Mindful Canoeing

A Swan on the Dordogne

A Swan on the Dordogne

What Is Mindfulness

“The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.”

“A mental state achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”

This is what wiki has to say: “The practice of mindfulness involves being aware moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective. When practising mindfulness, one becomes aware of one’s “stream of consciousness”. The skill of mindfulness can be gradually developed using meditational practices that are described in detail in the Buddhist tradition. The Five-Aggregate Model, an ancient link between mind and body, is a helpful theoretical resource that could guide mindfulness interventions. The term “mindfulness” is derived from the Pali-term sati  which is an essential element of Buddhist practice, including vipassana, satipaṭṭhāna and anapanasati. It has been popularized in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn with his mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program.

Mindfulness is also an attribute of consciousness long believed to promote well-being. Large population-based research studies have indicated that the idea of mindfulness is strongly correlated with well-being and perceived health. Studies have also shown that rumination and worry contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both rumination and worry.

Clinical psychology and psychiatry since the 1970s have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people who are experiencing a variety of psychological conditions. Mindfulness practice is being employed in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, such as bringing about reductions in depression symptoms, reducing stress, anxiety, and in the treatment of drug addiction. It has gained worldwide popularity as a distinctive method to handle emotions.

Clinical studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general, and MBSR in particular.  Programs based on MBSR and similar models have been widely adapted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and other environments.”

At the Chateau Belcayre on the Vezere river

At the Chateau Belcayre on the Vezere river, Perigord, France

Mindful Canoeing

Let me first say I’m not an expert on mindfulness or a Clinician or Doctor or Psychiatrist of Psychologist. Everything I say here you must take with a pinch of salt.

However I do think messing about in boats on easy tranquil rivers in the bosom of beautiful countryside is a way to live ‘in the moment’ and to leave the busyness & business of life far behind.

Our canoe tours leave all the complicated decisions behind on a relaxing vacation where perhaps your only concern is whether you want to paddle bow or stern on this particular day and whether you should think idly about paddling with someone else.

We take you from lovely inn to lovely inn, very often, with the inn being right on the river. Your luggage miraculously appears at our next stop. As if by magic we pull over on the river bank to find our picnic lunch already prepared and ready. The only decision to make being whether you fancy a glass of wine or would rather have a sparkling water today.

On the river we generally paddle in tandem. You don’t even have to paddle half the time. The river taking us in the right direction even if you have to work ever so slightly to keep the boat straight and away from the edges.

Our rivers are exceedingly quiet. We usually have the river to ourselves, we sometimes pass a sleepy fisherman and in the height of summer a small beach of sunbathers and children & dogs swimming. Even the villages we pass doze in the summer heat. The sound of traffic is far away. Perhaps an aeroplane drones in the summer sky.

All we hear above the susurrus of the river bubbling and the murmuration of the leaves in the riverbank trees are the quiet trills of songbirds, the occasional agitated quack of a duck or the crawk of a disgruntled heron forced to move on downstream. In the spring a collective warbled song of frogs sometimes arises, as if from nowhere, and then finishes again.

Generally the air is silent. No sound accompanies the fluttering dragonflies and damsels dancing in the light between the river shadows. Silent are the anguished flights of butterflies as they flit across the river.

The swooping flights of the wagtails lull the lazy to sleep. The flash of an azure kingfisher brings the observant alert once more. You might hear a plop here or a splash there. A water-vole perhaps or an otter. Perhaps even a late-season quince dropping off the tree.

It’s easy to be mindful in such an environment. To idly drift down river, one hand in the cool stream. Dreaming of nothing on the one hand and watching the world go by on the other.

The sun glints and sparkles on the water. You slide the boat over beneath the shade of the overhanging trees if it starts to get too hot. If it gets too hot you can dangle your hands and feet over the side. Trail your hat in the water. Put a wet hat on your head. Sometimes we stop for a swim where the river lies deep. Sometimes we swim & walk downstream push our canoe in front of us. Water fights often ensure. Shovelling the air full of cool crystals.

We usually paddle two by two in tandem canoes. You can go solo if you prefer. If we are an odd number on the river (!) then I usually guide solo but it is often fun to swap your canoe partner on some days.

I think paddling tandem has a nice element of mindfulness about it. With two in the boat you don’t always have to concentrate on paddling and keeping your boat straight and out of the tiny troubles of overhanging branches, shallow reaches and that rock which seems to lure your canoe towards it. Your partner can take the strain whilst you doze in the warm sun or think about taking a photograph if only you could be bothered to rummage around in the water-proof bag for it.

Also their is something very therapeutic about not facing one another in a canoe. Somehow this makes talking about things much easier. Any topic can be brought up and your conversation stays on the boat and even another boat quite close by cannot overhear a thing. I’ve often found almost complete strangers can open up and talk about the most personal things when they have their back to the interlocutor – and vice-versa too – when you are talking to the back of someone.

Conversely this seating arrangement is also eminently suitable for not saying anything. For sitting quietly in the rhythm of paddling. Letting the slow strokes measure the summer beat of time, the gentle movement and soothing sounds amplifying a smooth gliding drift of both thought & mind.

Being on the river will soon bring the feeling of not having a care in the world. A personal care that is, for it should certainly bring forward the thought that this, the river, and the environment that makes it, forms it, and the flora & fauna that depend on it, is where our care should be.

Célé, Inn-to-Inn Guided Canoe Trips

Black-eyed sheep under the Chateau in Cabrerets, Lot, France


As mindfulness has become something embraced by companies and all the people frazzled by anxiety, I wonder how many of us believe that it is possible to buy inner calm and contentment.

The difficult commercial thing about meditation is that you don’t have to pay for it. You just need space & time.

But how can it be worth it if you don’t pay for it?

Hence Mindfulness.

This ancient Buddhist practice, sounds fine. But there’s something so offensive, so limp about the way it’s marketed, and even more, the way we have leapt at it. Why are we so keen to turn ourselves off? Why are we so desperate to stop thinking? And why are we so keen to pay for it? I’m sure most of us could benefit from meditating for a few minutes a day, but rather than buying tools to teach us mindfulness, can’t we simply work out the method from the word?

The end result of this paid-for passivity is surely a world where, rather than noisily trying to change the world, we are all content silently within our own heads, earbuds in, and eyes closed.

Hence Mindlessness.

Horses on the Cele

Horses on the Cele

Alternatives to Mindfulness

Before Mindfulness became so ubiquitous if you had anxiety or depression, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was seen as the solution.

And there is indeed much scientific evidence for its benefits in treating depression, anxiety and addiction.

As with most things it’s not for everyone and there are alternatives.

Before CBT, Freudian psychotherapy was the ‘thing’.

If none of these appeal, you could try these  other options.

Solution-focused hypnotherapy

This builds on the idea of a short-term talking therapy, adding a layer of hypnosis to achieve relaxation, and then neuroscience.  After an initial consultation, the process starts with a physiological explanation of stress.

The practitioner describes the vicious cycle of going to sleep agitated, not getting enough REM sleep and operating in fight or flight mode, allowing the primitive part of our brains to take over and fire negative thoughts. A mixture of positive thinking, lying down, and being read relaxing visualisations and positive messages calms you enough to get a proper night’s sleep and get you out of the stress cycle.

Breathing exercises

Seven-10. For 10 minutes every day, inhale for seven counts and exhale for seven counts.  Many breathing exercises like that have their roots in mediation, and the ultimate breathing exercise is, perhaps, doing hatha yoga.

Exercise and diet

Never underestimate the positive psychological impact of spending a little time taking care of yourself physically. There have been a number of studies recently about the impact of exercise and diet on depression and anxiety. They can make a bigger difference than antidepressants.

Don’t have to go sports mad – it’s just about increasing your activity levels. Even walking can have amazing results. Team sports, meanwhile, provide human interaction, endorphin boosts and raised adrenaline levels.

Likewise, sugar and caffeine feel like essential crutches in tough emotional times, but only make you feel lower. When Cardiff university psychologists gave one group of subjects fruit snacks for 10 days, and crisps and chocolates to another, the fruit group experienced less depression, anxiety and emotional stress than the crisp gang, who reported greater fatigue and cognitive difficulties.

Creative therapies

Music, dance, drama or art can help people express themselves, feel connected to their bodies and find a way to process more difficult emotions.

Horse riding

Equine-assisted therapy can relieve negative emotions, with recipients learning to read non-verbal cues, trust, nurture and be assertive, while gaining greater self-esteem, self-control, empathy, self-awareness, emotional awareness and the ability to stay in the present.

Horses are sensitive animals, so to be able to hang out with them and influence their movements, you have to overcome your nerves and be physically assertive. Communing with most animals brings psychological benefits, but there’s a theory that the bigger the animal, the bigger the boost.


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