Tools: The labyrinth of skill

The process of learning a new skill can be so full of weird twists and turns that it can feel at times like we’re going round the bend… Yet whilst every skill is different, for everyone who learns it, there are common factors behind the skills-learning process which are exactly the same for every skill. Learn those, and learning any new skill can become a lot easier – for ourselves, and for everyone around us!

These common factors are particularly well illustrated by the traditional seven-turn labyrinth, providing a map of the process, from survival to self, control, caring, communication, mind, meditation and mastery.

Loop 5: Communication/Community Loop 6: Mind Loop 7: Meditation Loop 4: Caring 'The Dark Night Of The Soul' Loop 1: Survival Loop 2: Self Loop 3: Control 'Beginner's Luck' Center: Mastery

the labyrinth of skill

[The drawing above is an active image-map – ‘walk’ the path with your cursor, and click anywhere for an explanation of that layer of the path. Start at ‘Beginner’s Luck’, and work your way towards the centre.]

Although it’s a kind of maze, there’s actually only one path, and as long as we do keep going, we will always get there in the end (‘there’ in this case being mastery of the respective skill, or of some chosen part of that skill). Yet it’s not quite as obvious as it looks… for example, we don’t simply get better and better just through practice, with a steady progress from survival-level to mastery of the skill. If we try to cheat by jumping over into any other path, anywhere in the labyrinth – with just one exception – we’ll actually find ourselves walking straight back out again… Reality Department doesn’t allow short-cuts where skills are concerned! And we’ll also notice that whenever we pass by someone else, walking along a next-door path, they’ll always be walking in the opposite direction if they’re going the same way as us: so it’s easy to become disheartened, and think we’re doing it all wrong… or else, in our foolishness, try to convince others that they’re the ones who are walking the ‘wrong’ way!

So walk through the labyrinth of skill, and watch what happens…

Prelude: Beginner’s Luck

Starting from Beginnings, we move almost immediately to a point where we have a kind of mastery – but only for a moment. We then have the choice: to back out, avoiding any commitment; or ask “How did I do this?” – and start on the Journey. [back]

Stage 1: inward to Control (third loop)

We here experiment and analyse, and things begin to make sense: we seem quite soon to be in control, though it’s nothing like the ‘instant mastery’ we had earlier. But every now and then things break down, and it’s clear that we are part of the process. At some point we change direction, and look inwards – though as far as the labyrinth is concerned, we’re actually moving outward… [back]

Stage 2: outward to Self (second loop)

We look at how we are involved in the process. But despite knowing more – and having to face our own weaknesses which need working on – we find our mastery is even less. Looking at self seems the ‘wrong’ way: at another point, we turn toward the direction in which we first started. [back]

Stage 3: outward to Survival (first loop)

This doesn’t do at all what we expected. Far from bringing us back to Control, it takes us to Chaos! The rules haven’t changed: but we have – so it seems nothing works. This is the worst stage of the Labyrinth, and by far the longest… Yet this is also the stage in which we do some of our most important work, building up ‘body-knowledge’ which – though we won’t know it yet – will allow us to carry out many of the skill’s actions without having to think about them. However…[back]

A sudden stop: the Dark Night of the Soul

At some point there’s a harsh twist where we seem to face a wall, and we discover we’re actually further out than we started: a bleak place traditionally described as the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. This can also be called the ‘Oh, sod it!’ point: if we give up at this point, walk straight on and break out of the Labyrinth – as the steep turn encourages us to do – we lose everything we’ve gained, except for a large dose of disillusion…

Interlude: The Cloud of Unknowing

If we can keep going, we’ll find that we go into a deep despair – but only for a while. The key is to trust – to listen to the heart. By accepting that we don’t know – surrender to the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and the ‘cloud of forgetting’ – there’s a change as fast as that at the beginning: from chaos we suddenly find ourselves at the centre. Or almost at the centre – there’s still a way to go! [back]

Stage 4: inward to Caring (fourth loop)

To move on, we find that we have to care about what we’re doing: a commitment of the heart as well as of the head. We’ve swung away from the centre again: but we’re now in an inner space, and we now never lose what we’ve learned so far. [back]

Stage 5: inward to Meditation (seventh loop)

Another steep swing: by ‘doing no-thing’ we find ourselves almost at the centre once more. And once more, we still aren’t quite there… we’ve reached a kind of ‘enlightenment’, but there’s still wood to chop, water to carry… [back]

Stage 6: outward to Mind (sixth loop)

We come down out of the quiet spaces, and remember we still have practical work to do. The mind here helps us make the link, though in a way that sometimes seems quite opposite to the way we used the mind when – so long ago – we thought we were in Control. [back]

Stage 7: outward to Community/Communication (fifth loop)

We’re now quite some way from the centre: it again seems like we’re only getting worse. We need help from others, a community of like-minded people – especially those who don’t call us crazy! To release our worry about our failing awareness, and to help us find out what we know, we start to teach, to describe to others what we’ve done. This has surprising results… [back]

Postlude: Mastery

… because we find we’re now at the centre! And while we discover that we’ve truly mastered this stage, we find that the Labyrinth has an even stranger twist. We thought we were going in: we now find that we were going out. Not just to a wider awareness, but to the ‘outside’ of another Labyrinth, another skill to master…[back]

No particular suggestions for resources on this one: just try applying it to your own experience of learning new skills, and see what happens!

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