Surpassing Mentors and Escaping the Master’s Shadow


“It is good to remember that the goal of Buddhism is to create Buddhas, not Buddhists, as the goal of Christianity is to create Christs, not Christians. In the same vein, my teachings are not meant to acquire followers or imitators, but to awaken beings to eternal truth and thus to awakened life and living.” –Adyashanti

Standing on the shoulders of giants is very important, but remaining stuck there can lead to impotence. If we remain on the giant’s shoulder we can only see as far as the giant sees, but if we get creative and climb atop the giants head, or build our own platform to climb even higher, we can see further, and farther, than they ever could. The way to transform boundaries into horizons is to constantly question what the masters of a given boundary are declaring as truth. Play with the “truth.” Juggle it. Smash it at your feet. Then put it back together again, this time instilled with more flexibility.

Learn their way of handling it. Just remember to do it your way afterward. Tweak their way. Twist it into a more elegant form. Tug at it until it becomes taut with refinement. Then pass it on to a student and encourage them to do the same. Like Robert Greene wrote in his book Mastery: “Choose the mentor who best fits your needs and connects to your Life’s Task. Once you have internalized their knowledge, you must move on and never remain in their shadow. Your goal is always to surpass your mentors in mastery and brilliance.”

The problem with mastery is the finality of it. The problem with mastery is that the goal has been achieved and the journey is no longer the thing. Remember: the journey must always be the thing, otherwise the adventure is over and complacency and stagnation become rulers over our life. The reason we kill Buddha on the path is exactly because of this complacency. A master becomes complacent because he or she becomes too comfortable with their achieved goal and the fame and accolades that come along with it. Put simply: too much comfort makes us soft. Indeed, too much comfort actually kills the journey.


The reason why so many Christians are not Christ-like, and so many Buddhists are not Buddha-like, is exactly because of the comfort that their religion brings them. They are so bewitched by the coziness of convention and relief from shame and grief and “sin” that they believe they never have to worry about anything. They feel safe on their crutches, even as they lean into the unknown. But, and here’s the rub, the journey is the thing exactly because it’s uncomfortable and challenging and difficult to navigate.

The journey is the thing exactly because it isn’t a groundless consolation or unfounded reassurance. The journey is adventurous exactly because of the unknown. Eventually you have to toss those crutches aside and discover your own way in order for the journey to continue. Besides, the burden and joy of figuring it out for ourselves, of really being accountable and responsible for our own direction in life, is exactly what transforms us into masters like Christ and Buddha.

The only way we evolve as a species is to learn from the mentors who came before us, internalize their knowledge, and then move on with our own journey even as we discover new ways that make their ways obsolete. Like James Russell Lowell said, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.” This applies to what we learn from our mentors as well. This even applies to our own mastery. If enough time passes by even the “good” that came from our own mastery of a thing can eventually become uncouth. This is because the only absolute in the universe is change. The only permanent is impermanence. Nothing remains the same. Even Truth is a chameleon. This is why the best mentors have an unwavering sense of humor.


“If your mind is empty,” writes Shunryu Suzuki, “it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Cultivating beginner’s mind is important for escaping the shadow of mastery, whether it’s our mentor’s shadow or our own. The master’s mind turned beginner’s mind is what I call the New-layman.

New-laymen escape the shadow of their own mastery and create for themselves a freedom for new creating. They realize that learning is not linear, but cyclical. It’s not about accumulating information and mastering it, but about internalizing the relationships between information and then synergizing the experience into recyclable mastery. They don’t seek followers to teach, they seek leaders with the hunger to learn. Think Christ. Think Buddha. Think Gandhi. Think Nietzsche.

At the end of the day, mastery, like enlightenment, is an illusion. It’s a stopgap at best, a reverse speed-bump on the path, or maybe a ramp that launches us over certain obstacles. But the path is still the path. The journey is still the thing. No amount of so-called mastery can change the fact that change is the only absolute. And so the ability to adapt and overcome becomes paramount. Learning from our mentors is adapting. Escaping the shadow of our mentors is overcoming. And the “journey being the thing” rolls on.

Like the Zen proverb states, “Let go, or be dragged.” We “let go” by moving on smartly with what our mentors taught us so that we don’t “get dragged” by complacency and comfort. We don’t become masters by standing on firm ground and having fixed conviction about what we’ve been taught. We become masters by having the courage to question and improve upon what our mentors taught us, so that we can adapt and overcome the vicissitudes of life. Like the great Alan Watts brilliantly opined, “For what one needs in this universe is not certainty but the courage and nerve of the gambler; not fixed conviction but adaptability; not firm ground whereupon to stand but skill in swimming.”

Shoulders of giants

Shadow Illusion

Simple Buddha

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Gary Z McGee
Gary Z McGee
Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.


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