Sea Kayaker’s Mind, Beginner’s Mind

by Nancy Soares on July 3, 2017

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
 Shunryu Suzuki

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Everything you know is wrong.
Firesign Theater

Bet you never thought of this option in a kayak

Bet you never thought of this possibility in a kayak

The ocean can change in a moment, especially in a rock garden, and when the shit hits the fan it’s always good to have choices. The quotes above apply to kayaking as well as to life. When out on the ocean would you rather have many possibilities, or few? Soft, flexible minds allow us to see abundant possibilities, giving us options. Open minds also expand the limits of our sport. Zen describes this soft, flexible mind as having an empty cup, a big mind, or beginner’s mind.   

TR Capt. Jim Kakuk: time to get flexible

TR Capt. Jim Kakuk took this photo of Banzai Bozo Dave Nagel rocking the rock: time to get flexible

Awhile back in an article about the book More Deep Trouble we put forth the proposition that instead of labeling ourselves as “advanced” or “beginning” paddlers we might try seeing ourselves simply as kayakers without embellishing the term in any way. When we apply adjectives like beginner or expert to ourselves right away we’re all in a box. This limits our potential. It can be helpful to put some space around any assumptions we may have about our paddling selves. This space allows us to hold many thoughts about kayaking (and ourselves) without having to stick to anything.

TR Deb Volturno: Hold those thoughts and gimme some space

TR Deb Volturno: Hold those thoughts and gimme some space

Eric often talked about the tunnel vision that can afflict a paddler when something extraordinary or unexpected happens. Adrenaline and stress can literally shut down our mental and physical operating systems. We run out of options because we can’t think. Sometimes we can’t even move. Eric had a great story about this. One day he was holding a rock garden class. He specifically told the class, “don’t go over there”. A person who shall remain nameless allowed himself to drift into the danger zone. A big wave came through and Nameless came out of his kayak and ended up on top of a small sea stack without boat or paddle. Another wave could have come through any time, but Nameless didn’t move. Eric started yelling at him to get off the rock.  “Jump, jump!” Eric ordered. Nameless still didn’t move.

Steve Sinclair of Force Ten - now would be a good time not to freeze up

Steve Sinclair of Force Ten – now would be a good time not to freeze up

Finally Eric paddled over and threatened to climb up and throw Nameless off the rock if he didn’t jump. That did the trick. Nameless jumped off the rock and swam in. Calamity averted. But the point is that according to Eric this person had gone into a whole other zone. His mind had divorced itself from reality and he wasn’t able to act until from sheer force of personality Eric broke through that mental fog and made Nameless save himself. Eric’s theory was that on the ocean forces can become so overwhelming that some people shut down in a protective mechanism that may prevent them from freaking out but additionally prevents them from acting to save themselves. In the Deep Trouble books we see quite a bit of that phenomenon.    

Kayaking and life, it’s all the same; once we start down a particular mental rabbit hole our ideas can congeal into rigid ideology. Rigidity is typically counterproductive, unless you’re talking about concrete and steel and even they can be too rigid like when they don’t stand up to earthquakes. When we get locked into a certain point of view it can screw us up.

TR Misha Dynnikov: no paralysis here

TR Misha Dynnikov: paralysis in a cauldron may get you killed

When we get narrow we also stop learning. Giving up the great burden of opinions that we are not obliged to carry (thank you, Thomas Merton!) allows us to tap into little nudges from the universe that can guide us. By practicing nonattachment, nonjudgment, and nonresistance we get “big mind”; we see options and can quickly adapt to changing conditions. On the ocean adaptation is the name of the game.

Now would be a good time to keep an open mind

Time to keep an open mind

In the end, I think that mentally assigning descriptions to ourselves is something we all do, but it gets in our way. As we develop as paddlers, we create images in our minds: I got certified in X, Y, Z. Now I’m an Expert. I’m a kayak instructor. That makes me an Expert. I’ve demo’d 40 different kayaks, 30 drysuits, and 20 PFDs. I’m an Expert. On the other end of the spectrum: I’ve been kayaking for 20 years and I still can’t roll. I suck. None of these statements is necessarily true.

The images we create of ourselves as paddlers determine to a great extent what we expect both from ourselves and from other paddlers. If we stick to “small mind” we may disregard or disrespect others who don’t do what we do or like what we like. For example, lots of people back in the day thought the Tsunami Rangers were crazy, irresponsible, stupid, or all of the above. But nowadays all kinds of people are out there smashing and bashing and having a blast. As people’s minds have expanded, so has the sport. Now, there is truly something for everyone in sea kayaking. That there is so much cross over is a sign of an expanding collective mind.

Running out of options? I think not.

Running out of options? I think not.

My yoga teacher has a lovely image that describes the way we view the world. He talks about a pot. You place a pot in the middle of a group of people. Everyone sees the pot differently because everyone is looking at it from a slightly different angle. What each person sees is true and real but it’s only a small part of the story, or of the pot. Thus, everything you know is literally wrong, at least to some degree.

I’d like to close with one more of Eric’s kayaking stories to illustrate what I’m talking about and why it’s so important. Eric and another Ranger (I think it was John Dixon) were out at Maverick’s one day. They saw a guy in a kayak behaving in a manner they thought was sure to get him killed. Normally Rangers don’t interfere with other paddlers but in this case they felt it was worth a mention, so they paddled over and had a chat with Doomed Guy. He took offense, and mentioned that he was a student of someone who shall not be named and that therefore he “knew what he was doing”. The Rangers shrugged their shoulders and left him to his own devices. They found out later that the next day Doomed Guy had gone paddling and somehow managed to come out of his kayak and drown. No one knew what actually happened, but had that guy sustained beginner’s mind and not locked himself into a point of view that had no bearing on reality he might still be alive. Free your mind, baby!

Have you ever experienced a shutdown on the water, either in yourself or others? How’d that work out? Share your story below!

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Doug Lloyd July 3, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Good article but I’m not sure shoshin can be applied to knowingly paddling capricious waters except applied in a broader meaning that keeping a beginner’s mind does enable a paddler to retain fresh insight and an openness to working in harmony with the environment that day, hour, and moment (essentially whenever one goes paddling even the same area over and over again). That’s why I like to paddle almost exclusively solo – I remain in a state of mindful more easily and in the present, focused but relaxed, and have tested myself time and again proving calmness in calamity, a measurable profundity with wisdom and insight into my own behaviour and often protracted resiliency, and finding answers and solutions from deep within. One’s experience on the water tends to be influenced by personal philosophies, spiritual outlooks, connectedness with the craft being paddled, and to a degree the extent and predilection toward being waterwise. Also known as seamanship. Your nautically milage may vary. The last thing I want to be is rigid. I walked away from the BCU years ago. Whatever I needed resided within myself and listening to the ocean when she would chastise my spirit during moments of hubris or too much reliance on equipment. Examples? You want a list!


Nancy Soares July 4, 2017 at 3:42 pm

Doug, I agree with you 100% and that’s what I’m talking about – working in harmony with the environment which is always changing even if you paddle the same area as you suggest. Allowing the ocean to be one’s teacher and to speak to the heart and tell one what to do. I love what you say about whatever you need being inside yourself. Yep, yep, yep. Also, I’m glad you mention paddling solo. I’m thinking about doing a (very small) solo expedition and it’s nice to hear from people who go out alone. You make it sound rewarding. And yes, I do want examples of how the ocean offers correction to remind us about hubris! We love sea stories and we’ve all been there! Seriously, feel free to share…


John Bonaventure July 3, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Great article! I find that when responsible for other paddlers in challenging conditions, the calmness of their guide helps immensely to keep them focused and in control.


Nancy Soares July 4, 2017 at 3:50 pm

Really good point, John. Whatever a guide may be feeling, presenting a calm, relaxed demeanor makes all the difference. I’ve seen that work many times. The more calm the guide is the more relaxed everyone else is, and that keeps people from freezing up allowing everyone to deal with conditions more effectively. Thanks for your comment!


Dani Gorgon July 3, 2017 at 9:28 pm

In a recent session on a whitewater park, took three colleagues for their introduction to kayaking. One kayak, somehow, submerged due to a leak in the hull. I guess they Organiser missed the plug! The fresher had almost a cardiac arrest as he knew no swimming and a previous experience of drowning in a ship transfer accident. I think he shutdown his senses and was trying to hold onto anything that came his way, but disregarding the fact that he was wearing a good PFD that keeps him afloat in a pool of protected waters in park. I feel, onward, before taking freshers who don’t swim, they need to be in water with PFD so that they feel how it’s like to be in water when capsized and a panic situation can be avoided.


Nancy Soares July 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Great idea, Dani. People need to understand that just because you’re in a boat that doesn’t mean you’re not going in the water. Boats tip over all the time (or sink!) and kayaks can be very unstable, especially if the paddler is nervous and tense, as newbies often are. A calm relaxed paddler is a stable paddler. I think introducing new paddlers, especially non-swimmers, to the water BEFORE putting them in a kayak is very smart. Frankly, I usually go for a swim before getting in my boat. I figure I’m going to be in the water sooner or later so I might as well get it over with. Then if/when it happens it’s no big deal. Thank you so much for sharing your story! It is good to hear from you.


Rainer Lang August 3, 2017 at 9:27 pm

You’ve touched on many interesting points.
I feel that the shift in my consciousness, is my drive to get on the water. I enjoy the sensation of being thrashed around; partially in control, partly out of control. Observing one’s own mind is really interesting too. I’ve needed to use pranayama in stressful situations, to maintain my composure.
I was in the class with Nameless. As I recall, the objective of that segment of the teaching was: to transition from a safe zone, through a danger zone, to another safe zone. The instructions were very clear and the safe zones were identified. People just space out; sometimes out of bliss, other times out of fear.
I had a supervisor at work many years ago, he used to say “be flexible like the willow” usually when he wanted me to work late…Still seems funny to me, but flexibility and adaptability are important skills to bear in mind.


Nancy Soares August 7, 2017 at 12:54 pm

Hey, Rainer, good to hear from you! Yes, the sensation of being thrashed around. Why is that so compelling? I keep telling myself I should play it safe but that feeling is what I thrive on when I get on the water. I enjoy paddling flat water as well, but that thrashing…it’s just so engaging. And most of the time nothing very bad actually happens, as in you don’t get hurt; you just get thrashed. Like the ocean is playing rough with you but you love it. I forgot you were in the class with Nameless, but I’m glad you brought it up. Since I got the story second hand it’s good to know I didn’t misrepresent what happened. Memory is malleable (see our post on differences in perspective at
Also, Eric wrote a great post on pranayama, which I use as well. You may remember it Lots of cool comments, too 🙂
Thanks for reading and thanks much for your comment!


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