Zen in the Art of Archery

How a teacher changed my life

Mr. Lareson had tattoos of mandolins on both of his forearms.

His class was chaos.

My freshman year, this was the only class I had with my then-girlfriend (thank goodness). We would waste away the period writing to each other and debating about tolerable levels of backwash in our shared water vessels.

I was no stranger to writing, Mrs. Jurgensmeier, another hero, had helped me there, in Journalism, a year earlier.

But, for Mr. Lareson, my free-form reporting style did not pass. I argued with him that his formulas were unnatural. “To break the rules, you must first learn the rules”. He said this with all sincerity. I scoffed.

Because of my failings during class, he would devote hours of his time to helping me when I bothered to come by. He patiently instructed me on essay structures. Tirelessly, he would accept dozens of drafts, kindly guiding me along each time.

I began to think that I was mentally handicapped. I had no idea why I was falling so far from the goal.

This frustration, combined with other fifteen-year-olds’ foolishness led to me abandoning the class altogether. I only passed one class that semester.

Two years later, at a different school, I was once again assigned to take “Composition” with Mr. Lareson. I was frustrated and terrified. It was almost as if he had followed me, ensuring that I wouldn’t graduate on time.

But, this time, it was different.

He praised my work, he complimented my style and structure. He encouraged me with extra assignments which I completed recreationally.

For whatever reason, he gave me Zen in the Art of Archery.

Logic would have told you this was not the book for me.

Back then, in high school, between video games and parties, I had nearly stopped reading entirely.

But, I was flattered by this gift from my mentor… and the unfamiliar word “zen” held an assumed promise of mystical secrets.

I slogged through this book. It was possibly the most dry, obtuse, thing I had ever read up to that point in my life (on par with the Bible).

But, I persevered, reading in moments stolen from teen nonsense. I would see him, even after our semester had ended, and I would feel a great responsibility to report back to him about how I had gotten some value out of his gift.

It’s challenging (impossible really) to reconstruct the effect of this kind of book on my young mind.

I could create a long list from the insights I mined from old Eugen Herrigel and his tale of learning Kyudo…

  • Be your skill.
  • Strive to infinity.
  • The impossible is ideal.
  • The outcome is not important, it is the practice.
  • Humility is the way.
  • You can imagine your objective to be any shape, distance, or size you desire, whatever helps you.
  • Perspective is infinitely malleable.
  • A practice is the process of smaller thoughts and actions. You can recognize this and strive to perfect each of the components individually, adding them together to create the complete practice.
  • Perfection is impossible.
  • Perfection is obtained the moment you allow it to happen.

And so on…

The lessons in the book were helpful. That much is clear. Why else would I wake up at 1 am, 12 years later, thinking about that book and those insights?

But, nearly as informative as the contents of the book, was the gift of the book itself.

Funny, Zen in the Art of Archery was, for me, a lesson of Zen in the Art of Learning. Which, after all, is the subject of the book.

Mr. Lareson had lain before me a presumably impossible task. He had given an irresponsible, underperforming youth a thick esoteric treatise by an old German Philosopher about Japanese tradition and philosophy. But, moving into impossibility, Mr. Lareson made it possible.

The practice of reading that was about as challenging and humbling as learning Kyudo. I could spend hours on a single page, only needing to review the page for another hour after reaching the bottom. But, the book had started with a challenge. An oath to completion. That was between the author and his teacher. But, it instilled in me the same sense of commitment.

I cannot know all the ways this exercise and this gift has influenced my life. But,

I do know this,

I am eternally grateful I am to that teacher who did not assume to place limitations on a “child”. I am eternally grateful to the author for sharing his experience, no matter their ephemeral and confusing nature of his story.

This impossible tale subtlely gave me the impossible perspective to travel through an impossible life.

This made all things possible.

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