The Rough Ashlar

Thoughts from a Traveling Man

The Rough Ashlar - Thoughts from a Traveling Man

Zen and Freemasonry: Expertise and the Beginner’s Mind

darumaPart of Zen practice is developing the beginner’s mind, that sweet spot from which everything looks new. It is a conscious process of releasing the fetters that bind us to rules and often unconsciously guide our actions and beliefs. All things become possible and we delight in the moment. We sit back and reflect on the path toward expertise that has led us back to a point of newness.

Some experts in expertise (yes, they really exist) believe that in order to do something with any sense of proficiency you have to do it about 10,000 times. That is quite a tall order. I don’t think I have done anything 10,000 times. Who counted repetitions to that high number and then made the determination that someone was an expert? To put it in perspective, if you do something once per day, it would take more than 27 years to have done that thing 10,000 times. The numbers are less important than the concept that doing something three times does not make a person an expert or even proficient. You have to do it a lot.

I prefer a model of expertise that refers to a ladder that leads to unconscious competence. This is a ladder with four rungs that roughly maps out the path from novice to expert. The four rungs are thus classed:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence. You are new and not good at something but are so new that you don’t even know that you are not good. You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetence. You start to wise up to not being as adept as you assumed you were. The level of your incompetence becomes clear.
  3. Conscious Competence. You are getting better and can see improvement and feel good about your progress. You are conscious of the level of effort expended to do a good job.
  4. Unconscious Competence. You have become so good at the task that you can do it expertly without even thinking about it. You are awesome without even realizing how much effort it takes someone to get to where you are.

What does this have to do with Freemasonry?

When we practice our ritual, we are following this model. We start out not really knowing what we don’t know, and then progress to the next two rungs and hope to someday attain the final level. In getting better, we have to remember to help along those who might need some guidance, and be sure that if they are going to do something 10,000 times as they approach true expert status, that at least they do it the right way for the last 9,900 or so times. That is to say, doing something wrong can be reinforced to the point of expertise if the person does not receive correction or proper instruction. Nobody wants to be expert in incorrectness.

Getting back to Zen and the beginner’s mind, this level is achieved through years of meditation and study and brings a calmness of spirit that can only be obtained through development of expertise. In Japan – not even that long ago – traditional martial arts training might teach you a kata or form, or possibly as many as two, over the whole span of your life’s study. Your teacher would correct each slight movement until your timing and motion were so well coordinated and fitted together with such exact nicety that the whole set of movements flowed as one coordinated effort. That could take many years of intense study.

The Masonic ritual is similar. We are not punching or kicking each other (at least not in my lodge), but we are coordinating floor work, timing, and spoken ritual in a way that requires integration of mental memory, muscle memory, and time sequencing. This is not easy stuff, and like with martial arts, lots of people know a little bit and only a few are true experts. Many of us like to think we are on the path that could lead to expertise. As District Instructor of Work, I am supposed to have some level of expertise, but often I feel like I am just starting out. Sometimes things just flow well and happen smoothly, though. I guess I am somewhere between the second and third rung of the competence ladder on a lot of this stuff. I feel like I am pretty far from finding the beginner’s mind. Perhaps someday I can declare, “Long lost, now found,” and relish in the expertise I have attained.

daruma by floating ink, on Flickr

Category: Ritual

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