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The Three Levels Of Mastery

Jet Li

Get inspired by this post from Paul Baranowski, software development team lead at InteraXon and a Buddhist meditation teacher who has been practicing for over 11 years. Paul runs a meditation group in Toronto called Luminous Ground.

Jet Li is a martial arts legend who mastered kung fu and all eighteen arms of wushu (saber, spear, sword, halberd, axe, battle-axe, hook, fork, whip, mace, hammer, talon, trident-halberd, cudgel, long-handed spear, short cudgel, stick and meteor hammer). He has starred in many films which demonstrate his virtuosity, such as Hero, Fearless, and Romeo Must Die.

Now before I go any further, you may be wondering what martial arts has to do with meditation, mindfulness and self-awareness. Isn’t meditation and mindfulness about instilling peace and resolving internal conflict, after all? True. And yet anyone who meditates can learn a lot from Li’s approach to martial arts.

Years ago in the Shambhala Sun, Li described the three levels of martial-arts mastery:

The first level is mastering the weapon, so that it becomes part of your body. You can control the weapon like your arm.

The second level is when your heart becomes a weapon, by stopping the enemy with your heart before the fighting begins.

At the third level, even the heart is no longer a weapon. No weapons and no heart, no will. The opponent becomes you. In this state of union, when the opponent strikes, he strikes himself. It is above the yin and yang, there is no reference point. “This is the idea,” he says, “but I’ve never met anyone who reached that level.”

I love this description of skill because the first level is what we usually consider mastery. But in this system, that is only step one.

These same statements could be descriptions of meditation and spiritual practice.

Let’s look at the first level, rewritten in meditation terms:

1) “The first level is mastering the techniques, so that they become part of your mind and body. You can use the techniques as naturally as using your arm.”

We learn the meditation and awareness techniques available to us and become a master of them. When something comes up in our lives, we can wield one of these techniques to handle the situation. We don’t have to struggle to remember how to practice or what technique might be useful. We aren’t struggling to apply the technique, because we have extensive practice with it. When we wield the techniques, they produce results.

(Shameless plug: If meditation and mindfulness hasn’t become second nature yet, and you’re still struggling to practice regularly and effectively, consider meditating with Muse, the brain-sensing headband that makes meditation easier.)

Now let’s examine the second level in practice terms:

2)  “Your practice comes from your heart, and stops the reaction before the fighting begins.”

At this level of awareness, we have seen how we can cause ourselves to suffer and we now instinctively stop any action or thought that leads us to suffering. When we get to this point, practice has become instinct. We stop the reactions before they begin by following our true intentions and living a life based on love for our self and for others. We may notice that we do not need many of the techniques we have learned previously, because we no longer cause the suffering that we once did. Or, we may need to learn to adapt them to new situations as our capacity grows. However, we are still working through our fears. And because there are still fears, there is still an opponent.

And here’s the third level in mindfulness terms:

3) “At the third level, our practice and our desire to change our experience must be left behind.  No formal techniques and no separation from any experience.  Any reaction is you. In this state of union, when the reaction occurs, there is nothing for it to strike – there is no enemy. Nothing to grasp or oppose. It is above the yin and yang, there is no reference point.”

At this level, formal techniques can fall flat – they can actually separate us from our direct experience.  We see that our desire to change what we experience also separates us from the experience. That separation only brings suffering, so we must let go of trying to change it. There is no longer any enemy, internal or external.  We live in touch with what we experience, being completely exposed to our own joy and pain and the joy and pain of others.

Yet we do not suffer. Separating from our experience is more painful than that, so the only choice is to connect. Every experience is complete. No hope for the future, no regret of the past. Only compassion in this moment. From this complete embrace, a grounded stable joy arises naturally.


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