A student once asked me, “How do you handle it when you hit a plateau, when you feel like you are stuck and you can’t get past the level you are at?” Now, of course, this is a common experience, not to mention a common question for all players.
I believe we all know that the usual reaction to this situation is a negative one; frustration perhaps mixed with anger, and a little despair thrown in for good measure! When we can’t get something to sound the way we hear someone else play it, even after lots of practice and lots of time, it is a very frustrating, annoying situation. At the very least, we want to hear ourselves making that wonderful music we admire and, more than that, we want to feel like we are getting somewhere as guitarists for the effort we put in, that we have the ability to make continuous progress.
So, when we keep giving ourselves negative feedback, in the form of repeated failed attempts to be able to do something, it starts to take the wind out of our sails, and we begin to lose confidence in ourselves. Diminished desire for practicing usually follows rather quickly.
So, what do we do about this unavoidable situation?
The answer lies in understanding the point I made in my essay “The Inner Master”. We must understand what “Mastery” is, and why it is possible to be, in essence, a Master right from the beginning of our relationship to music and the guitar. And that is because Mastery is an inner attitude and disposition. It is the inner position in which there is no obstruction from the outside to the inside, and no obstruction from the inside to the outside.
Sure, even “Masters” hit plateaus, but they have learned not to react in ways that will prevent eventual transcendence of the limitations of that level of ability. They have learned that all negative reactions will prevent moving beyond the plateau. The only possible exception to this is the person who has learned the wonderful art of turning his anger into an ally, using frustration as a fuel for determination. But even in this case, the anger is handled with mastery, and not allowed to become an obstacle (but that is a topic for another essay!).
The Master has realized the wisdom expressed so eloquently in the New Testament, “resist not evil”. The meaning of this is simply this: the way to overcome that which we do not like is not to resist and resent it, because that only strengthens it, and weakens us. It is to “remain in place” inwardly, to study it, to understand it, and then to act. Then, we achieve power, which is the ability to create change.
And so, knowing this, what does the Master do when they find themselves on a plateau? Why, they build a chÃ¢teau on the plateau, and take up residence there! They say, “Hmmm, something is going on here that I don’t understand, so I am going to stay here and study the landscape. I will focus my attention so strongly on what I can see that I will begin to see more.” The Master knows the reason for being stuck is because there is something sitting there, at that level, that needs to be known. So the Master sits, and studies, and if there is one thing a Master has, it’s patience!
For someone who has not discovered the inner position of Mastery, the reaction to being “stuck on a plateau” is quite different. For such a person, there are obstructions from the inside to the outside, and the outside to the inside, and the obstructions arise quickly– anger, resentment, and feelings of inadequacy appear and intensify. If these feelings were examined, the road to Mastery would begin to become visible. If these feelings were examined, we would find that it is not really the natural frustration of not getting what we want that is the biggest problem, but rather, it is the fact that we are, underneath that, feeling inferior and inadequate.
Like children watching their parents divorce, we conclude immediately “there must be something wrong with me; that is why this bad thing is happening”. In both these cases, this conclusion may appear to be justified, given our level of understanding, but it is not the truth. The Master may feel these feelings too, but unlike the novice, the Master does not run from these feelings, they simply become part of the scenery to be surveyed.
The novice feels such emotional pain from these feelings that they are helpless to do anything but try to avoid them. The novice shuts his eyes, and covers his feelings. In fact, the novice wishes to leave the plateau more out of a desire to avoid feelings of inferiority than by the desire to really enjoy a higher level of ability.
Unlike the novice, the Master does not identity with these feelings; they may arise, but the Master does not give these feelings the power to define who he or she is, or can become.
Just because I feel like I am inferior, or unable, is no reason to assume I actually am; that would be a very dangerous belief to adopt on such dubious evidence. And so, the Master sets aside these feelings, and sits, and studies. The Master becomes so involved in the process of communing with the conditions of the plateau that the desire to leave it becomes secondary to the interest and adventure of learning all of what is there. And so, problems become more interesting than frustrating.
Because of this, over time the depth of understanding of the Master increases, and the rising to a new level of ability appears automatically.
To be a Master from the beginning, to have the power to transcend your plateaus, is not about knowing how to go somewhere else. It is a matter of knowing how to look and see where you are right now. Insight into where we are now involves two things: understanding how we got here, and more importantly, knowing what is keeping us here. Often, the two answers are the same. In any case, it is the second answer that is most useful to us. Therein lies our power.
As I said, negative emotional reactions, the habit they become, and sometimes even the need for them, painful though they be, prevent us from leaving our plateaus. But there is a little more to the story. Underneath every reactive feeling there is a belief. If you want true insight into yourself you must uncover the unconscious beliefs that underlie your feelings. And I will tell you this most truly: if the above described feelings are a chronic obstruction to you during practice, then you have the most toxic belief a guitar player can have: you really believe you will never be able to do it, you believe you just don’t have it, and worse, you can’t get it. Your frustration draws its power from your deep down belief that you are innately inadequate. And so all your negative feelings actually resolve down to despair, and despair is living death.
The opposite of despair is hope. And guess what! There is good news: help and hope are here! They are here for those who really want it and are willing to act like they do. That hope is a complete conversion of your practice according to The Principles. Anyone who does this realizes that their belief in their innate inadequacy was simply wrong. They simply were not going about things in the right way, and no one ever told them.
Mastery is not about where you are, but how you look at where you are. The Principles will give you the framework within which you can look at where you are with understanding, not despair. What most people think of as “Mastery” is simply the accumulated power and abilities from much time spent in the position of Mastery. They look at the result of mastery, and think it is the thing itself.
All of what you see in The Principles is the result of my time spent, often many years, on my own plateaus. Or, it is from the study of the plateaus upon which my students have found themselves. Essentially, I have done the work for you, or at least all of the work except the work only you can do for yourself. I have figured out every detail of why people have trouble learning guitar and why they get stuck at some level of ability beyond which they cannot move. I have never seen a plateau from which I or my students could not eventually rise, but only if we sit upon the plateau as a Master.
Sitting upon the plateau as a Master, with dedication, understanding, and patience, we do not allow frustration and despair to obstruct the flow from the inside to the outside. Everything is seen, known, and understood, and we are led to relate in the best and most appropriate way to the level of awareness called “the plateau”. The “plateau” becomes the teacher, and instructs the Master/Student in the wisdom that is necessary to rise higher.
And so it goes, and so it goes.
Copyright © 2004 Jamie Andreas. All rights reserved.