Anyone who has surfed a couple of times will be familiar with the way surfing can make you feel calm, relaxed and let go of all the things you were worrying about back on land.
Some surfers call this ‘flow‘.
When you focus solely on reading the ocean and finding the next wave, and your mind is calm and less frantic than it was before.
Any surfer knows the therapeutic benefits of riding waves and the link between the ocean and wellbeing.
Indeed, The Telegraph reported earlier this year on a $1 million research project which the US Navy were embarking on, which aims to investigate the potential of surfing to help military personnel with PTSD, depression or sleep problems.
Initial results have already shown surfing can lead to a decrease in symptoms of depression.
According to the article, ‘salt water contains magnesium, which is calming, and exposure to the sea strengthens the immune system, as well as helping to normalise blood pressure’.
But what about using the ocean to practice mindfulness?
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. It’s a way to reconnect with our bodies and what they are experiencing.
I love that feeling when you’re in the ocean and all you’re thinking about is the next wave – where it is and how to catch it. At that moment, you are aware of everything – the rhythm of the ocean, your position within it and your placement on the board.
In Surfing and Mindfulness,author and surfer Sam Bleakley explains just why surfing can make us feel this way.
Early on in the book, he draws attention to the battle between eco and ego, pointing out that, due to our busy modern lives and the never-ending news cycle, we have become ‘acutely sensitive to the inner life’ with an ‘egological surplus’ and an ‘ecological crisis’. He explains:
‘We need to recover sensitivity towards the world around us – its cries and pleasures, its sufferings and beauties. Surfing is an ideal way to do this as a mindfulness given by nature.’
Throughout the opening chapters, Bleakley draws our attention to the fact that surfing brings us face-to-face with the raw beauty of nature; forcing us to deal with the wipeout, making us listen, react and respect nature rather than trying to overpower it.
‘Surfing and life can be defined as how well you stay in balance while all around you cascades.’
Bleakley also highlights the role many surfers play as activists. Due to their ‘ecological awareness’ of the ocean (largely due to the fact they spend so much time in it) they are in prime position to campaign and protest for its protection and conservation. But he quite rightly points out that this caring image is ruined when surfers engage in localism. No one owns the ocean.
With seven chapters telling the story of surfing, from taking off to dropping in, to becoming ‘children of the tide’ and ‘riding the new wave’, Bleakley also reveals his personal love of Cornwall, and we learn about his first board, his immersion into surf culture as he grew up and the feelings of freedom and self-expression it gave him. We also get a brief history of surfing, from royal roots in Hawaii to present day.
There are also mindfulness exercises scattered throughout the book. Some just involve standing at the coastline, listening to the roar of the waves and focusing on your breathing. Some of these exercises encourage you to think more about being rather than doing.
‘The point is to spend a little more time looking and listening before doing.’
One exercise in particular stuck with me. Bleakley suggests treating the waxing of your surfboard as therapy – a way to take out all your negativity before you surf so that your time in the water is filled with positive thoughts only.
We all know the frustration of a bad session – whether there are too many people, the waves aren’t quite right or you’re just really struggling to catch a wave.
As an intermediate surfer, I know this all too well. When I first learnt to surf, I remember being far too aware of how many were in the water around me (it was Cornwall, in the height of the summer) and I spent half my time getting frustrated that if I did get a wave, I couldn’t turn and avoid anyone in the water in front of me, and the other half worrying what these people must think of the absolute beginner floundering about around them.
But the truth is, everyone was a beginner at some point. And when you spend so much time getting frustrated, you’re going to hate surfing and hate being in the water.
Much better to let go of what everyone thinks of you, don’t stress about whether you can turn or not, don’t panic if it’s busy – just smile and share waves. Be mindful.
Surfing and Mindfulness provides reflections on the relationship of surfing to mindfulness and how we can all harness a feeling of calm, and awareness of the natural world whenever we’re at the beach or on a board. But what I really liked was the fact that Bleakley repeatedly insisted that mindfulness should help us engage with the world rather than become withdrawn from it (‘ecology-centred bodymindfulness’). Because in a world of plastic pollution, climate change and human greed, we need to do something, and reconnecting with nature is the first major step.