Zanshin: The Art of Relaxed Alertness
Zanshin is a concept that emerges from Japanese martial arts and refers to a state of relaxed alertness. It means having a complete awareness of your body, mind, and surroundings without stressing yourself. The term is derived from the Japanese words “zan” meaning “remaining” and “shin” meaning “heart” or “mind.” In essence, it means a mind that’s fully present, focused, and completely committed to the task at hand.
The teachings of zanshin can be traced back to the 1920s when a German man named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan to train in Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. Herrigel’s teacher was the legendary Kyudo master, Awa Kenzo, who believed that beginners should master the fundamentals of archery before attempting to shoot at real targets. For the first four years of his training, Herrigel was only allowed to shoot at a roll of straw just seven feet away.
When Herrigel was finally allowed to shoot at targets at the far end of the practice hall, his performance was terrible. His arrows flew off course, and he became more discouraged with each wayward shot. Herrigel was convinced that his problem was poor aim, but Kenzo replied that it was not whether he aimed, but how he approached his goal that determined the outcome.
Frustrated with his teacher, Herrigel blurted out, “Then you ought to be able to hit it blindfolded.” Kenzo paused for a moment and then said, “Come to see me this evening.”
That evening, the two men returned to the courtyard where the practice hall was located. Kenzo walked over to his normal shooting location with the target hidden somewhere out in the night. The archery master settled into his firing stance, drew the bowstring tight, and released the first arrow into the darkness of the courtyard. Herrigel would later write, “I knew from the sound that it had hit the target.”
Immediately, Kenzo drew a second arrow and again fired into the night. Herrigel jumped up and ran across the courtyard to inspect the target. In his book, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” Herrigel wrote, “When I switched on the light over the target stand, I discovered to my amazement that the first arrow was lodged full in the middle of the black, while the second arrow had splintered the butt of the first and plowed through the shaft before embedding itself beside it.”
From this experience, Herrigel learned a valuable lesson. Great archery masters often teach that “everything is aiming.” Where you place your feet, how you hold the bow, and the way you breathe during the release of the arrow – it all determines the end result. In the case of Awa Kenzo, the master archer was so mindful of the process that led to an accurate shot that he was able to replicate the exact series of internal movements even without seeing the external target. This complete awareness of the body and mind in relation to the goal is known as zanshin.
Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness. It means being constantly aware of your body, mind, and surroundings without stressing yourself. It is an effortless vigilance. In practice, though, zanshin has an even deeper meaning. Zanshin is choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way.
There is a famous Japanese proverb that says, “After winning the battle, tighten your helmet.” In other words, the battle does not end when you win. The battle only ends when you get lazy, when you lose your sense of commitment, and when you stop paying attention. This is zanshin as well: the act of living with alertness regardless of whether the goal has already been achieved.
We can carry this philosophy into many areas of life. In writing, the battle does not end when you publish a book. It ends when you consider yourself a finished product, when you lose the vigilance needed to continue improving your craft. In fitness, the battle does not end when you hit a PR. It ends when you lose concentration and skip workouts or when you overtrain. In entrepreneurship, the battle does not end when you make a big sale. It ends when you get cocky and complacent.
The enemy of improvement is not failure or success. The enemy of improvement is boredom, fatigue, and lack of concentration. The enemy of improvement is a lack of commitment to the process because the process is everything.
The art of zanshin can be applied to everyday life. One should approach all activities and situations with the same sincerity, intensity, and awareness that one has with bow and arrow in hand. We live in a world obsessed with results. Like Herrigel, we have a tendency to put so much emphasis on whether or not the arrow hits the target. If, however, we put that intensity and focus and sincerity into the process – where we place our feet, how we hold the bow, how we breathe during the release of the arrow – then hitting the bullseye is simply a side effect.
The point is not to worry about hitting the target. The point is to fall in love with the boredom of doing the work and embrace each piece of the process. The point is to take that moment of zanshin, that moment of complete awareness and focus, and carry it with you everywhere in life. It is not the target that matters. It is not the finish line that matters. It is the way we approach the goal that matters. Everything is aiming. Zanshin.