Training in kyudo can change your life. The bow can be used to make ourselves strong, focused, and develop a greater understanding of the world. We can also make some great friendships along the way. At the highest levels we can cultivate compassion and our sense of service.
But it doesn’t necessarily always work out like this.
We often hear the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” But that’s not it.
Perfect practice makes perfect.
When we start beginning training it takes all of our energy just to remember all the things we have to do and make sure the arrows goes in the direction of the target without hurting yourself or anyone around you!
One day, you hit the target, and if you’re not hooked by now, this is when it usually happens. You have figured out that by using your body in a certain way with the bow, you can hit the target, and it feels awesome.
After a while, we get comfortable with the bow and start working to improve our form to better hit the target. At this point we’ve probably experienced different phases of hitting the target, then forgetting, then hitting again, and so on. We also have probably found out that we have some bad habits. We find out about these bad habits because either they naturally feel horrible and we want to change them, or more likely, we find them by getting advice from our teachers or training partners. The latter is more likely because I think we naturally get rid of bad habits that don’t feel right. Instead, we naturally find a way to shoot that is easiest for us while hitting the target. We may be hitting the target, but by using our bad habits, we’re using only a temporary plug to keep back a flood instead of fixing the flood at its source.
This can be a very frustrating experience because we have these “bad habits” that we are “supposed to fix,” but they’re difficult to do, they often can’t be seen by ourselves when we’re shooting, and we probably don’t consistently hit the target when trying to fix them. Fighting against these bad habits feels unnatural, so our body and mind rebel against all else, be it the equipment, the dojo, our training partners, or teachers.
This becomes our kyudo situation.
So, what do we do?
There are myriad problems with specific answers, but after thinking about all of this, I came up with 4 basic levels of training that one can undertake in this situation.
1.) Try and Give up
This is where we are conscious of our bad habits, make some initial effort to fix them, but eventually give up and revert back to our natural bad habits. This process could happen in one single arrow. For example we could try to make sure our tenouchi is set in the daisan phase, but mess up, and proceed throughout the shooting relying on our old way of shooting. It could happen in a set of two arrows. For example we try to fix our habits on the first arrow, mess up, and revert to our old shooting on the second. It could happen in one tournament, where we try to fix our habit in the first set of arrows, then give up and just revert to our old shooting on the next. This could also happen over a day, week, month, year, or maybe our whole life! It’s certainly not the best way to train but I’d say this is a pretty common way of shooting. It’s natural, and in most cases needs to be experienced before we can move on. Perhaps this is one explanation of why “we need to fail before we succeed.”
2.) Don’t even try
This is where we know our bad habits, but don’t even try to fix them. In one respect, this is definitely not a good way to practice. A teacher at a seminar lately said, “If we’re doing things wrong subconsciously, then we have to try to fix them consciously.” This really hit me at the time. Our bad habits won’t naturally fix themselves, and we won’t magically “get better with time.” I thought this for a long time, but after experience in tests, tournaments, and seminars, it becomes very very clear that just practicing for a long time doesn’t necessarily make you a great archer.
In another light, though, nobody wants to not improve, right? We all want to become better than we are now, right? If that’s the case, but we find ourselves in this “Don’t even try” phase, it could be because we don’t know how to fix our bad habits, even though we know they exist. That’s a difficult situation to be in for sure, and requires the energy to research or find people to help.
Or, we could find ourselves in this phase because people aren’t giving us the right answers to fix our problems. For example, we aren’t pulling the bow enough, and a teacher says pull the elbow to the back, but we don’t want to pull the elbow to the back behind us because it disrupts our sanjuu-jumonji form and prevents nobiai. This is a really difficult spot to be in, because it can start to build tension in your dojo with your training mates. I’ve been really lucky to participate in a lot of kyudo events with a lot of other experienced archers, but it also means I’ve gotten a whole lot of advice that I don’t agree with. In Japan, this is especially difficult to deal with because people don’t generally contradict their seniors. In rare cases when I’ve been really brave I’ve told teachers that I understand what they’re saying, but I’ve tried it, it feels really uncomfortable, it doesn’t work, and I’m trying to do something different now. Thank you for trying to help. In those rare cases the teachers have understood and stop trying to teach me because they realize I’m not listening. It’s difficult, but sometimes necessary. I can only imagine though if someone feels like this and the teacher keeps pressing. Every situation is different, but one thing is for sure, teachers need to understand when they’re pushing too far and not respecting the archer they’re trying to teach. For any students who are experiencing this, be brave and smart and don’t give up! And above all maintain your humility, patience, and grace. For teachers that are pressing their unwanted ways on others, nothing good can come of it, so take some responsibility and figure out a better way.
Anyway, I believe this is a phase that we want to grow out of.
3.) Try and Fail and Try
This, I believe, is the best place we can be in our practice.
This is heaven on earth. This is finding enlightenment in our very lives. This is living with the bow. This is experiencing our mortal humanity.
This is shin, zen, bi. Truth, goodness, and beauty.
In this phase have our bad habits, and are on a track trying to fix them. Ideally, we have a teacher we trust who is there to teach us the technical way to fix our problems and provides the right balances to mentally encourage us. Or, we could be looking at videos of our own shooting and trying to fix them on our own. We could be asking other teachers and visiting seminars looking for answers. This comes in a variety of forms, but it’s basically having a plan to fix our problems and consciously trying to fix them.
It’s really really hard. We may not see the light at the end of the tunnel. We may receive criticism from others.
“What’s wrong with you lately? Just hit the target like you used to.”
We may do well in our practice at the makiwara, may do good practicing on our own, or may do good shooting in our own dojo. But what about when we go somewhere we haven’t before? Or have to shoot in front of others? Oftentimes we give up on trying to fix our habits and just rely on our old ways of hitting the target. This is natural, but you know what? …
I may be weird, or stupid, or you might not like what I say …
but I despise it.
Changing our form out of fear. Giving up just to hit the target, or not look stupid. Throwing our selves away to the desires of the mob.
What do they know? What do they care? Who cares?
Right there inside of yourself, in a place where you can’t run away. Maybe you’ve fooled the others, but you can’t lie to yourself and expect to be believed.
Once, my teacher told me, “苦労すればいい。” “You should struggle.”
The masochistic side of me translated it to, “You should suffer.”
It may sound a bit dark, but if you’re not ready to struggle or suffer in kyudo, then you’re not going to be able to fulfill your potential.
Technique is so simple. You just learn to do it. It takes time, but matters of technique can be taken care of with proper training. Nobody does the proper technique in the beginning, and anyone that works hard enough at a particular technique will eventually achieve it.
Mentality on the other hand though, is the really difficult part. It’s so simple. Just do your best and don’t be afraid of failing. It’s so fricken simple, but are we doing it? Are we doing it every single arrow? Be it at the makiwara, in our own training, at tests, at tournaments? Are we always shooting our best arrow? Some may spend their whole lives without accomplishing this one feat of the human spirit.
Why? Why not?
The simple answer is fear, and what we do with it. My answer to this is number 3 of these phases, “try and fail and try.”
4.) Try and Succeed
This is the magical phase of trying to do what we set out to do and succeed. This is where we all want to be, but probably don’t experience it for very long if we ever do. Maybe it happens only once a day, once a month, or once in a whole lifetime! As glorious as it sounds, its a really precarious place to be in. Those arrows or days I really felt like I succeeded, I sometimes lose all my desire. “Well, I did it. Might as well go home now.” Or worse, “Well, there’s no way I can do that again. Might as well go home now.” This phase will remain the goal, but I don’t think we have much control over when or how it comes. All we can really do is just do our best.
Do our best, sincerely.
That’s the point of all this, isn’t it?
Spirit trumps technique.
And I won’t say anymore about Trump. How did he weasel his way into my blog?!
I think if he was forced to practice kyudo every day for the rest of his presidency we would all have a better world.
But what do I know.
I try and fail and try.
Onward and upward.