Photo by Snake V. on Unsplash

Encountering nature from the perspective of being on water, every sense fully attuned, focuses us in the present and brings unexpected gifts for living.

Four years ago, when the newly emerged Covid virus was constraining every part of our lives, I was in a place that wasn’t quite boredom, but more ambivalence with life. I had forged a long and successful career that was now behind me. I hungered for a creative outlet, but nothing got my juices flowing. A general sense of malaise weighed me down like a rock tied to my spirit.

With summer looming on the horizon and the allure of being able to breathe freely, and presumably more safely, outdoors, I made a decision that seemed more practical than inspired at the time. I bought a kayak.

Deep attention as a path to presence

Over many journeys, kayaking became an unexpected tutor for being in the moment, fully awake and receptive to nature and its spectacle of color, sounds, and scents. 

The silence and solitude that accompanied my voyages fostered acute awareness. Blooming lily pads turned into magical realms where gem-colored dragonflies landed as if picking up fairy-size passengers. Instead of a monotone tangle of bramble and weeds along the creek banks and shorelines, succulent colors emerged: deep purple wild grapes, bright yellow crabapples, bushes dripping with ruby red berries. Clusters of daisies and black-eyed Susan’s mingled with orange tiger lilies. 

Croaking frogs and the sudden flap of wings are amplified when you’re at water level; every sound suddenly strikes you as a coordinated symphony that you’re careful not to disturb. Even smells are heightened. Late in the summer, the scent of decaying wood and thick algae replaces the earlier fragrance of freshly melted snow and spring blooms. Imagination ignites. A bump from underneath could be a mythical serpent or a playful beaver. 

Immersed in the stillness that comes with traveling by water, I fell into mindfulness. Nothing existed except the present moment with every sense engaged. Slowly, my deep attention opened a doorway to explore places within me that had become cluttered with outdated beliefs and needs like a storage space left to gather dust. Drifting on a still pond or mirror calm lake, my senses captivated by the wild embrace of nature, I rekindled curiosity, joy, and enchantment. Self-examination of what had passed and what was still left undone led to a new spurt of creative energy. 

With each foray in the kayak, I slipped more easily into being present and a deeper consciousness of water as a living spirit, and not simply an elemental substance. Paddling, I moved with the flow of the current, not against it. With little effort, the wind determined my direction; the waves provided the cadence that my breathing and heartbeat matched. 

Learning how to live like water

Kayaking surprised me most by guiding me to a deeper understanding of how to live. Go with the flow, it beckoned. Detach from outcomes. Trust your inner guide to move forward. Recognize the cycles of beginnings and endings and let go of the clutter.

I came to see my kayaking excursions as a form of sensory meditation. These were not practices of emptying my mind, but filling my senses and losing the imprisonment of Self to the freedom of no-thingness. Adrift on the water, I let go of all the shackles of past labels and expectations: I was not that woman, that identity, that set of behaviors or form of self-expression, but just IS-ness. 

Like water which is flowing, rhythmic, and ever-changing, I was able to see myself as an elemental, creative force receptive to inner impulses and trusting the voice my own wisdom.  The same way I learned to feel the current in the water and paddled without struggle, I allowed ideas to emerge organically and feel the rightness of an unexpected opportunity. With the same alertness to obstacles and changes in the weather, I became vigilant to repeating old patterns and my ego getting in the way of clarity and calm. 

Water–our very birthplace–calls to us to let go of our structures, our distractions, our uncomfortableness with looking deeply within.  Caught in its currents and swells, we are gently rocked in our primordial cradle and returned to Being. We slip easily into contemplation–a gentle awareness rather than the exhausting mental analyzing that often leads to unproductive, circular thinking.  We enter, what psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, called flow. 

Research tells us that immersing in nature, whether you’re walking barefoot on the earth or paddling a kayak down a slow, meandering creek, reduces stress and provides spiritual nourishment. We lose our dependence on clock time and tap into a moment of blissful eternity.  It is life without needing purpose or satisfaction, but offering all answers.

Elle Harrigan is a contributing writer for the Religious Naturalist Association and hosts the Instagram community @livingwildwisdom focusing on mindfulness, creativity, and spirituality through encounters with nature. A Certified Intuition Practitioner (CIP), she is currently working on a personal growth book that focuses on the power of nature to unleash our inner wisdom.