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Zanshin: Focus and Attention: The Art of Learning

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Eugen Herrigel, a German professor, moved to Japan in the 1920s. He was a philosophy professor at Sendai University, a university located just a few hours north of Tokyo.

Herrigel started training in Kyudo (a Japanese martial art of archery) to deepen his knowledge of Japanese culture. Awa Kenzo, a legendary archer, taught him. Kenzo believed that beginners should learn archery basics before they could attempt to shoot at a target. He took this belief to extremes. Herrigel was allowed to shoot at a straw roll only seven feet away for the first four years.

Herrigel complained about the slow pace and his teacher responded, “The path to the goal cannot be measured!” What importance do weeks, months, and years have?

Herrigel was dismal when he was allowed to shoot at distant targets. He lost his aim and became increasingly discouraged each time he shot. Herrigel said that poor aim was the problem during a particularly embarrassing session.

Kenzo however looked at his student and said that it wasn’t how one aimed that made the difference in the end, but how they approached the task. Herrigel was frustrated by this reply and blurted, “Then, you should be able hit it blindfolded.”

Archery in the Dark

The two men returned to their courtyard, where they found the practice hall after dark had fallen. Kenzo set out to shoot, but the target was hidden in the darkness. After completing his usual routine, Kenzo settled into his firing position, tightened the bow string, and fired the first arrow into darkness.

    • Herrigel later recalled the event and wrote: “I knew from its sound that it had hit target.”
    • Kenzo immediately pulled a second arrow, and fired again into the night.

Herrigel leapt up and ran across the courtyard in search of the target. He wrote in Zen in the Art of Archery that he discovered the target was full of arrows. The second arrow, however, had broken the shaft and plowed through it before being placed beside it.

Kenzo hit a double bullseye, but he was unable to see the target.

Archery masters of great stature often say that everything is about aiming. The way you hold the bow and how you breathe during release of the arrow all affect the final result.

Awa Kenzo was an archer who was so aware of the process that led him to an exact shot that he could replicate it even without seeing the target. Zanshin is a complete awareness of your body and mind in relation the the goal.

Zanshin, a term used in Japanese martial arts to describe a state that is relaxed and alert, is called Zanshin. Literally, zanshin is “the mind without rest.” It refers to a state of being completely focused on the task at hand and focusing on it. Zanshin means being aware of your body, mind and environment without worrying about yourself. It’s a constant state of alertness.

However, in practice, zanshin can have a deeper meaning. Zanshin means choosing to live your life with intention and not allowing yourself to be swept away by the circumstances.

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