Lesson in Stillness

I remember my father taking me shooting for the first time when I was about five years old. We walked down to the “sandpit” below my grandparent’s house in the foothills, the awkward burden of the .22 rifle pressing slightly painfully into my shoulder. Before I even got to touch that gun, he’d drilled the basic safety rules into my head to the point where I still wince when I see actors do something dangerous in movies or on TV.

I learned stillness from my father that day when he taught me to shoot. In marksmanship of any kind, you have to minimize movement, hold as steady as you can. Complete accuracy is impossible. Even with great control and strength some movement is unavoidable.

But still you strive for stillness. You create a stable balanced position, counter-brace your joints to maximize rigidity and minimize movement, let out half a breath, hold it, consciously steady the weapon, even try to slow down your heartbeat. And when you are as still as you can be, when you feel everything is right, you squeeze the trigger and release the bullet, or let the arrow loose to find the end of its potential path.

If you’ve done it right, the result is almost an afterthought. You usually know at the point of release whether it will strike home.

More than two decades later, I used that discipline of stillness when I learned the basics of kyûdô, Japanese archery. Kyûdô is not so different from Western archery, of course, but one of the things most Westerners rave about when they talk about kyûdô is the meditative quality of that particular martial art.

The “Zen” of kyûdô seemed blindingly obvious to me. Of course you strive to be calm and centered. Of course you visualize a connection between the target and the arrow. That’s not part of shooting; that’s what shooting is.

I took it for granted that everyone knew these things because I learned those lessons so early in life. I didn’t realize until much later, when I read paragraphs and pages on the subject written by kyûdô enthusiasts, filtered through their interpretations of esoteric philosophy, that what they were trying to express in words was the feeling of wonder at the internally centered focus you must cultivate in the practice of archery.

I didn’t learn Zen from a Japanese master after a quest across the oceans. I learned stillness as a child from my father when he taught me to shoot.