Archery, Insomnia, and the Pursuit of Patience

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For the past three weeks, I haven’t been sleeping very well.  I toss and turn all night, wake up at 3AM, and float desperately on the wrong side of dreaming until my alarm clock shatters all my hopes, but that hasn’t stopped me from going out several evenings a week and shooting things with some very sharp arrows.  While this might seem like a good reason to notify the police that there is an armed, sleep-deprived madwoman on the loose, my budding interest in target archery has made it a little easier to understand why I can’t sleep and what to do about it.

Nearly everything in my life, from hitting the bullseye to getting good rest to pursuing my writing career to building relationships with friends and others, boils down to patience.  I have none.  I want results, and I want them fast.  I want to start off as a master of everything, showered with accolades for being a “natural” so I don’t have to waste time on the difficult and meticulous process of learning how to do hard things well.  I want success in my chosen career(s) without going through the tediousness of placing brick upon brick for years and years, maneuvering through a maze of setbacks and roadblocks and deviations.

I’ve always felt like I’m missing out on having things that come naturally to other people, and that has driven a pent-up sense of urgent inferiority that has led to some pretty questionable, very rash decisions.  And when I’m in the middle of one of these episodes of thrashing discontent, exacerbated by a couple of medical conditions and driven by a general aversion to remaining calm in the face of change, I don’t sleep.

If you’ve ever experienced real, true, long-term insomnia, you know how devastating it can be.  It consumes everything.  You feel your brain shrinking inside your skull, refusing to complete even the most basic tasks, and you end up shoveling ill-advised amounts of junk food into your mouth just to keep the fires of consciousness barely burning through a long, impossibly slow day.  The space between your eyes throbs with a stabbing ache, and every cell in your body cries out for rest, for darkness and sleep and relief.  At the same time, you dread going to sleep because you know it’s going to be unsatisfying, which just makes it harder to get it right.  It’s horrible, it can knock you flat out, and there are only so many sick days you can take before people start wondering if you’re just hung over all the time.

Being sleepless drains your patience, and patience is exactly what you need to make sure that you eventually get to sleep.  Which is where, for me at least, archery comes in.  I only started late this summer, so I’m very much a novice, but I’ve already learned a few important things about how to bring the vestiges of my inner stillness to the forefront.  For starters, it has a lot to do with failure, and even more to do with thinking small.

I chose to go the traditional route when buying my bow, bypassing all the cams and stabilizers and clickers of the fancy compound hunting bows that can take down a buffalo at eighty yards and make you breakfast in the morning.  That stuff doesn’t interest me.  I don’t even have a sight on my recurve right now, partly because the pro-shop didn’t have them in stock, and partly because I’m enjoying shooting without it.  It’s a challenge to have nothing but your eyes between you and that moment of satisfaction when you hear the thunk of the arrow hitting the center.

Getting to that moment, just like getting to sleep, requires a very precise series of actions that have to be performed in exactly the right way.  Find your footing, nock the arrow, raise the bow – relax your shoulder, keep your fingers loose – draw to your anchor point and feel yourself settle, sight the target, release the arrow – but wait don’t move because everything you do, even after the arrow is out of your hands, still matters.  Your hips are slightly rotated?  You’re going to shoot wide.  You’re gripping the bow too tightly?  Prepare for a bad shot.  You don’t take your time to follow through?  You’re going to be disappointed.

Every tiny thing makes a difference.  Every movement of your muscles requires control.  You have to think about everything, and everything demands patience.  And when everything comes together in that glorious moment when you successfully harness all of the power of this strange, ancient weapon humming under immense, tightly-strung pressure, your patience pays off with an immediate, definitive result.

For someone who is constantly rushing headlong through life, grasping wildly at ideals that are only attainable through hard work and steady application, soaked in neurosis and self-criticism and completely derailed by every little defeat, the small, steady, detailed discipline involved in something as simple as shooting an arrow provides some important lessons.  Even something as basic as reminding myself to keep the tension out of my muscles when I get amped up about some crisis can make the difference between a bomb going off in my brain and living to fight another day.

Because one bad shot doesn’t mean that you won’t do better next time.  Sure, maybe I forgot to stay square to the line, or I locked my elbow, or I loosed too quickly and jolted to the side.  Maybe it’ll be a long, long time before I’m an expert markswoman.  Maybe I’ll never be.  But I can take those small actions, make those little corrections, try again, and work towards the results that I want.  There are no shortcuts.  There’s no skipping to the front of the queue.  There doesn’t need to be, because the process is part of the fun.

While the process of figuring out what works with insomnia can produce some more serious consequences than a stray hole in the target, the principle is the same.  Relax, but stay focused.  Let yourself slip into the familiar step-by-step.  Don’t overthink the outcome, because you’ll be setting yourself up for failure.  One bad night’s sleep doesn’t mean you’ll never sleep again.  Don’t let the anxiety overwhelm you.  Be patient, and eventually you’ll find your footing.  Be patient, and eventually it will all fall into place.

Is it easy?  No.  Will I sleep tonight?  God, I really hope so.  But muscle memory is a powerful thing, and every time I head out to the range, no matter how exhausted I am, I’m building up a platform of self-control that can extend to the larger issues in my life.  I’m finding such joy and confidence from the very simple act of letting an arrow fly, and I can’t ask fairer than that.

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4 thoughts on “Archery, Insomnia, and the Pursuit of Patience

  1. This is great and reminds me so much of me, although I don’t have problems with insomnia like you I do easily get worked up about the little things and I hate not being good at something straight away. I moved to Geneva from London recently and have been trying to improve my french but I find it so frustrating that I can’t express myself the way I want to and sometimes it seems so hard to get it right and I know it’s such long process that I don’t want to try. I didn’t discover archery here but have discovered shooting, which sounds like much the same process of thinking through each little step, making minute corrections and being so focused in the task that it’s both liberating and relaxing and I’m really not worrying that every shot isn’t perfect. I put my own thoughts on shooting in the second half of a recent blog post at http://fearofthereaper.com/2014/08/26/the-fears-we-all-share/ (sorry for the shameless self-promotion I don’t usuallly post links to my blog on eveyone’s wall, promise!)

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