#25: The Archer and the Empty Book

I went to visit friends in North Carolina this week, and on the drive back today I decided to spend the night in Virginia Beach because I wanted to hear the ocean. (I was going to post a recording I’d made for you to listen to while you read this, but there was too much wind so you’ll have to find your own ocean for full effect.)

While driving I was thinking about a dream I have from time to time. In the dream I’m reading out loud from a book that is completely blank, but I start reading and as I read each word, it appears on the page. First comes the shock: How do I know the words! Followed by a realization: if I keep talking, the words will show up on their own! I test the magic and talk faster, and the words still show up (and they’re always, because it’s dream-logic, the right words). Then a brief moment of revelry – wow! – followed quickly by panic and the fear that the magic will go away. Then I wake up.

This is one of those, Am I a writer because I have dreams like this or do I have dreams like this because I’m a writer? And I’ve been thinking about it because I recently read a translation of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (I will read pretty much anything whose title includes “Zen in the art of”.) Herrigel prose reads like a kind of buddhist technical manual:

In order to slip more easily into the process of drawing the bow and loosing the shot, the archer, kneeling to one side and beginning to concentrate, rises to his feet, ceremoniously steps up to the target and, with a deep obeisance, offers the bow and arrow like consecrated gifts, then nocks the arrow, raises the bow, draws it and waits in an attitude of supreme spiritual alertness. After the lightning release of the arrow and the tension, the archer remains in the posture adopted immediately following the shot until, after slowly expelling his breath, he is force to draw air again. Then only does he let his arms sink, bows to the target and, if he has no more shots to discharge, steps quietly into the background.

… which I imagine is because the dude’s a German philosopher who studied archery with a Japanese master for six years in the 1940s as a practical way into Zen. Herrigel spent a year of daily lessons just learning how to draw the bow “spiritually”. In the book he also details a significant plateau he hits when he tries to perform that “lightning release of the arrow,” which comes while the bowstring is held at its highest tension. A successful release results in a wobble-free arrow, and his Master, Awa Kenzō describes the state of the archer in the midst of a successful release as “purposeless” and “egoless.” The release happens without thinking and as a surprise even to the archer himself – happens because he has let go of his sense of self.

Herrigel, doing his job as the voice in your head, asks, “How can the shot be loosed if ‘I’ do not do it?” To which Master says, “‘It’ shoots.” Herrigel practices for weeks without making any further progress, then one day he looses a shot that garners praise from the master – ”Just then ‘It’ shot!” The Master quickly says the praise was not meant for the pupil:

… for you are entirely innocent of this shot. You remained this time absolutely self-oblivious and without purpose in the highest tension, so that the shot fell from you like a ripe fruit. Now go on practicing as if nothing had happened.

There’s a lot more in the book, about “dancing” the archer’s ceremony versus performing it rote, about the purpose of loosing an arrow (hint: it’s not to hit the target) and if I keep going I’m going to end up quoting all eighty potent, drinkable pages of it.^[Feb 2021 note: After sending this letter, a reader pointed me to this critique of Herrigel’s account of his experiences Awa Kenzō, which is well worth the read.] We talk about muses and inspiration striking, but Herrigel likens the qualitative difference between a successful and unsuccessful shot to more than some combination of technical skill, chance, and practice. There is also a spiritual communion between the person acting and the thing being acted upon, and this alignment calls for a perfect state of freedom without goal or expectation.

The arrow you’re shooting is already shot, the story you’re writing is already written, and mastery is forgetting yourself, over and over.