Embodied Spirituality: Archery

In 2014, I was able to get to an archery club to practice archery. Sadly I only got one opportunity for archery in 2015, but I love it.

When I am doing archery, I am totally in the moment, totally focussed on hitting the target, and how my body fits with the bow (though probably insufficiently focussed on the latter). I am not thinking of anything else. For me, archery is embodied spirituality in action. This probably applies to any skilled physical activity, such as martial arts, dance, massage, woodworking, crafts, and so on.

The interesting thing about archery, for me, is that it involves stillness and focus as well as action. You have to get your body to learn the correct posture, until it becomes instinctive to get your arms at the right angle, your legs in the correct position, and so on. It is also true that letting go of the outcome and focusing on the activity can bring success. At one point, I was given a Mongolian bow, with the aim of hitting a balloon. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to hit it, so I relaxed, and I did hit it.

Like Thorn Mooney, I hated sports at school, as I have terrible hand-eye co-ordination and am usually overweight, but I have always liked martial arts. Archery gets around those issues, and puts you in touch with your body. It also comes with a side order of historical geekiness, and a really interesting group of people to hang out with. As Thorn writes:

Becoming an archer was the realization of a childhood fantasy. What Tolkien-obsessed kid wouldn’t love to shoot a bow and arrow? … Realizing—at 30—that I could finally have that bow I always wanted was surreal and exciting. I taught myself out of a book and dove right in, joining an archery club the same month.

Longsword resulted from lots of time spent with traditional archers, who often double as history enthusiasts. And where archery helped me in developing a relationship with Herne the Hunter, I’m really curious to see where fencing will take me.

The classic work Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel describes how learning is initially a conscious process, but eventually the practice becomes something unconscious:

The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art …

In the medieval world, archery was not considered knightly, because you hit your target at a distance. But it could be used for hunting, and of course was used to devastating effect in the battle of Agincourt.

Robin Hood is one of the most famous archers in legend, and there are many stories of his accuracy. My favourite is the one where his opponent fired his arrow right into the centre of the target, but Robin split his opponent’s arrow in two.

Artemis and Diana, the virgin huntresses, are also associated with the bow. The crescent moon is often depicted as Diana’s bow.

Shen-I the Excellent Archer is a character in Chinese mythology. Once upon a time, all ten suns rose together in the sky. Shen feared that the Earth was in danger of drying up, so he took his bow and shot down nine of the suns.

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