The Wisdom of Surfing

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Living 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 are 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, I’ve made countless analogies between life and other activities: poker, weightlifting, basketball, public speaking. Poker and basketball do a good job of covering the probabilities in life — 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.

Surfers walking on a beach

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.

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    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 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 forehead-scrunching basics: Where am I? Where am I going? What am I doing? And it often requires the wherewithal to question if you should even be at this beach to begin with. A healthy sense of self-doubt and questioning can lead one to the place where you give yourself the greatest opportunity with the least effort. This is important, as even a momentary lack of this awareness can result in someone else 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 cookies. 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 (and they eventually do), if you aren’t primed and ready to 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. Nothing more. 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. For 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, scariest, most exciting waves die out in a piddle and a swoosh, leaving you with two options: wade in, towards the sands of the beach, calling it a day, or paddle back out and start it all over again.