LABH Blog: Zen, and the Art of Bowhunting

LABH Blog: Zen, and the Art of Bowhunting

I read once that the most powerful word in the English language is the little three-letter single-syllable word – ‘Let’.  To ‘let’ something happen is to allow it to be, to permit it, to enable it, to ‘let it be’, without force or effort or exertion as in the attempt to ‘make’ something happen.

This came to mind last summer while deep in daily practice with my bow, trying to improve my skills several orders of magnitude.  I was talking to experts, shooting with experts, watching youtube videos on ‘Target Panic’, shooting from various positions up trees in my climber, adjusting the pull weight, working out every day, all sorts of stuff.   What I learned is that in order to shoot most accurately, most consistently, one most train themselves to not aim at the bullseye, rather they should focus on the target and let the subconscious mind manage the calculations and timings and specifics of the release and getting the arrow to the target.  If the archer tries to aim too intently they introduce tension and fear and the pin will jump all over the place and they are apt to do a ‘drive-by release’ of the arrow. The archer should ‘see’ in his minds eye the arrow leaving the bow in slow motion, traveling to the target and settling in on the bullseye – he should relax and trust and ‘let’ the arrow find it’s way to the center of the target by simply focusing on the target and letting the subconscious mind manage the timing and execution of the release.

It seems counter-intuitive to not aim, strain, or try too hard, but all artists and athletes and others at the top of their game have long known this and practice the art of letting go.  The Art of Letting Go is becoming empty of desire and thought and effort and letting the subconscious mind manage the impossibly complex and unknowable tasks that are beyond what we can even approach with the conscious mind.

When the golfer stands behind his ball and closes his eyes, he is visualizing the contact between ball and club and ‘sees’ the ball traveling the desired distance and trajectory and spin rate and landing right next to the hole.  He sees, he believes, he trusts, he allows and then he executes.  He tries to get his conscious mind ‘out of the way’. He does not think about his swing plane or grip or ‘try’ to hit a 210 yard 3 iron to 4 feet from the hole, it is impossibly complex.   But the subconscious mind has capabilities beyond our wildest understanding and can and does manage thousands of complex calculations to achieve what was visualized in the golfers head... if, that is, the golfer can shut the conscious mind down and ‘let’ it happen.

If you’ve ever stood behind home plate and watched a major league pitcher throwing 98mph fast balls, you can quickly see it is impossible for a batter to ever hit the ball…the timings are just too impossible for any human to achieve... impossible for the conscious mind maybe, but not the subconscious… where the five senses plus the sixth sense combine to ‘see’ the ball and control the muscles and manage the timing and execution.   The pitcher can not ‘control’ or ‘steer’ the pitch and try to hit a target… rather he ‘sees’ in his minds eye the target and allows the subconscious to control the process and get the ball on the outside corner.  He thinks about what he wants, sees it happen, and allows it to happen.  The moment he tries to steer the ball is the moment the conscious mind takes over and usually he is on his way to the dugout.    When the best golfers in the world collapse on the final round knocking balls all over the place, it is the fear and doubt and need that is introduced by the conscious mind with it’s ever vigilant ego that is responsible, the part of the mind that understands what is at stake and wants the win more than anything in the world.

This is true for the artist or the writer... he will tell you he has to get his mind out of the way and let the words flow through to him, or go empty and ‘let’ the image find it’s way to the canvas through him but not by him.    Songwriters will tell you the best songs come to them through the subconscious ‘out of nowhere’ in a stream, a gift from the ‘Beyond’ – they simply are observers and write down what appears to them.  The tennis player will tell you he cannot begin to manage consciously the process of getting to a ball, evaluate it’s direction, spin and speed, and meet it and send it back.  Rather he focuses on the yellow fuzz of the ball and let’s his subconscious mind control everything – his own body, and his shot.  The goal is to play ‘brain-dead’.

The conscious mind is where desire and fear and ego and competition and doubt live.  Success for the golfer, the archer, the tennis player, or the writer, as well as most other complex endeavors, lies in learning how to quiet the mind, make it empty, be at peace; and then take this stillness to the course or the woods or the court.  In golf the goal is to hit the ball on the course the way you hit it on the practice range when nothing is at stake.   In the case of shooting practice arrows on a daily basis, it is reasonably easy to demonstrate to yourself and see that somehow, miraculously the arrow finds it’s way to the bullseye when you don’t try to make it happen. How can that happen at 40 or 50 yards?  If you stop and think through all the parts of the human body involved in drawing a bow and sending an arrow 30 yards to the center of a 2 inch circle, you can see this is fantastically beyond what any human can consciously control.  So we learn to relax and ‘let’ it happen with surprising results.

Of course this all changes when the pressure is on, when 24 feet up in a tree on a 12 inch by 12 inch platform, with a deer easing around and a million factors working on the mind.   If you have not practiced for this and anticipated your response to this pressure you are sunk!  The Zen parable goes….
‘When the archer shoots for nothing, he splits the apple, retaining all of his skill;

when he shoots for a prize, the apple seems tiny and unstable and his skill is weakened;

and when he competes with his friends, he goes blind and cannot see the apple at all….his desire divides and diminishes his skill.'

In our practice, whether shooting arrows or hitting golf balls, you can practice imagining the pressure-packed situations, create them in your mind, and practice emptying the mind and allowing the swing or the arrow to fly in an unconscious motion without fear or desire.   With intentional, realistic practice, one can learn to still the mind, breathe, relax – seeing yourself in the tree, with the scene unfolding, and you responding with calm assurance.

This is what every high performing athlete or artist does – they spend countless hours visualizing high-pressure situations and then ‘see’ themselves responding calmly.   Every kid on the playground instinctively knows this. In their minds eye, it’s ‘bottom of the ninth, two outs, three runs down, bases loaded, seventh game of the World Series, and they calmly step into the box and hit a grand slam!'   I read where Drew Brees, arguably one of the best ever, on the Saints bye week, will spend three hours (the full game time) by himself on the field, visualizing each and every play in a game, ‘seeing’ in his mind what he wants to ‘see’ happen, making pressure–packed situations seem routine.  This kind of preparation enables him to respond to actual live pressure situations with calm assurance as he has ‘seen’ it and practiced it. You can just as easily attract what you are afraid might happen as what you desire to happen – it all depends on what you visualize in your mind’s eye.  The subconscious responds to the direction and desire your conscious mind provides, delivering it up if allowed, whatever that happens to be.

I don’t know about you but often when I fantasize and play the imaginary filmstrip about a jumbo mature buck appearing in my hole, exactly ‘there’, and I shoot him and he runs and falls over ‘there’, and I recover him and the pictures start and the calls and texts and facebook posts, a huge part of the whole process is sharing it with others and feeling the inflation of the ego and hearing all the congratulations and seeing it as a personal accomplishment and that whole thing.  As these feelings arise I begin to feel the pressure and doubt – ‘what if I miss or make a bad shot?’ The higher the stakes the greater the fear.  When the ego comes in to play, the competition and fear and doubt and struggle and effort come in and thoughts like ‘please don’t miss’ come in and divide the skill of the archer.  He gets the shakes.  The subconscious mind is confused, ‘should I do what I know to do’ or should I  ‘not-miss’?  I have heard it is better not to look at the antlers, not to fantasize about the celebrations… just breathe, just rely on the countless hours of practice of ‘allowing it to be’ as you have done a thousand times in practice.

The bonus is that nothing feels better to a human being than to be freed of self-consciousness, immersed and engaged in an activity, feeling the energy and the flow from the subconscious through us.  Jack London wrote of the ecstasy of living that comes when one allows the mind to be emptied, and then becomes engaged in a task without any effort, self-consciousness, ego or fear.   When we can still the conscious mind, we have access to unimaginable capabilities that flow to us from the sub-conscious.

‘There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life and beyond which life cannot rise.  And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive…'


-Mark A. Wilson




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