Revisiting a story from the Mahabharata

One of the Mahabharata’s famous stories is that of the invincible archer Arjuna shooting the eye of a parrot.

In an archery lesson, the guru of the Pandavas, Drona, had hung a wooden parrot on a faraway tree. He then asked his students to take aim at the parrot’s eye. The eldest among his students, Yudhistira, stepped forward and took aim. Drona then asked him what he saw. Yudhisthira replied that he saw the parrot, the branches and their leaves. Drona asked him to back away, confident that he would miss. Most of his other students provided similar replies, and Drona didn’t let them waste a precious arrow in the wilderness.

It was then Arjuna’s turn. When he took aim, Drona asked him the same question. Arjuna’s response was that he saw the eye of the parrot. Drona then asked him if he saw anything other than the bird’s eye – the trees, its leaves and its branches. Arjuna replied that he only saw the eye of the parrot and nothing else. Reassured, Drona asked him to fire his arrow, and as it often happens in these stories, the arrow landed right on the bird’s eye.

Indian children learn this story to understand the value of focusing on a goal. It is more interesting to look one level deeper. How could Arjuna focus only the bird’s eye even as his peers had a panoramic view of the scene?

The reason here is that Arjuna was a seasoned archer. He had practiced drawing the bow, looking at his surroundings and taking aim thousands of time so that all of these routines were unconscious in his head. This freed up his conscious mind to focus on merely what was most important – the bird’s eye. Since the other students had not invested the same amount of practice, when they stepped forth to take aim, their conscious mind was burdened with several other tasks. This prevented them from having the same amount of laser focus.

At any given point in time, there is one thing that is most crucial and requires all of your attention. When a footballer steps up to take a free kick, he ought to be laser focused on the corner of the goal post. The actions of taking a run up, stepping forward and sweeping his foot below the ball should be automatic. When a politician addresses a press conference after a national crisis, her conscious mind ought to attend merely to the sentiment she expresses in her reply. Her tone, her facial expressions and even the words she uses ought to be automatic.

We all know that the key to mastering any skill is to focus on the bird’s eye. What is implicit here is the arsenal of automatic routines that need to be practiced over and over to enable this focus.

Related post: How batsmen slow time down (and so can you)

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