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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Zen in the Art of Archery: The Purity of Purposeless Practice

I have been reading, and rereading Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery for some fifteen years.  Over the years, the book has spoken to me in different ways.  The book is written in a simple and clear manner, and it isn't really about archery at all.  All that one needs to do is to mentally substitute their discipline of choice.  It is really a book about harnessing Practice Monster.

The book is so beautifully composed, and so concise, it hardly makes sense to try and summarize it here.  With only eighty pages, it can be read in a couple of sittings.  The material takes time to process, however, and your experience will depend on what you bring to the table.  I've lost track of how many times I've read it, but I gain new insights with each reading.

With my recent thoughts and writings about the dynamics of personal practice, I've found myself lingering on the the final chapter, about Zen and swordsmanship.  The hapless beginner, giddily thrusting his sword with more joy than skill . . . this summarizes my memories of being a beginner saxophonist: it was more play than anything else, and that was a beautiful moment indeed.

With formal study comes the horrible realization that there are many more skilled than yourself, and that you are hopelessly at the mercy of those with better technique.  Faced with bigger and stronger opponents, the situation is impossible.  In despair, you furiously practice, building a prodigious technique that can be wielded like a weapon, to slay your enemies.  And yet, you fail.  Again and again, we fail.

The imagined enemy can be a competing musician, or the music itself.  Either way, Practice Monster is fully engaged in this part of the process.  The advanced student is driven by the idea of conquering.  Practice itself becomes a dreaded enemy.  Self-doubt and frustration alternate between depression and rage.  The monster consumes us with the illusory obsession with being the best.

It is only when we break free from the purpose of winning that we can attain the high levels of mastery.  The discipline of practice must become its own purpose.  Practice, no matter what we are practicing, becomes a meditation.  The outcome of disciplined practice is inevitable, but that outcome has no bearing on the moment.  Detached from any desire for personal gain, we freely ascend through the purity of purposeless practice.

As a professional musician, I am certainly connected to the importance of advancing my reputation.  It would be transparently dishonest to imply that I am not motivated by profit, or by my own ego.  My career feeds my family, after all.  But there is a deeper level of practice that transcends the material world.  When we learn to practice because it is like breathing, eating, or sleeping, we begin to understand when Herrigel writes that mastery is reached "when the heart is troubled by no more thought of I and You, of the opponent and his sword, of one's own sword and how to wield it – no more in even of life and death."  The true master is more than just unafraid, but completely impervious to fear, temporarily unaware of its existence.  Only then are we joined with the music.  Practice well!