How I learned to surf


I surfed once, in California in my early 20s. I only managed to get on top of 4 waves, but I will never forget the incredible feeling of falling and flying simultaneously. Since then, I've only been on a bodyboard. A doctor, John Kabat-Zinn, uses surfing as an analogy for emotions: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf them." A surfer named "Buzzy" characterized surfing in a way that relates to all of life: "Waves are not measured in feet and inches, they are measured in increments of fear."

I am intimately acquainted with fear. It is the monster inside that roars at the slightest provocation, sometimes even convincing my terrorized brain that old threats long gone are nipping at my heels. Life feels not only radical as I step into a new reality, a new person, a new way of seeing - it is terrifying. Change of any kind is not a welcome guest in my life, and to change the very structure of my self is breathtakingly scary and uncertain.


Long ago, as a child, I built four sturdy walls in my soul and put a lid on top. It was my Pandora's box, my underground bunker where I could stuff all the bad things in life, all the tears, all the emotions I was too terrified to feel. I remember going into my room once at 10, clenching every muscle in my body and screaming silently. I was afraid that if I let my emotions out, they would destroy everything. As it turns out, avoiding them has nearly done just that.

Every Monday, in land-locked Wisconsin, I have a surfing lesson for one hour. It takes place in an office, not a beach, and the waves I'm surfing are the huge Mavericks - the biggest waves of all time - that come flooding out of that bunker when I take off the lid. Large waves can literally throw a surfer to the bottom of the ocean, turn him in so many somersaults that he can't tell which way is up, scrape his flesh on the coral, and either send him to Davy Jones' locker or toss him up like a fish gasping on the beach. How do you surf those emotions? The biggest ones of your life?

This is how I learned to surf the big ones:
  1. Don't go it alone. You need a spotter when you're letting a tsunami out of your soul.
  2. Don't rein it in. Realize it's just an emotion, and it will soon be over. Submit to the fact that you can't change the past and you can't change this giant wave of emotion. You can only ride out to safety.
  3. Do be well prepared. If you're letting emotions out, sorting through old memories, often it's intentional. It's our human way of processing the good and the bad that happens to us. Make sure you've had good rest, good food, and a good mood most of the day before you purposefully open your Pandora's box.
  4. Do let yourself be free to express the emotion. You may need to cry, scream, rant, rave, or curl up in a ball. Be somewhere safe for this.
  5. Do rate your emotional pain. Before you start a session of internal or conversational processing of trauma in your life, rate how painful the memory is at the beginning, on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being low intensity and 10 being high intensity. After you've allowed yourself to surf the wave of emotion that comes with the memory, rate it again. You may find the memory is much less intense once you've allowed yourself to experience the emotions that went with it.
  6. Do nothing but surf. A real surfer isn't dropping in on a wave thinking about his grocery list. In fact, surfers report that riding a wave is a blissful, meditative experience that fully captures their mind, body and soul. When you're surfing emotional waves, do so at a time you can concentrate fully on the sensations and feelings. Don't do it at work, or on your drive home, or when you have to do something later in the day. Do it when you have plenty of time and brainspace.
  7. Do remember that emotions never last forever and they generally don't kill you. Emotional waves are always temporary. And they have little power over you once you accept them and let them flow. 
One last thought: when you're new to something, it's always good to have a few lessons. Especially when the stakes are as high as they are out on the ocean of emotion. Surfing isn't learned in a day, and there are many, many wipeouts along the way. A therapist, friend, or lay counselor you can trust may give you some tips on surfing that I cannot. I hope you find that, once you're out there among the waves, it is actually an good experience. And once you've ridden the biggest wave of your life, every other wave will seem tiny and totally rideable.

Surf's up - who's with me?