In my younger days, I was a very serious guitar player. I considered this pursuit to be my early spiritual practice and it gifted me with great life wisdom in exchange for showing up every day and committing to my practice.
I had a clear goal in all this: I wanted to make a living the hard way - gigging in a competitive city by playing and teaching guitar. Though it was very enriching to practice guitar for hours each day, sipping coffee and effortlessly allowing my fingers to move with every gust of inspiration I knew deep inside that it wouldn't keep my relationship to the guitar pure.
Even in my early 20's, I had some stirrings of pragmatism and I could foresee the reality of bargaining for wages on a gig by gig basis and having to shoulder past a crowd of other virtuosos to try and book a slot for meager compensation. I felt like constantly trying to prove myself would contaminate the sacred mood and reverence I had for playing guitar.
So I shifted my direction in life...
Despite eventually opting to study environmental geology, I never gave up playing the guitar seriously. For many years, playing guitar revealed to me a number of life secrets.
The most fundamental of which I have seen applied to every form of art. Every vocation. Every martial art. Every spiritual practice. When I learned it and really got it down pat, I could begin to recognize it in so much symbolism that I encountered in the world.
I'll share it with you. But you will have to suffer through one of my analogies :)
What I've come to learn is that to climb any mountain, you must learn the technique of how to climb as well as the wisdom to choose a good route. Or, one must learn to climb a ladder, yet, also know which wall to place the ladder on.
You see, in my guitar playing days, I'd meet wizards who could blaze up and down the neck of the guitar at break neck speed, effortlessly switching between fancy scales and melded 17 styles of music into one song.
But it wasn't impressive.
It was boring in fact.
It was like fancy packaging for an empty box.
On the contrary, I would listen to very simple pieces of music played evocatively that would have me almost mesmerized by their beauty but I was periodically distracted by wrong notes, mistakes or an out of tune instrument. In short, they wouldn't fully take me across the threshold into a transcendental musical experience.
These pieces had such beautiful essence, but no container to hold them.
As you can see, in the first example it had all the structure, technique and rules but no mojo and in the other, essence and mojo but no technique.
I had a very wise friend who had mastered several forms of martial arts including Aikido, Karate and Wushu and he told me a very similar story.
He said that in martial arts (especially Karate), they learn 'katas' or sequences of a hypothetical fight that they practice over and over and over. The intention here is that the practitioner is not meant to become a robot, but deepen his or her connection to the moves in each sequence and embody them fully. Learn them on a cellular level so that they are fully ingrained in the muscle memory and that essence can finally arise out of a perfected form.
A great teacher would always be there to make subtle, yet, essential corrections along the student's journey.
As I began to ponder this, over and over again I came across a consistent symbol in spirituality.
In many spiritual traditions, we see two pillars at the front of the temple. These symbolize the archtypical masculine and feminine qualities designated by the sun, fire and air (masculine) and the moon, earth and water (feminine). Here is a good example from an alchemical tradition:
Now, that middle area is what is the most interesting. It represents the garden, the aligned beauty of source expression. The masculine and feminine pillars are on a tiled floor of the limited reality and they guard the path back to nature, higher knowledge and unity (symbolized by mercury and the ritual septagon).
I know that the symbolism here might lose you and this either seems archaic or confusing, but I want to make a very simple point with all of this.
In order for any pursuit to be successful in an objective, spiritual, aligned way it must have a complete equilibrium of masculine and feminine components. The feminine is the 'why' - how it fits back into the bigger picture of life in a holistic and connected way and the masculine is the 'how' - the navigation there through the form of physical reality.
Workaholics tend to hammer away the form, checking the boxes and 'doing' and dilettantes (look this one up) tend to follow only the bliss and mood and 'being' without actually learning the steps - or learning them proficiently.
Mastery is the balance of both polarities and this principle should be applied to everything we do in life.
I've spent countless hours in a dark room, drinking coffee and learning scales, theory and pieces of music but they lacked any soul until I went out and had a walk in nature or engaged in a stimulating conversation with a friend. When I came back to the piece after filling my cup with life experience, it would often reveal its essence in a beauty, harmonious and fulfilling way.
I definitely felt like I was onto something and the click happened when I learned a really cool piece about our human biology.
As it turns out, even the way that our brains are wired points directly back to this fundamental principal: The left hemisphere of the brain is logical, structured and governs systems and facts. The right hemisphere of the brain is intuitive, holistic and governs our ability to tap into deeper creativity.
Neurologists have actually found that the most balanced and successful people have a strong communication between both sides of the brain through the central column (called the 'corpus collusum'). They have done significant research to show that higher states of consciousness and calmness occur when both hemispheres of the brain are in a state of balance. Likewise, stress, anxiety and depression exist in proportion to how out of balance the hemispheres of our brains are.
Hmmm... that sounds a lot like what those old alchemists were alluded to with their symbol-rich diagrams like the one posted above, doesn't it?
I have learned a great many things in life. Many of them creative such as learning to write, playing music, singing, drawing, animating, acting, narrating, mathematics, astrology, reading tarot, and even creating designs in engineering.
Every time I have applied this concept of equilibrium between form and essence, I've achieved a result that resonates deeply inside. And that is often confirmed by other people going 'whoa... that's awesome - how did you do that?'.
I did it by understanding how things work. And everyone can do it too if they apply this principle.
The door to the unseen world of greater possibility opens when we find this balance. But to open this door, we must become skilled at walking the razor's edge that separates too much from too little.
The Type A personality will tend to overdo things and bring too much mental gusto. The couch potatoes will do too little and quit their pursuits too early when they are no longer fun.
What is needed is commitment to any pursuit and understanding the context of that pursuit in the bigger picture of things.
This commitment is born of our will from deeply understanding our 'why'. Understanding to the best of our capabilities of why we want to do something and this involves being receptive to the subtle queues that life provides us of ways in which we can contribute meaningfully to the world.
Connecting deeply with our why will fuel the learning process as we apprentice and begin learning to master our craft. It is very important to learn something and then apply it.
Recently, I began studying piano. Even though I'm still quite new to piano, after a few weeks of training hard, I stopped. I used this time to begin applying what I knew to write a few songs. I even went and recorded them. This process of being creative with what I had just learned caused me to switch gears and move from the mechanical process of moving my fingers to a particular form to see what I could create based on how I felt.
The result of this effort was that I let go of the form temporarily to allow the essence to arise and express itself. This in turn, allowed me to deepen my commitment to wanting to practice and learn more and also to re-calibrate in a slightly new direction.
In spiritual life, form and essence can be seen as discipline and surrender. We must learn to surrender to the universe, or the greater force that influences our reality to tap into true inspiration and from there cultivate our own discipline to harness this inspiration and allow it to grow into something greater.
Too often we see people in spirituality get trapped in one of two categories - they grow stagnant and dry in the rout repetition of a particular practice for years day in and day out that hardens their energy and narrows their perspective. OR, they end up trying everything, moving with whatever stirrings arise from within and cultivate nothing in the process.
For a very long time, we have collectively existed in a society that is heavily imbalanced towards the masculine, favouring quantity, form, structure, productivity and neglected the qualitative and relational aspects of the great balance. In the last 50 years, we've seen a recoil where the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction as the feminine force returns to assert itself.
Many people have in turn gotten too caught up in the feminine by rejecting the masculine. This is expressed itself in society in ways like participation trophies for everyone and a lack of rationality and complete disregard for structure.
Both approaches on their own are imbalanced.
In order to achieve alignment, a third path must be followed. One that invites us to listen first to the quiet voice of spirit and use it to cultivate the energy to assert our will in a committed and disciplined manner so that we may navigate the physical world to manifest the realizations of spirit into form.
This path leads to fulfillment, unity and mastery but it also reminds us to check in and make sure we are always moving in a manner that respects the inherent balance between both extremes.
If you'd like a simple and powerful exercise for connecting back to your essence and listening to your 'why' - check out my solar alchemy qi gong video: