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 !


Anonymous said...

You are so voracious !! How many books do you read in a year? You were also saying in another post that you are loaded till november. Inspite of all this work load, how do you manage to read so much, so fast? Please teach me if there is any trick.

Ravi said...

Dear "anonymous",
1.hmmm I read about 30 new books/ year.(at least)
2.I am loaded till mid November :-) .I work about 8 hours/day .That does leave time for other things. :-)
3.As for fast reading ,no "trick", just practice guess. I don't try to read fast and am not conscious of doing so. But I guess over the years I've got faster.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ravi,
I think you missed one point here. There is an element that goes into making a Master which is outside him.It is the surroundings and circumstances in which he grows up, which decides whether the bag would always remain tied or whether he can with his will ever open it. These experiences of a person may make him too "weak" willed to ever get started on the journey to become "strong" willed.
Extending that logic, we can ponder over the question as to whether a person's character is decided by the family/neighbourhood he is born into. If so, thats something which he cannot choose and hence being a master is "not always" (stressing not always) a matter of choice. For some it is already decided the moment they are born. The die would have been cast and it would mean " you will be born here, will grow up among so and so, will see such and such and would interact with these many who think in such and such manner and hence you will grow up thinking like this(whatever "this" may be) and hence "this" is what you will/can ever be !!"
What do you think?

Ravi said...

well Naren, we will have to agree to disagree.
I don't believe the strength of a person's will has nything to do with the family he is born into etc.
But then this is just philosophy not hard science .So my views have no special validity !

And I see people becoming masters after being born into very negative environments , and people born into excellent families/societies/environments waste their lives .So my experience/thought process doesn't square with what you say . but then that's just my view point!

Anonymous said...

two questions rave,
1. do you think that a person born is destined to be or not be somethig and that destiny is inviolable.
2. do you think that there is a supre human power that formulates such rules.

Ravi said...

1.I don't believe in "destiny".
2.I don't believe in a Supernatural Being who sits around formulating these "destinies".(read this sentence very carefully).

1.My religious beliefs are complex, unorthodox, private and irrelevant to this post.

2.Where I live, it is considered impolite to ask a person you don't know very well the details of his religious beliefs.

Asking these questions from the cover of an "anonymous" comment is particularly inappropriate.

I assume you come from a different culture, so this question is all right, once.

Please keep in mind that the purpose of blog comments are to stimulate conversatiosn.Anonymous comments are like wearing a mask. While there are circumstances in which they are useful, I am not very sure how they are appropriate on this blog.YOur comments are highly appreciated but please consider giving a valid name and email id when you comment.

Ravi said...

Raymond Zakwrski's comment deleted.This is not the forum to discuss absurd fantasies about "poor Indians in thrall to Dark religions ignoring the path of the ONe True God". Suffice to say Zaki, that your Sunday School teachers don't have a clue. However, that is between you and them. Leave me (and my blog) out of these delusions.

Ravi said...

As to the one valid point,Zaki was trying to make, does crushing poverty undercut Mastery? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. First, read up on why so many Christian Saints choose poverty. Then do something about the desperately poor in your own country. Then read some History to make intelligent obseravtions about poverty etc.A Sunday School teacher teaching the One True God's Path is not an unbiased source. And whatever you conclude, do keep your observations out of this blog .A commenting facility is a courtesy. Do not abuse it.

Thanks in advance.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ravi,
I am a final year engineering student. i have been reading your blog for the last 2-3 weeks. You have exceptional writing skills. I am desperately trying to improve my writing skills. One of the advises i received was to read newspaper editorials. I tried that and the only improvement i see is in my reading speed and vocabulary. It has not caused any improvements to my writing skills. I would be truly grateful if you could suggest me a few ways to become a good writer. I shall definitely put in dedicated effort as per your instructions.

Ravi said...

First of all, I am just someone "Trying to improve my writing skills" just as you are. I am not an exceptional writer.People like Paul Graham are.

The basic way to improve writing skill as with any other, is practice.
Having said that, there are books you can read and practices you can follow to get better.
If you can write me offline(my mail id is on the front tight corner of my blog) with some background on what kind of writer you are trying to be and perhaps why you are "desperate" about this, I might be bale to make specific reccomendations.

Also, I think "increasing reading speed and vocabulary" are not trivial matters. It looks as if you are making solid progress.