The Crossroads of Fly Fishing and Meditation by Bruce Ketchum
When we go fly fishing we’re not thinking about the things that cause us stress or aggravation.
We soak up our surroundings along a stream and our minds are focused on tying-on the right fly, making a good cast, watching the line extend and the fly descend to water.
All of our senses are attuned to the fly, the line, the fly rod and being ready for the take. Even if we spend a lot of time with this repetitive process without a strike, we keep at it with the same concentration. That is the point at which fly fishing and meditation cross paths; when our minds are focused entirely on one thing; when the inner dialogue, thoughts and emotions are quieted.
At its core, that is the essence of meditation.
People from various backgrounds and time periods have noticed the connection between fishing and meditation. Fly fishing writer John Gierach likened steelhead fishing to meditation, writing, “But at its best, steelhead fishing is meditational.” English poet Ted Hughes gives a complete statement regarding the relationship of meditation to fishing: “Fishing provides the connection with the whole living world. It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation; some form of communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self.”
Scottish comedian Billy Connolly goes straight to the point: “I love fishing; it’s like transcendental meditation with a punch line.” American writer and college professor Joseph Monniger encapsulates the experience when he expressed: “I go fishing not to find myself but to lose myself.”
Perhaps Henry David Thoreau understood it best when he wrote the often quoted line - “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not the fish they are after.”
When I started fly fishing I sensed a connection to meditation. I also noticed a dedication to fly fishing in others that went way beyond just catching fish. There are various names given to the kind of meditation that is most relatable to fly fishing. Two of them, concentration and focused meditation, may best relate to fly fishing and mindfulness. Focus and concentration are requirements for fly fishing; it can’t be done well without them. They may combine to give the brain a sense of mindfulness, rest and relaxation from our normal thought patterns.
Meditation is believed to reduce anxiety and stress, improve focus, memory and creativity. Improved focus, memory and creativity probably make a better fly-fisher and reduced anxiety and stress may just be the most important point to the whole thing.
Since the 1970’s, when meditation was becoming more broadly known in the US, research on its effects has been ongoing. Aided today with MRI functional resonance imaging, the research of meditation has gone from theory based thinking to genuine scientific analysis.
Researchers can actually see the parts of the brain that become active or deactivate prior to, during and after meditation. Brain scans have shown meditation reduces activity and connectivity in various parts of the brain related to stress and emotion. That is an important benefit to meditation. Stress is related to high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, fatigue, obesity and diabetes as well as a long list of other problems. The amygdalae, two almond shaped portions of the brain in the lower area of each brain hemisphere are involved with the fight or flight response and are a major player in stress. In ancient people, the amygdalae kept people alive by reacting to dangers in the environment and prompting them to take immediate, forceful action.
Perhaps in the modern world we have sensory overload; too many things that activate the amygdalae, making us respond to everyday situations as emergencies, generating stress. In varying degrees, depending on the amount of meditation practice over time, brain scans indicate that meditation may reduce the activity of the amygdalae, making us less likely to react to both positive and negative stimulus. It can take us off the emotional merry-go-round and help us to maintain calmness. If the act of fly fishing is in any way or degree comparable to meditation, then it seems clear that it is a great thing for the health of our brains and our quality of life.
MRI brain scans indicate that as we age, grey matter in the brain thins and this thinning is thought to be part of the degrading of brain function.
MRI brain scans have also shown that meditation thickens grey matter. The older we get, the more maintenance we require if we want to stay active and vigorous.
The meditational quality of fly fishing may be something that can improve our brain health as we age.
Organizations across the United States, especially in the Northwest, that are dedicated to military veteran assistance have been employing fly fishing for some time now as a therapeutic tool to help veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other stress related difficulties.
Some relate fly fishing to mindfulness meditation practice and employ both to help veterans recover a better quality of life.
As fly-fishers, we all know the great value of the environs where fly fishing takes place, the value of the natural resource of fish and the value that both play in our lives. In addition, fly fishing seems to have a potential impact on our brain health and our state of well-being that can be therapeutic for all of us. You know, it could be reasoned that a lot of time spent fly fishing is an investment in brain health.
Another reason to fly fish!
-written by Bruce Ketchum