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Lessons from the River

When I first ventured onto the river some 20 years ago, my goal was to become a really good paddler. What I didn’t realize at the time was that as my skills developed, so would an awareness of the profound life lessons contained in the flow of water and in the dance of maneuvering through that flow. The river is a teacher with many qualities—including soft, playful, gentle, intimidating, pushy, and powerful.
I’m proud of my accomplishments as a whitewater athlete and instructor, but it is these profound lessons from the river that have impacted my personal growth and that keep me passionate about paddling.
There is only the present moment.
If you look at a calendar you’ll notice that there is no ‘someday’ written anywhere. That’s because ‘someday’ doesn’t exist in reality, only this moment that you are living right now exists. Whitewater kayaking is a master teacher of this lesson. Reading water and running a rapid well requires a focus that dissolves everything around you except for the present moment. Allowing your focus to drift to thinking of the past or the future can sabotage your run very quickly. Taking this teaching off the water in the form of mindfulness in daily life allows me to be a full participant in the flow of life instead of standing on shore watching as it passes me by.

Choose the line that empowers you.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing a line through a rapid. There are riskier lines, lines that will allow you to stay in your comfort zone and lines that don’t work out how you thought they would. The key in the decision making process is to know yourself, know your skills, and know your goals so that you choose the line that empowers you. This also means knowing that walking a rapid is an empowered choice. If your goal is to step up your skills both physically and mentally, then running the challenging line or rapid is empowering. If your goal is to stay in your comfort zone so that you feel more relaxed and have a great day with friends, then choosing the comfortable line or river is an empowered choice. Don’t compare yourself to others. We each have a unique make-up and offer an original contribution to the world. Embrace your individuality and let it empower you to live the life, or run the line, that YOU love.

Look where you want to go.
This is one of my favorite teachings from the river because it’s crucial for paddling and living to your full potential, and yet it’s not obvious at first. If there’s a big rock in the middle of a rapid and you know you don’t want to hit it, but you keep staring at it, you’re going to hit it. Wherever you look is where you go. In life it’s easy to get caught up in thoughts and habit patterns that don’t serve us and that keep our attention on what we don’t want to create. We keep staring at and thinking about the big, intimidating, maybe even scary obstacles, problems, and dramas, and they suck us in. When we start to notice our thoughts and habit patterns, we can then start to train ourselves to look, think, and act in a way that keeps us on the path to where we want to go in life and what we want to create for ourselves.

If you flip, roll, let it go, and paddle on.
On the river, flipping over means that you made a mistake in reading the water or maneuvering your kayak. It’s part of the sport and part of what happens when you’re out there doing it, making yourself vulnerable to the power of the river. For years I would beat myself up for ‘failing’ when I didn’t have a good line, when I flipped over and especially if I swam. What I was doing was making myself wrong for not being perfect. Considering that I am human and no human is perfect, this is really self-defeating behavior. There is nothing empowering in beating yourself up for ‘failing’ and scientific studies now show that being hard on yourself and others doesn’t improve performance. Instead, I’ve learned to practice self-compassion, which is simply recognizing my human-ness, I acknowledge what happened, figure out how I can learn from it, and then I let it go. This is a much more effective use of my time and energy in living to my potential.

Surround yourself with a supportive tribe.
Throughout my 11 years of running Girls at Play whitewater programs, I’ve witnessed time and again how empowered women become on the water when they’re surrounded by a group of supportive and compassionate paddlers. A supportive tribe is a key component to a successful river trip. I like to use the word tribe because it infers a community that depends on each other for survival. Each member of the tribe contributes something unique that helps the community work and prosper. Choosing to surround yourself with people who hold you to your highest and best and who authentically support you in your goals and aspirations is not only empowering, but really fun too. And in all of this, the whole point is to bring more fun and less suffering both on and off the water.


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