zen in the art of archery

I already wrote that I taught the undergraduate choral conducting class at UConn last spring by using the tools and resources which I had found most useful for myself as a student.  So, I required the undergrads to read Zen in the Art of Archery.

People often ask if it’s like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It’s not, really, except that both are philosophical and recount a learning journey in the first person.
Zen in the Art of Archery is a true story of a German man, Eugen Herrigel, who was working in Japan and decided, while he was there, to study archery.  So the value of the book is its insight by a Westerner into a very foreign Eastern philosophy.  Eugen does and thinks what we would think, and he described how his teacher taught him to see his (the teacher’s) approach instead.  
The process, so far as I’ve picked it up, has taught me certain values.  Trust in my teachers is one.  When I am studying with a teacher, I tend to hand myself over to him or her and do what I am told.  I can’t help but try to figure out why I’ve been told to do it, but I let myself just do it before I understand why, trusting that understanding will follow.  This is not what some of my teachers have expected of me, so it has not been universally successful, but I prefer it to constantly challenging them while we wait for our approaches to become clear to each other.  Rarely, there will be a teacher who just doesn’t know what to do with me because I’m not making any demands or asking any questions.  Even then, it works out.  I just accept that I don’t understand their approach yet, and allow them to explain it to me in whatever way seems best to them.  If my own approach is standing in the way of my understanding, it’s my responsibility to be aware of that and fix it.  I’ll probably let the teacher know that that’s happening, but not to argue that mine is better or right, just to say “I’m having trouble with X because I’ve always thought Y, and I’m working through letting that go so I can get inside of X.”
But then again, it makes me think every time I pick it up, makes me examine the work I do.  I think everyone should read it.  It’s only eighty-one pages long.  But if you don’t mind a spoiler, here’s the main thing I get from it every time I read it:


Yes, I suggested Monday that preparation is a way to compensate for the skills towards which one lacks a natural inclination.  Preparation is a way to get good at anything, really.

Talent with practice is the best combination.  But if you’ve got to pick one or the other, practice without talent trumps talent without practice every day of the week.  Ten thousand hours, they say, equals expertise.  Spend ten thousand hours working on anything, and you will be an expert at it.  And maybe that only can be called expert because so few people will dedicate that much time to any single endeavor that those few will be the high water mark for expertise.  Because the more you work on something, the more you realize just how much there is to it, and how little you really know about it, right?

Anyway, the Zen in the Art of Archery perspective seems to me to suggest that preparation results in learning not to do.  You learn to get out of the way and let “it” do through you.  You don’t practice aiming so you get good at aiming, you practice shooting so that “it” shoots through you.

Dr. Buck told me that studies have shown that experts use different parts of their brains when they work than novices.  Maybe this is a scientific insight into the sensation of “it” doing through us.  We aren’t doing anymore, because we’re nothing thinking “now I have to cut off the T on the and of four, and then I have to breathe on beat two…”  Instead, we just live the music and the cutoffs and breaths just happen.

That is my experience of preparation.  And I remember it when I read Zen in the Art of Archery.  I remember to trust my teachers, the composers, the time I spend with the score.  Everything new I learn about how to prepare represents, to me, just one more way to spend time, to get to know it.  Just like getting to know a person, the way you get to know it depends on what’s in it, what its characteristics are, what its requirements are.  The important thing is to spend the time.  And to trust that understanding will come.

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One Response to zen in the art of archery

  1. Pingback: Multiple Intelligence Monday: the equity of genius | Thoughtful Gestures

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