Freedom is Kayaking Upstream

I am currently reading a book by Michael Howard called Educating the Will; the basic premise being that a well educated child is provided with experiences and reflections that develop the head, the hand and the heart. This is somewhat counter intuitive to contemporary practice that increasingly focuses on the head to the exclusion of the other two faculties. As a sculptor Howard particularly concentrates on using art to develop the feeling will. He also talks about children needing to witness teachers striving towards wholeness, i.e. they themselves are working towards developing their own balance of thinking, feeling and willing. Rudolph Steiner who has shaped Waldorf teacher Howard’s thinking believed that freely chosen ethical disciplines and meditative training would help a person to become a more moral, creative and free individual – free in the sense of being capable of actions motivated solely by love. Steiner is basically a proponent of people being able to experience their higher nature and also that of others.

For me this whole arena is fascinating yet teeters on being hokey and while I have read various accounts of what will is, in particular in relation to the idea of “free will” it is a concept I have struggled with until Michael Howard posited an analogy that spoke to me. Early in the book he paints a picture of the mind being like a river where we are treated to a constant flow of thought that we do not really control; I like this image because I think of what happens over time when we humans try to do just this with dams. He also tells of a time when he watched a group of white water kayakers. “As they paddled downstream they displayed incredible mastery, going wherever and however they fancied. There seemed to be no limit to what they could do, including paddling upstream against the raging torrent. I was captivated as I watched some of them move slowly upstream – 10, 20, 30 feet. Incredibly, some could paddle as much as 100 feet against the current, but sooner or later, even the strongest and most skillful paddlers would run out of steam. Instantly they would be swept back downstream by the relentless force of the current.” Howard goes on to explain that a skillful thinker can navigate the constant stream of thoughts, choosing (will) which ones to engage. Logical thinkers can move freely within the flow and thinkers who grow the inner will to build thought upon thought without being swept along by random thoughts are comparable to the kayakers paddling upstream.

So here are a few random thoughts from someone who used to kayak a fair amount. Firstly, there was once a time when kayaking / canoeing upstream was a necessity, now if I really want to go up river I put my kayak on the roof of my car, it is a lot easier. I think the same is probably true of thinking skills now that we have google. Yet, I was compelled to paddle upstream and there was a reason, it was an opportunity to learn more about how a river works, mainly because I could see what the water was doing in front of me as I worked against it. Kayaking upstream is less about brute force and more about understanding the river, I need to understand how the shape of the bed dictates how the water will flow, I need to feel the pulses that occur naturally and therefore as I learn this I also learn how to feather the angle of my boat, use the river features and time my strokes to gain ground. The exercise gives me a far better understanding of the mechanics of efficient paddling when I am going downstream and cannot see what is behind me or I am accelerating quickly towards something and have to understand what will happen based on the water I am traveling through and what I can see ahead. Likewise meditating, where I spend my time kindly ridding my mind of thoughts as I focus on my breathing, allows me to think much better when I am trying to maintain a modicum of control of a creative process that can look like a heavy handed Jackson Pollockesque canvas with no grace.

Nowhere is the concept of paddling upstream more apparent than going against the tide in a sea kayak, by using features and being aware of the subtleties of hydro dynamics you can gain significant ground in certain situations. There is no way you can fight a current if you do not understand these things.

So the main take home of all this for me is that you are never going to be truly free of your thoughts unless you spend time understanding how the flow of your thoughts come about and this takes graft and a willingness to be spat out. And while you cannot stem them, you can learn the skills necessary to navigate them and freely choose what is good for you and others if you take time and engage in a meditative discipline. No wonder the Dalai Lama can smile while witnessing the wake of destruction in his country, through significant practice like an expert kayaker he has spent more time than most learning the true art of choosing which line (of thought) he is going to follow and use. Also, as Steiner suggests he is exceptionally free, because this discipline has ultimately meant he can shape his actions so that they come from a place of love.

How are you going to shape your freedom?

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Job Hunting and Skiing the Trees

When I started teaching white water kayaking I was usually given 10 students and an assistant and off we would go on our merry way to find some mellow moving water. As the students gained confidence and skills we progressed to minor rapids. On reaching the top of a rapid we would park our boats and walk down the bank looking at what was to come. My spiel went something like, “ok guys, you are doing really well and this is suitably challenging for you – you are going to have a blast. Now, what I want you to think about is avoiding the obstacles. See that tree over there, stay away from it. That hydraulic is evil and what ever you do keep your boat away from the pour over, it could kill you.” Then we would get back into our boats, I would demonstrate the line and wait in a position of maximum usefulness at the bottom.  They were sent down one by one and inevitably there was carnage.

It took me a long time to figure out why I was massacring my students. They appeared ready, they had plenty of confidence and enough skills and there they were swimming while I was picking up the pieces. I cannot remember what the catalyst to change was; I think I need to thank an old canoe instructor called Ray Goodwin, the remedy was simple though. Just by reconfiguring the talk along the bank to, “ok guys, you are ready and this is going to be a blast. What I want you to do is to look for your line. First of all, do you see that brown tongue of water there, well put your boat on it. Then head for that flume in the middle and finally follow that v down between the rocks. It will be great.”

What a different result. Smiling kids, dry, upright and full of pride. Perhaps you have a similar story, skiing the trees is my favorite. I start by recognizing I am in a forest, then I look for white and link it together. I have enough evidence to recognize what happens when I look at the trees. Being in the forest is a buzz, now that I know I can safely navigate my way through them I love it. Life is so much more fun and exhilarating. Then there is the added bonus that the snow is often better.

I am going to finish with the words of one of my heros, Yvon Chouinard, climber, blacksmith and founder of Patagonia. “I love recessions for business reasons. Number 1, a recession kills the competition. Number 2, your customers stop being silly and stop buying fashion stuff. They buy things they need and things that will last a long time. They don’t mind paying more as long as it is high-quality. What they do is what we should all be doing, which is consuming less and consuming better.”

It is pretty obvious with the current economy we are in a job hunting forest. What do the patches of snow look like for you, how are you going to link them and what is the high quality you are selling to potential employers?

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