ZANSHIN: LEARNING THE ART OF CONCENTRATION AND FOCUS
In the 1920s, a German professor named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan to teach philosophy at a university in a city called Sendai, near Tokyo. To deepen his understanding of Japanese culture, Herrigel began training in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. He was taught by a legendary archer named Awa Kenzo. Kenzo was convinced that beginners should master the fundamentals of archery before attempting to shoot at a real target, and he took this method to the extreme. For the first four years of his training, Herrigel was only allowed to shoot at a roll of straw just seven feet away. When Herrigel complained of the incredibly slow pace, his teacher replied:
When he was finally permitted to shoot at more distant targets, Herrigel’s performance was dismal. The arrows flew off course and he became more discouraged with each wayward shot. During a particularly humbling session, Herrigel stated that his problem must be poor aim. Kenzo, however, looked at his student and replied that it was not whether one aimed, but how one approached the task that determined the outcome.
Frustrated with this reply, Herrigel blurted out, “Then you ought to be able to hit it blindfolded.” Kenzo paused for a moment and then said, “Come to see me this evening.”
Archery in the Dark
After night had fallen, the two men returned to the courtyard where the practice hall was located. Kenzo walked to his usual shooting location, now with the target hidden in the dark. The archery master proceeded through his normal routine, settled into his firing stance, drew the bow string tight, and released the first arrow into the darkness.
Recalling the event later, Herrigel wrote, “I knew from the sound that it had hit the target.” Immediately, Kenzo drew a second arrow and again fired into the night. Herrigel jumped up and ran across the courtyard to inspect the target. Kenzo had hit a double bullseye without being able to see the target. In his book, Zen in the Art of Archery, he wrote:
Everything Is Aiming
Great archery masters often teach that “everything is aiming.” Where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, the way we breathe during the release of the arrow — it all determines the end result. In the case of Awa Kenzo, the master archer was so mindful of the process that led to an accurate shot that he was able to replicate the exact series of internal movements even without seeing the external target. This complete awareness of the body and mind in relation to the goal is known as Zanshin.
In practice, though, zanshin has an even deeper meaning. Zanshin is choosing to live our life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way.
Commitment to Process
The battle does not end when we win. The battle only ends when we get lazy, when we lose our sense of commitment, and when we stop paying attention. This is zanshin as well: the act of living with alertness regardless of whether the goal has already been achieved. We can carry this philosophy into many areas of life. Some examples are:
The enemy of improvement is neither failure nor success. The enemy of improvement is boredom, fatigue, and lack of concentration. The enemy of improvement is a lack of commitment to the process because the process is everything.
Zanshin in Everyday Life
We live in a world obsessed with results. Like Herrigel, we have a tendency to put so much emphasis on whether or not the arrow hits the target. If, however, we put that intensity and focus and sincerity into the process — where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe during the release of the arrow — then hitting the bullseye is simply a side effect.
The point is not to worry about hitting the target. The point is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace each piece of the process. The point is to take that moment of Zanshin, that moment of complete awareness and focus, and carry it with you everywhere in life. It is not the target that matters. It is not the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming. Zanshin.
People Vs Process- A Perspective
When we take two factors into account — the people and the process — what percentage weight would we attribute to the people and what percentage to the process or the system for the success or failure of a project or anything we do? The question obviously assumes that the process is created by people in the first place.
One view is to attribute the process a staggering 93% and only 7% to people. This is because, once the process or system is set up, it seeks only the result. The process points out what was not done or what went wrong or right. It gives accurate reporting and points out fault lines where we can go back and fix missteps or errors. Unlike the process, people can be carried away by emotions, moods, relationships, self-interest and so many other factors and distractions.
Success, however, depends on single mindedness, having a specific goal and then the determination to figure out how to do it, how to assemble the necessary ingredients and then just do it. This practice and principle has been there since the dawn of the human civilization.
Some More Examples:
Instance 01- Dronacharya & Arjun:
In Mahabharata, we know the great teacher Dronacharya, who teaches and trains Pandavas and Kauravas during their childhood. Once when some of his students accuse Dronacharya of always favoring Arjuna, the great teacher calls all his students and gives them a simple test. He places a wooden bird on a branch of a tree and students have to shoot the eye of the wooden bird in the tree. He calls each student one by one, and before letting them release the arrow, he asks them what do they see. Some say they see wooden bird, some tree, some branches, some sky, some leaves and so on. Dronacharya then asks all of them all to lay down their bow and arrow. In the end, he calls Arjuna, whose confident reply was: “I only see the eye of the bird.” While all other students were distracted, Arjuna had set his eyes on his goal, the eye of the bird. He did not see anything else.
Instance 02- Arjun & Krishna:
During the peak of Mahabharata war after Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu is killed because Jayadratha had stopped the powerful Pandava warriors to enter the battle maze, Arjuna blames Jayadratha to be the cause for his son’s death. In a burst of anger and outrage, Arjuna takes a vow to either kill Jayadratha before the sunset next day or kill himself by jumping in a pyre if he fails.
When Krishna, the charioteer of Arjuna, hears Arjuna’s vow, he scolds Arjuna and says: “Now, your one eye will be on the sun and one on Jayadratha”, (Arjuna’s attention and focus will now be divided). Eventually, Arjuna kills Jayadratha but only with the help of Krishna as he sends his Sudarshana Chakra to mask the Sun and create an illusion of sunset.
Instance 03 — Karna & Parashuman
When Karna gets extremely frustrated and is not able to pass his final test before Sage Parashuram agrees to accept him as his student, Parashuman asks Karna to focus. He tells Karna: “The most difficult obstacles in the centre of full concentration (attention) are: anger, turbulence (of the mind) and pain (hurt). Make your anger, your turbulence and your pain as your weapon and use them.”
Instance 04 — Dronacharya
Once during his class, Dornacharya asks his students: “What if you are in the battlefield and all the weapons are destroyed during the fight, how will you continue and win the war?” When no answers emerged, Dornacharya answers his own question: “When your heart is pure and the goal is well-founded (atal), then anything in the nature can become your weapon.”
Instance 05- Robin Sharma — The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
In this story, a young boy travels far from his home to study under a great teacher.
Building Concentration — Iterations
Learning to concentrate is similar to doing repetitions with weights. In order to build strong muscles, we lift the weights up and down over and over. Each time we do it, we get a tiny bit stronger, and over a long period of time we get a lot stronger. Eventually we can lift a very large weight. One iteration (round) of this is not going to do very much, but several iterations will make muscles very strong. Repetition is the key.
The same thing goes for concentration. The mind wanders, but we bring it back to the object of focus. The effort of bringing it back is analogous to the effort of lifting a weight. Each time we bring the mind back to the object of focus, our concentration gets a tiny bit stronger, and over a long period it gets a lot more powerful. Eventually our concentration is extremely focused and unwavering.
People feel scattered and distracted, and imagine that they should have concentration power from the get-go. But that is like imagining that we can be an Olympic weightlifter with no practice. Concentration takes practice, but it is worth it. Weightlifting doesn’t just make us strong for lifting weights, it makes the body strong for everything we do the rest of the day. Concentration practice, too, strengthens the ability to focus for everything we do in life. It effectively increases our intelligence, because we can bring more of our mental powers (i.e. attention and working memory) to each task.
Content Curated By: Dr Shoury Kuttappa