The Wisdom of Surfing

Share & Comment

tumblr_mm7eyiTZ8r1rx4xrmo1_500Living among tropical Asian beaches this summer gave me the opportunity to learn to surf. For a sport that appears so simple and straightforward it’s surprisingly difficult. The learning curve is steep and the mistakes quite unforgiving. Even the slightest miscalculation, lapse in paddling, or loss of balance can result in waves slamming you underwater in a jumbled heap. Regardless, it was a fun and rewarding experience, one that I recommend to anyone who wishes to try it.

Over the years of coaching, I’ve made countless analogies between dating and other activities: poker, weightlifting, basketball, public speaking. Poker and basketball do a good job of covering the numerical approach to being a single man — you get so many shots and expect to miss most of them — while weightlifting and public speaking provide good metaphors for the gradual, painstaking process of overcoming fear and building confidence through repetition and discipline.

But surfing falls into a category entirely of its own. It’s analogous not in mechanics or analysis, but in a philosophical, and dare I say, spiritual way.

In Bali, I spent two weeks with a good friend of mine who is a hardcore surfer. We hit the waves almost every day and to watch and learn from him was oddly enlightening. He told me that surfing for him and most other aficionados isn’t so much a sport or even a hobby, as much as it is a sort of religion. He didn’t know how else to describe it. But in his estimation, it was “something more” than other sports: a therapeutic and meditative release that almost entrances one while on the water. And once you enter into that trance, that connected state with the most fundamental element of life, you always want to come back. “It’s more a way of life,” he said. I nodded pretending I understood.

Yeah, OK dude, whatever. But after spending day-after-day afloat with him and dozens of other surfer dudes, I began to sense what he meant.

The physical act of surfing, although far more strenuous than it looks, is fairly plain: you paddle to a wave, you stand up on said wave, and then you ride the wave. Rinse and repeat.

But the actual process of surfing involves more than that. Most sports require certain traits beyond pure athleticism. Football requires toughness and resilience, an ability to play on through the pain. Baseball requires concentration, knowing pitch-counts and exactly where/how to swing to best affect the score.

I would say surfing requires mindfulness. Similar to the mindfulness that one cultivates through meditation or some forms of therapy. Presence. A constant awareness and connectedness with that which occurs Right Now. Below are some lessons and wisdom that surfing teaches and applies to many areas of life.

I intentionally left out the direct correlations to dating and leave you to figure them out (it shouldn’t be hard). The points are open-ended and subjective. I realize this post will appear slightly esoteric and lofty to some — not to mention anachronistic to any Northern Hemisphere reader — but still, I hope it offers a bit of insight, even to those who have never surfed before. And perhaps, just perhaps, some of surfing’s more beautiful and meditative moments — white sandy beach behind you, calming yet powerful water surging and lapping against you in steady intervals as you recline on your surfboard, eyes to the blue-green horizon, awaiting the next swell with a tranquil exhaustion — maybe such images and lessons will rub off and bring you a little comfort during this holiday season… in between bouts of freezing your ass off.

It requires a baseline level of physical health and conditioning to even participate. What surprised me most about surfing was the physical fitness necessary to participate. I always assumed you just kind of floated out to where some waves were, hopped on your board and went — like a deformed liquid version of snowboarding. Not the case. Your arms will get tired and sore. Your stomach will ache and you will become exhausted. The sun beats down hard and the tides are unforgiving, pushing and throwing you with their lunar whims.

To even take part in the game, you need a baseline level of physical conditioning. If you’re massively overweight, or undergoing surgeries, or malnourished, or an alcoholic/drug addict, you can count yourself out right now. Get your life together. Like anything, your health takes precedence. If you aren’t in at least presentable shape, you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.

You must put yourself in a position to succeed. A significant part of surfing is placing yourself in the place of greatest opportunity. Often the difference between catching no waves and catching every wave can be a matter of 10 meters. And when you factor in tides and winds, maintaining a position of opportunity can presents a constant and grueling effort. And this doesn’t even consider the skill of knowing where waves are going to crest and break and fall. Again, five meters too far up or five meters too far back can make all of the difference.

This aspect of surfing requires constant attention and focus to the bare minimum: Where am I? Where am I going? What am I doing? And it often requires the wherewithal to question if you should even be out there at this beach to begin with. A healthy sense of self-doubt and questioning can lead one to the place where he gives himself the greatest opportunity with the least effort. This is important. As even a momentary lack of this awareness can result in another guy catching what should have been your wave.

You can’t control the wave, you can only control what you do with the wave. An exceedingly common mistake in life is axiomatic in surfing, obvious to the point of not even needing to be said: You are nature’s bitch. If she wants to give you opportunities, she will. If not, then tough shit. No matter how great or amazing or sublime you are at what you do, if opportunities don’t come, or if they peter out under you, then you’re left alone to sink. And when the opportunities do come (they eventually do), if you don’t take advantage, if you don’t spring into action immediately and go for it, you’ll be left on the sidelines. No guts, no glory.

Some days you will get no opportunities, other days you will have more than you know what to do with. Your power is how you choose to perceive and respond to the opportunities. A day of minuscule swells and horrible off-shore wind can ruin your afternoon, or you can accept that it’s simply not your day. Some failures can’t be helped and can’t be learned from. Move on.

At first, every opportunity will result in failure. There are no shortages of opportunities. The moon is not going anywhere and neither is the ocean. The question is if you are. You’re going to fail many, many times in a row. Some of these failures are going to be painful. Some will be embarrassing. You will get discouraged. And after each failure, you’ll be forced to turn around and paddle all the way back to where you started. It’s grueling and frustrating and you will want to give up.

But no one who rides waves got to ride them without those failures. No one. Some get the failures out of the way early and quickly. Others it takes years. But if you ever want to ride on the waves, then you must pay the price in determination and grit.

When it’s over, you swim back and begin again. Every wave dies. They all end. Even the largest, scary and exciting waves die out in a piddle and subtle whoosh of nature. Leaving you with two options: wade in, towards the sands of the beach, or paddle back out, and begin once again.

Print Friendly

Did you like this article?

Every couple weeks I send out a newsletter with new articles and exclusive content for readers. It's basically my way of keeping in touch with you and letting you know what's going on. Your information is protected and I never spam.

Subscribe below to stay connected.

16 Comments

Leave a Comment

  • Reply

    SolveMyGirlProblems

    6 months ago

    holy shyt this post is genius.

    Gonna pick up surfing this summer.

  • Reply

    Ariello

    6 months ago

    Great Post, great blog! Please, write more of this stuff next year. Happy holiday!

  • Reply

    Brett

    6 months ago

    The last point bothers me. Are you saying it’s impossible to keep a relationship interesting forever? What am I to do if I am a romantic at heart, and my image of transcendation is falling in love with a girl that I will keep loving just as strongly 20,30,40, or 50 years later? Am I to give up on my dream, knowing, that just like hitting the crescendo of a that PERFECT wave, my love, too, is going to fizzle away into oblivion and I am going to be forced to paddle out to sea once more? (And in case you haven’t figured it out, I am TOTALLY making fun of your writing style right now, lol…(P.S. I’m on also on break and staying at my parent’s house for the holidays, and MAY have gotten into my father’s private stock…if you know what I mean)

    But seriously dude, how do you keep a relationship interesting for an extended period of time?

    • Reply

      Mark

      6 months ago

      Well considering I’ve never kept one going for more than 2-3 years, you may be barking up the wrong tree… err, blog.

      All I was trying to say with the last point is that everything comes to an end eventually… including the surf-session… we all wade out of the water to that big beach in the sky.

  • Reply

    Brett

    6 months ago

    Ok, but you have a unique perspective of a girls mind and how the world works…how do you THINK you keep a relationship interesting for a long period of time?

    I would think that it takes active work by both parties and possibly even an agreement or discussion early on in the relationship that you’re going to commit to making things work and keeping things entertaining…thoughts?

    • Reply

      Mark

      6 months ago

      This is a whole new post in and of itself. Will get to it at some point.

      • Reply

        Brett

        6 months ago

        You better ;)

      • Reply

        Brett

        6 months ago

        And hurry the fuck up, lol.

  • Reply

    Kevin

    6 months ago

    About keeping a relationship interesting:

    My first thought is not to automatically believe the seduction community assumption that ‘all relationships get stale’ or ‘the girl always gets bored in relationships’. It’s just one viewpoint, not gospel. Sure it’s tricky, but plenty of people have managed to be in long relationships that stayed vital.

    I’ve also always thought that if you want actual relationship advice, then check out the classic books by couples therapists and whatnot. I’d disagree with anyone who replies with, “All those counsellors are AFC’s, they don’t know the truth like PUA’s do blah blah blah”

  • Reply

    Shelley Michael

    6 months ago

    Mark, ever considered putting together your memos and posts into an autobiography? It could become a NY Times bestseller, beating out Max Tucker books and The Game. A lot of people can benefit from your insights/life experiences. And your colorful writing style is captivating.

  • Reply

    lurker

    3 months ago

    Nice article. One point of contention: Offshore winds blow directly into the face of oncoming waves, generally hollowing them out and improving conditions. Onshore winds, by contrast, ruin surf. The difference is one of the reasons why Bali is such a popular destination: dry season tradewinds blow consistently from the southeast and are offshore at breaks such as Uluwatu, Padang-Padang, and the Kuta reefs, while wet season tradewinds blow offshore at the rights like Nusa Dua and Sanur reef.

  • Reply

    Tyler

    2 months ago

    Leaving some love here because this post has a shockingly low amount of it, despite being the highest of quality.

    I’m 25 now, but growing up in high school, surfing was somewhat of an obsession for me. A big reason was the fact that I lived in Arizona (which was awesome but melt -your- face -off – hot most of the time), but I’d like to think it was the freedom and depth of presence you feel when you put enough of the time in to really get an amazing experience out of it. Like that man you spoke to, it’s an almost spiritual quality, a humbling but enhancing experience.

    I feel like I crave this more than ever these days.

    I actually just bought Escape Plan yesterday because I am ready to do what it takes to visit Rio De Janeiro, a city that’s always had an allure for me. Did you get a chance to surf at all when you were there? How about any of the other countries you have spent time in over the years?

  • Reply

    Russell

    14 weeks ago

    As a surfer, I enjoyed reading this article, and can say that these points/life lessons are dead on.

    “You can’t control the wave, you can only control what you do with the wave” was probably my favorite. Just like the best surfers can be given a shitty wave and still shred it, the most successful people can be given bad circumstances, and still overcome, learn, improve, and make the most of it.

  • Reply

    Adam Finan

    4 weeks ago

    This is a brilliant article!!

    • Reply

      Frank

      3 weeks ago

      defo! :)

  • Reply

    Tim

    3 weeks ago

    Thanks for this great article! I am a surfer all my life and now right about to start my “serious life” after finishing my studies. Thoughts of the big career often include relocating and exclude the surfing. But as you said, surfing is more a religion or lifestyle (not talking about the “yooo what up dude, massive barrels ayyee”) and I feel like I can’t do the one without the other. Actually I was reading on your blog for the first time today and this article of yours in combination with “10 Life lessons to excel in your 30s” made me thinking. Being successfull and happy are not two different things – but everyone has to define for him- or herself what that means. Personall, I feel like I got a big step closer.

Leave a Comment