Can you become enlightened by learning skills?
I believe you can.
Mastery is a lifestyle, a mindset, but also a form of meditation.
The emotional and spiritual muscles that are built through skill acquisition give immense strength.
“Know the way broadly, and you will see it in all things” — Musashi Miyamoto
What did polymath samurai Musashi mean when he said this? What is the way, and how do we know it?
Modern-day warrior-poet Joe Rogan puts it another way:
“Excellence in anything increases your potential in everything.”
Miyamoto Musashi was a 17th-century philosopher, samurai, poet, and artist. Seen throughout his work is this sentiment of correspondence.
As above, so below. As within, so without.
What we do in the micro will be reflected in our macro.
And so, this is how it is that mastery of anything is mastery of everything.
This may sound cliche; like common sense. And it is, but that does not take away from its power and truth.
Allow me to illuminate this with a personal example: here’s how committing to mastery of music transformed my performance in all other areas of my life.
When you learn a musical instrument, you get a clear reflection of yourself back to you.
When you improvise or otherwise allow yourself to be fully captivated by a musical spell, you see your desires represented in physicality; you notice what you’re intuitively drawn to.
When learning classical piano, you are given a practice system. Usually some variant of the divide-and-conquer approach: you split up a problem into smaller problems, and later stitch together all of your smaller problems into a cohesive solution.
And so this is the same in learning a long piece.
First, learn individual measures, then stitch those together.
It’s very straightforward, easy to understand. And it works very effectively if implemented.
Now, it’s not always the most enjoyable system to use. It’s work to get through it. Especially on tricky measures. Some passages hurt your hands. Others are just extremely difficult and must be broken up into extremely small pieces, played incredibly slowly. Hands alone.
And here’s the worst part: as you begin to learn the piece and get better at playing the parts of it that you master, you can start really start to feel the music in those parts. When you play that beginning part that you’ve mastered, you find you get into the music.
You can be expressive.
You can start playing with passion.
And these are things that you can’t really do when you’re practicing those tiny passages very slowly.
And what is this, but the classic dilemma: short-term gratification versus long-term gratification.
It’s a cognitive dissonance so many of us are familiar with.
We understand intellectually that following the boring system will be the quickest way to learn the piece and receive the full emotional bounty of playing the piece with a full range of freedom.
But, in the moment; when you’re sitting down at the piano stool. You might start following your system. Being focused and disciplined, fully conscious. Playing each measure slowly. Taking your time to be careful and stick to the plan… And then you start inevitably become impatient and playing the fun parts.
Sound familiar? It’s simply a matter of discipline and awareness, but can be a lifelong lesson to put into practice.
At this time in my life, I was struggling in general with this prioritization of long-term gratification problem all over.
I was constantly fighting with myself: deciding to play video games with my friends or do the calculus homework. Go to the gym or eat the Cheetos, etc.
My piano teacher at the time knew my psychology exactly and would always call me out. She noticed the pattern I had of only being able to play the beginning sections of pieces. She knew I was falling victim to my base desire to feel the music, and neglecting my duties of deliberate practice.
Eventually, I got sick of disappointing her.
I started taking piano more seriously; seriously started applying the system. Not letting the allure of playing in my comfort zone get to me; I started to shift my mindset around.
I started to be proactive at the piano. I started attaining awareness. Sometimes I’d mess up and start noodling around. But I begin to get better at drawing my attention back to the task at hand. (note the similarity to seated meditation: always drawing the attention back to the breath)
I got braver about confronting sections that were difficult. I began to be proactive and tackle the issues head-on. I started to see the difficulty as a fuel. A grin would cross my face when I would come across a difficult passage. I started seeing them as opportunities to improve rather than difficulties to balk at.
And to my surprise, other areas in my life started getting better.
I started to embody a proactive attitude in school. I began to take responsibility for my studies. I’d start immediately instead of prolonging it. I’d dive into the difficult material. I’d start the hardest thing first. I’d find my bottleneck, the thing that I knew would be the toughest, the thing that I had the most resistance to; I’d find it, and knock it out first.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in all of these aspects of my life: my fitness, my mindfulness/spirituality, my studies, my music; I was training the same muscles, and grappling with the same issues in all of these.
Once I had my breakthrough at the piano, the breakthroughs elsewhere began to cascade like dominos.
So, my recommendation is to approach everything with this mastery mindset.
Even in doing something as simple as washing the dishes, if you do so with mastery and excellence, you could be sowing the seeds to realize your dreams.