Surfing: Lessons for Life
Learning to Surf has Helped My Journey in Life.
A few Maine summers ago, with Fall not too far around the bend, a good friend invited me to go surfing with him. As a long time scuba diver, ocean swimmer, and beach explorer, the waves had always been calling me to catch a ride, so I accepted the invitation. I had actually tried surfing, one time, many years ago, but I could never get out past the rough California surf to even try standing on the board. Even though the Maine waters are cold, on this particular evening, the water temperature wasn’t too bad, especially since I had my shorty wet suit on. As I leaped through the incoming waves, borrowed surf board nestled under my arm, I started to melt and relax into the waves, while the worries of the day were gently washed away with each surge. I could tell this surfing experience was going to be much better than the one of 25 years ago.
My friend provided some tips, and off I went, trying to stand up on the board for the first time. Honestly, I never could stand up for more than a few seconds on the board that evening, but I was hooked on surfing and knew I would go again. I found another way to connect with Pachamama, or should I say she found a way to call me back into her loving embrace. What made the evening more sacred for me was watching the sun’s orange brilliance melt into the horizon, only to be replaced by the yellow moon and countless stars in the deep night sky, and sharing food and conversation with some new surfing friends afterwards.
Following that summer evening surfing experience, I spent the last two winters taking lessons and learning to surf in the Pacific waters off Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was while my wife and I were surfing in the adorable surf town of Mal Pais, Costa Rica, when it dawned on me that surfing is very much analogous to the journey of life, at least my life.
Surfing for most people probably starts with a lesson on the beach. The instructor lays out the board or draws the outline of the board in the sand. You practice laying on the board, focusing on position, paddle stroke, where to look, and then actually standing up on the board. I don’t know about other beginners, but this certainly seemed manageable for me, even with an artificial knee and permanently broken fibula in my left leg.
Whoa, I could not have been more wrong. Standing on a sand drawn imaginary board or on a board resting on the sand is much easier than standing on a board that is being carried or tossed about by a wave. Think about it, surfers are standing on this relatively small piece of fiberglass or wood in the expansive, majestic, and sometimes violent ocean. That’s crazy………….but, yowza, it is so exhilarating.
And this is where I started to connect the dots between surfing and life, just as I am getting ready catch a wave in Mal Pais.
One) Breathe, Paul, just breathe. I love the ocean and waves, but for some reason, trying to get up on a surfboard causes anxiety for me. Some of the anxiety is the good kind, you know, when you are pumped about what is going on, but most of this anxiety is more about fear and trying something new and, even, uncontrollable to some extent. Breathing reduces that anxiety. The wave is coming, so breathe. Life is coming, so breathe, slowly and deeply.
Two) Trust. As I get ready for the wave, I can look at her with fear, or I can can look at her as a friend, one that asks me to trust her. Mother earth, her wave, asking me to trust her instead of fearing her. A lesson to carry in all aspects of my journey, have faith in the partnership between human and earth.
Three) Relax. A recent surfing tip from a new friend in Mal Pais created a significant difference in my surfing experience. For a couple of days, I was struggling to stand up on the board. She told me that just before I was standing up, I was actually gripping the sides of the board, and that grip meant I was anxious about standing up on the board. Instead, what my friend recommended, was not to grip the edge of the board, but to place my palms open on the board, like a push up or plank position, and to let the board carry me. Changing my hand grip from one of fear to openness brought a whole new partnership with the board and then I was easily standing up on the board. I know I struggle with trying to grip or control life, way too often. I am still learning to stand in my own truth and on my own path with open palms instead of a controlling grip.
Four) Look ahead. Probably for most new surfers, the first few times, as we try to stand on the board, we are looking down at our feet. Its a natural reaction, one done out of fear of losing balance. What I quickly learned in surfing is that as I launch myself into the standing position, it is crucial to look ahead and not down. This is a small adjustment but such a difference maker.
I am pretty confident I have always been seen as ‘different’ by most people. It has been lonely at times, even when surrounded by loved ones, but now, more than over, I am looking straight ahead. There is a vision and a reason for my quest, whether its on the surf board or in my personal journey, but I am far better at staying focused on that vision and what is ahead of me, and surfing is a great way to hone in on that vision.
Five) Balance. Needless to say, balance is a huge factor for a successful run on the waves, and for a healthy journey in life. Balance actually incorporates many of the aforementioned qualities. Breathing. Relaxing. Trusting. Looking Ahead — A Vision. But surfing and life require an even deeper balance, from my perspective, one that originates from the core or essence of our being. My soul flourishes when I balance physical activity with stillness, community with solitude, and, finally, creating as I feel called to, in this case, writing.
Activity-Creativity-Stillness-Community-Solitude. All are needed in life, but in a healthy balance. Surfing actually captures all of this. The creativity comes in the design of the boards and in the way surfer rides the waves. Last year I was totally mesmerized by a young Hawaiian body surfer who used her hands to ride the waves. She was magical in how she blended in with the beauty and energy of those crazy high waves. The stillness comes in the preparation exercises before you enter the water, and when you are sitting on the board, in the vast ocean, waiting for the next best wave. Solitude is found in the ride itself. Just you, the wave, and nature. Community is waiting with other surfers for the next big wave, while the sun is fading on the horizon, or in meeting up at the beach bar to share stories about the day’s adventures on the water.
I found all this when I went surfing a couple of summers ago in Maine, and that is why I keep coming back to learn the sport and to walk this path.
By the way, if you read this article thinking I am this really good surfer, then I have misrepresented myself. I have yet to ride the outer waves successfully, as they toss me about like I am a towel in the washing machine. The inner waves are still teaching me a lot, and I am okay with this because surfing is this kick-ass, spiritual, fun, and challenging experience.
Go figure. So is my journey.
So much gratitude and respect for life, her experiences, and for surfing.