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The TRUTH about Learning Guitar
The Basics > Practice Theory > Playing Plateaus - How To Get Off!
Playing Plateaus - How To Get Off!

“Success is moving from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm”...........Winston Churchill

  A student once asked me “how do you handle it when you hit a plateau, when you feel like you are stuck and you can’t get past the level you are at”. Now, of course, this is a common experience for all players, and a common question as well.

I believe we all know that the usual reaction to this situation is a negative one; frustration perhaps mixed with anger, and a little despair thrown in for good measure! When we can’t get something to sound the way we hear someone else play it, even after lots of practice and lots of time, it IS a very frustrating, annoying situation.

At the very least, we want to hear ourselves making that wonderful music we admire, and more than that, we want to feel like we are getting somewhere as guitarists for the effort we put in, and that we have the ability to make continuous progress. So, when we keep getting negative feedback, in the form of repeated failed attempts to be able to do something, it starts to take the wind out of our sails, and we begin to lose confidence in ourselves. Diminished desire for practicing usually follows rather quickly.

So, what DO we do about this unavoidable situation?
The answer lies in understanding the point I made in my essay
“The Inner Master”. We must understand what Mastery is, and why it is possible to be, in essence, a Master right from the beginning of our relationship to music and the guitar. And that is because Mastery is an inner attitude and disposition. It is the inner position in which there is no obstruction from the outside to the inside, and no obstruction from the inside to the outside.

Sure, people who are called “Masters” hit plateaus, but they have learned not to react in ways that will prevent eventual transcendence of the limitations of that level of ability. They have learned that all negative reactions will prevent moving beyond the plateau. The only possible exception to this is the person who has learned the wonderful art of turning anger into an ally, using frustration as a fuel for determination; even in this case, the anger is handled with mastery, and not allowed to become an obstacle, but that is another essay!

The Master has realized the wisdom expressed so eloquently in the New Testament “resist not evil”. The meaning of this is simply this: the way to overcome that which we do not like is not to resist and resent it, because that only strengthens it, and weakens us. It is to “remain in place” inwardly, to study it, to understand it, and then to act. Then, we achieve power, which is the ability to create change.

And so, knowing this, what does the Master do when they find themselves on a plateau? Why, they build a château on the plateau, and take up residence there! They say, “Hmmm, something is going on here that I don’t understand, so I am going to stay here and study the landscape. I will focus my attention so strongly on what I CAN see that I will begin to see more.”. The master knows the reason for being stuck is because there is something sitting there, at that level, that needs to be known. So the Master sits, and studies, and if there is one thing a Master has, it’s patience!

For someone who has not discovered the inner position of mastery, the reaction to being “stuck on a plateau” is quite different. For such a person, there ARE obstructions from the inside to the outside, and the outside to the inside, and the obstructions arise quickly-- anger, resentment, and feelings of inadequacy (inner obstructions) appear and intensify in reaction to negative events (outside obstructions).  If these feelings were examined, if these feelings were seen as judgements about reality rather than “facts” about reality, the road to mastery would begin to become visible. If these feelings were examined, we would find that it is not really the natural frustration of not getting what we want that is the biggest problem, but rather, it is the fact that we are, underneath that, allowing ourselves to feel inferior and inadequate. THAT is the real culprit.

Like children watching their parents divorce, we conclude immediately “there must be something wrong with me, that is why this bad thing is happening”. In both these cases, this conclusion may appear to be justified, given our level of understanding, but it is not the truth. The Master may feel these feelings too, but unlike the novice, the Master neither runs from these feelings, or merely accepts them as valid. Rather, they simply become part of the scenery to be surveyed.

The novice feels such emotional pain from these feelings that they are helpless to do anything but try to avoid them. The novice shuts his eyes, and covers his feelings. In fact, the novice wishes to leave the plateau more out of a desire to avoid feelings of inferiority than by the desire to really enjoy a higher level of ability.

Unlike the novice, the master does not identity with these feelings; they may arise, but the Master does not give these feelings the power to define who he or she is, or can become.

Just because I feel like I am inferior, or unable, is no reason to assume I actually am; that would be a very dangerous belief to adopt on such dubious evidence - just  because you feel it doesn't mean you have to believe it!  And so, the Master sets aside these feelings, and sits, and studies. The Master becomes so involved in the process of communing with the conditions of the plateau that the desire to leave it becomes secondary to the interest and adventure of learning all of what is there.

Because of this, the depth of understanding of the Master increases, and, over time, the rising to a new level of ability appears automatically.

All of what you see in The Principles is the result of my time spent, sometimes many years, on my own plateaus. Or, it is from the study of the plateaus upon which my students have found themselves. I have never seen a plateau from which I or my students could not eventually rise.

Because the Master does not allow frustration and despair to obstruct the flow from the inside to the outside, he or she is led to relate in the best and most appropriate way to the level of awareness called “the plateau”. And so, no obstructions from the outside to the inside occur. The so called “plateau” becomes the teacher, and instructs the Master/Student in the wisdom that is necessary to rise higher.

Every master is, first and foremost, a master student. If you are stuck on a plateau, (and anyone always seeking to get better constantly moves from plateau to plateau), remember to:

1) Be a master, now. Become aware of the obstacles you have set up between the inside and the outside. Set aside your feelings of frustration, anger, and inferiority.

2) Put all your energy into studying every aspect of that plateau, thinking through everything with profound energy, and using every bit of knowledge you have gained so far. Regard that plateau as your classroom, and be an attentive student.

3) Also be a wise student, and seek help from the best guides you can find, be it a teacher, a book, or any kind of resource you can find.

4) Have infinite patience and trust that your sincere and persistent efforts will enable you to rise higher in your abilities, where you will reach a new level - one that will become the next plateau and the next classroom

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