Learning to surf

[post by Karen]

A stranger once asked me what brought me to Melbourne (I’m American), and when I told her that I followed a boy from Edinburgh to Adelaide, and then to Melbourne because he got a job there, she responded dismissively, “Oh, so you’re just along for the ride.”

As someone who has uprooted her life several times to live in a variety of locations around the world, usually on her own, I felt defensive. I’m not along for the ride, I thought to myself. I’m…I’m surfing. I’m catching waves!

Now, I don’t actually know how to surf. And I’m what Julia calls “cognitively inflexible.” I react badly, even rudely, when things don’t go the way I expect them to. At times, I’m wholly incapable of going with the flow, riding the waves as they come. Which is why I’m attracted to the practice of mindfulness – I hope that it can help me increase my cognitive flexibility.

I’ve quite liked using surfing as a metaphor for life. I’m terrible at surfing, and it scares the crap out of me. Just like life! Then I discovered that the man who brought mindfulness to the western world, Jon Kabat-Zinn, uses a surfing metaphor for finding balance in life. He says:

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

This month, I moved to the beach. It’s seriously, seriously amazing. I love it. But the first week we were here, I went down for a swim alone and discovered that (a) the beach is super rocky down this end, and (b) waves are f@$&ing terrifying! They are powerful and relentless and unforgiving. I couldn’t find footing on the slippery rocks before the next wave came crashing into me, and in the end, I gave up after 10 or 15 minutes having ventured less than a meter into the surf and having been knocked down several times. I decided that waves are a terrible metaphor for life! They pound and pound and pound you until you have no hope and no energy left. Who wants a life like that?

And then I went down to the beach a couple days later and discovered something I should have known already – the waves change. From hour to hour, from day to day, they change direction, speed, size, force. Some days there’s hardly more than an innocent roll of green pushing to shore. And if you walk up our beach several metres, you get to a long stretch with none of those slippery, pointy rocks.

That’s a lot like life, isn’t it? Some days, it’s gorgeous and gentle and clear and you feel like you could do this forever, just floating along with no worries. And other days knock the wind out of you, barrel roll you, drag you across the rocks, pull you out to where you can’t reach the ground anymore. Some days, there are sharks.

And that gets at Kabat-Zinn’s point about balance. Living a balanced life isn’t about removing the things that cause us pain or stress or suffering. It’s about learning to deal with them, knowing they are temporary. It’s about taking the good with the bad, riding the highs and the lows, knowing that this too shall pass.

I’ve had a lot of great ups lately, but this weekend has left me feeling out to sea. I can barely process what is happening in my home country right now. But I need to learn to take the lows in stride, for my mental health. I need to learn to ride the waves that come, and see if I can’t use them to my advantage. Maybe even have a bit of fun with life!

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2 thoughts on “Learning to surf

  1. Hi Karen, what a fabulous post. Love the analogy of surfing and life. You’re so right, the waves change every day but all we can do is hold on and keep riding them. Thanks for the follow. Have a fabulous weekend. Cheers.

    Like

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