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29 Sep

Body-mindfulness and surfing

by Sam Bleakley

Girl surfs wave at The Wave Bristol

Body-mindfulness and Surfing

Mindfulness is usually described as an inward-looking process of stopping, reflecting and clearing the mind in learning a discipline of meditation or Zen awareness. Among the hustle and bustle of life, moments of stillness can help us to regain a sense of self, of composure or centring. Mindfulness has also been used widely to combat anxiety and depression. Surfing as mindfulness, however, does something a little different. It does not simply take us inside ourselves to find a still centre, but rather positions us within the environment to find place.

We are immersed in water and the movement of waves. We are active, alert and intent on balance. Mindfulness and surfing is then, paradoxically, a moving out of mind into the world, moving against the grain of inner-directed thought and reflection into an acute sense of what the environment demands of us. In this sense, we have the opportunity to develop a ‘body-mindfulness’, locating ourselves in space and place, and the bigger body of the environment.

For over two thousand years, the Western world has perfected techniques of focus on the self and the inward life. This has, arguably, dried up our receptivity to the outer world as we become acutely sensitive to the inner life. As a result, many argue that we have an egological (self-centred) surplus and an ecological (environmental) crisis. 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. And the soul of surfing is to be mindful of nature’s body as we cultivate a ‘body-mind’. This idea of ‘body-mindfulness’ is about placing ourselves into the bigger body of the wider community and the planet we share, and being more ecology-centred than self-centred.

This idea of ‘body-mindfulness’ is about placing ourselves into the bigger body of the wider community and the planet we share, and being more ecology-centred than self-centred.

As we learn to surf we will probably spend far more time spilled into the water than standing on our board riding a wave, with wind and spray in our face, and so the apprenticeship can be tough. But as we gain expertise so we will gradually gain a more graceful, elegant and inventive approach to how you relate to waves – in other words, we will develop a ‘body-mindfulness’ in the water.

The late, great psychologist James Gibson (1904–79) revolutionised the way we think about perception - the way we experience the world through our senses. In Gibson’s view, the world is not passively received by the senses and then processed cognitively via the brain and central nervous system – this is an inside-out perspective. Rather, the world actively educates our attention to its shapes, patterns, motions, colours, smells, tastes, vibrations and rhythms. The world captures our attention, shaping and dictating what and how we sense.

Further, the senses do not act independently but in concert together, shaped by what Gibson described as ‘environmental affordances’. These are patterns of attraction that draw us to them and make us notice. There’s a danger that you can become oblivious to your environment. You become dull to the world, anesthetised. The point is to become aestheticised, to use your senses, to notice things. Gibson’s model of ‘ecological perception’ celebrates both experiencing the world through the senses and being inspired to care for the environment.

‘Noticing’ and ‘sensing’ are definitely big elements of riding waves. Surfing brings you face to face with the raw beauty of nature at different volumes and tones, and in this setting there is the opportunity to be mindful, not by moving inwards to the self but by adapting to what the environment affords. The world of waves places the surfer into a mindfulness relationship with the environment as an ecological rather than egological activity. As we are taught and shaped by the waves, so we become more ecologically minded and sensitive. As expertise develops, surfers become connoisseurs of waves, tutored and formed by them. And as our elegance, determination, skill and courage grows, so we become more environmentally aware as a form of ‘external’ mindfulness. This is ‘body-mindfulness’ in action.

In summary, surfing helps us learn how the minds of people do not need to be tuned to their own needs and purposes as much as to the needs and purposes of the environments in which we live, for it is these environments that sustain us. Caring for our blue and green spaces is an essential part of this. And surfing is a great vehicle for getting us right into the heart of nature so it can teach us how to care, and above all, how to be body-mindful.