Wrapped in a transparent cloak of water, surfing is one of the best activities to take you outside of your comfort zone by immersion in a liquid environment. If mindfulness is best described as bringing your attention to the moment, then sliding across a breaking wave is a remarkable way to achieve this grace. And the moving feast of waveriding is a world of beauty and brilliance that we can all enjoy, whatever our level of skill or experience.
When surfing, our object of contemplation and medium for mindfulness is the roiling, unfurling wave energy forming unique troughs and crests that we ride. Surfing is an act of making best use of the wave’s shape, speed and character to carve out a remarkable experience. It is one of the purest thrills anyone can enjoy, and one of the best ways to feel close to the natural world. Tense and uncertain when you first learn, as you gain confidence surfing becomes elastic. Riding waves then becomes an act of letting go, adapting and reacting.
There is a strange kind of intimacy that develops with water as you improve your skills through practice. A surfing session can be a mindful cycle of action, recovery and contemplation, wrapped in wonder. These experiences will stimulate an abundant release of serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine levels in the body. This is all wonderful stuff for feeling in tune with the world, and for getting inside its folds, under its ripples, and to the beating heart of its mysteries. The ‘stoke’ - as we describe it - is often talked about as ‘only surfers know the feeling’. Stoke is an intense sense of satisfaction at whatever level of ability – and it’s a given form of mindfulness, a ‘blue mindfulness'
Contrary to what most people may think of as a mindfulness that goes inward, surfing teaches you a ‘blue mindfulness’ that is an emptying out to achieve identification with the ever-changing wave. This involves both ‘vigilant attention’ and ‘paradoxical attention’. While you inhabit the very moment as vigilant attention, you also take in so much more as paradoxical attention, such as the colour and smell of the water and the air, as a background. As the wave approaches and unfurls, you takeoff, turn the board and ride the energy of the wave – you are using both vigilant and paradoxical attention, with blue mindfulness at the beating heart!
Once up-and-riding, the beauty of surfing is how it connects three moving surfaces - the wave, the board and the soles of your feet (if you ride standing) or your body if you ride prone. Think about it. You only have a small surface area of your body in contact with a moving board in contact with a moving wave as part of moving water. All that water energy is transmitted to your board and then up through the soles of your feet and you adjust downwards against this set of forces. There are 200,000 nerve endings in the soles of your feet that are constantly being massaged by this moving surface. Here, mindfulness is about the interaction of skin, planning surface and unfolding wave. Once aware of this, surfing can then become an appreciation of how body, board and wave energy are interwoven. And with this attention to connection, the wave’s calling will be stronger than ever as you enjoy every ride.
Of course surfing’s rinse of the senses is not always easy as you learn from the wipeout. Yet wipeouts are a part of surfing to be embraced. They strip away the ego and build character. They offer a learning experience, and should be celebrated not as mistakes, but part of the rollercoaster of waveriding. And then the coin flips and there is surfing cleanly from takeoff to kickout, where the channel kisses you on arrival; or slotting into your first tuberide as the wave reveals its secrets.
Surfing as ‘blue mindfulness’ is then a letting go in order that the environment can grab you, shape you, and test you out. This environment is not just the breaking wave, but the surfboard you ride, those fellow surfers you share space with, and the surrounding places, people and weather patterns circling above. But above all, surfing as ‘blue mindfulness’ is a love affair with water.