What I learned on a SUP this summer…


This is my first week “back” to work. As if the last 3 months on sabbatical have been “away” from work... Perhaps I’ve been focusing on a different kind of work — more a life’s work, than a job, just as my office has been in lakes, rivers, woods and bike paths and my time has been spent in thinking, feeling and breathing rather than in doing, deciding and busyness.

I started my change in pace with some big goals for my sabbatical:

  • to renew my spirit and rejuvenate my soul
  • to increase my physical, emotional and intellectual strength and resilience
  • to refresh my creative spirit
  • to reflect, ponder and take time to think about big questions, issues and ideas

At the start of the summer, I mistakenly thought I could put those goals on my list along with “get groceries” and “water the plants” and I’d be checking the boxes and moving on, fully ready to step right back into the shoes I stepped out of in June.

I learned countless, invaluable things this summer, but have come to realize that my 4 goals will be a lifelong work in progress rather than items I check off as complete. In pursuing my summer sabbatical I unexpectedly fell in love with stand-up paddle boarding (SUP). I think some of the lessons I learned (and re-learned) this summer can be summed up as teachings from the SUP.

It is easy to get started — if you just try. SUP is not rocket science, curing ebola, or mediating world peace. It takes some basic equipment, some water and a will and desire to try something new. Throw in a little curiosity, the basic ability to make mistakes while others watch, an understanding that the worst that can happen is that you will fall off, and you are good to go. You don’t have to be a super athlete or take training. Get a board, put it in the water, and stand on it. Anyone can do it. Anyone. And I think everyone should try it. Life is full of small opportunities, new ideas, and potential adventures that we so often just walk on by because we are too busy, too focused on task, too consumed with our own importance to try. The sheer number of moments, situations and interactions that can bring joy to our lives, and the lives of others, that we miss because we don’t give it a try is enormous. I may be back at work, but I plan to live life at a pace where my answer to situations and experiences is “yes” when presented with the opportunity to try something new.

It is good to be humbled. Every time I got far out into the wind and water, or I laughed out loud with joy at the experience of hitting the waves head on, nature humbled me. The wind would pick up, the swells would increase, I’d be unable to get around the breakwater because the waves would beat me back. A storm would roll in, or I’d realize the wind was tunneling down the lake or river and I was making great time going with the wind, but it was going to be hellish coming back. Nature is always more powerful than we are. We think we master it when we face it, read it, understand it, but it doesn’t care that I’m out there in the middle of the river. I’m just one part of a large and powerful system, and when my ego rises with my skill, ability or even just the joy of meeting a challenge, it is good to remember, that I’m part of a larger universe, and my needs, hopes and desires are no more, or less, than anything else.

The view is different. If you’ve kayaked or canoed you are low in the water and can see clearly what is close to you, and you’ve got a stable base. From a SUP you can see far away, all around and straight down into the water. You can also feel with your feet. I find that when I’m on the water my feet become part of the board, and I can move together with the board as the water changes. The perspective of being connected to something powerful, with little barrier is akin to spiritual. I used to say that public participation is my church. I think that after this summer, I’d change that to being on a SUP. I want to remember that feeling when I’m thrown off balance in other parts of my life — what are my instincts telling me? what is coming towards me on the wind? what am I feeling in this moment? Accessing those other sources of view and perspective will allow me to make better, fuller choices that make use of all the information available.

Finding something to still your mind, and connect your body and soul is a prerequisite for a happy life. A few hours on a SUP is like a religious experience, where time stands still, you work your body hard, become part of nature and your mind slows down and stills. The flow of being on a SUP lasts for days, and I can call it up again when I need a break (FYI, for more on the wonders of “flow” watch this TED video by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi entitled Flow, the secret to happiness). It also puts into perspective all the distractions of life, and the call to be busy, important and focused on task and activity. In the scheme of things, none of that matters. I think we all need to find that thing that brings us perfect flow, and unites our minds and bodies together. SUP is a total body workout, and builds your core and balance as well as your legs and arms. It makes you physically stronger — and also provides a rhythm and pace that acts like walking (or paddling) meditation. Imagine how much less reactive and self-important, and how much more thoughtful and reflective the world would be if we all spent an hour a day on a SUP!

It brings me joy. Life is hard sometimes, and occasionally throws challenges and surprises your way that can be overwhelming. Life is short and precious, and sometimes we spend our time and energy focused on the pressing, urgent and loudest things. Not always the most important, valuable or treasured things. Or the things that create happiness in our lives or the lives of others. I learned that time stands still when I SUP, and I get a chance to re-think my priorities, where I will spend my time and energy and how I can improve my own choices for happiness, and how I can best make choices that will contribute to the happiness of others, and to making a difference in the world. To do that well, I need to draw on a well of happiness that I refill frequently. Learning to SUP has helped to fill my well of happiness this summer. And we all need that centre of joy if we are to make a contribution to others, the world and the people we care about.

Of course winter is coming to eastern Canada, so I’m going to have to plan a trip to escape the snow so I can SUP this winter. But that will be another journey and another blog.

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