Eugen Herrigel picks up his bow
Eugen Herrigel (1884-1955) was a young German philosopher who took up the study of archery in Japan as a means of deepening his understanding of Zen Buddhism and of the concept of “no-mind.” He studied under the master Awa Kenzo and wrote about it in his classic, Zen and the Art of Archery.
The challenge for Herrigel came down to the moment of releasing the arrow. He would hang on too long or let go too soon. He would force it. He would apply his ego. He would attempt to control the motion. He couldn’t get it right.
The arrow, according to his master and to true Zen, must “release itself.”
How does the artist learn to access the higher dimension? Not through will or ego, except as will or ego exhausts itself over time and finally “gives up.” Like Herrigel learning to let the arrow release itself, the artist builds up all her work and effort and intentionality and then lets them all go. She surrenders.
Can you do this?
I couldn’t. Not for years and years.
I had my last drink on a Marine Corps birthday two decades ago. When I mention that I stopped drinking twenty years ago, people routinely offer praise along the lines of “that must have taken strong will on your part.” I counter that all my “strong will” was never enough to keep me out of the liquor store (even when only six hours ago, I’d decided/promised/bargained my way into thinking, “That’s it, I’m all done”). It was only when I got to a place of surrender, giving up the idea that I could control it, that I could take that rock out of my pack and leave it by the side of the road. Not chucking it down a ravine. Not hammering it into gravel. Just letting go of it. This idea of surrender can work in domains beyond art.
Well done, Joe. Thank you for sharing and showing the way.
Thanks for sharing some deep insight here, Joe.
Your comments nearly always move me Joe, but this one is special. Thank you for sharing this! I started a “Deep Heart” meditation practice this week. It is guided by Scott Schwenk. He states that letting go of control and judgment allows your deep heart space to grow and allow forgiveness to thrive. I’m working on that these days–replacing anger and pain with forgiveness and gratitude. Working on my tendency to fall into self-pity. I am very grateful for this space. We are life particles bouncing off one another in oneness 🙂
Joe’s comment is simple and profound. Joe transcended the whole matter of willpower. And total respect to you my friend. And the meaning of Steve’s post is evergreen, and so widely applicable. It’s a meta-level point. I feel this relates to this common advice (James Clear and others) of creating systems/habits that remove the need for willpower. I try to fit myself into this as if I’m actually the arrow notched in the bow. What can I then do except surrender to the force/system/habit that’s about to shoot me across the arc of the day. And then I get out of bed…
And there’s the question of the distinction between ‘surrender’ (good) and ‘resignation’ (bad). I’ll have to ponder that.
I have never read nor heard the distinction so succinctly and appropriately put as ‘ the distinction between ‘surrender’ (good) and ‘resignation’ (bad)’.
We moved to a different part of town after my father passed away–I was 6 years old, oldest of three. Because this was the 70s, my mom and step dad w0uld leave for a weekend and leave a kid 4 years older than us as a babysitter. I’m a poster boy for latchkey…among other distinctions.
I would play basketball with the neighborhood kids who were all 4 years older than me. We’d play ‘mush’ or 21, which is essentially one against all. Super fun, played everyday on driveway hoops, YMCAs, inner city courts across the country to this day. (During football season, we’d also play ‘smear the queer’, which is the football (American Football Pete…) version of 1 against all. I must have played that 1000 times while never knowing what ‘queer’ meant. Wonder what they call it these days…)
There was never a chance I could win–but never understood it back then. Kids being kids–the teasing was relentless, and the sportsmanship lacking. I’d get so frustrated that I’d cry and quit at certain times. Truth is once I got to school, I was a terrific baller for a short kid playing kids my own age.
I have often thought that my ‘frustration/quit’ circuit was learned too early and has been too accessible in my life. You just put a frame around it in a way that is very helpful. Thank you.
Thanks for sharing. You’ve had a rich and interesting life – not just referring to your comment here, but many previous ones.
I’m trying to find a joke here, something about a smoker quitting again and again, declaring that he’s the world’s most accomplished quitter.
In running and weight training and martial arts I discovered that I would never be the strongest, fittest or fastest, but I could endure. I could keep going.
Actually this reminds me back to the Bhagavad Gita (I read after the Boss mentioned it a couple of years ago), and one could say that Arjuna eventually surrendered to Krishna’s conceptualisation of what Arjuna’s correct actions should be.
For me the writing analog here is, Don’t edit as you write.
When you’re writing, creating, decide what you want to write about (this scene will advance the story and characters in this way), then let your mind go and throw it all down on the page. Follow flights of fancy and new ideas. Give yourself over to your characters and the moment they are in. Go long.
Then, afterwards, separately, go back and clean it up: cutting, moving, revising. You could even organize your writing day like this. For instance, back when I commuted, I wrote at night and revise in the morning on the train.
In fact, I think this is how Dylan used to write when he was getting started, typing out reams of text, then going back and harvesting the best bits, perhaps inspired by how Kerouac wrote “On the Road.”
Maybe this is not quite exactly on topic, but I’ll share regardless. Last night my daughter went over a short story that I thought was spot on. She tore it apart piece by piece, ripped it to shreds. I have to say, it did not feel good. But every point she made was right.
The story needed to be what it wanted to be, and not what I forced it to be. I tried too hard, imparted too much of my will. It showed. I’m grateful for her honesty. I’m grateful for these lessons. I’ll try again from a point of surrender and see what happens. Maybe I’ll have a true spot-on piece or none at all. Either outcome is okay.
Jackie, my vote is that what you’re describing there is spot on and is indeed ‘surrrender’. You had the choice of refusing to accept the criticism, but you instead surrendered to it, and accepted that you will have to assimilate your daughter’s views.
When God “changed me” I did not know how to literally put the experience down on paper. Even though I was the Editor of the prison paper, I did not know how to write. All that to say, even still, at 77, I find Steve’s exposing the techniques of writing all the more intriguing and exciting.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve written three novels on medieval horse archers—nomadic youth from the Eurasian steppe, enslaved and trained into Mamluks by Middle Eastern princes. Masters on the recurve bow.
The task of writing these books made me a student of archery—putting me deep into Muslim war manuals and upon the Mongolian steppe, where I learned from traditional bow makers and archers.
Mounted on the wall, across from where I now type is a composite Mongolian recurve. I stare at it each day.
Herrigel is surely brilliant. He probably became a helluva bow shot. But he’s the odd bird. I would offer that perhaps the hardest thing in archery (and in life) for most of us is not in “letting go,” (the release being the last step in shooting an arrow) but rather in everything that happens prior—the other 99% of the shot. The work.
The hardest part is grabbing hold. Doing the dirty work to master all of the steps, which puts one into the position to begin thinking about self-actualization, “no mind,” or “accessing the higher dimension…”
I’m thankful to Steve Pressfield for giving us the tools, via his non-fiction instruction manuals and his examples of fine fiction, which allow us to master all of steps in shooting that bow/ making our art.
Well said. Just thought how odd language is–you wrote it, but I never say ‘well written’ unless I’m proofing something for someone.
The hardest part is grabbing hold reminds me of what Rich Roll said on the Tim Ferriss podcast a few months ago. Something to the effect of ‘action begets mood’ or ‘mood follows action’.
I actually prefer action begets mood because that is how it seems to work for me. My moods are unpredictable, but the sense of flow, well being, or simply pride for doing something are 99% consistent–and I know are birthed from the action.
I have also thought that minute by minute I cannot trust my own ‘feelings’ about something, I can only trust what I wrote down as my goals, values, objectives, principles when in a cool moment. Might have something to do with ‘hot cold empathy gap’ I read about years ago. It is difficult/impossible to project how different environments/emotional states (hot states) change our thought processes.
I think of it as ‘just get a sweat’. The first 5-10 minutes of running is, has always been, and will continue to be abject torture for me. Once I get a sweat, my legs loosen, my breath finds a rhythm, my body relaxes, and I begin to enjoy the effort. My minimum effective dose is to push through the 10 minutes of pain, then I have a good chance of finding the wave.
That’s a pretty thought provoking article, Steve.
Two thoughts occur to me simultaneously after reading it.
1. In the grand Hindu epic ‘Mahabharat’ written eons ago in the Sanskrit language, one of the central characters, Arjun, is an archer par-excellence. He could hit a fast moving target, an unseen target (just by sound alone), and several other seemingly impossible feats of archery. When asked how he could do it, he said – When you focus on your target to such an extent that everything else ceases to exist, you and your target become one and the same- when your consciousness merges with that of your target – that’s when you release the arrow.
From a writer’s perspective, I would say, this means absolute immersion in the story and the process of birthing it.
This brings me to my next thought –
2. One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, once said in an interview that once her book is written, printed and published, she disconnects from it. The book is no longer ‘her baby’. Since there’s no emotional attachment with it henceforth, the book’s failure or success doesn’t impact her. She is able to simply move on to her next project.
Here, I would say, the archer, after living with her target as one, simply lets it go. Here it’s super important to understand the need of ‘letting go’. That itself is a Herculean task.
I was, for years, a proficient cartoonist and a passable writer. But I’ve always held the material close. Just family and certain friends. Always loathe to let go . . . most of it’s lost now, and I can no longer draw. Don’t be me.
What you have is precious, share it.
Hey Dick– I’d bet a healthy sum that you can still draw well… and that it would not take much to knock the rust off of your writing.
I hope you start again– and soon. I hope you stay tuned here and share with us what you’ve done.
I agree with Brad. The only excuse you can use to give up is if both feet are on the other side of the grass. Sometimes second or third or fourth time around hits the mark. Share with us. Give it a go.
Thanks, Brian. “Just get a sweat…” and “finding the wave.” So true.
I doubt I’m alone in feeling that the weakest part of the day is when I’m lying awake in the middle of night– worrying about what is undone; feeling anxious over what I should have done..
Nothing works better to break those negative feelings than getting up and taking action. I wish everyone here good juju in accomplishing that today..
This post resonates to me for different reasons. Years ago I started a meditation practice–and have been more off of it than on over the years. Sadly, I have almost completely abandoned it. Sad because I am so much more observant when I do meditate, do not interrupt others, take in others’ points, etc.–right down to being a better human being. What initially inspired me to meditate was this book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Shunryū Suzuki. I highly recommend it. The two things that stick with me from it and apply to writing are: just sit or zazen (put your ass where your heart desires to be–HA!) and have no goal in the meditation nor try to recapture some optimum meditative session, just do the practice. How I believe the second point applies to writing is actually highlighted in a reply stated above (Stephen Power): don’t edit while you write. Just get it down on paper. (Sometimes I think that editing while I write is a form of resistance. I edit from the get-go and I lose my train of thought–why do I do that to myself?) Get a flow going by just sitting, just writing, surrendering to the story, allowing it to go where it wants to go. On one side, this all sounds so oooey-gooey but on the experience side of life I know it is true, a hard truth even.
I look forward to the insights of Wednesday!
Well said–“have no goal in the meditation nor try to recapture some optimum meditative session, just do the practice”. The open space allows insights to come into our intuition. I’m reminded of how Steven Pressfield describes the unlived artist in us all. “There are two of us; the life we live and the unlived life within us–Resistance standing in between the 2”. Jungian analysis calls it Ego-Self separation. I found a blogger/researcher/author on Psychology Today named Imi Lo that describes our calling as the love of our life like:
“There comes a time in your life when you meet yourself again. Where all your efforts in building a career, forming relationships, having kids, pleasing others are no longer enough.
This journey of going inside and reuniting with the love of your life is scary but extremely meaningful and necessary.
You have the power to rewrite rules that don’t work for you anymore.
If you do not want to look back in old age to find that all your life you have betrayed yourself, you must not ignore the love of your life.”
I’m reminded of page 165 in The War of Art–“Don’t cheat us of your contribution”!
I have forgotten the full story and even the author’s name, but the idea depicted in the story has stuck with me over the years. It goes like this –
An old man is ill and close to dying. Every night he wakes up screaming and terrified. When his family enquires, he says he sees ghosts standing around his bed, looking at him accusingly. He says those are ghosts of his stories. You see, he was an aspiring writer in his life. And remained one forever. He would start a story but never finish it. So there were countless abandoned stories which were now haunting him as ghosts as he lay on his deathbed. These ghosts of his stories accused him of killing them in infancy.
I shiver when I think of all the stories that I have left half-finished and ‘abandoned’.
I’ll be thinking of this old man for a long, long time. Thanks so much for sharing, and for helping us (I hope!) avoid his fate.
Memorable story, thanks for the share.
Letting go, trusting in the uncertainty, not knowing the outcome, but showing up and doing the work again anyway. I did this for over 20 years trying to teach my nonverbal autistic son how to communicate through pictures, sign language and verbal prompts. Showing up everyday, over and over without immediate feedback, never knowing if he was listening, comprehending anything I was saying or doing. You can’t be tied to the outcome or how you get there. A therapist once told me about reaching my son (mentally) “If we can’t get through the door, we’re going through the window.” I would end up going through a lot of windows and the rewards would not manifest for years. The lessons for me were of acceptance, persistence, consistence, trust and surrender. The day I let him go into the well trained hands of strangers at his residential school was a point of surrender that felt like I was doing a free fall, admitting I could not longer care for him. The day I released my memoir was like birthing another child, putting my most private self, emotional experiences out into the public eye. I trusted, let go and surrendered it to share. This is how we learn, how we teach, how we grow.
Damn Johanne, your post hit me in the belly. How brave. How loving. Many in this crowd are former military, where bravery is demonstrated roughly, physically, and against a more kinetic enemy. Your courage leaves me breathless.
Thank you Brian for your kind words, but mine is a different war. I have total respect and am grateful for you and anyone who makes a conscious decision to defend this country.
Joann, I am blown away by your words. Keep writing. Keep writing.
Thank you Valerie…my son is the reason why I started writing, to share a message…I didn’t know I could write! But what I’ve learned is we all have to something to say, even my son. For someone who is nonverbal he has a lot to teach, we just need to pay attention.
Again, Steve comes in with a well-timed, well-aimed truth bomb blowing up in my face.
I’ve been thinking about this very thing lately. What is the juxtoposition of agency and surrender? Capacity and letting go? Responsibility and faith?
(speaking to myself). I think putting your a$$ where your heart wants to be is agency/capacity/responsibility–the outcomes, the flow, the fruits of the labor are surrender.
One way to think about surrender – how about it’s the recognition that you are only a local instantiation of something much greater than yourself, ie the cosmos. Your ego or left brain works hard to separate you from this, from what Steve calls the ‘Self. The surrender is the moment we trick that ego into letting go, and allowing us to remember and rejoin that greater entity of which the Self has never ceased to be a part. In a way your Self is identical with the whole of that greater reality.
This is how it feels to me. And not inconsistent with the ideas of Adyashanti, nor with the revelations of Jill Bolte-Taylor after her left brain stroke.
Brian, btw I’m not saying this like it’s stating some kind of fact. Just offering a suggestion. Seems true.
I love it bro! Seriously. Well stated. I’ve begun to read the Bible again for the past couple of years, with an open mind–not the ‘shaking my fist at God’ cynical agnosticism I’ve maintained since about 15. It is amazing–and scary–especially the idea of surrender–like Joe so aptly pointed out in the first post today.
I always talk the posts here as one Divine Spark trying one’s best to communicate their best thoughts. It is one of the reasons I love this blog so much. I agree. It does seem true. I listened to the Bhagavad Gita (always have to look it up to spell correctly!) from the same wise counsel. I actually prefer his bootlegged version of “Legend of Bagger Vance” because the cultural references and language suit me better. Who are you? Are you the golfer? The Soldier? Who is hitting the ball?
Thanks for the kind words. They matter. I add them to my the ballast that keeps me afloat and pointed in the right direction. What I like about ‘military language’ is the clarity. It’s smashmouth and direct. No room for misunderstanding.
Yes, what Peter said…maybe the actual reality of ‘feeling’ it first might help. Try meditation, get a massage, schedule a Reiki session….all of them will help you to feel the letting go, relaxing into a space where there’s no time, just now and you become part of the greater energy than your ‘self’. Once you actually feel it you can reference that moment in times of wanting to let go in your day to days. Just a suggestion.
Thanks Johanne. I am an on again, off again meditator–and it does help. I used the Waking Up app most of the time. The Godless Sam Harris does explain meditation very well–except for his ‘headless’ meditations. Those do not stick for me.
I frequently lose myself while running, playing sports, oddly–giving a keynote speech–and in great conversations. I think the deep connection momentarily disables my ego.
Also–thanks for the thoughts about military service–but I will tell you I think your bravery, while different, is more impressive. Momentary bravery is much different than a daily dedication to love without feedback. I’m gonna get your book. So damn brave!
Beautifully put Johanne! Uhh, lovely. Great advice.
A ‘truth bomb’ blowing up in your face. I love these military metaphors you use. Ha, love it.
Thank you dear Steve,
thank you for the great thoughts and also for the book that you mention.
I try to let the arrow go when it wants, but I find out that it takes years to release itself. In my experience it could be stated at the extremes as only one arrow that decides to release itself many years after it gets set on the bow, or hundreds, perhaps thousands of arrows that are released one after the other when they decide to, until they “slay the dragon of Resistance” and the work of art/enterprise/goal sees itself fulfilled.
I have been running obstacle races for several years, always pushing through the pain, discomfort….aiming to reach the perfection, business goals, doing it all myself, not trusting anyone, living in fear of making mistakes. Did not sleep well for decades…:) how unaware have I been. I am learning to let go…In my gut I know it’s the right way 🙂
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