I can see the wave coming, building momentum and I move to position myself to match its speed so I can meet it at just the right instant. Then it comes fully to life, towering over me. At its apex, at the height of its speed, I catch it and ride it. It is a moment of total commitment when all that build-up and mental and physical noise and buzz stop. Nothing exists but total awareness in the moment. But the act of wave riding can also be so fleeting. The wave and all its intensity can be gone just as suddenly as it came. When it breaks that is the wave’s final act!
I’ve always been attracted to the edge. That curiosity and desire to embrace the unknown, to go to the edge and lean into fear, is a powerful and important value of surfing. It’s the kind of fear that embraces vulnerability, the art of letting go. It’s a lot about risk-taking, and being really honest with ourselves. You can’t commit to a wave if you hesitate, if there’s doubt. Tony Bates talked about this in a talk he gave at the Surfing Medicine International conference in Sligo last year, how big-wave surfing can mirror those ‘critical choice moments’ on the journey of mental health. For example, the relationship of the surfer and the wave, when the surfer turns to face the wave it’s like a mirroring process, where the wave acts as mirror to who we are, it reflects our commitment, our fear and willingness to face it.
But in order to go to our edge we have to keep trying and be really okay with so-called failure – getting caught inside and being pummelled by the surf. Not giving up because right around when you want to give up, there’s a break in the waves. A core part of surfing is learning to fall – it’s the first thing you’ll most likely learn, how to fall well and safely. Surfing is so unpredictable, an entirely uncontrollable environment with a high degree of uncertainty and there has to be a high capacity for failure, or a willingness to experience failure. As Bates said, “We never learn to stay on the board until we lose our fear of failing.”
Physically, in those situations you need to be strong and prepared but big-wave surfing is a mental game. Psychologically, how do I prepare myself on those big days, when a storm is raging through the night, delivering all its energy on to a small sloping slab of rock on the west coast of Ireland in the middle of winter?
I’ve always believed surfing is an amazing tool for a mindfulness practice. It’s very much about mindfulness-in-action, or what could be called, ‘blue mindfulness’. It comes back to tapping into that state of presence. If I’m distracted or uncertain, it really plays out on those big days. If there’s anything I haven’t dealt with, it will come out. In that way, it’s almost like therapy. My mindfulness practice has helped me be really present with whatever it is I’m feeling and to be okay with that, to understand it’s okay to feel that way.
In preparation, how and where I direct my attention really matters. By focusing on the practical, the things I can control – my equipment, how I fuel my body, checking the jet-ski – it helps me get grounded. The safety checks are essential but it’s not so much the checking as the ritual – that’s what signifies to my mind what I’m moving towards and that I have to get in the right headspace. I use the fear as a call to really listen to myself.
Recent research has shown how simply being near water can have a positive impact on our wellbeing and that time spent in the water, especially the sea, can improve our self-awareness, creativity, health and reinforce our connection to ourselves, each other and nature. Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols calls this human-water connection, ‘Blue Mind’ in his book of the same name. Surfing doesn’t just happen when you’re in the water. Some of the lessons I’ve learned through surfing are massively applicable to the way we move through our day. As a life metaphor, understanding and trusting in the power of the process is so important. Wave-riding and what that really means is to be fully present to whatever unfolds.
Being in the sea can be such a transformative space and it can bring moments of joy as well as fear. But we’re amazing at being able to block ourselves from our own joy. That’s why being exposed to an environment we can’t control, the sea, matters – it forces us to allow the experience to happen, to feel the joy of that moment, without trying to control or pass judgement, allowing us to let go of the outcome, which can be a really scary thing to do.
If I truly get into why I surf, it’s because we can enter this heightened state of awareness, and we have to be really present in ourselves. It’s what is referred as flow, a state of total absorption where, if even just for a moment, there’s complete focus and immersion in the present, without any feeling of having to try. A state referred to in transpersonal psychology and integral philosophy as ‘non-dual choiceness awareness.’
In neuroscience, evidence shows that when we experience a flow state the whole brain is synchronised, firing in concert. I like to think of surfing as more like water-dancing. There’s a quote by T.S. Elliot, “at the still point, there the dance is”, about how we can find our stillness in movement. The experience of wave-riding is this suspended momen. Being able to shift our perception of time like that, especially in such a busy world, can be a really powerful thing.