Inner Surfing

You Can’t Stop the Waves but you Can Learn to Surf

Jon Kabot-Zinn, Wherever you go There You Are

When I moved to LA a few years ago, I decided to learn to surf. I had visions of becoming a surfer-philosopher – a Socratic Beachboy, reflecting on life’s big questions while riding the Malibu waves.

Then I actually tried surfing. I paddled through freezing cold water, clinging to my board. As I reached the waves, I watched the water swell then curl above me. “Uh oh.” Seconds later, I felt a rush of water throw me from my board and into the disorienting spin cycle of the wave’s underbelly.

Things got worse when I tried catching a wave. My friend Vince told me to paddle hard and then jump up onto my feet. But when I started paddling into the wave, I tried to pull out of the wave. Big mistake. The wave caught me at its crest and body-slammed me against the water. My head collided with my board and – at that moment – I declared my retirement from the sport of surfing.

Real surfers know what I didn’t – you can’t resist the waves. Once you drop into a wave, you either go fully into it or you get crushed by it like me.

In my experience, life is a lot like surfing. Our inner waves change constantly. Some days, the inner ocean is calm: we feel peaceful and at ease. On other days, the surf picks up: we experience waves of anger, grief, or fear.

And here’s the thing – most of us react to these inner waves the way I reacted on my first day surfing. We feel fear start to swell inside and we resist. We tighten our body and try to get out of the wave. But it’s just like surfing – if you try to get out of the wave, you suffer. If you ride it, you surf.

My favorite yoga teacher Saul David Raye helped me see this. He liked to talk about inner waves of intensity as opportunities instead of problems. Each wave gives you the chance to experience fully something that you have spent years resisting. Rage, terror, and sadness – they’re all just waves. And if you learn to ride them, you will find that your reaction to them shifts.

And so we have a choice. We can struggle against the waves. Or we can become masters of inner surfing.

It sounds easy in theory. But in practice, inner surfing might be the most difficult skill I’ve ever tried to learn. It requires going toe-to-toe with the most uncomfortable parts of ourselves and occasionally stepping out on what Cornel West calls “the edge of life’s abyss.”

I can’t claim to have fully mastered inner surfing. But over time, I have become much better at it. I still get caught in a wave every now and then, but I spend most of my days above water.

Here are a few practical tips for inner surfing that have worked for me:

  • Let go of judgment – Try to let go of judging waves of fear, anger, sadness, or shame as something “bad.” Remind yourself that they are just waves. Or, even better, see them as opportunities for exploration.
  • Drop in – If you want to surf big waves in the ocean, you have to go all the way. So if you want to surf big inner waves, try to open yourself to experiencing them fully. So when you feel an intense wave swelling, see what happens when you stay with the experience. For example, if you feel sadness, let yourself drop fully into the experience. See what happens when you relax into the feeling. Notice any sensations that arise. Notice where you feel them in your body. Your instinct might be to pull out of the wave by distracting yourself. But if you can stay with the wave of sadness and experience it fully, you may start to feel a shift.
  • Breathe – The breath is your inner surfboard. It keeps your body relaxed. It keeps your mind focused. And it keeps you grounded in the present moment. Stay with it and you will be able to ride even the most gnarly waves (see the Breath Practice for more).

Responses

  1. Colleen Loehr says:

    Extremely lucid and relevant article- thank you!

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