It is said that when the student is ready, the master appears. This adage is usually associated with going to India to sit at the feet of some swami-ji who speaks in parables and gives his students the occasional whack on the head. Certainly I’ve met countless disciples who fairly waft through life inhaling the intoxicating wisdom of their manifested master. And I’ve always been left wondering when it would be my turn to find the one great sage who would sweep me into a state of eternal bliss.
Looking back over my wanderings through the metaphysical maze, however, I see that innumerable teachers have skillfully guided my journey. Unfortunately, at the time I was so married to a certain model of what a master is that I failed to recognize mine along the way. The fact is, even if the vast majority of us deny it, we all have gurus. Most of them aren’t obvious. They don’t have Sanskrit names, speak with a subcontinental lilt, or wear flowing robes. They appear ordinary in every way, yet they turn out to be great teachers.
"When the student is ready…." What a grossly misleading phrase, for it implies a time when the student is not ready. From one standpoint, we are always ready. We are always in the presence of masters. We are always being taught and tested, always refining old perspectives and gaining new ones. All we really need to do is wake up to what’s really happening and participate more consciously. During those wondrous moments when I am truly present, the entire universe is my teacher. Each flower, each bird, each sunset is my personal guru. Everyone I meet, every TV program or movie I see, every book or article I read changes me in ways so marvelous and consummate that they can only be divinely guided.
And yet, in my life there is one person who has truly become my personal guru. What is most amazing is that he regards me in the same light, which only goes to prove that when two beings tell it like it really is, it’s always a teaching/learning experience. This person’s name is Robin Willner – although few know his real first name, since he has been called Lefty from the time he was knee-high to a grasshopper. He is ranked as one of the world’s top tennis players in his age bracket – in a year he’ll be competing with the octogenarians. Over his career, he played against (and often beat) some of the greatest names in professional tennis: Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, Dennis Ralston, Bobby Riggs, Gardnar Mulloy, Tony Trabert, to name a few of the stars that blazed the way for today’s highly paid professionals.
Twice a week, Lefty and I meet on the tennis court and hit a few. Our lessons have a curious rhythm to them: we rally a bit, then we come to the net to talk. Here again is a case of how preconceived notions can get in the way of what’s really being offered in the moment. Contrary to what you might expect, Lefty almost never talks about the mechanics of the swing. He relegates hitting the ball to secondary importance, akin to having one’s focus on the destination rather than the journey. He thinks such cliches as "keep your eye on the ball," "timing," and "following through" are as misleading as "when the student is ready." In fact, it might surprise you that when we talk, the topic is rarely about tennis. Usually we talk about the events of the day or challenges we’re both facing. Yet in this universe in which all things are connected by zero degrees of separation, everything is about tennis. To Lefty – and to me – the game of tennis is not isolated from the rest of our experience. It is one pixel in the vast hologram of existence, and as such is a perfect metaphor for everything else in life. Last night was a perfect example.
Lefty has an extraordinary ability to hit balls that come at you with blinding speed. And as with a skilled baseball pitcher, nothing in his body language lets you know whether it’s going to be a slow curve or another blazing fastball. He hits every shot with the same smooth, graceful motion, honed over the past 65 years, that has always drawn the envious admiration of all who watch him. Everyone wants to be able to emulate Lefty. I’m no different. Except I don’t just want to hit a tennis ball like he does, I want to be able to live every part of my life as he does. If I can do that, the tennis will come on its own.
Lefty is one of the few people I know who says what he means and means what he says. When he tells you something, you can take it to the bank; when he makes an appointment, you can set your watch by his arrival. He doesn’t speak in politically correct terms, he just tells it like it is. Last night he revealed the secret of his life-long philosophy, which is also what makes his tennis strokes so maddeningly pure: moving straight through it. Whatever the circumstance – just move straight through it. Don’t be thrown by how hard or soft life’s events come at you – just move straight through them.
When the ball comes at you, meet it head on. Don’t flick the wrist or move the body quickly out of the way. Don’t flinch at the last moment or skip crucial parts of the swing. Don’t panic or rush things because you doubt your ability. Just move straight through it.
I knew that when I finally learned to move straight though the ball, everything about my life would change. I would come one step closer to being reliable like Lefty. I would have discarded my need to tiptoe around the beliefs and sensitivities of others, and surrender my power in the process. I would have reclaimed my true essence and found my unique voice, untainted by the need for consensus or approval. I, like Lefty, would have the courage to tell it like it really is.
Last night Lefty said I moved straight through about sixty balls. I could feel the difference – without my hitting them harder, the shots went faster. Without sacrificing grace, I created the time to make a complete move – both back and through – and the ball knew it.
I’m glad Lefty doesn’t wear flowing robes or speak with a clipped accent. I’m very blessed to count such a remarkable being among my true friends, and I value each moment we’re together as a divine gift. I am ready, and the master has never been late. Not even once.