Facing Whitewater – an afternoon on the river

I went whitewater rafting recently. It was the perfect thing to do on a camping trip with my two college friends. I suggested it as I had done it last year and had wonderful fun. I thought I had briefed them well – even about having to sign the “it’s a good day to die” form which is what the owner of the rafting company (minnesotawhitewater.com) playfully calls the consent form. While playful, he also is very serious about each person taking full responsibility for choosing to participate in this activity and supports it with taking every precaution to insure safety for all, evidenced by 25 years in business and no serious injuries. It was an afternoon activity and we all thought that we could do something like this for an afternoon.

Well, last year when I did it, the midsummer river was lower. This year with all the rain we’ve had here in the Midwest, the river was a wee bit higher and the rapids a wee bit more wild. When we hit the second rapid head on climbing about a 6 foot wave and then skidding down a 6 foot drop meeting another 6 foot wave and dropping again, getting drenched to the bone I laughed out loud and wondered what I had gotten us into!. Our in-boat guide (thank heaven for her!) said we had done it perfectly. If we hadn’t met it head on, we might have swamped the raft. While it was tempting to bask (maybe gloat) in the compliment that we three 60-somethings could do this right, we had the next 4 rapids to face and being fully present was the only approach to take to get through and stay in the raft.

We did that. I laughed a lot, paddled hard and in sync with my buddies, kept my yellow cap on, paused in the easy water when we could, and was so focused that I didn’t notice or mind having every inch of my clothing soaked.

Suzanne and high school buddies conquering the river and some fears White water rafting at 60 has its lessons

In the aftermath of that afternoon, I’ve thought how rafting the rapids had a lot of life lessons in it. Here are some that come to me.

  1. When you take full responsibility for your life and what you chose you access power you didn’t know you had. Knowing that I took complete responsibility for myself on the river, I gave all my attention and energy to doing my part of creating the experience I wanted all of us to have. I felt a well of energy open in me that I was able to use for my intention. We often get hung up on holding ourselves back when facing challenges because of some belief that we’re not going to be able to do it. Stepping into clear responsibility activates our power to create a new path or unknown ability rather than using that same power to react in the same old patterned ways.
  2. Giving your life your best effort and working with intention pays good dividends. I wanted to have a positive experience and big fun on the river. It wasn’t going to happen on its’ own. I needed to step up and paddle with energy and in harmony with my rafting partners. I couldn’t control the river, but I could meet what came with readiness and an attitude of partnership.
  3. Working in balance and harmony in all your relationships creates more balance and harmony, gets the job done and is lots of fun. I noticed that when I wasn’t paddling in sync with the others, the balance was disturbed, there was a sense of separateness, and my effort didn’t seem to go very far. Partnering in rhythm and form produced a sense of power that met the rushing water in a way that allowed us to stream through it. I also noticed that in collaboration “the whole was clearly more than the sum of its’ parts”. The expansion that came with putting our efforts together was exhilarating and then deeply satisfying.
  4. When you focus on the task at hand you discover you can do things you didn’t know you could do. Paddling through rushing water takes a lot of arm strength. I’ve been doing weight work all winter and thought I was prepared, but at one point when I put my paddle in the water, nothing moved.   No matter how much I tried to move that paddle through the water it felt like an immovable force. I stayed right with it, focused completely on the action and then the paddle cut through the water and I was onto the next stroke. I know that all of our efforts came together in that moment and we supported each other. When one couldn’t make a move, another could and so our joint focus and effort made a difference.
  5. Meeting challenges with good humor and laughter relaxes the mind, melts fears, and opens hearts for joy to enter. After we went through a couple of the rapids we started laughing, joking, and teasing each other. My initial “oh, no” mind relaxed and the tension of fear melted into a sense of delight. Getting through each one brought even more humor and relaxation until the end and the joy from having conquered the rapids burst out.
  6. Pausing and resting is just plain good to do to restore you for the next adventure! It’s in the pause that restoration can occur, that learning from the experience can emerge, and conscious preparation for the next challenge can be planned. All of this is possible if we let go of our old beliefs and fears and connect with our ability to be fully present and alive in this moment.

From this whole experience, Christopher Robin’s encouragement to Winnie the Pooh comes to mind.

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

An eagle greeted us with a fly over as we entered the bay where we would disembark. I think she was giving us a message of job well done and thanked us for coming. I thanked her for sharing her river with us. It was the right thing to do.

May your summer adventures be delightful, energizing, and most enjoyable.
Rafting with you all the way.

About the author

Suzanne Kilkus

Suzanne Kilkus is a Soto Zen meditation practitioner and teacher and has practiced as a therapist and counselor for over three decades. She is dedicated to assisting people in expanding their capacity for giving and receiving love, and for recognizing and expressing their basic goodness in everyday life. Her path to live with wholehearted compassion and care is an invitation to everyone. She is a teacher with Open Door Zen Community in Madison, WI.