Zen and Learning

Have you ever experienced working on a project – a craft of some kind, a bit of creative work, a ballet of hands and heart and mind – and found yourself completely in the moment, focused entirely on what you are doing and suddenly liberated from the cares and concerns of the everyday world? Sometimes this is described as being in the flow, or sportsmen call it being in the zone. Whatever it is, it is experienced as a moment of joyfulness, a state of intense well being, and our very best work often results from it. Over the weekend I read a sharp left hook of a little book called Zen in the Art of Archery, a description of a German academic’s attempt to master the art over a five-year period spent in Japan. Keen to learn Zen, but frustrated by the lack of information about it, he decided to commit himself to the study of one of the traditional arts, and what results from that is an extraordinary perspective on both learning and achievement. After years of teaching in a high-powered university, and after years of chronic fatigue, this book chimed with everything I’ve been starting to think about creativity, study and what actually brings us long-lasting satisfaction.

Describing the early stages of instruction, Eugen Herrigel writes:

‘Nothing more is required of the pupil, at first, than that he should conscientiously copy what the teacher shows him. Shunning long-winded instructions and explanations, the latter contents himself with perfunctory commands and does not reckon on any questions from the pupil. Impassively he looks on at the blundering efforts, not even hoping for independence or initiative, and waits patiently for growth and ripeness. Both have time: the teacher does not harass, and the pupil does not overtax himself.’

I particularly appreciate the beauty of that last line: speed of learning is entirely irrelevant. Indeed, Herrigel spends the first year of his lessons learning how to draw the bow and arrow. At six feet from end to end, the bow represents quite a proposition, unwieldy, and held with arms outstretched above the head, before being lowered into a position which is maintained for a while before the arrow is loosed. Herrigel speaks of the unquestioning devotion the student feels for the Master who teaches, and this stems from his demeanour and the example he sets. Herrigel watches his own Master draw the bow without the least tension in his arms and loose the arrow in a way that alerts all his senses to its perfection – and is pitifully aware how difficult this is to do himself. But the real influence of the Master is less to be found in instruction but in the state of mind with which he witnesses his pupil’s struggles. Getting it wrong has nothing to do with error – it is the very process of learning, and any attempt to find short cuts or quick fixes will actually arouse his ire. Circumventing the long, long haul of learning a craft with every fibre of mind and body is considered a terrible act of dishonesty.

What Zen instructs is that learning is not about the outward manifestation of a skill, but the inward journey through the self. On several occasions the Master leaves Herrigel to struggle hopelessly and heroically with the fiendish difficulties of drawing a bow correctly, only giving him helpful hints when he has reached the point of desperation. Why won’t he tell him these things earlier? Herrigel asks. Because he has to exhaust all the possibilities for himself before he would be ready to take in what the Master has to say. And isn’t this the truth? How many times have I told students what they need to do, only to be met with blank stares or the insincere gestures of over-anxious acceptance. The truth only makes sense when we are ready to hear it, and not a moment before. We have to work things out for ourselves. It takes Herrigel a further two or three years to figure out the ‘right’ moment to loose his arrow, the moment when his hand will fall easily away from the bowstring, without jerking backwards. The long process to reach this point not only teaches him much that is wordless about feeling the task in hand, but it prepares him for the understanding that mastering an art like this is a spiritual activity, not one governed by tricks and predicated on the easy joy of achievement.

‘After right shots…’ Herrigel writes, ‘The heart continues to beat evenly and quietly and with concentration undisturbed one can go straight on to the next shot. But inwardly, for the archer himself, right shots have the effect of making him feel that the day has just begun. He feels in the mood for all right doing, and, what is perhaps even more important, for all right not-doing. Delectable indeed is this state. But he who has it, said the Master with a subtle smile, would do well to have it as though he did not have it. Only unbroken equanimity can accept it in such a way that it is not afraid to come back.’

This is the part of the exposition that is probably most contrary to Western ears, but which I found most fascinating. Just as ‘getting it wrong’ is not a matter for distress, so ‘getting it right’ is not a matter for celebration. All that is truly important is the state of mind that can be accessed during the process, and this is the spirituality of which Zen speaks. The ego, so dominant in all Western endeavour, is seen as an obstacle to the ancient mystics, something that has to be steadily eroded. This is exemplified in the art of archery by the fact that when Herrigel is finally allowed to shoot at a target, the whole point, he discovers, is not to aim. He finds this quite hard to accept, and so the Master demonstrates to him the irrelevance of aiming by shooting a bullseye at night, when the target is invisible to him. He then shoots a second arrow that cleaves the first. What counts is the doing and the harmony and spirituality infused into it.

I know this is right because I spend all my time now with students who are so obsessed with the target, with what they are supposed to be achieving, and with how their lack of success reflects back on their sense of self, that they are completely crippled for doing anything at all. If this isn’t spiritual poverty, then I don’t know what is. Such students need to get out of their own way, and they find it almost impossible. And as much as even my little zen-seduced heart might miss a beat at the thought of not taking some self-regarding pleasure from doing things well, I can see that it is the flip side to viewing one’s errors with equanimity too. When the bow flies perfectly through the air and hits the bullseye, the zen Master says that “It shoots” and “It hits”. The archer is not responsible; instead he has channeled spirituality in a manner ignorant of the confines of his self, and indifferent to the external effect.

This is an extraordinary little book – it will take no more than a couple of hours to read, but it may just make you think completely differently. I certainly came away feeling that I should hand it out like a prescription drug to my troubled students.

17 thoughts on “Zen and Learning

  1. This sounds fantastic. I find Zen so utterly fascinating and so seemingly impossible. I put in a request for the book from the library. Being in school has made me obsessed once again with grades, forgetting the journey of learning and exploration and wanting only that ‘A’ as an ego boost and proof of how good I am nevermind if I forget most of what I supposedly learned within a few months. I do know that state of flow though, it is a beautiful feeling.

  2. Litlove this is a wonderful post, so lucid and succinct in explaining a zen approach. I’ve felt that oneness at times, and as soon as I’m aware of the smooth joy of it, I leap out of it in self-consciousness. I wish I could go with it longer. I want to give some thought to how this can be applied to writing. I took a course in archery (long bow), and at first loved it, then felt frustrated by my inability to hit the target. To have time–oh wouldn’t that be lovely. Just as much time as it took to be clear and easy. I really want to think about all this more.

  3. I like your comment about your students failings and ‘how their lack of success reflects back on their sense of self’. I think that’s spot on and it’s terrible, but how to avoid it in our current culture where failure and admissions of failure are to be avoided at all costs? Public apologies usually accompany public sackings, or demotions, it’s the people who never say they did wrong who get to keep the lifestyle they want.

    I bet there’s a lot of people reinforcing the notion that failure damages their image as well. Pressure about career based failure seems to transfer onto creative attempts, even if no one applies the same kind of tangible pressure in relation to those attempts. So people who get pulled in for mistakes in work, or struggle with exams might also have trouble seeing failure in their private, creative endevours as a learning experience even if no one else seems to care.

    Seems like a pretty big problem in our culture, perhaps we could do with regular office culture swaps, or like you say handing out books like this that can change our ideas.

  4. This was a joy to read. Indeed, in our high powered world, at least in the academic portion of it, I agree that a mistake is deemed too costly. The person being mistaken gives himself/herself hell over it, and nobody in the surroundings seems to empathize, because it is just universally acknowledged that being creative is a hard business and you either sink or you swim. The Western education system (indeed almost any education system today) is not set up to deal with this. Egos are at stake, research funds are at stake, there is just too much running on projects to afford mistakes. This is a huge tragedy, and I’ve skirted too close to it for too long not to notice it.

    I love the part where you explain about having exhausted all approaches oneself before being ready to learn. It takes time, and a lot of work poking at the problem from newer and newer sides, but when the realization happens, it is worth more than any gift one can can receive.

  5. Wonderful post. It puts me in my of an article we published at my day-job magazine recently about mind-sets. The author wrote about the value of having a “growth mind-set” in which you can accept mistakes because they are the part of the process of growing and learning. This was opposed to a fixed mind-set in which we believe that our intelligence and abilities are fixed and that there’s nothing we can do to change them. If we believe our abilities are fixed, then any failure is a blow to our sense of self, rather than an opportunity to learn. But that is so counter-cultural in a world where achievement signifies worth.

  6. Only unbroken equanimity can accept it in such a way that it is not afraid to come back.

    That, right there, is a most extraordinary idea … and, in my opinion, encapsulates everything about why creative people in the Western world tend to be so neurotic and crazed. There is so much invested in the idea of success; the attachment even to a moment of inspiration pretty much guarantees it won’t come back any time soon.

    Which reminds me, in turn, of a marvelous line by Robertson Davies (writing as his equally marvelous alter ego Samuel Marchbanks): “When I pursue the shy nymph Pleasure with a blunderbuss, she inevitably eludes me.”

  7. We seem encapsulated by an analytic frame of mind. No sooner does an artist create something, or a phenomenon is noticed, but a whole army of ‘activists’ start to tear it apart and explain – and we all want the explanations, especially pupils/students who are so desperate to get it right. Introductions, explanations, cribs – anything but the thing itself. That is what we develop, so that is what we end up with. Don’t get me wrong – your analyses are a major part and attraction of this site and analysis has taken us a mighty long way, but too often it becomes the only way. This activity seems to be linked to one form of taking possession of the thing and is perhaps linked to a capitalist, materialist society, a sense of gaining control. There’s an interesting book I once read called ‘To Have or To Be’ by Erich Fromm, which has a lot to say on the possessive or experiencing dichotomy. I fear I have been analysizing so long the alternative is beyond me now.

  8. I loved the parts about unbroken equanimity and not being so obsessed with the target. I’m sure we can apply these principles to relationships too. Realising our failures without shame and being willing to try again.

  9. This is great — definitely a book I need to read. The ideas are ones I’ve heard before — but that hardly means anything because they are far from being ideas I’ve internalized! This sounds like a book to read and meditate on, and I’m in the mood for that these days.

  10. Stefanie – my friend, I have spent a whole lifetime chasing grades, so I think I ought to read this daily! I am intrigued by zen for the same reasons – so difficult, and yet something so sane about it as well. I do like the idea of removing all goals and targets, though. That feels a very serene thing to do.

    Lilian – I know what you mean about time, and it seems to me a feature of our hassle-y, stressed out world that time is something we have to wrestle with rather than exist within. It was my tendency to be a rushaholic that took me to zen and I love what it has to say about that, even if it’s hard for me to get my head around. Good luck with your own path to serenity. Post about it one day, I’d love to know more.

    Jodie – you’re quite right and at the heart of the problem is education. The things my son comes home from school repeating! The relentless pressure for A* grades at exams! Learning is a means to an end, that of sitting an examination and not getting a question wrong. And yes, this attitude will inevitably shape all subsequent creative endeavour. I’m a one-woman army against it at the moment, but you are very welcome to climb aboard.

    Polaris – oh the academic establishment is the worst offender. And the result? Endless bickering over even the tiniest areas of control. No one can bear to be in the wrong. And you’d think academics would be best placed to know how much trial and error there is in any kind of learning process. Oh and by the way, I loved your suggestion for a page index to the blog and will do it as soon as I get my act together and tackle some long overdue blog housekeeping.

    Bea – it was a fantastic recommendation from you – thank you, my friend!

    Teresa – now that sounds like a wonderful article. That’s very much in the spirit of this book, and, I think, a truly healthy approach to adopt towards learning. It’s funny how much emphasis we put on physical health these days and how little we really consider the health of our attitudes and mind sets. Here’s hoping that will change.

    Grad – it was an inspiration to me, as you always are, too.

    David – Robertson Davies is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for years, and your marvellous quote makes me realise I MUST pick up his books soon. I really don’t like what’s happening to creativity lately – it’s squeezed out in competitions, and beaten to death by commercial concerns. These conditions are so antithetical to its needs. I’ve got a huge tome to read about how the world is becoming steadily more left brain (or right brain, whichever is less involved in creativity) and what a damaging effect that’s having on culture. It’s big and complex and academic, though, so I haven’t got there yet.

    Bookboxed – I know what you mean. I read it described as the postmodern mindset, which wants everything, but everything to be visible and explained. No mystery, no thank you very much. The mistake is to equate analysis with truth, when in fact analysis is a highly perishable commodity and rarely lasts longer than six months before needing to be replaced. So, fun while it lasts then, but not to be taken as gospel. I will have to look out the Fromm, which sounds most intriguing.

    Pete – yes, you’re right, I think we can apply this to all kinds of issues. It’s somehow managing to separate out shame from mistakes. I remember reading Jon Kabat-Zinn saying, there’s the problem and then there’s how we feel about it, and we usually make things worse by conflating the two.

    Dorothy – I thought of you while reading this, as I reckoned it would fit in very well with the ‘art’ of bike riding. I thoroughly recommend it! And would love to know what you think of it.

  11. Oh no did I leave you out? Oh poor Bookboxed – I live in fear of doing that, as I scroll up and down and up and down to reply to the comments! Let me just check.. Ah I see what I’ve done, I’ve attributed your comment to Pete! How foolish of me. I do hope that we are old enough friends that you know I would never leave you out! I’ll go back and edit the comment above so that it says what it should – and apologies, and a hug!

  12. I thought you might have conflated us. I don’t mind at all. Only did this for a bit of fun. Wicked old guy that I am! Thanks.

  13. Pingback: Mother of Invention Acting School — Los Angeles — Blog » Blog Archive » Zen and the Art of Archery and the art of acting (not to mention the art of teaching acting)

  14. Pingback: Zen and the Art of Archery and the art of acting (not to mention the art of teaching acting) | Andrew Wood Acting Studio Blog

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