I recently started taking lessons in archery (to keep enemy knights at bay). There are different archery styles— the one I chose to go with is taught at a Pa Kua school, where archery is a bona fide martial art with belt levels and everything. I’ve been learning a lot, and not just about hitting a target with an arrow. At the end of each class, as I’m unstringing my bow, I can’t help but suspect that instead of a lesson in archery, I’ve just had a lesson in life.
First of all, shooting a piece of wood with a larger curved piece of wood isn’t as easy as Legolas makes it look. The first few arrows are a little clumsy (read: so bad, you question your worth as a human being.) I quickly adjusted my archery goals from “hit the target” to “just get the arrow to go in the general direction of the target, for the love of God.” But as arrow after arrow missed, I seemed to be getting worse and worse. Finally, the instructor walked by and commented casually, “Do not think about your last arrow missing the target.”
Bam — you just got Eastern philosophized. Woah, I thought, that’s totally profound! When we dwell on our past failure, we drag it into the present moment, thereby setting ourselves up for the same failure in the future. So I cleared my mind as best as I could to create a space of nothingness from which an arrow could spring unencumbered by past limitations. Or… something like that.
The next arrow hit. I actually cried out and turned to the instructor with all the pride of a two-year-old gone potty by herself for the first time. He nodded serenely.
Fully enlightened, I turned back to the target and loaded up my next arrow, my mind empty of all “failure thoughts” and saturated instead with the success of my last shot. Set… aim… release… miss.
Hm. Maybe just one more… another miss. Okay, something was obviously wrong with my bow, because I definitely wasn’t dwelling on past failure and was completely filled with joy from having hit the target the previous time—I mean, if those aren’t the ingredients for success, a lot of self-help books have lied to me. I looked at the instructor, unable to hide my disappointment. He suggested, ever so coolly, “Do not think about your last arrow hitting the target.”
Huh? Why not? I get why we’re not dwelling on past failures — failures suck. But past successes? Really? As if he had read my mind (honestly, he probably can read minds), he explained, “When I think about my last arrow missing the target, I am not present to deal with the arrow currently poised in my bow. When I think about my last arrow hitting the target, I am not present to deal with the arrow currently poised in my bow.”
And that, boys and girls, is life. We dwell on things that have already happened—worry about perceived negatives, get fascinated with perceived positives—meanwhile diminishing our capacity to deal with what is before us now.
Once the arrow has left the bow, it’s already in the past. It has things to teach us: encourages us to aim higher, or a little to the left. But beyond that, it’s gone.
I missed a few more after that, but as I steadied my breathing and slowly let go of thoughts and feelings about past arrows, I eventually hit the outside of the target. And then I hit it a little to the left. And then…