Goddess of the Surf

Have you ever been hurt while learning something? For some, this can be seen as a behavioural ‘punishment’ (or pain input) which can turn people off from ever trying something again (think back to some aspect of PE or gym when you were going to school… )

For others it can be an inspiration. For me, it was a little different. I was thrilled to go to Bali to learn how to surf and it was getting off on a shaky but exciting start. Then I got hit by a drunk driver and broke my foot (well, I found that out later)… Did I drop out of surf school? No. But one foot black/blue and three times the size of the other made my surf learning experience a little different than getting on a board with two relatively functioning feet. It gave me some time to reflect on waves, the mind, what happens when we resist both…

Rules of Surf, Rules of Mind

As you know I’m often talking about the rules of the mind – the ones we disobey are the ones that seem to cause us trouble. As all surfers know and all beginners find out, there’s an immediacy to violating the rules of surfing. You fall, get smacked by the board, get smacked by waves etc. – you know when you’re not doing it right. And yet, there are so many similarities between surfing and the mind.

One of the key lessons that apply to both is that if you don’t have the proper setup, you’re in for a fall. The beliefs and thoughts that we hold are as important to our ability to change as our arm paddling, and pop up from the board is to catching a wave. If we don’t have the fundamentals, we will be challenged in learning the lessons we need to rise above.

Another mind rule that is completely obvious in surfing is “where your focus goes, your energy flows”. If you’re looking at your feet or pointing your hands down, that’s where you’ll be sooner rather than later. It’s the same with the mind. Whatever we tend to focus on, whether good or bad, we tend to notice more, come up against more, be involved with more. If it is working for you, great. If it isn’t, as my tumbling off the board many times wasn’t working for me, then it’s time to focus on what you really DO want – for me that was looking and pointing up to ride the wave.

Currents, Undertows and other Sneaky Mind Tricks

Once you are hobbling around on, literally, an uneven footing, there’s a certain urgency to get it right sooner rather than later, because every ‘failure’ gives immediate feedback of pain. As I mentioned earlier, the concepts of ‘punishment’ and ‘reward’ are behavioural definitions for the pleasure and pain we may be given during the learning process, which may positively or negatively affect our ‘education’.

One aspect that I’ve discovered, in my work and life, is that there tends to be a difference between the punishment/reward reaction depending on the aspect of the individual involved – whether it is physical or whether it is mental/emotional. For me, and many others I’ve met, I realize that my ability to work with the body seems much more straightforward than working with the mind.

For example, even while I was pushing my body, I got immediate feedback from my pain and changed my actions to minimize that pain. It was fairly direct, it hurt more to lead with my left foot, so I led with my right. However, when it comes to emotional or mental pain, we seem to take a more complicated or convoluted path (or paths).

One pattern I’ve seen is that we create emotional exposure into something that is seemingly insurmountable – for example, “I’ll die of embarrassment” is a phrase that may seem over the top, but stops people from trying something new, speaking in front of others and taking many other opportunities daily.

We also can divert uncomfortable or painful feelings, funneling them into another action altogether. Snaking, exercise, nail biting… while some habits may support us, others (smoking because we’re nervous) may not. None of these actions change the feeling, for the most part, and only it puts it off for a while…

Another pattern that I’ve seen is that our emotional pain can manifest in our bodies – the irritation or holding on of an emotional state, changes the body chemically (like tension headaches or butterflies in the stomach but often worse). Now I know that my foot was actually hurt, but I do recall that when I got frustrated or annoyed with it, my pain increased. Coincidence? I think not.

Hanging (not ten*) outside and Taking the Path of Least Resistance

Because of my discomfort, I was offered an experience I wouldn’t have taken otherwise. Instead of the constant up and down in the surf zone, I sat out back or outside, behind the active area and watched the world from my board. A good friend of mine and I have conversations we wouldn’t have had while we were ‘doing’ the surf thing – it was an opportunity to ‘not do’ or ‘be’ there. We sometimes watched the beach and  the goings on of our surf class, we sometimes watched the sea and its endless expanse of blue.

This time of reflection was a gift that I didn’t realize I had been given until much later. It was a time when I was just existing without expectations and enjoying what was, without me having to contribute to it. It was great just ‘as is’.

Another great tool I learned in surfing that followed the ‘being’ and path of least resistance way of thinking, was how to get out of the impact zone. You would know when you’re there – the breaking waves push you back towards shore, bash you about, rip out your board, tire you out. Does that feel like anything in your life? Interestingly, one of the best ways to get out of this area with fewer bruises is called duckdiving. When the wave is coming towards you, you grab your board and go under the wave with it as it goes overtop. Very much like ducks, right? Another lesson from nature about how we don’t have to hit everything head on over and over, and sometimes this will allow us to move forward much more easily in our lives. Isn’t it great how surfing can give insight for work or daily life?

Persistent or Silly?

I’m always amazed when people come in and describe themselves – often in the worst possible terms. Words have power, and what we say about ourselves tends to be believed. As I hobbled down the beach dragging my swollen foot, I got instant beach cred from a lot of the surfers. I heard them call “hard core, man” as the soles of my feet burned on the sand because of my slow progress towards the water.

Was I silly, or persistent? Maybe both. I know that I’d love to go back to surf school with two good feet because I’m sure it will be easier. I didn’t create any additional damage to the broken bone. I didn’t miss out on a new experience in Bali with a good friend. While we might think that some words are euphemisms that are salve for something more raw, I believe that our focus should be on outcomes. What will these words do for the direction I’m heading? (continue in surf school and learn the basics of surf) What might I be missing by focusing this way? (doing greater damage to  my foot) Who am I when I use these words? (persistent definitely looks better on me than silly in this instance)

What are the words you’d like to describe yourself? What would that mean to your feelings, thoughts and actions? Do they make you feel like tackling the surf of your life, and do they life you to the top of the waves so you can ride in joy? Look for the ones that do.


*Hang ten is when you curl all ten toes around the front of the board… I think… yet to be done when all ten toes work…

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