Nudges on the Lake

By Joel McNenny, PC

I’ve always been a water person. My greatest memories of the joys of being alive center around lakes, rivers and oceans. I was one of those babies who learned to walk by diaper-floating. In my youth, waterskiing was the passion. My friends and I would go out after working our summer jobs and stay on the lake until the setting sun sent us in. Alas, age and fragile knees have caused me to seek less adrenaline-fueled activities.

So, after trying various things, from running marathons to disc golf, I decided to give kayaking a shot.

It did not take long to see, of all the sports I know, kayaking is the most meditative.

It starts with the seat, which kayakers, like meditators, take seriously. After all, getting a balanced derriere into the chair as quickly as possible is essential. The slightest wrong move often throws the whole shebang into a wobbling carnival ride. Once in the seat however, dignity is regained and the shore is left behind. Inevitably, just like meditation, I find it takes several moments to settle in and place my focus on the anchor.

The meditative anchor for kayaking is the paddling. In this way, kayaking is more akin to walking meditation. In kayaking, a proper paddle stroke utilizes the whole body and not just the arms. The feet are pressed against the footpads and as the right arm comes out, the upper body is twisted slightly to the left. Then as the paddle is pulled through the water, the upper body turns and pushes. This pendulum motion gives maximum balanced thrust with the least amount of effort. At a slow consistent pace, the movement becomes a meditation. Swing, stroke, swing, stroke, back and forth, the kayak cutting gracefully through the glistening water.

Mindful kayaking is a sensuous experience. The sound of the gentle rhythmic splash of the oar slicing the water is accompanied by the waves smacking against the plastic hull. In the still narrow channels a chorus of birds sing its songs. The sights of mountains and forests, or beaches and surf, are always cause for me to feel like a wide-eyed child again. Sometimes I fasten the paddle to the boat, close my eyes, and put my attention on my sense of smell, becoming aware of a multitude of aromas. Not all of them are pleasant, but none of them are unpleasant.

The other day, I had my best experience to date. I took my kayak twenty miles on 5 North to Castaic Lake. It was difficult to comprehend that such a pristine undeveloped wild is so close to my daily urban environment, but there it was. The clean crisp water shining in the sun was surrounded by steep brown hills with the occasional cluster of determined pines. I read on-line the place can get packed with boats on the weekends but this Tuesday afternoon there were few.

I was soon in my meditative rhythm as my kayak slid through the lake. Near the shoreline, the sharp mountains kept the current mild but out in the middle, propelled by an unhindered wind, it became a choppy challenge. As I entered some of the eerily quiet channels I felt transported to an alien world. Thick green algae covered the surface of the shadowed water as the kayak slipped soundlessly through dense overhanging foliage. As I made my way around the shoreline, at one point, I saw a whiteness in the water not attributable to a white cap. I paddled over to explore and found it to be a fish, about a ten incher. Its lifeless body floated at a tilt as if a model striking a pose. “Did you have a happy life?” I asked, “May the merit you gained grant you a positive rebirth.”

I continued and eventually worked my way around a small peninsula. On the other side was a long stretch where the kayak was in perfect unison with the current. I could have continued paddling, of course, but I didn’t. I sat back and let the kayak drift.

In a way, it was like floating weightless in a sensory deprivation chamber. Now I began the formal practice of meditation. I closed my eyes and turned to my breath. In and out. In… the air entered in a cool flow… Out… the air left warmed, dissipating quickly into the mountain breeze. Breathing in… breathing out… the anchor uniting us to the cosmos. Just as the Bodhisattvas teach.

As I practiced, I became aware of a second kind of wave, independent of the current. They were the leftovers of the numerous distant motorboat churnings. These waves were longer and gave the kayak a gentle push forward. I added it to the practice. I would breathe… in and out… then feel the extra slow nudge of one of the man-made waves. Breathe in… breathe out… nudge. When the nudges came I paid close attention to every sensation as the boat gently rocked. Some of the waves carried me further than others. Breathing in… breathing out… nudge… wave… that was a good one. A moment would pass as I returned to my breathing… in… out… in… nudge… wave… just a little one. In-breath, nudge, big wave, fun.

As I paid close attention to the experience, I could see it could be divided into three parts, minus the breathing. There was the experience of the nudge, the identification of it being a wave, and the evaluation.

Then it struck me.

In a group of three moments, I was mindful for only one.

I smiled a greeting to the awareness.