Thursday, September 11, 2014

Flow Meditation and Paddling

Paddling Practice Makes Permanent, but is it Mindful?

Paddling Zen in a kayak
Mindfulness, mindlessness, practice makes permanent and practice makes automatic are four topics that I’ve pondered lately. I think how they relate impacts directly on how much enjoyment a paddler experiences. In my experience, I enjoy experiences when I’m feeling the flow versus when my actions become automatic to the point that I don’t realize what I did until after it finished. I wonder how instructors can add the flow and mindfulness experience to paddling instruction.

Paddling Instruction Methods

One point emphasized during my American Canoe Association instructor trainings is that we should as instructors practice and emphasize that practice makes permanent. I whole-heartedly agree. We’re also taught that one method of teaching a paddling stroke is whole-part-whole. Essentially, the instructor models the entire stroke, breaks it down into steps and then models it again so the students see how the parts work together. Another method is the walk-through. In it, the instructor describes what he’s doing while demonstrating. Usually, instructors use the whole-part-whole method for stroke instruction and the walk-through for rescues. Both teaching methods fit within the 3D method of instruction, which is describing a skill, demonstrating a skill and then having the students do the described and demonstrated skill. When looking at this method from a distance, even when the instructor makes it fun, it seems very mechanical to me. It feels like something is missing. I intuit that the teach methods miss teaching mindfulness and flow.

Flow in Kayaking and Canoeing

Flow is, as defined in Flow in Sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances by Susan Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,
a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions. So flow is about focus. More than focus, however, flow is a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has occurred. So flow is also about enjoyment. People associate flow with peak performance… [but] flow offers something more than just a successful outcome. This is because flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and in those moments we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.
Csikszenmihalyi identified several ways to increase flow:
  • Setting goals
  • Participation in an activity that you enjoy
  • Paying attention to the activity
  • Enjoying the moment
Flow in Sports includes several other ideas on how to increase flow, but one I found specific to paddling instruction was the idea of balancing the challenge with skill. Giving a challenge to the student that’s just that point where she feels challenged. Beyond that point fear enters and detracts from the experience. I.e. don’t send a beginner out into 3-foot waves.  Note: If you’re an instructor, you should probably buy or read this book.


In “Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition” Scott R. Bishop, et al, argues that mindfulness consists of two components:
The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
Mindlessness is the opposite. It’s like when you’ve paddled a couple of miles before you realize it without awareness. It might share a sense of acceptance, but more likely feels like a loss of time. Without being in the moment, it’s like practice makes automatic. You just do it without awareness. To avoid mindlessness, the student’s mind needs to constantly engaged with the current experience. And as an instructor, you need to encourage that.

Mindfulness and Flow in Paddling Instruction

In my experience a typical paddling student wants to learn to be a better paddler. That desire brings with it among other things a sense of fear of failure and a fear of judgment that he’s not good enough. That desire, although a motivation and a goal which would seem to increase flow if we believe Csikszenmihalyi, seems to work at odds with the second component of mindfulness. The instructor needs to address the motivation behind that desire to engage a student within mindfulness.
One way is by being a humble and accepting instructor who doesn’t pass judgment. The more curiosity, openness and acceptance that the instructor shows, the more that attitude becomes reflected within the student. On feedback forms, one comment that I often see is an appreciation of a non-judgmental approach and that “no question is stupid.” This reflects an open, curious and accepting approach by the instructor. One key approach is to take the “better paddler” goal and break it down into skill components. There is no such thing as a better paddler, only one with refined skills, so removing the desire to become one helps placate the fears that come with it. Unfortunately, the “better paddler” concept is built into many paddling instruction programs with the ACA level system and the BCU star system. I’ve seen it in other instructors as well. During my most recent instructor re-certification, we were watching video of me doing a deep brace. I fell over, my head went underwater, but the technique was sloppy and the instructor trainer pointed out the issues. Another instructor in the class voiced that he thought I was a good paddler. That wasn’t the point. The point was that the skill could see improvement, especially when modeling it for others.
Besides removing desire, each lesson needs to include a goal that challenges the student just enough to engage her mind and body without frustrating it. This forces the student’s attention directly on the experience. If the mind is engaged, it can’t wander off in thoughts about other things. It must concentrate on the body and experience what the body is doing. Within this, the student should also experience what the boat is doing. I often find that a student fails in an attempt, because he doesn’t also understand that the boat is just as involved in the stroke as his body is. One way to help a student realize this is to develop exercises that help the paddler to tactilely experience the boat and how the water moves around it. For example, when edging have the student feel what happens to each knee and bum. Have her describe the experience. What did the seat feel like? What did the knee brace feel like? Where does the backband move to? What does the boat feel like? Where did the water move? And, ask more questions. In all activities, ask him what he felt during the stroke’s parts. When you see something that looks more refined, ask the student how it felt different. The goal in the questions is forcing the mind to concentrate on the current activity and develop curiousness.
In addition to the tactile feels, let the students admit any feelings that they’re having, such as fear. Acknowledge those fears as valid and accept them as valid. If the students begin to understand that fears are okay, they might move beyond them by accepting them and finally replacing them. I’ve found this especially true during rolling instruction and self-rescues. If a student has a fear, he concentrates on the fear instead of the skill, which causes more failures. When you discover a fear use practice tools that help remove it before coming back to the skill.
Encourage questions during the class. The more questions, the more curious a student becomes and that engages further with mindfulness and the moment. It also develops curiousness during the practice. If a body and boat connection feeling is developed, curiousness might move a student to try variations during a stroke and understand how it differently affects the boat and body. This improves a students skills by helping them better understand the reactions.
Finally, understand that the whole-part-whole instruction method removes a student’s attention for the component parts to focus on the whole. He knows he must achieve the final whole, which might prevent him from staying in the moment and concentrating on the immediate experience. Using the walk-through method of instruction might work better for keeping a student in the moment because she concentrates on the component parts more than achieving the final whole.

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