I am a firm believer in the need for a man to endlessly work on himself, else he risks beginning a slow spiral of decay. In nature there is nothing which does not, without work and care, become slowly decayed and thus lose the integrity it once had, as well as the potential to become something more. Steel left to the world will weaken and rot. Wood will do the same and even the most permanent of materials, stone, will slowly begin to return to the formless if left to the elements alone.
Yet with just a little bit of care the steel of the sword or the wood of a bow may stay supple and strong. It is the natural state of things to decay and only consciousness, focused intently on improvement, stands to delay in all things the natural state of rot….This is what highlights the importance of improvement to a man’s life. A man who is not consistently working to better himself and flush out his impurities and weaknesses can hardly call himself a man…rather he who has resolved to sit idly by has embraced the state of decay and rot and can no longer be counted among his fellows as human.
He has made a choice to return to the animal in its most primitive form.
For those great many of us though who choose to remain true to our purpose and march forward, seeking improvement in ourselves each day and in our character….the importance of learning new things and working on new skills cannot be overstated. Each day brings with it renewed opportunity and with that, a chance to be humbled once more. This is a part of the practice, the goal pursued by the legendary masters of old and a goal worthy of pursuit by all.
However the learning of any skill is not without it’s walls, barriers, and periods of pure frustration. Failure is the often the greatest teacher and no thing can be learned without having been dealt a healthy dose. At some point each of us has been in the shoes of the frustrated pupil so desperately trying to advance in the study of this or that, only to find our efforts thwarted by the unknown. Yet if we are persistent….quite often we suddenly find ourselves advancing once again with some new ability or knowledge acquirable only through the diligent practice which we’d previously engaged ourselves in.
In the moment when everything is suddenly made clear, it is like a dam suddenly opens within us and what previously thwarted our attempts no longer exists; the energy flows freely. The proverbial gate is cleared…and we may walk further down the path unhindered. Whatever concerns we’d felt beforehand vanish, whatever blocks we’d had evaporate and we walk into a new place. We truly clear the gate.
There is a story I read once about the Buddha:
A traveler one day came upon the Bodhisattva sitting below a tree, surrounded by a glowing orb. Upon recognizing (the Buddha) he proceeded to ask “Pray tell how I may come to sit beside you and so attain enlightenment”
The Bodhisattva smiled and replied, “I cannot tell you how. I can only tell you to come in.”
If you have ever dedicated yourself to the mastery of one skill and thus pushed forward in the face of apparent failure, you may have experienced this sudden clarity in the learning process. The feeling of hopeless helplessness can become suffocating as you watch your peers advance without you….as you see yourself stagnate in your progress. With persistence though there comes a moment when the gate is cleared…in that moment you understand the Buddha.
You find yourself no longer trying to enter, no longer banging your fists furiously against the gate and wondering why it will not open. In a moment of defeat you let your hands down and close your eyes and in that briefest of moments…you find yourself suddenly on the other side, looking back and wondering…what took you so long to get here? With this experience you may understand better the term ‘clearing the gate’. The feeling is often accompanied by a physical manifestation, a feeling of ‘flow’ in the body itself as muscles relax and a new ability is gained.
On a personal level, my latest endeavor of skill-learning has been that of traditional archery. The art of archery as it was in the past, without aids of any sort or mechanical devices, is an animal much different from its modern counterpart. Without a mechanical ‘break’ in the draw or sights to aid our aim we realize how out-of-sync we are with our bodies. Our weaknesses are amplified and our shortcomings highlighted with every shot. Pluck the string and you shall miss. Try to aim and your arrow flies off into the sunset never to be seen again. In the absence of tools and gadgetry we can no longer rely on science to cast our arrow…we must find another way. To me, this form of archery is less and less a science or sport.
It is a philosophy. A meditation. An art.
So again we begin a new journey only to find quite soon we must wait, practicing slowly. Diligently. Pushing patiently forward until we once again…Clear the Gate.