I just reread Zen and the Art of Archery because recently on a run I had experienced something new, this after some 40 odd years in the sport. Quite by accident I noticed that running was very different when I was aware of both how I was running while simultaneously sensing where I was going…my goal. In other words what I was doing, namely running and where I was headed, became one thing. It felt different and a little strange but not al all unpleasant and I wondered if it was a Zen-like moment…hence my going back to Zen and the Art of Archery for the first time in over 20 years.
I’d expected to read how the master had instructed the student to be one with his target but my memory of what the student Herrigel had written was faulty. In fact, he had been instructed not to look or even think about the target. He found it challenging as this passage indicates: “how this happens that the outer goal, the disk of paper, is hit without the archer’s taking aim, and that the hits are only the outward confirmations of inner events—that correspondence is beyond me.”
I don’t pretend to understand much of what Herrigel wrote in that interesting little book but I was puzzled about what was happening to me and wondered if it was an indication of how my running had strayed of course if you will. In recent months I have been struggling to overcome nagging hip pain and only recently, thanks some terrific physio work have I started to feel better . Up until a couple weeks ago, I was preoccupied with the soreness which I just couldn’t seem to shake, in spite of paying a lot of attention to form. I assumed that if my form was right, I would feel better and have certainly found this to be true over the years. It was only with the release of a twisted sacrum combined with good form that things started to improve. Suddenly without the constant nagging pain I could start to see the bigger picture and stopped being constantly drawn back to the hip. And that’s when it happened. I was enjoying a pain-free run when the strong sense of where I was going seemed to fuse with my sense of movement, but didn’t make it disappear. It was a case of not one of the other but of both being there at the same time…it was almost like the destination and the journey were the same thing which has that Zen ring but that is what I experienced.
And then it happened again when I was washing the dishes…the distance between act of washing and the final outcome, namely a drying rack full of clean dishes disappeared. Now some of you out there might suspect now that Canada has legalized marijuana that I was under the influence of something besides hot water and dish soap …not the case.
I compare these two experiences with a my more ‘normal’ reaction or way of being which is often one of impatience and a wish to get it over so I can get on to something else…what Alexander called end-gaining. Was my experience a modern incarnation of the famous Zen saying “when chopping wood or carrying water, just chop wood or carry water?”
Sports psychologists describe awareness in terms of wide and narrow and internal vs external so if you are focusing on your navel that would be narrow/internal. Paying attention to the mountains looming in the distance would be wide/external. I tended to see these states as kinda of either/or with awareness weighted toward one or the other with me being in one or the other. However the new experience seemed to be both at the same time which had both a calming and an energizing effect.
You might wonder how this way of being can be triggered, what’s the window that needs to open to allow this kind of presence. As you might guess I found the answer in Alexander’s notion of the Primary Control ie the head neck back relationship he described as letting the neck be free to let the head go forward and up too let the back lengthen and widen. Patrick Macdonald one of the first teachers trained by Alexander describes it thus: “it is useful to consider the “forward” as an unlocking of the head at the atlanto-occipital joint by refraining from tightening and pulling it (the head) backwards in the accustomed way, and the “up” as a tiny extension of the spine , which is achieved following this unlocking. The movement is so small that it is likely to be seen only by the trained eye, and sometimes not even then. It can, however, usually be readily felt and is none the less real for being small. It is sometimes described as letting the head float off the shoulders.” P47
By letting my head float off my shoulders, which by the way I was unable to do while running so I had to stop, and ask for it and wait for it to happen and then start running again, I could then more easily enter the state of awareness previously described. But as long as I was interfering with the Primary Control it was business as usual. One of my interesting discoveries was that the interference was not always obvious and only showed up on my radar screen once it was released. Fortunately this kind of functioning can be learned from any competent Alexander teacher and then practiced as much and as often as possible. For anyone wishing to improve their quality of movement it is a vital first step.