After winning several archery contests, the vain young champion challenged a Zen master who was famous for his skill as an archer. The young man had shown great technical mastery by hitting the target on his first attempt and then splitting that same arrow in half with his second shot.
‘Tell me if you can match that,’ he challenged the old man.
However, the master did not draw the bow from him, but instead gestured for the young archer to follow him across the mountain. Curious about the old Zen monk’s intentions, the champion followed in his footsteps to the top of a mountain. Then they came to a deep abyss crossed by a rather weak and insecure trunk.
The old master walked on the dangerous trunk, stopped halfway and chose a distant tree as his target. He then pulled out his bow and fired an accurate shot.
‘Now it’s your turn,’ he said to the young archer as he walked gracefully toward safe ground.
The young man looked in terror at the abyss that opened before his feet and was unable to even take a step on the trunk, so he could not shoot at the target.
‘You have great skill with your bow,’ the old master told him, ‘but you have little skill with the mind that allows you to release the shot.’
If you don’t control your emotions, you don’t control anything
This ancient Zen parable reminds us of the importance of knowing how to manage our emotions. Demonstrating our skills when everything is going well is not difficult, what is really complicated is continuing to maintain that level of performance when we are against the ropes.
When the world turns against us and we are consumed by fear, anxiety, sadness or anger, our abilities become blurred, we lose confidence and our goals become unattainable.
In fact, in Zen philosophy, true mastery comes not only from physical ability but from mind-body harmony. Only mental balance guarantees that we will be able to make use of the skills and competencies we have learned in troubled times. Without that inner peace, without the necessary self-control and self-confidence, our knowledge will be diluted and will be of little use to us.
Intense feelings and emotions can paralyze us or generate a state of nervous activation that prevents us from concentrating. In this way we run the risk of losing focus, we are not able to detect what is truly important and we behave erratically. When we are unable to control our emotions, our strengths crumble and we become vulnerable, like a leaf moved by the wind of circumstances.
True success is measured by inner growth
The story “The Archer and the Zen Monk” is a reminder that we must cultivate inner peace, harmony and self-control. Success is not only measured by external achievements, but also by the level of internal growth we have achieved along the way.
Staying calm and focused is essential when things go wrong. As they say, “Calm sea never made a skilled sailor.” Therefore, we must make sure that we do not shy away from moments of tension or problems because these situations give us the opportunity to test ourselves and grow.
Resilience, patience and emotional self-control develop precisely in the midst of adversity. But they do not develop by fighting against events, as if they were an enemy to be defeated, but by learning to control the emotional tsunami that they usually generate within us.
A study conducted at the universities of Michigan and Oregon, for example, showed that accepting the conflicting emotions we often experience while pursuing a goal, helps us develop a new awareness of our priorities and better see the available options that lead to optimal results. “Over time, embracing these emotions leads us to greater self-realization,” these psychologists concluded.
Therefore, it is worth taking the time necessary to reflect on the impact of emotions on your decisions and daily performance. Remember that every missed shot is an opportunity to better understand your reactions and adjust your approach. Learn to deal with frustrations, setbacks and difficulties because sooner or later you will encounter them along the way and if you are not prepared, they will knock you out. On the other hand, if you learn to face them with serenity and confidence, they will be an opportunity to continue growing and develop that shield of equanimity that will protect your well-being when everything seems to turn against you.
Mejía, S. T. & Hooker, K. (2017) Mixed Emotions Within the Context of Goal Pursuit. Curr Opin Behav Sci.; 15: 46–50.