Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kayaking with Grace

Several Sundays ago I found myself in my kayak at around 8:15 in the morning. I was giving a lesson to a young woman named Grace. This is her third lesson with me in borrowed kayaks as she waits for delivery of her handmade - by her brother - strip built kayak.

We had just started paddling and I was getting comfortable in my boat. The morning was absolutely glorious. Just warm enough to be in a long sleeve quick dry shirt and a pair of shorts. Just a little breeze as  we paddled out onto the water. Warm light danced on the surface of the lake we paddled, and the sky was a nearly perfect shade of blue. The trees here in North Carolina were just starting to show off amazing fall colors.

Within a few minutes from across the water Grace mentioned that she was jealous of how effortless I looked, while she was still struggling with the intricacies of the forward stroke. I replied with a thank you, and that really all it took was practice - ten thousand hours, if you have been here before! - and that she was doing well and just needed to keep at it.

This interaction came back to me a couple of nights later as I was re-reading Eugene Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery. When the student is talking to the master about his failure to fluidly loose an arrow, the master replies:

" Don’t think of what you have to do, don’t consider how to carry it out! " he exclaimed. `The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise. It must be as if the bowstring suddenly cut through the thumb that held it. You mustn’t open the right hand on purpose." 

It struck me that this is the way it must be when you are perfecting the forward stroke in a kayak. You don't think about walking down the street, yet you do it everyday. You must get to the point in your kayak where your forward stroke occurs without thought. I should point out that this is a lesson that applies to anything you are trying to learn. I have mentioned in the past the difficulty I have with certain kicks, it is as equally applicable to a tennis serve, or making a souffle or perhaps even learning to incorporate some flair with your drum. In order for it to look relaxed it has to be relaxed and you can't try to be relaxed. It is like trying to think about not thinking. "Zen Archery" goes on a bit further, as the student continues to question the master, the master responds again:

" You must hold the drawn bowstring ", answered the Master," like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: " I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing." Completely un−selfconsciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other"
" Maybe I understand what you are hinting at with this comparison, " I remarked. " But am I not in an entirely different situation ? When I have drawn the bow, the moment comes when I feel: unless the shot comes at once I shan’t be able to endure the tension. And what happens then? Merely that I get out of breath. So I must loose the shot whether I want to or not, because I can’t wait for it any longer. "
" You have described only too well " , replied the Master,
" where the difficulty lies. Do you know why you cannot wait for the shot and why you get out of breath before it has come? The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfilment, but brace yourself for failure. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth some thing yourself that ought to happen independently of you, and so long as you call it forth your hand will not open in the right way ̇ like the hand of a child: it does
not burst open like the skin of a ripe fruit. "

There was an afternoon in Alaska where Sarah and I paddled through some very rough and unexpected water. Twice it spit us out in a direction we didn't want to go before we figured out a way through, or more accurately, around it. At one point Sarah said she was concerned about how rough the water was, but she looked over to me and I was just paddling along calmly. She said later that this made her relax, in part because her comfort level increased, and in part because she knew she didn't have to worry about me, she could focus on herself. This was flattering for me to hear as I regard Sarah as one of the better paddlers I have had the pleasure of sharing a route with, but I recall thinking that at the point when she looked over I was pretty concerned about what was happening. I am glad that she saw a calmness in me that I didn't feel myself.

And I think this is what Grace was seeing, a relaxed paddler allowing the stroke to occur. I won't be so presumptuous to say that I gave it no thought, I am always tweaking and playing and perfecting - or trying to - my stroke, but I think I am approaching that level of relaxed. And with practice so will Grace. But the key is not thinking about making it relaxed, simply allowing it to happen. Like the fingers of a child opening. 

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