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Stepping into the dojo, the archery practice hall, last Wednesday morning, I got a bit of a surprise. In addition to the familiar faces of my fellow students and our instructor, I noticed three strangers seated against the wall. They seemed quite timid, and sat somewhat nervously, watching the activity all around them. They turned out to be new 'recruits', here for their first lesson, and I realized that six months must have passed since I myself first came here. I had started in the beginner's class last spring, and it was now time for the autumn session to get under way ...

As we members of the 'old' group went about our practice, we were conscious that the eyes of these newcomers were on us, just as our eyes had followed the movements of the archers who had been here practicing that spring day when we first started. And we knew what they would see, and what they would not notice ... They would not see that our feet were carefully placed, exactly in line with the target; they would not notice that as we lifted up the bow our arms scooped up the air just 'so'; they would not notice that we held the arrow exactly horizontal as we drew back the string; they would not notice that our breathing was timed to match these motions; they would not notice ... oh, there were so many things they would not, could not see! They would see but one thing, and one thing only - did our arrows hit the target ...

And of course, beginners that we still are, even after six months of practice, our arrows do not indeed, very often hit the target. We joke among ourselves about the 'safest place in the practice hall' - that little target sitting down there, 28 meters away. We are still so inconsistent in our shooting ability that the arrows go anywhere but where we have aimed. This time off to the left ... next time down into the grass ... then up off to the right ... and so on, and so on. Indeed, when we are cleaning up at the end of the day's practice, re-smoothing the banked-up sand that supports the target, we notice the wide circular pattern of our many 'hits', and the large blank area in the centre where only a few arrows have struck.

Now actually, this doesn't bother us at all. We are well aware of why we are so inaccurate, and fully understand that target accuracy will only come after we have learned to be completely consistent in the mechanical details of the process: the way we stand, how we hold the bow, the position of our hands, and a myriad other points. It will simply take time. In the meantime, while our muscles and bodies are learning their lessons, our minds are trying to develop something of the (choose my words carefully here ...) the right attitude for this. And this is indeed a very interesting process ...

On the face of it, the proper 'mental state' should probably not be too difficult to achieve. The books on archery I have consulted spend many pages discussing 'zen' and other fairly esoteric things like that, but I would rather approach this in a more straightforward fashion. It seems to me that if I simply spend enough time practicing kyudo, and watching others more experienced than I, and train my body to the point where it can go through the process without any conscious effort on my part, then that should encompass most of what is necessary to become a good archer. Let me illustrate what I mean, with a bit of a silly analogy - the way we use chopsticks (or say, for our western friends, a knife and fork ...). Each of us adults has spent so much time in our lives using these implements that they can almost be said to have become a part of our own bodies. In the beginning, we spilled food everywhere, but over the years our muscles bit by bit became expert at the job, and with that expertise came a gradual lessening of mental control over the process. And now, we have no need to utilize our conscious mind at all. We are masters of the 'zen' of chopsticks ... we use them in a completely natural, 'thought-less' manner.

I think that this should be the goal of our 'kyudo' practice. To advance to a point where we have no need of conscious thought. And also, I would like to think, no need even to consider whether or not we had actually hit the target. Surely, if ones attitude and movements were completely 'natural' and un-selfconscious, anything else would be irrelevant, wouldn't it?

But when I look around at the others in the practice hall, even the teachers, I have to wonder if it really is possible to separate ones body and mind in such a way. For example, the other day we sat quietly and watched as A-sensei (who is no longer quite as young and strong as he once was) sent off four arrows. I enjoyed everything about his 'performance', the elegant movements across the polished floor, the control over his body as he first knelt, and then rose with an arrow in place, the quiet strength flowing through his limbs. I enjoyed it all. All but one thing ... the tightening of his lips and the crease appearing on his forehead as three of his four arrows missed the tiny target. For of course, he is not only a kyudo expert, he is also a human being. A teacher demonstrating his craft in front of students - sometimes well, and sometimes less so ...

I wanted to tell him, "Please relax. It doesn't matter. We're quite happy just to watch you shoot, and absorb the correct forms of the ritual. To enjoy seeing the 'ballet'. The target is irrelevant." But of course I said nothing. Because my own actions just a little earlier in the day had given the lie to these words. For the hundredth time, I had taken my turn standing on that polished floor, had gazed at the target and slowly raised my bow, had tried to think of nothing, and had let the arrow fly, unconcerned about where it would strike. Unconcerned ... And then, for the first time ever for me, it had struck the target. Had struck absolutely dead center, with that incredibly satisfying sound:


I froze solid in my tracks. I couldn't even lower my arms. Maybe my heart even skipped a beat ... And after a long, long pause, as I unfroze and my heart started up again, I turned to return to my place, and the big broad grin on my face, that just could not be suppressed no matter how hard I tried, gave the lie to that word 'unconcerned'.

It seems to me that all the talk of 'zen', and of 'higher states', ignores some pretty fundamental realities of what human beings are like. Was it wrong for sensei's forehead to register his disapproval of his 'less than perfect' performance in front of his students? Was it wrong for my heart to involuntarily jump at achieving success (even a lucky and temporary one!) after six months striving? I can't believe that it was. These are normal, basic reactions of our emotions to events such as these. To erase such feelings would be to erase our personality, our human-ness. We are not robots ... And although I will still stand by my earlier description of things like kyudo as processes that should be mostly conducted by the body alone as a well-trained machine, I am under no illusions about my ability to isolate my mind from what is going on.

Maybe somewhere, up in the topmost levels of the sport, there are people for whom neither forehead nor heart show the slightest flicker of reaction to their performance. Maybe. But I must confess that I do not find that a standard that I particularly wish to emulate. That is not a mountain I wish to scale. I think I will be quite content to ramble about the foothills with frequently furrowed brow, and then sometimes (but I suppose not too often) feeling that leap of the heart when I hear that wonderful ... 'pok'.