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~ Archery's Spiritual Dimension ~

When I was in high school two good friends of mine were blind. Actually, one was born blind and the other was going blind rapidly. The one with the progressive ocular disease asked me to help prepare him for the time when darkness would fully overcome his sense of sight. Harry’s doctors and social workers were preparing him with technical skills, like learning to read Braille. That was not what Harry was asking of me.

We talked much about the sensory changes that happen in people who lose one of their five physical senses. When Beethoven developed complete deafness, for example, he composed his best music. Helen Keller could smell chimney smoke a mile or two away and thus knew she was approaching a home. The deprivation of one sense does not make the others grow stronger. It makes us pay more attention to them.

So I entered Harry’s world. We went camping for a long weekend and once we arrived at our site, I blindfolded myself with a bandana. At that point, Harry still had shadow vision so he could see better than me. The role reversal was powerful for Harry. He was now in the position of leading the blind, the first for him and what he needed to experience.

My first approach to this situation was to go barefoot or wear thin-soled moccasins. By walking around I could tell where the briars and rocks where and find ground clearing on which to throw my tarp and sleeping bag. As night fell, Harry and I began to be an equal ground, so to speak. His vision was still better than mine, but not by much.

Gathering wood and making a campfire upon which to cook was a hilarious endeavor. This required lots of groping on all fours, gathering leaves, twigs, and wood. The size of the fire and its condition had to be monitored by our feel of its heat and sounds.

After many hours of doing simple but essential things, the sensory changes began kicking in. I told Harry he did not have to speak louder than usual, that I was blind, not deaf. He insisted he wasn’t and that was my awakening. I realized the stream from where we got our water was gurgling much louder, along with the rustling of trees in the wind. I knew which direction I was facing by the change of temperature on my cheeks and forehead. No longer did I grope around looking for my sleeping spot. I knew exactly where it was by paying attention to the smell of the smoke of the fire, the sounds of the stream, the texture of the earth beneath my feet…all of this and more oriented me. I had an accurate map in my mind of our camp, and no longer had any temptation to take a peak from beneath my blindfold.
Then an incredible event occurred. I confidently walked down to the stream and felt around its banks for some stones. I wanted to determine how wide and deep the stream was by throwing stones at various places, listening to the difference in sounds, shallow water being different than the deeper middle water. (I must also add how strong the smells of various parts of stream were, how shallow ripples smelled differently than the deep pools of slow moving water.)

One stone I threw hit a protruding rock and made a particular “ting” sound. I aimed for it again and hit it again. I threw underhanded, over handed and side handed. Out of ten relaxed throws, I hit it eight times. Not bad for a blind person.

I recalled my readings of the legendary feats of the Shaolin monks of ancient China. One of their disciplines was archery. They would hit their targets consistently in a manner unlike practiced in the West. They were relaxed, meditative, not striving with effort.

I witnessed such a demonstration at the first university I attended that hosted yearly martial arts forums. I saw what I read about. The archers did not hold an aim. They casually knocked the arrow on the string, pulled back, slowly lowering the raised arrow down over the target and, without stopping to aim, released the arrow, all in one fluid motion, hitting the target center every time. The last archer liked to turn his head to the audience upon release of the arrow, always hitting the center of the target. No one applauded for at least five long seconds. The silence was a moment of respect and awe.

Years later I bought a “serious” compound bow and started practicing. As with hunting firearms, my western, left-brained approach took over, developing the usual habit of holding my breath, lining the sights, and releasing. I never did develop a proficiency.

However, I did notice a critical thing: I “knew” upon release of the string, before the arrow struck the target, whether or not the arrow would hit my mark. That knowing reminded me of what I had neglected and forgotten since the time of throwing those stones at the protruding rock in stream, blindfolded, years ago.

Many things are written about the abilities of the Eastern archers to consistently hit their mark without apparent effort. The most succinct is one statement: “When you are one with your mark, when you are already in union with that you pursue, just let go of the tension in your string and your arrow has no choice but to unite your mark with which you are unified.”

Well! Isn’t that the essence of our spiritual growth? If I strive on my own to “hit the mark”, to be Christlike, to achieve sanctification and holiness, I will miss. That is exactly the point Jesus was driving in His condemnation of the approach of the Pharisees.

In my times of temporary blindness in the forest, I found myself, through no striving of my own, in a “zone” of such unity and harmony with creation that the boundaries between creation and myself were delightfully blurred. At first I moved cautiously through unseen territory. Hours later I was at home and in unity with my four physical senses and the multitude of non-physical ones.

How futile it is to strive to Christlikeness or holiness! We can imitate holiness through observance of morality and the Ten Commandments. Many atheists succeed at that better than many Christians. But all of us miss our mark, and pride in striking close is a serious sin and the downfall of the angel of light, Lucifer.

As long as there is distance between our arrow and our target, there is great space for the arrow to go its own way. If we are united with our target without separation, as the Shaolin archers would put it, then the arrow has no choice but to wed itself with the target’s center.

Christ often used that metaphor, that of the union between Bride and Groom, Brother and brother/sister, child of the Father. He declared that the kingdom of God is within us, not “out there” to be targeted from a distance. That means the target and arrow are both within us, that one cannot meet the other by effort, but by the gift of grace and our love for each other.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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