Letting go of end-gaining

A pupil of mine who is keen on archery recently told me that in an end of three, he often finds his first two shots are accurate and the arrows land close to the centre of the target. However, the third arrow often misses and lands further away. On sharing this with his coach, the coach observed: “Well, you need to shoot the third arrow first.” Rather than this just being a flippant comment, it was very sound advice.

When he came to shoot the third arrow, without consciously realising it, my pupil lost his sense of presence and poise and instead became caught up in the past. His past experience of the previous two arrows landing exactly where he wanted them to, increased his determination to get the third arrow in. Yet his past experience of frequently shooting the third arrow wide of the mark was creating anxious thoughts: “This one always goes wrong…I’m going to miss again…why can’t I get all three in?” His response to all of this was to try harder. His focus on the end result that he wanted to achieve became even stronger – he was swept along, as we so often are in life, by the belief that if he put more effort in he would get the result he wanted.

Unfortunately, too much effort and striving creates unnecessary tension in the body and the flow of the movement is lost. When we try too hard through sheer effort and determination, we lose our sense of trust. Rather than being in the moment, paying attention to how we are standing and breathing, how we are moving the body, holding the bow and arrow, the attention has shifted to the target and the future moment when our arrow will make contact with that target. We are end-gaining.

It’s not surprising really because this is how we are brought up, how we are encouraged to live our lives. Our focus is often on the end result we want to achieve rather than on the process of how we are getting there. And we try the same approach over and over again even when it isn’t working.

It is often said that Einstein referred to this as a form of madness but we are not mad, just habitual. We do things the same way because this is what feels familiar and right. And these habits are so ingrained that we almost don’t know how to approach things any differently. We have to be prepared to try an approach that feels unfamiliar and wrong.

Adopting a mindful approach means loosening our hold on that desired outcome of where we would like to be or where we think we should be, and being willing to inhabit the place that we are in right now. It may be helpful to have a goal or objective in mind, but when we learn to soften our grip and give more attention to what we are actually experiencing in this moment, we allow space for things to flow in a less effortful way. As we learn to cultivate a willingness to let go (of what we think is the right way or the right result) we make room for more creativity and freedom.

As for my pupil, he found that when he let go of the first two arrows in his mind and came back to the moment and shot his third arrow as if it were his first, he got a better result. He didn’t need to practise trying harder (because he was already quite good at this) he needed to practise letting go of trying harder.

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