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.