What can time spent paddling teach us about life ashore?


“In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans.”
Kahlil Gibran

I don’t know if I’ll ever find the meaning of life, but when I’m on the water, I feel like I’m a little closer to it.

I distinctly recall one of my earliest outings with my first kayak, at the tail end of a sunny afternoon spent on a local lake. A little bit tired but sated, with many miles of shoreline left to be explored another day, I dawdled back toward the sandy beach where my car waited, reluctant to leave the water. All the cares and worries of the previous week had been washed away from my mind, and I numbly drifted in a peaceful and relaxed state. The sun had already fallen behind the distant treeline, which was now silhouetted darkly against the flaming sky. Beneath me, the placid water was deep and black, but shimmered with viscous swirls of liquid fire borrowed from the sky—midnight blues and oranges, royal purples and golds …

I floated there, mesmerized and entranced, I don’t know whether for a minute or an hour. But as the light faded away and I finally turned my bow for shore, I remember reflecting that that brief and beautiful moment was worth every dollar I had so far spent on my little boat and my gear. And I realized that in a world generally inhabited by the mediocre, the ordinary, and the mundane, and all too often by greed, violence, stupidity, and other ugliness, we must take that glimpse of beauty when it chooses to reveal itself to us.

For whatever reason, at least for us paddlers, there seem to be more such moments of clarity and beauty to be found on the water than nearly anywhere else.

In addition to the more common material and tangible aspects of paddling—the physical and mental flexibility required, and the bodily poise demanded in a dynamic and ever-changing place of chaos—one cannot help but become aware of the more visceral and even spiritual elements of water.

In ancient Chinese philosophy, water is classified as one of the Wu xing, or Five Phases. Water resides in the yin half of the familiar Taijitu of Taoism, and is considered feminine in character, its energy being focused downward and its motion conserving and still. The negative emotion often philosophically associated with water is fear, while the positive emotion is calmness; certainly two psychic states of consciousness familiar to any paddler. In Chinese Taoist thought, water represents intelligence and wisdom, flexibility and pliancy; traits valuable to anyone spending time on the water in a small boat.

Japanese Buddhism also divides the spiritual and physical realm into five elements, with water representing the fluid, flowing, and formless things in the world, and emotional tendencies towards adaptation and change. It, too, is associated with flexibility, suppleness, and adaptability.

In Hinduism, water is associated with the lunar diety, Chandra, who represents feelings, intuition and imagination, and also with Shukra, the Sanskrit name given to the planet Venus, meaning “clear, bright, and pure”. Whether navigating an unfamiliar shore in confused seas or simply seeking a respite from the worries of everyday life, such intuition and mental clarity are valuable assets for any paddler.

Painting: “Water Notes”,
by RoseLynn Imbleau

The ancient Greeks assigned only four classical elements to their own mythology, philosophy, and science, but water was one of them, and was commonly associated with the qualities of emotion and intuition.

Even in the modern sciences, water holds a special place. Pioneering psychologist, Sigmund Freud, regarded dreams of falling into water or rising out of it as symbolic of birth and the Christian ritual of baptism, water representing to him the amniotic fluid of the womb from whence we all emerge to a new and fuller life. Of course, sometimes a lake is just a lake.

For Freud’s fellow psychiatrist and onetime friend, Carl Jung, water generally represented the subconscious, that dark and brilliant place we never like to go, but which we inevitably visit every night when asleep. So to willingly venture out upon the water, under our own power and at our own pace, to see what skills and weaknesses we might discover about ourselves, is in itself a brave act of critical self-awareness.

If we learn to navigate those sometimes chaotic waves, and grow to some level of comfort upon them, perhaps there are fewer hazards on the shore which can threaten us. It may be that as we learn to remain loose in the hips, and to roll with the swells, we are not so easily disturbed when someone else rocks the boat.

Perhaps as we become steeped in the uncertainty of changing conditions and shifting winds, and learn that nothing is forever, we come to see that indeed nothing—money or possessions, homes or jobs, even friends or family—is forever. And that all we will ever truly have in this world is our center of gravity.

Our balance.

Our self.

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below!

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  1. The thoughts above are very ‘warm’ and give me the feeling of ‘familiarity’. It feels as if there is a fellow spirit/attitude/awe-capability and this makes me feel alive, curious and it also gives me a bit more courage to let myself go into the aforementioned aspects of life. Thank you.

    1. Hajo,

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed this little exploration of the mystery and magic many of us find on the water!

      Keep paddling!

  2. I just returned (like last night!) from a yoga/kayaking retreat on Madeline Island and had the opportunity to paddle Superior for the first time. After getting over a little apprehension of the big water, it was really special. This post really touches on much of the retreat theme so tied in with yoga and water too. Thanks Jeff. Perfect timing to come home to your newsletter. Sue

    1. Thanks so much for that, Sue!

      I’m glad you enjoyed my little philosophical meanderings, and especially that you found it so timely.

      Sounds like you had a great kayaking/yoga retreat, and I can’t think of a better introduction to the Great Inland Sea of Superior. Will you be going back for more?

      See you around the neighborhood …


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