Chapter 2 of Rowga, The Yoga of Rowing by Jim Lindsey
There is no typical session of rowga.
If you meditate in a shrine room, the situation is always the same. It is always quiet and still and you sit still until you are done. This is not like our lives.
In our lives, even on the most humdrum day, the situation is never quite the same.
On our way to work, a police check might discover our outdated license. At work, we might find that our project has changed unexpectedly. Coming home, it is raining. A family member has emotional news. We are always having to be aware of and respond to circumstances.
So it is with the yoga of rowing. Before each session, you assess the circumstances, and during each session you respond to them. Even after a session, what you do with your boat will depend on the circumstances.
We can practice in this variable way, and benefit from it in a lasting way, because during our practice we are re-introducing ourselves to our basic awareness, which is unchanging and pure and never a victim of circumstances. We are learning to respond while remaining unvictimized. We are returning to a freedom of being we can bring to our everyday lives.
The following is an example of a session of rowga.
Because I live by the sea, I can see from my window that there’s sunshine on the water making little sparkling diamonds. The limp flag on Weldon’s dock across the cove shows it is calm here in the shelter of the land. Binoculars reveal a ruffled sea outside the harbor, but no whitecaps. A check of the forecast puts the wind from the north at ten knots. The tide tables have the tide going out. The conditions are favorable. Wind and current will be with me going out, and not too strong against me coming back.
The copper cod atop the boathouse confirms the north wind. A stroll to the end of the lane and a view of the Southwest Passage from the harbor to the sea reveals the breakers to be comfortably separate, each abiding over its own set of shoals. Some days the breakers form a solid line across the Passage, but today there is a path to be threaded between them.
I can go out that way if I choose.
There’s a chill in the air and some frost on the ground. This is Nova Scotia. Spring forgets itself at times. It will be even colder in the open ocean where there’s wind. I duck back in the house for my long johns.
Before I get into the dory, I put in:
> The oars, including an extra set
> A boat hook
> A bailing bucket
> A seat cushion
On myself, I put a life vest; this is ocean rowing—the vest is not optional.
These preparations are all about awareness. Awareness is the essence of rowga. You should always take time to prepare. Your preparations, like mine, can be minimal, but they should always be thorough. This lets you relax in the practice.
Don’t bring entertainment. If you take a cell phone, use it only for emergencies. You go unaccompanied onto the big water as you will go alone into the great unknown upon leaving this life.
The soul needs its lonesome adventures.
Before shoving off, dedicate the session to all sentient beings. There is no use in doing this just for yourself. Just say simply, “By the virtue of this practice, may all the beings be happy.” That is the best aspiration you can have.
The meditation doesn’t happen immediately. The first few moments are all about getting the oars into their oarlocks and the blades into the water before the breeze sets the boat on the rocks.
Then sometimes there’s a modicum of socializing to be done. Today a conch sounds across the cove. It’s Weldon, who has been out already. At 90, Weldon still fishes every morning before sunrise. He waves and I pause between strokes to wave back. He smiles because blowing the conch is like signaling the start of a race in which I am the only contestant. I smile back because I get it, and because having such neighbors is a genuine pleasure.
I don’t stop to chat.
I’m sliding out of the cove and into the harbor at a fair clip with the north wind behind me. I have to keep watch in the rearview mirror mounted on the stern. On my right is some floating seaweed that is hiding a barely submerged ridge of rocks, on my left Ronnie Duggan’s dock with its stacks of lobster traps. Ronnie calls out good morning. They are lifting the morning’s catch from their Cape Islander to the dock. A cloud of hungry gulls hovers, crying out for more scraps. More, more, more.
I feel the living sea surge underneath as I pull through the narrow granite-bordered gut that is the gateway to the Southwest Passage. The dory lifts. Her flat bottom slaps a little as she drops. I keep an eye on the mirror and the path through the breakers beyond, and at the same time watch the rocky shore and the village houses recede.
I love the thunder and thrill of having breakers near on either side. Nevertheless, it is not a time to be careless. This way out to the sea can be tricky. You don’t want to get caught in the door.
Knowing the consequences focuses the attention wonderfully.
Today the swell that is fueling the breakers is more pronounced than the mild northern breeze can account for. A storm a hundred miles offshore three days ago is the cause. This is the result just arriving. This swell is just like the people we meet, who are informed by energies from elsewhere of which we are often ignorant, and for whom the best welcome is just to be open.
Hello great big sea. Shall we go for a ride?
The dory rises slowly up the crests and slips down quickly in the troughs. The meditation proper begins.
The meditation of rowga has two parts, that of the body and that of the mind. The meditation of the body has to do with finding a physical accord with the movement of the waves.
One of the greatest instances of futility in all mythology is that of the Irish hero Cuchulain, enchanted by the Druids into seeing the ocean as an enemy and attacking the waves with a sword.
We ourselves, enchanted by our deep-seated notion of self and other, may instinctively struggle at first as if our oars were swords and the rolling waters our enemy. But the ocean is not our enemy. It is great nature, beyond being our friend or our enemy.
It is alive with a rhythm we can discover and fall in with.
There are no instruments to assist us. We have to feel our way along. When we stop blindly forcing the stroke of our oars, when we give our awareness totally to the rise and fall and carry of the waves and let our rowing coincide, something magical happens. We get the rhythm. We become part of the music of a planet made mostly of water. We know when to rest, and when to pull, and when to rest again.
In a sense, the ocean and rower at this point are no longer two different things.
They have joined.
When we stay in this groove, when we row to the rhythm of the world we encounter, we begin to tap into great nature and our own greater mind. Nagging thoughts of this and that lose their power. We are merely being. The blades of the oars flash in and out like fins instead of swords.
The land shrinks as we leave it behind. Ahead, a mere speck in the mirror, is Bald Rock. The sky is large and gracing us with sun.
We let our awareness expand.
The horizons both landward and seaward might give rise to clouds that might give rise to storms. The north wind nudging us offshore might start to shove; we keep an eye out for whitecaps as a sign of its strengthening. A fishing trawler far out, now just a speck, might end up coming our way and even getting in our way. It is good to be dancing, but we cannot dance in a trance.
There is always much to consider at sea.
This richness of possibilities gives rise to the meditation of mind. Our meditation of body has let us relax, and so our minds have become very spacious and very attractive to all kinds of thoughts.
With our uplifted heart, we might wish a loved one were enjoying the magnificence with us. That wish might lead to memories. Perhaps the reason the loved one is elsewhere is painful. A memory of the empty house we came home to one day might ensue.
Whether joyful or sad, these thoughts with their own vivid storylines might threaten to take over our session. This is good. It allows us to go further. We are on the lookout, in fact, for such wandering thoughts to occur. When they do, when we catch ourselves lost in the future or past, we have a way to engage in the meditation of mind.
Practically, this means letting our thoughts shift for themselves as we come back to each stroke of the oars. We are rowing. We are gripping tooled spruce. At the end of each stroke, we ease our grip to keep our hands from getting cramped or going numb.
We are returning to the cradle of the deep, the rocking of the great expanse.
The wind moves over us; the sparkling sea dazzles all around.
Our return to the moment of being disempowers our wayward thinking. Why? Because there’s nothing to our thoughts that they don’t get from us. We don’t have to ignore them or chase them away. We just cut our fixation. We come back to the ocean, again and again, stroke after stroke. This robs the thoughts of their food, which you might say is our blood, till their innate transparency becomes apparent.
This is the meditation of mind.
We will take thousands of strokes in our session of rowga, maybe millions over the years, and each stroke will be precious because each will propel us not just over the water but also back to our heritage of indestructible sanity.
For me, a session consists of a circuit. When I go out the back entrance through the Southwestern Passage as I did today, I round the harbour islands and come in by the front entrance. Because of the way the coastline bends the wind, this is the most frequent choice. Everything from a southwesterly wind to a northerly one blows in my favour when I go this way.
Today, because there is time and I have you with me, I make a wider loop out. I want to show you the necklace of islands offshore. We leave Bald Rock to starboard, then the grass-topped cliffs of Hopson’s Island, then Betty’s low woods. We’re bowling along with an easy effort. Because you’re with me only as a reader, the cold doesn’t bother you. It doesn’t bother me because, along with the protection of my long johns, I’m warm with the inner heat the rowing generates.
As we near our turning point, buoy AM 62, it becomes frightfully large, swaying back and forth, the bell in its derrick-like housing booming as if to call the congregation of the floating world to the most ancient of churches to hear the most primal of sermons.
I give old 62 a wide berth so as not to be pulled or pushed into it by the wave action. Then I make the turn for home by dragging one oar and pulling with the other till I have the distant steeple of the village church in the mirror.
The 30 minutes out have been no strain; reversing course changes things.
Now the wind is opposing and actually rising as it often does during the day. With her high bow acting like a sail, the dory is pushed seaward. I have to row harder. This is good physically because it gives the heart more of a workout. At the same time, it shifts the balance of the rowga session. The more the rowing is the focus, the less attention the mind needs. What thoughts arise relate mostly to the increasing challenge.
Will I ever get there? Wouldn’t it be better to have a motor when it gets like this? I can’t pull any harder!
The effort becomes so one-pointed, thoughts like this don’t matter much.
If anything, they add more fuel for the reaching and pulling. This back and forth between the physical and mental aspects of rowga is good for developing flexibility. When the ever-arising challenges of our lives on land vary similarly, we will be more prepared.
Finally we regain the shelter of the harbour and the waves disappear. Keeping in the lee of the shore relieves us of the stiffness of the wind. As we work our way in past the village stages and docks, I drop any method and just row, and watch the mirror carefully once again. We are back where things bump.
When the boat grounds on the boards of the ramp at my dock, we don’t jump out right away. We sit for a few moments longer, enjoying the transition, regarding with affection the floating world we have left.
You can blow it a kiss if you like.
I sometimes do.
To finish, I pull the dory up the ramp to the high tide mark and tie off bow and stern to the dock. The tide will float her again at some point and so she should always be properly tethered. A couple of old fishing buoys slung from the dock act as fenders to keep the gunwale from grinding. Then I put the gear back in the boathouse— oars, boathook, cushion, bailing bucket—each in its accustomed place, the more easily to be gathered next session.
That is rowga.
Much the same every time, yet always different. In fact, same and different lose their insistence a little more with each outing. As we are born along by the waves, with our practice we are continuously reborn, where everything is simply new.
It’s like that.
Now we are back on the land, but we have brought with us, in our bodies and minds, something of the vibrant energy and vast expanse of the sea.
Taking this into our lives—as fearlessness, vitality, equanimity, generosity, as indisputable evidence of indestructible sanity—benefits not only ourselves but also everyone we meet.
Jim Lindsey, while living aboard a small sailboat in San Francisco Bay, worked as a technical writer and undertook a decade of Buddhist practice and study, at the end of which he moved to Nova Scotia in search of a better lifestyle. Now a dual citizen of the U. S. and Canada, he has lived for 16 years in Prospect, a seaside village near Halifax.
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