Freedom is Kayaking Upstream

Silz Wave

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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