Zanshin - Mountain Buzz

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Old 11-08-2011   #1
Paddling Since: 96
Join Date: Feb 2009
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Don't know if this has been posted here before but a quick search didn't bring it up. It seems related to the current thread about willingness to die but deserving of its own thread. Written by Doug Ammons.



People differ greatly in how they approach running rapids. The mindset for how you engage harder whitewater develops over a long period of time. It changes as you progress, ebbing with setbacks and flowing forward with success. It is also built deeply on your training and practice, and sheer time on the water making decisions and moves. Beginners and intermediates often ask questions about how to approach rivers that are hard for them, and they receive thousands of suggestions for how they should do it.
Those who never have an accident – be it for skill or luck – typically have a nice simple feeling of excitement and anticipation. The combination of their natural abilities and the Grace of God gives their minds a confident feeling that everything will be fine; some even become cavalier and seem disrespectful. Others have a harder time of it, and confront demons of different sorts. Those demons might be the result of an accident or a bad experience, or perhaps a friend or instructor who burned into their mind the image of some impending disaster – a horrific broach or being trapped underwater – that they can’t shake and whose specter seems to hide around every bend. Most people are somewhere in between – feeling the fun but also a bit uneasy and lacking confidence as they reach higher levels of difficulty.
Among the suggestions I’ve heard for dealing with harder whitewater, and especially Class V, are comments like, “If you’re not nervous you shouldn’t be here.” Or, “You should be as nervous as when you first started.” I agree with the intent of these statements, which is to remind you that running harder rapids can put you in situations where it is possible to be injured or killed. They underscore the idea that you should respect the river, not be overconfident, and take the situation seriously. However, I totally disagree with what these statements actually say. I don’t think they capture the right frame of mind, and that’s because the people saying them don’t have the right concepts. They know what they mean, but they don’t have the words to say it very well.
The problem is that nervousness isn’t respect, it is fear. Think about what “nervousness” means. Its synonyms are “anxious”, “tense”, “edgy”, and “uneasy.” If you’re truly anxious about running a river, or tense and uneasy, then I’d suggest that you shouldn’t put on. Don’t make a habit of running things that scare you; that’s overreaching and bad judgment. Other than exceptional circumstances such as an exploratory expedition or a carefully chosen next step in personal challenge, it is probably foolish to pursue your recreation into the realm of serious nerves and anxiety.
In general, feeling nervous should be taken as an intuitive prod that you are about to try something you really shouldn’t be doing. Listen to that inner voice. But if it’s not nervousness that we should feel, then what is the mindset one needs to run a river in balance, with confidence, respect, and with the proper sense of care no matter how challenging it is?
About 20 years ago I came across a word from the martial arts that perfectly describes how I feel when I run difficult rapids, and it is what I believe the proper mindset is in kayaking or any adventure sport. The word is “Zanshin.” It is translated in many different ways, depending on the martial artist’s background. The literal translation is “remaining mind” and it refers to the fluid alertness felt after an intense experience such as a martial arts bout. Originally in feudal Japan during the era of the warring states, it would not have been a bout or a sparring match, it would have been a battle to the death. The higher the stakes, the more important it is that your emotions not get in the way.
A more general and poetic translation of the meaning might be “the state of relaxed mental alertness in the face of danger.” This came from describing the ideal state a samurai experienced as he was about to go into a battle where he could easily die – the feeling of being totally alert and completely relaxed.
This is not anxiety or edginess. It’s a different dynamic altogether, a concept representing a different sense about the river as well as how we best face its challenges and potential dangers. In the martial arts, zanshin is assumed to come from the rigors of many years of careful physical and mental training, done with focus and discipline. The goal was not just to train the physical skills, but to train the full mental and emotional balance: facing danger without anxiety or tension, completely open and ready to act instantaneously. In some ways, this kind of seriousness of purpose contradicts what many people, particularly younger carefree paddlers, think about what they do. However, it is also a ready outgrowth of spending many years dealing with rivers at all levels, especially those paddlers pushing upward and taking on the hardest runs.
This state of relaxed alertness is in total contrast to working oneself up to fight, or “psyching” oneself up for a run. Those things are only required if something fundamental is lacking.
Running a hard river is not a battle, and it should never be thought of that way. However, it can be a very serious undertaking. I don’t mean to imply that we should fight our way down the river. The emphasis of zanshin is on the character of how you approach the run. When you understand what is there and what you can do, and you have the confidence and skill, the correct mindset will appear and you are not scared. This is a much stronger and deeper level of dealing with danger. The Japanese developed it as part of their reality during the battle-scarred, feudal era in Japan, where war was a way of life and virtually all citizens took part in it, while the professional warrior class, the samurai, lived and breathed it at all times.

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Old 11-08-2011   #2
Paddling Since: 96
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Physically, it is a scientific fact our reaction times are faster when we’re relaxed than tense. But zanshin as applied to kayaking is far more than that, because it involves the honed skills peculiar to working with powerful, chaotic whitewater. Even moreso, it involves mental and emotional relaxation, even in the face of situations that are frightening to others. It has to be based on an accurate confidence, one built on what you know you can do, a synthesis of mind and body, of action and success.
Most people tend to think of fighting as explosive emotion, probably because we don’t do much of it. But if you want an education in the highest levels of skill done with complete consequences, study how the samurai trained. Zanshin was the culmination of their great skill and composure in the face of danger and possible death. It was a perfect expression of Zen: acting with commitment without being weighed down by second thoughts, doubts, and emotional tangles. Being entirely present in each moment. This is why the samurai embraced Zen as professional warriors. I propose that a modern version of this exists in kayaking. We are not in a battle, the river is not an assassin or even our foe; but it is infinitely complex and can be deadly. You can read a line in a rapid and feel yourself into the river, but in the act of paddling you have to be prepared at every instant for the river to make powerful, sudden convulsions that you haven’t anticipated. Your skill and awareness, your quick reactions and instantaneous judgment are what keep you alive and safe. Understanding the water, honing reflexes and skills, and feeling secure in your competence create the feeling you belong. You aren’t nervous, you are alert and balanced. You have zanshin.
When I first found this word, I realized immediately that it was what I had been doing ever since I began running difficult whitewater. It is not a delusion, and it isn’t something you can fake. It comes from one place only: an accurate reflection of what you are capable of. You must intuitively know that your capability matches what the river requires.
There are other implications. First, kayaking whitewater is indeed a martial art in certain senses, and zanshin means the same thing here as it does in swordsmanship.
Identifying zanshin in kayaking illustrates the deeper side of what we're doing, which to me is seeing ourselves flowing with one of the powers that created the world. It is a larger perspective that is humble and defined by respect, rather than being scared, fighting, or self-centeredly pouring our ego all over the river. Our sport, like all adventure sports, is a spiritual connection with nature, including her greatest powers and dangers. Treating as less than that will keep you mired in ego. And ego always creates nervousness and not zanshin.
Second, while I have been stressing danger involved with running difficult rapids, the concept applies to everybody no matter what they paddle. It is a question of having the proper mindset, built on training and confidence in what you can do, for whatever you face. Whether you are a beginner on Class I your first time out or an expert on a Class VI first descent, your ideal should be to blend with the water, pour yourself into its flow, and feel everything it is doing. Your ideal is to belong there. You may not always reach that, especially when you are beginning, but when you reach the state of zanshin, you’ll know you belong.
This is a beautiful ideal of doing things out of trained balance and respect, again, because you belong there, as compared to "hucking". Dudes who are hucking drops are choosing a very different way of interacting with the water, and their purpose is more egocentric, forcing their will into the scene rather than “belonging”. I saw some footage on a blog the other day where a guy – a very good young paddler – hucked a drop he obviously was terrified of. He was stuffed completely out of control, just manhandled, then rolled up at the bottom pumping his fist. Another segment showed a guy paddling off a 70-footer, landing poorly, and pumping his fists like mad when he rolled upright. That is hucking. You’d never see a samurai pumping his fist. He would be shifting his gaze and taking in the surroundings, composed and ready for the next move – illustrating “remaining mind”. His mind continues to be engaged and alert, rather than overflowing with relief because he was scared and the danger is past. Look for that contrast when you watch people kayaking, and look for it in yourself. Running rapids you’re scared of is the definition of poor judgment, regardless of the outcome. Hucking is the opposite of zanshin.
Lastly, it’s a good idea to be more precise with our language and deeper with our philosophy. We aren’t the first people to come upon danger in nature, we’re only one of the latest in a long line that stretches back to the beginning of humans. Our challenges are self-imposed instead of being demanded for our survival. It would be a mark that we are using the gift of human thought to have something more than adolescent bravado describe what we do.
When I ran my hardest solos, I was steeped in zanshin most of the time despite the extreme exposure. I was in the middle of immense wilderness canyons, running hard class V+ and VI, feeling completely in tune with my environment. There were several periods where I did not reach that level, where I was faced with situations that jarred me out of it. That was a shock, but each time I quickly shifted back into that sense of flow. Finding that space is a beautiful feeling, and zanshin is the key. It is not something you can bootstrap to, but an outgrowth of who you are and how you approach the river. It is the outcome of the same long-term commitment to skill and awareness that a good martial artist has. Don’t mistake it for “cool”, it might look like something similar, but it isn’t. Cool implies some distance, while zanshin means you are completely present and attuned to everything. It is contrary to ego. You have to remove ego from the scene because it just gets in the way. Famous Japanese swordsmen like Musashi and Tsunetomo referred to it also as “the void”, probably because that described the transparency and lucidity they felt.
When something is extremely well learned, you are no longer conscious of it as a separate skill. It is merely part of you and your surroundings. That is your goal. Always work to prepare your skills, both mental and physical, and you will find something deeper and more effective than nervousness to guide you in your journey with the river.
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Old 11-08-2011   #3
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Old 11-08-2011   #4
thornton, Colorado
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Thanks Phil U. for taking the time to post this thread. It has alot more about living than dieing and that is always a good thing. I really enjoyed reading it.
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Old 11-08-2011   #5
All over, The USA
Paddling Since: 1920
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Thanks for those words and insight. Many of the concepts spoke of I have read about years ago but I have forgotten. Definitely something to get back to.
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Old 11-27-2011   #6
SLC, Utarr
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good words Phil U. thanks for putting that up.
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