The Methods of Self Mastery

The Methods of Self Mastery — self mastery is an ongoing skill. It requires acute observation, teachability, and the willingness to use and do whatever it takes to find and be yourself.

The Waterloo Update

Well, we’re back to re-considering our choice to return to Canada for more than a visit. We’re semi-committed (through a lease) to be here for 2012, but you just never know…

We will let you know what we decide next, and then will likely change our minds again… it’s good that we can survive without a plan!

self mastery

Several weeks ago when I began this little series of articles, I used this illustration:

Zen Tale: a student progressed with the Zen bow and arrow. He was being tested for mastery. He drew the bow, aimed, and just before he shot, his Master asked him a question. The arrow flew just off of the mark.

The Master said, “I know that you have mastered the bow. Now, you must master yourself.”

Reflections on the Mastery of Self


One of the more interesting aspects of the work I do is how easily most participants understand what I’m suggesting. Where things get dicey is in what happens next. Many choose to understand without acting.

The little Zen story, above, shows the normal progression.

  • First, there is Observation. There is where you are, and there is where you want to be. If you are not where you want to be, you’ll have to act to get there.
  • Second, Study and Practice. The tendency will be to default to old behaviours and understandings, especially when you bump your nose.
  • Third, Testing. The cosmos is kind, and provides us with endless opportunities to test our new skills. The tests get harder, not easier.
  • Fourth, Focus. This is what caused the initial arrow to miss the target. Even with practice and skills out the wazoo, the unexpected, if it causes us to flinch and lose focus, causes “defeat.”
  • Fifth, Self-Mastery. At this stage the skill-set is embedded as body-knowledge. All of the work is internal — the paring down to the base essentials, if you will.

Here are a few ideas about each stage, including quotes from 20th century master martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee:


Do not deny the classical approach, simply as a reaction, or you will have created another pattern and trapped yourself there.” [p. 25]
Lee, Bruce (1975). Tao of Jeet Kune Do (reprint ed.). Ohara Publications.


If you don’t spend time figuring out where you are stuck, you’ll simply stay stuck. Whether you are stuck thinking — thinking you have to know why before you can discover another path — or stuck not doing — all you get is a boring trip that leads back to the same place.

I once had a client with anger issues. She’d declare she was done with anger, and then would come in for the next session and talk about how angry she’d gotten. She’d say, “Well, I was going to stop, but anyone would get angry over that!”

It’s your job (not the job of a teacher or therapist) to figure out where you are stuck. Your task is to say, “This is where I am holding myself back.” Then, you need to be willing to open yourself to changing what is not working by, wait for it, learning a new approach, and implementing it.

Study and Practice

Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” [p. 44]
Thomas, Bruce (1994). Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit : a Biography. Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd.

All types of knowledge, ultimately leads to self knowledge”
[p. 14]
Little, John (1998). Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 978–0804831291.


If you are not doing, you need to work with someone who can help you to “do.” If you are confused, you need to work with someone who specializes in “un-confusing.” If you are blocked physically, sexually, mentally, you need to work with someone who will, hands on, teach you to let go.

The study and practice phase cannot be accomplished if you think you already have all the answers. I remember my supervisor telling me, back in 1996, after the “church thing,” — “Spend 6 months not knowing.”

I scared myself over that one, let me tell you.

And then I got it. When I’m stuck, I need to, to paraphrase Einstein, come up with a solution that uses a different “mind” than the one that got me into the mess in the first place.

In my case, Bodywork, martial arts, painting, photography, carpentry — all have been avenues of exploration that lead me out of my desire to figure it all out. I end up in a space that is all about simply experiencing, and then moving from there.


I always learn something, and that is: to always be yourself. And to express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him.”
[p. 349]
Little, John (1997a). Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way (illustrated ed.). Tuttle Publishing.

on target

The teacher or the lesson can only take you so far. In the end, mastery is about developing your skill set — yours. Initially, you might just have to follow a script (like learning the Communication Model, and using it) but mastery is doing “whatever” elegantly, and your way.

I know I’m caught when I compare myself to others, or when I forget that mastery is about finding peace in the eye of the hurricane. Darbella and I occasionally say, “Why does this stuff keep happening to us?,” and forget that the answer is, “Why not us?” We make ourselves miserable, and then remember that misery is optional, but figuring out an elegant “exit” to the issue confronting us is not.

It’s hard to welcome a test, even after you’ve survived a ton of them. Hard to remember that the cliche, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” (Friedrich Nietzsche) is true. The point of the test is to push us to our breaking point, and to help us find what is left to hone.


It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” [p. 190]
Little, John (2001). Bruce Lee: Artist of Life. Tuttle Publishing.


I think it was Michelangelo who explained that, when sculpting, he figured out what he wanted to sculpt, and then carved away everything that was not “that.”

If there is a credo that explains our approach, it is “Hack away at the unessential.”

Mastery is poetry in motion, elegance in action, directness in approach, and continuity of self.

Every thing that stands between you and your “essence” is a useless distraction. Zen describes this variously, but always in terms of full-focussed attention on doing just what needs doing. No distractions.

Focus is seeing clearly, and continually dropping the need to distract yourself. To build yourself up at others’ expense. To be led, manipulated. Focus is, “Here I am, this is me.”


Be formless… shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend…” [p. 138]
Little, John (1997b). The Tao of Gung Fu: a study in the way of Chinese martial art. Bruce Lee Library. 2 (illustrated ed.). Tuttle Publishing.

In the Tao Te Ching, we read:

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Living life moment to moment means that I am truly present for the whole show. It’s never about what I know, but rather about how I choose to enact my life.

Nellie McClung was a Canadian feminist, politician, and social activist. She wrote:

Never explain, never retract, never apologize. Just get the thing done and let them howl.” “• Nellie McClung
Toronto Life March 2012, article about Kristyn Wong-Tam, who used a variant of this quote in her yearbook.

This is living the life of a master. The world has far to many who refuse to bring themselves to the table. We suggest that being truly, deeply, madly yourself is what the world craves.

Be water, be fire. and Drink from the passion that only you produce.

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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