Five Keys to Mastery (1987)

Esquire magazine once ran its annual fitness section under the title "The Art of Mastery." The series of articles was very good and raised interesting points. And even though the section focused on athletics, it was clear that the subject had much broader implications. As I read it, I thought that the question of mastery is fundamentally related to the issue of dealing with tensions. At the core of your being here, there has to be a question of mastery, the question, "Will I master my own work? How can I get in touch with, cultivate, and unfold the master that is within me?"

Whether this is your first day, or you've been here a long time, the issue of mastery is fundamentally important. I want you to consider it carefully, because within each person the master is. That excellence, that extraordinary simplicity, that great depth, that profound wisdom, that exquisite beauty, dwells in each person.

That master may be obscured by the tensions and difficulties, the stress and strain, the struggles of our everyday lives. It may be obscured by our childhood or adolescent experiences. It may be obscured by the lack of attainment of various desires that we have had, or continue to have. Maybe the chemicals in our body obscure it. But in reality, all of the reasons we have for why the master within us is obscured don't amount to a thimble full of rabbit pellets. The fact is, we allow these excuses to establish themselves because we don't believe it's possible for us, and we don't want to make the effort to find out.

Sai Baba of ShirdiStill, every great person that has ever walked the face of the earth has said that the master dwells within all people equally. The only way to put an end to our excuses is to rise above them within ourselves.

We hear and read endlessly about the necessity for improving our world. Clearly, the only thing that we can do is improve ourselves, and the process for improving ourselves is really a search for the inner master. A cultivation of the awareness of that Presence, its unfoldment within our hearts and minds, and its articulation in our actions, makes possible a real improvement within this world. It is a real, but simple effort. First of all, you need to have a firm commitment to improving yourself. At the same time, you must understand that this is the only way you can help anybody else or help the world. There's no other way.

The only response that is a permanent end to suffering, and a permanent benefit to ourselves and all others, is to seek and to discover the master within ourselves. This search for the inner master is the process of mastery. The Esquire articles listed five keys to mastery, and I will use their listing, because these are universal keys, simply expressed in English. The first key is instruction, the second is surrender, the third is practice, the fourth is mental discipline, and the fifth is something called "playing the edge." I'd like to talk about each of these.


The issue of instruction boils down to the question of whether or not we need a teacher along the path to mastery. Esquire raised this question, and I was fascinated that their answer was an emphatic "Yes," a flesh and blood real person as a teacher is required. Tapes and books don't give feedback; they don't give nourishment. It is not possible in this way to capture the spirit of what is being taught. A real teacher is necessary.

There are three kinds of instructors for people in spiritual work. The first we would call a spiritual friend. We enjoy spending time with the person, and in some way we feel this companionship adds something to our life.

The second is what we normally think of as a teacher or instructor. Within the context of our association with a particular spiritual person, we become interested in his (or her) philosophical perspective, the "teaching" he gives. We begin to cultivate an intellectual rapport, and we have a certain appetite to absorb the ideas, attitudes, and cultural context that such a person exists in.

In the third and highest level of relationship, a guru/disciple relationship, there is more than a meeting of the minds, there is a meeting of the hearts and souls, a co-penetration of the energy of two beings. In that co-penetration (or union) one spirit emerges.

At this level of relationship, we are beyond our mind. We are beyond our self. The individual that we were doesn't really function any more. Even though that person still exists, it is a whole different heart, a whole different spirit, that functions.

We don't become the other person. The guru/student relationship does not exist for you to become me, or me to become anybody else. It exists in order to reveal that the master that exists within the teacher is the same master that exists as the essence of the student - and not only that, but as the essence of Life Itself.

These three levels - spiritual friend, instructor, guru - exist at the same time, one within the other; one thing emerges and blooms and blossoms into another. We begin to understand that it is not the physical presence of a teacher, and not his mind or his personality, but the living, creative essence of that teacher, which is the fundamental event we want to learn about and merge into. Doing so liberates us.

Place yourself on the path toward attaining this understanding. Be at ease with whatever level of relationship you find is comfortable for you in the teaching event. And then cultivate it, work at it.

Along the way, four mental qualities help us to merge with the teacher and the teaching. The first is patience, the second is generosity, the third is calm or equanimity, and the fourth is joyousness.

The state of transcendence is possible because of the presence of a teacher and can only be entered into when these qualities are cultivated completely within you. Then, no matter what faces you, you will be able to appreciate the immeasurably great treasure that has asserted itself within the field of your individual life. You will see the flower of universal consciousness breaking through the pavement of your individual life path, bursting up through the asphalt, lifting it up and beginning to grow and blossom. It may destroy the parking lot, but it turns it into a park. It makes your individual life a field in which everything universal can grow and blossom, and where great love and understanding function not only for your own individual benefit, but equally, in the same moment, for the benefit of all.

A person who really practices his/her meditation carefully, who opens his heart to himself and to his life each day, who opens his mind each day as a fundamental part of his practice, is automatically expressing those great qualities. There is no question at that point of having to make any effort to think about generosity or patience or calm or joyousness, because in fact, as we do our work, that's what we are.


The second and perhaps most essential key - certainly it's the most difficult and the most subtle - is surrender. There are two aspects of surrender. One is that we begin to do things according to the instruction that we've received. The other is that we continuously relinquish any notion that we have of attainment. No matter how good we think we are, no matter how much we think we've learned, we have to let go of that and continuously cultivate our skill in the basics.

By doing things according to instructions we receive, we create for ourselves, first of all, the opportunity to be instructed correctly. The second thing is the opportunity to transcend our own individual limitations and our limited perception of the information that we're receiving. By surrendering all issues of gain and loss, which is the same as surrendering any issue of attainment, we establish the possibility of the infinite refinement of the teaching that we have received, and we observe its maturity into the permanent transcendent experience of the highest state.

It begins as we take instruction, actively follow it, and cultivate the various practices and techniques within ourselves. We begin to study the process by which that creative Presence articulates our own individual life in this field of time and space.

Finally, we begin to listen to and hear the pulsation of Life Itself, and we observe this pulsation as it begins explain to us its own nature. It begins to reveal to us the subtle interconnection, the subtle interdependency, in the fabric of all experience, so that we find our place within each experience without ever being isolated or separate from the totality of that fabric.

It is only by surrendering what we know - and surrendering who we think we are, what we think we've done, where we think we've been, and what we think we've had - that there is any possibility for the future. Everything of the past is only an expression of our limitation. It has nothing to do with our potential. Everything of the past is essentially empty of all content as far as we're concerned. It's like taking what's left over of what you had for breakfast and serving it to yourself again for dinner. And yet we do that all the time.

By surrendering the past completely, by surrendering any notion of attainment whatsoever, we bring ourselves openly and with a genuine freshness to the possibility, and potentiality, the extraordinary vitality, that exists in this moment. In this state of extraordinary receptivity there is the possibility for some fresh new tone to come into our life, some vibrancy to begin to set itself up. We discover moment by moment the extraordinary possibility which exists within us for transcending our self.

In the moments when we encounter deeper and more powerful circumstances, surrender is again required. This surrender expresses itself in the form of something very unusual - commitment. This is an interesting paradox, when being open is also being firm and totally solid. The encounter with these more powerful energies requires us to create within ourselves a center of gravity that is stronger than the force we are relating to. In other words, we absorb the pattern of energy.

It is because of our own total inner commitment to surrendering that we can confront our fear and go through the experience of loss as we give up the particular level of smallness that we are, and then pass through that loss to a larger and more powerful, clearer and deeper, manifestation of the extraordinary divine Presence which is mastery.

And so, giving up where we've been, giving up what we've had, giving up who we thought we were - positive or negative - is a fundamental part of allowing the creative power of the teacher to enter into us, to work inside us, and to transform us into a vehicle for that energy to manifest itself around us.

How many times have we said "surrender is the key"? Surrender is the key to a deeper understanding, a deeper experience of the very essence of life.


Three final keys make the whole thing really work for you. One is practice. The second is mental attitude or mental discipline, and the third is the ability to extend yourself.

Practice is totally important. Rudi would say this repeatedly. He would go through the exercise with everyone over and over again. In some ways, almost every talk he gave, almost every interaction he had with people, was a simple reassertion of the importance of the basic effort that you have to make every day. All of you who know Rudi or have listened to his tapes understand this. You also see it in his writing. It is our effort and our work that bring about a coalescing within us of all the different elements and circumstances that have manifested themselves in our lives. Our effort is the fire that fuses these elements into a unity which represents the attainment of mastery and the realization of our complete unity in the power of Life Itself.

It is real work. The most important thing is not what kind of gifts you've brought to the whole event; the most important thing is the effort that you make. Rudi talked about this a thousand times. It is work, work, work, work, work. Unfortunately, using the term "work" puts people off, because we are conditioned, especially in America, to think of work as something to resist, something that is a drudge, something to be avoided at all costs.

In fact, work is the vehicle by which we accomplish many important things. First of all, if you don't really believe in yourself, or in your capacity to attain mastery, through work you will begin to feel that you are worthy and capable. You will begin to feel the confidence and the strength within yourself to sustain a connection to this simple and pure state.

Through work, through doing, we begin to demonstrate creative capacities that we had no idea existed within us, and through the experience of these capacities, we begin to awaken to and connect to ever deeper and more extraordinary capabilities.

Because we take the instruction that we receive and surrender ourselves to it, we have the opportunity in our inner practice - and also in whatever action we undertake in the world - to discover something really extraordinary. Because we practice a lot, and because we learn to love the practice, finally a unity is established that totally elevates us ­ beyond the level of our body, above the level of worldly experience, beyond the distinctions that we must make as a practical and careful person in the world - to begin to discover a common source that reveals to our hearts and minds and in our life the presence of the inner master. At that stage, "inner" is no longer a proper or necessary distinction. It's just master; any distinction between inner and outer evaporates.

Self mastery is work. It is breathing, it is sitting, it is feeling the flow, it is taking your attention into each of the chakras, over and over again. It is connecting with, relaxing into, releasing yourself into, the flow of creative energy within and around you. It is continuously searching for that point of balance in which your mind is still and your senses are open.

Understand that your practice is really the vehicle for your transformation. It is your opportunity to absorb, digest, and re-articulate all of the extraordinary content that has manifested in your life for a reason that nobody knows. It is your chance to demonstrate the value you have for the life you have been given. It is your opportunity to connect to, to dance with, and to merge into the most extraordinary, beautiful, amazing, deep state - a state in which you experience profound liberation.
Suzuki Roshi, Zen Teacher


Suzuki Roshi, a Zen teacher who lived in San Francisco, wrote in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind about the necessity for practicing each day with an open mind. It means that you come to your practice every day with a real sense that something new can take place. You bring a sense of freshness and a sense of wonder about the effort that you make. You don't just plop down on a pillow and say, "Okay, I've got a half an hour to be here," and fall asleep. Instead, you bring to your effort a concentration that allows you to penetrate the various subtle layers of dullness that exist within us as human beings. You begin to have the direct perception of the very profound and subtle conscious capability that exists within you as the very foundation of all that is.

Through mental discipline, we understand what our practice is and are able to bring a freshness to it every time we do it. This allows us to begin to participate in the deeper levels of the event that are always subtly present.

We also have to be disciplined in our attitude about ourselves. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into any kind of dualistic discussion: I'm a good person, I'm a bad person; that's a good person, that's a bad person; this is a right thing, that's a wrong thing.

Mental attitude is simply not allowing any kind of polarity to establish itself between you and yourself or you and anybody else. This is the fundamental mental discipline. It is never thinking "I can't," and never thinking "I won't," and never thinking it's somebody else's responsibility to improve your life. That is an endless loop that goes nowhere.

In computer programming, when you make a mistake, you can create something called an endless loop, in which the program is talking back and forth to itself forever. Fortunately, in most operating systems, there is a deeper level of programming that watches how many times this goes back and forth, and if it exceeds a certain number of times, then the program gets booted out.

It's good if we have something like that within ourselves, so that we don't engage our mind in endless pursuits - thinking about useless things, allowing our mind to drift into the past or into the future. Rather, we stay completely organized and centered on the present. By keeping our attention on the present, many of the tensions of the past can be dissolved. And by our careful attention to this moment, whatever misunderstanding or silliness or immaturity exists within us now will not be projected into the future.

It is mental discipline that keeps us from deteriorating into the endless repetition of the mantra of stupidity - the prayer that all human beings seem to repeat incessantly: "What's going to happen to me?"

What is going to happen in the future is completely dependent upon what you do now. It is completely dependent upon your connection to this inner state. It is the inner master that determines what's going to happen to each of us. Our discovery of, and participation in, that mastery makes the circumstances of our lives irrelevant, but the power of this mastery supports the continuous manifestation of a condition in which we are at peace and comfortable and balanced within our life. Then what else do we need?

Have the discipline to avoid falling into tensions and conflict. Have the discipline to just put off the mental struggle that goes on, so that rather than falling into the darkness of self-doubt and doubt of others, which only strengthens the isolation we feel as ordinary human beings, we can rise above the tension every single day and connect to that which is fundamentally the unity of heart, mind, and inner spirit. This is practice; this is mental discipline; this is surrender; this is the direct contact with the instruction of the state of mastery which is dwelling in all.


Having attained that state, one other stage comes about, and that is the stage at which you are willing to extend yourself. Extending yourself, testing your limits, is an art and a craft that emerges from your connection with your inner creative power. It demonstrates itself in many different ways, but in whatever field you endeavor, it means taking risks, seeking the transcendent in whatever you're doing.

This requires, first of all, a release - a release of who you are and what you are for the opportunity for something finer to emerge. This doesn't allow us to form a rigid mental image of ourselves, and it certainly doesn't allow anybody else to form a rigid mental image of us, either.

Extending yourself is based on a firm grounding in the capacity to transcend your own self-interest. If extending yourself is purely for your own self-interest, it will fail miserably; not only that, it will cause much abuse to be heaped back on you. Extending yourself is a transcendence of self; it is a reaching beyond your own self-interest.

Successful demonstration of the power of mastery allows for the upliftment of the total environment to which you are relating. It allows for a change to take place. It doesn't have to be a great exertion at all, just a simple thing - sometimes a mental turn, sometimes a physical turn or a verbal turn. Extending yourself is a demonstration of the magic that is implicit in mastery. That magic is in each of us.

There are simple ways to extend yourself in your everyday life ­ to extend yourself to a friend, to extend yourself to an opportunity to perform, to deal with conflict (both inner and outer). There are so many opportunities. We are only able to demonstrate this magic successfully when we have carefully taken the instruction that we have received, clarified its basic elements both within ourselves and through our opportunity to ask questions, surrendered ourselves to that instruction completely, and practiced it continuously, with love and with a great deal of mental discipline.

Mastery is available to you. It is present always within the dynamic stillness which is the essence of your life. It is not something outside you that you have to reach, but rather something inside you that you have to recognize and uncover and cultivate. It's there.

The only issue is your determination to discover and achieve it. With love and with understanding, your effort toward the attainment of mastery will completely transform your experience and understanding of life, and will immeasurably benefit not only you and the people you love, but all people. In your life you have all of the essentials necessary for this experience, but you have to understand that it is your responsibility and your effort that will demonstrate mastery.

And in that pursuit I am with you always, and I wish you very well.