Water is my favorite element.
Why, you might ask?
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu sums up my feelings better and more concisely than I ever could.
“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”
It’s because of this, because of water’s ability to carve out mountainsides and gorges, to at times appear a quiet, idling stream and at others, a raging beast, that draws me to this most essential of elements.
As a paddler, surfer, a watersports(wo)man of any sort, you learn to respect nature in ways that are incomparable. The power of the river, the ocean, it’s humbling. The currents that push and pull and drag beneath the surface are in control, not the plastic craft in which you lazily float along.
It’s a common misconception though, to think that one is “in control” out on the water. A paddler will never experience the same alpine lake, the same class III run, the same 40-foot waterfall, more than once. Water is always changing, fluctuating, an endless dance of ebb and flow.
When I was first learning to kayak, that unpredictability was what scared me most. Over time though, that fear has turned into the thing I yearn for almost daily, that feeling of being slightly in control (in as much as you can at least take strokes when you tell your body to) but mostly along for the ride, in the moment, and working with (not against) the elements.
That feeling has been called a lot of things, but I tend to gravitate towards defining it per Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, “the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.”
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi relates how activities like rock climbing, in affect, have no “purpose” by any traditional sense of the word. Sure, there may be the peak to summit, the unclimbed route to send, but ultimately, most climbers climb for the sake of…climbing. The act of climbing is just a continuation of a greater act, the act of flowing, of continuing to follow that which engages and frees the mind.
Csikszentmihalyi says “…success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
For me, the river is the course greater than me, but for others it may be the ocean, the rock, the mountain, the forest. The river has been an important part of my existence, from the time I was a child on the banks of the Shenandoah to my late teens and early twenties (ha) guiding rafts in the New River Gorge. Water has taught me how to stay calm amid adversity, to adapt when things don’t go according to plan, and to respect everything, all lessons that can be directly translated into everyday life.
If you’ve never kayaked before, you might be wondering how water alone has taught me that. I apologize for the blunt delivery, but the short of it is, I assume, that the river has quite literally handed my ass to me, but in a way that’s constructive, not destructive and which, for some reason semi-unbeknownst to me, keeps me coming back for more. It’s a very complicated feeling, I know.
This past weekend I got out on the river for the first time in a couple months to take my Dagger Mamba on its maiden voyage down the Upper Yough. It was just my second time paddling the river here (for a recap of my PFD, click here), so I was still a little uneasy on Friday’s run. But a few rapids into the Miracle Mile, my stiffness faded. I felt in-tune with the boat, the water, and the relationship between the three of us. On Saturday, I paddled the Upper again, this time helping my friend take a first-timer (the ever-entertaining Dr. Mitchell) down. While I very much sympathized with the Doc’s pale, nerve-stricken self (see below), I felt none of the anxiety I had experienced the day before, feeling, instead, very much at one with the rapids.
We need those places, those natural playing fields that allow us brief glimpses of being both scared shitless and on top of the world. The river is one of the few places where I can receive instant feedback, where I can truly gauge if how I’m feeling reflects how I’m paddling. When I’m kayaking, I’m deep in flow. I’m not thinking about the email I forgot to respond to, the looming dreadlines, the negative feedback I received from a reader. I’m not really even thinking about paddling quite honestly. My brain is, actually, pretty quiet. I’m reacting, one stroke at a time, reading the water and adjusting my line to every hole, every rock, every strainer in my way.
The challenge for me now is learning how to transition that quiet fortitude into the obstacles of everyday life, like waking up and realizing I don’t have any more coffee. It seems silly, but that totally puts a damper on the day where scraping my head on the riverbed for the millionth time at Powerful Popper doesn’t even phase me…
Let’s hear from you!
What makes you flow? Where is your place of peace?
– originally published on Live Outside and Play on 8/12/14