Surf Medicine

The plan has been hatched.  We surf in the morning.

The moment it’s decided, my stomach turns with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

My sleep is not completely sound. I dream of overwhelming orange tides and nosedives into fluorescent pink water.

Upon waking, the anxiety hits again- only stronger now. Closer.

And I wonder: what mood is the Pacific in today? Will she be kind? Or will she insist on tossing me around like a rag doll as a reminder of her immense power? Will she flow with me or beat me into submission?

Then I realize the premise of the question is flawed. Yes, she has a power and a force all her own. But the true wild card is me. The question I should be asking is: What kind of headspace am I brining to the water today? Am I willing to be patient with my learning process, or am I going to push, allowing myself to become aggravated, aggressive and angry…?

Surfing is a head trip.

As an obsessive observer of my own psyche, I’ve come to understand that the things that I’m passionate about, like surfing, can serve as another convenient opportunity to beat myself up. And the headspace that I’m in on any given day is very obviously reflected back to me by the water (pun intended).

We arrive at the beach, and I watch the ocean for a bit, reminding myself that she is Queen and will be as gentle or as brutal as she wishes to be that day. It’s my job to flow with her capricious nature. The more I fight her, the more she’ll turn around and kick my arrogant ass.

A large wave breaks in the distance and my stomach churns again, sending me for a secondary trip to the bathroom. This happens nearly every time I see the water, yet the physical reaction never ceases to surprise me. The last time I felt nerves like this was when I’d would get stage fright before a performance.

My surf sister and I carefully climb through the rocks until it’s safe to submerge our boards. I offer my surfboard a prayer/invocation upon entering the water: “Welcome to the water, baby. May we enjoy some fun rides today, may I learn to maneuver you better with every turn.  But most importantly, I ask that you please refrain from causing bodily injury to myself or anyone else”.  Then we paddle out.

On the bigger days, I do my best to paddle between sets – and since I wear earplugs for my messed up ear drums (from too much water exposure), I can hear my own panting and must remind myself to allow the breath to quicken without allowing the internal panic that sometimes accompanies it to set in.

Once we arrive safely in the lineup, I say a quick ‘thank you’ to my body for permitting me an opportunity to push myself in a sport that requires a unique combination of strength, coordination and agility; a sport that is clearly best learned in adolescence…. Which I tried to do, back then when I was in my physical prime, and failed miserably…in hindsight, it’s clear that while my body was ready, my mind was not.

I allow myself a moment of rest, but internally I’ve already started sizing up the wave situation and the ability levels of the surfers around me.  This is the time when it’s most important to cultivate patience, and yet, I have a tendency to get antsy… My surf sister and I refer to this feeling as needing to ‘feed the beast’.  The beast has been hungry for the exhilaration of that long, uninterrupted ride for at least a week now. So the beast acts from impulse, forcing me to go for any wave that comes along. The problem is…

The first wave sets the precedent.  If I can have a decent first ride, then I know my ego will give me a (small) break for the remainder of the session.  But if the first wave goes awry, well.. . watch out because my self-destructive tendencies are sure to follow.  If I mess up that first try, I become nervous, freaked out and more prone to giving up on myself.  At that point, I’m a lost cause and my entire day is ruined. And if I don’t have a chance to redeem myself, this kind of day can ruin my entire week…or month. It reflects back the places inside me that feel unworthy, scared and lacking in self-confidence and self-compassion.

Other days, instead of giving up on myself, I can become instantaneously competitive. Lately this has translated into me dropping in on waves that are technically not mine; causing me to act dangerously as I get into someone else’s way. Then, instead of apologizing, I become belligerent and entitled. The reasoning behind this isn’t fully clear to me yet, but I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s taken me YEARS to become even remotely proficient at this sport, so somehow in my mind that entitles me to take any wave I’m capable of catching in order to make up for all the years that I couldn’t— or that other people who were better than me prevented me from taking that wave. This logic doesn’t totally hold up, but as I said, I’m not always acting from the most rational of mindsets…

Anyway…There I am, floating on my sweet new board in the middle of the warm Pacific Ocean on a gorgeous summer morning. The crystalline water glistens under the sparkling sun. I spy a school of dolphins frolicking in the distance. This is my happy place. My ideal scene. My own personal heaven…. And yet…I can’t stop obsessing about how I royally f*cked up the last wave I caught. And how the aggressive dude nearby keeps snaking all the good waves.  And then I play the comparison game in my head with my surf sister — she seems to be out here having an epic day. I should be in utter bliss and gratitude, but all I can think is ‘where’s mine?’

And just like that, I’ve tapped deep into my shame and unworthiness issues.  We all have them. But mine always seem to surface around the things that I enjoy the most. It’s always been this way— with acting, writing, dancing…all the things that I enjoy, and have been pretty proficient at, but feel like I’ve never quite managed to excel at…are the things that I turn against myself to prove my own unworthiness.

I try to practice some good old-fashioned ‘thought stopping’. I take a deep breath, and attempt to change my attitude.  But it’s too late. The tone has been set and I can’t seem to shake off my self-flagellating funk. I think about how long I’ve been trying to learn this sport, how much farther along I should be, how everyone else makes it seem effortless, and I keep struggling. And it snowballs into the “I’ll never be any good at this. I’ll never be any good at anything. Ever. Again.” spiral.

But here comes the reversal. Ready? I’m on to myself now.  So, seeing the pattern has allowed me to alter it.  And though I still can’t always do it instantaneously, I have managed to learn to breathe into my frustration and cultivate an inkling of patience with every flubbed wave.

And lately, there have been those handful of days…. Those beautiful, rare, delicious days, when I’ve managed to turn things around, even after a tragic first wave.  And that’s when I can return to my bliss and remember how nothing in the world lights me up like the feeling of harnessing the power of the ocean, if only for just a few seconds. It feels like pure magic. Like, it shouldn’t be possible. But it is. And here I am, doing it.  This is the stuff of dreams…and with every successful wave, I become that much more motivated to get out of my own damn way.

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