“Don’t tell me what I’m doing; I don’t want to know!”

 – Ray Bradbury, introduction to The Martian Chronicles

Holding a bow at full draw, there is a moment when time stands still. It’s only you, the pin, and the target. Everything around you has fallen away. The universe is silent, holding its breath. Then – the release fires. The arrow hurtles downrange and buries itself into the very center of the X ring twenty yards away. Your body and soul soar with pure elation.

The same moment of euphoria occurs in the writing process. Your mind races, spinning out new ideas and connecting them with old ones so quickly that you fear you’ll never be able to type fast enough to keep up with the inexorable rushing flow of thought. There is no controlling that mighty river, only getting out of its way and preserving its gifts and dynamism in the amber of words so that, later, others can also enter into it.

In both cases, the experience feels like a special kind of power – not one of domination through brute force or of coercion of the will, but rather, power in the sense of knowledge as power. It is the power of the assuredness that you are able to accomplish, through determination, practice, and commitment, the task you set for yourself, to wrestle with your struggles and to rise victorious over them, to give wholly of your being but instead of finding yourself drained, discovering instead that your soul has been filled. For me, this experience has illuminated and brought into everyday practice two principles that are part and parcel of my Christian faith: the Trinitarian dance of self-giving and the mind-body connection. The connection between these principles and the exhilarating experience I found myself encountering through archery and writing is not immediately self-evident, as I discovered when I began attempting to fit these jigsaw pieces together into a complete puzzle, but it has become vital to my understanding and practice of my faith.

First, let us further explicate the experience itself. A scene from For Love of the Game, one of Kevin Costner’s many baseball movies, captures it beautifully. The film follows the career of Costner’s character, pitcher Billy Chapel, and in particular his final start, where he pitches a perfect game. The scene in question, repeated in several variations over the course of the film, begins with Chapel struggling with distractions from hecklers and mounting internal pressure. But then he reminds himself to “clear the mechanism.” With this, the background of the shot blurs, and the hecklers, though still shouting, fall mute to Chapel’s ears.[1] His self-doubt vanishes as he zeroes in on his pitch and strikes the batter out.

In popular culture, this mystical, freeing experience achieved through complete focus and mental dedication is often termed zen, as the titles of Eugen Herrigel’s classic archery book Zen in the Art of Archery and Ray Bradbury’s essay “Zen in the Art of Writing” reflect. As a woman who loves both writing and competitive archery, I had noticed that I experienced the same exhilaration in my two favorite hobbies. Imagine my thrill upon discovering that Bradbury had seen the connection as well; near the end of the essay, he explicitly identifies Herrigel’s book as the inspiration for its title.[2]Both Herrigel’s book and Bradbury’s essay emphasize a principle I learned unconsciously in writing and consciously in archery: the paradoxical necessity of focusing on the activity itself rather than on one’s goal as the key to success. Herrigel’s archery instructor Kenzo Awa, the ‘Master’, provides a useful summary: “‘The right art,’ cried the Master, ‘is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will.’”[3] He chides Herrigel for focusing on the target, reminding him, “‘Stop thinking about the shot! . . . That way it is bound to fail.’”[4]

In his essay, Bradbury casts the same principle into a similar approach: he encourages writers to work, relax, and above all, he emphasizes, “Don’t Think!”[5] He dismisses writing solely for the sake of riches or fame in literary circles as a ‘lie’ and instead urges writers to write for the sake of truth.[6] But to do so, Bradbury explains, regular work is necessary, for “if one works, one finally relaxes and stops thinking. True creation occurs then and only then.”[7] In this manner, Bradbury’s three exhortations (to work, to relax, and not to think) shade into one another and reveal themselves as parts of the same whole.[8] In sum, Bradbury exhorts writers to reach their goal of producing original work that expresses truth by refusing to focus directly on that goal and instead concentrating on the writing process itself. He thus embraces the same paradox that Herrigel advocates: to accomplish our objective, we must fix our attention on the process that will achieve that objective, not on the objective itself.

Herrigel and Bradbury both christen this experience zen, but I beg to differ for a variety of reasons. As previously noted, our culture often terms as zen the transcendental experience achieved through intense concentration that results in a sense of liberation from our surroundings and circumstances.[9] Physiological data, however, indicates that this experience is in fact ‘flow’, a recognized cognitive state in psychology. Using the accurate term of ‘flow’ rightly separates the phenomenon – which, I argue, points us to God in significant ways – from zen as a religion or philosophy and its accompanying theological baggage, as well as preventing descent into zen’s grave spiritual errors, in both its forms in the West. The first form is our culture’s popular conception of zen (which I call ‘popular zen’), and in it, the individual turns his attention entirely inward to receive the salvation of enlightenment through self-examination.[10] The second form of zen is its true religious form as practiced by Zen Buddhists (which I call ‘Zen Buddhism’ to distinguish it from popular zen) that advocates for the annihilation of the self. Thus, embedded in both forms of zen are different but equally dangerous theological fallacies.

I begin this analysis first by explaining how the experience described by Herrigel and Bradbury in fact contradicts the goals of popular zen, then move into an analysis of why the accurate term for this experience is ‘flow’. Properly understanding what Herrigel and Bradbury mistakenly call zen as flow leads to an understanding and analysis of the theological errors of both popular zen and Zen Buddhism. This discussion equips us as Christians to understand the beauty and value of ‘flow’, as described by Herrigel and Bradbury, and how flow may fruitfully serve us in our pursuit of God and act as a precursor of the glory awaiting us in our resurrected bodies.

Redefining ‘Zen’ as Flow and Enjoyment

As an initial matter, in my own journey of attempting to connect the similarities between archery and writing, the intense inward focus celebrated in popular zen that is intended to lead to enlightenment conflicts dramatically with my own experience in archery and in writing because it is in fact the very opposite of what Kevin Costner’s pitcher illustrates so vividly. “Clearing the mechanism” is the total dedication of oneself to an activity with the paradoxical goal of not focusing on the activity’s end goal. In archery, this goal is to hit the target; in writing, it is to express truth. In both instances, I turn my attention inward for the purpose of immersing myself fully in the experience so that I can accomplish the outward end goal. Naturally, experiencing the joy of shooting and of writing is a motivating factor in my decision to pursue the activities, but the experience itself, enjoyable as it is, is not my ultimate goal.

Second, from a purely physiological standpoint, I discovered that the more accurate term for what Herrigel and Bradbury call the ‘zen’ phenomenon is ‘flow’. In his eponymous book on the subject, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow is a mental state requiring our entire focus and describes it as the “optimal state of inner experience . . . in which there is order in consciousness. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.”[11] Csikszentmihalyi identifies eight distinguishing features of flow, three of which particularly assisted me in recognizing my shooting and writing experiences as flow.[12] According to Csikszentmihalyi, the individual in a flow state acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes the disturbances of everyday life from his awareness.[13] Additionally, concern for the self disappears during flow, but when it ends, the individual’s sense of self paradoxically emerges stronger.[14] Finally, the individual’s sense of the duration of time is altered such that hours seem to rush past or minutes seem like hours.[15] The descriptions of these experiences accord with my own experiences shooting and writing and, I have found, lend flow a certain level of transcendence by producing a sense of having surpassed everyday troubles and physical limitations. Csikszentmihalyi confirms the inherent transcendent nature of flow; he notes that flow and religion “have been intimately connected from the earliest times” and explains that many cultures have recognized a religious significance to flow, particularly in the context of artistic pursuits.[16] Even sports activities such as those featured in the Olympics, which were originally part of Greek religious ceremonies, feature flow because, according to Csikszentmihalyi, religion is “actually the oldest and most ambitious attempt to create order in consciousness.”[17] In this respect, flow achieves the goal of both archery and writing: the facilitation of chaos into a process that allows the participant to tap into the deeper reality and truth underlying the world, which leads to the achievement of the goal.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, contrary to popular opinion, moments of flow are not the “passive, receptive, relaxing times” that we would expect (and that popular zen envisions); no, instead they occur when we push ourselves so that the “body or mind is stretched to its limits” as we attempt “to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”[18] The reason we achieve flow in these moments is that the flow state requires a focus so complete that there is “no room in the mind for irrelevant information” or “preoccupations and anxieties.”[19] In this manner, Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes between mere pleasure and enjoyment, which he says is “characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment.”[20] Thus, experiences such as playing a close sports game or negotiating a successful business deal might not be pleasurable, but they are enjoyable because “we know that . . . our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of [them].”[21]

But, practically speaking, how does one organize one’s consciousness to step into the state of flow? In writing, I first experienced what I later came to know as flow, but perhaps because I began writing at an early age and never stopped, archery taught me to recognize and actively attend to the mind-body connection. Lanny Bassham, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting, explains in his book With Winning in Mind that winning is not a goal; rather, contrary to popular opinion, it is a process, one that involves the conscious, the subconscious, and the self-image.[22] By consciously ingraining good habits into the shooter’s subconscious, the conscious mind trains the subconscious.[23] As the shooter gains experience, he allows his conscious mind to operate on autopilot, thereby allowing the subconscious to take over and guide his body through the good habits instilled by the conscious mind.[24] Thus, although winning might be the shooter’s end goal, obsessing over it consciously during competition destroys his chances of winning because doing so causes the conscious mind to wake up and become overly active and anxious, which disrupts the smooth flow of his shot process, whereby all his good shooting habits work together seamlessly.[25] Here, Bassham aligns with Herrigel, who emphasizes the destructiveness of the “conscious utilization” of skill; instead, Herrigel writes, the archer must “be taught . . . to be detached not only from his opponent but from himself” so that he is “independent of all conscious purpose.”[26]

After archery taught me the essential mind-body connection, I then recognized it in the writing process that Bradbury describes in his essay. Continually practicing the craft of writing teaches me the words that fit together and instructs me in weaving the right patterns so that my precise meaning is conveyed accurately. Regular work, as Bradbury rightly observes, stimulates the writer so that the writer “takes on a rhythm” whereby “[t]he body begins to take over. The guard goes down,” and he relaxes so thoroughly that he does not think, “[w]hich results in more relaxation and moreunthinkingness and greater creativity.”[27] This approach of “dynamic relaxation” unleashes the writer’s true creativity because it builds up the writer’s confidence so that he is free to ignore outward pressure and his goal of success and instead “work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.”[28] At long last, he reaches his subconscious so that his characters and emotions “will blast the page and tell the truth.”[29] To be sure, Bradbury is speaking of creative writing, and one might argue his principles therefore apply only to the writing of fiction. I beg to differ: even in my nonfiction writing, such as this piece, the experience of flow greatly facilitates my ongoing discovery of truth through writing. It provides a wellspring of language, vocabulary, and mental processes that all aid in excavating and identifying the truth struggling to find expression in my thoughts. Whether in creative or analytical writing, then, by helping me to experience more deeply and articulate more eloquently the flashes of truth that I glimpse and long to share with the world, flow facilitates elegance and creativity via its immersive nature.

The all-encompassing nature of flow is analogous to a concept described by the greatest Christian apologist of the 20thcentury, C.S. Lewis: that of Enjoyment, or, to use another of his metaphors for this experience, looking along a beam of sunlight.[30] Lewis differentiates the experience of looking along a beam of sunlight to trace its origin back to the sun and thereby seeing the forest it illuminates with that of staring directly at the beam itself and noticing the dust motes floating in it, while everything around the beam appears dark.[31] According to Lewis, when we look along a beam or Enjoy a person or activity, we are caught up in the experience of being with another person or the task at hand.[32] This experience is qualitatively different from looking at the beam itself to study, or Contemplation, when we analyze the person or the thing.[33] Lewis illustrates the difference by contrasting a man in love with a woman (an example of looking along the beam) with a scientist who describes that man’s feelings as stemming from his genes and a “recognised biological stimulus” (an example of looking at the beam).[34] Observing that we can “step outside one experience only by stepping inside another,” Lewis points out that each viewpoint offers unique advantages, and for this reason, looking along the beam should not be discarded in favor of the more analytic mode of looking at the beam.[35] I do not suggest that every instance of looking along the beam is necessarily the state of flow, for it is clear that not every example Lewis gives, such as being in pain, is a flow experience.[36] Nevertheless, given the emphasis Lewis places on being caught up in the moment while in Enjoyment, flow is clearly a certain heightened subset of looking along the beam, one that God uses to draw us closer to Him. Bassham confirms flow is indeed a form of Enjoyment when he points out that the conscious mind determines the person’s directives for the subconscious to follow, which reinforces the point that flow must have an underlying objective.[37]

The Dangers of Zen

But the transcendent quality of flow intersecting with the underlying goal that exists in every flow state can lead us astray, and here we come to the two reasons why I find the term ‘zen’ for the experience of flow so theologically inaccurate and spiritually dangerous. First, I should note that, speaking personally, the term ‘zen’ for the experience of flow is indeed accurate up to a point. The release of negative thoughts that it facilitates lends it a certain transcendence, and this feature of flow accords well with the literal meaning of the word zen, ‘meditation’.[38] Popular zen, however, ultimately promotes moral relativism because it encourages the idea that the individual can save himself simply through self-reflection and finding his purpose in life therein. This ‘salvation’ as offered by popular zen accords with Csikszentmihalyi’s belief that any experience lending itself to flow and to finding purpose in life is equally meaningful: he claims that the goal, as long as it is “compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy,” does not matter; regardless of whether it is to “have the best beer-bottle collection in the neighborhood” or to discover a cure for cancer, “[a]s long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life.”[39]

Here, popular zen makes a grave spiritual error insofar as it worships flow: it mistakes the experience itself as the goal of flow rather than acknowledging that flow must have an external object (or person) that serves as its underlying goal and imbues it with moral character. We must not idolize the experience and fail to recognize that the end to which it is turned determines its character. Contrary to Csikszentmihalyi’s assertion, not all end goals are created equal; it should be self-evident that a life purpose of finding a cure for cancer is superior to one of collecting beer bottles. As Lewis recognizes, the object or end goal of flow determines its morality; he explains, “a desire is turned not to itself but to its object. . . . It is the object itself that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.”[40] In other words, to use Lewisian terms, the moral character of our Enjoyment depends wholly on the moral character of the end goal that underlies any given state of flow – that is, on our unconscious aim. The very pleasantness of the flow experience might point us to God, but flow is, in the end, only an experience. If we step out of flow only to discover that it has carried us to the achievement of an utterly reprehensible purpose, we must choose a different end goal, for the experience of self-reflection or flow in and of itself does not automatically lead to God.

Second, popular zen acts as a gateway for the serious enthusiast to discover the true religion of zen as actually practiced by Zen Buddhists, which teaches an alarming theology at odds with Christianity. Herrigel writes that the goal of zenthrough Japanese archery is to “becom[e] aware, in the deepest ground of the soul, of the unnameable Groundlessness and Qualitylessness – nay more, to one’s becoming one with it.”[41] The archer who achieves zen, Herrigel writes, beholds “the unbroken Truth, the Truth beyond all truths, the formless Origin of origins, the Void which is the All; is absorbed into it and from it emerges reborn.”[42] Perhaps inadvertently, Bradbury touches on the falseness of this view of God in his celebration of the unique personality of the individual writer and his expression of truth.[43] The hidden theological danger of this passage from Herrigel is that although it correctly identifies the object of our spiritual search as the truth and origin of creation, it concludes by calling that object the nameless, anonymous Void. By contrast, Christians know that God is the intensely personal, relational God who entered His own creation and bled and died for us.

Flow or Enjoyment as a Signpost to the Christian God

Dethroned from its idolatrous status and treated properly as an aspect of God’s good creation subordinate to Him, however, the experience of flow can serve as an excellent signpost to God. Interestingly, Japanese archery, kyudo, focuses on the spiritual side of shooting, as Herrigel recognizes when he refers to Japanese archery as a “religious ritual.”[44]Most intriguingly for our purposes, Japanese archery focuses on three main goals that also happen to be the three transcendentals of Christianity: goodness, beauty, and truth.[45] In goodness, or zen (as distinguished from the practice of the Zen religion), the archer pursues virtues such as courtesy and compassion; in beauty, or bi, she strives for both aesthetic and internal harmony by removing the ego; and in truth, or shin, she seeks a pure heart and the true flight of the arrow.[46] [47] [48] Kyudo thus taps into the beauty inherent in proper form, which in turn directs us to goodness and truth and guides shooters to these three essential aspects of God’s character.[49] By guiding us to the Christian transcendentals, the experience of flow in the shot process that kyudo promotes can assist in ordering our consciousness, in Csikszentmihalyi’s terminology, and thereby serve as an example of God’s nature and splendor.

The beauty of this flow experience as it unveils God’s majesty strains the limitations of words. The love of storytelling and writing came early and easily to me as a child, but the love of archery came later, as an adult. As a five-year-old, I precociously decided I wanted to write for a living, and as I grew, I studied my favorite books, their characters and corresponding motivations, and most of all, their sentence, paragraph, and chapter structure to figure out what worked and why. When I wrote myself, I strove to put those principles into practice, and the flow of writing immediately captured me. Selecting each word – just the right one! – was, and is, a great joy to me. But even more joyful is to be caught up in the experience, as I am now, of seeing an idea in my mind and burning to share it with the rest of the world, and writing so fast that my fingers can barely keep up with my mind. Like the sculptor who sees a figure in the marble before him and thinks to herself, I want the rest of the world to see what I see; I will chip away at this block until they can share in my vision, through writing, the author communicates the interconnected web of concepts, images, and individuals she sees lying at the heart of reality. Thus, in my experience, both the finished product and the process itself are sources of pure elation.

Once I began shooting, I was astounded to discover the similarities between writing and archery. The question of what mysteriously similar tissue connected them fascinated me, and I sought to discover why they gave me the same ‘high’, with this article as the culmination of my quest. Having pinpointed flow as their common denominator, I now believe that God uses flow as we experience it in our favorite activities as a way of revealing Himself to us. Both writing and archery – and indeed, any activity that facilitates flow for the individual, in my opinion – bring to the fore the essential mind-body connection. We are enfleshed souls, not Gnostic, bodiless beings, and so flow unites our minds and bodies as God intended. Csikszentmihalyi’s assertion that in flow, our entire selves are totally dedicated to the experience such that we have no mental room for distractions, finds its twin in the Japanese archery term zanshin, which literally means “mind with nothing left over.”[50] I further believe that God uses flow not only as an instrument to reveal our talents to us and how we can best use them for His glory, but also to reveal a taste of eternity and full communion with Him through giving us a glimpse of how the three Persons of the Trinity express their love for one another.

I am convinced the self-giving nature of flow in using our conscious attention to achieve our true goal through the subconscious mirrors the dance of the Trinity whereby love motivates each member to give eternally to the others. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis writes that God constantly engages in a dance of self-giving whereby the “golden apple of selfhood” is passed from Father to Son to Holy Spirit, and that only by entering this dance, by losing our life to Christ to find it, will we find salvation.[51] I suggest that flow’s precondition of refusal to focus on our outward objective echoes the Trinitarian dance of self-giving, which teaches us to focus not on ourselves but rather on giving to another person in love.

This principle holds significant implications for salvation as well. Although it is certainly true that salvation, the conquering of our sins, and a relationship with Jesus are all the primary end goals of our faith, we must not be misled into thinking that we need only Contemplate Him to be saved. Rather, as we learn from flow – as I have learned from writing and archery – the mere act of Contemplating our goals does not result in their achievement. Just as we cannot focus obsessively on a target in archery and hit it successfully, so we cannot Contemplate ourselves into salvation; rather, we must learn to Enjoy Jesus as a person by submitting the flow of a relationship with Him with all our hearts and bodies and minds. To paraphrase the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, our chief end is not only to glorify God, but to enjoy Him forever.[52] Such is the avenue ushering us to the dance of self-giving and salvation. The essence of faith is that we do not only merely know about Jesus, but instead know Him directly. In short, we achieve the goal of salvation only when we stop focusing on either trying to better ourselves through our own efforts or by amassing knowledge about Jesus, and instead dedicate ourselves to a relationship with Him. Csikszentmihalyi catches a glimpse of this truth when he writes, “Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. . . . It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.”[53]Meanwhile, Herrigel, despite the missteps of his zen mysticism, eerily taps into the necessity of the dance of self-giving along with the death of the ‘old man’ that gives way to the new, in Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:22-24. Herrigel writes that the archer’s “experiences, his conquests and spiritual transformations, so long as they still remain ‘his’, must be conquered and transformed again and again until everything ‘his’ is annihilated. Only in this way can he attain a basis for experiences which, as the ‘all-embracing Truth,’ rouse him to a life that is no longer his everyday, personal life. He lives, but what lives is no longer himself.”[54]

But where Zen Buddhism ends with this tragic annihilation of the self, Christian salvation points us toward sanctification, whereby we are ever being cleansed of sin and made more like Jesus. We may use our conscious minds to Contemplate Him, learn more about Him, and even come to a reasoned belief in Him, but once we are Enjoying the flow of a relationship with Him, the Holy Spirit can then use our subconscious to pick up where the limits of the conscious mind end and mold us to resemble Him. The never-ending nature of the sanctification process – insofar as we can always draw closer to Jesus and His holiness – bears similarities to my experiences in writing and in archery. In both pursuits, the story does not end with your latest excellent round of arrows or your last well-written essay. Although it is true that you are only ever as good as your last arrow, or as strong as the writing in your last article, the inculcation, continued practice of, and improvement on good habits constitute the main goal. If bad practice creates bad habits, then good practice imprints good habits into your psyche, and like sanctification, it is a never-ending process that reminds us always to strive to draw ever closer to Jesus and follow His commandments, for we know that our love for Him is demonstrated by our practice of His teachings. This never-ending process as revealed in the Enjoyment of flow may well also bear implications for our glorified state, whereby we will finally be free from sin and enjoy eternal life with God in our resurrected bodies. In other words, although our sanctification will indeed culminate in our glorification, God’s wonders will never cease, and thus our Enjoyment of Him will always continue.


In closing, despite the theological errors stemming from the idolization of flow, I believe flow serves one final purpose that is significant for the Christian faith. Bassham explains that the conscious mind can focus on only one thing at a time.[55] Csikszentmihalyi confirms Bassham’s point; he explains that to protect itself from becoming overwhelmed, the mind can focus on only a limited amount of information: “It seems we can manage at most seven bits of information – such as differentiated sounds, or visual stimuli, or recognizable nuances of emotion or thought – at any one time, and that the shortest time it takes to discriminate between one set of bits and another is about 1/18 of a second.”[56] Because our ability to focus cannot exceed these informational limits, Csikszentmihalyi continues, learning to focus one’s attention is paramount to achieving flow.[57] Here, I admit to entering the realm of speculation on the glory that Paul wrote no mind can imagine, but I believe it is speculation that, in light of Jesus’s glorified body, is justified. We know from Jesus’s glorified body and His capabilities – for instance, after the Resurrection, He materialized and vanished at will, such as when He appeared to the disciples in a locked room in John 20:19-23 – that our own glorified bodies will possess far greater capacities than they do in their present state, for Paul promises in Philippians 3:21 that He will transform our earthly bodies and make them like His own. I consider the example of Peter walking on water in Matthew 14:22-33 to be a glimpse of this divine reality awaiting us, for once Peter broke his concentration on Jesus and Contemplated the dangers around him, he sank, but as long as he focused on Enjoying Jesus, he remained upright on the water. I am convinced that our glorification and eternal communion with God will be a state of perpetual state of flow and Enjoyment with Him, and our present experience of flow serves as a foretaste of this glory divine.

We might wonder whether the implication of this proposal, inasmuch as it seems to exalt Enjoyment, is that Contemplation and the way of knowing through looking at the beam will not exist in eternity. But because God is the Creator and sustainer of the cosmos, any form of Contemplating Him is always also a way of Enjoying Him.[58] Thus, rather than the eternal elimination of Contemplation, I believe the more precise implication of my proposal is that Contemplation will be subsumed into Enjoyment, so that we will experience both ways of knowing – both looking at the beam and looking along the beam – simultaneously, rather than in their current condition divorced from each other, so that in our sanctified bodies, our knowledge will be increased. Thus, we would benefit from a direct and comprehensive knowledge that would concurrently span both the experiential and the analytical. This state might sound faintly reminiscent of the end goal of Zen Buddhism whereby the practitioner loses himself in the void, but it is crucially different because through the experience of constant flow and Enjoyment, we would retain the individuality that God created us with and desires us to retain into eternity. If I am correct that our sanctified bodies will be capable of handling more data, then in the future version of flow we will undergo in eternity, we will also possess a greater degree of self-awareness so that our individuality is clearly preserved. Csikszentmihalyi notes that even now, flow “involves a very active role for the self” such that, for example, a violinist must be acutely aware of her physical movement and the music she is producing; therefore, the “loss of self-consciousness” we experience in flow is not “a loss of self” or consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self.”[59] The underlying principles of the Trinitarian dance of self-giving again reveal themselves at work, for Csikszentmihalyi notes that when we are “not preoccupied with our selves [sic], we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are. Loss of self-consciousness leads to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.”[60] If we presently retain our individuality through flow, I propose God will preserve and increase our individuality into eternity. As Lewis observes, Jesus grants us each a “real personality,” for in Christianity, unlike Zen Buddhism, our individuality is a glorious aspect of how God created us and who He intends for us to be: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.”[61]

The activities that facilitate flow are as myriad as there are human activities and interests, as Herrigel recognized when he wrote that what is true of archery “also applies to all the other arts.”[62] For my final word, however, I must return to my first passion, writing, and agree with Bradbury that the more we work, relax, and refuse to think, the more we discover a “new definition for work”: love.[63] We as Christians have the privilege of knowing love in the form of the person of Jesus Christ and His self-giving mercy. The more we imitate His example, as we do when we enter flow for the purpose of devoting our talents to His kingdom, the closer we draw to Him.

So I keep writing, and I keep shooting, praying that each word and each shot brings me closer to Him. For the arrow that is not aimed flies most truly to the heart of goodness, beauty, and truth Himself.[64]

Citation Information

Megan Joy Rials, “The Arrow That is Not Aimed: Flow in the Art of Archery and Writing,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 93-117.


[1] For Love of the Game, directed by Sam Raimi (Beacon Pictures, Tig Productions, Mirage Enterprises), DVD (Universal Pictures, 1999).

[2] Ray Bradbury, “Zen in the Art of Writing,” in Zen in the Art of Writing (Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994), 149.

[3] Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, trans. R.F.C. Hull (1953; repr., New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 11, 16, 31.

[4] Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, 47.

[5] Bradbury, “Art of Writing,” 139.

[6] Ibid., 141, 142.

[7] Ibid., 147.

[8] It could be argued that in his essay, Bradbury embraces relative truth rather than absolute truth. For example, he states that “[A]t heart, all good stories are the one kind of story, the story written by an individual man from his individual truth.” (149) It is possible, however, that Bradbury is simply referring here to absolute truth as seen from the vantage point of the unique individual. Given his silence on relative versus absolute truth in the essay, for purposes of this article, I have proceeded with the interpretation of his essay that assumes he is speaking of absolute truth expressed by the individual.

[9] An article from Encyclopedia.com summarizes our culture’s propensity to term these mystical experiences as ‘zen’: “In this context, Zen often denotes a sense of liberation, spontaneity, and oneness with the world[.]” The article also includes a brief overview of how the Americanized, pop-culture conception of zen as a religion (which I have called ‘popular zen’ in this article) developed separate and apart from its true religious form, Zen Buddhism. Encyclopedia.com, “Zen, Popular Conceptions of,” accessed July 30, 2023, https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/zen-popular-conceptions#:~:text=Beatniks%2C%20hippies%2C%20and%20countercultural%20intellectuals,%22mystical%22%20experience%20of%20being.

[10] J. Isamu Yamamoto, “Buddhism in North America (Part 3) – Zest for Zen: North Americans Embrace a Contemplative School of Buddhism,” April 8, 2009, accessed March 27, 2023, https://www.equip.org/articles/zen-buddhism-north-americans-embrace-a-contemplative-school-of-buddhism/.

[11] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990; repr., New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 6.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 76.

[17] Ibid., 76.

[18] Ibid., 3.

[19] Ibid., 58.

[20] Ibid., 46.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Lanny Bassham, With Winning in Mind, 3rd ed. (1988; repr., Mental Management, 2011), 13-14, 19-22.

[23] Ibid., 20-21, 66.

[24] Ibid., 31-33.

[25] Ibid., 33, 98-101.

[26] Herrigel, Art of Archery, 73, 75.

[27] Bradbury, “Art of Writing,” 143.

[28] Ibid., 145-147.

[29] Ibid., 152.

[30] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando: Harcourt, 1955), 217-218; C.S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212-213.

[31] Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” 212.

[32] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 217-218; Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” 212-213.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Lewis, “Meditation,” 212.

[35] Ibid., 214.

[36] Lewis, “Meditation, “214.

[37] Bassham, With Winning in Mind, 35.

[38] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Zen Buddhism,” October 2002, accessed March 27, 2023, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zen/hd_zen.htm (zen as meditation); Vantage Fit, “Zen Meditation: Insight Into the Unconscious,” November 9, 2021, accessed March 27, 2023,

https://www.vantagefit.io/blog/zen-meditation/ (release of negative thoughts).

[39] Csikszentmihalyi, 215.

[40] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 220.

[41] Herrigel, Art of Archery, 6-7.

[42] Ibid., 81.

[43] Bradbury, “Art of Writing,” 149.

[44] Herrigel, Art of Archery, 4.

[45] Seikyukai, “Shen, Zen, Bi,” accessed March 27, 2023, https://www.seikyukai.se/new-page-2.

[46] Ibid., https://www.seikyukai.se/new-page-2.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] John Stanley, “Kyudo, the way of the bow and the pursuit of Zen in archery,” World Archery, July 9, 2020, accessed June 14, 2023, https://www.worldarchery.sport/news/178424/kyudo-way-bow-and-pursuit-zen-archery.

[50] James Clear, “Zanshin: Learning the Art of Attention and Focus From a Legendary Samurai Archer,” James Clear, accessed March 24, 2023, https://jamesclear.com/zanshin.

[51] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2001), 158.

[52] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1, accessed August 16, 2023, https://www.apuritansmind.com/westminster-standards/shorter-catechism/.

[53] Csikszentmihalyi, 2.

[54] Herrigel, Art of Archery, 10.

[55] Bassham, With Winning in Mind, 29-32.

[56] Bassham, With Winning in Mind, 28-29.

[57] Ibid., 31, 39.

[58] I express my gratitude to Dr. Michael Ward, an expert on C.S. Lewis and my former professor, for this insight.

[59] Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 64.

[60] Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 64.

[61] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2001), 226.

[62] Herrigel, Art of Archery, 77.

[63] Bradbury, Art of Writing, 153.

[64] I am indebted to the eponymous season 3, episode 14 of the original Magnum P.I. television series for the wonderful phrase “the arrow that is not aimed.”