In the early days of Natural Philosophy some thought that life just happens. Where there is old meat, flies happen. Where rags are left in a corner, rats happen. Grain, weevils, &c. A naive teen might worry about a kiss making babies. Today we’re a little smarter: life has to come from somewhere, right?
Where does our life come from? More to the point, where does our aliveness originate – our awareness, our skills, our mastery?
There is an old story that Zhuang Tse told about a butcher who could cut an ox with the grace of a dancer. His blade never dulled, and his motions were fluid, never meeting any resistance. He “knew” just where to apply the edge as the meat fell away and the joints divided as if on their own. In watching him at work, the Emperor himself was instructed in how to rule his kingdom properly.
The Sage said that Butcher Ding’s spirit knew where to cut as he followed the Tao. His own tao knew the tao of that particular ox, so that there was no time spent in finding the right path to cut. This did not happen by some magic, but he had practiced his art for many years. His mind – whether seated behind his eyes, in his hands, or even in the cleaver which extended them – lived in the mastery of his craft. He was spontaneous.
We speak today of being spontaneous as if meant just doing what we feel like doing – following our heart, and that’s that. In truth, it’s pretty much the opposite. Butcher Ding couldn’t spontaneously prepare a feast when still an apprentice. Neither could a pianist perform a Liszt concerto without visible effort, but by the invisible effort in years of study and practice.
Mind, body, soul, and spirit – all that one is – learn to operate as one. One stroke at a time, one note at a time, one prayer, one breath at a time. This is what it takes to attain mastery, and to be mastered.