East Meets West
Canoeist Magazine Articles


a) - Introduction
b) - Coaching Without Words
c) - Seeing / Not Seeing
d) - Conscious / Unconscious Minds


Of all the subjects that I write about in canoeing; Access, Coaching, Boat Design, Blade feather angles, the one subject that I find hardest to discuss is an interest in Zen and eastern religions. This interest is not an easy thing for a macho kayak coach like me to admit to. Interest in Buddhist inspired thought, meditation and "awareness" is growing visibly, however, and it can be seen at all levels in the canoeing world, as well as in the newspapers, on TV, and even in the cinema.

The first point to make clear is that an interest is eastern religions does not lead to a religious conversion, I am not trying to start up a new cult, like a canoeing version of the Moonies. As a sports coach however I am interested in how people's bodies work, and how their minds work. If I learn more about these subjects I will be a better coach.

We are now beginning to realise that people's minds can work in different ways, just like a computer can be programmed to run with different computer programs. One sort of "mind program" is the Western way, a system of thinking about the world which was started by Plato and Aristotle in Ancient Greece. This way of thinking was the scientific way, where everything was broken down into parts and analysed. Rules had to be found to define everything, and rules had to be listed on paper. This mindset eventually found it's way into the early Christian church. In those days the church was intimately involved with every part of government, education and the law. So it is not surprising that this scientific, structured, analytical way of thinking about the world can be found in the behaviour and activities of most Westerners, even those that do not believe in God.

There is a different way of thinking, a different "Mind operating System" to be found in those areas of the world where Greek inspired Christian thought did not dominate. The East is one place, where the sports coach can learn about different ways of thinking by looking at Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism. Many American workers in this field, who started off in Tibet and China, are now realising that equally valuable insights can also be found by studying the American Indians on their own doorstep. Many of these people have still maintained their own pre-Christian ideas about the world, which are very similar to ideas from the East.

The Eastern mindset does not break things down to analyse them. It teachs that everything is interconnected, and if you separate things to analyse them then you loose the totality of understanding. Life in a totally interconnected world is so complicated however, that it cannot possibly be described in words, or made to follow simple scientific rules that can be taught. The student needs to be led to a total understanding through achieving insight, or intuition. The skill of the teacher is in the way that the student is taught how to perceive things for him or herself, through achieving enlightenment.

Getting back to canoeing, what is there to learn about to benefit paddling. I see it this way. We have developed one way of thinking about and teaching our sport, based on a western mindset. We talk about the "Whole, Part, Whole" teaching method, and the Coaching Scheme's "EDICT", where teaching is analysed and listed as Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation, Correction and Test. There is nothing wrong with these methods, they work for many people. But these are styles of teaching that come directly from two thousand years of structured, scientific western thought. We can also develop other sporting or coaching techniques, however, developed by studying the more intuitive methods of teaching eastern religions, which may be equally as effective, or work better in certain circumstances.

Many ideas in sports medicine and psychology are borrowed from a study of eastern cultures: imagery, mental rehearsal, massage, meditation techniques and many others. Studying sports psychology gives you access to twenty or thirty years of accumulated knowledge, but by going direct to the source, eastern culture, you can get the accumulated knowledge of twenty or thirty centuries.

Three example that I find useful are given below.

Coaching Without Words

At times, words and verbal description can be useful. At other times words can get in the way. There is a hierarchy of methods.

This is why, as a coach, I have spent so much time working in the Touring and Recreation Committee. It's mass of tours, rallies, rodeos and other organised events makes it easy for a canoeist at any level of skill to attend an event, meet other paddlers, see new ideas, learn new techniques, and be motivated by witnessing good examples of the sport through direct face to face contact.

Students always learn. We do not always need to teach. There are times when an experienced instructor will stand back to let the students discover things for themselves.

This does not mean that the instructor is not working. You could be giving support to a nervous paddler by sitting there silently but reassuringly. You could be holding back deliberately to let someone make their own mistakes and thus develop a knowledge of their own judgement. Or you could simply take somebody paddling with you as a partner. How well do you know yourself. Is your ability high enough to let someone learn simply by being with you, and being inspired by the force of your own personal example.

Although all of these techniques can encourage the students own sporting awareness, the last one is the ultimate coaching technique, the one we should all aspire to.

3. Seeing / Not Seeing

The symbol here is probably known to everybody, but not everybody knows what it means. It expresses a Taoist idea that "Everything Changes". If you seek stability in life you are doomed to failure. There is continuous cyclic movement between two extremes, and success comes from maintaining a dynamic balance between these opposite pole of life; yin and yang, male and female, dark and light, analysis and intuition, stability and change.

This idea is especially important for a coaching service, which has a need to analyse and define a set canoeing style so that it can be taught and tested. Things move on however, and canoes change shape. After only a few years the taught style will no longer work, and new techniques will be needed. This effective dynamic balance between stability and change is incredibly hard to achieve.

It is easy for the competition coach, where the stop-watch forces you to acknowledge when somebody with a new method is faster, and therefore worthy of study. But in recreational paddling it is vey easy and very human to try to ignore change, and fail to give value to young upstarts with new ideas, when these ideas are very different to the ideas you have invested ten years of your life in developing and teaching.

Many schools of eastern thought teach that you achieve the correct balance by seeing correctly. Taoism talks of "The Vision of Tao", and the first item on the eightfold path of Buddhism is "Right Seeing". But surely if you look at anything, everyone sees the same thing. Not necessarily!

Let me give you an example. A few years ago there was immense criticism of a new generation of modern young paddlers who were cavorting around the country, dropping over immense waterfalls, and generally setting a bad example by paddling with what was considered to be a very poor style and technique. The canoeing magazines published many letters from nationally known figures disparaging their efforts.

At about the same time a number of these young men went on a British Youth Expedition to the Grand Canyon. Two of the members, Jon Pearson and Alan Ellard had been told by Dave Manby of Marcus Schmidt's "world record" attempt at Lava Falls, fifteen descents in two hours (portaging back up each time). They set out to beat it and did so, on the sixteenth descent throwing their paddles away and shooting Lava falls paddling with their hands only. Not bad for two sixteen year olds.

When you look at John and Alan what could you choose to see? One person could see two young men who do not paddle with the canoeing style that we currently teach, and are therefore totally wrong. Somebody else could see two young men reaching out to new levels of achievement, and who are therefore, gloriously, wonderfully correct. Both observers look at the same object, but they witness different things, depending on what they have programmed their minds to allow themselves to see.

4. Conscious / Un-Conscious Minds

If the first two examples are about coaching, the final example is about my own personal paddling, and it is the example of most importance to me. I know from discussions with a number of other paddlers, especially slalomists and squirtists, that it interests many others as well.

I am interested in the difference between the conscious and un-conscious (or sub-concious) mind.

We can paddle deliberately and consciously, or we can paddle automatically, intuitively, with the mind on auto-pilot. Many paddlers find that this sub-conscious, intuitive control is smoother and better, but as soon as you become aware of it, or get under stress, the conscious mind takes over and your paddling becomes jerky and less smooth.

Before becoming a sports coach I worked in the Royal Navy, as a Nuclear Submarine Operations Officer, and we faced the same problem there. You could "fly" a submarine through the water using the manual controls, and this was not always very accurate. You could use the computer, and drive the vessel on auto-pilot. This was much smoother, but the machinery could not respond well to changes of plan, or changes in conditions such as the water density. The best method of control was to leave it in auto, but then continuously monitor the system, and adjust the settings if needed with constant fine tuning.

What was interesting was that this method was also very enjoyable and rewarding. There was the satisfaction of moving four thousand tons of machinery with exact precision, but an additional buzz from being "in tune" with the vessel, intuitively predicting when the controls would move, watching the computer move them, and feeling the boat respond under your feet. Man and machine in perfect harmony.

As a canoeist, how do you train the mind to leave your muscle control in auto, but still be conscious and aware of what you are doing, without taking over.

In the fifteenth Century an Indian poet called Kabir faced the same problem, but not knowing about nuclear submarines he described it in a different way:

Between the conscious and the unconscious the mind has put up a swing:
All earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,
And it never winds down.

I like the imagery of a swing, moving forward into analytical consciousness where you can see what is going on, and then swinging backwards, blindly, into intuitive, automatic action where you are not quite sure where you are going. The trick is to control the swing's movement, slow it down, and then try to stop it. You are suspended exactly in the middle, with a mind that is both conscious and unconscious, watching itself work.

You could be a slalomist aiming for a perfect break out, watching yourself turning a foot too low and making a mental note to adjust next time. Or you could be a canoe tourist, watching yourself note the beauty of a bankside flower, and appreciating that moment for it's own value in a stressed and busy world. The paddling techniques are different, but the mental skills are the same, react intuitively but be aware of your reaction.

Kabir's poem ends this way:

Everything is swinging:
Heaven, earth, water, fire,
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds and it made him a servant for life.

Many sportsmen talk about special moments when their movement and awareness was perfect, an almost out of body experience when they felt themselves to be watching their own actions. I see this as directly analogous to my nuclear submarine example. The trick is to realise the importance of these short special moments, and then see if you can seek out the coaching, the study and the exercises which help you lengthen the moments of awareness, until they occupy every second of your time on the water.

I have deliberately not given too much detail about the exact techniques that I use in my coaching, or for myself. Start your own research, the fun is in the looking.

If you want to make a start, however, one good book is "Zen in the Art of Archery" by Eugen Herrigel. This was the very first of the Zen based sports books (published in 1953). It is the source, the simplest, and to my mind the best in showing the values of Zen. It is especially good in emphasising the importance of "ritual". The value of many eastern mind exercises comes in endless repetition of a simple familiar task, which helps to calm and empty the mind, leaving it open to deeper thought processes. Meditation and chanting can achieve this, but so can sports, dance and many other activities. Try looking at the "My favourite paddle" articles in Canoe Focus over the past year or so, where most of the descriptions have been of familiar, often paddled bits of water where the paddler has found peace and calm.

Another good book, especially for those with a scientific mind, is The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. It gives a wonderful guide to the difference between western and eastern thought (you can ignore the bits on quantum theory if you need to, without loosing the value of the book. I did.)

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