The subtractive approach

November.16. 2015

According to Lao Tzu, the virtuoso accomplishes his objectives through daily subtraction rather than through daily addition.

I find the strategy works in many areas of life.

Subtraction is of course getting rid of the fluff, the unnecessary. It’s only by getting rid of the unnecessary that we can focus our attention on the necessary.

And that’s where the strategy works best, in focusing.

The method is surprisingly simple.

If you want to focus on something, just remove everything else.

When you have removed all the unnecessary peripheral stuff that surrounds a thing, you’re left with only that thing, which means that you’ll be able to focus all your attention on it.

The problem is in determining what is necessary and what’s not.

Here, the dispensability test that I wrote about earlier comes in useful again.

When you remove something, does it have an appreciable impact on the end result?

If it does, it’s necessary, if it doesn’t, it’s unnecessary.

Try it.

If you want to get better at guitar playing, get rid of all the toys and paraphernalia of modern life, delete your Facebook account, empty your fridge, change your cell number, whatever else you need to do to regain control of your life.

When you strip your life down to the bare essentials, if you have nothing to distract you, I guarantee that you’ll be playing that guitar all day long.

If you want to focus on your schoolwork, get rid of everything that gets in the way, minimize your commitments and I assure you that you will graduate in no time.

The subtractive approach is really the virtuoso approach to life.

Because it provides you with an effortless way to attain all your goals.

A spiritual journey

October.12. 2015

I had mentioned the materialistic component of virtuosity in a previous post, which might give the impression that I am all about materialism.

And that might be true.

Unfortunately, we live in materialistic times.

Unless you live in a cave somewhere, it’s hard to live a virtuoso life if you’re struggling with the basic necessities of life.

Of trying to put food on the table.

Or if you have to work two jobs just to pay the bills.

To me, a virtuoso life has to include all the basic creature comforts of life, being able to do all the things you want to do without having to worry about constraints, financial or otherwise.

But as I also mentioned, it’s not something you have to worry about.

Because if you attain virtuosity in what you do, that virtuosity will almost always result in some material gain for you, either directly or indirectly.

But virtuosity itself has little to do with materialism.

In fact, the reverse is true; all journeys into virtuosity are spiritual in nature.

No I do not mean spiritual in a pseudo religious sense. (In fact, most religions have less to do with spirituality and more to do with enforcing strict rules of conduct and conformity.)

The word ‘spirit’ here refers to the essence of things.

The soul of things.

As in “capturing the spirit’ of a thing.

All journeys into virtuosity are a search for that essence, for that soul.

For it is only in discovering the essence that we can achieve mastery over it.

In guitar playing, it’s about finding the soul of the guitar, understanding it in every detail, and knowing how to blend with its lines of energy so that we can achieve a perfect union with it.

The only way to achieve this perfect union is to spend countless hours with it, day after day, week after week, year after year.

With no thought of material reward, driven only by the thought of knowing that one day all its secrets will be revealed to you.

Hardly a description of someone in search of material wealth.

Additional thoughts 2

September.25. 2015

One way to look at the virtuoso life is from a materialistic viewpoint.

Consider a doctor and a guy in the street pushing a shopping cart rummaging through trashcans for discarded soda cans.

How many soda cans do you think does the guy need to find before he can make a buck?

And how long does he have to push that cart around before he finds enough of them to make a buck?

That’s a life of struggle.

Compare that existence to that of a doctor who can easily make a few hundred bucks with a 5 minute diagnosis.

One person is a virtuoso in terms of earning power, the other is just struggling.

From this angle, virtuosity in life does have a strong materialistic component. That’s not surprising given that we live in a materialistic society.

So does that reduce the pursuit of virtuosity in life to the pursuit of material wealth?

No, but in one of those ironies of nature, even if material gain is not a goal of virtuosity, it is usually a byproduct.

That is, if you achieve virtuosity in some area of life, your virtuosity will almost always translate into material success.

(Material wealth in itself, however, is not always an indicator of virtuosity as in the case of someone who gains his wealth from an inheritance, through no virtuoso effort of his own.)

Let’s say if you are a plumber and you achieve a high level of virtuosity in your work and this result in outstanding work.

Your customers love you for your attention to detail and workmanship (all characteristics of the virtuoso mindset), soon word gets around and in no time at all, you have more work than you know what to do with.

But if you’re one of those plumbers who can’t wait to be done with your work and your work is so bad, your customers have to call other plumbers to fix what you’ve done, with this kind of shoddy attitude, who’s going to call you back again?

And if no one calls you for more work, you may have to start looking for that shopping cart to push around soon.

The same is true in every field, every line of work.

If you put everything you have into your work, you will come up with extraordinary results, and extraordinary work is almost always rewarded with material success.

So the key to a life of virtuosity is to focus on execution, to become a virtuoso in what you do.

When you achieve this virtuosity in life, all the material wealth and success that you need will automatically flow towards you.

You don’t even have to search for it, it will happen naturally of its own accord.

Additional thoughts

September.21. 2015

So how about the principles of lightness and fluidity and rhythm?

Do they apply to the virtuosity of life also?

Yes, but in more subtle ways.

In the performance of physical movements, those elements exist at a physical level.

When you watch musicians or dancers or any other performance artists, what you see are the physical manifestations of those principles.

In life, however, the principles exist at a metaphysical level.

For example, lightness of touch in physical activity becomes lightness of approach in life.

To be light in life, you avoid conflicts, you tread lightly in your daily interactions. Instead of forcing situations, you allow them to play out naturally.

All this makes for a relatively stress-free existence.

Which enables you to focus fully on what you do.

Fluidity, another key virtuoso principle, is reflected in how we transition from one action to another.

In physical activity, fluidity is mostly achieved through anticipation.

The same is true in life.

In life, you exist in a state where the present is not some static thing that has to be experienced mindfully, whatever that is.

Instead the present is a dynamic thing that is constantly moving and evolving.

So instead of focusing on the present moment, you focus on the next moment.

And when it arrives, you’re already on the next moment again.

In this way, you’re always ready, you’re never caught by surprise.

It allows you to transition seamlessly from one moment of life to the next, from one cycle to the next.

Rhythm is timing in both the physical and metaphysical realms.

It is self explanatory so no further words needed.

So too the other principles, that of economy, looseness or release.

Some ideas on how to achieve virtuosity in life

September.18. 2015

Some people will define a virtuoso life in terms of material comforts, others in earning power, yet others in spiritual enlightenment.

For me, virtuosity in life is all about execution.

Because it doesn’t matter what station of life you attain, what level of enlightenment, if you can’t execute effortlessly, you’re struggling through life.

And struggling is no virtuoso living.

Execution here refers to how we perform specific tasks in life.

From such mundane daily tasks as doing the yard, to cooking dinner, to working in the workplace, how we approach these tasks will determine how effortless they become.

The key to effortless execution lies in two things.

First, reduce resistance.

Resistance is anything that can get in the way of your execution and prevent you from performing at an optimum.

Most resistance is caused by lack of technique.

When you lack technique, you have to compensate with brute force which will result in you having to expend greater effort, which will in turn sap your energy and waste time.

So to achieve virtuosity in life, acquire skills and technique.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

Because it takes a great deal of time and effort to learn skills and technique. To get to that level of mastery, you’ll have to do it day and night, every chance you get.

And this is just to master one task.

What about all the other tasks which you have to master too?

Well, you don’t, instead you harness the energy of others to do the things that you can’t do yourself, such as doctors, plumbers, car mechanics, any kind of task that will come up in the course of living.

So an important caveat in effortless living is that you mustn’t be greedy.

You must choose one or two areas of expertise and leave other areas for others to master.

If you try to master everything, you will end up mastering nothing.

Resistance can also be caused by conflicts.

If you want to move effortlessly through life, you must minimize any potential conflicts that will stop you in your tracks or slow you down.

What kind of conflicts am I talking about?

Every kind. The kind that gets you fined for not paying your taxes, the kind that gets you arrested for breaking the law, the kind that gets the neighbor mad at you for letting your dog bark all night long.

If you have to deal with conflicts, you will have no time to devote to your task.

Second, reduce what you have to do.

Take out all unnecessary steps, simplify procedures, streamline your work, and if it makes no appreciable difference to the end results, maybe don’t even do it at all.

Early on in life, I discovered that there’s such a thing as real work and busy work.

And I quickly learned that if I want to do the real work well, I’ll have to cut down on the busy work.

Because the busy work will distract you from your real work and prevent you from doing it well.

So what’s real work and what’s busy work?

Real work is what gives you your desired results, busy work what makes you appear to be doing your job but makes no real contribution to your end results.

Obviously, you want to focus on the real work and cut down on the busy work.

To do this, be very clear in your mind what your task is.

Then focus all your energy toward that task.

Do whatever it takes to get your end results.

Even if it means breaking the rules or changing the process or challenging the status quo.

Rules and traditions have a way of constraining your creativity and making you waste valuable time on useless and obsolete procedures.

Rules do serve a purpose, that of providing structure for you but once that usefulness is gone, you are free to dispense with them.

Remember, there’re no rules in life, only what works.

Unfortunately depending on where you work and who you work for, many organizations these days are more about busy work than real work.

For example, as a teacher, you’re supposed to spend more time explaining to the bureaucrats how you’re doing your job than actually doing it.

It’s as if to be a good guitar player, all you need to do is explain to me your practice schedules and how they impact your playing than actually practicing, and you’d be a good player.

If only life were that simple.

But of course, here you have to tread carefully, keeping in mind the conflict avoidance principle.

If busy work is what they require, then busy work is what you need to give them, that is, if you want to keep your job.

Better to have a job and do it with mediocrity than to have no job at all.

How to become a virtuoso of life

July.30. 2015

My life has been defined by one mission, achieving virtuosity in life.

Virtuosity to me simply means mastery, understanding what it takes to do something easily and effortlessly.

The key word here is effortless.

Effortless does not mean without effort, it means not having to exert more effort than you have to.

For example, when I play guitar, there is absolutely no effort involved at all.

I simply pick up the guitar and the fingers are moving about on the strings by themselves. I am like an observer watching them do their thing.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no effort in my fingers.

It just means that the effort is so minimal it seems effortless.

How did I develop this effortless touch?

From years of playing.

Years of experience have taught me exactly how much force to exert to pluck the strings and that’s exactly what I do.

I exert the energy required and not one ounce more.

My search for virtuosity led me to identify the basic components that must be present before virtuosity can occur

The discovery became the basis for my first book, the Art of Virtuosity.

In that book, I listed the necessary conditions for virtuosity to occur.

These are lightness of touch, looseness of body, fluidity of movement, rhythm, economy and release.

They are universal principles of virtuosity, present in all manifestations of virtuosity.

Take painting for instance. (Besides my interest in music, I am also a watercolorist.)

A good painter is defined as someone who has mastered a light, fluid, rhythmic and economical touch in his brush strokes.

Have you ever seen a master painter with a heavy clumsy touch?

Or for that matter, a martial artist?

Or an athlete?

Even in boxing, a pugilistic art based on brute force, consider Mohammed Ali’s famous line, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Look at any virtuoso and you will see the same qualities in their movements.

In life, I’ve found the same conditions and attributes to be true.

In life, to achieve mastery, one must also move lightly, fluidly with grace and rhythm, and with economy.

These are all necessary conditions if you want to live an effortless life.

Next, some ideas on how to achieve effortlessness in life.

Three stages

July.25. 2015

The search for wisdom and truth, I’ve found, goes through three stages.

The first stage is the stage of externals.

Here you’re preoccupied with appearances, with how things look rather than what they are.

This is the stage of rules and rituals, of formulas, and magical incantations. As long as you perform all these externals well, you feel you’ll be okay.

In religion, it’s mostly about following strict rules religiously. (Now you know where the word ‘religion’ comes from.)

And condemning all others who don’t share the same blind adherence to these rules as you.

But the preoccupation with appearance is not just a religious phenomenon.

You find it everywhere, including the rarefied world of guitar playing

Where many self-professed experts will try to convince you that they have the keys to guitar heaven and they will try to impose their rigid rules on ‘correct’ guitar playing on you.

The modus operandi is the same.

If you follow their rules, you’re ‘saved.’

If you don’t, you’re an infidel, to be cast into their guitar hell.

This stage is ruled by fear and ignorance.

Fear because the punishment for non-compliance can be brutal.

And ignorance because to maintain their hold on you, these self-appointed guardians of ‘truth’ will keep you in darkness and ignorance.

Because they know that if you ever find the truth, their little racket is over.

The second stage is the stage of internals.

This is the stage of experience.

With experience, you begin to understand that there are more than externals.

There’re internals in everything and if the externals do not reflect the internals, it’s all a sham.

At this stage, you begin to see though all the hype, all the hypocrisy.

You start to question.

And you begin to realize that behind all the smiles and rituals and rules, there’s something a little less wholesome.

And that the glossy externals are really a cover for incompetence at best and more sinister intentions at worst.

If you’re a guitar player, you realize that it doesn’t really matter how you look, more important is what’s coming out from your fingers.

If you look the model picture of the ‘perfect’ player but you sound like crap, well, time to focus on your internals.

Or if you see pastors spewing their Sunday fire and brimstone driving their fancy cars and cavorting with their glamorous sidekicks, well time to check out their internals.

In other words, you begin to focus on the real as opposed to the phony.

The substance as opposed to the superficial.

And the third stage?

Well, this stage is beyond words, it’s beyond explanations.

You’ll have to experience it to know it.

All I can say is that once you experience it, everything else will be of little consequence.

The paradox of l energy

July.13. 2015

You’re probably saying, “Now wait a minute, didn’t you say that a love-energy filled life is effortless?

So what’s this about having to put in effort to spread its energy around?”

That’s the paradox about the energy of love.

It’s no effort at all if that energy comes from the heart, but if you have to force it, then it’s a lot of effort.

I think I’ve mentioned it before.

If you have to force yourself to practice the guitar, then it’s a lot of effort.

But if you truly love playing it, it’s a joy.

The same is true of any other expression of love’s energy.

If you truly love someone, your expression of that energy will be effortless, but if you’re doing it simply because you feel you have to, it can require some real effort.

But as with everything else, if you persist and keep on doing it, you will find that over time, that expression will become completely natural and soon, all that energy will come pouring out of your heart effortlessly.

The key to a good life

July.12. 2015

Understanding how the energy of love operates is the key to a good life.

Because then you’ll be able to understand its flow in your life, you can precisely fine-tune how much of it you want in your life.

In other words, it puts you in the driver’s seat.

And it takes the blame out of things.

Because you know that its flow is completely determined by you, how much you get is a direct result of how much you put in.

If you feel you’re not getting enough of its energy, now you know why.

If you feel lonely and neglected, now you know why.

If you feel like everyone’s avoiding you and it’s not fair, why is that guy so popular, now you know why.

If you feel everyone in the office hates your guts, now you know why.

Instead of feeling bitter and drowning yourself in self-pity and blaming others for their lack of caring, you know what you need to do.

But of course it’s easier to blame.

(Which is why most people take that route.)

Because spreading love energy around you requires effort, quite a bit of effort, especially if you haven’t made much of an attempt at it before.

And conversely, if life is a breeze, and goodwill and blessings follow you everywhere you go, and whatever you want to accomplish is accomplished without much effort, you also know why.

In fact, you probably don’t need me to tell you this, you already know.

How to harness the energy of love

June.22. 2015

Unlike other forms of energy, love’s energy does not work in unilateral ways.

For example, gravity is unilateral.

It’s always there, it requires nothing from you. You want to tap into it, just create the right conditions and it will work for you effortlessly.

But not the energy of love.

The energy of love operates as a flow, as an exchange of energy rather than a one-sided affair.

In order to access it, you must first release some yourself.

You can try to access this energy simply by demanding it, or you can try to force it to come to you, but you will not succeed.

In fact, the more you demand or force that energy to come to you, the less of it will come.

Instead, you access the energy by first producing it yourself.

And then spreading it around, and over time, this energy that you send out will begin to attract other like energy and soon you will be surrounded by it.

And the great thing is, it’s a totally dynamic and responsive thing.

The more energy you send out, the more you receive.

It works in reverse too, if you’re stingy with your love energy, you will expect the universe to be stingy with its love energy too.

Perhaps one of the best lessons of love’s energy is one I learned from my mother.

One day, on one of my annual trips to Borneo, she said to me, “Go and look at that plant in the corner. It’s such a nuisance. I’ve tended and looked after it for over a year and still nothing, not even a flower. If it’s not going to grow any flowers, just pull it out and throw it into the rubbish.”

That’s the lesson of love’s energy in a nutshell.

Love exists in a dynamic exchange.

To tap it, you must be generous with your own energy first.

If you’re stingy with it, if you give nothing back, you risk stopping its flow.

Which leads us to our first observation.

Unlike what people say, love is conditional.

There’s no such thing as non-conditional love.

Love always operates as an exchange. It will only come if it goes out (or as the Chinese say, “got come, got go”).

But how about a little baby?

What can the baby give you to deserve that love?

If you have to ask that question, you’ve probably never experienced the love in those tiny fingers. That love may not be a conscious type of love, but it is no less powerful than more conscious manifestations.

Or how about a plant?

I know I’ve used the example of tending to a plant many times. (Now you know where the examples come from, my mother is an avid gardener)

Notice how the more love you pour out on a plant, the more it responds, not directly but indirectly, by blooming beautiful flowers for you, filling your garden or apartment with its fresh scent of love.

So the secret is simple.

If you want to harness the energy of love, you must first give it out yourself, spread love all around you, and soon, you will be basking in an abundance of love and goodwill.

And whatever you want to accomplish in the universe will be done effortlessly and miraculously.

All that love surrounding you will do it for you.

There’ve been many attempts to explain this energy.

The law of attraction, karma, reaping what you sow.

They all describe the same thing.

Which is that if you want the universe to work for you, if you want to tap into all its abundant energy, all you need to do is invest in a little bit of that positive energy they call love.

As an aside, if you’re one of those sorry people who are stingy with love, and you want to hoard it all for yourself, well, that’s really a dumb way to love yourself.

Because if you’re not generous with your love, that’s all you will have eventually, your small measly pittance.

No amount of love you think you have can be measured with the infinite amount of love in the universe. If you’re generous with your love, it will be returned to you a hundredfold.

Isn’t it better to access all that energy rather than try to hold on to what little you have?


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