This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Janet Rosen and Katherine Derbyshire.
Katherine once posed a question that I grabbed a hold of; since it's on one of our ongoing favorite themes, learning and teaching, we decided to revisit it a bit...
Is it ever possible to teach someone mastery (of anything, but especially of a physical practice), or is mastery inherently a self-directed process of internalization? Would the musicians, artists, and bodyworkers on the list care to comment?
To me, "mastery" implies a step past "journeyman." Most practitioners will be journeymen forever and that's not a put down.
I think of mastery as when you have both internalized the physical acts needed to do "the job" (analogy: can do all the recipes in the cookbook without reading them) AND have integrated them with both physical and mental understanding of the underlying principles (analogy: can improvise freely, on the spur of the moment, a wonderful dinner, on a night when there are only weird odds and ends in the fridge and the oven is not working quite right).
I believe that this requires active and conscious learning, though the paths vary according to the student and the art. The physical acts can be learned by rote from a good teacher, without making the principles explicit; for some people that works well. Some will learn by rote and end up competent journeymen. Some will figure out the principles on their own (if they are lucky, with the guidance of a master teacher), over time and via the training. Of these, many will be the really top notch journeymen and a few will be masters.
Sometimes one finds a person who can't quite get the rote physical stuff at the level of the top journeymen, but who embodies the principles so well that what is produced "sings;" he too is a master but I think this happens a lot less often than people like to believe in this era of "American Idol."
What is the role of the teacher in this? To transmit the physical art, absolutely. But also, I think, to make use of learned shortcuts and metaphors to explicate the principles.
When I teach beginning sewing, I don't like to start with commercial patterns. I prefer to have the student mark and measure her own first project so she understands certain principles right off the bat about how two-dimensional fabric is transformed into a usable three-dimensional object, and never feels she has to rely on canned answers for how to solve problems.
Does one ever figure it out?
I don't think you "figure it out;" I think you achieve a level of integrated competence that allows you to explore it in ever deeper ways, akin to my old line about "my aikido sucks at a higher level."
At some point there is a certain comfort level with going through the mechanics of the basics; not comfort as "taking for granted," but as in, smiling at the warmth of familiarity, accompanied by a continued curiosity of where the path leads. It's the point in kata where your form flows so well that outwardly you can do it just right but inside you are still questioning and exploring. As an artist, I have that level when I am setting up my painting palette. I don't have it when I paint. I'm closer to it with fabric.
Physicists talk about some questions being "interesting." Where solving an interesting question is the sort of thing for which one wins a Nobel Prize. Likewise, I think mastery is defined by what questions interest you, not by your lack of questions.
On the other hand, there's a story that physicists tell about a student who asked a seemingly obvious question in a freshman physics course. The professor started to launch into his canned answer, then stopped, said "Hmmm...." and realized it was a much more interesting question than he thought. Even (perhaps especially) for masters, there is much to ponder in the simplest of basics.
Tonight we considered the basic wrist grab, and what happens when nage turns his hand out vs. in vs. simply drawing uke straight in. Hmmmm....
I find "what if?" the most interesting question in the world, more so than "why?" "Why?" is sometimes unknowable. "What if?" opens so many doors, regardless of the area of inquiry, that it can inspire creativity in everybody from the newbie to the master. To me, the master teacher is the one whose reply starts "Well, let's see what happens when we..." And the funny thing is, it is often in exploring all the paths of "what if" that leads us to the answer to "why?"