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Mastery, three beautiful mexican children sitting the shade of their front entry.

Mastery is a state of mind. It is also a journey – and like all journeys, it has a beginning, middle, and an end. In the Zen tradition, it is said:

Zen mind, Beginner’s mind.

The free and open innocence of early childhood exemplifies this state of mind. The wonder of discovery, of finding magical properties in the mundane world suggests openness of spirit that all masters maintain.

Travelling through life

We love to travel. Anne and I prefer to book a flight, rent a car, find a place to land for the first night – and then wing it from there. In preparation, I read everything I can find about our destination, but leave the actual itinerary up for grabs.

Two realities occur from taking this approach. The first is that there are some challenging moments where we must work to find desirable food and lodgings. And the second, is that there are days where we find unexpected magic. For us, there is no better way to journey.

Hacienda Sepulveda

On a trip through the central Mexican highlands after visiting the colonial cities of Guadalajara and Zacatecas, we hit the road with the vague destination of a hacienda near the city Lagos de Moreno. The vistas in this part of Mexico are vast. Off in the distance you can see the steeples of the basilicas and churches of each small town. Turning off the main road and navigating toward one of these beacons is a favorite way to find the true heart of this wonderful country.

After a four/five hour drive we arrived at the central plaza. We parked and meandered over to find a bench, to soak up the local flavor, and unwind from the drive. We had no idea what came next … except we were hungry and it was late afternoon and we needed a place to sleep for the night.

So while wandering around the sleepy streets near the plaza, we were queried in perfect English by a young man and his female friend:

“Are you guys lost? Do you need some help?”

This was either a genuine kindness, or a come-on of some sort – both are not uncommon in small Mexican cities. Indeed, we were the only gringos in sight. Lagos was not on the ordinary tourist route, so our presence was notable.

As it turned out, this young man was sincere in his desire to help, directing us to a wonderful local restaurant. Before we parted I decided to ask him if he knew of a hacienda I had read about.

It took a minute or two, with some rapid communication in Spanish between our two new friends. He said, “I have a cousin who works in the kitchen of a place like that, but I have never been there. It is a fair distance out of town”. He gave me a complex set of directions “… fork in the road, railroad crossing, left at the bridge …” that sort of thing. Oh boy, this could be good or it could be bad. So after saying thank you and goodbye, we went off to find the restaurant.

Buoyed by a great meal and the confidence of beginner’s luck, we decided to take a chance on finding the hacienda that hovered in my memory bank.

Who knows, it might be the real thing …

We interpreted our directions and allowed a sense of intuitive curiosity to be our guide. After thirty minutes or so, we found ourselves on an unmarked dirt road leading to what at first looked like a farm or a ranch. We arrived outside a very old stone and mortar structure. And there was the sign, “Hacienda Sepulveda”.

Sometimes you score big time.

Walking into the lobby of this guesthouse was “magico puro”. The original house was transformed into a hotel, one of the finest places I have ever stayed in. Draped in the historic charm of a 16th century structure were guest rooms, multiple intimate courtyards, a swimming pool built into the old stable walls, the original chapel rebuilt to be the dining room.

For less than one hundred bucks a night, we received breakfast and dinner, and a leisurely horseback ride. And there were only a handful of guests in residence!

The hacienda was a working ranch, proudly detailed to us in our ride across the terrain. One evening the ranch worker’s children played red light/green light with us before bedtime.

Being willing to let life flow – not always pushing for a predetermined goal – is the sorcerer’s stone, the alchemist’s formula for turning dross into gold.

The Taoists call it “going with the flow” and this involves a balance of preparation, skill, trust, and intuition. A Master works with the flow of natural energy, never against it.

In the beginner’s mind, every second opens into new

We tend to equate mastery with hard skills, such as playing a musical instrument or making sculpture, or athletic prowess. But I think this interpretation is misunderstood.

I have worked around skillful mastery in the trades my whole life. One thing has become clear to me is that we often do our best work (creative, joyous, spontaneous) early on our path to “technical” mastery. This means talent and potential live inside us … the magical child is waiting there all the time. The excitement of learning and discovery connects us to a very potent energy stream, a stream that isn’t directly attached to rote memory.

Certainly as our skills evolve, the ability to do things “masterfully” increases. We are able to suffuse our work with both technical and artistic virtue.

I recently took time off from doing carpentry and construction to apply my muse to writing and photography and the healing arts. In coming back to carpentry to prepare our home for sale, I discovered something interesting. My skills, and my approach to the job at hand had shifted. It was “fun” to have a project to do. We tiled the back splash behind the stove; we remodeled a bathroom. It felt effortless to apply my skills. Rather than feeling the contractor’s push for completion, I felt no pressure, only an abundant flow of creativity in my task. Mastery and grace are a formidable combination.

On the road back there in the central Mexican highlands, we did not allow the tension and doubt of a long day of travel keep us from finding a piece of history, a piece of heaven. The grace of opportunity was ours.