Cultivating A Warriors Mindset Through Archery: An Ancient Zen Art


Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Being a warrior and having a warrior's mindset is not as cliche as you think it is and is largely misunderstood. You don’t have to be a badass martial artist to attain either of these nor does it require any physical practice. It’s a practice of the mind or furthermore, it can be considered a philosophy on focus.

A warrior's mindset is having the ability to show fortitude in times of utter upheaval. It's being able to rise above the reactionary precursors that have been applied to your life. This is nothing short of a life-long mastery of internal peace. The average person may think of a ‘warrior’s mindset’ as something completely opposite to this but in reality, the ancient Japanese Zen warriors were probably more at peace than the normal citizen.

I recently read a book called “Zen in the Art of Archery” by the German professor Eugen Herrigel. It’s about the author’s move to Japan in the 1920s. Upon his move, Herrigel decided to integrate himself better into the Japanese culture and started to take lessons in Kyūdō, the ancient Zen form of archery. Kyūdō is a meditative warrior practice that requires ultimate present awareness. It was recognized as the highest discipline of the Samurai warriors.

This little book is largely credited as being responsible for introducing the concept of ‘Zen’ to the West in the 1940s and 1950s. It is well worth the read. Amongst this, archery is Paulo Coelho’s favorite sport. He swears by it for focus and calmness, something I discuss later on.

The most important lessons and takeaways that impacted me from the book about archery were from the teachings of Herrigels’ Kyūdō master, Awa Kenzo.

Kenzo was once challenged by Herrigel to hit his target blindfolded. This is where the first lesson comes in. Reading the actions of the master left me dumbfounded and compelled to write about this. I realized that archery was so much deeper than its superficial reality, and understanding its fundamentals was enough to change my mindset.

The Philosophy on Focus: Hitting the Target Blindfolded

Japanese archers circa 1860. Photographer unknown. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Herrigel’s archery master, Kenzo, took up the challenge of proving his skills. He set up his bow, then he subtly shifted his feet, and breathed into a tantric meditative state. He plucked the string of his bow exerting turbulent force, yet demonstrating profound peace and calmness. He shot his bow twice. This is what Herrigel wrote about the event.

“I knew from the sound that it had hit the target. I switched on the light over the target stand, I discovered to my amazement that the first arrow was lodged full in the middle of the black, while the second arrow had splintered the butt of the first and ploughed through the shaft before embedding itself beside it.”

Can you imagine the skill, precision, and focus such an act of mastery requires? I re-read this passage three times and highlighted it at the time. I proceeded to revisit it in the coming days and started to connect certain dots. The name of the game is focus and focus alone. Without focus, Kenzo wouldn’t have been able to do this. I also interpreted this in a metaphorical sense and understood that I had to learn how to hit my own targets blindfolded. 

Learning to focus on what is important is just as much an artform as archery itself. One could even argue that Kyūdō is a result of refining the skill of focus down to mastery. This is where “Zanshin” comes in. Zanshin translates directly to “mind with no remainder”. It’s a state of relaxed alertness of the body and mind, commonly referred to in martial arts. It is merely for presence.

“Master the divine techniques of the art of peace and no enemy will dare to challenge you” — Morihei Veshiba

Now you may be wondering what our own blindfolded targets represent in our lives. This can mean two things. The first is that you are the target yourself, and you are blindfolded against certain arrows hitting you. You will inevitably face scenarios in life that will turn your world upside down and sadly, you will have no warning. The only way we can minimize the effect of such destruction is to prepare. 

This preparation comes through focus and Zanshin. Learning to be fully aware, both mentally and physically, will train you in turning adversity into advantage. Whatever you do, always practice remaining in the present moment.

The second way the analogy of a blindfolded target can relate to your life is how you can gear yourself up towards hitting your goals. In other words, you position and aim your arrow where you want it to go. Zanshin requires acting with purpose, and by trying to hit your goals with your arrow, you need to do the same. Just as Kenzo hit his target blindfolded, you must aim to never miss. Strive for ambitious goals, but practice the technique of getting there.

The technique of getting to your goals is a result of how you approach the proccess.

Elevating Your Focus in Day-to-Day Life

Photo by Ben Robbins on Unsplash

I can appreciate that most of us on this platform aren't highly skilled martial artists. That is partly why I enjoy reading Alvin Ang’s articles because he is one of the few writers who are well versed in the world of martial arts and brings the philosophy right here on Medium. However, as I mentioned before, we don’t have to be martial artists to fortify our minds into being unshakeably focused.

“One should approach all activities and situations with the same sincerity, the same intensity, and the same awareness that one has with the bow and arrow in hand.” — Kenneth Kushner, One Arrow, One Life

Kushner is saying in this quote that archery isn’t about nailing your arrow in the middle of the bullseye. The most important aspect of archery is the process and the routine in which you go through to hit the target. Nailing your arrow in the middle of the bullseye is a by-product of the process. Whatever you do in life, never act with the end goal in mind. This is ineffective and I’m sure many of us have learned this through experience. 

We must fall in love with the process. Any result will always be a by-product of how well you have undergone and trusted in the process.

The archer picks up their bow, positions their feet, takes a few deep breaths, and fully relaxes before taking the shot. This is where all their emphasis is placed. Your target is irrelevant, whatever goal you have should be out of your daily thoughts. Your approach to the target is more important than the shot itself. This video shows the process the Japanese archers underwent before taking the shot. It is also alleged to be Herrigels’ actual master, Kenzo (the archer who hit his target blinded).

As you see in the video, it’s is unexpectedly one of the most peaceful physical activities I have ever seen. It’s purely meditative and I was inspired seeing this. A warrior is always at peace within themselves and the world around them.

“A warrior is worthless unless he rises above and stands strong in the midst of a storm.” — Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist, has 20 years of experience in archery. He mainly did it whilst living in the Pyrenes and he emphasized how it was his meditation practice. He even wrote a book about it in 2003/4 which was published in November of 2020. It’s called ‘The Archer’ and it’s a powerfully inspiring fable. Here’s what Paulo says about archery:

“Shooting arrows is not simply to hit a blank target, but really to try to see the world through the bow. The moment of total tension before you open your hand, the connection. Whether you reach the target or not is irrelevant. But what is relevant is to become the bow, the arrow, and the target.”

Again, we see another archer emphasizing how the process is more important than the act of shooting the arrow itself. This is how we can incorporate the warrior’s mindset of focus in our lives. 

It’s is simply down to how we view our own journeys and our own purposes towards a target. The more you learn to be fully immersed and focused (Zanshin) in your present day-to-day life, the easier it will be to reach your goals. If a 350lb person exercised with the only goal of getting to 150lb, they wouldn’t stick to it because the goal is so incomprehensibly far away. They’d need to focus on the tiny marginal achievements during the process to stick to such a feat.

The end goal (the target) is not something we should be focused on. The moment you understand this and put it into action is the moment when you become a warrior with an archer's mindset. Focus on the present process.

Final Thoughts

The way you hold the bow, the way you position your feet, and the way you release the arrow, all determine the end result. Approach each little situation as you would approach if the final target were placed in front of you. Serenity and inner peace are the main drivers behind an archer's success and should be the main driver behind your success.

Inner peace is not something only the Ancient Zen warriors of Japan emphasized. It is highlighted in pretty much every religion and every philosophy. I could quote each verse of religious scripture that talks about inner-peace but we’d be here for hours. The cultivation and nurturing of the warrior's mindset is solely down to how peaceful you can remain when adversity hits. That is my definition of true focus.

“A warrior is not something you become, Dan. It’s something either you are, in this moment, or something you are not.” –Socrates in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior

It’s your choice to choose whether you will use the information in this article to fortify your mind into a fortress of focus. It’s a choice that speaks through how you think in times of solace. Focus on the process and forget about the target.

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I am an entrepreneur from London with a passion for reading and writing about self-improvement, productivity, fitness, history, philosophy, and happiness.


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