Follow Arrows: Using Archery for Bio-Feedback

When I was 25 or so, I was given a dream job caretaking a ranch along the Roaring Fork River. In the apartment over the barn stalls, the previous tenants left a simple wooden sign with white painted letters that read “Follow Arrows” over the door.

The phrase lived with me for years without clear meaning, and then in 2017 almost two decades later, I found myself following arrows as a practice. I came into compound bow shooting through working with the CAMO program where I met my mentor, became obsessed with how this art demands organization of the breath and bodymind complex, and the lifelong learning it provides.

Beginners Luck

When you first start shooting, you’re amazing because you are pure. You get a little lesson, pick up the bow, and typically sling a bullseye or two from the start. People are amazed at your amazingness. Then you start valuing your outcome. 

“I’m so good at this!” 

But you’re not good. You’re just ignorant and lucky. So you start missing. Then you want to know why you aren’t as natural as you thought at this, so you start asking questions and learning things. These things make you THINK. Now you’re THINKING when you’re shooting. And you start really sucking. So you either put the weapon down for good, “archery’s not that fun”, or you start training.

Training, of course, is the act of practicing a skill over and over to ingrain technique so it becomes automated. There are methods to this in every sport. Usually we pick one technique at a time to focus on. And usually that is best learned when you take away the outcome, like shooting so close to the target that it doesn’t matter, or hitting golf balls on a range, or batting ball after ball in a cage. Once you have some ingrained technique, you test in the playing field. If you have a good process, you use the information to learn, not to attach more to the story of what happened or who you are in your sport. 

Hitting Ceilings and Making New Ones

In a martial art like archery, this training elevates your game to a point, then you find a new ceiling and have to unlearn everything and start over. And this never ends. Ever.

Shooting a bow is a lot like hitting a golf ball, throwing a free throw in hoops, or making a tennis serve. You train so you don’t think during execution. If you think too much, you can’t execute; the subconscious mind can’t do its automation for you. You are too busy trying to coach yourself and think your way to success. 

Thoughts are things. And those things carry weight. Those of us who play anything that tests this are lucky to have something that mimics the same process in daily life. 

Avoid Attachment to Outcome

If you become attached to the outcome of your shot, it becomes impossible to capture the state necessary for true aim and accuracy; neutrality and presence. Now, replace the word “shot” in the last sentence with the word “life” or “job” or “conversation” and see if it translates for you.

Following a great shot puts you on the spot to perform. Enter attachment. Following a bad shot puts you on the spot to fix. Enter attachment. 

Once you are attached, you are likely thinking and coaching yourself on the next effort. You are fixated on the outcome. Now you have lost connection to the state of presence and neutrality that allows your body to have a say in the process. A neutral mind is a calm mind, connected to the body in present time. 

Resources like grip strength, focus without overthinking, coordination, responsive energy, subconscious accuracy, and a knowingness that you are ‘in it’ all come from state. The state is reinforced through practice. You can’t buy it any other way. Time and reps. Doing the thing. 

The reps include the skill of resetting your nervous system over and over and over. Follow the arrow. Put it in your quiver. Walk back. Start the process over again, regardless of how bad (or good) the last shot was.

The Fine Line Between Learning and Attachment

There is a fine line between learning and attachment. Brian MacKenzie reminded me recently of the Bruce Lee quote that says:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” 

And this is how to train anything. Don’t shoot 10,000 shots, shoot one shot 10,000 times. To me, this means each and every shot is THE shot. It’s the only one you are taking. Be in it fully, and don’t practice failure by attaching only to where it lands compared to previous shots. As with all things, the process is where the fulfillment, learning, and success live.

What it Means for Me to Follow Arrows

By following arrows, I have learned that I can be present and centered as well as overexcited and trigger-happy. I’ve learned how to read when I’m in either and figure out what works in my own system to reset myself. There’s breath skill in that, but also grounding, visual resets, mindfulness, noticing one thing about this moment that reminds me it is in fact the ONLY moment like a blade of grass moving in the wind, a bee, the way the ground feels underfoot. 

Artful sports like these are like bio-feedback. You can use them to learn about yourself IF you are paying attention to the right things. Those same things can apply when you notice yourself fixated on story in daily life. Breathe. Ground. Create presence. Trust your body, not the story. Take aligned action. Let go of the outcome. Learn. Repeat. 

The art of any sport can be used in these ways to create durability within ourselves. It is trainable through anything that pulls you into your body, your breath, and this one true moment.

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