During my recent trip to Costa Rica, I admitted to myself a mental obstacle keeping me from improving my surfing. Although I have been able to routinely catch waves and get turned down the wave, I am still struggling to develop much style or body control while riding. I am still a nervous surfer, afraid of big waves even when they are breaking gently. This is mental detritus left over from stubbornly attempting to surf during low tides in Dominical, Costa Rica, a place known for waves that rear their ugly head and punish rookie surfers. Dominical at low tide is no place for a beginner. It’s the type of break that breeds true surfing fear. Why did I insist on paddling out into this madness?
Impatience and Fear, a Recipe for Failure
For most of my surfing experiences I have always felt rushed, like I was running out of time on my short trip or that I needed to hurry up and get back to work. (This feeling of rushing is probably the reason I have struggled so much learning to surf because it is opposite of the required mentality.) I often felt guilty about surfing, like I should be working instead, or hanging out on the beach with my girlfriend. Feeling a desperate need to learn to surf with insufficient time or coaching, I attempted to surf in any and all conditions, even when the wave break wasn’t right and pounded my body into the sand or held me underwater for long enough to cause true panic. During a few of these experiences, I thought I might drown, and my monkey brain has made an association with big waves that has proven tough to dissolve. (I freely admit that my definition of a big wave makes real surfers laugh.)
I have panicked at the face of perfect big waves that could have given me the ride of my life. Instead of riding them, I chickened out, paddled into them and dove under. No amount of breath hold training has rid me of this fear. I trained until I could hold my breath for 3 and a half minutes at rest, which should give me the confidence to hold my breath easily for 20 seconds during strenuous activity (This is typically plenty of time even under dangerous waves). No dice. Fear is my worst enemy.
Working Through Fear: Mind and Body Hacks
Although the fear persists, I have made progress against it by having greater upper body strength. I am now strong enough to hold onto a relatively large board (7’9”) under any wave pounding circumstances, which I couldn’t do 2 years ago. This is improving my buoyancy about 100 fold and my confidence about 2 fold (scaredy-cat phenomenon at work). Also, as I learn to read the incoming waves, I am more and more able to conserve energy by not paddling for too many of the wrong waves. This ability to read the waves has been a huge challenge, but is probably the most important skill in surfing because of energy conservation. Catching waves is hard work and requires intense bursts of upper body strength followed by intense core stability and balance. Being exhausted by the time I pop up always ends in a further energy sucking wipe out. Even worse, being exhausted leads to fear and panic under water.
Once a surf coach in Mexico told me, “Man, you need to relax. You’re working too hard and not using your head. If you get one good wave in a session, that’s a good session.” This advice is impossible to follow without letting go of any sense of urgency. It means forgetting that I only have 2 days left of my vacation and I might not get to surf again for 6 months. It means forgetting about my flight time, my job, or whether someone is tired of waiting for me on the beach. It means sitting on the surfboard and breathing while watching the ocean. That is all.
Mindfulness Helps Monkey Brain Learn New Tricks
This mindful surfing practice reflects my meditation, which continues to prove fiendishly difficult at times despite 2 years of daily practice. Taming my “monkey mind” while on a surfboard is easier. Consider that the aim of meditation practice is to fully experience the present moment paying attention to the senses alone, or perhaps just one’s breath. Now consider the following stimuli: gentle ocean breeze on the face, sound of waves, gentle rise and fall of the body, taste of salt water, smell of the sea. It turns out, when I pay attention to all these things and stop worrying about all the other mental bullshit, it becomes easier to be prepared for the next wave. Without a doubt, my top 5 wave rides of all time have been preceded by clearing the brain clutter with simple attention to the body’s senses.
Reward for Placing Attention in the Right Place
Yesterday was my last day in Costa Rica. I paddled out for a morning session knowing I didn’t have much time and I had a flight to catch at 11:25 a.m. There would be a one hour drive to the airport. Soon, I would be heading back to work and I was behind on paperwork. Payroll taxes were due. My employees were having problems. When I got past the breakers, I took a deep breath and made a decision about where to put my attention. I smelled a campfire. The offshore breeze was cold on my face. I heard birds. The low sun reflected on the water was blinding and sparkly. I breathed and waited.
Waves came and went. I kept breathing and waiting. A wave approached and I paddled for it without thinking too much. I felt like I could catch it, so I paddled hard. The wave raised up and launched me forward. My board must have been 10 feet above the trough. I popped up, aimed left, and absolutely hauled ass into the wind for the fastest ride I have ever had. Strangely, I hadn’t noticed how big that wave was until I was riding it. My mind was elsewhere.
Read my post about how mindfulness meditation changed my body.
May your mind be where it ought to be to live this moment.