In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.
Everything you know is wrong.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!