One of the biggest challenges for us as paddlers (and as humans, in fact) is how changeable our feelings are. Unexpected or unpredictable situations on the river can seriously exacerbate this. So this week’s article is all about addressing our feelings and adapting our practices.

Fickle Feelings

Anyone with even a small amount of human experience knows that feelings are peculiar things. Emotions can be transcendent, powerful and exciting. At other times they can be an utter nuisance!

As the world around us changes, we experience joy and sadness, anger and fear, jealousy and longing. These emotions give colour to our world, shaping the way we view it. And that can change, sometimes unexpectedly and rapidly, on a daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute, basis.

Emotions happen to us. They are our innate response to the world around us, to the situations we enter into. To quote John Piper in Finally Alive: “feelings are echoes and responses to what my mind perceives.” In other words, we do not, and cannot, control our feelings.

Moreover, try as we might we cannot force a change in our emotions. As C.S. Lewis wrote in 1950: “we can’t produce them at will and mustn’t try.” Attempting to wrestle our feelings into submission will more often than not end in unhealthy suppression.

Dynamic Environments

For kayakers, all of this complexity of emotion is only worsened by the unpredictable and complicated river environment. At least in normal circumstances, our feelings are the one changeable element in a situation. But on the river, a rapid will never be the same for two minutes together! Rivers are, by nature, in flux.

So now we, with our unchecked, fickle feelings, are entering into a naturally unpredictable environment. On those facts, it’s no wonder we can become frustrated or run into problems. Most common of these problems is a perceived disparity between our present state and where we want to be, where we “should” be.

From here, the physical manifestations are logical: poor decision-making, high stress and faff at the put-in or during shuttles, pushing beyond the healthy barrier of our capabilities etc.

But it is not only the physical manifestations that are significant. The psychological aspects are important too. Allowing ourselves to be driven by emotion can cause panic in new situations on the river, or frustration at a perceived lack of success, and at worse can even rob our successes of their savour.

So what can we do to avoid our experience being dictated by feelings?

Positive Practices

A phrase I have come to love and abide by is this: “I cannot control my feelings, but I can control my practices”. What does that mean? It means that I acknowledge my fluctuating emotions. I recognise my propensity to respond erratically in different situations. I accept that I cannot wrestle my feelings under control.

But what can I do? I have the power to control my practices. Which become habits. Which, in turn, inform my attitudes.

Essentially, this means that I have a set of practices I employ each and every time I go kayaking. In fact, some of them are practices I seek to employ throughout every aspect of my life.

These practices help me to define my experience. Rather than trusting feelings, which would cause me to have wildly variable experiences, I apply consistent routines. These routines involve learning and developing the capabilities of my body, maintaining a thankful and open heart to the situations I am in and regulating as many physiological aspects of my paddling as possible.

No-one can anticipate every detail of a river trip. However, with a consistent set of thought-out practices, we can respond to every situation with calmness and grace, rather than allowing emotions to throw us into a state of disarray!

To see what some of my kayaking practices are, check out this video.

What do you think? What are some of your routines and practices? Or some that you might like to try moving forward?