The Practicality of Practice
Updated: Apr 4, 2021
I returned from a 4 day kayaking trip around the Elizabethan Islands. Kayaking, for me, is deeply spiritual and affirms the practicality of meditation practice.
Before each trip, I summon anxiety to list all potential perils. Anxiety is good at that, so I leverage its strengths. Some call this facet of mind caution or attentiveness; whatever name we choose to give it, its integration serves our well-being.
Weather and marine conditions on Buzzard's Bay are unpredictable which makes paddling in a small craft hazardous. Fearing what-ifs, anxiety prepares a list of dangers: strong currents and tides, shoals, swells, choppy seas, gales, fog, variable winds with gusts of 15 knots or more, hypothermia, dehydration, physical exhaustion, equipment failure, accidents, busy shipping lanes, and Great White Sharks. NOAA issued a small craft advisory on my second day out. A thunder storm was rolling in. A streak of lightning extended out from an approaching dark gray cloud about a nautical mile from where I paddled like the flickering tongue of a snake. The air sizzled. A blinding flash of light and a deafening crack followed. I added lightning strikes to my list and hastened to shore.
The function of fear is to keep the entity called "me" safe. I let it do its job and give it an allowance to purchase safety gear and take whatever precautions necessary to avert disaster. This respect and kindness for the part I call anxiety affirms its beauty. I welcome it and embrace it. This allowing is a meditation practice. By employing anxiety I transform it into prudence. That energy prepares checklists, protocols, hypotheticals and imaginings that materialize into form. I had everything I needed for a safe crossing.
On my last day out, the sea seemed calm from the safety of shore. I decided to paddle from Naushon Island to Fort Taber in New Bedford. About 2 miles out, the winds and waves grew in intensity. Fear asserted itself. For a moment, I panicked and thought of returning to Naushon, paddling east close to the shoreline back to Woods Hole. I turned my head and looked back like Lot's wife in the Book of Genesis; the salty sea was frothy. It was safer to keep the course. I used the technique of allowing. I acknowledged my fear, but used top-down strategies to override the irrational.
To calm the mind, I began deep breathing and timed the breath to the paddle stroke. I used reframing techniques. I was 2 miles out, only 8 to go. I was 1/5 of the way there. I used prayer and visualization techniques. In the New Testament, Jesus calms the tempest. I imagined my little self rousing the indwelling Christ asleep in the stern of this vessel. "Then he arose and rebuked the wind and said to the sea: 'Peace, be still.' And the wind ceased and there was a great calm." (Mark 4:39) In my mind, I imagined the Master rebuking my fear and calming the winds of thought. Then I used the mantra: "Peace, be still. Peace, be still. Peace, be still" until the fear abated. With a settled mind, I brought my attention to different parts of the body, scanning, relaxing into each stroke. Whenever I was hit by a wave or felt any instability, I reframed the fear as excitement, transforming the valence of the same energy from negative to positive. As challenges arose I met them in the moment, reeling the mind into the present, navigating each. I used positive self-talk, reminding myself that I was prepared and had 20 years of kayaking experience. Most importantly, I trusted my ability to pilot the mind back to center. I had faith in the techniques.
Midway, the lyrics of Richard Smallwood's "Total Praise" came to my mind. I felt connected to the Creator of All-That-Is, in whom I live and move and have my being: " You are the source of my strength; you are the strength of my life. I lift my hands in total praise to you. Amen." Well, not quite- Prudence cautioned me to keep my hands on the paddle.
The inner weather began to change. A profound gratitude for this gift of life flooded my heart. I felt connected, safe, loved, and in harmony with the wind, sea, and sky. What I call the higher and lower selves were one.
Many teachers rank anxiety and fear as lower vibrations of energy, deeming them afflictions of mind indexed to ego, or present a dichotomy between love and fear. This may be the case; I don't pretend to be evolved. For me, kayaking in open ocean is an intentional and confrontational practice. The sea is a classroom where I practice alchemy- transforming anxiety and fear into gold.
Kayaking is analogous to living. The mind is like the weather- capricious, fickle, and easily stirred by externalities. But with presence, we can navigate back to the moment. We can use top-down strategies like meditation and prayer to return to a place of centeredness. From here, we see events as events and respond to them with skill and calm matter-of-factness. We can face our fears.
Prior to launching, fear prophesied my death. I chose to confront it. Fear has whispered many such dire warnings over the years, limiting possibilities and confining me to the safety of shore, of conformity, of predictability. But beyond the illusion of fear, adventure awaits.
So whatever your journey, whatever storms you encounter, may you walk in faith and courage. I wish you safe passage.