Snowboarding as a Meditative Practice

By | Published: October 9, 2015

For the third and final installment of my blog series surrounding meditation, I want to bring it back full circle and describe why and how I think snowboarding and the foundational stages of meditation have more in common then most would think.

I want to draw a connection between the two because I really believe a unique connection does exist. At first I wasn’t even really aware of this connection myself; it took time deepening my own practice before I could really see the parallels. In fact, if you remember from my previous posts, I was steered toward meditation as a tool for helping me regain a sense of connection and peace that had gone missing as my life as a pro snowboarder became more chaotic, busy and complex. So for a while, I viewed the two as completely separate.

Gretchen meditating and snowboarding

But here’s what I came to realize: Snowboarding had always been a meditative practice for me, whether I knew it or not. The more I came to understand the different layers of meditation and the properties and lessons it taught and what characteristics the practice held, the more I realized I had experienced similar states and experiences within snowboarding.

I’m sure you’re asking, “What are those properties? What are those practices? What makes an activity like snowboarding meditative? I don’t see the connection.” I’m so glad you asked! To me, what makes an activity meditative is when you have a certain degree of love for it. That love moves you to practice day in and day out regardless of circumstances. The more you practice and experience the repetition of the practice, the more you become intertwined with it and the more it just becomes an aspect of who you are, a way that you express yourself in the world. As this merging begins to happen your mind is able to relax and become more silent and still. In this stilling of your mind, you uncover a single pointed awareness where you become absorbed in the activity. What it means to be absorbed is that now your mind stops spinning with thoughts of the past, thoughts of the future, judgments, labels, expectations and now that your mind is no longer scattered with these thoughts, you’re able to gather and collect all of your attention and awareness and direct it toward the experience at hand, fully. Experiencing something fully is a much different feeling and experience then experiencing something from a scattered mind.


To me, what makes an activity meditative is when you have a certain degree of love for it. That love moves you to practice day in and day out regardless of circumstances.


 

This is a state of being that is typically associate with artists, musicians, athletes, writers, engineers, and computer programmers; they all have the ability to slip into this meditative state whether they know it or not. And really the same is true for every single one of us, this state is innate within us all and therefore readily available at any given time regardless of who we are and the roles we have chosen to play out in this lifetime.

Also when we are in this state of full absorption, time seemingly stands still. An entire day can fly by and it’s as if only a couple of hours past, just like the expression “time flies when you’re having fun” suggests. You are quite literally in a different state of being in this meditative experience, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could harness this power whenever we wanted and on purpose?! Wouldn’t it be nice if we could access this power not just when we were involved in something that we really loved, like snowboarding or art, but could access this state when it mattered the most and in order to experience the fullness of life ALL the time?! I believe we can and will touch on that in another blog post coming soon!

Gretchen on a media whirlwind in 2006

 

After I won the silver medal and began to have so many other opportunities and responsibilities surrounding snowboarding, I lost that meditative experience in my life. I was no longer snowboarding every day because I allowed the business opportunities, like media requests, photo shoots, and appearances, to take precedent over the riding because I believed that I needed to make the most of this small window of opportunity to earn money and build my business and my brand. So when I did finally get to snowboard it was either for a photo or film shoot or, on the rare occasion that I was able to snowboard without a project at the center, then I had the mentality that I needed to “train” for competition and I put more pressure on myself to be productive and efficient and “get something done,” rather than doing it for the love of it. Without realizing it, a switch had been flipped.  Snowboarding had gone from being about pursuing a dream and a passion to now solely capitalizing on the achievement of that dream and passion.  Mentally those two perspectives are completely different.  Up until that point, I had always lived my life with my own inspirations and dreams at my core (even despite what society said was successful or not and what would make me money or not!) and now that I had achieved my childhood dream, I thought that things had changed and that it was now time to get serious and enter the “real” world. What I didn’t understand just yet (but what I had just experienced) is that when you are working your ass off and living from your soul’s highest purpose, everything you need emotionally, materially, physically and spiritually will come and is in fact a spin off of living from your purpose. In other words success and having what you need is a spin off of tapping into and living from your own unique gifts, talents and dreams. With a flip of the switch, because of my unconscious new intention, snowboarding and the life I was choosing became draining and overwhelming. It was no longer what brought out the best in me it was beginning to bring out my worst.


I came to realize is rather than focus on regaining the meditative
experience of snowboarding and having something outside of myself
to rely on for my peace, tranquility and happiness, it was far more sustainable
to have MEDITATION as the foundation of my life.


 

Yet while I was in it, I had no idea what had changed and I wasn’t able to see that I was now making choices from a totally different place than from where I had made them from before and that’s what was draining me, not the snowboarding! At this point, the obligations and my snowboarding were too intertwined. And so I couldn’t see how to get that pure meditative state back in my life. And I’m so glad I didn’t. Because with time, what I came to realize is rather than focus on regaining the meditative experience of snowboarding and having something outside of myself to rely on for my peace, tranquility and happiness, it was far more sustainable to have MEDITATION as the foundation of my life. Meditation is the practice of sitting quietly with yourself in order to experience the peace, tranquility and happiness that is innate within you. The other activities we talked about earlier — painting, music, writing, snowboarding, karate, running — these are all activities that you can have a meditative experience with but you are relying on something outside of yourself to give you that experience which is like relying on a prop to make you feel full. Once something goes awry with one of these activities — an injury, competitions not going as planned, media attention, deadlines, writer’s or artist’s block — the meditative foundation of those activities crumbles and changes. The only thing we can count on to remain the same and never change in this life is our own inner nature. That is what we reconnect back with when we practice meditation.  Then when we are out living our everyday lives, we are able to bring those qualities of wholeness, peace, awareness, creativity, and meaning with us in our everyday choices, actions and words.

Once you replace your foundation with meditation, the other activities can once again stand on their own. We can experience the joy and the love of these things in our lives, but from a place of knowing that we are not relying on those things to give us our sense of fulfillment, connection, and happiness. We are filled up from our inner practice and so we are able to see these activities for what they really are a way to push ourselves, grow and express who we are regardless of whether it was a “good” day or “bad” day. For me, I was able to put snowboarding back into a place where I loved it again because I wasn’t depending on it anymore. I was simply doing it for the love and pleasure, nothing more, nothing less.

Gretchen meditation

Additionally, meditation actually helped better my snowboarding. As we talked about in the last post, meditation helps put distance between actions and our responses or reactions to those actions; it helps create space and awareness. Prior to learning about and practicing meditation, snowboarding had become unconscious for me. I no longer had awareness of what I was really doing; I was on autopilot. I believe there are two types of autopilot: a consciously unconscious autopilot, and an unconsciously unconscious autopilot! Consciously unconscious means that you have practiced so much that what you are doing is now ingrained in your body to the point where you can “consciously” let go of any doubts, fears and negative nagging thoughts you may have in your mind and let your instinct and intuition take over, helping you to become even more hyper aware. Unconsciously unconscious is when you are going through the motions; you’ve done the same thing for so long that you are no longer aware while you are doing it. This can obviously create plateaus in progress and even become dangerous. Meditation helped bring awareness back into my snowboarding. And just like meditation itself, regaining this awareness took practice. It took time for me to be re-aware of what I was doing when I was on the snow.

Gretchen Bleiler at the 2009 Grand Prix events

 

This clicked for me at the 2009 Grand Prix in Killington, VT. For the first time in a long time, I became aware once more around what edge I was on as I ollied into the halfpipe, and how much weight was on my back leg versus my front leg, and what angle I took as I rode up the wall before throwing my Crippler. And while this might seem like very basic and foundational steps of awareness to someone who rides the halfpipe everyday, it was actually overwhelming and almost scary because I just wasn’t used to being aware of it all anymore and so it took a lot of energy! I had to shed the security blanket of my unconscious autopilot-ness and re-engage if I was going to break through to another level of skill on my snowboard. I had to sharpen my awareness and really feel things for the first time all over again. I stumbled a bit in this. It felt like I was riding a bike on cobblestones instead of on smooth pavement. But I knew that in re-familiarizing myself with my own awareness it would allow me to send my Crippler bigger then ever before and possibly lead to even bigger and more technical tricks in the future. It was like taking off my earmuffs and listening to my intuition again. And it was my intuition that knew the tiniest of tweaks and adjustments that would serve my body in pulling off these things that I was asking it to do. I was also more aware of what external factors could help or hurt my snowboarding by listening to my newly aware intuition. I believe this is the only way to progress to another level of skill safely when you’re in a sport such as snowboarding. All too often athletes, when they feel they’ve hit a plateau, will try to just huck themselves through the rut that they are in and obviously this isn’t the safest way to do things and can lead to some serious repercussions. Other athletes, when stuck in a plateau, will turn to a new coach or a new diet or a new trainer. I would say, “Stop!” First simply return back to your own intuition and awareness by introducing a meditation practice. This will also have the effect of becoming re-aware of your sport and your progression. Meditation can help you see the ruts you’re in without having to find an external or unsafe source to help you break through to your full potential.


There is no Olympic medal you’ll be handed at the end with a handshake and a statement like, “Congratulations, you’ve attained inner peace.”


 

This isn’t to say bringing meditation into your life will be easy or a quick fix…there is no such thing as a quick fix! To be honest, meditation takes the passion, discipline, and commitment of an Olympic athlete. Why? Because meditation is training us to be in a state of relaxed awareness. And what do you think Olympians need to be really good at? Remaining relaxed and hyper aware regardless of what lies before them. But isn’t that something that would serve every single one of us in life? To remain relaxed and hyper aware even through life’s ups and downs? We as a society are not used to taking time out of our day to cultivate this inner power. We are conditioned to go out and DO things and attain things but we are certainly not encouraged to sit still! When do we ever take the time to practice simply sitting still? Never! And because of this societal conditioning, sitting still can be uncomfortable and frustrating in the beginning. And when it comes to meditation, it’s hard to see the benefits (which is why we want to meditate…to see the benefits) unless we have put in the practice. Only then will we start to see the change we wish to see. Another part of what makes it so different is that the goal isn’t something that’s necessarily tangible and we are such a tangible society! There is no Olympic medal you’ll be handed at the end with a handshake and a statement like, “Congratulations, you’ve attained inner peace.” There’s always room to grow in your journey of inner fulfillment, peace and happiness and the more you explore it the more fully you will experience it and that’s just something that no one can measure or define for you. Additionally, there will be twists and turns along your journey. You’ll have to release expectations and judgments. You’ll have to let go of wanting to control the outcome of what the journey will look like and how it will feel. But you will continue to practice for no other reason but to practice and the journey along the way will be the point.