) are almost unstoppable. What makes him a "dark" figure is that if he were successful, he would impose an Age of Tyranny and Terror on Middle Earth. In other words, if he were to be successful, all that terrifying force of will and ambition and cleverness would be applied in the wrong direction. On the other side we have a motley band of "good guys", each of whom is no match for The Dark Lord individually,but collectively manage to defeat him. The Ring Bearer, Frodo has almost no heroic qualities except that his heart is in the right place. Frodo is the epitome of the "idealist", a guy who wants peace and calm and radiates "Good Will to all", but will essentially, if left alone, while his days away with his tobacco in a corner of the idyllic Shire.The other "Good Guys" all epitomize the perfection of one major "good" quality (Gandalf has Wisdom, Aragorn has the Leadership), all of whom have to work in concert to defeat the Dark Lord, who combines all "dark" qualities in one person. Another Modern Myth , Star Wars , offers its own parallels.There are these "good guys" , the Jedi who shun the "Dark Side", and work for Peace and Goodness. And the Sith who are focussed on dominating the known world and stamping it in their image.What is often missed is that the Sith are tremendously more effective, with two Sith (there are always only two) matching and often defeating hundreds, if not thousands of Jedi. And the Hero is a kind of clueless Everyman, and really does not evolve very much through the story except to somehow mysteriously become a Jedi Master in a very short time. Anyone with some common sense would know that becoming a Jedi Master would take decades of very hard work. This bending of the rules, where the "Chosen One" doesn't have to work very hard to achieve superhuman levels of mastery (Neo of the Matrix is another example) has its own dynamic in modern story telling but that is a subject for another post. So here is the formula for creating a (modern) myth. First create a Bad(make him really really bad) Guy who has immense Power and is frighteningly effective. Bring him into conflict with an "Everyman Joe" kind of figure (so your readers/viewrs can empathise with him) who is nonetheless somehow the "Chosen One". Sorround this Good Guy with pseudo Masters who are all old and past their prime and speak in riddles. Throw in a "True Love" Aspect if you want to get the women to read the book/watch the movie. (These days it helps if the main female love interest is very feminist in her views and "just as good as the men". Thus the Leia as Jedi (bwaa ha ha ha) theme or Arwyn the Elven Princess facing off against the Nazgul (thankfully not in the book, only the movie). Back to the main point. Leonard's analogy of the 'person with the bag(containing the Shadow Self)' is very apt and while his subsequent advice to harness the Dark Side(thus when you feel Anger rising, he advises you to not give into the Anger, but to harness its energy to do something useful) is easier said than done, it points the way to a different-from-expected but truer kind of Mastery. Thus in my personal cosmology(feel free to whack away at this) a Master would not be some wimpy hero (like Frodo or Luke Skywalker), but a genuinely powerful being who could go toe to toe with the most powerful "bad guys" without any Deus Ex Machina popping in to conveniently save him just when the villain is about to make mincemeat of him. And one step to achieving this kind of power would be to consciously "empty the bag" and be Master of both Light and Shadow and be both worldly wise and idealistic. Even in History(and not myth) the "good guys" are those who combine tremendous pragmatism with tremendous idealism to defeat the "bad guys" who are very very talented or powerful but pull in the wrong direction. (e.g. Roosevelt Vs Hitler, Abraham Lincoln vs the Confederates,Gandhi vs the British Colonizers). Thus to go back to George Leonard's(or rather Robert Fly's) analogy, a true master will be neither a glowing child, nor a weary everyman figure with a huge bag of Darkness, who mysteriously becomes a master because he is "chosen", but an unencumbered figure with a consistent, calm sheen of power,who walks the line dividing Light and Dark,able to draw on either, and to transmute all the energies he harnesses or encounters into various combinations of light and shadow as appropriate to the environment, but chooses steadily move towards an idealistic end. Thus , in my opinion, Leonard's advice would become,"Don't indulge your Dark Side. Acknowledge it.Then harness it". Sounds tough? oh well, No one said mastery is easy !