Mastery and Navigating the Ocean

When it comes to the ocean, mastery is but an illusion. Any, and every, big wave surfer knows this reality and you’ll often hear it in the way they talk about their sport.

Who can hold the ocean taught like a liquid in a bottle, and command its tides to rise and descend? None but God.

When you spend enough time out on the water, you realize how vast and unpredictable it is. Sitting on a surfboard waiting to catch a wave, you begin to feel tiny: a part of something much bigger than yourself. With little effort, the ocean will carry you to and fro, leaving you powerless to negotiate a final destination. A bit disarmed.

And yet, to master the ocean is not to know it completely, but rather to know how to sync with its rhythms. Says Greg Long: “There’s a component to it that you can’t put into words but you feel it in your heart.” Successfully surfing the ocean isn’t about overtaking it, but rather about tuning into its deep patterns and mirroring them through body movements that go “with,” rather than “against,” them. The best surfers know this, and in a very real sense they become part of the ocean in order to navigate it with ease. The following lines from 1977 World Champion Shaun Tomson illustrate this point brilliantly:

Most of our time in a surf session is time spent not surfing, and in a meditative process. We sit and wait for waves, facing that endless horizon, thinking and meditating without being aware of it. We are in the clear open air, drifting on the rhythm of the ocean, feeling that wave energy as the tide moves in and out and the waves ebb and flow.

Mmm…most of the surfer’s time is spent waiting for waves. What a difference from how most of us live, endlessly flitting from one activity to the next, rarely taking the time to tune in to our surroundings? Life itself is an ocean. It has ebbs and flows, incredible complexity and power. Its intricate parts are deep, unknowable to great extent. But do we typically conceive of it as such?

Surfing As a Way of Being

As humans, we spend so much of our lives fighting the ocean: hanging out in the breakers screaming for air or waiting on the beach because the waves scare us. Life is easy on the beach but it lacks the sense of freedom and accomplishment of a life spent surfing. And life in the breakers is just, well, fruitless. For those stuck beachside or in the breakers, the call is to go further, deeper. The call is to swim past the breakers to the place where the waves begin swelling. For surfers, this swimming past the breakers requires a loss of control, a loss of safety. Once you’re past them, you are waiting for an undulation that will inevitably take you back through them, either standing atop them in triumph or struggling beneath them for air.

Taking a surfing approach to life means undertaking a similar loss of steadiness and security. It requires a willingness to go through the breakers, not once, but twice. At first, we must swim beyond our hardships and difficulties to see them from a distance and begin to observe them rather than just experience them. There, we will tune to the ocean and begin to feel its calm as well as its chaos. But, there we will not stay. Because we, like surfers, were made to ride the waves.

We will watch, we will listen, we will feel the ocean underneath us and around us. And then, slowly, we will begin to paddle into a wave. We will pace ourselves, because sometimes waves come slowly and sometimes they come fast. When we feel the water begin to carry us, we will jump up to a standing position and begin to balance our bodies atop the force. In that moment, we will feel a sense of power and oneness that’s unmistakable. Our position will be precarious, and temporary, but exhilarating. And in this moment, we step into mastery, ever so slightly-and constantly-shifting the weight of our bodies to complement the emerging break of the wave.

What might it look like to ride the waves in our own lives? Life coach Christine Hassler talks in her podcasts and book about “The Surfer,” a person who is able to “ride [a] feeling long enough to experience its full impact,” but who doesn’t try to hold onto it when its gone. Says Hassler, “releasing a feeling is when you allow yourself to express it without any judgment, analysis, interpretation, or desire to get out of it.” Experts in the discipline of conscious leadership refer to this position as one of “non-attachment.” Imagine, if you will, a surfer who can’t let go of that one great wave that slipped away? Or, the surfer who keeps reliving an ancient wipeout again and again. Thoughts of the past can paralyze us. Two key lessons we can learn from surfing, though, are to recognize that more waves are coming and to accept that wipeouts and near misses are just an inevitable part of the process.

A surfing mindset requires us to give ourselves grace when we slip up. It requires us to take time for rest when we need it. And it requires us to remind ourselves that the ocean is not ours to conquer. We can only take the waves as they come; and success is more about watching and feeling, “tuning our bodies” than it is about striving.

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