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Zanshin: How to Master the Art of Focus and Concentration From a Legendary Japanese Archer

The easiest way to eliminate distractions and improve your focus.

After four painful years of training in archery, Herrigel had grown impatient with his lack of progress, and was on the verge of quitting.

Four years prior (during the 1920s), Eugen Herrigel, a German professor, took a leap of faith and moved his entire family to Japan, in hopes of learning the Japanese tradition of Zen in Archery.

Herrigel had everything planned out: he’d teach philosophy at the University of Tokyo and master the art of archery within a few years.

And after much protesting and pleading, Herrigel convinced the legendary Japanese archer, Master Kenzo Awa, to take him on as a pupil in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. 

Like most people who pursue a new goal, Herrigel was excited, highly motivated and a tad bit overconfident in his archery abilities.

But as the years passed by, Herrigel struggled to improve at his desired pace (in fact, for years he was only allowed to shoot at a roll of straw rather than a target) and he began to lose his focus and motivation.

One day, in his fourth year of training, a frustrated Herrigel grumbled to the Master that his stay at Japan was limited and time was running out.

The Master calmly replied, “The way to the goal is not to be measured! Of what importance are weeks, months, years?”

Herrigel nodded and made a resolution that he’d stop worrying about his goals, and shift his entire focus to practice instead.

Day in and day out for months, Herrigel would pick up his bow and arrow, and shoot. It didn’t matter how motivated he felt, or how badly he missed his targets, he’d still show up to practice.

And then one day, Herrigel received a special invite from Master Kenzo, to participate in the final archery test he’d spent the last five years training to pass.

During a spectacular ceremony, in front of a large crowd, Herrigel tuned out all distractions, and effortlessly executed on the test exercises, just like he’d practiced over the years.

A short distance away, Master Kenzo smiled like a proud father, walked up to Herrigel with a diploma and said to him:

“You have now reached a stage where teacher and pupil are no longer two persons, but one. You can separate from me anytime you wish…I need not ask you to keep up your regular practicing.”

Herrigel was relieved. His hard work had paid off and he’d finally achieved his goal. But, this couldn’t have been possible without the help of Master Kenzo, who taught him how to master the art of focus.

Here’s what Herrigel learned about mastering the art of focus and concentration during his 5 years spent with Master Kenzo Awa.

Master Kenzo’s effortless focus and concentration in action. By unknown photographer. (Image Source: Henry and Nancy Rosin Collection of Early Photography of Japan)

Aim Without Aiming

“The right art …is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed…What stands in your way is that you think that what you do not do yourself does not happen,” exclaimed Master Kenzo during a lesson.

At the time, Herrigel couldn’t make any sense of this. He thought: how can you hit a target without aiming at or focusing on it?

For a few months, Herrigel practiced shooting without taking aim, but most of his shots missed the target. And he was becoming increasingly frustrated.

One day, Herrigel complained to Master Kenzo about his failure to hit the goal, the Master replied, “I see the goal as though I did not see it.” Herrigel had had enough of the Master’s unsatisfactory responses and blurted out, “Then you ought to be able to hit it blindfolded!”

Master Kenzo slowly turned his head towards Herrigel and in a firm tone said, “Come to see me this evening.”

That evening, Herrigel met the Master at the practice hall. Very few words were exchanged.

Master Kenzo slowly bent over, picked up his bow and arrow, walked up to a spot, spread his legs in a ceremonial fashion and took aim at a target in pitch-dark.

Within a few seconds, Herrigel heard two quiet thuds. He sprung off the floor and swiftly rushed to switch on the lights.

To his amazement, Master Kenzo had hit the target straight in the middle with both shots without being able to see it.

It was on that day that Herrigel learned an important piece of wisdom from the legendary archer on mastering the art of focus and concentration, that is:

Do not focus on the goal, focus on Zanshin instead.

Master the Relaxed Art of Zanshin

Zanshin is a word used in Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness.

The literal translation of Zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” It describes a state of mind when there is complete focus and awareness of the body.

During his early lessons with Master Kenzo, Herrigel struggled to achieve Zanshin.

Each time he picked up the bow, he’d use considerable force to bend it, his hands would tremble, and he’d run out of breath.

One day, whilst Herrigel was drawing the bow in his usual tiresome fashion, Master Kenzo calmly said to him, “Relax!..You cannot do it..because you do not breathe right. If it is done properly, you will feel the shooting becoming easier every day.”

Herrigel took note, but didn’t yet understand the profound wisdom of the Master.

A few months later, Herrigel lamented that he’d tried tirelessly to stay focused and relaxed, but couldn’t do so. The Master replied, “That’s just the trouble, you make an effort to think about it. Concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do!”

After a year of trial and error, Herrigel finally learned how to stay focused, draw the bow and release it, in a completely relaxed manner.

He mastered the art of Zanshin and achieved his goals as a by-product.

In his book, Zen in the Art of Archery  (audiobook), Herrigel describes the details of his story and explains how Zanshin led to his significant improvement in archery:

“So that was it: not a technical trick I had tried in vain to pick up, but liberating breath−control with new and far−reaching possibilities.”

Herrigel didn’t focus on his goals or even his knowledge, he just focused on Zanshin, and this enabled him to focus on a task at hand, despite a million and one distractions:

“The more one concentrates on breathing, the more the external stimuli fade into the background.”

Therein lies the secret to mastering the art of focus and concentration.

The more relaxed the state of our mind and body, the more likely we’ll stay focused, avoid distractions and achieve our goals in the process.

It’s so simple, yet so profound.

Focus on Zanshin

In the seventeenth-century, legendary Zen master, Takuan Soho, suggested that the difference between a beginner and Master swordsman isn’t skill or knowledge, but focus.

Whilst the beginner swordsman focuses on his goals and overthinks how he can best hit his opponent, the Master swordsman is completely detached not only from the opponent, but also himself.

The Master swordsman intentionally shifts his focus away from the goal, towards his body and mind in a state of relaxed awareness that is Zanshin.

It’s from this place of Zanshin that the master swordsman effortlessly focuses on a target and achieves his goals, even when he can’t see the target.

And two hundred plus years later, the legendary archer, Master Kenzo Awa, successfully passed on this ancient wisdom of Zanshin to Herrigel. 

By shifting our focus away from the outcome and towards the process, we can significantly improve the odds of achieving success in whatever we do.

The next time you’re struggling to stay focused on your work, relationships, health or finances, just remember this: forget the goal, aim without aiming and Zanshin.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical ideas on how to think and live better by exploring the intersection of science, art and philosophy.To get these ideas and learn how to avoid stupidity, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.


Footnotes

1. The power of proper breathing cannot be overstated for breaking bad habits and developing the willpower to resist distractions.

2. Rare video footage of the traditional Zen archery.

Originally published at mayooshin.com

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