Taking Aim at Recovery With Archery
“In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns and looks within himself for the cause of his mistake.” – Confucius
People in treatment for addiction often have difficulty aiming for a target and holding steady while they draw back their symbolic bow. Often, they take a scattershot approach to recovery, and the “arrows” fall short of the bull’s-eye. Frustrated, they might even break the shaft of the metaphorical arrow over their thigh and stomp away, vowing never to place themselves again in a position to feel like a failure.
The Tale of the Two Arrows
There’s a Buddhist concept of two arrows. The first arrow represents circumstances such as abuse, neglect, health challenges, financial reversals and death. The second arrow is ones’ reaction to those events. You might not have a choice regarding the first set of circumstances, but you always have the option to determine what steps to take to face those trials.
People with addictions often jab themselves with the second arrow. Reasons they do this might include habit, lack of awareness of the arrow’s harm, or trying to cause guilt in another person — for example, as their wounds deepen, they might say, “Look what you made me do.” In recovery, someone who points out the arrow’s presence might help remove it and clean the lesion to keep it from festering.
Experienced in Archery — and Recovery
Ryan Sachse, the adventure program coordinator at Brightwater Landing, created the Recovery Archery program at the addiction treatment center. He said the program emerged from his “passion for archery and because of how it helped me in my first two years of sobriety.”
Sachse described his entry into sobriety as operating “under the false assumption that I could do it on my own. I quickly came to realize that I needed something more than just sheer willpower. Being stubborn, I decided that instead of working a program, I’d simply shoot my bow every time I had a craving until the craving disappeared. This kept me sober for two years and led me on a journey of discovering skills and lessons that I’d need to continue my sobriety for years to come. “
He said that “after two years of archery and sobriety,” he put the tools into practice, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and came upon the Buddhism-inspired Refuge Recovery, a practice that he still incorporates into his sobriety program. “Of course I still shoot my bow,” he said. “But now it’s to reinforce a dedicated recovery program, rather than as a stand-in for a recovery program.”
How the Program Works
Sachse, who’s certified as a level 2 instructor through USA Archery, said of the therapy program, “The clients not only get a unique view of recovery, but also accurate and qualified instruction.” He stressed the importance of safety and supervision of clients, as well as keeping groups small to provide the best benefit. The therapy combines the physical activity of archery with its metaphorical impact, addressing clients’ specific emotional needs and mindsets around the patterns they’ve created through the addiction.
The first session introduces clients to safety guidelines, focusing what Sachse called “consistency of form.” He talks about the ways the bow represents who clients are. “We have an amazing capacity to store energy — such as trauma, emotions, past regrets and worries,” he said. “But like a bow, if we don’t let go and allow that energy to be directed in a positive way, we’ll explode. We discuss how to remain flexible and the ways that releasing those things we’ve stored up allows us to be strong and powerful.”
Sachse described how crucial consistency is to working a program. “When we shoot consistently,” he said, “we can know that our arrow will hit in the same place each time. When we work a program of recovery consistently, we can know that we’ll achieve our goal of sobriety each day. With a basic introduction and a basic shooting form, most clients can witness success within that first session as their arrows become more and more consistent.
“I draw a hard line between consistency and accuracy. Accuracy is what we want. A lifetime of sobriety is what the clients want. Consistency is what we do with every shot. Consistency in our program is what we need to do day in and day out. Consistency begets accuracy. Accuracy doesn’t beget consistency. I tell clients that anyone can have a lucky shot that hit the center, just like anyone with an addiction has experienced a day of being clean, but real success is in the effort it takes to build consistency, rather than relying on luck.”
Sachse said the weekly sessions involve the 12-step KSL Shot Cycle method, which they work consistently. “For most clients, this is first time they’ve worked any type of program consistently, and they can see the successes almost immediately as their arrows hit closer and closer together,” he said. “Those of us with addictions do love instant gratification.”
In the program, they discuss “finding a firm foundation as they take the archer’s stance, utilizing tools and supports in their lives as they grip the bow and string, focusing and double-checking that they’re doing the right thing as they find their mindset and setup, putting in the effort it takes to stay sober as they draw and anchor the bow and the arrow, and finally, doing what they say they’ll do, such as making amends or attending meetings, as they release and follow through.
“I talk with them about the constant need for self-diagnosis and teach them how to do this in archery, but tell them we have the same need in our lives off the field. We look at our intentions, actions and outcomes, and we see what’s working and what isn’t. Through their shooting, they can better understand cause and effect. I work with them on utilizing feedback loops such as the acronyms ‘SOBER’ — stop, observe, engage, respond — or ‘SOLAR’ — stop, observe, let go and return.”
“Even though they’re shooting as a group, a lot of individual discussion takes place,” Sachse said, “and clients open up about their hopes and fears in working a recovery program. In this fashion, we often discuss the differences between ‘isolating’ and ‘being.’ Even though we achieve individual success as archers, the achievements only happen because of having an instructor and other shooters helping us. This relates back to finding a recovery community and a mentor or sponsor.”
He described a crucial exercise called tension release, which he said “demonstrates what it feels like when we finally can let go of things in our past, to let go of trauma.” He has clients “nock an arrow and draw the bow back, but they aren’t allowed to release the arrow until I tell them. As they hold, they become weaker, unstable, tired, frustrated and sometimes angry. Once I tell them to release the arrow, I quickly ask how they feel. Most say they feel relieved, invigorated, accomplished, and euphoric. Typically their arrow flies wildly off target.”
He talked about the ways this physical and emotional sensation mirrors the feeling of relinquishing events from their past. “We talk about the pain and frustration that happens before letting it go, as well as the positivity waiting on the other side of the process. This provides the client with a visceral experience. We discuss the arrow’s flight. We talk about how the arrow will go exactly where it’s supposed to go based on how the archer shoots — just like how our lives go exactly where they’re supposed to based on what we do in our recovery program.”
Describing archery as a “movement meditation,” Sachse said, “We can find our own relaxation and rhythm in our lives. Archery requires focus and concentration, as do the practices of mindfulness and meditation. Clients who say they can’t meditate or be mindful find a different way of doing both. We focus on coping skills and how practice doesn’t make perfect, but rather perfect practice makes perfect. Finally, we work on enjoyment and fun in recovery.”
Sachse also encourages personal responsibility. “We talk about how as archers we don’t blame the equipment or others when we miss — we miss because of something we’ve done,” he said. “I ask them to be an archer in their recovery and not blame others for their actions as people with addictions, but to look deeply within themselves for what they need to change.”
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1