Luskin: Zen and the art of rowing

Print More

(HOST) Writer and commentator Deborah Luskin meditates while engaged in what she calls ‘narrative sports’.
(LUSKIN) I’ve never been able to sit still in a dark room and empty my mind. After a few minutes cross-legged on the floor, I’m likely to notice dust-bunnies in the corners, and I begin to think of all the housework that needs to be done. Sitting still doesn’t come naturally to me, unless I’m engrossed in reading a book – or writing one. I am, however, susceptible to moving meditation. I think well while walking, and even better rowing my boat.
Almost every summer morning, I rig my racing shell and row north on the Connecticut River. When I’m sliding on my boat’s rolling seat, I’m thoroughly engrossed. This is as close as I ever get to a blank screen in my mind. It’s lovely, and I’ve come to appreciate the Zen qualities of the sport.
To start with, there’s the issue of balance. The first time I ever sat in a racing shell, I nearly tipped over. It was like the first time I faced a blank page, wondering why I ever wanted to write.

Second comes practice. I’ve learned to move my oars just as I’ve learned to fill the blank pages. The more I write and row, the better I get – although neither ever gets easy.
Third, river conditions change. I row on a stretch of river between two dams. Even though I always check water levels before I head out, numbers don’t tell the whole story. There are hazards like floating debris, other boaters, and – always – the rower’s state of mind. Some days, I row like an agile water bug; other days, no matter how hard I pull on the oars, I seem to move very slowly, as if through glue. I have days at my desk like that, too, when the words flow from my fingers, and other days, when I might as well do laundry.
Fourth, rowing is – well – a metaphor for life. With my back to the bow, I have a clear view of where I’ve been, but only a vague notion of where I’m going. Even though I can’t see what lies upriver, I’ve missed near collisions by premonition. But once, after a week of rain, a well-known snag drifted to a new location. I mistakenly – or perhaps arrogantly – didn’t consider how the river might have changed. I hit the snag and was thrown from my boat. I learned by immersion that the river changes constantly, and so must I.
As much as a part of me craves the routine of my morning row, another part of me is learning that the routine is anything but the same day after day. Just the other morning, I halted my determined progress upstream to watch a bald eagle. There was a time in my life when I didn’t know enough to stop and honor life’s gifts in the random order in which they sometimes appear. But rowing is teaching me balance, perseverance, humility and grace.

Comments are closed.