Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Pursuit of Mastery and the Road to Consciousness

Above is a video of an individual named Andrey Morozov who has achieved a certain very impressive level of mastery in playing the keyboard, demonstrating the ability to play one of the signature pieces by one of the greatest keyboard masters of the rock era, the incredible Jon Lord (1941 - 2012): the title track from the album Burn (1974) by Deep Purple. 

The song contains one of the most baroquely beautiful and aesthetically satisfying keyboard solos of the many virtuoso solos by Jon Lord, which you can hear in the above video beginning at 3:55 in the above video, with the most famous section of the solo beginning at 4:25, about 30 seconds in to the start of the solo.

You can hear Jon Lord playing the Hammond organ in this same song in a live performance at the California Jam in 1974, along with bandmates David Coverdale (lead vocals, swinging the mike stand around and wearing a white shirt with flower and butterfly embroidery), Ritchie Blackmore (lead guitar, wearing what looks like a black velvet dinner jacket with no shirt), Glenn Hughes (bass guitar and vocals, wearing a white suit with serious bell-bottoms and platform shoes), Ian Paice (drums, wearing a brown vest over a yellow t-shirt), and Jon Lord (keyboards, wearing a blue button-down shirt).

Thanks to the internet, you can now find dozens of excellent videos offering tutorials to help you learn to play this intricate musical creation by the tremendous Jon Lord (see also this one and this one).

The ability to play that piece with that level of skill at that speed undoubtedly requires hundreds of hours of practice (almost certainly on top of thousands of hours of building a foundation including the mastery of chord progressions).

And, although YouTube allows them to share this achievement with a wide audience, I would suggest that the hours which went into achieving that level of mastery would provide tremendous benefits even if they never shared their performance with anyone else.

In a discussion of this very subject, the late great John Anthony West (1932 - 2018) argues that one of the primary byproducts of the pursuit of mastery is "the development of individual consciousness," and that this consciousness can be developed even if we are forced to work within very strict boundaries (including playing someone else's music, note-for-note): indeed, he argues that striving towards a certain level of mastery even within very strict boundaries is far more beneficial to the development of consciousness than any so-called "self-expression" with no boundaries at all.

In his masterpiece Serpent in the Sky, originally published in 1979 (I own the 1987 Julian Press edition which has 256 pages and features a preface by Peter Tompkins), John Anthony West explores the connection between art, mastery, and consciousness.

He asks what could have led the artists of ancient Egypt to deliberately select the most difficult materials from which to carve their sculptures: "what kind of 'logic' dictates a preference for working with difficult material?" (88). He then presents counter-arguments to possible explanations, shooting down the suggestion that they selected such difficult material (such as diorite and granite) primarily for purposes of durability or economy. 

John Anthony West then presents his hypothesis:
The Egyptian artist was not free to choose his material or his subject. Thus, it would seem that those in command deliberately chose difficult mediums in order to create difficulties for their artists. As I have mentioned, it is universal law, dictated by necessities of number, that achievement takes place only in the face of commensurate opposition. 
By forcing artists to work with the most intractable materials [. . .] the sages of Egypt provided their artists with a challenge that gave them an opportunity to achieve a pitch of mastery they might never achieve left to their own devices. 
[. . .] 
The chief beneficiary of art is the artist. He can put into his work only as much as he personally understands. In the exercise of his art, he develops his understanding. 
[. . .] 
In Egypt, the anonymous sages were the artists, in our modern inspirational sense. They designed the temples and the statues and the wall friezes. The sculptors, painters and masons were but interpretive artists, this is true. But there is no ignominy in this position. We do not think the violin virtuoso 'repressed' because he must play Beethoven's or Bartok's notes. Moreover, within the restriction of the imposed piece, there is ample opportunity for the exercise of creativity -- otherwise all virtuosos at a given level of professionalism would sound the same. And if the virtuoso is a real virtuoso, then he will share in Beethoven's revelation. 89 - 90.
In other words, John Anthony West argues that the high civilization of ancient Egypt saw the pursuit of mastery, working with a deliberately difficult medium, and even within very strict boundaries, as transformative in a positive way and a means of pursuing one of our central tasks within this human existence. He writes:
Leaf through any pictorial survey of Egyptian art and architecture, and you will get some idea of the magnitude and mastery of their works; a moment's reflection will give some insight into the encompassing nature of the activity that must have been required to produce it. Then, if instead of passively accepting the orthodox conclusion that all of this was the product of organised delusion carried out to satisfy priestly and pharaonic megalomania, we look at it as a continuous exercise in the development of individual consciousness, we will be coming somewhere close to what must have been one aspect of Egyptian motivation. 90.
When he argues that putting in the hours required to express the kind of mastery that ancient Egypt demonstrates in the artwork of its artisans is a kind of "continuous exercise in the development of individual consciousness," I would add that this kind of "development of consciousness" may well have to do with the reconnection with the essential self.

I would argue that the kind of mastery demonstrated in the keyboard videos above, for example, facilitates (and even at some level requires) the transcendence of the chattering, doubting, endlessly analyzing, endlessly assessing and comparing persona of the "egoic mind." At first, of course, the egoic mind will be very much involved (and even very necessary) in the initial hours of practice and skill-building -- but at some point, after hundreds of hours have been devoted towards the chosen form of expression, the level of skill that begins to develop will enable the state of "flow" or "no mind" or "playing above yourself" which transcends the egoic self and facilitates the emergence of the (often repressed and therefore elusive) authentic self.

Indeed, in order to demonstrate the level of keyboard virtuosity demonstrated in the above videos, I would argue that a state beyond the chattering of the egoic mind is practically a necessity.

Playing a musical instrument is just one option of a path which we can choose in order to pursue that vital goal of mastery within a difficult medium, leading to "the development of individual consciousness" and the reconnection with the essential self. Below is another example of an extremely high level of mastery, demonstrated within the difficult medium of balancing on a foam-and-fiberglass surfboard angled into the face of a moving, triple-overhead-plus ocean wave by championship surfer Coco Ho at Honolua Bay on the island of Maui:

And here is a link to a split-screen video clip showing Coco Ho surfing within the rather more-restricted confines of an artificial-wave tank at a recent competition, and showing how her artistry on that wave is very similar to that of her father, championship surfer Michael Ho, surfing the same wave.

Again, as John Anthony West points out, just because she and her father are surfing a nearly-identical wave, and shredding it using nearly-identical moves, "we do not think of the violin virtuoso as repressed" just because he or she is playing a song by Beethoven, and in West's observation it is within the restrictions set by the challenging medium within which the artist is displaying his or her mastery that the "continuous exercise in the development of individual consciousness" takes place.

Obviously, we will not all be able to achieve the same level of skill exhibited by masters who have risen to the very highest levels their art such as Coco Ho and Michael Ho in surfing, or Jon Lord in keyboard virtuosity, but I would suggest that if we devote thousands of hours to a chosen area of human endeavor, we can achieve a level of mastery which can enable us to connect with our authentic self.

John Anthony West continues in his discussion of this vital subject:
Even today there is a kind of 'art' that is intended to guide the performer along the road to consciousness, though we tend not to think of this as 'art' but rather as exercise or discipline. Into this category of art fall Zen archery and painting, tea-making and the martial arts, and the dances of the Dervishes and of the temple dancers of India and Bali. 92 - 93.
If the medium of music or the medium of ocean waves are not your first choice for pursuing the "road to consciousness," you may want to consider one of the martial arts of China or the surrounding cultures. Just as I would argue that we can greatly benefit by putting in the hours to master the chord-progressions in a challenging Jon Lord solo even though we ourselves will never actually achieve the level of mastery of the late Jon Lord himself, I would argue that we can discover a way to reconnect with our essential self by pursuing a martial art for many years, even while realizing that not all of us will achieve the level of the top masters in that art.

Below is a video clip showing Chen Taiji master Chen Yu demonstrating a level of mastery that testifies to thousands of hours of disciplined training in his art:

And below is a video showing a demonstration of Taiji drills by master Marin Spivak, who trained for many years with master Chen Yu in China:

These are just a few examples out of the nearly limitless areas of human endeavor and art from which we can choose a path to pursue mastery. As John Anthony West explains in the quotations cited above, it may be that the entire civilization of ancient Egypt was built around the concept of such disciplined pursuit, "as a continuous exercise in the development of individual consciousness."

I would add that when we begin to achieve the levels of mastery demonstrated by the individuals in these videos, we are likely to reach a place where we begin to transcend the egoic mind (because mastery at these levels actually requires reaching a "flow" state in which we must transcend the egoic mind and its characteristic doubting, critiquing, and self-sabotaging patterns). During the early stages of our pursuit, however, the exact opposite will be the case: the egoic mind will actually be in overdrive!

One final thing to point out from John Anthony West on this subject is his opinion, voiced in a 2008 interview, that although it is possible to pursue such mastery on one's own, "you're much better off with a teacher. You can learn it by yourself, and then when you get to a certain point you have to get a teacher to teach you what you're doing wrong, so you can do it right."

But whether or not we have access to a teacher at any given time, I would argue that putting in the hours to pursue mastery in some area of human endeavor is a vital and essential path for reconnecting with our self.