The Drudgery of Mastery

Often I find my students, artists young and old, and myself in deluded moments, to be obsessed about our futures. We wonder if we will ever “make it” and spin elaborate fantasies about what that will entail while realIMG_0585ity television taunts us, like the devil, to sell our souls for a shit show.

Perhaps fantasies have their place. They may inspire us to action and there is something to be said for the positive energy they launch into the universe. However, they also trip us up when we return to earth and face the reality of the daily grind.

For this reason, years ago, I stopped warming up to music before class. I used to get myself all revved up, listening to Radiohead through my headphones. I would get lost in some other reality only to have it abrasively interrupted by the teacher’s entrance into the studio followed by the all too familiar strains of ballet music that signified the start of class. It felt like I was being torn from a dream, like I had to suffer waking up all over again. I found myself disassociated from the other people and that tended to set a precedent for the rest of the day. I started to suspect that this was not helping my work, for dancing has to do with relating to others, after all, duh, so I took the headphones off and went cold-turkey into the present moment.

For me, surrendering the music video in my head for the present moment was one small step in becoming more aware. What I would like to encourage in my students (and reinforce in myself) is to, in the same way,  replace the fantasy of “making it” with the very real possibility of mastery.

I have a refrigerator magnet that  says “All know the way. Few actually walk it.” The way may mean different things for different people, but we could apply it to artistic mastery. Yeah, few actually walk it. Why? Because it’s hard and often tedious. We are confronted with every emotional, physical, mental and spiritual limitation within ourselves. We are besieged by temptations on all sides and there is not a camera crew standing by to film our drama. The great cellist, Pablo Casals, used to fantasize that he’d be hit by a bus so that he wouldn’t have to practice. (Yes, I am strangely comforted by this.)

Ultimately, what it boils down to is saying yes. Consistently. Spend less time worrying about the future and just say yes right now, to this moment: Will I take a dance class today? Yes. Will I paint today? Yes. Write, photograph, design today? Yes, yes, yes. Even though I feel like crap? Yes. Even though I’m bored? Yes. Even though I-hate-that-teacher-my-boyfriend-broke-up-with-me-everyone-else-is-going-to-the-beach-instead? Uh huh.

In certain Asian traditions, one is not considered a master until they’ve been consistently practicing something for 30 years. 30 years of the yeses outweighing the nos. Sobering, ain’t it. And then, maybe you’ll find that it was just a tool all along. The ballet, or painting, or whatever. Just a tool. For the ultimate in mastery which is, of course, to master oneself.

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One response to “The Drudgery of Mastery

  • Swati

    My Dear Dear Tai,

    This is so beautiful. Thank you for the comfort of your words, and the knowing that the mastery is in the moment. I am always wondering how to penetrate the inifinity of the present. Can we practice that together. Loving you so much and always, Swati

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