Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
So says Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.
Wanting to be a great artist, writer, martial artist, and so on, we are struck by the appearance, the technical feat of what we see others do — the height of the kick; the brushstrokes, color and mood of the painting; the turns of phrases in the writing. We want to be able to say, I can do that; that is who I am.
This is necessary, especially at the beginning. “Good artists copy,” said Pablo Picasso, “great artists steal.” People become good at something by imitating the techniques of others. But to become great means forgetting the technique and, instead, penetrating through and stealing the spirit or essence of the technique, the spirit of the great artist, writer, and so on.
Many people are bewildered at Picasso being considered one of the great artists. Much of his work is ugly — intentionally so. Much of it looks like a child could have painted it.
When I visited the Musée Picasso in Paris many years ago, however, I was totally amazed by the sheer volume of work, by the styles he had developed, and by the subtlety and technical skill of his early work. Considering all of the work on display, what became clear was the spirit of the artist — prolific, experimental, confident in his ability, restless, and, yes, undoubtedly a bit unpleasant. But, we can take the good and leave the bad. Take the energy and commitment, and leave the paranoia.
Spirit is developed through the arts and disciplines. Expressing the spirit comes with mastering them, or aspects of them, and making them one’s own.
The Tao Te Ching asserts that we see the “manifestations” because of desire, and see the Mystery when we are free of desire. This comes through practice. A while ago I was introduced to the short staffs in Kung fu. When I watched a more advanced member spinning them around his body, it seemed impossible to grasp exaxctly how it was done. It was too fast, and too complex. After working with the staffs for a while, however, I was able to perceive the motion as I spun them around my body. I didn’t need to look at myself doing this, to make sure it was right. The appearance wasn’t my focus. It was the energy, the motion, the direction, and the spirit that I focused on to allow me to do it correctly. Learning any technique, in any art, is like this.
In life, we tend to focus on appearance — clothing, buildings, situations, etc. That’s not a bad thing. But to perceive the mysteries, the laws that will ultimately decide the future, and what they and we will become, we need to look at the energy — the spirit of things, and the spirit of ourselves. Practice the arts and disciplines to penetrate beneath the surface, to find the spirit of things, the Tao.