Beginner’s Mind: Lessons from Laird Hamilton
Books have a way of finding me. Maybe it’s just my constant state of curiousity that causes me to notice them. Maybe its the serendipity that follows me like my shadow. In our lives, there are threads that get tugged and retugged, pulling us in a definite direction as we skip (or tumble or crawl) down life’s path. I get a lot tugs at my local library, usually as I wander aimlessly down the aisles, my head tilted sideways like a bird, letting my eyes focus and unfocus on the spines and titles as I walk past. Now and then, a particular book will appear sharply in my view. It is always just what I need.
One day last year, I found my way to one such book. I would say that it was an unlikely match—the type of book, that is—but given that I was born in California, land of sun and surf, and have spent every day since my family moved from there yearning to go back to my home, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps it was just the power of my pining that led me to that shelf, the one where I saw this book:
I stood staring at it, knowing that I had to pick it up, but not having a clue why. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought that surfing was cool. How can you not? It’s brilliant. But why would I read a book about it? I’m a landlocked 30-something mother of two. I knit. I don’t surf. Hell, I didn’t even know who Laird Hamilton was. But for all that, I was compelled. I checked out the book, took it home, started reading, and couldn’t put it down.
This post isn’t meant to be a review, although the book is awesome, and I highly recommend it. The point is that something in this book really resonated with me. In the book, Laird talks about the importance of being a beginner and being ok with being bad at something. He talks about how learning new skills and activities keeps the body and mind in shape. How it fuels the spirit. In a sense, Laird, with his infectiously blissed outlook on life, uses surfing (and standup paddling and mountain climbing and everything else) as a model for explaining the beginner’s mind in a way that I not only understood, but immediately felt joyous about implementing in my life. This is something that years of studying Buddhism never accomplished. Chalk that up as another point for ecstatic earthiness. Trying to tame the monkey mind by beating it over the head with hours of stillness and meditation has never worked for me. A friend once told me, “Move the ass, and the mind will follow.” Truer words, my friends, truer words. The way I figure, if Laird Hamilton, a world-class big wave surfer, is ok with being an awkward newbie in his pursuit of learning new things, I can be, too. Liberation.
So, I read the book in one big gulp, and I tucked away the lessons inside, where they burned like a little fire in my heart of hearts. I, too, want to be a force of nature! I, too, want to spend my days under the sun, playing, working, keeping my mind and body nimble by challenging myself to do new things. It’s easy to get fired up, isn’t it? But contrary to popular belief, the greatest challenges in life are not the big ones—where the lessons are huge and obvious. No, it’s the day after the lesson is learned that is the hardest. And the week after. And the month after. Why? Because it’s really easy to slip into old habits, to get lazy. It’s like when you have a Really Important Dream… and then you fall back asleep, you lose the details. We sleepwalk in the tedium of daily life—work, bills, drama, stress—and when we sleepwalk, it’s easy to forget that we have a fire burning in our heart of hearts. Sleepwalkers cannot tend their inner fires. It is epically sad to live this way, with nothing to fuel us, nothing to feed our souls. Which is why we need the Laird Hamiltons of the world to remind us to throw a log on.
Well, I think I’ve found another passion that I’m willing to be a beginner for: kayaking.
My dad’s had an old Klepper folding sea kayak for years, packed away. A few years ago he started working on it, making it seaworthy again. I’ve been fascinated by this process—watching him recraft parts for the boat by hand, resewing seams, sanding and varnishing wood, doing mysterious things with vinyl glue. I think I was secretly as excited about it as he was. Then last year he found another used Klepper for sale, which he bought… and gave to me. Whoa, I was surprised. This was a gift that carried weight, you know what I mean? The kind of gift that must be taken seriously. Because on the outside, a boat is just a boat. But if you look again, you see that it is archetypal in its symbolism. It is a vessel, a craft, a means of transportation. The lines of a boat are something that we, as humans, know innately. It is almost as familiar to us as the ocean itself. Suddenly, I possessed something that not only could move me literally, physically, but spiritually, as well. It felt powerful, meaningful. And it needed a lot of work.
My dad did some of the repairs before he gave it to me—sewed some seams, replaced some hardware. We worked on it together the weekend he gave it to me. We repaired the Hypalon skin where it had been worn through. We waterproofed areas that had been damaged from use and age (this boat dates to the early 70’s). He showed me how it all gets put together and what still needed to be done to the boat to make it last. Then I packed it up in the car and took it home.
And it sat in the garage. And sat. And sat . For months. I told myself that it was because I didn’t have time to work on it or that the weather wasn’t right—first too cold, then too hot for being outside sanding crossframes and varnishing wood. But the truth is, this whole time I’ve been thinking, I don’t know shit about kayaks, what am I doing? I’ve been afraid of jacking up an awesome gift. Of doing it ALL WRONG. Of not belonging in the kayaking circle of the universe. I was so unable to believe in my own abilities to learn something new, something that would be physically challenging, that I let the inertia of doubt take hold. Then I remembered what Laird said about the importance of being a beginner. I thought about the fact that it would be far, far worse to let a gift like a freaking sea kayak sit in my garage unused due to fear than to give it a go and make mistakes and be an awkward dork. And I calmed the hell down.
So we planned a camping trip with my parents at Clearwater Lake last weekend—the perfect motivation to get my ass in gear. Husband is totally psyched about the kayak, too. He really wants to work on her and to paddle, and I am happy for both his help and his general awesomeness about everything. I am excited that this is something that we can do together, as we both feel that we never have enough time together. This kayaking thing has very quickly become pretty important to us both.
Which means that work must be done. We completed the first step: adding keel strips to the Hypalon. There were lots of places that were worn down to bare canvas on the hull, and my dad and I repaired those. He suggested a simple fix of using Gorilla tape to put extra protection on the keel. This would be my first solo task, my first foray into being an amateur boat fixer. Ok. It’s just tape. I could do this. But first we had to put the boat together. Have you ever seen all the parts to a folding kayak? That’s some serious German engineering.
A Klepper folding kayak (mine is an Aerius II) consists of a collapsible wooden frame which gets put together in two sections (bow and stern) and inserted into both the bow and stern ends of the skin before being snapped together to join the two halves. Then sponsons that run along each side of the boat are inflated to make the skin taut. And Bob’s your uncle. You have a seaworthy vessel. Well, Bob is my uncle.
The frames could use a little sanding and revarnishing, and I’ve already thought of some modifications I’d like to make for both comfort and touring practicality. But she is ready for the water. No excuses. Time to paddle.
As it turned out, we cancelled the camping trip in favour of doing a day trip paddling on the lake. It was way too hot—104 degrees! Really ridiculously hot. But we all wanted to paddle. And once we were on the lake, it was actually quite pleasant. The Klepper handled well. She won’t turn on a dime, but she’s very stable as a sea kayak should be. I don’t have a sailing kit for her, but I’m hoping to add that some time in the future. My dad sails his Klepper, and it’s pretty awesome. Later I paddled with my dad in his boat, and we saw dozens of blue herons out on the water. And I realized that I intensely dislike the noise of loud motorboats. When you’re in your groove, paddling silently through the water, listening to the birds and the insects and the rippling waves, and a speed boat cruises by, it really jacks up the atmosphere. On the upside, I like the wakes. ;)
Husband was a rockstar, and totally hossed out both putting together and packing away the boats in the heat. I had a case of the vapors at one point, but managed to bully through. I’ve never drank so much water in such a short period of time. I am really looking forward to the weather becoming more humane.
Husband and I are already working out a plan for kayaking regularly. We’ve also set a goal for ourselves—next year we want to paddle the MR340. Daunting? Yes. Doable? I think so. We’ll have to bust our asses getting ready, but that is the point. We’re both pushing 40, and neither one of us wants to age by way of complacency. I believe firmly that we can remain fit and healthy and energetic as long as we keep moving and keep challenging ourselves. So, thank you, Laird Hamilton. You’ve taught me an important lesson. I will revel in my beginnerness. I will play and have fun and live passionately according to my true nature, as a force of nature. Awkward or not, I will learn mad skillz and do awesome things.
Edit: Just found this gem. Laird and Gabby on TEDMED.