In the 1920s, a German man named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan and began training in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. He was taught by a legendary Kyudo master named Awa Kenzo. Kenzo was convinced that beginners should master the fundamentals of archery before attempting to shoot at a real target. So for the first four years, Herrigel was only allowed to shoot at a roll of straw just seven feet away.
When he was finally allowed to shoot at targets on the far end of the practice hall, Herrigel’s performance was dismal. The arrows flew off course and he became more discouraged with each wayward shot. Herrigel was convinced his problem was poor aim, but Kenzo replied that it was not whether you aimed, but how you approached your goal that determined the outcome.
Frustrated with his teacher, Herrigel blurted out, “Then you ought to be able to hit it blindfolded.”
Kenzo paused for a moment and then said, “Come to see me this evening.”
After night had fallen, the two men returned to the courtyard where the practice hall was located. Kenzo walked over to his normal shooting location with the target hidden somewhere out in the night. The archery master settled into his firing stance, drew the bow string tight, and released the first arrow into the darkness of the courtyard. Herrigel knew from the sound that it had hit the target. Immediately, Kenzo drew a second arrow and again fired into the night. Herrigel jumped up and ran across the courtyard to inspect the target.
When Herrigel switched on the light over the target stand, he discovered that the first arrow was lodged full in the middle of the black, while the second arrow had splintered the butt of the first and ploughed through the shaft before embedding itself beside it.
Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness – the mind with no remainder. In other words, the mind completely focused on action and fixated on the task at hand. Zanshin is being constantly aware of your body, mind, and surroundings without stressing yourself. It is an effortless vigilance. In practice, zanshin has an even deeper meaning – choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way.
We live in a world obsessed with results. Like Herrigel, we have a tendency to put so much emphasis on whether or not the arrow hits the target. If, however, we put that intensity, focus and sincerity into the process – where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe during the release of the arrow – then hitting the bullseye is simply a side effect. The point is not to worry about hitting the target. The point is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace each piece of the process. Take that moment of zanshin, that moment of complete awareness and focus, and carry it with you everywhere in life.
Zanshin – It is not the target or the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming.