How to Rip Like Buddha: the Art of Contemplative Snowboarding

By Rosa Crowe Allison, Photos by Adam Trofatter

The powerful winter sun beats down on me twice: once from the sky, and once from its reflection in the sparkling snow mirror. Although the wind can whip around trees and runs, feeling the cold is part of the experience. The body stays awake and aware, close and connected to the elements. I love to catch glimpses of other snowboarders and their slick, floatingly effortless moves. Our dark shadows in front of us and the blowing snow behind feels primordial, a feeling made of “Stand By Me” scenes and an ancient calling to ride out into the sunset and shred it.

I would rather snowboard somewhere than walk there. It’s an easy choice. Something about a board strapped to my feet, the ability to surf a mountain, or to cut through the cold air in flight like some rowdy earth angel—well, who doesn’t want to fly?

These Colorado peaks pull people from all over the world and all over time. Mine shafts litter the trek from the Front Range to alpine country, a ghostly reminiscence of others who were pulled to the riches of the Rockies. The legions of people stuck in traffic snakes while making the pilgrimage to our resorts are homage to the mountain’s siren call.

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When I first moved to Colorado to study Buddhist Psychology, I often escaped the confines of sleepy coffee shops, glowing MacBooks and meditation halls to integrate concepts in nature. It was when I took Buddhism to the Rocky Mountains that I realized snowboarding is a sport, an art, and a moving meditation practice, much like yoga or tai chi. Unionizing mind and body, snowboarding mimics the practice of meditation by encouraging total presence in the moment, the chance to clear the slate and have a fresh start, to have the confidence to handle the fluctuations of change. The physical understanding of these concepts, learned and memorized by the body, provide a pure sense of peace and freedom.

ON BEING PRESENT

The practice of sitting meditation serves to unite the meditator completely with the present moment. Although this is a challenge due to the not-so-stimulating interludes meditation provides, learning how to be totally present enables flexibility, connection and the ability to make choices more consciously. The meditator learns they can handle their experience, no matter how uncomfortable, boring or upsetting. This kind of knowledge leads to confidence in ourselves as we truly are.

Like many of us, my mind thinks it is in control. My thoughts appear intelligent and independent to me. Riding, like yoga, works best when the body takes over. In meditation, thoughts are looked at as a barrier that separate one from the exact moment and what is occurring within tiny constraints of time. The same is true of snowboarding. Responding with the body-mind is snowboarding’s core. Immediately assessing unexpected height, length or landing can be the difference between a superman fall and riding out a surprise. If I am stuck thinking about how I would like to ride a box, I cannot pay attention to the actual texture of the terrain park feature. The mind and body can easily work together to surrender to the earth. All that is required is letting go.

A FRESH START

In sitting meditation, the mind drifts from focus. Between in breaths and out breaths, the mind drifts far away from the purpose of sitting, off to delectable fantasies, stressful worrying, plotting or scheming. When meditators catch themselves planning dinner rather than focusing on the moment, a gentle internal redirection initiates a return to the present moment.

A meditation instructor once illustrated the concept to me by explaining that we are held together tightly, like a bundle of straw. Slowly unraveling, we can cut the string that holds the straw together, allowing each blade to fall to the floor, surrendering. With this total release, we may have a fresh start.

Meditation often appears to be a small metaphorical activity, representational of each fold of life for the meditator. Just as my focus wanders in meditation, so does my focus wander in life. For me, it is effortless to be swept away into the daily concerns and cares of my personal world. Any moment of my life might be sidetracked by a temporary goal; inspiration, concern or irritation can easily prod me from a radiant, Buddha-like state.

The mind and body can easily work together to surrender to the earth. All that is required is letting go.

But no matter what kind of distraction or ugly feeling preceded my day on the hill, it is wiped clean when I begin descending the mountain. Swishing out a fresh path on the snow is like a waterfall’s cleansing caress on the mind. Snowboarding brings me back to a joyful and radiant place—whether it’s a cheat or not, I’m not sure. But it works.

CONSCIOUS PLAY

The mountain sirens sing to me about the spirit of play and getting that permagrin to sit on my face—beautiful, buttery, fun. Those massive towering rocks are my wild playground. In the most shining bluebird sense, a day of play reminds me of younger years when I couldn’t conceive that the world was anything but a playground. It’s easy to long for tender times when infinite ease and eager exploration dominated my world view. Severing from that idyllic time is a painful thorn in the development of most humans, leaving childhood painted in sunshine and snacks.

Consciously making a choice to play and perceive the world as a playground does something beautiful for perception. Those misty nostalgic rhapsodies get replaced with the exuberant reality of adult strength and consciousness. Snowboarding as an adult allows awakened risk, graceful style and countless opportunities to bend your knees, drop down to center and let the mountain speak.

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Snowboarding is a skilled play. Beyond childlike wonder and happiness, my experience bashing through powder is rife with unfettered independence, confidence and the joy of consciousness. I can taste freedom in the wind and feel the relaxed alertness of my body sweetly taking over for my mind. Freedom is where my voyage leads to—the end of the rainbow, the top of the mountain, across the sea, or, as it turns out, within.

FEARLESSNESS, SUFFERING AND TADASANA CONFIDENCE

Snowboarding is an act of confidence, trust and commitment. The body language of fear is stiff and rigid. In order to really ride, the body and mind need to loosen, give in and relax. Sometimes as I point the rounded nose of my board down a mountain and lean in, a fleeting uncertainty will cross my mind. What will happen if I fall? Cruising down the mountain, I know that the term “breakneck speed” might answer that question. Nevertheless, snowboarding is about acknowledging this basic and very real fear—and breathing it out. The in breath is a place to hit the reset button and tap into something more magnificent—unity.

The concept of fearlessness as understood by Tibetan Buddhists is not that one is without fear. Being without fear stems from a place of ignorance and can be dangerous. Fearlessness involves acknowledging fear and then continuing on ones way, with the courage to look within the eyes of any terror. The result of fearlessness is confidence.

Meditation practitioners might develop fearlessness through awakened action outside of mediation, or from facing their own interior world on the meditation cushion. One special aspect of this brand of fearlessness is that it is not the kind of bravery that leads the fearless one to walk down sketchy ally ways at night or go off a huge jump on a snowboard. Perhaps because fearlessness is genuinely worked for from within, it is the type of confident bravery that gives the recipient the ability to share their more vulnerable side. The same confidence that allows me to execute a new trick underneath the ski lift is the confidence that lets me be emotionally honest and vulnerable with my loved ones. The side of my heart that I often work hard to conceal is less protected as a result of my embodied fearlessness.

Consciously making a choice to play and perceive the world as a playground does something beautiful for perception. Snowboarding allows awakened risk, graceful style and countless opportunities to bend your knees, drop down to center and let the mountain speak.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism acknowledges that there is suffering in the world, in life. In fact, pain is a guarantee of life, just as joy, fear and anger are. A magic by-product of snowboarding is the adjustment in attitude it provides, specifically around suffering and fearlessness. After several cast-warranting episodes on the mountain, I stopped cowering from the inevitable hovering clouds of suffering. My vision of fear was crystallized. Usually when I fall in the terrain park, it is because I am trying something new or not paying attention. I am not really “there.” Sometimes flying through the air can be disorienting and scary. When I let my fear take over it can literally blind me, leaving my body in a pile somewhere uncomfortable. Knowing what I am going to do and then remaining conscious through the process is part of fearlessness; no two-faced lies about how I will land or spin, just simple calculation. Once those looming, glooming clouds of future realities is tasted and seen, the only way to go forward is to try to spin with the karmic perfection of a six pointed snowflake, all purpose and destiny in windy circles.

The remarkable result of fearlessness is confidence. Not much can interfere with someone who is at peace with karma. The mountain stands, impervious, ancient, jagged. It offers Pai Mei’s Cruel Tutelage, or delicious clouds of snow, begging for butters and clean, steep lines. Sun shadowed warriors cover the mountain, all drawn to know its essence. As it turns out, snowboarding is also a place to know and shape your own essence. When I stopped looking over my shoulder, hunching from those gloomy life clouds, the play of snowboarding took purpose. To wake another day, or take another step, to go down another run, an acceptance of suffering has to be made. Frightening ghosts of “what if” require a friendly, even, welcome with a breath-easy release. That is the moment when a rider is able to harness the storm and ride the thunder. That is what breeds art and courage.

DISCIPLINE AND DELIGHT

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher, said that in order to let go, discipline and delight are required. This is surely true with snowboarding. Discipline involves skill, acknowledging fear and choosing fearlessness, awareness of movement and moment, and commitment—which is crucial.

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Once on a path snowboarding, there is no backing out. The first time I tried to huck off a cliff, I decided mid-air that I was afraid and jumping was a poor decision. The only poor choice was my own fear, which was reflected in my fearful body language, poor form, and awkward landing, which resulted in a sprained ankle.

Of course, by the time I decided to throw myself into the air again, I knew I was going to land perfectly or injure myself. The only answer to a choice such as that was to bend my knees and make contact with the earth. This is the same ironclad discipline that brings meditators to the cushion and artists to the canvas. The feeling of feet meeting ground and legs standing strong to absorb the impact leads to absolute delight.

Once I break out of the dark, cozy, and entrapping environment of my home, the sunshine and movements of my board build delight. Without delight, there is no motivation to progress. Who has ever known a freestyle rider who has a bad attitude and shines with their creative tricks? It’s an enthusiastic and aggressive attitude that brings delight.

Acknowledging the presence of thought, allowing my mind to arise and settle again in sharper focus is where the act of snowboarding becomes a mindful practice. Focusing, settling, knowing myself, and maintaining— this is the Upright Mind of snowboarding. I can trust my legs to hold me, trust the knees to bend, and my body to unify with the board. When all parts are present, I can let go and trust the process, knowing the board will understand the mountain.

Contemplative snowboarding can be a shortcut to becoming more Buddha-like. It allows the rider to unionize mind and body to develop attributes that change one’s self and their perception of the world. Illuminated images glow on the snow, sun shadowed warriors riding out, leaving only clean lines and snow clouds in the wind. Snowboarding not only enables reflection of the current moment, it sculpts the mind and character. Exterior surroundings shape and mold the interior world. To ride down the mountain with a modicum of fun and style, you have to let go, to give in and to ride the mountain instead of letting it ride you. That carved out mindful space within oneself is a portal to the heart of the mountain. Thoughts flow out and the mountain penetrates the inner landscape.

When sitting in endless snakes of traffic on the way to the resort, I try to imagine that each person will come back from the mountains a bit more enlightened—full of confidence, acceptance, presence, playfulness, and discipline. The practice of uniting mind and body through such play and practice is a gift. I depend on the board to connect me to the earth, let me hurtle up to the sky like a spark towards the moon, a speck on the massive spine of the mountain, a snapshot in time.

Liberty comes sweetly, when the body meditates into the sky.