How I stopped losing my shit while kayak rolling

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Stress makes one do strange things, instincts take over from sense. We react rather than mentally process situations and stimulus. In my experience the threat of drowning creates all the necessary stimuli to fill me with stress. When I am upside down, under my kayak, my head under water, and things go wrong, my panic stress response kicks in strongly. I instinctively do anything I can to get my head out of the water, so I can breathe.

When I started learning to roll my kayak failure was a frequent visitor. My survival instincts made me reach for the spray skirt, yank the rip cord and wet exit, clawing my way to the surface gasping for air. If I did stay in my seat a few seconds longer I would make the age-old beginner’s mistake of trying to raise my head to the surface. (If you are not a kayak roller then you may not know that raising your head has the exact opposite effect on the outcome than desired. The weight of the head acts on the rotating fulcrum of the kayak and the hull rotates yet further upside down.)

As I progressed along my rolling journey I developed multiple ways to recover from the depths of a mistaken second dunking. My go-to failure recovery became the butterfly or angel roll, a simple layback roll that relies on only one hand being connected to the paddles center. However, there were numerous times that my instincts kicked in, and I rushed to the surface on an aggressive explosion of muscle rather than relaxed grace when things got uncomfortable underwater.

About two years ago I started seeing a therapist to help me sort out my inner demons. During the course of our time together she exposed me to many techniques to help me process the internal anguish that visited me. Ways to consider the input, the history. To identify the truth from the fiction. Ways to consider how much, and how, to allow myself to react. Many of these techniques were based on logic and resonated with me. But like the instinctive stress response underwater, my mental processes kept returning to disintegration as their default response.

I first turned to meditation without really understanding what it could or would do to me. I was looking for something that would give me a moment of clarity and calm. A time without thought, to allow the mental absorption and self-pity to dissolve, and allow positive thoughts to enter my consciousness.

I listen to pod casts on my journey to work each morning. Rich Roll and Tim Ferriss being the primary auditory entertainment and education. Rich frequently discusses the role of meditation with his guests and one of them, an endurance coach Chris Hauth talked with Rich about the role meditation has in his training regimen for his athletes. During endurance events there are moments of great stress where you have the opportunity to decide to abort or push on, where the pain within your body is so intense it seems that there is no room for any thought. It is during those times of intensity that meditation can create the opportunity for athletes to take a moment to make the positive decision to press on.

People say that meditation is about “creating space”, but until recently I had no personal experience of what this meant. What is space? How does space help me? How does space help my mental health? What makes the space? What is meditations role in creating space?

There are numerous meditation practices and training regimens. I have experimented to find the ones that work best for me. I rely on two approaches currently. The first practice is incredible simple; I sit with my eyes closed and as I breath I say to myself “breath in”, “breath out” – this approach is a simplification of my first approach which was provided by Headspace the excellent guided meditation smartphone app. Headspace trains you to count breathes, 1 to 10 on each in and out breathe, and then start again at 1. I find that even the act of counting is distracting, I find myself having to mentally remember what number comes next and frequently found myself counting in in the teens before remembering to reset the numbers. Using simply in and out I have no distractions and find that ten to fifteen minutes of concentration will be distracted maybe once or twice by outside thoughts or feelings.

My second, more recent, meditation routine has been the Loving Kindness Practice. This uses a sequence of phrases that you focus on for week(s) at a time. There is a definite purpose to this practice; to introduce you to, and grow, your self-love. The principle being that you cannot be your best self, and help others, until you are prepared to accept yourself as you are, and come to appreciate that you deserve to be safe, happy, healthy and be at peace. If you are interested in this practice I recommend you read Loving–Kindness, the revolutionary art of happiness by Sharon Salzberg.

Of late I have been struggling with stress related responses to visual stimuli. There is a constant stream of social media postings from friends and acquaintances’ attending the summer’s traditional paddling events. Many of the events I have decided to avoid in an effort to distance myself physically and mentally from the negative influences of past mistakes. The images remind me of what I am not able to do, and stir up feelings of remorse and regret that I struggle to control. About ten days ago even my best meditative efforts could not prevent my head tumbling into a downward spiral of negativity and self-loathing ending in a near catatonic state of tears, emotions and physical pain, a result of seeing a single provocative, to me, image.

Still, when I step back and look at my journey I can recognize that things have improved immensely. There are a growing number of moments throughout each day when I do process my reactions in healthier ways. Moments where instead of spiraling into a whirling pit of negativity I am able to take a step back and remember the positive changes in my life, and the joy that my renewed and strengthened relationship with Jacquelyn has brought. It is in these moments that I feel the benefit of meditation. My stress response is gently and relentlessly transitioning to one of deliberate breath, of transitioning into a meditative state. Less frequent are the prior intense negative reactions. I have instead been able to disarm the evidence-less protagonist within me, preventing my decent into illogic and self-flagellation. Instead I am able to create the “space” to allow positive thoughts, actual evidence and rational logic to direct my present mental state. I am not by any means to a point where this is one hundred percent effective, buts its presence is growing with the repetition of my practice. Even when I fail I am “noting” the opportunity to take the path of mental redirection, progress that can be built upon through additional practice.

I started this post talking about the stress response I have been evolving as I learned to roll my kayak. Recently it became apparent that I a transformation in my automatic response had taken place unbeknownst to me. I have been working on increasing my rolling competition repertoire by developing reliable non-dominant side rolls. Taking all the rolls, I can comfortable complete with my right hand, and train myself to complete them with my left. This process involves frequent failure. Each failure represents an opportunity to try again, to recover a different way, or perhaps panic and flounder about like a flailing fish.

One of the harder rolls I am working on involves rolling while holding onto a brick or rock. Naturally the rock tends to sink you quickly, and loves to hold your body upside down. The result of failure is to be hanging upside down with a brick in one hand which is pulling you to the bottom of the lake, ocean or river you are practicing in. Last year my recovery from this situation was the obvious one; drop the brick and roll up easily using my hands. This has the distinct downside that you go through a lot of bricks while training. This month though my response has changed, instead of reflexes causing me to drop the brick I instead calmly transfer the brick to my other, right, hand and roll up with a dominant side brick roll. The first time it happened I did not even realize what I was doing. Later that day I was contemplating my progress when it dawned on me that when it failed I started to meditate underwater, the calm within me gave me the time, the space, to make a decision rather than react and thus transition to a recovery that involved keeping the rock!

So, the slow but steady progress I am making on my mental health is causing progressions in my kayak rolling ability, an unexpected and delightful consequence.

May I be safe,
Be happy,
Be healthy
Be at peace.


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