A mindful approach to fishing.
“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.” -Anonymous
I just returned from a week-long personal retreat in the mountains. I had the fortune long before finding fly fishing and tenkara, of falling in love with a wonderful woman whose parents built a small cabin back in the mid-60s. A week before my 53rd birthday I had 7 days to have a solo retreat. Something that I try to do occasionally.
Being alone is sometimes one of the most difficult things we can do. We are left with our imaginations, sometimes a lack of discipline and a head full of thinking that we seem to have no control over. Our minds wander at any opportunity to virtually any topic or question. The purpose of a retreat though is not to stop those mind noises but rather to embrace them and let them go. My week included some specific activities as well as some rituals that I decided to make along the way. It wasn't just sitting in the cabin of course. It included simple meals, hiking, a little reading, a lot of writing in a journal and thankfully "Fishing as meditation."
In my younger years I used to do group meditation retreats with a school of Zen that I was a member of and many of the basic format from those retreats, I have either adopted or put my own mindful adaptation on. Small rituals in mindfulness while eating, cleaning and more. This is a good thing to do I think just before a birthday. Gives you a little time to think about the mortal coil. This article is about another part of my meditation practice. The practice of fishing.
I was attracted to tenkara by its simplicity. I spent plenty of time in past years, doing western fly fishing looking for a meditative process. It all seemed so beautiful to watch. What I found though was that the more I learned the more I struggled and the more I seemed to need to keep adding to the process to “stay true” and hope to find those moments. Managing line, mending my drift, matching the hatch, what was my rod weight again? Finding tenkara was like when I originally found meditation. Everything that was noise, just dropped away. The complications that came with western fly fishing were no longer interfering with the actions of fishing and catching fish.
The approach to fishing tenkara is pure, simple, and easy to practice as meditation. My first step in tenkara as meditation is reminding myself to be present where I am. Appreciating the moments from pulling over the car and putting on my gear to coming up and looking on the stream for a place to consider my cast.
Tenkara has taught me to go slow. This is much like with the beginning set up for seated meditation. You have a little bit of time that focus on getting to the right place to start your practice. Being where you need to be, in that place. It is about finding yourself present to the situation. I try to take my time and slowly approach a run. I try more times than not, to look at the area behind me for the clearance to cast and not end up in a tree. This has been a challenge that I am sure I share with many others. I have learned to look at how water flows. I have learned to pay attention to the stream and its features noting each rock above the water line and each I can identify below the water. I become aware of my breathing and aware of my body as I set up to make my cast. My mind flows with the line and my body makes the cast happen with a kind of slow moment by moment, motion of casting accuracy. "Only this" mind.
What is "Only This mind"?
Let me illustrate the "only this" mindset. There is a practice you can try at any time in your day. Take a small object like a ball, a rock or even a set of car keys. Toss that object into the air and watch it come down as you catch it. There is nothing in that moment but yourself tossing the item up and releasing it. We then watch the item in its process of going up and coming down. While this is happening, you might notice the movements of your body doing what it needs to catch the object. These points of attention throughout this exercise are exactly what I begin to feel with every cast. While it is not perfect, it becomes the point that I am striving to just be in no matter what else my mind wants to say or do.
As I start to feel myself in that place of "only this", I can see the current and know where I want to cast to. My intelligent mind may inform me of where a fish may be. I can listen to this thought as an informative point. Then,
as I make my cast, the line goes out and I follow the fly with my eyes and my body moves as it needs to for the gentle landing of fly forward and onto the water. Continuing "only this mind", I can then watch the fly begin to drift. I continue my slow and methodical breathing; Just normal breathing in through the nose and out through my mouth, but I am aware of this and of myself as I watch the fly move through the water. With any fortune it will be taken by a fish. If there is no take, I am back to the beginning again. Sure, my mind may try to take my thoughts elsewhere to up or down stream. There is always a new place to cast to it seems right? But rather than being spastic about it I am focused on just this one run for now. That is just like our minds to want to keep us moving from the moment we are in like a child who begs for attention when we are deeply engrossed in an activity requiring our full focus.
When a fish does take my fly, then I am in "only this" moment with the fish. I can feel it on the line through the rod and feel the moments of anticipation as I work to gently bring the fish in to my net. In time I would like to have the retrieval of my net be less of an effort. Getting the fish into my landing net, I continue the meditation. I take a moment to look at the fish and appreciate it for the magnificent creature it is. I remove the fly quickly and dip the net and fish back into the water. I can then raise it up and view it one more time before releasing it back to its home.
I think one of my favorite reflective acts is releasing a fish back into the water. When I release the fish, I watch it slip away into the depths again. I follow the fish from my view as it dives deeper and swims away from me. There is a moment of Zen here in knowing that the fish is there but at the same time not there. Where did it go? Sure, it still exists, but it has gone to the place it was before. This practice of observing the coming and going of everything is a very basic experience we have of many things in our lives every day. Nothing is permanent so we must pay attention to those moments. We breath air in and then we breath it out. It moves inside us and then moves out. The fish strikes and we bring it to us and then let it back to where it came from.
This way of fishing is one of being present to every step. This includes each step of setting up your rod. It includes taking in all that is around you such as the scenery, wildlife, sounds and colors. When we take the time to learn and practice awareness of the moment it not only enhances our experience, but it becomes something that we can take into other elements of our daily lives. I have decided after the last few weeks to share more of my practice and to encourage others to connect with fishing in a way that is more than just throwing a fly and catching a fish. I will be covering in future posts, ways that you can also learn to create a retreat for yourself.
An interesting thing happens when you slow down for this kind of experiencing of life. You savor it more, find joy in the simplicity of things and learn to be more in each moment.
I have much that I wrote in my journal over that week and much that I know I want to share in future posts still. If you have had moments like this too, share them in the comments below.
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a cuddly dog, and a very lucky cat. Dennis is an avid minimalist, wood craftsman, curious tinkerer and learner and most notably a deeply focused tenkara angler.