From The Five Stages On The Path of Wisdom
in the older, now defunct, Teacher Training Notebook
The third stage of the practitioner is the most crucial, transitional, and challenging of all the stages. The choices made in this stage and the transformation of the student’s capacities that occurs determines whether the practitioner will progress toward mastery, stay at apprentice levels or quit the study altogether. It is a stage at which either a transformation or a discontinuity occurs. In the spiritual disciplines, shakti pad is known as the test of ego or the test of power.
At this stage the student has accumulated a lot of experience. He has tested the rules, stored up conscious and unconscious abilities and habits, and is overwhelmed by possibilities. What is required of the practitioner is the ability to choose a goal, fix on a motivation, and consciously commit to a set of values. The practitioner must also develop the ability to establish a hierarchy of choices. The practitioner must have a faculty to prioritize complex sets of tasks and decisions and to notice what is significant to the goal and what is not.
Imagine the driver who has learned the basic skill of guiding the car as a novice. He learned the art of driving and explored many different routes and types of vehicles as an apprentice. Now as a practitioner a new level of skill is demanded.
How do you choose between the many possibilities you are tactically qulified to execute? As a practitioner, you must choose a strategy. You must assume responsibility to choose between all the trails that take you along your journey. The driver may have 50 ways to drive into Boston. Putting all those choices in mind without a method to restrict and direct a decision would be confusing, overwhelming, and time consuming. The practitioner instead chooses the way into Boston based on a particular goal or value for the trip.
Each route satisfies a different value. Route 1 is the “quickest” and “saves time.” Route 2 is the “most beautiful.” Route 3 is the most “social” since it goes by friends’ houses. Route 4 is the most “historical” as it goes by monuments. Route 5 is the most “challenging” due to the varied landscapes and driving conditions.
The choice of value and of route must occur before leaving for the trip. If you start on the route of beauty, you can not change and still accomplish the least time.
As an apprentice each journey was assigned by the mentor. As a practitioner, the choice is now yours. You learned as an apprentice that there are many rules for different situations. As a practitioner you must now formulate rules about which set of rules to apply. The rules for beauty, speed, challenge, and newness are different.
This stage is similar to the developmental stage of adolescence. The novice is like the newborn. The apprentice is like the young child. The practitioner is like the adolescent who is ready to challenge the rules, to risk new combinations, and to act in patterns that are unlike the past. It is a creative and dangerous stage. Just as an adolescent wants the power of choice without the dangers of responsibility, the practitioner wants to make a choice without commitment. The practitioner that learns to command commitment, to overcome doubt and to discern the proper values, conquers this stage of learning.
The adolescent driver may decide that “speed” is the most important value. The driver then tailgates, risks high speed turns and darts between other car in traffic. If the practitioner becomes attached to that value, he will be insensitive to situations that do not fit it. He may spend time in court, kill himself or endanger other drivers.
If the practioner enjoyed sped and was willing to be a novice about that value, he might enroll in a speed driving course for cars in race tracks and begin professional training.
This is the test of power in shakti pad. The practitioner looks at the whole situation, at the panorama of facts and choices. He must then consciously act from the whole or from a part of the whole. This is a critical ability. The cognitive ability needed at this time is the capacity to perceieve the implications of the whole collection of choices and information. To act unconsciously or incorrectly from a small piece of the whole is a fatal error. A practitioner fails if he chooses the value or goal which he enjoys or which he finds most interesting or stimulating rather than the value that continues to serve the larger project, task or study that he entered training to attain.
The experience of this type of decision making is often unpleasant and frightful. It is beset with uncertainty and often fills the practitioner with doubt. It is a perilous and existential moment. It is as agonizing as the decision of a Hamlet – a question of identity and commitment. It is as grave as the decision of an Oedipus. The decision is made through deliberate effort to reach the correct perspective of the whole and to discern the true significance of the decision.
The ego or attachment of the student becomes the biggest block at this stage. Imagine the driver who so loves the feeling of the car as it moves that he refuses to study maps or make plans. The sensations of driving are so enthralling that the next capacity can not develop. This happens in games. I recall a video game player who couldn’t get above a certain score. I told him I knew how to do it, but he had to let the shooting of certain video demons become automatic. He said he knew that, but he enjoyed the feeling of confrontation too much to simply let it become automatic. His attachment to that sensation blocked him from moving to the highest level of performance. The love of confrontation was stronger than the commitment to increase speed. So the original goal, to win the greatest number of points, was not achieved. Neither was the experience of mastery which required him to surrender his own attachment to the requirements of the game.
At that point my friend redefined the game and found what he had done before to be false. This is equivalent to denying th guidance of the mentor who tells you to keep going and not to stop if you want to reach the end. A practitioner who does not pass the test of shakti pad denies the teacher or mentor. He is filled with doubt about the value of what he did before and he doubts the wisdom of the teacher.
The real test at this stage is the test to overcome doubt. To create an action where all the parts of your mind are behind the original path you chose. This sage requires commitment. It requires involvement in the sense that you are focally responsible for the choice. The results of the choice, for better or worse, are your responsibility. Success and failure become portentous and filled with consequence. It is similar to adolescence, when the smallest rejection or acceptance by others is met with enormous reactions of grief or ecstasy. Each action, since it is truly yours, is encased in amplified impacts and effects.
This choice of values cannot be done non-personally. It is always a personal choice that we make. It is not possible at this stage to take a cosmic perspective of detachment. The choice cannot be avoided without halting learning and growth. This is because the choice must be made first, before moving ahead.
In spiritual disciplines, this is the leap of faith. This is the moment where you choose to follow your own desires and limited perspective or you choose the higher values established by the path or teaching that you began to study. Up to this point the student is detached from the choice. As a novice you just follow the rules. As an apprentice you are busy learning new perceptions. As a practitioner you are competent to do most tasks related to the skills you are learning. You must choose where to use those skills and to what end.
On the path of yoga, many students leave the path at this point because they feel some part of themselves has been neglected or rejected by their own earlier efforts. Others gain spiritual ego and fancy themselves complete even though the teacher and teachings warn them against such a position. Others fade away slowly because they decide they are the exception to the rules and they need not follow the original disciplines any more.
Those students who can act with faith and wholeness do well at this stage. Students who can search for differences from the main goal and correct their direction pass through this stage the most easily. It is easy to forget yourself at this stage and become hypnotized by the satisfaction and power of the skills you have gained so far. If you surrender to the path and goal you began your study to fulfill, you will emerge with strength and empowered with an unshakable direction.