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My Turn: Embracing the challenge response

  • Jean Stimmell fishes in the Suncook River earlier this month.

    Jean Stimmell fishes in the Suncook River earlier this month.

  • Jean Stimmell

    Jean Stimmell

  • Jean Stimmell fishes in the Suncook River earlier this month.

    Jean Stimmell fishes in the Suncook River earlier this month.

  • Jean Stimmell fishes in the Suncook River earlier this month.
  • Jean Stimmell
  • Jean Stimmell fishes in the Suncook River earlier this month.

When we think of meditation nowadays, we think of someone sitting cross-legged on a cushion focusing on her breath or on the flickering flame of a candle in a no-stress state of blissful tranquility.

Other types of meditation can be quite different. The meditator can be active, as opposed to being at rest; the object of his meditation can be anything he chooses; and the meditation itself can be challenging and involve stress.

I found confirmation for this last week when I went fly-fishing for the first time since 2004 (judging from the date of my last fishing license). That was the year I became more mindful about not killing other sentient beings if I could help it.

Still, every spring I would daydream about times past, reveling in nature’s glory, wading in babbling, sun-dappled streams, feeling vitally alive, matching wits with a fish.

The urge to fish grew stronger this year, so I decided to try my luck on New Hampshire’s Free Fishing Day. The weather turned out to be gorgeous, and the Suncook River was still coursing along at a good clip but not too swiftly for a 69-year-old man stumbling around in heavy waders.

Amazingly, all my old gear still worked; my floating line didn’t sink, my waders didn’t leak, and my dryflies hadn’t been ravaged by moths. Equally amazing – like one never forgets how to ride a bicycle – I still was able to present a dry fly gently on target and do casting contortions like Houdini to escape snagging my hook on overhanging foliage.

Grounded in “The Now,” I lost all track of time: three hours went by in what seemed like an instant. My body and mind became one, vibrant and fully alive, a blissful feeling that continued afterwards, even though I was sunburned and lame from tripping over submerged boulders hidden by the glare of the sun.

Perhaps, I thought to myself, I had tapped into my hunter/gatherer DNA. Of course, in my case, I wasn’t hunting to kill: the few fish I hooked, river roach and small bass, were safely released.

Certainly, I reverted back to a primordial state of being, becoming one with the ever-changing river in all its manifestations: the dance of dappled light through the chartreuse leaves, the flutter of red wing blackbirds and the antics of a young heron, the swirl of the windblown currents punctuated occasionally by the ripple of a rising fish.

With every cast of my fly, I had to be ever so vigilant and mindful, keeping the line taut, ready to set the hook in that nano second it takes for a fish to explode out of the water and grab the bait but before he spits it out in disgust, realizing she has been fooled by dead feathers and deer hair.

Fishing that day was a glorious experience. The next morning I had another surprise: Reading the New York Times, still basking in the afterglow of my fishing experience, I had a synchronistic rush when I came across John Coates’s essay “The Biology of Risk.” Coates confirmed the notion that meditation can be active and even stressful. He says we get a rush from the right amount of stress – like fly-fishing in a river. “We thrive on risk taking,” he said. “In fact, the stress response is such a healthy part of our lives that we should stop calling it stress at all and call it, say, the challenge response.”

He points out this stress mechanism is always hard at work taking in information nonstop, calculating what movement might be needed and preparing our body to execute it. In fact, according to many neuroscientists today, it may be the essence of who we are: that our brain is primarily designed to plan and execute movement.

“We do not process information as a computer does, dispassionately; we react to it physically,” he wrote. “For humans, there is no pure thought of the kind glorified by Plato, Descartes and classical economics.”

If he is right that we are incapable of pure thought, perhaps we are also incapable of pure meditative repose. But, even if that is the case, all is not lost: John Coates’s essay points us toward another variety of bliss.

Whenever we are stressed by the novelty and uncertainty inherent in a project we are passionate about – whether it be fly-fishing, gardening, art or motorcycle mechanics – our stress mechanism responds to this challenge by releasing more hormones to prepare the body for action. If everything meshes, we become fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, completely absorbed in the activity at hand.

The end result is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, which Csikszentmihalyi calls being-in-the-flow in his classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Certainly, “being in the flow” perfectly describes my spontaneous joy: standing in the flow of the Suncook River fishing.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist who lives in Northwood with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)

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