Taking Aim at Mindfulness

As shocking as it may be to hear from a Taoist monk, I've loved target shooting since I was a boy. Well, perhaps given China's history of warrior monks, it's not all that shocking. Simplicity is inherent in target practice; a rifle or pistol manufactured to tight tolerances, an inanimate target, and a fascination with accuracy are all that's required.

Yet because I eschew the mainstream of American gun culture -- particularly that segment of it that is allied with acts of violence, fantasies about violence and a celebration of urban gang culture and of war -- I am presented with a conundrum of sorts. Is it okay to love shooting but hate killing? I think the answer is yes, and one of the ways I reconcile my feelings is to avoid any gun that is designed to do anything but punch paper. After all, weapons conceived and constructed for the purpose of taking life have no place in a Taoist home.

So, I treat my target pistols the way I treat the traditional Chinese edged weapons that are an essential part of my practice of the martial art of tai chi. When it comes to spears and swords and such, I re-purpose them to be the equivalent of plowshares, cultivating freedom from emotional bondage and behavioral limitations instead of cultivating crops, and helping my students to do the same. When it comes to my target pistols, I use them as meditation tools. This approach allows me to reconcile my actions with my beliefs. Once a week, I choose to be alone with my thoughts, the feel of my finger pad upon the trigger, the reassuring sound of my breathing, and the sight of the paper bullseye downrange.

The other day, I found myself with a few boxes of ammunition and a paper target replete with 16 tiny black circles with red centers. I set up the target downrange, and began shooting. I began putting ten shots inside each of the black circles, moving from left to right. When I finished a row, I began a new one. The type of target I use turns color when you hit it, so that it is possible to see the hole, with a little work, even at a distance. My goal was not only to hit the bullseye but also to group the bullets as close to each other as possible.

I was about halfway through the targets when I suddenly realized that my shooting had acquired a compulsive quality. Glancing from time to time at the bullets I had left, I had become more interested in working my way through what ammunition remained than in paying attention to the shot I was taking. In other words, instead of enjoying the moment of focus, breath, aim, and trigger press, I was thinking of the shot to come. In a sense, it was a consumer activity. I went out, bought the bullets, and then shot them. I was turning money into lead, and lead into waste, merely for the momentary gratification of repeatedly tensing and relaxing, all without deeper meaning.

This urge to constantly, and repeatedly, gratify ourselves is what drives our consumer economy and our emotional culture too. We mine the Earth for elements, we turn those into constructs, we consume the constructs, and then we excrete them. Shopping, spending, and acquiring, all address a deep emotional hunger, but offer only illusory sustenance, scratching an itch that arises from a failure of our philosophy.

While on-the-fly ordering trains us to expect the immediate gratification of next or same-day delivery, Internet surfing trains our brain to skim and jump. That's why more and more people find it difficult to sustain the concentration reading a book requires, while yearning for exactly the quietude and deeper focus such a read supplies. We are losing the ability to enjoy the moment, losing our ability to immerse ourselves in a story, and to critically examine what we're doing and what we are told. This makes us easy prey for those who would sway and manipulate us, a fact that has not been lost on media, politicians, and corporations.

So, I put down my pistol and took a long breath. Then I raised the gun again, and engaged the silent mantra, "there is no moment but this, there is no shot but this one." When I was ready, I pressed the trigger so gently that when the gun discharged, it surprised me. Then I repeated the performance, and again, and again, and again. When I drew my eye away from the sights and had a look at the target, I had put five bullets through a single hole.

How much of our time could have this be-here-now quality? Perhaps much more of it, if we make the effort to concentrate, meditate, slow down, and be honest with ourselves about our habits and our motivations. Achieving present-moment awareness -- trendily referred to as "mindfulness" these days -- is actually the key to contentment, and deeper awareness. It is also the antidote to apathy, and to the sort of environmentally and spiritually destructive consumerism that keeps us running and spending without ever feeling satisfied.

Does this mean you should take up target shooting? I suppose you could, but you can also train your attention using mind and body exercises like archery, yoga, or of course, tai chi. Take the time to think about this. Right now, in this very moment.