Yesterday was my third mounted archery lesson. I show up early enough that the mists still cover the hills. The vineyards, the barn, and the arena are still chilled and dewy. Usually, no one’s around except for the dogs, cat, and occasional hen that come to see if I have food or cuddles, or both. When someone asks how my training is going, this is never what comes up. They expect the hobby to be fueled by revenge. They expect me to be angry.
Anger gives energy in short bursts. It can be an extra jolt of motivation, and armor to wrap yourself in. It converts two-way communication into a one-way street. Under certain circumstances, when you need to protect yourself, when you need to pull yourself up over the ledge — anger is excellent. Anger rises when someone has crossed a boundary. Anger is both an alarm system and a security system, and it will snap shut on the offender. It is as intense as it is instant, and when you’re done, you’re worn out. Even for those who have a long fuse, I’m referring to the moment the fuse triggers the explosive.
The obsessive mind latches onto a perspective and holds there. It takes a stance, chooses a narrative, and makes it into the sole truth. It chews and chews until the original flavor — the objective truth of events — is gone. Only the narrative is left, and that’s what the obsessive mind feeds on. If the narrative is the story we tell ourselves, then we have the power to choose that narrative.
For example, I’ve unconsciously started looking for his car when I’m out driving. I can’t help it. Since I don’t know how to stop playing this game, I look for the cars driven by people I love and am still close to, instead. Chew, chew, obsessive brain, chew on something healthier.
After the breakup and subsequent loss of our child, I couldn’t find my anger. I felt drained of strength, and without my strength, I had no identity. Without anger to shield me and energize me, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. What confused me even further was that the strongest feeling wasn’t anger, but love. I was still in love, and generated love, but I had no place to put it.
Without anger, I felt weak, but the love and warmth in my heart kept growing and growing. Love wrapped itself around the heartbreak and grief. I didn’t want to be bitter. I didn’t want to destroy or be destroyed. I wanted to transcend this, and be transformed by it. When I started practicing archery more often, those feelings imbued the experience. I wasn’t ok, (I’m still not ok), but archery helped me get out of my head and into my environment for a little while. I felt the bow, the arrows, the targets, the trees, the grass, the hawks and the quails, and my fellow archers. They and I were all wrapped in presence and stillness. In that stillness, I could pay attention to the tiny movements that influenced my technique. Shooting wasn’t about the kill; it was about the stillness.
When I found a mounted archery teacher, it was the same thing. We think of warriors on horseback as a thundering wave of death; but one-on-one hasn’t been like that at all. It’s me and the horse, learning to talk to each other. You have to listen to the animal, and acknowledge the terrain and other distractions. You also have to listen to your own mental state, and its effect on your body language. Riding wasn’t about taking power; it was about listening.
My body has always told me early on when something was wrong, from vitamin deficiencies to appendicitis. I’ve learned to trust it. It knew that anger wouldn’t make me better this time.
Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of giggling in the midst of the zen. I’ve had arrows hit the target and then flip over themselves and land in the grass somewhere. I’ve done a great fast-draw and then dropped the arrow on my toe before I could shoot it. More than once, while standing in the stirrups, my horse would just stop and pitch me forward. This is silly, slapstick shit. Beauty and stillness is all well and good, but it’s not really fun. Fun is being able to laugh at yourself. If you want to climb a mountain, you’ll have a much easier time if you enjoy walking and sweating. If you can make your fuck-ups funny, you’re set. You look forward to the victories, but also for the jokes. It’s hard to quit if you love what you’re doing.
After the ride, I feed the horse and sit with him until he finishes. I brush him and pet his flank while he eats, the same way I pet the other animals at the barn when they ask for it. Then I take him back to his pasture. The exercise, the countryside, and being with animals is helping me heal in a way that breaking, burning, and screaming never could.
Even the self-talk has shifted. Rather than say “fuck!” when I make a mistake, I say “well, that was silly.” Maybe I was silly. Maybe the horse was silly. Maybe the arrow or the target was silly. Blame and negativity aren’t part of the learning experience. Each success is a surprise, and each mistake is hilarious.
So no, I don’t picture my ex when I’m shooting. I have no desire to do harm. My own pain was enough. When I ride, I’m with the horse. When I shoot, I’m with the landscape.
There was a woman I trained with a long time ago who always smiled. I’ve never seen a photo of her where she didn’t have a big toothy grin. At the time, I took her less seriously because of it; but I was wrong. She’s knowledgeable, formidable, and a fantastic friend. I think she was on to something.
If I were angry, I couldn’t do any of these things. I’d be stuck in the cycle of raging, passing out, and raging again. That’s not a long-term strategy. Instead, I’m learning to flow with what is, and let go of what isn’t. I won’t hit the bulls-eye every time. I won’t always be graceful in the saddle. But if I’m laughing the whole time, who cares? I’ll be back tomorrow, no worse for wear.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
― Sun Tzu
“Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
― Samuel Beckett