Extreme Mindfulness Through White Water Kayaking

Extreme Mindfulness Through White Water Kayaking

I often get asked by people if I'm not scared to white water kayak. The answer is most definitely yes. I often feel like I'll be overwhelmed by fear. Regularly I reach the river and think that I even hate kayaking. "What am I doing;  I'm too old for this"...sentences like this run through my mind. My heart is pounding, my hands shaking and I wish I'd just stayed doing whatever it was I was doing before I arrived. 


Something (usually with a lot of encouragement - which is why a good teacher is so important), makes me first acknowledge these thoughts exist and then overcome them. I manage to package them up in brain rope and say: "Alright I'm a bit scared, but I want to do this..." I usually have enough memory capacity to recall how I feel afterwards, so I say: "Just stay over there crazy thoughts, I have other things to do right now." 

Then, once I remember what it feels like being on the river, when I feel the flow and trust that I am in control of what I am doing, when I've run some rapids, and my lines were good - the feeling is amazing. It's not a feeling of accomplishment because it isn't about that for me, but more about liberation because all my crazy thoughts were still there when I started, just tied up for a while - well they vanish and as they leave, they take a whole bunch of other negative and unhelpful feelings with them and I feel free.

That's what white water kayaking does for me and why, for me, it's the most extreme form of mindfulness. You have to focus on the water ahead of you incredibly intently. A bit like staring into dark Rothko paintings which seem to absorb any of your sadness like a sponge, as I focus on the water, the river takes hold of those thoughts that hold me back, make me sad, make me feel like I've failed at everything, well it grabs them and sends them downstream far, far out of reach - it's almost like I can physically feel them being taken away from me and for a while afterwards all seems well with the world.

The problem, I guess, is that we can't keep hold of that feeling for long, but the more I paddle, the more confidence I have in my own abilities, both on and off water. I've often found meditation hard because I have (as most people I know will tell you) an overactive thinking habit. It gets tiring, believe me! I can focus and meditate, usually when walking, but choosing to do so or setting aside time to do so is the challenge, because I'm too busy thinking about other things, even when walking (often about where my equally crazy dog has disappeared to!), but kayaking allows me to be in any state of mind and the river does the hard work for me and I think perhaps it is also slowly teaching me how to do it myself on dry land. 

For me, it isn't about being addicted to adrenalin, although perhaps the scientists out there will argue my narrative is just a flouncy way of describing an adrenalin rush - maybe they're right, but the way it makes sense for me is far more than that. It's about the power nature has for us, it's there to help us yet we often ignore it and live our lives so disconnected from it.

The connection I feel when I'm on the water makes me feel like I'm truly alive and I feel like I might become a little bit better at being a human being as a result.

Hannah Harris