There’s a lot of talk about meditation being “the next big thing.” It’s practiced by more than 10 million Americans, and it graced the cover of Time magazine last year. By this point most of us have gotten the memo: Meditation is good for you! But it’s so slow, so difficult, so “traditional.”
But what if meditation could be exciting, even thrilling... like climbing Everest or surfing Mavericks? What if, instead of dimming the lights, closing your eyes, and fighting off the urge to nap, meditation was a matter of pushing off and sticking your paddle into surging rapids?
From Backyards to Bear Country
Growing up a Jewish kid in L.A., my idea of “the wilderness” was playing amongst the trees in a large backyard with someone’s mom bringing us a “protein boost” every 20 minutes. So a few years ago when my brother suggested a trip to Alaska, I was in! A real wilderness experience would surely give me lots to write about, plus embolden my masculinity. Picture the stereotypical rugged outdoorsman—a cross between a lumberjack and the Old Spice guy. That’s the transformation I thought awaited me.
After the four-hour flight from L.A. to Alaska, I set out with bear bells jingling on my belt, bear spray in my left hand, survival snacks in both pockets, 125 SPF sunscreen slathered on my face... and this was just to walk from our hotel to the rental car during on first day in Anchorage. Hey, when you hear about the regular bear maulings that take place in Alaska, even in urban areas, I was not about to take any risks.
I soon discovered Alaska is Colorado on steroids. Everything is bigger, stronger, more beautiful, and more dangerous.
The highlight came midway through the week when we went whitewater rafting. Dressed in our full-body wetsuits (lest we fall overboard and go into shock from the freezing water), we paddled in water so cold, any contact felt like a million needles penetrating our fingers and palms. Despite that, it was gorgeous. We enjoyed the brilliant July sunshine, drank crisp Pale Ales, felt the surging rapids, and celebrated an absolutely spectacular afternoon.
The guide pushed ashore and said, “Thank you very much. Great to meet you, and enjoy the rest of your time in Alaska... unless you want to stay on for the class-five rapids.”
No thank you! I started to disembark when my brother said, “Dude! We didn’t come all the way to Alaska to wuss out!”
Facing the Rapids
The guide warned us, “Class-five rapids are very dangerous. If you fall out of the raft, it won’t be long until you go into hyperthermia. And it’s a pain in the butt to get you back in the raft. Not to mention, you have to watch out for bears feeding on salmon at the edge of the river.” (Just what you don’t want: to catch a bear mid-dinner and look like dessert.) The guide continued, “To stay in the raft, you have to get leverage against the rapids... that means... row like hell!”
I would have been fine looking at some mountains, smelling the fresh air, maybe catching a fish or two. But bears? Freezing water? Rapids? I needed to be held.
Still, I’d traveled all the way to Alaska with my brother for “the trip of a lifetime,” and I was determined to make the most of every moment. So we pushed off, and down we went! The water felt like a million buckets of ice poured on my head. (Talk about an ice bucket challenge!) The force of the rapids converged on me like a 300-pound lineman. The screams of those in the raft reminded me of those heard in a death-defying drop on a massive roller coaster. My arms burned as I rowed with every bit of force and strength I could possibly muster.
It was the most exhilarating adventure of my life... and a great lesson. But what does facing class-five rapids in bear country have to do with meditation?
Saying YES to the Moment
Much like nature, life is filled with challenges in love, business, health. The only way to come to that volatility is to embrace it with big vitality, stern resilience, and the ability to say “YES!” to whatever you are facing.
As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes, “The script is always changing, and saying ‘yes’ keeps you in the flow, pulls for creativity, and makes it more fun. Try saying ‘no’ out loud or in your mind. How’s that feel? Then say ‘yes.’ Which feels better, opens your heart more, and draws you into the world?”
Whether you are out of shape, reeling from an injury, burdened by work, or facing class-five rapids, the tendency is to turn away, to avoid change, to let the unruly brain make unhealthy decisions. These changes are the unwelcome, frozen water, and our instinct is to jump out of the raft and say, “No thank you!” and go home.
But that day in Alaska, I learned instead of taking cover, what I needed to do was dig deep. Each intense stroke of the paddle into the freezing water was yet another way of saying YES! YES! YES!
Meditation as a Means to Say “YES!”
That “river” of which I speak is not just in the wilderness but also the unceasing stream of thought that surges through our minds. There is a craft, a ritual that allows you to explore this river’s force and depth and let it carry you on the ultimate adventure.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her pop culture phenom Eat, Pray, Love that the journey within is more daring and more intense than climbing the tallest mountains or exploring the deepest oceans. While a guide can go with you atop Everest or down a rushing river in Alaska, the journey into your mind and heart can only be a solo adventure.
That's why meditation is so important, so powerful, and so misunderstood. The vast majority of the population have not yet embraced meditation because of the stereotypical notion that it’s about leaving your mind “blank.”
Meditation is so much more than that. It is a volatile, intense, powerful quest to the heart of who you really are. Curious? Try it.
A Thrill-Seeker’s Meditation
Take a moment to find a comfortable place at your desk, on your sofa, or wherever you might be reading this, and allow that most obvious and most powerful vehicle, your breath, to awaken.
We take more than 20,000 breaths in a 24-hour period, and many days go by without paying attention to the sound of a single breath. Watch how something so simple is so deeply soothing to the mind: On the inhale, feel strength. On the exhale, let go.
As you breathe, each thought that comes up in your mind, each thing you have to get done today, each bill you need to pay on time, each email you are remembering that you did not reply to: These are all rocks in the river... These rocks, these thoughts, cause the river to grow, to quicken, to rise. This is a far cry from the meditation of still lakes and calm skies. This is your reality, and your reality is intense!
The choice is yours: To let these distractions pull you out of the raft and into the river (a feeling we call anxiety or stress), or to stick your paddle in, keep breathing, and say YES!
To the strife of your relationship and your willingness to dig deeper... YES!
To all the challenges of your life which, put in proper perspective, are there to strengthen you... YES! YES! YES!
Emerson said, “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile.”
In other words, you can cower, or you can stick your paddle in! It’s a choice we make each day, each moment, each breath: To say no… or to say YES YES YES!
Dave Romanelli is a health and wellness innovator and the author of Happy Is the New Healthy: 31 Ways to Relax, Let Go, and Enjoy Life Now! This article is an expanded anecdote from this title.